Video Games Shape How Americans Understand Historical Events


LAWRENCE – Esports participants have recently become seen as true athletes. Now other video game players are apparently budding historians.

This is one of the claims in an article titled “Game in depth? Video games and historical imagination.

Andrew Denning“Historians should take historical video games more seriously as a way to understand how audiences construct their knowledge of the past,” said author Andrew Denning, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.

His article examines the role video games play in shaping gamers’ interest in history – World War II, for example – which cultivates hyperspecific and esoteric knowledge in areas that do not normally interest them. It appears in the current issue of American Historical Review.

“Video games become these flashpoints for policy discussions,” he said. “They are part of a much larger public engagement with history in which the appeal is less in understanding the past as it actually happened and more in knowing enough about the past to make claims. specific political points you want to make that day.”

He cites recent games such as ‘Call of Duty: WWII’, ‘Wolfenstein: The New Order’, ‘Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’ and ‘Red Dead Redemption II’ which are designed for entertainment but also help to educate people. on the times when they are fixed.

The time period that receives the majority of this attention is the 1940s. Simply put: people remain fascinated with Nazi Germany, whether through historical research or the manipulation of a joystick.

“There are a lot of reasons for this that are uniquely American and some that are more general to the Western world,” he said. “In a general sense, the horror of Nazi experiments draws people in. It’s a way to stare into space and plumb the historical depths of human depravity.”

For Americans in particular, the obscurity of the Third Reich serves as a cautionary tale for the world’s superpowers.

“World War II was the last time the United States was the unqualified good guy. The global conflicts that followed – Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East – do not entail the obvious destruction of an evil enemy and often involve more national and internal divisions than international successes”, a- he declared.

Still, Denning notes that during his research, he found some of the games crossed into territory where the vagueness of story and entertainment proved disconcerting.

“Killing faceless Nazis is fine in a video game. But once a player is placed more realistically in the role of a victim – with the implications of ethnic cleansing and genocide – it becomes rather uncomfortable,” he said.

He also notes how in the Wolfenstein series, for example, all Germans are portrayed as bloodthirsty Nazis. In a virtual world, there is no gray area.

“It’s always difficult to give a fully rendered version of the past or a 360 degree view of things,” he said.

“Historical research on Nazi Germany has really moved towards understanding a kind of spectrum of involvement. It wasn’t that you were either a member of the Nazi party or a member of the resistance. There is a whole spectrum of ways to engage with the Nazi regime, whether you were a home German before the war started or a sympathizer in an occupied area in France. In occupied places like Poland, one can be both victim of the Nazis and perpetrator of anti-Semitic violence These levels of complication are not part of the games.

Denning’s own introduction to these games began harmlessly with the original Nintendo version of “Super Mario Bros.”

“Video games were my raison d’etre as a kid,” he said.

“But you might remember that time when Mario came with ‘Duck Hunt’, and there was a laser gun for duck hunting. The fact that my initial engagement involved gun violence is so inherent in the culture of video game.

Denning claims he first encountered story-based material while playing the original Wolfenstein 3D computer game in the early 1990s.

“Three of my four grandparents were in the Navy during World War II,” he said. “When I was told I had to do some reading to save time on video games, I would go to the office and flip through these very well illustrated Time-Life stories. The game Wolfenstein is where I saw these two sons come together.

A KU faculty member since 2015, Denning researches 20th-century European history. He admits to having retired mainly from video games because “work and play are now at loggerheads”.

The professor would like to see “Deep Play” provide historians with a better understanding of how the public understands their respective fields.

“I hope this will start a conversation between gamers and historians to see how we can both learn from each other,” he said. “I also hope that it is an educational tool that some of my colleagues could use to help their students discover how they became interested in this subject and how we can take advantage of this to develop a more subtle and nuanced knowledge of the subject. .”

Top photo: Mass Games/Activision

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Patrick F. Williams