Jon Niccum
KU News Service

Video games shape how Americans understand historical events

Wed, 05/05/2021

Sledgehammer Games/Activision

LAWRENCE — Participants in esports have recently become regarded as actual athletes. Now other video game players are apparently aspiring historians.

That’s one of the contentions of an article titled “Deep Play? Video Games and the Historical Imaginary.”

Andrew Denning“Historians should take historical video games more seriously as a way of understanding how the public constructs its knowledge of the past,” said author Andrew Denning, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.

His article examines the role video games have in shaping players’ interest in history — World War II, for instance — which cultivates hyperspecific, esoteric knowledge in areas they might not normally be interested in. It appears in the current issue of American Historical Review.

“Video games become these flash points for discussions about politics,” he said. “They are part of a much broader public engagement with history in which the appeal is less in understanding the past as it really occurred and more in knowing enough about the past to make the precise 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” that are designed for entertainment but also help inform people’s perceptions of the eras in which they are set.

The time period receiving the majority of this attention is the 1940s. Simply put: People remain fascinated by Nazi Germany, whether it’s through historical research or manipulating 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 the Nazi experiments draws people in. It’s a way of staring into the void and plumbing the historical depths of human depravity.”

For Americans in particular, the darkness of the Third Reich serves as a cautionary tale for global superpowers.

“World War II is the last time the United States was the unqualified good guy. Global conflicts that occurred after that — Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East — don’t result in the obvious destruction of an evil enemy and often involve more domestic and internal division than international success,” he said.

Yet Denning notes that during his research he found some of the games crossed into territory where the blur of history and entertainment proved disconcerting.

“Killing faceless Nazis is okay in a video game. But once a player is more realistically placed 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 depicted 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 scholarship on Nazi Germany has really moved toward comprehending 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’s a whole range of ways of engaging with the Nazi regime, whether you’re a domestic German before the war starts or a sympathizer in an occupied area in France. In occupied places like Poland, one could be both a victim of the Nazis and also a perpetrator of anti-Semitic violence. These levels of complication don’t make it into games.”

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

“Video games were my reason for existence as a child,” he said.

“But you may remember from this era that Mario used to come with 'Duck Hunt,' and there was a laser gun for duck hunting. The fact that my initial engagement involves gun violence is so inherent to video game culture.”

Denning claims he first encountered history-based material when 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 that I had to do some reading to earn video game time, I’d go into the office and peel through these very well-illustrated Time-Life histories. The Wolfenstein game is where I saw those two threads coming together.”

A faculty member at KU since 2015, Denning researches 20th century European history. He admits to having mostly retired 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 comprehends their respective fields.

“I hope it starts a conversation between video game players and historians to see how we both might learn from one another,” he said. “I also hope it’s a teaching tool where some of my colleagues might assign it to help their students discover how they got interested in this subject and how we can build on this to develop a more subtle, nuanced knowledge of the subject.”

Top photo: Sledgehammer Games/Activision

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