Historical Accuracy in Games: A double edged sword

In the recent lectures and tutorial we discussed issues of race and gender in video games. The idea of historical accuracy came up in justification for the lack of diversity in some games.  The counter argument was that since many games are typically set in fantasy that the idea of having characters of other races is absurd considering there are creatures such as trolls and dragons. Historical accuracy for these games has been claimed by their choice of the early-medieval European setting typical of the fantasy genre where “only white people lived in Europe at the time”. This claim in itself is dubious as Moors (modern Moroccans) and Ottomans (modern Turks) frequently traveled throughout Europe at the time commonly as mercenaries for European kingdoms. Consider Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello whose protagonist is a Moorish general in the Venetian Army. If Shakespeare managed to create a compelling narrative in the 16th Century centered on a non-white character in a late-medieval European setting why is it so uncommon in fantasy or even medieval based games today?  Having only white characters in Medieval based fantasy games is in itself historically inaccurate so that argument goes down the drain. It is not as if non-white cultures lack interesting designs?

The Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth I Queen of England in 1600

This dude is the definition of suave. The Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth I Queen of England in 1600.

Most likely this lack of racially diverse characters in historically based games is due to a commonly believed historical narrative. This is the bane of historians everywhere, where popular history (the likes you see in all media, not just in games) creates an idealized view of history far from accurate. In the case of some Medieval games we get perfect White European Male Knights, Kings and Princes saving helpless Princesses from the dirty and poor Orc hordes from the East. Orcs, Trolls and other enemy beasts in these games commonly become a replacement for other non-white cultures as a result of their lack of representation. These games forget the aforementioned prominence of non-white cultures in Medieval Europe as well as restricting females to being an objective despite examples of historically significant women who certainly didn’t need help from anybody (Joan of Arc, Boudica), all for a horribly inaccurate popular historical narrative. Now of course you could throw out the example of a game like World of Warcraft where you are able to create a black human character. However, this is more of a skin darken slider that turns a white man into a dark looking white man and changes nothing else. The culture isn’t represented at all. With so much opportunity for characters, art styles and setting design that history provides, why stick with the overdone Eurocentric medieval setting? It is good to see some developers are recognizing this problem and series such as Assassins Creed (though not without its problems) are giving us unique settings and characters to play.

Isn't history cool?

Jeanne d’Arc savoir and martyr of France

Now is the part where I flip the coin and use historical accuracy in a way that may offend or be seen as distasteful by some who would agree with the first part of this blog post. I apologise in advance for any offense taken by the subject of this issue. We cannot pick and choose where historical accuracy can and cannot be used. If we use it to justify the ability to play non-white male characters in games, we must also consider the place of the darker parts of history within games. A strategy game called Victoria 2 lets you control a nation state between the 1830s and 1930s. You have the ability to start wars, perform diplomacy, raise taxes, regulate industries and so on. The game also has a mechanic that deals with the demographics inside your nation like religion and race. This comes into play especially if you are playing as the United States as you have to decide at the start of the game how to tackle the issue of slavery in the early 19th century. Most likely the historical Civil War between the United States and Confederate States will happen, and yes you can choose to play as the Confederate States to defend your right to enslave. The game mechanics make slaves useful in the sense that they need not be paid and can’t vote but they are more likely to join rebel groups when they pop up and they also do not consume the goods produced by your country which can mess with the market economy. So benefits and detriments to slavery are provided in the games mechanics and the choice of morality is entirely up to the player themselves as they can choose to abolish slavery. Is this inclusion of the horrible act of slavery appropriate? Another example of a horrific aspect of history where the game developers, Paradox, have drawn the line is with the act of genocide. Though many examples of genocide occurred during the games time frame (Armenian Genocide, Irish Famine) Paradox has not included any mechanic in the game for such a thing. This is most likely due to possibly negative media attention that could be garnered from such a mechanic. It is not as if a mechanic could not be made detrimental to the player, certainly the deportation and destruction of a large portion of Germanys population in the Second World War has been found to have had a large negative impact on their war effort. Negative impacts on diplomacy and creation of rebels are also typical of historical genocides and can work as a mechanic in the game. The issue however would be giving the player the choice to do so. But the player has the choice to enslave an entire race of people? To deny the inclusion of this mechanic is as if they are denying the genocides existed in the first place. If the crime of slavery should be included in this historical game then the crime of genocide should be as well. It is no use holding your hands over your ears and acting like these crimes didn’t happen. That is just as bad as accepting the popular historical narrative of Chivalrous Knights and Weak Maidens in need of saving. You do not get to have it both ways.

We did this to the city for no military benefit, lets remember that

Everything was better back in my day…….

It has fallen upon the modding community to create a modification of the game to include such a mechanic. Even then Paradox will not let any mention of the mod on its forums. Who is it they will offend? And why would those who they offend want this kept a secret? My family had to change their last name after escaping Ireland to not be recognised as being Irish, and yet there is little popular knowledge of the Irish Famine and the other crimes of the English state against the Irish. Some still do not consider it genocide. I would not be offended if this mechanic would be included in the game, even used against the Irish by any player, as it would accept the fact that this did happen and possibly inform more people about the more darker parts of history that are in most need of remembering. This game has made me confront my own morality and political beliefs countless times, which is exactly what games should do. They can make you think as much as they can be mindless entertainment.

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