Games and Historical Narratives

The academic study of games — from board games of strategy to online multi-player video games — challenges and disrupts epistemologies held dear in the humanities. Traditional scholarly products such as monographs and journal articles, and to a lesser degree blog posts, are meant to be passively read, whereas games are meant to be actively played. Games may present a narrative like the traditional texts studied and written by academics, but player influence on the selection of narrative choices presents unique questions about authority and interpretation.

Scholars across disciplines have investigated the dynamics of play, the technologies and cultures of games, and the relationship between games and public culture. Anthropologists and philosophers consider the play-mechanics of games, while cultural studies of technology, as seen in the work of Ian Bogost, Nick Montfort, and others interrogate video games as digital devices. Others consider the diegetic stories and interactions confined within a game, the nondiegetic world external to the video games, and the process of play and learning.[1]

Historians have much to gain from adding games into their stable of primary sources. Games, and especially video games, are hybrid visual, material, and digital objects whereas historical scholarship most often analyzes and produces textual sources. The pieces selected for this special section of the Journal of Digital Humanities suggest ways that the discipline of history can begin to categorize, analyze, and create meaningful negotiations between the historical and gamic spheres of knowledge. As these authors note, the historical preference for textual modes of knowledge creation and consumption do not adequately address the realities or epistemologies of gamic spaces.

In “Privileging Form Over Content: Analyzing Historical Videogames,” Adam Chapman argues that in order to understand historical video games, scholars must go beyond analyzing only the surface-level content. Chapman compares games to historical films, in order to demonstrate how different epistemological approaches can be applied to different mediums. Historical video games, he concludes, requires analysis that privileges form over content.

In “Historical Simulations as Problem Spaces: Some Guidelines for Criticism,” Jeremiah McCall suggests that conceptualizing historical simulation games as “problem spaces” will improve the use of simulations in the understanding and teaching of history. McCall notes the similarity in structure and choice shared by narrative texts and historical simulations, but offers an approach different from the epistemological norms associated with authorial texts. He suggests that historians should consider how the design of a simulation game embeds affordances and constraints that impact the operation and understanding of the game, and of history.

My contribution, “Going Beyond the Textual in History,” extends the theme by criticizing the wholesale assertion of textual epistemologies onto the space and operation of games. Playing games allows students to engage in active learning and prosumation (production + consumption) of historical knowledge, in contrast to traditional tools and methods employed by historians, exemplified in the lecture and monograph, that are more passive channels. Instead of “papering over” gamic space, I argue that historians should seek ways to navigate the flexible knowledge transitions from one sphere to the other.

Games can be platforms for building, and not simply consuming, knowledge. The study of games likewise can cross disciplines, but only if we first establish thoughtful, constructive frameworks and critiques. These essays are offered to encourage historians to adapt and contribute their analytical tools and methods to this broader effort.

  1. [1] Early works on the cultural dynamics of play include Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955) and Roger Calillois, Man, Play and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001). On the operation of video games and their connections to our larger culture, see Ian Bogost, Unit Operations (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), Persuasive Games (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), and How to Do Things With Videogames (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2011);  Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, Racing the Beam (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009); Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal, Codename Revolution (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012); and Jimmy Maher, The Future Was Here (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012). Alexander Galloway offers a framework for analyzing the medium of games using diegetic and nondiegetic acts interpreted by an operator and/or machine in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). Tom Apperley’s Gaming Rhythms: Play and Counterplay from the Situated to the Global (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2009) considers the impact of the local environment of the gamer, the ‘digital game ecologies’ surrounding play, on the process of play and learning. Jane McGonigal suggests that elements of game design and psychology can offer positive benefits to daily life, a perspective others have applied to pedagogy in Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World (New York: Penguin Press, 2011) and Gaming Can Make A Better World (TEDTalk by Jane McGonigal, filmed February 2010, posted March 2010. See also: PaxSims (; Play the Past (; Megan Norcia, “Puzzling Empire: Early Puzzles and Dissected Maps as Imperial Heuristics,” Children’s Literature 37 (2009): 1-32; Elizabeth Bonsignore et al. “Game Design for Promoting Counterfactual Thinking,” Proceedings of the 2012 ACM Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing (2012): 2079-2082; Brenda Brathwaite, How I Dumped Electricity and Learned to Love Design (Talk at The Game Developers Conference, 2010.; and Thomas Grip, Evoking Emotion and Achieving Success by Breaking all the Rules (Talk at The Game Developer’s Conference Europe, 2011.

About Jeremy Antley

Jeremy Antley (@jsantley) is a writer/gamer/researcher who received his MA in History with a focus on the Russian Imperial period from the University of Kansas in 2007. While currently in the middle of researching the immigration of Russian Old Believers to Oregon in the mid-60's, Jeremy also finds studying the life and culture of Russian peasants to be a fascinating topic. At his blog, Peasant Muse, Jeremy writes on topics related to digital culture, games and, of course, Russian history. Love of board games helps to inform his current interest in how players modify their games and how looking at how games in general can inform historical inquiries. Jeremy also is a contributing author for Play the Past.