Privileging Form Over Content: Analysing Historical Videogames

It is my hope that by now few deny that contemporary game series like Civilization or Assassin’s Creed constitute history.[1] However, such a broad term does not convey the approach that analysis of these new historical texts requires. At this early stage in the serious study of historical videogames, we must be sure to adopt an approach that privileges understanding the videogame form (and the varying structures this entails) and its integral role in the production and reception of historical meaning, rather than solely, or even primarily, on the content of specific products as historical narratives. Simply focusing on the accuracy of the game often re-informs us about popular history rather than recognizing the opportunities for engaging with discourse about the past (and the nature of this discourse) that this new historical form can offer.

Proper analysis of content requires consideration of the structures that create and represent it. Content cannot be separated from its form, just as history cannot be understood separately from the modes in which it is written, coded, filmed, played, read, or viewed. While analysing the historical content of particular videogames can provide some basic information, it reveals nothing about its stylistic and epistemological creation, and nothing of how (or even if) players experience this content. Similarly, such a focus tells us nothing about the opportunities for exploring discourse about the past through play: what actions players can perform and do perform, by choice or necessity, when they play.

This last concern is integral to understanding games because, unlike the majority of historical forms, videogames have an additional layer of meaning negotiation because they are actively configured by their audiences. In essence, when we play we may well be “reading” (i.e. interpreting and negotiating historical signifiers and narrative) but we are also “doing” (i.e. playing). It is only by focusing on form that we can properly include the action. To do so requires an analytical approach that fuses Salen and Zimmerman’s three schemas of games: play, rules, and culture, while allowing the consideration of the player’s role in the negotiation and fusion of this triad.[2] By comparison, the overt focus on content in some of the scholarly analyses of existing historical videogames is troubling.

This article calls for academic work on historical videogames to move beyond the examination of the particular historical content of each game (i.e., historical accuracy or what a game ‘says’ about a particular period it depicts) and to adopt an analytical framework that privileges analysis of form (i.e., how the particular audio-visual-ludic structures of the game operate to produce meaning and allow the player to playfully explore/configure discourse about the past). The benefit will be more than just increased knowledge of a particular historical representation, but also insights about form (a particular game-structure’s operations) that are transferable to an understanding of games with similar ludic (and audio-visual) elements.

If a cautionary tale about the problems with privileging content over form is needed, then we can turn to the example of historical film, a form that has often been rejected on the basis of the historical content of individual texts. Critiques of particular historical films were assumed to be indicative of some kind of basic structural inability of film to function as a mode of historical expression. Many scholars concluded that film could not constitute “proper history.” It took a number of theorists (particularly the seminal work of Robert A. Rosenstone) to refute accusations of poor information loads and/or “discursive weakness” as unjustified and selective, but also based on unfair comparisons. Comparisons not, as it might first seem, to the elusive past itself but to the history found in books.[3] This is an, often unconscious, ontological discrepancy whereby the notion of “accuracy” or “truth” is collapsed with and thus taken to mean, “in alignment with the narratives of book-history.”

Obviously the aim of the developers of historical videogames like Civilization or Brothers in Arms (in addition to create an entertaining game), is to create history, not as it can be represented in a book but as it can be represented in a videogame. Analysis on the basis of content alone almost invariably involves comparisons with historical narratives constructed and received in book form, which is often problematically understood as the only form capable of producing “proper” history. Most often these narratives are used as the benchmark for establishing truth or accuracy and thus, the examination of content. Such comparisons are also based on a confusion between the evidence of the past and the history that is written about it. This evidence is often unavailable for reconsideration and rarely stands independent of (most often, narrative) interpretation. These written interpretations are taken to be history (or more accurately, the past) itself, rather than history as it can be written, which naturally cannot be bluntly compared to history as it can be played.

As Rosenstone repeatedly outlines, expecting history on film to be that of the book, merely transposed to an inferior form, is intensely problematic. Instead, history on film must be considered on its own terms.[4] We are now presented with an opportunity to avoid the same mistakes made in early considerations of historical films. We can do so only by approaching historical videogames on their own terms, and by using a method that privileges transferable understandings of form over fixed analysis of individual historical content.

Games will likely never produce the same opportunities for discourse as a book, but then why should they? Analysis on the basis of content alone usually involves uncomfortable comparisons of this kind and can result in mistaken conclusions about the representational capability of the videogame as an historical form, rather than the limitations of and concerns surrounding, histories which can be interpreted as “popular” or “commercial.” Each form utilizes different structures that, considered alongside one another as part of a larger transmedia meta-discourse, create much more interesting collaborative opportunities for establishing historical understanding than one or the other alone.

Examining only content also necessarily involves asking questions about what is included or left out of a particular videogame’s representation. This is rarely a useful question beyond the basis of a general common sense. Historical videogames are, like all histories, mimetic cultural products. Naturally, this involves a productive and often creative, process of evidence selection and emplotment. Thus, as Carr notes, “criticising a simulation for being reductive is nonsensical… [endnote]… That would be like disparaging a map for not being life-size.”[5] Selectivity and reductionism is a natural “flaw” of history (and all representation). This is no different in those histories that are written in books than those that are created as videogames. This point becomes even more explicit when we consider that “simulation … is perhaps the best translation of the Greek mimesis.”[6]

Analysis on the basis of content using a comparative method such as this often does not even produce particularly useful results. Of course sometimes we can confidently highlight obvious anachronisms and misplaced objects, but historical videogames mostly relinquish the telling of the experiences of specific historical agents, and favour instead typical historical environments, characters, scenarios, and experiences. In the majority of cases (particularly given the implied audience), how much is to be actually gained by knowing, for instance, that certain shoes were not genuinely available until the 1490s rather than the 1470s, or that a particular character, though historically typical, did not truly exist? Relatively little, compared to the “feel” of a period or location, the life, colour, action, and processes (with which the book can struggle) and which can be easily communicated in games. Moreover, in games we can wilfully discover these things, and often as an (inter)active part of them, configure our experience.

It is only by focusing on form that we can understand how the game can produce meaning in these, arguably, new ways, that neither book nor cinema can effectively utilize, whilst still remaining engaged with a larger historical discourse. Examination of a particular history has to involve an understanding of the form through which it operates as these two aspects can never be seen to truly stand apart. History is not a “thing” that can be understood as separate from the forms in which it is produced, received, and argued.

Historical videogames must be understood on their own terms, without relinquishing our understanding of the basic tenets of historical theory as they universally apply to history as a practice within any form (e.g. history is referential and representational). Admittedly, striking the balance between these concerns can be challenging. Accepting this challenge means considering historical videogames without completely excluding analysis of content, while still seeking to understand how the nature and the meanings produced are wholly dependent on the form of the text in both production and reception. Such an approach is more trying in the sense that content cannot be evaluated on only its own terms.

Returning to Salen and Zimmerman’s schemas, historical content in games is a concern that balances somewhat unnervingly between rules, play, and culture, and therefore requires an understanding of the structures through which the game is created and disseminated. It is only by apprehending the interplays between form and content that we can really gain any comprehension of the (often troubling) category we know as history, which is always anchored within the mediums in which it is created and received.

Accepting this challenge requires a new approach to historical videogames, one that involves analysing the structures that produce meaning. These are structures which create opportunities for players to negotiate meaning in the ways that we are familiar with from other more “passive” media but also allow them to actively configure their own historical experience through play. In short, this means continually returning to and refocusing on, the agency which the player wields and the challenges they confront, which allow a somewhat unique form of engagement with historical discourse. This also means understanding the aesthetics of historical description that are utilized in historical videogames, such as audio-visual design, and a reliance on semiotic structures with which we are (hopefully) somewhat familiar with from historical film and the other visual forms. However, in the videogame, even this audio-visual aspect largely depends on the rules of the game and the opportunities for player action that these create.

A large part of the aesthetics of games such as Assassin’s Creed are actually algorithms, that, though written logically, are still subjective aesthetics that attempt to represent historical experience through reactively producing signs to be read and responses to be acted upon. In short, in any historical videogame, the aesthetics of historical description also function at a ludic level, producing a form of “procedural rhetoric” that, depending on a particular game’s (or genre’s) structures, can influence virtually all of the other historical signifiers through which the game produces meaning.[7] An understanding of the entirety of a game requires a focus on form rather than individual content.

Having identified combinations of these audio-visual-ludic structures, we can then approach other games that operate similarly with an understanding of what opportunities for historical meaning-making they are likely to offer. This is transferable knowledge that is likely to remain, even when faced with the historical games of the near-future.

It is defining and understanding these structures and how they operate in games, including the whole raft of new aesthetics that this implies, which is the most important task facing historians or other scholars interested in historical videogames. When we look at one game’s content, we understand no more than that. Furthermore, if analysis of content is necessary, then surely it is better left to those scholars that specialize in the historical period that the game tries to represent. However, as scholars that wish to study historical videogames, our first concern must be the form that exerts influence over virtually every aspect of production and reception. And which, in its pressured relation to the historian/developer’s choices, decides the content.

When we look at the videogame form in this way we can, I hope, begin to create a cohesive understanding of how games represent the past and what structures create particular playful opportunities for players to explore, understand, and interact with these representations. It is also my hope that doing so would produce a shared and organically produced analytical framework for approaching game-based histories which can help us think about these games in new ways.

Developing this form-focused approach is obviously a large, inter-disciplinary task and there is much work to be done. As such, I make this call in a collaborative spirit. If taken up, this could no doubt become a very complex analytical framework to construct (even just given the huge variety of structures through which the multitude of historical videogames operate). However, I believe that this complexity would be easily matched by the benefits of understanding this new mode of historical expression. I also realise that this article is probably in many regards “preaching to the converted.” It is true that much work on historical videogames does display an understanding of the importance of analysing the structures at play within videogames in order to understand the medium as a historical form and therefore, games as history at all.

In a sense, this call to privilege form over content is a simple point. However, I do believe that it is one worth making explicitly if we are to further develop a cohesive and comprehensive approach to historical videogames. At this relatively early point in the medium’s life we are well placed to begin to explore how and what videogames enable in terms of playfully engaging, configuring, and experiencing discourse about the past.

Originally posted by Adam Chapman on January 19, 2012. Revised for the Journal of Digital Humanities June 2012.

  1. [1] For more on this issue see Adam Chapman, “Is Sid Meier’s Civilization History?” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice (Forthcoming 2013).
  2. [2] Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004), 102.
  3. [3] Ian Charles Jarvie, “Seeing through Movies,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 8 (1978): 378.
  4. [4] Robert Rosenstone, History on Film/ Film on History (London: Pearson, 2006).
  5. [5] Diane Carr, “The Trouble with Civilization,” in Videogame, Player, Text, ed. T. Krzywinska and B. Atkins (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 234 and endnote 6.
  6. [6] Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited, trans. J.E. Lewin (New York: Cornell University Press, 1983), 15.
  7. [7] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).

About Adam Chapman

Adam Chapman is a PhD Candidate in his final year at the University of Hull, in the Media, Culture and Society department. He received a History BA (Hons) from Leeds Metropolitan University and a Cultural History MA at the University of Liverpool. Adam’s research focuses on the videogame as an historical form and seeks to weave existing (mainly postmodernist) historical theory and analysis, with game-focused research that emphasizes the unique qualities of games and play, as well as, more recently, Gibsonian psychology. Accordingly, he is attempting to develop an analytical framework for historical videogames that includes understanding both action/agency and narrative/representation and the interplays between these aspects. He can be contacted at *protected email* and @Woodlandstaar.