Some Early Thoughts on History and Games And Collective Identity

von Eugen Pfister

The following essay is partly based on my presentation at the Clash of Realities conference November 2019 .: „Playing „History as it really was“ – The Myth of Historical Accuracy in video games and its ideological functions“.

History vs. Historical Studies

If you’re a historian working with/on video games it is inevitable, that at some point of your career you will be confronted with a question like this: „Is x in game y historically accurate?“

The ongoing search for (imagined or factual) anachronisms can be quite entertaining, but the gain in knowledge for our historical studies and our society is rather limited. [1] Trouble is, we touch a sore point of our self-conception as historians. The impulse to understand historians as reviewers of a „correct“ representation of history contradicts our self-image as scholars.

Most of us see ourselves not so much as guardians of the one true past, but more as problem solvers and puzzle crackers. The problem with the term „history“ is its inherent ambiguity. One and the same word designates both the research and the object of research. We have therefore to differentiate between a history as part of our collective memory on the one hand, which functions as a building block of our collective memories and a historical research at the universities on the other hand. History in its broadest sense is the sum of all past events. History as a scientific discipline however is the analysis and interpretation of this past. While the former suggests that history is immutable, the latter implies its mutability.

In a common interpretation history is most often understood as an invariable. While there are many possible futures, there can only be one past. We therefore believe that it is the work of the historians to unearth this one past, to reconstruct it and teach us about it. In this logic it should therefore be possible to recreate this one historical past in video games for us to relive it. This is at least what some marketing divisions try to sell us. Because there is a constant demand for history. It is my understanding that this „craving“ for history is partially due to a need for identification and identity stability. I suspect that history is not only used on a macro level by politics to legitimate certain claims and rules, but also on a micro-level, when we try to organize our personal belief system. Hence the desire for an unambiguous history.

The truth, however, is that since (post-)structuralism at the latest, historical sciences have abandoned the idea of one objective historical truth, waiting in the hidden of our past to be found. Strange as it may sound, every generation has its own history, its own past. Our actual view on the Mediaeval Ages differs profoundly from history textbooks of the 1950s, and even more from those of the 19th century. And this is not so much the result of exciting new discoveries but rather the result of a radically changed perspective. In his conversation with Guy Lardreau, George Duby explained: “I am constructing something that is the expression of myself, of my worldview”.[2] Duby continued by stating, that in our culture, the study of history is one of the fundamental modes through which our society dreams up a self-image.[3] Because of its identity-forming function History has always been a profoundly ideological subject.[4]

It is – as I have said before – commonly instrumentalised by political actors to prove that their agenda is validated by the past.[5] This can best be seen in the construction of national identities from the 18th to the 20th century: history was used as an argument for political means and the historical discipline deeply politicized. Historians eagerly offered their services to the young nations to argue for the expansion of their own borders. Every nation tried to legitimize its existence with a founding myth that had to be as historical “authentic” as possible. The corresponding historical research of the Romans, Celts and Germanic tribes multiplied within a very short time.  Andreas Dörner offers us here a characteristic example in his analysis of the “German” national myth Arminius, instrumentalised to legitimize a new found interest in a German identity.[6]

The different functions of History in Popular Culture

History is therefore not a neutral research area. A similar if albeit different process of legitimization happens on an every day base in our popular culture and more specifically in video games. In this case however it is not the work of individual political actors or groups instrumentalising history for their needs, but our societal/cultural system itself that is reproducing itself through discursive statements and narratives. In order to explain this train of thought, I must briefly go into detail: We live today in an over-complex, highly specialized society. Each social subsystem (politics, culture, trade, science, etc.) has developed its own symbols and languages. For greater inclusive societal systems (nations states for example) to function as a whole, we need a common language in which we agree on common values and taboos – the rules of conduit.[7] We furthermore need a collective identity to accept these rules as our own. We accept the Austrian/German/French/etc. laws because we identify as Austrian/German/French/etc. , for example. Such collective identities are traditionally argued/constructed historically.

The necessary communication of history takes place in several ways: on the one hand, consciously and selectively in universities and academies; consciously and continuously (with a clear hierarchical divide) in media, and increasingly (at least apparently without hierarchical divide) in the constant exchange in so-called social media and, I will argue, predominantly unconsciously and continuously (and with a hidden hierarchical divide) also in popular culture. Something that stands out very strongly here are the differences in form and content between a formal historiography at the universities and an informal one in popular culture.

This explains why the system invites historical content to be negotiated again and again in games. It serves a collective need for identity and serves to stabilize the system on a macro level. This works so well because there seems to be a constant demand for historical content even in games, which leads us to the micro level: Here an assumed historical accuracy is supposed to help a game reach “a state of authentication in which it ceases to irritate players and succeeds in immersing them instead.”[8] This means that the historical content used in the game must meet the expectations of the players in order to provide them with the most enjoyable gaming experience. This functions because there is a demand from the players for “historical accuracy”.

I would argue that history works so well as a commodity because it satisfies an inherent need for identity. We need to reassure us on a daily basis about our place in society and the world.  This demand for historical content also explains the constant supply of historical games from the games industry. Historical settings are a grateful subject because on the one hand they have a high recognition value – in the sense of a brand.

The constant repetition of basically the same historical episodes helps us to situate ourselves in the world. This becomes particularly clear with the most common historical setting: World War II. Here we know to distinguish clearly between us and them. We fight for good, they fight for evil. Maybe we are not interested in learning new knowledge about the Second World War but want to see our “historical” identity confirmed. History functions in this case as a „myth“ according to Roland Barthes. This means that we encounter here unambiguous ideological statements that are disguised as a natural part – or even better as a result – of our history.

In this sense the myth is a sign – a statement, which presents an ideology as if it were a ‘natural’ – therefore unchallenged – condition of the world. It perpetuates a distinct idea of society that adheres to political, cultural and social discourses. Consequently, these myths are reproduced and received unconsciously in video games, nevertheless functioning as instruments of political socialization. [9] Myths do not have to be man-made, they can also simply be the result of the self-preservation process of our cultural system.

For a myth to work, it is imperative, that the myth is never questioned. The same can be said about our need to confirm our identity in historical settings, it only works if we can convince ourselves that it really was like this at the time – in the words of Leopold Ranke “wie es wirklich gewesen”. This is also the reason why questions of accuracy are so hotly debated in game fora. In fact, I think that Barthes concept of myth is a particularly fruitful one here. It helps us to understand how ideological statements can emerge without necessarily requiring a sender in the form of a historical actor. Furthermore, we can use the myth model to explain why there are a few discursive statements that are particularly successful.

Bild:  Техника – молодёжи 1990-09

Empfohlene Zitierweise : Eugen Pfister,  „Some early thoughts on History and games and Collective Identity““ in:  Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <http://spielkult.hypotheses.org/2698> 17.06.2020


[1] Chapman, Adam, Digital Games as History, London: Routledge 2016, 11. Cf. also Pfister, Eugen, „’Wie es wirklich war.’ Wider die Authentizitätsdebatte im digitalen Spiel.“ In: gespielt.hypotheses.org, URL: https://gespielt.hypotheses.org/1334. 
[2] Duby, George / Lardreau, Guy, Geschichte und Geschichtswissenschaft. Dialoge, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1982, 43.
[3] Idem 47. Cf also Landwehr, Achim, Die anwesende Abwesenheit der Vergangenheit. Essay zur Geschichtstheorie, Franfkurt a. M.: S. Fischer 2016, 40: „Die Schwierigkeit solcher gegenwartszentrierter Verständnisse ist, dass die Vergangenheit darunter zu verschwinden droht, weil sie nur noch Steigbügelhalterin eines jeweils aktualisierten Selbstverständnisses wäre und so gut wie keinen Eigenwert mehr besäße.“
[4] Tschiggerl, Martin / Walach, Thomas / Zahlmann, Stefam, Geschichtsheorie, Wiesbaden: Springer VS 2019, 28.
[5] Cf. for example Sabrow, Martin, „Geschichte als Instrument: Variationen über ein schwieriges Thema“, in APuZ 63/ 42-43, 3-11.
[6] Dörner, Andreas, Politischer Mythos und symbolische Politik: Der Hermannmythos: zur Entstehung des Nationalbewußtseins der Deutschen. Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag 1996.
[7] Eugen Pfister, „Politische Kommunikation in digitalen Horrorspielen“ in:  Horror-Game-Politics, <http://hgp.hypotheses.org/176> 20.12.2018
[8] Winnerling, Tobias, „The Eternal Recurrence of All Bits: How Historicizing Video Game Series Transform Factual History into Affective Historicity“, In: Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture. 2014; 8 (1), 151-170, here 159. Adam Chapman speaks in a similar context of „configurative resonance“ Chapman, Digital games as History, 45.
[9] Pfister, Der Politische Mythos als diskursive Aussage im digitalen Spiel. URL: https://ub-deposit.fernuni-hagen.de/receive/mir_mods_00001258


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