This (Historical Authenticity) means war!

von Eugen Pfister

The following essay is – again –  based on leftovers of 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“.   Based on the same lecture I wrote a completely revised paper for the anthology „History in Games – Contingencies of an Authentic Past“ by Martin Lorber and Felix Zimmermann. The anthology is expected to be published by Transcript until October 27, 2020.


When players discuss history in games in forums, they usually don’t talk about post-structuralist paradigm shifts but about a very concrete question: how historically accurate is the game? It is indicative that most of these debates focus on the representation of weapons, uniforms and the topography of battles.[1] To better understand the motivation of the game developers and game publishers it helps to take a closer look at the historical consultants of historical video games.

For Assassins Creed Black Flag Ubisoft for example employed the weapons historian Mike Loades who said this in a Polygon interview: „Yes, I’m a weapon historian, but I also am a serious historian generally.“[2] Of course we can assume that Mike Loades is a serious historian. But it is significant that he feels compelled to affirm it nevertheless. Here we find an interesting gap between his  self-perception and the perception of others by historians. Mike Loades is in fact a very experienced historian with a profound knowledge of sailing ships of the time.

The problem from a historians point of view is however that he can’t be at the same time specialist on the economic, social, cultural and political history of the same period. This means the developers made a choice to concentrate on historical authentic weapons and ships, while necessarily neglecting for example the Alltagsgeschichte of the colonial population.

It is noteworthy however that Ubisoft, of all companies, has been trying to break new ground here for a few years. Its focus on history as a selling point for the Assassin’s Creed series meant a change in policy during the last two Assassin’s Creed games. For the special game mode called “Discovery Tour”, they engaged more historians than normally and the focus of historical representation changed accordingly from a focus on weapons and war to culture and every day life in Assassins Creed origin. (We must however not forget that this is an additional game mode. The main game still focuses on combat mechanics.)

But most other games with historical settings still focus on weapons, uniforms and architecture, especially WWII-First person shooters: The developers of Call of Duty: World War II for example enlisted the help of the military historian Martin K.A. Morgan, as can be read on historyonthenet.com: “He worked with the creative team to give historical accuracy to the most Hollywood of scenes in the game. At [one] point the writers wanted a scene with a train. They asked Marty, ‘What sort of train would be transporting important equipment in April 1944 that we could crumple?” He came up with a German military train carrying a V2 Rocket that ends in a climactic crash, naturally.” The same can be said for most of the modern first Person shooter set in World War II, where historical guns were fired to record their authentic sound, were the topography and architecture of historical battlefields was recreated based on historical photos.[3]

The history books and the specialists consulted, dictate the perspective of a game on historical accuracy. Another good recent example for this is the self proclaimed “realistic RPG” Kingdom Come Deliverance. The developers from the Czech Warhorse Studio apparently invested a lot of time and research to make the swordfights in the game more accurate.[4] Furthermore they invested a lot research in the recreation of historical architecture like the Sazava Monastery, whereas the everyday life of the Bohemian peasantry seems strangely lifeless.[5]

If we take a closer look at the debates within the player community, we see a very similar picture. Many debates about historical accuracy centre on historical weapons and uniforms, on the topography and architecture or in the words of “CA Dave”: “Anything – from the flags to the soldier’s boots – accuracy of muskets – historical events, etc etc. Im really interested![6] This and many similar debates focus on some very superficial historical markers. In sum: We can always only verify what we already know. Steffen Bender speaks of “authenticity signals” that are used in games.[7] Carl Heinze used the term “scenery authenticity”, Andrew Salvati and Jonathan Bullinger “selective authenticity”[8], Nico Nolden “object fixation”[9] and Felix Zimmermann “object authenticity”[10]. What they show us is that, most of us don’t play these games to learn something new about history but to immerse ourselves into a world that we perceive as historically correct. To re-enact a history that we know from our popular culture. So I would argue, that we are not so much looking for new knowledge but for a confirmation of our worldviews.

This became particularly evident during the “Horo debate” in Shogun: Total War 2. Some players were irritated by the balloons on the back of the samurai guard and found them ridiculous. A No-Horo-Mod was quickly made to remove them.[11] This shows that we normally only search for our own assumptions to be affirmed, as exemplified I this witty response: “Tom Cruise, the last and most important of all samurai did not wear one. Therefore they should not be in this game.[12]

This example shows, that there is a potential for a critical reception of history outside of academia. But that should not hide the fact, that the predominant perceptions of history in game forums on the one side and press releases of the publishers on the other side still imagine History as an invariable. It has a quasi absolute authority. This explains the vitriolic reaction to Battlefield V – set in World War II – and the decision to make female characters playable. “Blatant disregard for historical events and mindless political correctness.” was one typical raction to a game.[13] Although historical details in games are regularly critically scrutinized by an audience, the narrative behind them is rarely questioned. And this is certainly problematic. Because if we take a step back and look at digital games with a historical setting, one thing quickly becomes clear. At least in the logic of the video game industry, history is synonymous with the history of war.

Most historical games are either strategic simulations or action games. This may be partially explained by a tradition of strategic board games, but it does neither explain the comparable lack of other historical games nor the huge success of war games. The Idea of History as a history of permanent warfare is therefore naturalized. We never question why we are supposed to conquer the whole of Europe in those games, we just do it. The reasons for these wars are most often not shown. War and conquest serve no other purpose but become a purpose in itself. This myth thus joins conflict narratives such as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Human history is reduced to a race for supremacy. The thrive to dominate and not to cooperate becomes naturalized. Since we do not yet have definitive research results on transfer processes from sociology and psychology, we can only observe to what extent similar myths/narratives can be found in completely different communication contexts. And at a time when self-proclaimed strong men in the USA, Great Britain, Russia, Hungary and Turkey argue with similar narratives for the “greatness” of their nation on a daily basis, we don’t even have to look very far.

Bild:  Техника – молодёжи 1980-02

Empfohlene Zitierweise : Eugen Pfister,  „This (historical authenticity) means war!“ in:  Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <http://spielkult.hypotheses.org/2719> 15.07.2020


[1] Chapman, Digital Games as History, 66f. 
[2] Campbell, Colin, „Truth and fantasy in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, in: polygon.com, URL: https://www.polygon.com/2013/7/22/4543968/truth-and-fantasy-in-assassins-creed-4-black-flag
[3] Chapman, Digital Games as History, 67.
[4] „Kingdom Come: Deliverance – Sword Combat Presentation“ in: youtube.com, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0sK7Xqfvpc
[5] Pfister, Eugen, „Kingdom Come: Deliverance. A Bohemian Forest Simulator“, In: Gamevironments 11 (2019): Special Issue on Nation(alism), Identity and Vidoe Games ed. by Lisa Kienzl and Katrin Trattner.
[6] https://forums.totalwar.com/discussion/5584/historical-accuracy
[7] „Authentizitätssignal“ in German. Bender, Steffen: Virtuelles Erinnern. Kriege des 20. Jahrhunderts in Computerspielen, Transcript: Bielefeld 2012, p. 44.
[8] „Kulissenauthentizität“ in German. Heinze, Carl: Mittelalter Computer Spiel. Zur Darstellung und Modellierung von Geschichte im populären Computerspiel, Transcript: Bielefeld 2012, pp. 182-183.
[9] „Objektfixierung“ in German. Nolden: Geschichte und Erinnerung in Computerspielen, p. 54.
[10] See also Zimmermann, Felix: Digitale Spiele als historische Erlebnisräume. Ein Zugang zu Vergangenheitsatmopshären im Explorative Game, Verlag Werner Hülsbusch: Glückstadt 2019, pp. 66-70.
[11] https://www.moddb.com/games/shogun-2-total-war/downloads/general-horo-removal-mod
[12] https://www.twcenter.net/forums/showthread.php?437802-The-Great-Horo-Misunderstanding-(the-back-balloons-for-the-uninformed)&p=9247767&viewfull=1#post9247767
[13] Farokhmanesh, Megan, „Battlefield V fans who failed history are mad that the game has women in it“, In: theverge.com, URL: https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/24/17388414/battlefield-v-fans-game-women-world-war-2-history


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