Video games shape the way Americans understand historical events


LAWRENCE – Esports participants have recently come to be seen as real athletes. Now other video game players are apparently budding historians.

This is one of the claims of an article titled “Deep game? Video games and historical imagination.

Andrew Denning“Historians should take historical video games more seriously to understand how the public constructs their knowledge of the past,” said author Andrew Denning, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.

His article examines the role of video games in shaping gamers’ interest in history – World War II, for example – which cultivates hyperspecific esoteric knowledge in areas they are not normally interested in. It appears in the current issue of the American Historical Review.

“Video games become these flashpoints for policy discussions,” he said. “They are part of a much larger public engagement with history in which the call is less to understand the past as it actually happened and more to know enough about the past to make the case. specific political points you want to make that day. “

He cites recent games such as “Call of Duty: WWII”, “Wolfenstein: The New Order”, “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” and “Red Dead Redemption II” which are designed for entertainment but also help educate people on issues. periods in which they are fixed.

The period that receives the majority of this attention is the 1940s. Simply put: People remain fascinated by Nazi Germany, whether through historical research or the manipulation of a joystick.

“There are a lot of reasons for this that are uniquely American and some that are more general to the Western world,” he said. “In a general sense, the horror of the Nazi experiences draws people in. It is a way of looking into the void and probing the historical depths of human depravity.”

For Americans in particular, the darkness of the Third Reich serves as a warning to the world’s superpowers.

“World War II was the last time the United States was the unqualified good guy. The global conflicts that have arisen after that – Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East – do not result in the obvious destruction of an evil enemy and often involve more national and internal divisions than international success, ”he said. -he declares.

Still, Denning notes that during his research he found some of the games he came across in territory where the blur of history and entertainment proved to be baffling.

“Killing faceless Nazis is good in a video game. But once a player is more realistically placed in the role of victim – with the implications of ethnic cleansing and genocide – it becomes rather uncomfortable, ”he said.

He also notes how in the Wolfenstein series, for example, all Germans are portrayed as bloodthirsty Nazis. In a virtual world, there is no gray area.

“It’s always difficult to give a fully rendered version of the past or a 360-degree view of things,” he said.

“Historical research on Nazi Germany has really evolved into understanding a kind of specter of implication. It wasn’t that you were a member of the Nazi Party or a member of the resistance. There is a whole range of ways to engage with the Nazi regime, whether one is a domestic German before the start of the war or a sympathizer in an occupied area in France. In occupied places like Poland, one can be both a victim of the Nazis and a perpetrator of anti-Semitic violence. These levels of complication do not turn into games.

Denning’s own introduction to such games began harmlessly with Nintendo’s original version of “Super Mario Bros”.

“Video games were my reason for being as a kid,” he said.

“But you might remember the time when Mario would come with ‘Duck Hunt’, and there was a laser gun for duck hunting. The fact that my initial engagement involved gun violence is so inherent in video game culture. “

Denning claims he first encountered historical material while playing the original Wolfenstein 3D video game in the early 1990s.

“Three of my four grandparents were in the Navy during World War II,” he said. “When I was told I had to read to save video game time, I would go to the office and go through these very well illustrated Time-Life stories. The Wolfenstein game is where I saw these two sons come together.

A faculty member at KU since 2015, Denning researches 20th century European history. He admits that he mainly retired from video games because “work and play are now at loggerheads”.

The professor wants the “Deep Play” to allow historians to better understand how the public apprehends their respective fields.

“Hopefully this will start a conversation between video game players and historians to see how we could both learn from each other,” he said. “I also hope that it will be an educational tool to which some of my colleagues can attribute it to help their students to discover how they were interested in this subject and how we can build on this to develop a more subtle and more nuanced knowledge of the subject.

Top photo: Games / Activision Sledgehammer

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Patrick F. Williams

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