Alternatives are essential to games as a cultural form because agency is a foundational characteristic of the experiences they offer. The possibility for players – the audience – to influence the outcome of at least some events means that games must always contain competing alternatives, with their final outcome determined through the player’s actions. These alternatives can be as simple as deciding whether we move Mario left or right across a 2D image. Often, however, these competing alternatives can be far more mechanically or thematically complex.
As has often been discussed, the most obvious incarnation of historical games’ focus on alternatives can be found in their natural resonance with the counterfactual imaginary: histories which ‘didn’t happen’. Many games allow us to explore historical events that diverge from our ‘known’ past, or invent entirely new ones, often opening up opportunities to consider theories of causality by doing so. These games invite us to consider not only what happened in the past but why this might have happened, by presenting us with alternative outcomes that might have occurred if different choices had been made
However, historical games’ embrace of alternatives also extends much further, even into the realms of the downright fantastical. This imagining of impossible other worlds that emerge from and remain entangled with the history of our own is perhaps most obvious in the fantasy genre. A series such as The Witcher may contain monsters and magic unfamiliar to our lived experience, yet the basics of its alternative world remain locked in the history of the Middle Ages, the folklore and music of Eastern Europe, and the social and cultural relations that have both determined and reflect our contemporary reality. Such a game can still explore concepts of historical agency, despite its fantastical elements (Carvalho 2016). Our concern with the past and its retelling can, in fact, be seen to extend far beyond ‘real world’ history, even into the distant futures imagined in science fiction games such as EVE Online (Webber 2016).
Similarly, games from the Fallout series have incorporated science fiction and dystopian alternative pasts (and futures), yet still manage to express very real anxieties about Cold War culture, history, and legacy (November 2013). This is often a key aspect of historical games that embrace fictional and alternative thematic elements. Fantastical alternative worlds can provide a ‘strategic ambiguity’ that allows games like Wolfenstein to discuss histories, such as the Holocaust, normally considered too sensitive to include in games (Pfister 2019; Chapman 2020). Furthermore, the fictional-yet-loaded tropes of horror, such as the figure of the zombie, can be used to express unspoken anxieties about the processes of history and the rise of fascism, when combined with ‘real’ historical elements (Chapman 2019).
Alternative histories provide a place for the discussion of our actual past, despite their obvious inability to represent it directly. Such games explore the future and the past, not because they depict these things ‘accurately’, but because they help us explore the assumptions we make, and anxieties we experience, concerning the course of human events.
Games and games culture also open up opportunities for thinking about alternatives in a number of broader areas. For example, games can serve as alternatives to traditional forms of both historical media reception and historical practices (such as reenactment). Furthermore, games increasingly offer alternatives to hegemonic interpretations of historical events, narratives and identities, whether through art projects such as Dead in Iraq or 1378km, games like Special Force 2 or Nikhil Murthy’s Syphilisation, and mod projects such as Colonialist Legacies
In the space opened up by a theme of ‘Alternatives’, then, we hope to explore how games use what was not and what might have been to help us understand what was, and what is. Contributions can interpret and/or address the idea of ‘Alternatives’ in any way they see fit, as it relates to historical games of all kinds, as well as the histories we might tell of games.
Contributions to the Alternatives theme
As with our previous themes, Alternatives is an open theme, and we hope that the network will add to the discussion in new and interesting ways. #HGN provides a space to explore the conjunction of history and games, and we are seeking contributions to the theme from anyone interested in discussing environment(s) in this area. We are open to a range of formats and approaches: blog posts, book reviews, literature reviews and state-of-the-field posts, game criticism and reviews, event reviews, game analyses or post-mortems, podcast recordings, video essays, or any other type of creative contribution you might be interested in sharing. As a guide, we might expect written pieces to be in the region of 1,000-1,500 words, and video essays or audio recordings of around 5-10 minutes. However, if you have more to say, get in touch!
The Alternatives theme will be open for contributions until Friday 28 April, and we will post content received during the period 1 March to 31 May. All material will be treated in line with our copyright statement (you can find this on our About page: TL;DR – it’s free, open access, and you can repost your work wherever you like).
Submission and editorial process
Please submit contributions via the email linked at the bottom of the page, and any queries or questions through the same route. Contributions will be assigned for editorial review to at least one member of the HGN editorial team, and we will supply feedback and suggestions for amendment, as appropriate, for any submissions received. Please note that we reserve the right to reject contributions which are unsuitable for the site, and to request and/or require specific editorial changes before publication to meet any legal, funding or support requirements or obligations.
We commit to respond to all submissions within two weeks, and to fix a publication date for accepted content at the earliest possible point.
HGN is an open access, public-facing project intended to connect people, and we neither charge nor pay a fee for editorial support and publication on our site.
Carvalho, V.M. 2016. History and Human Agency in Videogames. Gamevironments 5. https://journals.suub.uni-bremen.de/index.php/gamevironments/article/view/88
Chapman, A. 2020. Playing the Historical Fantastic: Zombies, Mecha-Nazis and Making Meaning about the Past through Metaphor. In P. Hammond and H. Pötzsch (Eds.), WARGAME. London: Bloomsbury, 91-110.
Chapman, A. 2019. The Undead Past in the Present – Historical Anxiety and the Nazi Zombie. In S. Webley and P. Zackariasson (Eds.), The Playful Undead and Video Games. New York: Routledge, 44-56.
November, J. A. 2013. Fallout and yesterday’s impossible tomorrow. In A. Elliot & M. Kappell (Eds.), Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History. London: Bloomsbury, 297-312.
Pfister, E. 2019. ‘Man Spielt Nicht Mit Hakenkreuzen!’: Imaginations of the Holocaust and Crimes Against Humanity During World War II in Digital Games. In A. Von Lünen, K. Lewis, B. Litherland and P. Cullum (Eds.), Historia Ludens: The Playing Historian. New York: Routledge, 267-284.
Webber, N. 2016. EVE Online as History. In M. Carter, K. Bergstrom & D. Woodford (Eds.), Internet Spaceships are Serious Business: An EVE Online Reader. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 189-209.