Let’s start with some big questions. Why do historical games look the way they do? Why are player’s possible actions constrained in certain ways? What goes into the decision-making process behind the culture we regularly use to engage with the past? How do game companies determine questions of which periods, which perspectives, and what actions players and consumers get to experience in popular historical digital games? For instance, what does it mean that executives within major game companies like Ubisoft have a history of excluding and marginalizing women as player characters in major productions like the Assassin’s Creed series, despite protests by game workers? How do we account for such tendencies to, in this case, produce patriarchal visions of the past? Excellent research inquiries into games by Esther Wright (2022), Stephanie de Smale (2019), Tara Copplestone (2017), Ylva Grufstedt (2022), and my own work (Hammar 2020), have underscored the importance of understanding how the ‘historical sausage gets made’ (cf. Trouillot 1995) in the case of historical digital games, with how culture is created for entertainment and other ways to engage with the past.
Much of my own research has focused on production, and the political economy of the games industry that produces the historical digital games we all play, teach, and analyze. This post provides a larger overview of dominant tendencies of how players are able to resolve conflicts through violence; how antagonists are depicted in one-dimensional ‘Manichean’ ways; and which regions, gender, and racialized identities are most commonly depicted. It takes a further stab at illustrating the link between contexts of production and what we see in games by analyzing the genre of ‘realist historical digital games’ (Chapman 2016).
A Survey of Realist Historical Digital Games
Digital games with a ‘realist’ simulation style employ a focalized viewpoint of one historical agent, often in a relatively high-fidelity audiovisual presentation, thereby emphasizing narrative, characters, and affinities with other audiovisual media such as film. As Chapman notes, this style draws “from a long cultural history of representation” (2016a, 68), so that such games more easily latch onto broader collective memory discourses. Critical observations on race and gender are also more evident in this style, due to its visual specificity, and their focalization on single historical agents as the player-character (Black 2017).
I analyse this genre of historical digital games according to the player-character’s nationality, race and gender, conflict resolution mechanic, moral (dis)engagement factors of enemy opposition, region, historical war (if applicable), conflict type, transgressivity, and budget scope. Reflecting broader, more recent trends in historical game studies (e.g., Rochat 2020), my analysis takes a quantitative approach in order to identify common trends, and illustrate factors such as the budget for and costs of historical digital games.
I divide the sample into three categories based on budget: low, medium, and high. The category of budget refers to the estimated project costs of the game in question. It is important to stress that this is not an empirically precise category, as it is highly difficult to access definitive information on the cost of game production. Often, game companies keep these figures secret. As such, I instead triangulated the estimated costs based on the number of employees involved in the game’s production, via the database Mobygames. I complemented these findings with the complexity of the game’s audiovisual fidelity, and the level of marketing that the game received upon release. For example, the game Thralled (Oliveira 2014) was developed by nine people, has relatively simplistic audiovisual design, and has little to no marketing. This would classify Thralled as a low-budget entry in the analysis. A medium-budget entry would be Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad (Tripwire Interactive 2011), because its production involved 102 people excluding outsourcing studios, it featured a less intensive marketing campaign at its release, and the game was not as graphically complex in comparison to higher-budget competitors in the same genre, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops(Treyarch 2010) released around the same time. In contrast, a game like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Ubisoft Montréal 2013)has reportedly up to a thousand workers on it, features relatively complex audiovisual fidelity, and enjoyed widespread marketing in most major markets when it released. Therefore, Thralled is classified as low-budget, Red Orchestra 2 as medium-budget, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag as a high-budget title. This triangulation allowed me to distinguish between three broad categories applied to the dataset – low (25 games; N=25), medium (N=65), and high (N=117).
In this figure, the left circle represents the low-budget dataset, the middle circle represents the medium-budget dataset, and finally the right circle represents the high-budget dataset.
Conflict Resolution Mechanic
In the category ‘conflict resolution mechanic’, I observe how the selected sample of games constrains and enables players to resolve the posited conflicts within a represented historical context. I particularly wanted to identify any dominant tendencies in the ways that historical digital games allow players to perform in their problem spaces (McCall 2020). For example, in the highly popular Call of Duty series (Infinity Ward 2004) and many other first-person shooters within that genre, players are tasked with progressing a linear space, and are most often tasked with resolving violent conflict by pointing and clicking on a mouse or pressing a controller button to shoot nearby enemies, akin to a virtual shooting gallery. A contrasting example would be Attentat 1942 (Charles Games 2017) that allows players to resolve conflicts with other characters via multiple dialogue options. As such, the category of conflict resolution mechanic draws attention to the affordances of historical digital games with broad descriptors such as violence, stealth, dialogue, or puzzle-solving.
As seen in figure 1 above, the low budget sample (left) has a more diverse array of ways to resolve conflicts, while the medium and high budget samples are both predominantly focused on resolving conflict through violence.
Moral (dis)engagement factors
Many games ask players to enact (often extreme) violence upon enemy non-playable characters. Therefore, these games employ a series of what Tilo Hartmann and Peter Vorderer (2010) call ‘moral disengagement factors,’ serving to justify the violence players indulge in. Potential negative emotions associated with the enactment of such simulated violence are negated or softened by, for example, highlighting the enemy as irrational, inherently evil, fanatical or monstrous, and thus beyond effective strategies of opposition other than violence. This is also in contrast to the perspective of the protagonist players are able to play, and thereby asked to identify with morally and personally. Usually in these games, players play from the side of a benevolent force. Pötzsch (2017b) defines this particular form of alignment as a ‘character filter’ in action digital games, where oppositional ‘characters are made to appear caricatured and their evil plans and actions (including torture of player characters or allies) […] serve as the implicit legitmatory [sic] frame for the in-game violence committed by players’ (2017b, 5). Pötzsch argues that this filter motivates a sense of moral disengagement in players, who do not reflect on the morality of the virtual actions they are committing. Hartmann et al.’s (2014) study of first-person shooter games suggests that distortion of consequences, dehumanization, and moral justification are some of the most widely used moral disengagement factors in the narratives and gameplay of the analyzed games. Later, he argues that
The concept of moral engagement versus disengagement factors has been applied to the selected dataset in my overview to illustrate dominant trends that may or may not reinforce prevailing understandings of the past.
Across the dataset, moral disengagement factors were present (87% of the time, N=180) in their depiction of antagonists. If we again divide this across budget, we see in figure 2 that medium and high budget titles are more likely to employ moral disengagement factors.
Geographical region and historical period
The categories of ‘region’ and ‘historical war’ refer to where and in which conflict, if applicable, the game is set or references. These two categories also help reveal which geopolitical and historical settings are the dominant trends in realist historical digital games, similar to the findings of Breuer, Festl, and Quandt’s (2012) study.
Sometimes, game developers decide to use non-specific settings or historical periods that echo intermediality: for example, creating a fictional Middle Eastern country, but still using and relying on the audiovisual stereotype of the Middle East (Höglund 2008). There is a similar rhetorical strategy with historical periods, where for instance, WWII is transposed to a different, fictional and fantastical setting (Koski 2017) or using zombies and robots (Chapman 2019). This rhetorical strategy helps game producers avoid sensitive political topics (e.g., the Iraq war) or historical trauma (e.g., the Holocaust) that games are often perceived to be unfit to explore (Chapman and Linderoth 2015).
Illustrated in figure 4, the most commonly presented historical wars are WWII (22%, N=45) and the so-called War on Terror (18%, N=38). In figure 3, the difference in regions seems a bit more varied, although North America (16%, N=33) and Europe (17%, N=35) once again feature more prominently, while continents such as Africa and South Asia are almost entirely absent. In contrast to the previous diagrams, the budget-framing across low, medium and high in figures 3 and 4 does not appear to be particularly determinate of the composition.
With regards to the category of conflict type, I adopt Smith’s (1995, 197) distinction between graduated and Manichean types of conflict. Manichean conflict is seen in digital games where the only way to progress through the game is by defeating and ultimately eliminating an unambiguously evil and dangerous opposition. Conversely, graduated conflict ‘indicates a multidimensional approach that opens for mutual dependencies among the opponents and takes heed of the complex grievances underlying the behaviour, conceptualizations, and the attitudes of the opposing parties’ (ibid). This conflict type opens up a commentary on the violence committed, or via multiple ways of engaging the opposition by not necessarily defeating them, or depicting antagonists in a more ambivalent and/or nuanced manner.
The dominant trends highlight that most of the dataset features Manichean forms of conflict (84%, N=174), violence as predominant conflict resolution mechanism (70%, N=146), and hegemonic transgressivity (84%, N=174). Splitting the results across low, medium, and high budget framing, a noticeable picture emerges in the following diagrams.
For this category, I adopt one of Pötzsch’s (2019) analytical categories: ‘critical and hegemonic transgressivity’. Critical transgressivity refers to instances where a game questions or subverts dominant norms and conventions. For example, Spec Ops the Line (Yager Development 2012) ‘highlights the unintended consequences of violent player performances during the course of the game’ (Pötzsch 2019, 54), such as showing players the consequences of bombarding civilians with white phosphorous. In contrast, hegemonic transgressivity ‘employs transgressions in a speculative or cushioned manner with the objective to, often implicitly, stabilize, reinforce, or capitalize upon dominant arrangements and structures’ (ibid. 54). This refers to cases where a historical digital game conforms to already dominant understandings of history and memory via particular forms of transgression – such as the case of Playing History 2: Slave Trade (Serious Game Interactive 2013) that involved a segment later termed ‘Slave Tetris’ following a public controversy (Thomas 2015). This game’s presentation failed to convince players of the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade, and instead conformed to dominant understandings of reifying Africans as commodities that need to be piled together as efficiently as possible to maximize slave transportation across the Atlantic. In this sense, critical or hegemonic transgressivity refer to articulations in historical digital games that either destabilize or reinforce hegemonic conventions.
Identity across nationality, race, and gender
Identity representations of the player-character along the categories of nationality, race, and gender exhibit a dominance of white American men (43%, N=90) across the entire dataset. These numbers exclude games where Americans play alongside other nationalities, as seen below. Framing nationality against budget (figure 7), low budget game titles appear much more varied in comparison to medium and high budget titles. In those two categories, as seen below, British and especially American nationalities of the player-character are dominant.
Removing the American nationality descriptor increases the White Man dominance to 145 out of 208 (70%). If we divide the entries by budget, as seen in figure 8, we again notice that white men comprise 73% (N=85) in high-budget games and 77% (N=51) in medium-budget games. In contrast, the low-budget sample ‘only’ has 32% (N=9) white men as player-characters.
If we combine the large concentration of white men with the violence as the conflict resolution mechanic, we see that 57% (N=118) of these games center white men whose way of resolving conflict is primarily through violence.
It should be noted that there is also a presence of ‘multiple player-character representations of race, gender, and nationality’ in the high and medium budget categories, with approximately 11% (N=13) and 14% (N=9), respectively. There were only 2 instances (8%) of multiple protagonists in the low budget category, presumably because the budget does not allow for the labor required to animate, sculpt, voice, etc. multiple protagonists in the realist simulation style.
Of particular interest in terms of gender division in the dataset, in figure 8 below we see that exclusively female player-characters amount to 5 entries (2%) in the dataset in the left-most circle, in contrast to exclusively male player-characters at 167 entries. There were only 2 instances of exclusively black women being represented in the dataset, while zero brown women were present. This also means that exclusively female player-characters are more marginalized than player-characters which are exclusively men of color (10.5%, N=22), as seen in the middle circle. This means that even white women (1.5%, N=3), but especially women of color, are severely underrepresented in comparison to their racialized male counterparts. Of course, across the totality of game titles with fixed gender player-characters which are exclusively men of color or women overall (14%, N=29), we are still talking about representational scraps in comparison to the dominance of exclusively white men in this category (70%, N=145), demonstrated in the rightmost circle.
Based on this application of the low-medium-high budget framing, we notice homogeneity increases with the game’s budget. In almost all the visualizations above, one or two tendencies turn increasingly dominant. These tendencies are white men, Americans, violence, morally disengaging oppositions, Manichean conflict types, and hegemonic transgressivity. As such, there appears to be at least a correspondence between the size of a game production’s budget and the type of historical engagement players get to play with.
Therefore, applying these categories to the collected dataset helped parse out the dominant trends in historical digital games that primarily employ the realist simulation style. We notice that the dominant trends articulate violence as the predominant conflict resolution mechanic, Manichean types of conflict, and morally disengaging oppositions. White men dominate across the board, with North America and Europe being the main geographical regions in which the games take place in. Few men of color are present in the dataset. Women, especially women of color, are marginalized, if not entirely absent from the dataset. Thus, the financial costs of a project seem at least to correlate with the extent to which mnemonic hegemony is reinforced through a particular historical digital game. Given the many testimonies we have had throughout the years on how the gender and race of a character is decided in the games industry, it is fair to claim that factors such as costs, financial risk, and profit-driven return of investment are significant factors in explaining why history in popular culture looks the way it does.
This analysis ultimately reveals the neglected representations of history that the sampled historical digital games exclude. Digital games are, in principle, ‘only’ impeded by their developer’s imagination and the technical and realist conditions they derive from (computational processes). Yet in these virtual worlds, the primary and most prominent creative landscape revolves around US-American white men going around the world killing others without moral reflection.
How can counter-hegemonic articulations and strategies in and around historical digital games ever be reconciled with a global mass culture that produces and reinforces hegemonic notions of history? These are important considerations for players, teachers, researchers, professionals, and historians to grapple with when it comes to understanding the processes of engaging with history through popular culture.
 Their findings show the dominance of American perspectives on wars and conflict, and the regions in which they take place. These findings also echo what the game developer Radwan Kasmiya stated about games generally reducing Middle Eastern countries to “the Crusades, oil and terrorism.” (Halter 2006). Mukherjee (2018, 515) explains why this is the case: “The images of the orient are always being manufactured and only represent things that colonial imperialism wishes to show and see. This is what influences how maps are charted and identities fixed.”
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Emil Lundedal Hammar (PhD) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Game Research Lab and at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies at Tampere University. His research expertise intersects between game studies, political economy, critical race theory, and cultural memory studies, where his doctoral thesis addressed how digital games, race, colonialism, and political economy intertwine to reinforce dominant hegemonic understandings of the past. His current research focuses on labor conditions in the Nordic game industries.