Paths Found and Chosen: The Environments of Played History

Of all the themes we have so far had on the HGN, this is perhaps the broadest. As we noted in our call for contributions, digital historical games clearly depend upon virtual environments that often function as representations of past ones. But all games are also themselves played within certain environments, something that often becomes particularly pertinent in the case of games designed to be experienced in existing heritage spaces.

At the other end of the process, there is also the context of production to consider: the contemporary games industry environments in which historical games are made. If we zoom out even further, this industry is itself of course located within a larger socio-economic context and develops in relation to these larger structures, as well as a series of related cultural discourses – including ongoing and urgent discourses of environmental and ecological concern, increasingly felt these days.

I am sure that the contributions we publish from our excellent community on this topic over the next few months will show the diversity of how the notion of environments can be interpreted in relation to historical games.

In my own previous work, I have published a few things on the context of reception (i.e., the cultural environment in which historical games are experienced), particularly regarding sensitive or controversial historical representations (Chapman and Linderoth 2015; Chapman 2016; Linderoth, Chapman and Deterding In Press). However, in the vast majority of my publications, I have tended to remain focused on the internal worlds of historical games themselves.

This was certainly the case for the framework I offered for formal analysis of historical games in my most substantial publication to date, my book Digital Games as History (2016). This remained purposely focused on the actual texts of historical games by trying to offer an explanation of their internal, primary, constituent features and structures, resulting in a framework focused on five main categories: simulation style; time; space; narrative; and affordances.

I would argue that narrative structure is itself an environmental element of representation (narrative being inherently concerned with causal arrangements of space and time – particularly in games and, even more so, in historical games). However, ‘space’ is of course the above category that has the most overt connection to the environment theme. For those interested in this, you can read Chapter 4 of my book (pg. 90-118). This offers some structural categories that I propose describe how space is used in historical games both to represent the past (‘space as a narrative garden’) and to allow players particular authorial ways to interact with history (‘space as a narrative canvas’), as well as exploring other spatial elements in relation to history, such as the importance of off-screen space and the role of space as power.

Looking Outside the Game

However, today I’d like to talk about something different. Overall, the framework I offer for analysing historical games in Digital Games as History was designed to be relatively comprehensive in the sense that it sought to describe internal elements that are common, if not essential, to historical games and which it seems would continue to be so. However, such an approach also meant spending less time considering external elements that are very important to how history in games is made, disseminated and experienced.

To some degree this was a necessary step. Many of the building blocks that would go on to establish the foundations of our understanding of historical games were yet to be put in place and there is perhaps something to be said for trying to collaboratively achieve some essential description of what one is studying in the first place and what it is potentially capable of, before we can fully understand where it comes from and the factors that influence its use and interpretation in the world.

Nonetheless, important elements of the production and use of historical games, such as paratexts (e.g. marketing, such as box art, developer interviews/diaries, press releases etc.) were given less consideration within my framework than they deserve. (It is important to point out that the HGN’s own Esther Wright has since remedied this particular absence with her excellent work on this topic. I encourage you all to check out her forthcoming book on the topic of Rockstar Games, which is out in September and very much uses paratexts as an analytical lens for understanding history in games). When I did use such elements, as with other important surrounding discourses, such as forum discussions and player practices in reception, it was mainly as evidence for the fundamental structures of historical games that I discussed and the possibilities of use these implied (such as reenactment and counterfactual historying).

Another noticeable absence in Digital Games as History is a deeper consideration of the political economy of the games industry itself, particularly in regard to how economic considerations and practices have driven certain representations of the past to become more prevalent than others (the exception here is the obvious marketability of conservative epistemologies that is discussed in some detail at various points in the book).

Even so, Digital Games as History, by building upon the work of theorists such as Robert Rosenstone, Alun Munslow and of course Hayden White, remains very focused on the foundational principle that all historical representations are formed in part by the meeting of pressures upon, and possibilities for, representing the past that each new form of representation introduces.

Some of these pressures and possibilities are of course intrinsic to each form. For example, history communicated in games will generally exert pressure on traditional narrative structures because of the necessity of agency and uncertainty in this form of representation. Yet many of the determinants of the kind of history we find in games are external. That is to say, part of what influences the way we engage with the past through games is due to the ‘accident’ of the environment of socio-cultural and economic structures within which the form (and any representation) must necessarily exist, rather than the fundamental properties of play and games as a medium for history.

As such, though we often like to talk about developer choice when we consider historical games (and this is, of course, an important consideration) to restrict our thinking to only this would be to tell only a part of the story. After all, no human choices are made free from some kind of environmental pressure (particularly of the ideological variety) – whether we realise it or not.

Like the virtual spaces in games I mentioned earlier, the journey that historical games have taken to emerge as the force in the world they are today, is one both of paths purposely chosen and paths that have simply been found due to the passage of many feet in relation to the demands of an existing cultural, ideological, technological and economic landscape.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. 2018. Ubisoft.

Open-Worlds, Technology and the Changing face of History in Games

The development of open-world digital games provides a useful example of how the environments of production have combined with the changing environmental features of virtual worlds to fundamentally shift the way in which games engage with the past. Here, creative decision making has of course played a central role. However, so too has that most obvious of pressures that is exerted on digital games: the fact that they have always been, at least partly, determined by technology and the necessary intersection this has with market forces and the industry’s own history of design patterns.

Earlier historical games that used 3D graphics (rather than ‘top-down’ perspectives such as those commonly found in strategy games), were generally forced to produce confined virtual spaces for gameplay and reuse assets as much as possible, due to the limitations of hardware and software of the time. Perhaps the most obvious examples of such games are the kind of linear, historical first-person shooters with which we are probably all familiar, such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty.

This design pattern suited depictions of historical military conflict particularly well. After all, both are inherently concerned with advancement and the taking of ground from enemies. Furthermore, narrowing the thematic focus of such games to a particular historical conflict meant providing a diegetic explanation for reusing assets such as environments and enemy character models. These resonances, alongside the general similarities between warfare and competitive play that have long been acknowledged (e.g., see Huizinga’s 1938 Homo Ludens), meant that early historical games with 3D virtual environments tended to focus on military history.

However, over the past 15 years or so, advances in technology (alongside swelling budgets) have made the production of larger, open-world 3D environments much more commonplace. These environments differ from previously-common linear spatial structures by allowing players much more agency in terms of movement and exploration. Open-world games have in fact become the norm in AAA design, with many of the biggest selling titles using this kind of design pattern.

It is of course possible to still have open-world games set in warzones. However, warzones, particularly in games (which often avoid the complexity of sensitive aspects of warfare), tend to be abandoned, empty and desolate environments. It was seemingly quickly realised that if developers wanted players to spend time roaming their open-world environments, then they had to make those worlds interesting to explore in some way. This, alongside technological advances that allowed the inclusion of more varied assets, means that we now tend to find the environments of open-world games to be filled with cities, towns, villages and other kinds of settlement. And, of course, people too – in the form of the NPCs needed to believably populate these environments.

This change has had vast implications for the kind of history we tend to find in 3D games. Instead of simple representations of military environments and events, we start to get representations of all kinds of historical places, people and practices. In particular, this has meant more representations of the socio-cultural and material fabric of everyday historical life. It is now commonplace for 3D historical games to deal in varied aspects of the past, such as agriculture, religion, economics, leisure, fashion and a whole host of other elements of both the domestic and political spheres of historical environments.

This move towards open-world design patterns also began to address the previous exclusion of women from historical games because female NPCs were also needed to believably populate these new game spaces (for more on women in historical games, see Draycott 2022). Of course, the fact that representations of women only really began to be included when spheres such as domestic and agricultural life were present points to a problematic historical narrative that the mainstream games industry has often subscribed to – namely, that women were not also part of, affected by, and often integral to, historical systems of politics, economics and warfare. Furthermore, though women are frequently included in open-world games, they are still less likely to be so as playable characters. As such, women in such games are often relegated to being subject to history rather than subjects in history. It is also potentially problematic that female characters are frequently included only to be acted upon by players (particularly given the often-limited range of historical archetypes for female characters. Sex workers, for example, are particularly over-represented, while the role of women in warfare is under-represented).

Despite these problems, a widening of focus to include more varied spheres of historical life, introduced by the open-world game, has resulted in more complex and multifaceted historical representations. In fact, this moved historical games closer toward the broadened perspectives on the past that social, cultural and gender history have encouraged since at least the 1960s and 70s.

What is perhaps most interesting here is the way that this has been driven by technological advances and the rise of particular design patterns in response. This technologically-determined shift in industry practices has inadvertently, and yet dramatically, changed the kind of history we tend to see depicted in games. In this way, the changing environment of production has influenced the historical environments that games include and represent, and the concurrent historical themes explored.

Environments of Production/Reception

Technology and the practice of history are deeply intertwined in all forms. But as the above example shows, this is particularly the case when considering games, wherein the differing environmental contexts of production (and reception) offered by technology and the history of design patterns influence the kind of history we encounter in such games.

This is before we even consider the ideological and economic structures that also play a role here, as well as how players have responded to, played, and modded games over the years.
And, of course, history and collective memory, as both disciplines and popular practices/discourses, are their own cultural environments that exert pressure on the design of games when utilised thematically.

While design choices will always be a part of historical representation in games, this remains only one amongst a raft of formal, ideological, socio-cultural, economic and technological pressures that provide the multilevel environment in which games and history intersect. After all, every affordance is a property of a relation between an actor and an environment – no choices are ever made truly freely.

As always, thank you for joining us at the HGN. We appreciate your continued support and engagement very much!


Chapman, A. (2016). Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice. New York: Routledge.

Chapman, A. & Linderoth, J. (2015). Exploring the Limits of Play – A Case Study of Representations of Nazism in Games. In T.E. Mortensen, J. Linderoth and A.M.L. Brown (Eds.), The Dark Side of Game Play: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments. New York: Routledge, 137-153.

Chapman, A. (2016). It’s Hard to Play in the Trenches: WWI, Collective Memory and Videogames. Game Studies Journal 16 (2).

Draycott, J. (2022). Women in Historical and Archaeological Video Games. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Linderoth, J., Chapman, A. and Deterding, S. (In press). The Limits of ‘Serious’ Play. In B. Sjöblom, J. Linderoth, and A. Frank (Eds.), Representing Conflict in Games: Antagonism, Rivalry and Competition. New York: Routledge.

Wright, E. (In press). Rockstar Games and American History. Berlin: De Gruyter.

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