Paying for the Past: the Ownership and Monetisation of History

In public discussions of history, it is sometimes said that ‘history belongs to everyone’. This is often used to assert someone’s authority to interpret the past, their attempts to understand, talk or write about things which they perceive as having happened. It is also used to reject the (now old-fashioned) idea that professional historians have ‘ownership’ or ‘control’ of history, or of the past.

This distinction – of history from the past – is important. For the sake of brevity, we might see this as a difference between things that have taken place prior to this moment (the past), and what we say about those things (history). The past is a shared resource, a commons. History is what we do with that resource, as we draw upon it to tell stories, make arguments, and explain the present. History is also the means through which people access and understand most pasts, by consuming those stories, arguments and explanations.

My concern here is with the ethical issues that arise as we exploit the resource of the past in games; as we use games to create history. While the past cannot be owned or controlled, history can be, and often is. Like most resources, the past is subject to exploitation, and like most commons, it is sometimes (over-)exploited to our detriment: the ‘tragedy of the commons’. As Arjun Appadurai has said, the past is in fact a scarce resource, because our use of it (history) is constrained by cultural codes, conventions and rules which govern which parts of the past we can talk about, and what we are allowed to say about them.

Societies routinely restrict historical speech, through a mixture of social conventions and regulations which limit or prevent the discussion or representation of particular imagery, people or events. In the space of games, these expectations are nuanced further, especially when the events concerned are seen as problematic, and there is a fear that making games about them will trivialise them – for example slavery, or Nazism and the Holocaust, as Adam Chapman discussed last month. The role of history in nation-building also sees governments intervene when games offer representations or interpretations of events in the national past, sometimes with support (e.g. through grants), sometimes with condemnation (e.g. through public criticism or even regulation).

National governments are able to make such interventions because they have access to significant power, and these interventions pose ethical questions in themselves. Beyond national dimensions, there is a broad range of histories and pasts to which different people feel strong attachment or affective connection. These pasts and the histories produced about them are deeply meaningful to those people, and may be vitally important to their senses of identity, prompting a sense of ownership and a desire to shape (‘control’) these histories – to make them ‘accurate’, to bring particular aspects to light. Think of a daughter’s wish to represent the person she knew her late father to be, a family’s desire to maintain the reputation of their forebears, or the calls of marginalised groups to have their past represented with more precision, or even at all. In each case, those with power, wealth and privilege are far more successful in putting their desires into practice than those without.

The broader landscape of historical work, then, raises ethical issues connected with power, control and ownership. These affect not only historical representation – the ground of most of our discussions about historical games – but also historical monetisation. Most of the video game industry relies upon generating income from its products. Where these products draw on the commons of the past, history is shaped and owned, and access to it is sold. (This is not in any way to criticise creatives for making a living from their creations, which they often struggle to do.) It is generally accepted to be legitimate to draw on our shared resources in this manner, and with highly recognisable and well-known past events, these proprietary histories join a wealth of other interpretations and perspectives. If we cannot access some of these interpretations, we do not lose access to all of them, especially not when these are matters of established public debate. The Western mediascape is sufficiently saturated with accounts of World War 2, for example, that we would not lose our understanding of it if we could not access one of many stories about Allied servicemen.

However, this picture changes when fewer or less varied interpretations are available. How do we navigate the ethical constraints of monetising the past in these circumstances? Here, monetisation has the potential to significantly limit access to historical discourse (something often discussed in relation to academic publishing). In addition, the dominance of the global video games industry by Western companies means control of historical interpretation is often concentrated in the hands of such companies. High production values, an established audience and significant visibility mean that their historical interventions dominate the discussion.

These interventions sometimes involve the representation, or indeed erasure, of people or cultures outside the West. This issue was touched upon by Javier Ráyon in the Historical Truth theme, and we will hear much more about it in the forthcoming Post(Colonialism) theme. While a range of non-Western games exist which explore these pasts in different ways, they are harder for publics to access, meaning that the creatives involved must sometimes choose between greater representation and access, and greater monetisation. Better-funded and more widely available Western games dominate; but barriers to accessing these games (cost, platform, size of download) may set the representations they offer beyond the resources of the people represented in them.

The consequences of these structures and problems of contemporary capitalism, globalisation, and politics are that broad and general ethical issues emerge in relation to making games. How can large studios address a genuinely international audience without, in effect, speaking over non-Western creators? How can issues of ‘ownership’ of the past be managed successfully when there is such an asymmetry of power and wealth? How might we support creators to share diverse historical perspectives without having to choose between making a living and being heard? Or between a fair and nuanced representation of the past, and one limited by government preferences for uncritical historical accounts?

EVE Online and Ethical Histories

If these ethical questions can be seen to arise at the level of the sector as a whole, there is considerable nuance on a game-by-game basis. Struggles over ownership of the past sometimes play out in quite unexpected spaces. Much of my own research around history and video games has concerned long-running Massively Multiplayer Online Games like EVE Online, EverQuest and Final Fantasy XI. None of these games pretends to be a historical game but after so many years of continuous play, they and their communities have a past and a history. Discussions and activities around the ownership and control of that history, and attempts to make money from it, offer further insight into these ethical questions.

Taking the science-fiction game EVE Online as an example, there has been widespread engagement around significant in-game events, most commonly focused on warfare, but also on scams, heists and protests, amongst other things. In EVE, alliances and coalitions of tens of thousands of players fight to control star systems, leading to a volatile and shifting political landscape characterised by ongoing conflict, diplomacy and espionage, and misinformation and propaganda. The history of these events is recorded and discussed in its ‘first draft’ in EVE’s player journalism, in the game press and sometimes in the mainstream press, and explored further in a range of ‘historical’ media. These include player blogs and wikis, Andrew Groen’s two-volume Empires of EVE: A History of the Great Wars of EVE Online, and the True Stories graphic novel.

The latter two publications represent some of the most substantial historical output around EVE, and combined with a third project – the aborted Fountain War book project –demonstrate the range of interests and tensions at play, and different approaches to navigating the ethics of such historical work. Each was driven by a different interest – Empires of EVE is an external account of EVE’s history, by a non-player; True Stories was the outcome of a 10th anniversary activity to collect player stories, orchestrated by the game’s developer (CCP Games); and the Fountain War book project was driven by prominent EVE players.

The success or failure of these projects connected directly to issues of representation, ownership, and monetisation of the past. While all of them were pitched as attempts to provide something memorable for the EVE community and to share that community’s passion with a broader public, sensitivities over what and who was represented, and how, were strongly embedded in discussions around this work.

Much of this concern surrounded the role in these histories of powerful EVE players, most notably Alexander Gianturco – known in game as The Mittani – the best-known EVE player (there is even a Wall Street Journal article about him) and leader of a major in-game alliance and coalition. Gianturco is well-connected within the game and its community, has been a member of the player-elected Council of Stellar Management, has contacts amongst EVE’s developers, and co-founded one of EVE’s journalism sites. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that someone with such a position of power might try to shape accounts of the past, particularly where he and his alliance were involved.

Gianturco’s influence on these histories was substantial. This was recognised at the time and continues to be critiqued by other players. Yet in a game where propaganda is a tool of gameplay, such influence on history was not altogether surprising: perhaps better understood in the context of national government messaging than of evidence-based accounts of the past. The issue of money, however, was much more of a problem. While there was little concern in evidence when CCP Games claimed copyright in the published story, or when the True Stories website, with almost 800 player submissions, quietly disappeared, there was significant backlash at the notion that Gianturco might make money from EVE’s past, as Oskar Milik and I explain here (in particular pp. 8-10). In both instances, ownership of the past, and the right to generate money from it, was being claimed in connection with Gianturco’s self-described exploits. The ethical (and financial) implications of these actions were visible to the community.

From Empires of EVE, however, we can learn something about effective ethical navigation of such historical work. Groen’s history proved to be a well-intentioned attempt at a balanced account of EVE’s complex politics, and he worked carefully with the community to build respect, to incorporate a range of perspectives and voices, and also to meet respondents on their own terms. Even so, as he rapidly appreciated with his first book complete, a ‘credibility gap’ remained between him and the EVE community – many players didn’t know of his work, and didn’t trust him.

Groen’s seemingly successful approach here is instructive: while making the book available to a broader public for a cost, he distributed digital copies of various chapters for free during an in-game ‘book tour’, sharing the outcomes of his work with the community it discussed. It is also perhaps revealing that the funding requested on Kickstarter for his history was just over one-tenth of that asked for the Fountain War book. Groen asked for relatively little, and gave a lot back.

History and video games come together in a space which is ethically complex, presenting challenges we must continue to address as we work in the landscape of historical game-making and play. The EVE examples suggest that, although histories which communicate the perspectives of those in power may be broadly accepted – as they are in the case of national histories, for example – people are likely to be aware that they are lacking. Histories which satisfy a larger audience seem to be those which encompass complexity, which respect a range of claims to ownership and which exploit the resources of the past in order to give something back to those connected to it. Groen’s interventions show that it is possible to do this successfully and ethically, and still make a living from your historical work.

If you would like to read more research about history and EVE Online, please get in touch.

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