General Historical Truth

Blog-Post-Modernism and Games of Historical Truth

In 2014, while working as a postdoctoral fellow at the LiNCS research centre at the University of Gothenburg, I was given the opportunity to design a course as part of the centre’s fantastic DSES (Doctoral School in Educational Sciences) program.  These courses invited PhD students from universities all over the world to come to Sweden for two funded sessions a few months apart, with online components in the interim. As my research focus was historical games, I naturally wanted to teach on this topic and therefore put out the call for a course titled Historical Representation in Games. I’ll admit that I was initially a little bit nervous. Back then the number of scholars studying historical games was far less than it is now and only myself and a few others concentrated on this as their main area of interest.

It turns out I needn’t have worried. In an early hint at the coming explosion of work looking at historical games that has occurred in the intervening period, we had more applicants than we could possibly fund, eventually accepting around 20 PhD students. During the course, I probably learned as much as I taught, it being a rare privilege back then to have a significant number of academics interested in historical games in the same place at the same time. Even after the official course end date, we all found ourselves online still discussing history in games. We had become a small, though enthusiastic, community.

This may well have remained only such, were it not for an invitation in 2015 from the brilliant Anna Foka (Umeå) and Jonathan Westin (Gothenburg) to add a track on historical games to their Challenge the Past/Diversify the Future conference, which aimed to ‘critically address visual, audible and multi-sensory representations of historical times, places and cultures.’ Our hope was to connect researchers and practitioners from heritage studies, digital humanities, history and (what was yet to be called historical) game studies. Again, I was a little unsure how many submissions we would get for the track but, confident some of the students from my PhD course would be interested, I agreed. Again, I needn’t have worried. We were overwhelmed by the response and eventually accepted 40 papers on historical games, making the conference, to my knowledge, the largest gathering of scholars interested in history in games there had been up until this point.

During the conference, a particular idea kept coming up: that somewhere was needed to share ideas, publications and CFPs if historical game studies was to continue to coalesce and grow. So, armed with the critical mass of contacts offered by the PhD course and Challenge the Past, I set up the Historical Game Studies Network Group on Facebook. The group started in 2015 with a small but very active 60 or so members. But due to the natural expansion of the field and significant events, such as the Playing with History workshop at the DiGRA/FDG conference at Abertay University in 2016, the network has grown rapidly over the past 6 years and now has over 700 scholars, heritage practitioners and game designers working with historical games. This makes the group probably the largest academic community dedicated to historical games, other than perhaps the (mostly) German language Arbeitskreises Geschichtswissenschaft und Digitale Spiele (Working Group for History and Digital Games), an excellent resource that I also certainly recommend our readers to check out.

The Beginnings of a Community

Full credit must go to all the members of the Historical Game Studies Network Group, who have created a warm and engaged community that is always willing to share and discuss ideas concerning historical games. This has made my life as an admin of the group very easy and it has generally taken care of itself over the years. In particular, I have been gratified to see the community become an extremely friendly place for students first beginning their journey into researching historical games to find literature and advice. It is also important to mention that many of the members of the group are the same people responsible for the significant events and publications that have allowed the field to grow so rapidly in recent times. (For an intro to the field, see the following article.)

It is precisely this growth of both the historical game studies field and our online community that has led us to believe that the time is right for another move forward with our network. Thanks to the fantastic work of Iain Donald, Nick Webber and Esther Wright (all of whose coat-tails I happily ride) we are very pleased to launch this website, the Historical Games Network. This companion site to the Facebook group will offer quarterly(ish) topics made up of blog posts, videos and discussion panels, with each featuring a guest from historical game studies, heritage and the games industry in order to try and facilitate a cohesive discussion across stakeholder groups. We also hope that this will lead to offering more formal events and publications under the Historical Games Network banner in the future, so watch this space!  

Anyway, without further ado, let us, somewhat uncharacteristically for historians, refocus on the present and introduce the first of our quarterly topics: historical truth.

On Historical Truth

We live in an odd age for the notion of truth. Certainly, work in the sciences has enabled us to perceive the contemporary world we live in with an ever-increasing degree of granularity. To some extent, this is also the case with the past, with scientific advances in the study of material evidence being made almost daily. Yet at the same time, revelations in neuroscience and psychology are also increasingly revealing to us the extensive cognitive biases, subjectivities and limitations of the human mind. That same human mind that not only produces our history but for which history must in turn also be eventually packaged in order to be of use.

Most of us would probably accept that the ever-growing tree of human activity we might term ‘history’ carries some relationship to truth nestled somewhere within the spread of its weighty boughs. Certainly, this was the claimed purpose of studying the past in the somewhat naïve Rankean days of our empiricist predecessors. For a while, it was argued that history was in fact capable of being a completely objective science like any other (a concept that would return to haunt the discipline again and again: covering law models and BIG DATA I’m looking in your direction…). But of course, there were also many dissenting voices along the way. The river-bothering Heraclitus (and other ancient thinkers) hinted at the notion of the ephemerality of change early on. Later, in the first half of the 20th century, thinkers such as Carl Becker and E.H. Carr, amongst many others, would express influential and elegantly phrased doubts about the notion of a truly empirical history. But these ideas really gained momentum with the linguistic turn in Western philosophy and the subsequent rise of postmodernism. 

In the discipline of history, this manifested in an increased interest in not only what we say about the past but also the means throughwhich we do so; in particular, narrative. The short version is that as narrative form and figurative language are our general means of approaching a past we cannot directly know, it is important to consider the rhetorical, tropical, and ideological components of historical representation and the ways in which these influence our understanding and use of the past. Above all, postmodernist thinkers acknowledged the subjective nature of writing history and emphasised how to do so was to decide upon and create meaning as much as it was to find it in the past. Naturally, this emphasis on the pressures and inherent subjectivities introduced by the narrative form that must be used to engage with the past, meant that history’s relationship to the simplicities of ‘objective truth’ was once again a rather more complex and uncertain one.

TL;DR: postmodernists argued that history is necessarily a kind of storytelling and stories have a lot more going on in them than just the mediation of literal truths.  

History and/as Narrative

It seems evident that the centrality of narrative to human affairs can hardly be denied. We build the structures of our cultures and societies on the backs of many myths and stories that only become systemic truths, real and tangible affordances of our environment, because enough of us believe them to be so. A tired example, but one that remains as relevant as ever, is of course money. Barthes pointed to this in his insightful Mythologies, showing how our social and cultural value systems are built upon these narratives and that even the most naturalised, embedded parts of our daily existence are both produced by and sustain such myths. History is both the source of our myths and of course the practice of their documentation. It is therefore perhaps no accident that it would also be Barthes who would later outline how the discourse of history – the very ways of writing that historians use (generally simply because we were trained to) – plays a role in hiding the frequently subjective nature of the pursuit of the past and its essentially narrative quality. And even if only through its nature as this, as a vast network of shared narratives, a way for humans to mark significance to one another, history is indeed a potentially powerful force in our world.

However, importantly, what separates history from other stories is a question of framing. Any film can instantly change the way we watch and experience it with only five very small words. Behind virtually every historical book, film, documentary, novel and game the same five words are whispered into the ears of the audience, though quietly so as not to disturb: ‘based on a true story’. Of course, the real question lies in quite how far the word ‘based’ can be stretched, and what this means to different people at different times with different needs. This language game is of course where the debate about historical truth really lies.

Even the most postmodernist amongst us cannot deny that history always has at least some relation to truth. We may well believe that all historical narratives are inherently subjective, figurative and subject to the tropes and other pressures of narrative form. Yet, if we are to value history at all, we must accept that even if it cannot reveal absolute, comprehensive truths about the past, we certainly hope that the processes of representation will at least reveal comparative truths about the present. For if it played no role for us in the present or for our descendants in the future, what indeed would be the point of history at all? And of course, only the most extreme relativist positions would seek to deny the existence of the role of truth in history in its most familiar of guises: the fact.

As the sadly late and certainly great Alun Munslow long argued, history is inherently fictive. That is to say it is made up of both facts and necessary fictional narrative elements. Similarly, as his contemporary and co-founder of the excellent Rethinking History Journal, Robert Rosenstone, puts it in History on Film/Film on History: facts are “necessary (but not sufficient), for our understanding of the past” (2007, 592). Both scholars are huge figures in the development of the discourse of postmodernist history. Yet in opposition to the straw-men they have often been turned into, it is important to note that in their work the importance of facts (and thus evidence) to history is never in doubt. It is for this reason that postmodernism has never been about spurious and dangerous claims such as Holocaust denial. That said, it is also difficult to deny that the discourses of postmodernism, something originally intended to challenge the problematic and authoritarian narratives of hegemonic power, has been thoroughly perverted, purposely misused, and ultimately weaponised by a right-wing bent instead on re-inscribing these power structures through plain misinformation or ‘fake news’. This has even led some major postmodernist figures, such as Bruno Latour, to openly worry about the utility that their ideas have had to such regressive politics. 

Postmodernism and the Fictions of Truth

For my own part, I still believe that postmodernism has a value in historiography, and I hope my own work on historical games indicates this.Without these initial questions about subjectivity and power structures in the writing of history, would we still beat the point where we are increasingly and publicly beginning to revise long held narratives such as those concerning imperialism and colonialism? And when we see the existing and often disheartening resistance to these revisions, can we really conclude that the work of postmodernism is entirely done? This said, it is also useless to deny that ever more care is required for postmodernist ideas to be deployed properly in ways that question hegemonic power rather than reinforce it.

It is perhaps for this reason that postmodernism and wider concerns about the subjectivity and tropic nature of historical representation remain dirty words in some circles of historical thought. But I do think it is also important to point out that often the demonisation of these ideas comes not from an actual rejection of them but through an internalisation of them to the degree that they are no longer recognised as postmodernist. Many historians working today would not deny the subjectivities of representation and other such ideas that were championed by postmodernist thinkers. Yet many of those same scholars would blanche at being associated with the term. And in part this is due to the way that this school of thought has been characterised over the years. For most postmodernists, their work was never about the denial of the existence of facts so much as the acknowledgement that history is made up of so much more than this: a wonderfully complex bricolage of evidence and ever-hopeful induction, of uncertainty and authority, of idealism and ideology, of the why behind the what, of the search for universality amongst relativity, of pathos, tragedy and hope, of the assignment of value, of choices about exclusion and inclusion. And, of course, of the often engaging and creative kind of writing that gives a meaningful texture to the gaps between the frequently already narrativised evidence that is generally our main source of information about the people of the past. All are part and parcel of the historian’s craft, yet all have a much more nebulous relationship to the concept of truth than mere sentence long statements of fact.

So, facts alone cannot history make. But one more final complication, which I promise will lead us to actually talking about games (which, let’s be honest, is what you are actually here for). It is important to note that there is a difference between truth and facts. All facts are truths, but not all truths are facts. Or rather not all truths are communicated through facts. As Foucault would have it in Power/Knowledge,“the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth” (1980, 193). Surely it is this idea that must underpin all art, lest it become merely the superficial practice of creating pleasing aesthetics? And it is in this way that we can reconcile ourselves with history’s inherently fictive nature without necessarily excluding the possibility of some kind of truth (and this also helps us to escape the often-unhelpful binary relationships introduced by the literality of concepts such as ‘accuracy’).

I struggle to think of a better example of this than in contemporary historical games. Such games generally have an inherently metaphorical relationship to past action by communicating about it through the often-vast abstractions of contemporary gameplay.  Furthermore, like all popular media, concessions are made to the demands of the form, both in terms of drama and gameplay. Characters and events are compressed or invented, mythological elements are brought to life in order to explain historical mentalités and all other manner of different and necessary efforts are made to communicate about the past in ways that it did not actually happen for efficiency’s sake. Then of course there are the whole raft of economic and cultural pressures exerted on such games, which are after all generally intended to first and foremost be appealing, and thus sellable, products. But, even beyond these more obvious characteristics of the vast array of things we might call ‘historical games’, there are many examples that playfully combine the overtly historical with not only the fictional but also the plainly fantastical, taking the fictive nature of history to its most extreme conclusion. Yet such games can still make meaning about the past. Furthermore, they often do so with an inherent honesty, being typically unable to sustain any po-faced epistemological authoritarianism – instead quietly and implicitly stressing the word ‘based’ rather than ‘true’ in those five little words I mentioned earlier. The possibilities of such games is something I have tried to emphasise in my recent work in order to argue that historical game studies should include study of all games that use (or relate to) history, even when this is mixed with, for example, science fiction, horror or fantasy. After all, these games are still out there doing some kind of work in the world by communicating through historical imagery, narratives and ideas.

Moving Our Story Forward

This brings us rather neatly (if I do say so myself) to the first of our upcoming guests that will be discussing the topic of historical truth over the next month. Javier Rayón is the writer and director of Dream of Darkness,a gamecurrentlybeing developed in Mexico City. I will leave it up to him to tell you more about the game, but suffice to say that it probably qualifies as one of the kind of games I mentioned above in its mixture of Aztec history and Lovecraftian horror. Following this, we will have a post from Ylva Grufstedt, a postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University and a guest researcher at the University of Helsinki, who researches the various interplays between history and game design. Ylva’s recently completed PhD thesis examined the game design and design practices of counterfactual history in digital strategy games, a topic that has obvious connections to the possibilities of fiction functioning in truth. Our final guest for this quarter will be John Glancy, the Executive Producer for Schools and Families at Imperial War Museums where he manages a national programme that covers IWM’s five branches and online. John and his team are currently developing a new Holocaust Learning programme in collaboration with a leading digital studio and Olivier award winning dramaturg which will be launched in late 2021, a subject where obviously the stakes as to historical truth could not be any higher. As John’s creative practice is rooted in storytelling, he will also undoubtedly have some great insights as to the relationship between stories and history.

All our guests will be partaking in our discussion panel event on the 26th of May, which will no doubt bring up some really interesting issues and questions surrounding the meeting of games, play and historical truth. To read more about the event, click here.

So, all that remains is for me to sign-off on this (lengthy, sorry) first post by welcoming you all to our inaugural quarterly topic of the Historical Games Network and to say thank you to you all for visiting the site and engaging with our content. We really do hope that the HGN will mark a new era for conversations and research about historical games by including as many stakeholders as possible. But, of course, that won’t possible without the participation of you, our readers. So, a huge thank you to you all!  

Adam Chapman