At the risk of stating the obvious and revisiting an often-addressed point of interest in historical game studies: game design and gameplay both problematize and upend history. By most definitions of agency and gameplay, surrendering any amount of control to the player is, well, the whole point. The results of playing, then, are degrees of difference in gaming experiences of the past that can range from minor shifts in inert details to dramatically varying outcomes of otherwise accepted historical events and processes. In other words, historical representations created through play rarely look the same the second time around.
The most obvious examples of this unwieldy phenomenon are games that deal with “what-if?” questions, also known as alternate or counterfactual history games. I have recently explored the intersection of counterfactual history, uses of history and game design for my PhD and upcoming book, by interviewing game developers of digital strategy games. Based on this work, and for the benefit of the Historical Truth theme, I will here discuss counterfactuals to speak more on the inherent contradictions between the use of history for game design, and the unavoidably counterfactual outcomes of play.
On the question of historical truth in this context (without going too far into chaos theory and possible worlds), from a strictly philosophical-logical standpoint, counterfactual historical thought experiments can be neither historically true nor historically false because they have not happened. This inherent absurdity of historical counterfactuals, I find, very clearly points to how difficult it is to map their meaning onto existing understandings of the nature of history. This does not mean that they do not have meaning, it just means that we may need to adjust the questions we ask.
So, if the notion of truth (or falsehood) in this context is insufficient to fully understand these games, what kind of history is counterfactual game-history, and what can be learned from studying it? In the following, I offer some brief thoughts on where one might begin to make sense of it and argue that counterfactual histories, especially in games, are products of historical culture and design values, above all.
Premise 1: Counterfactual scenarios are representations of conjecture and historical cultural values
In Altered Pasts (2013), distinguished historian (and notorious counterfactual sceptic) Richard Evans maintains that while the popularity and existence of counterfactual history is a phenomenon worthy of study in its own right, it is of little use for the serious study of the past. This, he argues, invalidates counterfactual history as history at face value (particularly as an empirical method), in part because of how counterfactuals can destabilise the notion of truth and be used in bad faith. Ultimately, Evans surmises that the meaning of counterfactual history is always first and foremost a reflection of the biases and values of the author, and its value as little more than fiction.
While Evans makes important points, I often refer to Christopher Prendergast’s response to Evans because of the astute distinction he offers between these key concepts. In Counterfactuals: Paths of the Might Have Been, Prendergast notes that:
Historical counterfactuals are not aids to understanding the boundaries that separate the domains of the factual and the fictional; what they assist is our understanding of the boundaries between the factual and the counterfactual.(Prendergast 2019, 9)
Consider for a moment the way Prendergast defines the relationship between the fictional and counterfactual, so often lumped together as antonyms of fact or truth. By framing the notion of “fact” as the use of historical reference, he effectively understands counterfactuals as having much more of a relationship to fact than to fiction. In other words, counterfactual uses of history are less concerned with evaluating the validity of historical scholarship, and more so a vehicle for engaging with historical events in the present. As theoretical as some of this is, it seems that counterfactual history can be understood as a distinct type of historical thinking that is based on (factual) historical references. It is a subtle distinction but one that opens the topic of counterfactuals up to earnest critique of their representation in games.
On the one hand, based on my interactions with developers I note that engaging with counterfactual history in this particular way seems to be a significant prerequisite of game design work, and of maintaining a sense of believability despite the unpredictability of gameplay. I recognize these practices as closely related to historical culture – that is, manifestations of a society’s need to attach values and hierarchies to memory and historical events. It is convenient to make games about the Second World War, for example, because of its historical cultural significance. This lens reveals, perhaps counterintuitively, that a baseline predictability is central, even when dealing with counterfactuals.
On the other hand, if conjecture is partly dependent on mutual understandings of the past, it is also dependent on mutual understandings of what historical games should be. Design work is framed by the material and immaterial practicalities of game making, including the significant influence of convention. One could therefore argue that counterfactuals in games both rely on, and perpetuate, historical events and understandings as hegemonic for reasons that on some level have very little to do with the past.
As game scholars, we recognize that conjecture is an instrumental aspect of gameplay itself: in playing and learning the rules we can assume certain outcomes. However, part of the value of playing, theoretically and according to Jesper Juul in The Art of Failure (2013), is being challenged on those assumptions. This is where game designers and content designers come in. When studying the manifestation of historical culture through games, author biases and intentions present themselves as an opportunity to study how games metabolize historical understanding through counterfactual gameplay and designed outcomes.
Premise 2: Counterfactual history in games is dependent on design and convention, not simulation
My interest in game design and history specifically began from what I perceived to be an understudied perspective on the building blocks of history and games, under-the-hood of content and form. At the time, academic discussion about historical game design seemed firmly focused on defining how and when games aligned – or did not align – with certain ”historian-approved” versions the past. This seemed to somewhat maintain a false dichotomy between the authoritative, written text as the History, and popular history as not-history, again without fully acknowledging the inherent problems of the comparison.
However, coming from the perspective of historical culture and uses of history, the distinction between the two seemed rather straightforward. Games certainly do history differently, and rely on counterfactual history in part because of reasons we can trace back to the broader history of games itself. So, rather than trying to reconcile this disconnect, the case can be made for investigating it head on.
The recent upswing in developer studies, game industry research, and game design praxiology perspectives is currently having an incredibly fruitful impact on our ability to frame game design and history, including counterfactuals. As we know from important recent studies on developers of historical games (including the work of Esther Wright, Chris Kempshall, and Emil Lundedal Hammar), the developers’ historical frame-of-reference plays a significant role in historical game design.
Game developers have a nuanced understanding of what parts of history (and counterfactual history) to make games about and how to package it. They are also keenly familiar with game culture and can actively seek to avoid or spark ethical, economic, and political debates. Developers also bank on a player’s familiarity with certain historical events, persons or developments. Simultaneously, players expect to be challenged, and be able to challenge these outcomes through play.
This, I argue, is a consequence of the historical conventions of game design. Among the most popular historical game series, developers like Paradox (Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron), EA DICE (Battlefield) and Ubisoft (Assassin’s Creed) have been using a similar design formula for at least 15-20 years. With a certain design heritage comes certain design expectations, which in turn encourages certain expectations from players in terms of content or form, or both. For example, the Assassin’s Creed games focus on the players’ ability to influence the course of history and save the world from certain darkness. Here, the use of counterfactual history is to make a crucial narrative point but one that ultimately has limited influence over the core Assassin’s Creed history – a conservative and digestible version of the development of civilisation. Strategy games, in turn, invite players to fully develop their own versions of the past. Each play session is a counterfactual history in and of itself. However, in part due to design constraints and historical conventions of design, the rules of play steer gameplay towards conventional histories.
It seems that counterfactual history occupies a very particular place in the intersection between familiarity (canonical, hegemonic historical culture) and unpredictability (the dominant value of gameplay). Ultimately, game design work is an opportunistic endeavour. Whilst idealistic opportunities for thinking about games’ potential as historical simulations does a lot of heavy lifting in game studies, I think it bears reminding that counterfactuals in games are, to some extent, contingent on dominant design values.
On the obligation of games to be more than games
Here I make the case for a design and design-work oriented approach to counterfactuals in games. I do this on the premise that games need gameplay to work, which inescapably infers a fascinating multiplicity to scenarios of the past in games. Nevertheless, one needs to be quite careful when invoking them to discuss historical causality because not all counterfactuals are made equal. Different games do counterfactuals differently, on different levels, and for different purposes. Additionally, counterfactual historical scenarios in games can be tropic and occasionally heavily dependent on notions of nostalgia or lamentations of lost glory days. Some historical events are never – or very rarely – used as fodder for counterfactual history and gameplay. Thus, the nuts and bolts of counterfactuals (not just in games but overall) can still tell us a lot about uses of history and historical culture. Conversely, they can tell us a lot about games, design, and gamers as well.
Developers are aware of their role as facilitators of historical design frameworks, as well as being vessels of historical understandings themselves. They intentionally engage in academic jargon, hire historians and other experts, and rely heavily on the (reasonable) assumption that there exists a shared frame of reference. Games and game developers never really try to do history with the same goal as historians, thus the ultimate epistemological difference between the two (if we can meaningfully speak on it, and I am not entirely convinced that we can) perhaps comes down to method and intent.
The critical investigation of the subtleties and scaffolding of counterfactuals – with potential future implications for historical and gamic epistemology as well, to be sure – can therefore only be beneficial to historical game studies going forward.
Ylva Grufstedt is a postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University and a guest researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her main research interests are the various interplays of history and game design. She obtained her doctoral degree at the University of Helsinki in 2020 with a research project on the game design and design practices of counterfactual history in digital strategy games. She is currently a part of the Playable Concepts project that addresses game design tools and games as partial and embedded in textual contexts. She also studies historians as integrated or outegrated experts in making games about the past.
Her book, Shaping the Past: Counterfactual History and Game Design Practice in Digital Strategy Games, is forthcoming from De Gruyter.