Today’s Present is Tomorrow’s History

If there’s anything that is constant, it’s that everything changes. Cities grow, villages disappear, buildings go up and buildings get destroyed. What is old makes place for the new. Add to this the destruction of war, natural disasters, and the effects of global warming, and we can see the natural and human landscapes that surround us change at an ever-faster pace.

The job of archaeologists and historians is to record these changes, figure out what came before, and make sure this knowledge is preserved for future generations. We do that by writing books, teaching classes, storing documents in archives and objects in museums, and recording the present through photography, oral histories, and documentaries. As of the last 40 years, we can also add video games to this list of heritage preservers.

In 2019, the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris caught fire. Widely reported on social media, people around the world saw Medieval history disappear before their very eyes. And although, luckily, most of the building could be rescued, large parts of its original roof and upper structures were destroyed forever. However, as people came together to mourn the loss, interesting articles started to pop up involving the video game Assassin’s Creed Unity, published in 2014. In this video game, set in revolutionary France, you explore large parts of Paris, including Notre-Dame, both from the outside and inside. In order to reconstruct the building for the game, the game designers used photographs and old videos to get an accurate representation of the Gothic architecture and its many details. And although the building in the game was definitely not a one-to-one copy of the original structure (concessions always need to be made when making historical sites fun to play in), enough is there to give players an idea of what the building looked like before the disastrous fire consumed large parts of it. 

The massive fire at Notre Dame in Paris in 2019 (Associated Press via Business Insider)
Notre Dame as represented in Assassin’s Creed: Unity (2014).

This is far from the only example. Age of Empires IV, released in October 2021, is an impressive showcase of what can be done when video game, history, education, and documentary come together. In the game, players take a journey through history, recreating important battles and encountering authentic cities and landmarks. The game is unique, in that each level is introduced by a National Geographic-style short documentary educating the player on the tactics used in a particular battle and showing short clips of how these cities and landmarks look in the modern day. One of the most intriguing battles you can recreate is “The Siege of Kiev”, which took place in 1240; a battle in which the Mongols destroyed the Rus and sacked the Ukrainian city of Kyiv. Watching the beautiful drone footage of the city of Kyiv pre-2020 is breathtaking and daunting at the same time. Filmed before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the beginning of 2022, the images still show a serene, unharmed city, with the 11th century St. Sophia Cathedral shining in the morning sun. These are perhaps some of the last high-resolution images taken of the city before the Russian destruction came; and they were made specifically for a video game. 

Besides preserving images of architectural heritage, video games are also conserving landscapes and even intangible heritage like music, folklore, and community traditions. In the Spring of this year, game developer and geographer Yuts published Norco, a point-and-click adventure set in (a fictional rendering of) the town of Norco in Louisiana. The scenery of the game is inspired by the real-life landscapes of the mighty Mississippi river banks with their oil refineries and industrial complexes lining the River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. According to Yuts, the game is “intended to be a composite look at not only the region in Louisiana, but also the Trump era.” The game is designed to be an exploration of the New Orleans landscapes, including the 20th– and 21st-century communities and cultures that it created. The game approaches themes like capitalism and the environmental destruction of the Southern American swamplands, while at the same time displaying scenes of town gentrification and fraying infrastructure. Conceivably, with the ever-increasing occurrences of hurricanes and floods, and with electricity taking over more and more of our daily energy needs, these could be the last snapshots of Southern living before the landscapes change forever, yet again.

The Louisiana landscape, as portrayed in the game Norco (2022) (image via The Historic New Orleans Collection)

When we think of historical video games, we often think about games that take place in ancient Rome or during World War II, or at some other site a long, long time ago. However, in an ever-changing world, games made only two years ago can already depict spaces that can no longer be accessed in the real world. And with players demanding more and more realism, and video game technology adapting to this demand (the first triple-A games made in the hyper-realistic Unreal Engine 5 are set to appear in 2023), it will not be uncommon for video games to become archival resources that historians and researchers can use to look back at the 21st-century past. As HGN stated: “Virtual environments can be representations of historical ones – functioning much as heritage or living history spaces do in reality.” 

So, what does this mean for museums and archives? Should we start collecting games in the same way we collect records, cassettes, or DVDs? And should we also start acquiring PCs and consoles so researchers can access these materials? Luckily, there are already dedicated museums and archives around the world which do exactly that. In a recent Play It Again talk, video game curators and researchers came together to discuss how video games can be preserved and made accessible to current and future researchers. The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, for example, has a collection of over 60,000 games, but they also collect the research materials that come with them: investigation reports, photographs, artistic designs, or academic articles talking about the games. Started in 2009, this museum has become one of the most important archives for video game research, and can be accessed by researchers from all over the world interested in both the content and context of thousands of games. Frank Cifaldi, who runs the non-profit Video Game History Foundation, started a research center and archival library in Oakland, California with the goal of preserving games and their contextual documentation, and giving access to whomever is interested. The University of Michigan started the Computer and Video Game Archive (CVGA), one of the largest academic archives of video games, and uses the collection in their academic teaching. These are just three of the many institutions around the world that have been established over the last decades, making sure virtual environments are being preserved and made accessible to academics, researchers, students, and the general public alike. 

The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY (image credit)

And thus, it seems we have come full-circle: in an ever-changing world, real environments have influenced virtual video games, and in return, games have now started to influence our real environment. Heritage institutes, like museums and archives, have a duty to collect, conserve, and preserve important pieces of human material and immaterial culture. It is my opinion that games are valuable historical, art-historical, and social experiences, which, among other things, can reveal society’s relationship to landscapes and other natural and man-made environments over time. As such, they are an essential part of our global heritage and deserve their place among our collections.

Dr Tine Rassalle currently works as curator at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE) in New Orleans. She’s an expert on the material culture of ancient Judaism and Christianity, with a specific focus on religious architecture and artifacts. Prior to joining MSJE, Tine earned a BA and MA in Archaeology of the Ancient Near East from Ghent University (Belgium), a BA in Hebrew and Aramaic Cultures from Leiden University (the Netherlands), and a PhD in Ancient Mediterranean Religions from UNC Chapel Hill (USA). Tine is also an avid archaeogamer and has been presenting and publishing on this topic for the past seven years.

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