A Debate on Historical Accuracy in Game Design

With the announcement of the newest Assassin’s Creed game, came a bit of controversy courtesy of PETA. In the next title taking place during the 18th century, players will participate in piracy along with the act of whaling. Whaling as many people know still goes on today which animal rights groups protest.

While many people dismissed this as PETA being PETA there is an important question that the industry should ask: Is there a line for history accuracy in games?


Remembering the Past:

The issue of representing the violent acts in our history is relatively new to the industry, as graphical fidelity has grown in leaps and bounds over the last two decades. Once, the most violence we had was a few pixels of blood to today with full on dismemberment and carnage.

Let’s face facts: the history of the world was not a happy go lucky time. There are so many examples of violence and cruelty throughout history. Beyond just the acts committed, the treatment of people leaves a lot to be desired for.

Whenever any medium chooses to look at one of the many dark stains of history there are always people who condemned the production and say that these events should stay in the past.

A famous saying by George Santayana:”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is a timeless quote and a defense of whenever someone wants to talk about the dark side of history. One point that people were bringing up in defense of PETA was on the concept of child soldiers and if it would be ok to kill children in games if whaling was acceptable.

The most important aspect whenever you look back at history is that you have to keep yourself unbiased: you can’t apply a modern view to the past. There was a time where it was sadly considered normal for slavery to be going on and that women could be burned at the stake for any number of reasons.

The subject of having children as enemies and killing them has always been touchy in the game industry. The only times where it was deemed somewhat passable was if the children were considered monstrous or no longer human.

Looking back at history, there were times when children were either conscripted or enlisted into service such as during World War 1 or the Spanish Civil War. If a game was going for historical accuracy during these periods, showing children fighting and dying would be acceptable.

While I’m on the side of having historical accuracy there is another important point to talk about: Are video games the correct medium for this?

The Entertainment Line:

The usual goal of most video games is to engage the user and provide entertainment. Outside of edutainment titles, the user is likely not going to get any education on the subject matter or historical aspect.

Assassin's Creed

There were some debates about being able to kill the Little Sisters in Bioshock. But due to how they were represented in the plot, the argument was dismissed

Being engaged by the game, the player is usually given an exaggerated sense of living during that time, such as a soldier who cannot die as easily as people did during that period.

With that said I do feel that the video game medium does have a line both from our audience and our products on what should be represented historically in a game. As without any limits there is one very dark conclusion that we can reach.

I’m now going to ask one of the most disturbing questions I think I’ll ever say in my life: How many people would play a game about accurately simulating the running of a Nazi concentration camp?

It pains me to say that as someone whose mind constantly thinks of game design that thoughts immediately popped into my head about game mechanics for such a title.

The point of contention is how the event is being displayed within the game. As we’ve talked about, video games usually exaggerate the player’s involvement in a historical situation. If the designers are trying to create a commercial product that shows these events in a positive light or rewards the player for committing them, I feel that crosses a line.

Going back to that quote from earlier, history deserves to be remembered, but being “profit from” is another matter entirely. Another interesting debate that exists is if nonprofit games developed to show these events in full detail would elicit a different response.

A few years ago my friend Corvus Elrod wrote a post on his old blog about the challenge of creating a game about the theme of slavery, without directly referencing the historical period. It was an interesting piece as the concept did not take place on Earth but on an imaginary planet. However the mechanics present in the game were related to the same elements that were indicative of slavery in real life.

Returning to the Assassin’s Creed article, I highly doubt that the developers are going to be showing whaling as anymore than the actual use of the time. Given that the Assassin’s Creed series has already focused on several other time periods the designers should be accustomed to avoiding glamorizing any potentially polarizing events.

As always, I end these debate by turning the spotlight on you, is every part of history a plausible source for game concepts, or should there be limits?