"...digital games are creating new narratives that transform conceptual and visual representations of the past."
Students in Ortega's class played empire-building games where they were responsible for resource control and maintaining political power through conquest, trade, etc. The locations were real and the historical time periods were accurate, but the players' strategy and decision-making were merely imaginary and approximate. In order to really understand Alexander the Great's life and influence, for example, one would be better off reading scholarship on the subject. To delve into how empires and expansion developed over time, the instructor required various readings to help "students consider whether the games accurately reflected the complex relationship between acquiring resources, developing trading relationships, creating an ideology, and using force in building an empire" (p. 3). Reading primary sources provided a geographic and geopolitical grounding to the video game play.
One aspect of so-called historical game play that I have observed in our class play sessions as well as within my affinity group concerns how people are portrayed across cultures. In Small World, some characters belong to "lost tribes" - or even worse - "forgotten tribes". In Five Tribes, there are assassins and viziers, among others. These terms seem quaint and anachronistic in modern times. Regarding the term "barbarians" used in the video game Civilization V, Ortega says: "Clearly, this term demonizes people who live outside of settled society. It also endorses a particular system of social organization over another without any inquiry" (p. 3). When a race or a people is characterized as lesser-than, they become disposable. Is there a video game where the goal is to uplift or advance a weaker or marginalized population? Or do these weaker groups more often become an expendable, points-based means to an end? Ortega's class noticed that "success in the game is not achieved by negotiating with nomadic people but instead by destroying them. One of the students noted that the game entices the player to just eradicate the barbarians" (p. 3). Clearly, some lives in the game world are not as valuable as others.
The next component of historic credibility discussed here concerned military games that mirror current conflicts. This idea is so troubling to me, and yet I believe these kinds of video games are actually very popular. One example is Close Combat: First to Fight where, although the specific battle is fictional, the locations quite literally parallel combat locations in the Middle East where current military exercises have been ongoing for the last decade. To me, this feels like turning real life - a reality in which there is a constant and present threat to the actual, flesh and blood inhabitants of the game region - into entertainment.
"The idea of a virtual space that seeks to recreate the physical world while including a narrative on military intervention creates the illusion of a tangible, actionable reality that fails to consider historical and long-term political factors."
- What does it mean to act in a military role without having an understanding of the long-term politics in the place that they patrol the streets?
- How is the enemy depicted?
- By participating, are game players agreeing with the premise of a military occupation?
- Can a military occupation take place without demonizing the local population?
- Does a video represent a primary source on certain cultural attitudes towards how one participates in war? (Ortega, p. 5)
In other words, are video game players' world views being shaped by play?
Finally, the author acknowledges that history as an academic discipline requires "evidence-based representation". Therefore, when gamers are in the position of recreating their own version of historical events, places and interactions, it cannot be said that they are learning history. Rather, they are learning about "historical possibilities and to consider the issue of historical contingency" (p. 7). I do see a positive aspect to games, video or otherwise, that are situated in historical contexts. Popular culture and media can initiate an interest to study a historical subject more closely, perhaps in ways that traditional academic texts can't. Anything that sparks a desire to learn more is a good thing. While interactive, game-based learning can be an exciting way to learn for many students, Ortega warns that many games are not pedagogically sound because they "tend to be Euro-centered, focus principally on elites, serve to reinforce hard fast stereotypes, and in certain cases promote reductionist thinking" (p. 7). I admire the instructor's effort to supplement video game play with primary sources, so that the games themselves do not become those sources.