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Using Games to Mediate History



An old Chinese proverb says "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand." More than any other medium, computer games have the intrinsic ability to involve their players in the world they depict; for they not only make us remember particular scenes we play, but also make us understand more of the world they involve us in. They are immersive, i.e. they make us forget the world around us, taking us away to a different place, a different life, or a different time.
Chapter 5 /
Using Games to Mediate
History / Connie Veugen
Egberts Bosma
(eds.), Companion to
European Heritage Revivals
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-
L. and K.
© The Author(s) 2014
Chapter 5 / Using Games to Mediate History / Connie Veugen
An old Chinese proverb says “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me
and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” More
than any other medium, computer games have the intrinsic
ability to involve their players in the world they depict; for they
not only make us remember particular scenes we play, but
also make us understand more of the world they involve us in.
They are immersive, i.e. they make us forget the world around
us, taking us away to a different place, a different life, or a
different time.
At the 2003 Digital Games Research Conference “Level Up”
in Utrecht (the Netherlands), one of the talks was about the
game MEDAL OF HONOR: FRONTLINE (2002). It compared
the game to the film SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) and the
TV mini-series BAND OF BROTHERS (2001). All three depict
the landing of Allied forces in Normandy in 1944 and the sub-
sequent events. Even though they are works of fiction, both
content and mise en scène are based on hours of research into
the real events and on many interviews with survivors. After
the talk, a member of the audience stood up and said that
although the film and the mini-series, as well as several docu-
mentaries about the invasion of Normandy he had seen, had
been very gripping, he had never really understood the “hor-
ror” of the actual invasion itself until he played the game. His
experiences as Lt. Jimmy Patterson fighting his way up Omaha
Beach had an enormous impact on his understanding of the
landing and left him with a lasting respect for the men who
sacrificed their lives in the undertaking. As he put it himself:
“When you see footage of the landing you really have no idea.
But when you have to try and get up that bloody beach, being
shot at, seeing your comrades die and dying yourself time and
again, then it definitively starts to sink in.” 1
The game MEDAL OF HONOR: FRONTLINE is a work of
fiction. Lt. Jimmy Patterson is a fictional character, like Tom
Hanks’ character Captain Miller in the film SAVING PRIVATE
RYAN. But as the above comment indicates, in the game one is
Companion / Part 2 / Revival Tools
Screen capture.
Florence, Cattedrale
di Santa Maria del
Fiore (Duomo) in
(Ubisoft Montreal,
Screen capture.
Finding your captain is
one of the first tasks
(Electronic Arts,
Chapter 5 / Using Games to Mediate History / Connie Veugen
not only invited to identify with Lt. Jimmy Patterson (or, in the
film, with Captain Miller); one also has to play as the character.
In that way games can add something to historical fiction that
other media cannot. Or as Guardian journalist Keith Stuart
put it: “games are the perfect medium for historical fiction –
through their unique interactivity, they don’t have to tell us
about life in previous ages, they can show us; and we can
live it.” 2 Of course there are other, more tactile, ways to “live”
history, such as re-enactment or experimental archaeology.
But these usually are not as easily accessible as games are.
Historical games
Historical games can be roughly grouped into two categories:
serious games and fictional games. Serious historical games
are educational: their primary purpose is to teach history.
In the past, such games were often produced by educational
publishers or created by teachers themselves. Nowadays,
educational games are often short, free-to-play games on the in-
ternet. Quite a few are produced by television channels as part
of their services for schools, such as the game BOW STREET
RUNNER (2008) 3 commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4. While
these games take historical accuracy seriously, they are explic-
itly made for the general public and thus are not very demand-
ing with respect to hardware or game skills. Often this leads
to their using simple graphics and animations, giving them
a cartoon-like appearance, a far cry from the more realistic
graphics of commercial games. Consequently, they usually
are visually less appealing and less immersive. The primary
purpose of commercial historical games is entertainment, but
this does not mean that they do not take historical accuracy
into account. Because gamers who prefer this genre value
truthful and realistic depiction, the historical accuracy of the
presentation is especially important in games like MEDAL OF
HONOR: FRONTLINE. The story, however, is fictional, and it
depends on the writers how much factual history is included.
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Consequently history is usually included when it adds to the
story, but most of the time it only functions as a backdrop for
the actions of the fictional characters.
One specific type of commercial historical game is the
“strategy game.” These games, echoing nineteenth century
tin-soldier war re-enactments, are specifically designed to
“restage” battlefields. But, unlike the games previously men-
tioned, this type emphasizes the player’s managerial and
strategic skills. In such games, restaging the invasion in
Normandy, for example, is about troop movements, managing
supplies, and trying to minimize losses. A historically accurate
mise en scène is less important, since the player is more
focussed on making the correct decisions needed to win the
battle. Consequently, just how the battle unfolds depends on
the decisions of the player, not on what actually happened.
But this aspect has its own appeal, since strategy games are
the ideal vehicle for “what if”-scenarios. In the BBC television
program TIME COMMANDER (2003 2005), a strategy game
was used in which two teams of players “refight” famous
historical battles such as the Battle of Trebia (Carthage versus
Rome). After the game, two military specialists analysed the
performance of the players and explained how the actual
historical battle unfolded. War is only one of the subjects
presented in strategy games. Many are about discovery and
settlement or about trade, again often in an historical setting.
And even though they are historically perhaps less accurate
than games like MEDAL OF HONOR: FRONTLINE, playing any
of THE PATRICIAN GAMES (1992 2011) does teach one about
the Hanseatic League and the main products that were traded
in its various port cities.
The main difference between games like MEDAL OF
is that the former is a so-called “game of progression,” that is to
say, a game in which the story “drives” the actions of the player.
Strategy games are games of emergence, games where, given
the input of the player, the rules of the game determine what
happens next, and thus the game designer can force the player
Chapter 5 / Using Games to Mediate History / Connie Veugen
to go through certain experiences. IN MEDAL OF HONOR:
FRONTLINE the player has to fight his way through the Omaha
beach landing in order to be able to play on. For many, this
means dying and retrying several times, hence the remark of
the player at the Level Up conference. Because the designer
ultimately determines what happens next, these games can
include more accurate historical scenes, such as the invasion
of Normandy.
Apart from commercial games like MEDAL OF HONOR:
FRONTLINE, where historical accuracy is important (though
not as important as the entertainment aspect), there are also
commercial games that use a historical time period only as
a backdrop for the story and gameplay. This does not neces-
sarily mean that their mise en scène is pure fantasy. Just as
some films and television series try to give as accurate a
vision of a certain period as possible, so some game producers
strive for a similar accuracy in their games.4 One such a
company is Ubisoft, which, with its ASSASSIN’S CREED series
(2007 present), has set a high standard in recreating historical
locations. Their meticulous recreation of past eras is exact-
ly what has made these games so successful. The periods
depicted in the main games are the Third Crusade (1191), as
experienced by the assassin Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, then Renais-
sance Italy (1476 1507) and Constantinople (1511 1512), as
seen through the eyes of Ezio Auditore da Firenze and, finally,
the American Revolutionary War (1753 1783), as experienced
by Connor Kenway.
The dedication to historical accuracy is evident from the
fact that the ASSASSIN’S CREED design teams consist not
only of writers and designers; they also have a team historian
who is an expert on the period and historical events being
depicted. This shows Ubisoft’s commitment to making the
physical settings and characters as historically accurate as
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Chapter 5 / Using Games to Mediate History / Connie Veugen
possible. In the first game, for instance, when Altaïr approaches
the city of Acre, the discerning gamer will notice the siege
marks left by Richard the Lionhearted (evidence of a historical
event that took place in July 1191). Besides the many corpses,
we see small palisade walls used by the siege army and build-
ings that have been damaged or were completely destroyed by
the siege engines. Beyond drawing on the knowledge brought
to the game by the team historian, the team also visits the ac-
tual locations involved, taking thousands of photographs and
hours of video footage, which they then compare to historical
records. For example, when doing research on Florence for
ASSASSIN’S CREED II (2009), lead writer Corey May read
Machiavelli’s History of Florence. Consequently, elements such
as the Vasari corridor and the Uffizi were not included in the
game, as they had not been built at the time. One exception the
team made concerns the Duomo. Although the building itself
was completed in 1436, the exterior was not completed until
1887, but since most people know the Duomo only in its com-
pleted form, the team decided to forego historical accuracy and
show the building as it looks today, to make the landmark, and
thus Florence, more easily recognisable for the modern player.
While the accuracy of the historical settings in the initial
game seems to be more important than the historicity of the
events themselves, as the series progresses we see the game’s
protagonists becoming increasing involved in the “actual
history.” In ASSASSIN’S CREED II (2009), for instance, the
murder of Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici, which took place in
the Piazza del Duomo on 26 April 1478, is part of the game-
play. Still, the historical events in the games are made to fit
around the overall ASSASSIN’S CREED story, not the other way
round. Thus one may well view the ASSASSIN’S CREED games
in the light of Honoré de Balzac’s saying that “Il y a deux
histoires: l’histoire officielle, menteuse, puis l’histoire secrète,
où sont les véritables causes des événements.” (“There are two
histories: the official history, full of lies, and the secret history,
where the true causes of events are found.”) All the same,
history is important to the players of ASSASSIN’S CREED.
From left to right,
top to bottom:
Screen capture.
Florence, Cattedrale
di Santa Maria del
Fiore (Duomo) in
II (Ubisoft Montreal,
Florence, Cattedrale
di Santa Maria del
(Connie Veugen,
Screen capture.
Florence, Basilica
di Santa Croce in
(Ubisoft Montreal,
Florence, Basilica
di Santa Croce (Con-
nie Veugen, 2013).
Screen capture.
Florence, Basilica
di San Lorenzo in
Ubisoft Montreal,
Florence, Basilica
di San Lorenzo (Con-
nie Veugen, 2013).
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When asked what inspired ASSASSIN’S CREED’s gamers to
learn more about their historical settings, Maxime Durand,
team historian for ASSASSIN’S CREED III replied:
“People truly experience History by being able to navigate,
fight and interact with their environment, in a manner not pos-
sible in movies or books. Plus, we give players access to an in-
game encyclopaedia that sums up our knowledge. In the end,
a lot of people are curious to know more or even to challenge
our research efforts. We find that truly inspiring for us and our
audience and it makes us strive to always go a step higher.”5
And as game designer Charles Cecil argues, history itself can
be engaging. Whether it appeals or not depends on what the
designers make of it:
“If the history resonates with the audience then a heightened
sense of drama can be built, and the immersion enhanced
through authenticity. And, to be honest, wonderful, dramatic
history is so exhilarating that it would often be harder to in-
vent anything more exciting. But get it wrong, and the oppo-
site effect is achieved and the use of history can feel irrelevant
and clichéd.”6
Screen capture.
Florence, Palazzo
CREED II (Ubisoft
Montreal, 2009).
Florence, Palazzo
Vecchio (Connie
Veugen, 2013).
Chapter 5 / Using Games to Mediate History / Connie Veugen
In ASSASSIN’S CREED Ubisoft did succeed in creating a
succesful mix of historical accuracy and immersive gameplay.
This success has not escaped the attention of teachers, who
have found that ASSASSIN’S CREED II, especially, can be a
valuable tool for informing their students about Renaissance
history, art and architecture.7 The game has also inspired many
(young adult) fans to visit the cities in Italy which feature in it.8
Alternate reality games
In the past few years a new type of game has emerged that
uses the internet and social media: the “alternate reality
game.” Imagine yourself faced with the kinds of tasks and
puzzles Professor Robert Langdon was faced with in
The Da Vinci Code (2003). Of course, you can do that in
THE DA VINCI CODE (2007) computer game, but wouldn’t it
be much more fun to be able to solve the puzzles at the ac-
tual sites, just as Langdon and Sophie Nevue did in the book?
When playing an alternate reality game, you can, since it is a
narrative game spread through several (social) media as well
as the real world. The interesting part from a maker’s point
of view is that alternate reality games can be scaled up or
down depending on the environment the story is set in and, of
course, the budget available. For the players, such games ap-
peal because they resemble treasure hunts and because one
usually needs other players to succeed, just as Robert Langdon
needed Sophie.
Of course, the success of an alternate reality game, like
that of any other narrative game, depends on the appeal of the
can serve as examples. In ASSASSIN’S CREED BROTHER-
the players find a set of coordinates that point to a particular
area in New York State. On several of the many ASSASSIN’S
CREED Internet forums players discussed the location of the
coordinates, and those living in the vicinity volunteered to
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check out what was there (as Google Maps did not provide
enough detail). In ASSASSIN’S CREED INITIATES, a new
2012 browser-based game, the coordinates reappear as indi-
cating a possible hiding place. And in ASSASSIN’S CREED III
it turns out that it is the site of an ancient temple which the
assassins need to explore. The ASSASSIN’S CREED INITIATES
game itself uses many alternate reality game characteristics
to involve the player community, most notably collective in-
telligence. Sometimes the collective intelligence puzzles are
simple, requiring, for example, the decoding of Morse code or
the translation of Italian newspaper articles. But in one partic-
ular instance the fans were confronted with a Latin text which
turned out to be lines from a relatively obscure volume by
17th century poetess Elisabeth Jane Weston. Fortunately, one
of the players had the necessary skills to ferret this out.
THE DA VINCI CODE shows how alternate reality games
can be used to combine actually existing places with a dis-
persed 9 narrative, as when Langdon and Sophie have to travel
to several historical places to finally solve the code. The initial
clue could, for instance, be incorporated in a Paris tour guide.
In alternate reality games these kinds of clues are called
“rabbit holes,” since they lead the players into the story. Such
clues could, of course, also be placed in an e-mail, on a Face-
book page, on the website of a museum or historical site, or
in a brochure. They could even be part of the explanatory text
in an exhibition or tour. As a great many people now have a
smartphones, site-based clues and puzzles can easily be com-
bined with information to be found on the internet.10 In London
(another important location in THE DA VINCI CODE), players
could be directed to Temple Church to find a particular sym-
bol on the tomb of the knight whose oath led to the signing
of the Magna Carta. The symbol could then be photographed
and sent to a specific e-mail address, which, in turn, leads on
to the next puzzle. Contrary to the traditional treasure hunt,
however, the clues should not lead to a physical award. Rather,
they enable the players to piece the story’s parts together, with
the final piece leading to the story’s conclusion. Naturally, the
Chapter 5 / Using Games to Mediate History / Connie Veugen
actual places, buildings, and artefacts within the alternate
reality games should, ideally, also tie in meaningfully with the
story, as they did in THE DA VINCI CODE and the ASSASSIN’S
CREED games.
Commercial alternate reality games can be very elaborate,
involving thousands of players, as in the case of THE ART
OF THE HEIST (2005), which was used to introduce the new
Audi A3. Yet, as already mentioned, alternate reality games
do not have to be quite as elaborate and expensive as these
examples. Three years ago, for instance, students in the game
design course at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
(Hogeschool van Amsterdam) were asked to design a game
to familiarize children with the Amsterdam Public Library. One
team designed a game which combined alternate and aug-
mented reality.
11 They came up with the story of a cute little
alien who, like ET, is stranded on earth and needs the children’s
help to return home. In order to play the game, the children
had to go to the library building and use the library system to
find cards with QR codes. These cards could be hidden at a
specific place within the building, but they could also be hid-
den in a particular book. Once a card was found, the children
could take it to one of the library’s computers to scan it with a
webcam. On the screen they saw the table on which they had
placed the QR card, but instead of the card they saw the little
alien talking to them and showing them how this card helped
him repair his spacecraft (the augmented reality bit). When the
final card was scanned, the alien said a tearful goodbye and
flew away in his spacecraft. As all the physical elements, apart
from the QR cards, were already present, the main cost of this
game was programming the actual code and making the short
films. In this case the QR codes were used to tell the story
of the little alien, but they can also be used, for instance, to
access short (historical) films at the actual places where the
events occurred.
Something similar happens in the alternate reality game
LOST IN TIME (2012) by Tempeest.12 This game, which takes
place in a real Dutch city, revolves around the story of a young
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hacker called Thijmen who has stolen a time machine (a
converted iPad). Thijmen uses the tablet to travel through his-
tory. But in doing so he changes history, jeopardizing his own
and other people’s futures. The players, also using a tablet
time machine, wander (or run, depending on the mini-game
they are playing) through the streets of the city trying to fi nd
Thijmen and to restore history (when they succeed). The game
takes them to historical sites where videos not only tell part
of Thijmen’s story, but also provide them with accurate infor-
mation concerning the location. Clearly, this alternate reality
game is quite similar to the previous one, relying as it does
on a real setting, a computer program, and pre-recorded video
fragments that play at specifi c locations. But LOST IN TIME is
more interactive, because the players have to play mini-games
in the city. Since the game could function as promotional
material for the city it is based in, the locations and data in-
cluded are determined by agreement, thus helping to assure
their historical accuracy.
(courtesy of
Chapter 5 / Using Games to Mediate History / Connie Veugen
History based games and violence
From the above it may seem that most history-based games are
about war, battles, and killing. This does hold true for a majority
of the strategy games, which are our modern day equivalent of
the tin-soldier war games. However, in these new games the
gamer is given an overview of the battlefield, because this is
the best perspective for moving armies, building defences, etc.
Although actual fighting is not shown in them, games such as
CRUSADER KINGS II (2012) have an age rating of 13 and older
as they may contain violence and minimal bloodshed.
The ASSASSIN’S CREED games belong to a genre that
encompasses all kinds of subjects: adventure, science fiction,
fantasy, etc. Most of these games do not rely on particularly
violent plots (except, of course, those based on a horror story),
and most of them are not set in the past. Players of the
ASSASSIN’S CREED games do not play them because it is
Some of the LOST
IN TIME players
during a business
outing (courtesy of
Companion / Part 2 / Revival Tools
“cool” to be an assassin and kill people. They play them be-
cause they love the historical setting, the great stories, and the
many mysteries which the games include. Ezio is the favourite
protagonist of most of them, because his motives to kill are
entirely credible, especially since he starts off as a trouble-free
youth of 17 who does not choose to become an assassin; his
destiny is thrust upon him the day his father and brothers are
hanged before his eyes. As the game proceeds, however, his
thirst for revenge diminishes; he grows older and wiser and, in
the end, he does not kill the man responsible for his family’s
cruel fate.
The only game genre that actually is about weapons and
killing is the “shooter,” of which MEDAL OF HONOR: FRONT-
LINE is an example. The natural environment for this kind of
game is a war zone, and the two most popular series in this
genre, MEDAL OF HONOR (1999 – present) and CALL OF DUTY
(2003 present) both started with a game set in World War II.
Time travel in the
centre of Utrecht
(courtesy of
Chapter 5 / Using Games to Mediate History / Connie Veugen
Of the two, the former seems to be more historically accurate.
This is not surprising given that the series was originated by
the well-known film producer and director Steven Spielberg.
But as the years have passed their players have become less
interested in historical battles. Consequently, both series have
become less focused on the historical setting and more so on
fighting and warfare itself. The latest games in both series
are thus set in current war zones such as Afghanistan and
Somalia, and the stories now revolve around counter-terrorism.
Other popular series in the genre, such as GEARS OF WAR
(2006 – present) and HALO (2001 – present), are not about
history at all, but take place in the future.
Playing with history
One of today’s major pastimes is playing computer games.
It is, therefore, quite understandable why games increasingly
are used to interest a younger audience in history, and as the
success of the ASSASSIN’S CREED’s games shows, “playing”
with history does not have to be boring. But successful
commercial games focused on history are not by themselves
sufficient to reach this goal, as the accuracy of their historical
data varies. Fortunately, alternatives such as alternate reality
games are possible. Their appeal lies not only in the fact that
they are social games which can combine present and his-
torical time, as well as data and images; their scalability also
makes it feasible to create tailor-made versions of them centred
on specific heritage sites.
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