The Future of Games in the Past

In her article a few months ago, Brie Code outlined her ideal future for video games. The full essay is worth reading, but you can get the conclusion from her final sentences:

…we want to break out of established paradigms. We want to think about ideas from different angles and draw on different references… We want games about how each of us could be in the future, how the world could be in the future. We want games built on compassion and respect and fearlessness.

That might seem chastising to current developers, or a quixotic crusade against the modern game climate, or even just plain inexperienced (though that last point is easily proven false). But, I believe Code is genuine in her pursuit of games with greater meaning. It’s a vision I admire and subscribe to.

And thankfully, we’re not alone. From Gone Home, to Her Story, to Firewatch, a branch of indie games have become more personal, more emotional, and more candid than those from a decade ago. So how can we continue along this path, to engage in a broader human conversation?

One answer that many indie developers ignore is right behind them: the past.

The Importance of History

Collective knowledge of our past is vital for humanity. But smarter people than me can convince you of that. I think the most concise arguments come from The History Standards Project, co-chaired by Gary Nash and Charlotte Crabtree, which gives three main reasons for studying history.

The first is societal:

Knowledge of history is the precondition of political intelligence. Without history, a society shares no common memory of where it has been, what its core values are, or what decisions of the past account for present circumstances…

Essentially, we can’t be good, informed, democratic citizens without knowledge of the past. We owe it to each other to learn about historical decisions and judge their efficacy to better determine our collective path forward. As one ancient king so famously said: “What has happened before will happen again”. And we should probably know about it!

But history is just as important on an individual scale:

Historical memory is the key to self-identity, to seeing one’s place in the stream of time, and one’s connectedness with all of humankind. We are part of an ancient chain, and the long hand of the past is upon us — for good and for ill — just as our hands will rest on our descendants for years to come…

If we lose connection with our historical community, our own place in time seems trivial, and our accomplishments meaningless. Knowledge of our ancestors, their struggles, and their triumphs gives us a stable base for our current lives.

Though it isn’t just our own ancestors. Learning about history includes discovering other cultures, which is a path towards togetherness:

From a balanced and inclusive world history students may gain an appreciation both of the world’s many peoples and of their shared humanity and common problems. Students may also acquire the habit of seeing matters through others’ eyes and come to realize that they can better understand themselves as they study others, as well as the other way around.

History is a topic that’s important to society, to the individual, and that leads to embracing and accepting our cultural differences. It seems like a great starting point for the “future games” Code described.

History Needs Games

Unfortunately for historians, most people stop exploring the topic in high school, and many of their lessons are forgotten beyond puberty. Games can make any subject engaging, and immersing players inside a historical world might be our best tool for provoking questions in a massive audience.

Let me pause here. I don’t mean just a historical setting. Many games, AAA and indie alike, have used history as a backdrop. That’s useful in itself, as it encourages further learning, which will lead to all the wonderful societal, individual, and community growth that Nash and Crabtree told us about. But if a person doesn’t explore beyond their entertainment, much of those teachings are lessened or completely omitted.

Games can explore history more completely, without needing further research. Our audiences, unlike those of textbooks or novels or documentaries or cinema, can interact. Our players can poke and prod at the world while being a part of it. Allowing the players to question historical norms can lead to different perspectives — and they can take that new understanding into their current lives.

Let me give you an example from my own upcoming game — set in America’s Roaring ’20s. The national prohibition of alcohol was a big deal in that decade, and led to many social problems, including police overreach and an unprecedented rise in organized crime. But a lot of smart people favoured the law, citing everything from alcohol’s affect on the youth to the horrors of addiction. Having my players explore this debate — to question both sides of the argument — leaves them with an innate understanding of the problems of the time. But it also dovetails perfectly into North America’s current prohibition of marijuana and opioids. My players will have more context for the new debate, informed by our common memory as a society.

Games Need History

1920s America has a lot of themes that still resonate today, but it’s far from the only time period worth exploring. Homosexuality in ancient Greece, socialism in the USSR, the occupation of colonial India. The references don’t even have to be real: there are myths and legends and fairytales all waiting to be explored.

Yet many indie teams decide on interchangeable medieval fantasy. Or futuristic space wars. Or desolate zombie wastelands. I love some fantasy sword smashing, and some epic space operas, and some zombie ass-kicking. And it’s not that those settings can’t communicate important themes, too. But gamers are inundated with these environments. In an era where visibility is the biggest hurdle for most developers, having a unique premise can be critical.

Imagine a Zelda-clone, but instead of fantasy-themed, set in South Carolina before the American civil war. That game would need to engage social issues that are still relevant, and its players would learn about the complex racial history of America’s Deep South. These topics might seem frightening to tackle — what if you don’t treat them correctly? There is no perfect representation of every angle, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be part of the conversation. As Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail points out, “fear doesn’t produce the best work one can create. Not in art, not in games”.

The beauty of history is that it’s a shortcut to deep lore and verisimilitude. There’s no world-building required — just engage with the source material that’s already been made available. You suddenly have a unique place, bursting with politics, religion, individual struggles, and social problems.

As Dan Carlin often mentions, human history is beyond ancient — the Babylonians had archaeologists to dig up societies that existed thousands of years before their own time. Let’s make use of these endless settings!

The Future in the Past

As we round into 2017, with a world in desperate need of human growth and compassion, we can look to the past for guidance. For games to engage in this global discussion, developers can also turn to our collective history as inspiration. It will make for unique experiences, moulded by each developer’s own history, in a medium well suited for smart debate.

A good future for games can be found in the past.

Background image of Trinity College by Amanda Gansfield







One response to “The Future of Games in the Past”

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    Alice gansfield