How Historical Accuracy Became a Euphemism


#1

When developer DICE revealed that Battlefield V would feature playable female soldiers, depicting them as fighting on the front lines of World War 2, there was a swift and predictable backlash. Taking issue on the grounds of historical accuracy, there was a particular group of players who vehemently argued that women almost never served in regular combat on the Western Front.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/3k9wmw/how-historical-accuracy-became-a-euphemism

#2

Hey! Don’t bring me into this!


#4

As someone who comes from a history background (kinda – undergraduate is the furthest I have gotten and plan to go in my education), this article is a great read about a trend in the ongoing nightmare culture war that is Online Discourse I’ve struggled to put into words – Reeve does a great job of encapsulating it through a handful of precise examples.

I feel compelled to spotlight a few quotes to incentivise those of you who haven’t clicked on that link up top to do so, because I’d love to see more work focus on history-on-games, as a massive dork:

[…] The fact is that we can only grasp at what actually happened by examining a variety of biased opinions and incomplete evidence about the past. This means that it can even be a good thing when games create a bit of historical controversy. Players just need to be open to seeing the past from a new perspective.

It’s also revealing that battles about “historical accuracy” so often about race and gender, and never about things like armies of Ptolemaic Egypt looking more like they belong in Age of Mythology than Total War, or the fact that Battlefield V shows V-1 rockets being used as tactical support weapons in 1940?

I think history as a discipline is often ill-treated by its supposed adherents, particularly amateur folks who assertive normativity in place of the flexibility the discipline requires.

I can see someone taking Reeve’s initial point and pushing back on it, to defend the exclusion of people from games. There’s a few counterpoints to this, but I would say this: the scales of pushback at the moment are strongly on the side of reactionary blowback. A hint of progressivism is seen as blood in the water to those people. As Reeve says, the space to challenge dominant narratives, particularly where they reflect harmful political views, should be embraced inside and outside games.

Cannot recommend this piece enough.


#5

Fantastic piece this. I love the affirmation that the study of history boils down to “we’re pretty sure some things happened, maybe?” yet a lot of disingenuous people take the westernised understanding of history as gospel.


#6

As a practicing commercial archaeologist (MA in Roman Frontier Archaeology, BA in Video Games Design :), this article has me conflicted. It’s a great article, as usual for Waypoint, but I’m having trouble putting what’s bothering me in to words in an eloquent fashion. Apologies, this is going to get ranty!

It’s most definitely true that history is only an interpretation based on incomplete evidence, influenced by the biases and political views of the historian/archaeologist, and as such can never be truly “accurate”. Currently I’m working in North America, where there are constant heated debates about if something is a 30,000 year old tool or just a weird rock. Interpretations are also under constant change and revision as new evidence comes to light. But I feel like the discussion of history in games needs to be more in depth than just the take that history can never truly be accurate. Reeves’ article makes me feel that how games engage with history doesn’t even matter at all since history can never be accurate. I’m left with the impression that history doesn’t really matter.

I interact with a lot of non-archaeologists on the construction projects I work on. I’d say close to 80% of the people I work with don’t even know what archaeology is or what we do (How many dinosaur bones have you found? Are you looking for gold?). A few are actually interested in history, but for pretty much all of them their knowledge of history comes either from TV, especially the History Channel (I’ve gotten a looot of questions about Ancient Aliens on jobs), or whatever they were taught in school many years ago. This is terrible because those are all sources that are all already massively oversimplified, extremely whitewashed, intentionally nationalist, often outdated, or just plain nonsensical and even racist conspiracy theory. So seeing more progressive or current views of history makes them flip out, since it’s not what they are familiar with. Like a more sinister version of dinosaur “fans” who get furious that many non-avian dinosaurs had feathers, and were not the scaly monsters of Jurassic Park.

History is one of the many intellectual fields where there is a huge divide between academia and popular culture. I feel the divide is particularly troubling in history though, because bad history is so easy to utilize for racist, sexist, and nationalist motives. This is despite the fact that history is full of examples as to why progressive ideals are important. “Western” patriarchal society can easily be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. Livy attributes a tirade against women protesting the Lex Oppia in 215 BCE to Cato the Elder, parts of which could still easily come from modern alt-right demagogues or conservatives today. Racism, prejudice, and, more recently, nationalism have killed millions throughout the ages.

To bring it back to games, I actually feel that not representing the sexism of Ancient Greece in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, or introducing women generals in Rome II without much discussion is problematic. Heck, even how Battlefield V deals with women in WWII is problematic. Not because these examples aren’t “historically accurate”, but because they fail to engage with the contexts of these past societies. None of these games are challenging or critiquing the past, or engaging in any sort of historical discussion, they are just ignoring the shitty parts which are often still alive and present today. There are still discussions questioning women’s abilities to serve in combat roles today, and the reasons given against them serving are just as stupid and sexist now as they were 2000 years ago. On the other hand, I can definitely see that risk that showing the racism and sexism of the past might create a ‘Saving Private Ryan’ situation, and end up glorifying what we were trying to critique. I think games have great potential as a means of presenting up to date historical thought to people, which is barely being explored.

Really, I would have loved to see Kassandra slapping around and being viciously sarcastic to all those shitty Athenians dudes. Those Greeks and Romans, talk about problematic faves!

To those interested in history in games, I also really want to recommend Xalavier Nelson Jr’s two recent articles on RPS. They are excellent. The first is about the shitty way Odyssey handles the ‘slavery’ quests in Euboea. The second about the Tirailleur campaign in Battlefield V.


#7

There is a lot of smart discussion in this thread already, and thank you all for that.

For me, the last sentence is crucial: " Kassandra is a reflection of what Ubisoft wants the world to be—not the way it was."

We should learn from history. Which includes seeing and moving beyond where history was wrong.

What role, or what value should strict realism have, apart from an artistic achievement of how accurately can I recreate something? (but even then, what is that worth?)


#8

I guess my counter point to this line of thought is that many people don’t know much about history to begin with, so they might not even be aware where history was “wrong”. How many people still think the American Civil War was about States Rights?

Regarding the second question, I think it is worth trying to accurately recreate something at the very least because there are historians and archaeologists who’s life’s work has been attempting to deduce how things looked like or worked, and we would love to share what we found with the world (Including me! :). It’s kind of a personal answer, I know, but It’s kind of sad when I see some stupid looking fantasy thing in a history game, when the current historical evidence about the thing is a lot more interesting.

Like this (Actual drawing of the Pantheon in Rome during the late 15th century CE):

vs this (Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood Pantheon, basically the modern condition with a cross and some flags):

Plus, can you imagine how literally awesome it would be if the skill and artistry of the Ubisoft Assassin’s Creed artists were turned toward a project like Rome Reborn! :drooling_face:


#9

The kinds of people that makes these “but muh historikal accuracee” arguments are also some of the first ones to rush to the front and defend game mechanics because “It’s just a game!” They want to have their cake and eat it too.

Black people aren’t allowed to exist in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, but there totally were magical beers that you could drink which allowed you to seal away snapshots of the universe so that, if you didn’t like a particular decision you made, you could travel back in time and attempt to re-write history leading to the creation of an alternate universe.

Magic beer: Fine
Black people: now hold on just a minute, buster!

Omnipresent generals flying in the sky capable of giving marching orders to units of infantry across vast distances instantaneously: Totally cool.
Women generals: Excuse me, but according to my research…

We know exactly the kind of racist/sexist dog whistle that “historical accuracy” is, and no one’s falling for it anymore.

@Binho

“How many people still think the American Civil War was about States Rights?”

There’s a game on Steam billing itself as an “Historically accurate Civil War FPS simulator” that’s actually named “War of Rights” so…yeah. That’s a thing.


#10

My favorite nonsense „authentic“ thing is that some mfer somehow decided to associate pesants in medival Europe with potatoes and carrots.


#11

Thanks for writing this and putting it down intelligently, calmly and clearly. Yes I agree that the crux is about history and whether historical scholarship and intepretation matters (it does!), and you are quite right to say that BF V, Total War and Assassin’s Creed put their scenarios forward as if history doesn’t matter.

The fact that game companies are doing so out of a corporate desire for commercial inclusivity certainly doesn’t save them in the eyes of a historian (or an archeologist!). This is perfectly encapsulated in EA’s former executive Patrick Soderlund, who described people objecting to Dice’s over-the-top presentation of women warriors in Battlefield V as “uneducated” and, when prompted by his young daughter, saw it all as a “cause” worth insisting on. In almost the same breath he quit his job and walked away with 48 million. Remind me again, what “cause” are we fighting for?

On the other hand, I would hope that we’d also see male “heroes” in supposedly historically authentic games also criticised where they aren’t embedded in the context of their times apporpriately either. Have a look at CA’s forthcoming Total War: 3 Kingdoms for example. The company, eying big sales in China, is insisting on a Dynasty Warriors martial arts style presentation of historical figures because they say it’s “culturally authentic” to do so. SMH.


#12

Total War: Three Kingdoms is based off of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms video game series which has always been about mythologizing ancient Chinese history. As for Battlefield V, Battlefield 1942 let players ride on the wings of airplanes. The series reads to me as a multiplayer sandbox game with a certain degree of historical accuracy to it, but not really that concerned with being very historically accurate.


#13

Fair points. And Binho isn’t really arguing about physical realism, but rather how gendered characters fit into the historical context of their world. So in the case of Assassin’s Creed, while we are definitely in the world of 300 style heroes with Parkour, AC could still show its characters feats in a historically credible environment. And that environment would have people treating Cassandra (?) differently. Their are numerous other problems like the hoplite battles, so it’s hard to say Odyssey is anything more than a very historically shallow action game.

I can’t speak to Battlefield series in detail because I’ve only played Bad Company 2. I know quite a bit about WW2 so I was 100% dismissive of EA/Dice’s marketing campaign and in general would just prefer a grittier multiplayer hooter like Red Orchestra 2 to get my kicks in this WW2 setting. I think there is room/argument for realism in a WW2 shooter and that such a game would be better for having designed its characters to fit into that world differently than, say, Fortnight. I think Battlefield V would like to have it both ways which is insidious in its own right.

I am less dismissive of Total War. They aren’t modeling TW: Three Kingdoms on any video game series according to them. They say they’ve hired the leading English speaking historian of the period to advise them and they are claiming that they are drawing on The Records of the Three Kingdoms and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms to design their game. Neither of which features Wushu martial arts duels. So there is a pretense to historical authenticity that’s being pummeled by actual game design.


#14

For what it’s worth, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a 14th century historical novel that’s pretty foundational in the Chinese canon!


#15

I do think this is true, but I think the games do better to include it, and thus encourage a dialogue among players, rather than put women to the side entirely and allow us, the players, off the hook with a simple “oh, there weren’t any women”.

I’d definitely welcome games doing more to work with the history and cite their sources on representation, but, when developers do engage with this, we tend not to get the academic side of it at all, inside or outside the games.

A game I’d be curious what you, and other folks more critical of the piece, make of a game like Europa Universalis IV, which does bring women into the picture of rulership (particularly in the expansions that introduce mechanics like Queen-Regents) while engaging with dominating patrilineal succession rules that can, but are difficult, to change. How do you think that depiction fits into your views?

One (although I am disinclined to defend this vigorously) could make the point that Battlefield V is, at best, engaging with a fascmile of history. As Reeve points out in the piece, we rarely talk about anarchonistic guns or improperly deployed zeppelins or rockets with the same fervour as women on the battlefield. I am aware that some folks do take it seriously, but I do think it is worth reiterating that bending the rules in favour of inclusivity or fun is not just limited to representation.


#16

A novel that is itself purporting to take place in an earlier period and is a very very anachronistic fusing of folk histories and heroes. For that reason I have a hard time getting annoyed about what they’ve shown of the game so far.

I think some of the issue here also comes up with the kind of fantasies videogames taking place in the past want to serve. Speaking to the Roman generals example, this wouldn’t be as big an issue if there were any room for mainstream videogames to explore things that women in Roman society had a central or greater role in regularly. If we were making games about imperial court politics, about the running of temples, about agricultural and craft labor, about the logistics of war, about mystery cults, about domestic drama, hell, even about gladiators, traditionally the source of some of the most macho media ever made about Rome, we’d have far far far more opportunities to play as Roman women with more of an eye towards actively engaging history and arguments about history.

But we don’t do those things. We make games about the strategy and tactics of generals (not even about the generals themselves,) because the perspective of popular history has barely changed since “history” was basically white men in military academies and the church arguing about who was the whitest most Christian man of all, with the best battle brain. We view these things as easily gameable and are eager to engage in these particular fantasies largely because of that legacy. That legacy, the ideology behind it, the games that draw from it, foreclose the presence of women in these games in many ways.

These games don’t aim for historical accuracy anyways, again, because they are of those fantasies and those fantasies aren’t terribly discerning when it comes to sources or dates or something like an idea of how anything actually might have worked. So as others have said the reactionary response to the idea of women Roman generals is nakedly not about any desire for games to engage more actively with history, its about maintaining their fantasy.


#17

Oh no to clarify, I wasn’t saying Romance of the Three Kingdoms was more or less accurate because of it being from that time, I was just saying it’s not “Based on a video game series”, lmao.


#18

I want to add a few bits of extra context surrounding the drama about generals in Rome 2. I think this piece neglects to mention a couple of things that are significant and troubling about the episode. I have to add a caveat which is that I haven’t actually played Rome 2 but I have lurked on the Total War subreddit ever since getting into Total Warhammer 2, which is why I was aware of this as it was going on.

Less predictable was the fact that Creative Assembly would make a point of changing Total War: Rome 2, now several years into its life, to feature female generals.

Creative Assembly decided to feature female generals in Total War: Rome 2 nearly five years after the game was released.

I don’t think CA explicitly changed the game to add female generals, instead they added a family tree dynamic (as part of a free patch called the Ancestral update which was in beta in July) which had a side effect of increasing the spawn rate of female generals. This might seem like a subtle point, but I think it’s important because it makes the ensuing outrage that much more overblown. (the piece does sort of mention this in a parenthetical)

The decision to feature female generals in Total War: Rome 2 came under fire almost immediately. Players were soon calling attention to this nearly complete lack of evidence. Some of them wanted women removed. Responding to the mounting controversy, Creative Assembly stated that it saw the feature as being historically authentic in a game that’s never been exactly historically accurate.

This makes it sound like the player base was up in arms as soon as the patch was released (as part of DLC released on August 9th). It’s true that there was a toxic Steam forum thread that got shut down by a CA community manager shortly after release (which is where the “historically authentic” comment came from, I think).

But the real drama didn’t start until late September, when some Gamergate and neo-Nazi sites picked up the story and ran with it (described here). I believe this was the cause of the Steam review bombing which happened in September. That’s why all the stories about this (some of them linked from the Waypoint piece) are dated September 24-25th. Around this time the subreddit was brigaded by alt-right sock puppets, but the majority of folks there didn’t seem to care about the female generals. At least this is my anecdotal impression of the subreddit at the time. No doubt there are toxic elements of the TW fan base, but I wonder if this would have ever risen above a few forums threads had the issue not been co-opted by outside forces.

To me this makes it even clearer that these arguments are rarely actually about historical accuracy. It’s almost the same story we’ve seen in other contexts like Gamergate, where a minor thing is twisted into an outrage as some kind of recruiting or radicalization tactic.

I also wonder if this would have been such a big deal if CA had handled the toxic forum thread differently. I can only imagine that it is really difficult for developers to engage in this issue with their players, when some of the people who are pushing for historical accuracy are being egged on by alt-right Nazis.

It’s worth also noting that CA has taken a more active approach to moderating their Steam forums. It’s hard to know if that sort of backfired in this case, but I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when they are clearly struggling to have their cake and eat it too (i.e. make historical games which is their bread and butter but not cater to extremists turning a fanbase into a toxic mob).

edit: wanted to add an apology for the long post. just think this is a slice of a broader trend of internet radicalization of gamers so is important to note. 100% not trying to tear down the Waypoint piece or anything


#19

I probably should of been more clear, I was saying that as a supplement to what you were saying, not in contradiction. I knew that you knew that it’s known that its not based on a video game series.


#20

I wish instead of saying historically accurate people would instead say historically inspired. Gives you a lot more creative freedom and you don’t have to argue with armchair historians who’s knowledge includes binge watching History Channel and Wikipedia.


#21

Well, it’s often less than “armchair” historians, though. A lot of the people who argue about these things have done little to no research, and are going off of their “intuition” of history based on the narratives their privilege affords them.

“Why would there be queer people in Ancient Greece/etc?”
“Why would there be women in the military before the year 1990?”
“Why would there be black people or PoC in Europe/Ancient Greece/Ancient Egypt/etc?”

These are all questions that people with actual knowledge of history wouldn’t ask. There’s historical precedent for all of these. But since it doesn’t match up with this persons narrative of history being the determination of solely White Men™.