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are all sources that are all already massively oversimplified, extremely whitewashed, intentionally nationalist, often outdated, or just plain nonsensical and even racist conspiracy theory.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.