History and Video Games, a Match Made in Heaven?

History plays an important role in many video games, but it cannot cut good gameplay to do so.

Many games use historical facts or base the story completely around historical events. Real-time strategy games are among the most popular genres to use history and is probably the most accessible one to do it with.

History can just be a setting, or the gameplay can be made around the history and culture of a time period. Craig Laycock of Creative Assembly lead the panel at PAX Prime, History vs. Gameplay: Hey Creative Assembly, where's the accuracy in my pew pew shooter?, and a great discussion was made about historical accuracy, realism and gameplay in video games.

History, gimmick or gameplay gold?

Sometimes, history might just be used as an opportunity to sell games and have no real value to the game itself. The developers of the Total War series think differently. They don't just use history as a setting, they incorporate many aspects of the culture at the time into their games.

"[You] have to deal with it sensitively, but also not shy away from it." - James Russell, Lead Designer, Total War

James Russel, Lead Designer of Total War, explains how a lot of research goes into the issues at the time the game is set, to design systems. They research the cultural norms of a particular military and make sure that it is implemented into the game.

If a faction took slaves after conquering a land, for example, that would be a part of the gameplay. As James put it, "[You] have to deal with it sensitively, but also not shy away from it."

History vs. Gameplay

So what happens when history gets in the way of gameplay? The answer is simple, gameplay wins. It is still a game after all. That doesn't necessarily mean change history, just leave some parts up for debate.

If a certain nation or unit in history was reported as the "best" that doesn't mean it has to be in a game. Things still need to be balanced in multiplayer. They should play like you would expect them to be in real life, while still keeping things fair.

The panel also pointed out that realism doesn't always mean sans fun either. Sometimes a realistic feature can be a fun gameplay mechanic.

History in video games can be a great way to explore the past and even teach people things they may not have known. Plus, what way can be more fun? Leave a comment about how you feel history in video games is or should be portrayed.

Guide Editor

After gaming for 25 years, Synzer leveraged his vast knowledge of RPGs and MMOs into a job as a games journalist, covering the games he loves. Five years later, he's still writing about Kingdom Hearts, Pokemon, and Knights of the Old Republic. Synzer has a bachelor's degree in English and creative writing. You can see him in action on his YouTube channel (https://bit.ly/2F97BrR) and Twitch (https://www.twitch.tv/synzergaming).

Published Sep. 2nd 2013
  • Si_W
    One of my favourite TV series of about a decade or so ago was Time Commanders that used a predecessor of the Total War series to re-enact great battles. A team of four were watched and then assessed by historians and strategists (some from Sandhurst, the UK officer training college).


    I think a little bit of historical reference in games is fine but I don't really think about it too much or complain that something isn't very realistic when I'm playing, as gameplay does beat realism.
  • Courtney Gamache
    Featured Contributor
    I've always loved when video games incorporate historical facts or even change history a bit. This reminds me of the big series, Assassin's Creed. They must do a lot of background information when making a new game, since they always put them in a new era with new historical incidences.

    Maybe it's the history fanatic in me, but I find it quite enjoyable to see even a stories perspective on history.
  • Andrew Wynans
    Featured Contributor
    I think one of the most interesting things that games can bring to history is the ability to interact, and often change, major historical events. The gamer can actually take the place of battlefield commanders or major historical leaders and be faced with the same types of decisions that the historical figures faced. This can make history much more interactive and fun to learn. That is probably why there is a push in education right now to use gaming as a way to teach social studies and civics to students.

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