Monthly Archives: November 2014

Video Games and History Part One: Permit me a tangent

As I’m sure you all know, Assassin’s Creed: Unity came out last week, and if you didn’t know before, you do now. I haven’t played the game myself yet, and judging by early critical coverage of the game I don’t think that’s a situation which is going to change any time soon. From the reviews I’ve read so far, Unity is a glitchy, bug-ridden mess of a game, and as someone who loves the Assassin’s Creed games (yes, even Assassin’s Creed 3), the fact that Unity has so spectacularly failed to live up to expectations is something of a disappointment. However, whilst I’m sure you’d all love to hear my arguments as to why Assassin’s Creed is one of the best video game series of all time, you didn’t come here to read about video games. What I am going to do is use the Assassin’s Creed games as examples of the ways in which video games can be used by historians, the first of which is as a tool for ‘tangential learning’.

I first came across the concept of ‘tangential learning’ in an episode of Extra Credits, a web series which examines various elements of video game design and also the social and cultural issues surrounding video games as a medium. The episode can be found here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlQrTHrwyxQ) and it goes into a lot more detail about the term, but put simply it means that video games can be used to introduce people to topics and issues which they may not have heard of before in a way that encourages them to learn more about them.

Speaking purely from my own personal experience, this point is one hundred percent correct. When I was playing Assassin’s Creed 2, I’d often find myself pausing the game to find out more about the characters I was interacting with, the various buildings I was climbing up, or the various high-profile figures I was turning into living pin cushions. More often than not, these specific searches soon became far broader, and so what started out as a quick search about, for example whether Rodrigo Borgia became Pope in the year the game said he did or not would turn into a study of the entire Borgia family and their various acts of villainy. Admittedly, a lot of the time these searches began as fact checking exercises, but the fact that the game made me want to check these facts in the first place demonstrates the potential video games have as a learning tool.

Admittedly, this can also be said of historical fiction in any medium, so why are video games more useful than films, books or television? In my opinion, their main advantage over competing mediums is the fact that, unlike a book or a film, video games can use in-game menus and interfaces to deliver information directly to the player. To a certain extent, games have always done this, but until fairly recently the amount of background information developers could provide was limited by the fact that it all had to fit onto a physical disc. However, this is no longer the case. All seventh (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii) and eight generation (PS4, Xbox One, Wii U) consoles have inbuilt internet connections, which means that, in theory, this extra information can be stored in one central database, rather than on the disc, and that as such, all developers have to do is find a way of linking this database to an onscreen interface in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.

Imagine how amazing that would be. To use another example from Assassin’s Creed 2, the way I see it you could be casually chatting to Leonardo Da Vinci, when a prompt would come up asking you if you wanted to learn more about him. By doing nothing more than clicking a button, you would be taken to a page which told you Da Vinci’s life story and contained links to related pages, for example ‘Renaissance art’ or ‘Florentine politics in the fifteenth century’. Hell, if game publishers can get the right people to write the content and the right copyright clearances these in-game encyclopaedias could be damn good ones. You could have a page with reproductions of Da Vinci’s entire canon, art complete with expert commentary on its influences and cultural significance, or a page dedicated to his inventions with historians and scientists giving their opinions on whether they could have ever worked.

This shouldn’t be too hard either. Whilst I’m no expert in video game development, if it’s possible for game developers and publishers to create interfaces which take the player to an in-game store where they can buy extra levels and costumes, surely the same technology can be used to take the player to an in-game encyclopaedia, and I’m sure that actual game developers could find a way to incorporate these features in a way that doesn’t necessarily need to take the player out of the game.

I had originally planned to talk about a second way in which I feel video games can be used to enhance the study of history, but as this post is already too long I’ll do it as a separate post instead. For now, I’ll end by saying that as a tool for ‘tangential learning’ video games have no equal, as since pretty much every console is connected to the internet, it is now possible to create centralised databases holding lots of information which can be accessed by anyone playing the game. Furthermore, the fact games are interactive means players become far more invested in the experience they are having, and as such they are more likely to want to learn more about the world it takes place in, and indeed interactivity is a theme which I’ll return to next time.

‘That’ Sainsbury’s advert and The Guardian

Unless you live under a rock on the third moon of Saturn, you probably know that last week Sainsbury’s launched their Christmas advertising campaign with a three and a half minute ad/mini-movie about the famous (or should that be infamous?) Christmas Truce of 1914. I get the sense that a lot of you already think you know where this is going so let me stop you right there and say that no, this post isn’t going to be about my opinions on the advert.  Rather, I’m going to write about an article written for The Guardian by Ally Fogg (link at the bottom of the post), because whilst a lot of historians have been quick to criticise Gove et al’s jingoistic approach to the commemoration of World War One, it’s worth remembering that left-wing commentators aren’t above reproach, and that they can make some historically dubious comments themselves.

I’ll start off by admitting that Fogg does make some valid criticisms about the advert, specifically the paragraph which argues the advert strips the symbols and imagery we associate with World War One of their cultural, historical and emotional meaning, and turns them into commodities which can be used to sell products. Indeed, when I first heard about the advert my first reaction was disbelief bordering on anger that an image as powerful and significant as the Christmas Truce could be used simply to hawk chocolate, and to a certain extent I still feel that way.

However, when I watched the advert on YouTube (and whilst I normally hate the idea of “extended” or “full” adverts, you really do have to watch the three and a half minute version) my opinion changed somewhat because, Sainsbury’s logo aside, the advert is really well done. All Quiet on the Western Front it is not, but the advert manages to capture the stages of the troops’ emotional journey perfectly: their misery before the Truce; their first cautious steps out of the trenches; their uncontrolled joy during the Truce; their sad realisation that, inevitably, the fighting must resume have to resume the fighting; and finally, a shared moment of optimism inspired by the fact that, even in the midst of war, they were able to see their enemies as friends, and treat them as fellow human beings.

Which is where my first problem lies with Fogg’s article: his claim that the advert makes the war seem beautiful. Again, his criticisms are somewhat valid and there are some bits of the advert which are morally questionable, such as the shot of a robin perched peacefully on the barbed wire. But ask yourself this, why is the story of the Christmas Truce so poignant and memorable? Why do we tell it to generations after generations of children? It is because it is a symbol of the fact that, even in our darkest moments, we are all capable of acts of shared kindness and humanity.

At its heart, the story of the Christmas Truce is a story about the beauty and resilience of the human spirit in the face of hopelessness and adversity, and the story of the Truce is beautiful because it played out against a backdrop of horror and senseless brutality. As such, for anyone to argue that a portrayal of the Truce is “too optimistic” or “undermines the brutality of the war” is horse’s bunkum, and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of why the Truce is so culturally resonant.

The second problem I have with his article is his opinion that the advert is akin to a Christmas advert in which a “Jewish child and disabled child in Auschwitz swap gifts for Christmas and Hanukah on the way to the gas chambers”. This assertion is predicated upon his assertion that trench warfare and the Holocaust were, morally speaking, the same, and it is such a flawed comparison that words fail me.

Yes, trench warfare was inhumane, and his comparison of World War One to the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima is an interesting one. But come on. Are you really going to try and argue that trench warfare is in any way comparable to the Nazi’s campaign of genocide and organised mass slaughter? If you are, you either have a neck with more brass in it than a church altar, or you have a complete and utter lack of historical perspective, and how anyone can have the nerve to say a Christmas advert depicting the Christmas Truce is disrespectful before going on to compare it to a Christmas advert set in a Nazi concentration camp is beyond me.

However, my main problem with the article is that it is, at times, staggeringly anachronistic, in particular his statement that, “those in the trenches never understood what they were giving their lives for, beyond a vague commitment to king and country”. I will say that this statement is probably somewhat true of those soldiers who joined towards the end of the war: after all, it’s unlikely Sassoon published his Declaration Against the War out of boredom.

But to say that this is how troops felt at the beginning of the war is to project our modern interpretations of World War One (i.e. that it was a futile waste of life fought by people who didn’t know what they were doing) onto people who, most likely, went out knowing exactly why they were fighting. The men who fought in World War One genuinely believed in King, God and Country and they saw the Germans as a force which threatened those things. They did not fight because they’d been duped or tricked by wily General Kitchener, and to argue they did does a disservice to their memory.

Of course, for me to say this is also anachronistic. We can never really know why anyone from the past did the things they did unless we manage to become friends with a man/alien in a flying Police Box. But for someone to so blatantly try and present their opinions of World War One as those of the soldiers who fought in it, as Fogg did in his article, is inexcusable. It’s this approach that makes it so easy for people to dismiss out of hand the idea that religion was the driving force behind some of the most important reform movements of the Victorian era since, hey, religion isn’t that important today, so how could it ever have been important; or for people to claim that the failure of the Miner’s Strike proves socialism will never work. Anachronism is the enemy of good history, and for all its good points, Ally Fogg’s article perpetuates the false belief that our modern interpretation of the war was shared by those who fought in it.

Here’s a link to the original article: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/13/sainsburys-christmas-ad-first-world-war

Why you should be watching… ‘The Mark Steel Lectures’

Looking back over some recent posts, I’ve realised that the blog’s become pretty theory-heavy as of late. So, in an attempt to restore some semblance of balance and stop it becoming a beginner’s guide to historiography, I’m going to do another “here’s a programme/book I like and why you should too” post. This week I’ll be talking about the Mark Steel Lectures, a show which began its life on BBC Radio 4, before being turned into a television programme in 2003. In total, the show ran for a total of three years and eighteen episodes, and it’s a shame it’s not still around, as it provides incontrovertible proof that it is possible to make a history programme which is humorous and informative at the same time, even if your subject matter is Karl Marx.

The first thing to say about the Lectures is that they’re not really lectures. Admittedly, Mark Steel is the only narrator, and he makes no attempts to hide the fact that the show presents his personal and highly-opinionated (in a good way) interpretation of the past. But to describe the show as a ‘lecture’ in the traditional sense does a disservice to the sketches provided by the rest of the cast.

One of my favourite scenes in the ‘Thomas Paine’ lecture is Phil Jupitus, Tony Benn and ‘Shovell’ discussing the importance of Paine’s The Rights of Man in a mock-up of the I Love (Insert Year Here) programmes, and the episode on ‘Oliver Cromwell’ would have been worse of had it not included the scene where Cromwell reprimands one of his troops (played by Al Campbell aka Barry Shitpeas of Weeklywipe fame) for looting royalist corpses. Even better than this are the little touches, the diagrams, pictures and mini-sketches that are used to illustrate or clarify a point that you really need to see to understand how good they are, and whilst the show probably would work without them, it would be a far poorer one.

Another impressive thing about the show is the variety of its subject matter. Again, you can see Mark Steel’s personal influence: unsurprisingly for a show produced by a famously left-wing comedian, there are no episodes celebrating the lives of figures such as Elizabeth I, Margaret Thatcher or Enoch Powell. Aside from this, however, the show has a pretty wide scope. True, Marx, Paine, Guevara and some of the other usual suspects are there. But there are also episodes about Charlie Chaplin, René Descartes and Geoffrey Chaucer. Hell, as I mentioned before there’s even an episode about Oliver Cromwell, and it takes a rather interesting look at a man whom historians from both the left and the right have condemned as one of history’s greatest monsters, on the same par as Stalin or Jimmy Carter.

However, the thing I love most about the show is, as I said in the introduction, that Mark Steel manages to discuss complex subjects in a way that is easy to understand and genuinely funny. I’ve written about this before, but it seems that the prevailing attitude amongst historians is that history is serious business, and as such it must be 100% serious, 100% of the time; and the idea that a history programme targeted at adults can be presented in an irreverent and off-beat fashion, or that history can be a source of humour in and of itself, is completely beyond the pale.

Well, the Mark Steel Lectures are proof that this attitude is complete bunkum. Admittedly sometimes the political element of his political humour becomes too pronounced, especially when he’s talking about anything related to the monarchy or New Labour. That said, I can’t get too worked up about the issue of history being too “subjective” since, as I’ve said before, all history is subjective to some degree. If someone has distorted or misrepresented facts to support their case, deliberately or otherwise, that’s a different story. But since it’s obvious that Mark Steel hasn’t done this in anyway, the most you can accuse him of is making a cheap joke at the expense of an easy target which, let’s be fair, we’ve all done at some point.

For the most part, Steel is a host who manages to make concepts which most people would fall asleep simply thinking about interesting, and he does so by talking about them in a relatable and amusing fashion. The example which immediately springs to mind is when he demonstrates the concept of dialectics by using a salt shaker, a pint and a packet of crisps, a method which will be familiar to anyone who has had to explain the offside rule to a friend, family member or significant other, and overall the show is rooted in the attitude that big ideas don’t need to be daunting, and that the best way to engage people with history is to present it in a way that we can all relate to.

At the end of the day, what The Mark Steel Lectures captures most is the human element of history. It understands that our most important and cherished historical figures were people first and historical figures second, and that as such they held odd beliefs and did amusing, if not outright stupid, things. Rather than shy away from these things, however, or present them as an aside, the Lectures make them an integral part of the story, because Steel and the show’s producers realised that the key to understanding history is empathy, and that one of the most effective ways of generating empathy is by showing that even our wisest icons were capable of great stupidity.

Remember, remember?

We’re now officially four days into November, which means only one thing: Bonfire Night is almost upon us. Yes, just one more sleep until we can all stand outside in the autumnal drizzle and watch a variety of colourful explosions, whilst we wave sparklers and pray to any and all of the gods that we don’t get food poisoning from the sausage we bought from the barbeque. In all seriousness though, of all the national holidays/excuses to get drunk and set off fireworks we have, Bonfire Night is one of the strangest, and is definitely one of the hardest to explain to someone who isn’t familiar with British culture.

I mean, really think about it. Does it not seem odd to you that the way we commemorate the failed attempt by a group of religious extremists to blow up Parliament is by essentially simulating what would have happened had the plot succeeded? It’s the equivalent of celebrating our victory at Waterloo by speaking French, or if Americans suddenly decided to start wearing red coats on Independence Day. It makes no logical sense to celebrate Bonfire Night the way we do, and that’s why I believe it’s imperative that we continue to do so.

The opening paragraph of this post seems to belie my enthusiasm for Bonfire Night, and there are some things about Bonfire Night that I’m not a massive fan of, chief among which is the fact that (like Christmas, Easter and pretty much every holiday) Bonfire Night seems to begin roughly four weeks before it should. Besides these pretty minor gripes, however, I love Bonfire Night, and I love it mainly because it stands testament to the idea that it is often more effective and poignant to commemorate our near-defeats through subversive humour rather than solemn reflection.

Of course, there is a fine line between irreverence and flippancy, and any commemorations of a near-tragedy should take the seriousness of the situation into account. But at the same time in our battle against zealots and extremists, humour is one of the most powerful tools we have, as it is the easiest, most sure-fire way to demonstrate that their attempts to change our way of life have failed, and that they have had no effect on the people they attempted to intimidate.

I say this because humour is one of the main things we use to deal with trauma in our day to day lives, and I don’t think we use it simply as a coping mechanism. For pretty much all of us, being able to see the humorous side of things is our normative state, even if we all find different things funny. As such being able to talk about a traumatic topic in a more irreverent tone is the most effective way of showing that the bad times are over and that everything’s starting to return to a sense of normalcy.

Conversely, refusing to talk about a traumatic event in anything other than a serious tone shows that you are still affected by it. In the national context, commemorating events and periods of potential tragedy in an earnest but utterly humourless way means the extremists have achieved their aims, since we are no longer willing or able to see the world as we did before, and can only see it in terms of how their actions affected it.

This, then, is why I believe the best way to commemorate a failed attempt to blow up Parliament is by letting off fireworks. The fact we are comfortable recreating what would have happened had the Plotters succeeded shows that they have failed to have any meaningful impact on our personal or national outlook, and in general I believe we need to be more willing to inject a sense of humour into our attitudes towards commemoration. Of course, as I said earlier there is a difference between finding humour in a situation and just being disrespectful, and it is a completely different issue when you cross the line from potential to actual tragedy. But overall, if we really want to show people hell bent on changing our way of life that they have failed to do so our commemorations need to reflect this, and the best way to do this is through satire, subversion and, in some cases, outright mockery.