How to videogame history

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Rather than launch into a long winded explanation about why I haven’t written one of these blogs since May last year, followed by some vague promise to write them more regularly, I’m just going to jump right back in at the deep end and write a blog which I meant to write as part of the ‘History and videogame’ series of posts I started last year, but never got round to continuing, let alone finishing. So without further ado, here we go.


As I’m sure you’ll all be surprised to hear, I watch a lot of stuff on YouTube. I say a lot of stuff, but in truth I usually end up watching the same sorts of videos, and one well to which I regularly return is the YouTube channel of videogame critic/journalist, Jim Sterling. One of his regular features are his ‘Squirty Plays’, where Jim will play the first half an hour or so of a game and give you his first impressions of said game, and one of his ‘Squirty Plays’ which will stick in my mind from now until the day I shuffle off my mortal coil, is his play through of Playing History 2: Slave Trade.


The video can be watched here, and it really does have to be seen to be believed. I have to assume that the game was made in good faith by game developers who really did just want to make a video game teaching children about the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, but I don’t think I’ve seen a more inadvertently offensive… anything in my life. From the awful, hideous chariacatures of African tribesmen, to the weird time travelling mouse that follows you around, the game is a masterclass in how not to teach sensitive subject matter to children. This is, of course, to say nothing of the piece de resistance of the play through: the slave Tetris mini-game. Seriously, I’m not making this up. Watch the video if you don’t believe me.


Admittedly, I haven’t played the game. Perhaps after you’ve played slave Tetris the game turns into Spec Ops: The Line meets Tell Tale’s The Walking Dead, but somehow I highly doubt it. From watching Jim’s ‘Squirty Play’, however, I have come up with a list of things to do, or perhaps more pertinently not to do, when trying to make a history-related video game, so here it is.


Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, do your research. When we’re first introduced to our protagonist, Tim, we are informed that he was bought by the captain who (and I quote) “shipped me to England to serve as his slave”. Judging by the clothes and the general aesthetics, I am presuming that the game is set in the eighteenth century. If this is the case, there is one slight issue with the game’s initial premise: slavery was never ‘legal’ in England and Wales.


Up until that point, the issue of slavery in England had been decided by common law, and whilst in some cases judges had come to the conclusion that you could legally hold someone as a slave in England, there was no Parliamentary law supporting it. Furthermore, in Somersett’s case of 1772 the judge, Lord Mansfield, declared that no one could legally be held as a slave whilst on English soil, so if the game is set in the late 1700s, or early 1800s, this further complicates the situation.


Now, some of you might think I’m being pedantic, and trying to pick holes for the sake of it, or even worse trying to down play the horrors of slavery, but I’m not. To tell, or even to imply to children that slavery was just as common at home as it was in the colonies is not only historically inaccurate, but also ignores what was, to me, one of the most reprehensible elements of the Transatlantic slave trade: namely, the fact that the same MPs and public figures who proudly talked of English liberty and freedom, were often the same people who reduced millions and millions of Africans to a life of backbreaking servitude. There has arguably never been a more glaring moral double standard in the history of Britain than our stance on slavery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and to me this is just as important for a lesson for children to learn as the fact that slavery was cruel, unjust and inhumane.


Secondly, maintain a consistent tone. I’d go into more detail on this, but I don’t have the time or the energy to list all the examples of where the game gets the tone so wrong it’s awful, but I’ll start with the mouse. As Jim himself points out, the mouse (whose name I don’t care to look up) seems to find a weird sense of joy in the situation, making comments such as “Our journey [to Africa to BUY SLAVES!!] is going to be an exciting one!”. Indeed, the dialogue as a whole seems to consistently miss the tone of the subject matter, veering from dribbling inanity to humour which is both not funny and completely out of place, leaving you confused as to exactly what the developers were trying to achieve.


This is to say nothing of the mini-games. At one point the mouse gives you a pair of goggles which allow you to see people/objects which have fallen through the time-space continuum, prompting a mini-game where you spot the differences between modern day and eighteenth century slavery. Again, this is done with what I presume are good intentions, but the goggles are so out of place, and mesh so poorly with the world the developers are trying to create, that they actively distract from the message they’re trying to impart. It also goes without saying that the mini-game is utter dreck, but that’s beside the point. There are more examples of this which I could discuss (again, slave Tetris) but to be honest Jim does a pretty good job of covering them, so I don’t want to repeat him.


However, I think there is one thing the game does well, and that is the use of dialogue choice to create an emotional connection. As I’ve said in a lot of my previous blog posts, whilst we can never know what it was like to have lived in the past, to me all good history should try and create a sense of empathy with the people involved; and in my opinion the best way to do this in video games is through choice in dialogue.


Why? Because it gives the story you’re playing through a sense of meaning and importance. You get some idea would have meant to have to make that decision in real life, even if your understanding is somewhat artificial in nature as you get to walk away from it. However, if the game is done right, when you do walk away from the game you come to an ever greater level of understanding, namely the realisation that, unlike you, the people who made those decisions had to live with them. For an absolutely excellent example of this, play Tell Tale’s The Walking Dead, a video game which creates, through dialogue, such a strong connection between you and the two protagonists (Lee and Clementine) that it damn near made me cry when I played it. Admittedly, Playing History is not The Walking Dead, but I at least appreciate the idea the developers had.


So there we are, three key points on how to make a kind of OK history video game: do your research; know your tone and stick to it; and focus on dialogue not action. Some of you might think I’m being harsh on this game, considering it’s for kids, but to me the fact it’s for kids isn’t an excuse. Most adults know when they’re being told something that isn’t 100% accurate, and have the ability to remedy that fault: children, on the other hand, do not; and if anything, the fact that a game is for children is all the more reason to make sure you make the best video game you possibly can.


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