Jeremiah McCall

Jeremiah McCall has taught high school history 20 years, mostly at Cincinnati Country Day School and his first professional love is teaching history. Jeremiah’s primary training is in ancient history; he authored the book, The Cavalry of the Roman Republic, for Routledge and three subsequent books on Roman history topics for Pen & Sword Press. In 2011 Jeremiah published Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History with Routledge. He maintains the website gamingthepast.net, one of the primary sites devoted to the use of historical games as history in classroom teaching and beyond.

Contact information:
jmc.hst at gmail.com

The Historical Problem Space Framework: Games as a Historical Medium

by Jeremiah McCall

Abstract

Historical games need to be analyzed holistically as games rather than tasked to fulfill the functions of some other medium. The historical problem space (HPS) framework offers an approach to analyzing historical games more holistically as games rather than text, useful both for academic and educational historical analysis. It considers how all historical games present the past in terms of player agents with roles and goals that are contextualized within a virtual gameworld whose features enable and constrain player action. In response to this space, the player crafts strategies and makes choices. The purpose of this article is to provide a more detailed overview of the HPS framework and how it can be usefully employed to understand gamic histories. Ideally games scholars will be able to conduct their own analyses of historical games as historical problem spaces and educators use this framework to structure their classroom analyses of games.

Keywords: history; video games; historical games; problem space; player agency

 

Introduction

While the discipline of history and its dominant modes of communication -- the analytical, narrative text and lecture -- are important, doing history or "historying" is something that everyone engages in (Dening, 2006). For, broadly speaking, history is simply the curated representation of the past. The historian, the person doing history, selects sources and what they perceive as historical facts and portray the past through this curation. This makes history an interpretation, not a fixed record. (Carr 1961; Kapell & Elliot, 2013). As Kapell and Elliot note, "This process of selection, assembly, and presentation … means that the history that emerges would depend on: (1) Which facts are chosen, and (2) how they are put together again." (Kapell & Elliot, p. 5)

This is certainly what academic historians do when they write articles, books and textbooks, and deliver talks about the past. And while text and speech are the dominant forms of communicating the past in academia, privileged in part because the medium of text is 5,000 years old and speech older still, they are not the only media for representing the past and certainly not the only legitimate media. Once we leave the realm of academic historians, the media through which people communicate a curated past rapidly multiply. Film, painting, theater, sculpture, toys, music, even social media can and often do communicate elements of the past and, in doing so, are history. So too are video games that deal with past settings, events, and topics (Chapman 2016; McCall 2018; McCall 2019). As Chapman rightly points out, historical filmmakers, historical novelists, and historical game designers, "regardless of form, make meaning out of the past, they both engage and produce the larger historical discourse and their produced histories are referential -- that is to say they are constructed in relation to other narratives about, and evidence of, the past" (Chapman, 2016, pp. 7-8).

Accordingly, historical games are increasingly being studied as history, as media communicating selected aspects of the past. To appreciate games in this way requires a deeper understanding of the medium of historical games and how they portray and represent the past. As has been noted often and elsewhere, the best parallel for studying and appreciating a younger-than-text historical medium comes from studies of historical film. Advances in the study and appreciation of filmic history, as its own medium, independent and not subordinate to text, continue to require deep and sensitive analysis of the medium and careful consideration of film quite simply as different from text in how it communicates the past (Rosenstone, 2004; Rosenstone, 2008).

A critical point that can be gleaned from the historical study of film is this: each historical medium is different and needs to be understood on its own terms. It needs to be understood for how it particularly portrays the past, not unproductively assailed for its supposed deficiencies in a contrast with analytical text and narrative. Yet this does not always happen. Sometimes games are simply decried for their inaccuracies, not particularly helpful for better understanding this decidedly popular medium (Chapman, 2012; Robison, 2013). Some have asserted that to truly be historical media, historical video games must be more historically accurate; better still, they should be designed by trained historians (Clyde, Hopkins and Wilkinson, 2012; Spring, 2015). This surely misses the point: historical video games (and boardgames too for that matter) are history, even when not designed by academic historians. They do the work of history, the curated representation of the past to those in the present (Dening, 2006; Munslow, 2012; Chapman, 2016). They will continue to do so even without being colonized by academic historians (McCall 2020).

And so, analyses of historical video games that are sensitive to the medium must move beyond an itemized list of the discrete atomic facts in a video game that are deemed accurate or inaccurate. Such listing treats the game as merely the sum of its parts, a series of independent propositions about the past to be judged by adding up the total of accurate and inaccurate ones. This approach boils down to an ad hoc, piecemeal system. It also risks ignoring what Kapell and Elliot rightly indicate are the most interesting questions of historical game studies, not whether "a given product deviates from the historical record, but rather for what reason it does so and what effect this might have" (Kapell & Elliot, 2013, p.8). It ignores the fact that a functioning game must be a closed working set of formally -- that is mathematically -- defined systems needing player input to function. It is a historical medium different from a book, lecture, morality tale, painting or film. It is decidedly not a historical monograph, nor do its consumers wish it to be. Instead it is a powerful, sometimes moving, highly engaging medium that has garnered millions of fans through what it offers.

Introducing the Historical Problem Space Framework

The historical problem space (HPS) framework, then, is a formal analysis that can assist game-scholars, in addition to teachers, students, and designers of historical games, to understand the design of those games holistically by exploring their dynamics, more specifically, the dynamic relationships between their components (McCall, 2012a; McCall, 2012b). Historical games are and need to be understood both as systems and formal models. "Formal" here is used in the sense of being expressible mathematically and brings with it the corollary that the model must work precisely as a whole, it must "add up" so that each part quantitatively fits with the others, (Konzack 2002; McCall, 2020). These games, at least when functioning reasonably free of code errors, present their historical subject as a systemic historical problem space with the following core components [1]:

  • A primary player agent representing some form of historical actor tasked with one or more designer-made goals, ultimately expressed as victory conditions, operating within
  • a virtual gameworld, a simulated world that usually refers to specific historical locations and contains the game components, essentially the game system, within an environment and geography that includes
  • various gameworld elements: agents, minions, resources, obstacles, and tools, whose function primarily is to enable and/or constrain the player agent in achieving those designed goals;
  • and so, the player forms strategies, makes choices, and adopts behaviors to reach those designed goals, optimally by capitalizing on abilities and circumventing, overcoming, or working within the constraints in the game's virtual space.

Finally, and significantly, this entire gamic problem space is contained within a meta space of genre conventions, that often significantly influence designer choices of player agents/ goals/ gameworld/ gameworld elements/choices and strategies. By genre, I mean the loose but recognizable affinities of groups of games based on common features of gameplay. These genres are not absolute and binding, and there are any number of overlaps. The purpose of genres, however, is ultimately to facilitate communications (Arsenault, 2009), and I hope to communicate the following. The conventions of a stylized real-time strategy (RTS) historical problem space, such as the game world in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition (Forgotten Empires, 2019), will produce a problem space significantly different from a more verisimilitudinous first-person roleplaying game's problem space, such as Kingdom Come: Deliverance, or a 4X problem space, such as any entry in the Civilization series. Accordingly, the history these genre exemplars offer will read differently, as histories involving quests, battles, economic management, and so on.

Before examining the framework in more detail, it is worth noting some of its basic features. First, it is focused on the "developer-historians" as Chapman (2016) terms them -- the game makers making gamic histories. It is designed first and foremost to address that critical question: why a particular gamic history represents the past the way it does (Kapell & Elliot 2013). In other words, it focuses on the meaning developer-historians make from the historical record, however they engage that record -- books, films, Wikipedia articles etc. Form shapes content (Chapman, Foka, Westin 2017), and the HPS framework is intended to illuminate that reality. That the HPS framework focuses on the developer-historian, is not to dismiss the importance of the player-historian. Sicart rightly critiques commitments to extreme proceduralist arguments that place all meaning-making with the designers when, actually,

Procedurality explains the whys and hows of how game technology operates, and how games can aspire, as designed objects, to funnel behaviors for reflection. Play, however, is personal, individual, and communitarian, played with others, for others, in an intensely, deeply personal way. And politics and ethics are personal, too. Therefore, when a player engages with a game, we enter the realm of play, where the rules are a dialogue and the message, a conversation (2011).

Elsewhere, I have made a small attempt to consider the player-historian (McCall, 2018), and others like Gilbert (2016) and Beavers (2020) have gone much further in developing our understandings of player-histories. This is an important pursuit. The HPS framework, however, focuses on the developer-historian.

The HPS framework focuses on dynamics, specifically the interworking between the different components of the gameworld as a system and the choices and actions the player agent can make within this system. It is a dynamic analysis influenced by systems theory in that it focuses on a working system stemming from designers' goals for player choice and action within a closed system, the gameworld. It also emphasizes that the gamic medium is more analogous to historical phenomena where choice and action within systems are prominent (McCall, 2012b). The HPS framework is also developer-sensitive in that instead of beginning with a dismissive question -- "what propositions about the past did the developers get wrong?" or "what did they fail to include?" -- it begins with the question: "how did the developers employ their skills and talents in the medium to communicate the past in a gamic history?" After all, understanding and appreciating how historical games, especially commercial historical games, communicate the past requires appreciating that historical games exist and will continue to exist. They will continue to thrive without any need for any sort of blessing by academic historians. Historical games, especially commercial ones, are almost always products designed first and foremost to engage and entertain players with a closed, player-manipulable set of formal working systems. In this light, discrete historical content components, separate historical propositions that a game makes cannot as meaningfully and effectively be considered atomically. They must be considered in ways that include their relations to the other components of the game system, and, accordingly, the whole of the vision of the game designers.

So, the main questions that the HPS framework addresses are questions like these:

  • How do the systems and components of a videogame history function together to provide the player with a historical problem space?
  • How do the design choices of the system and space influence this or that component and how it presents history?
  • Why do the components in the historical gameworld function as they do, and what kinds of historical messages does their functioning promote?
  • What is the function of components in the overall game-space system that are not consistent with historical evidence, and how do the design choices, including genre choices, of the designers emphasize certain ways of portraying the past?

And while questions of whether a gamic history conforms to the historical evidence may not be the leading concern of historical game scholars, this is an important question for educators hoping to use games to develop the history and media critiquing skills of their students (McCall 2011). And so, the framework provides a structured analytical approach for history educators and students to address:

  • Does the gamic problem space reasonably reflect the historical evidence and record about historical actors, their contexts, and their actions?

And not least of all, the framework hopefully helps illuminate what gamic histories might contribute to understanding the past.

Comparison to Other Analytical Frameworks

Before exploring the components games' historical problem spaces present further, it is worth taking a moment to consider some existing analytical frameworks proposed for understanding games in general or historical games in particular. Of the non-historical frameworks, the seven-layer model proposed by Konzack (2002) is a useful way to analyze any sort of video games. It makes the critical point that there are many levels to consider when fully analyzing games, their aesthetics, messages, and the experience of play. And all sorts of concerns that are not strictly historical -- the developer's selection of controller types for input is a great example; the need to develop a multiplayer versus a single player game is another -- surely shape how historical content is presented by a game. The HPS framework is concerned essentially with the seven-layer model's layers of functionality, (designed) gameplay, and meaning and with how functionality and gameplay shape the meaning of historical content in historical games. One could certainly, if they wished, combine these frameworks to more thoroughly analyze any historical game. Linderoth's (2013) ecological approach to gameplay -- also intended for all games, not just historical games -- is certainly similar in some respects to the HPS framework. It is a model for the player's whole gameplay experience in any video game. The HPS framework's focus, however, is on the developer-historian's use, and the shaping of historical content in historical games. More specifically, it rests on the central idea of games as a set of affordances in an environment and sees gameplay as mostly about perceiving affordances. This is a reasonable way to understand gameplay but limits the descriptive detail in analyzing historical games. The HPS framework, in contrast, breaks down the environment, the gameworld, into further chunks for analysis: agents, obstacles, resources, and tools. It suggests that historical games (or at least those that fall more under the category of Chapman's conceptual simulations) portray their historical world more in terms of helps and hindrances, rather than simply portraying everything as an affordance that may or may not yet be recognized and realized by the player.

Chapman's (2016) work is certainly an important influence on the development of the HPS framework. Both Chapman's framework and the HPS model identify formal categories by which games shape and present historical content. Chapman's model offers a broader range of formal categories: simulation and epistemology; time; space; narrative and affordances. He uses these categories to understand some ways that historical games allow players to engage in historical practices that might otherwise be inaccessible to them. The HPS framework, on the other hand, offers a different set of formal categories. It focuses considerably on how game designers use these forms to represent contextualized decision making in the past through gameplay. It also attempts to unify the formal parts of the historical game space into a holistic analytical understanding of the medium. Both frameworks offer useful insights into the gamic medium of history and can often be effectively combined when analyzing historical games. In addition to his important work defining the developer historian, critical for understanding the focus of the HPS framework, Chapman's critical distinction between realist and conceptual simulation styles (see Chapman 2016, pp. 59-89) has proved fundamental in developing my thoughts on different types of historical games, and this has influenced the framework.

While on the subject of Chapman's work, it will aid in explaining the HPS framework to define and distinguish between Chapman’s notions of the “realist simulation style” and the “conceptual simulation style” of historical game design (see Chapman 2016, pp. 59-89). These categories overlap. Essentially, realist-style games, "generally work by aiming and/or claiming to show the past 'how it was' i.e. as it appeared to historical agents of the time" (Chapman, 2016, 61). They do this by presenting 3D verisimilitudinous space and focusing on one or a few characters navigating that space. They tend to be limited in the historical scope they treat, both in terms of time and space. First-person-shooter (FPS) games such as those in the Battlefield, Call of Duty, and Wolfenstein series, in addition to the games in the Assassin's Creed series are examples of realist-style games. Games predominantly in the conceptual style, on the other hand, "tell us about the past without purporting to show it as it appeared"(Chapman, 2016, p. 70). They employ abstract visuals, often symbols and iconography, and use their more complex rulesets to represent the past procedurally. Strategy and Grand-Strategy games like those in the Civilization, Age of Empires, Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, and Hearts of Iron series are examples of games designed in the conceptual style. The remainder of this article will rely on this basic distinction between conceptual and realist-style games.

I have made an effort throughout to largely avoid using the phrase "historically accurate" and similar terms and phrases, preferring instead clearer, less binary labels like "consistent with the historical record / historical evidence." Just as Munslow (2012) and Chapman (2016) note that the concept of historical accuracy has different meanings for different historians, Copplestone (2016) has shown that the term can mean very different things to different designers and to different players. Though it is, perhaps, worth noting my working definition of "historical accuracy" as an educator and historian is something like "consistent with critically used evidence," this essay and the HPS framework are not designed to further discussions about the definition of accuracy. Rather, it is focused on addressing the question of why historical games, generally speaking, represent the past the way that they do: as focused on competitive, goal-seeking agents within a gameworld using the abilities provided by agents, resources, and tools, to overcome obstacles. Most importantly, the usefulness of the framework does not diminish or increase based on one's definition of historical accuracy.

A more relevant debate for using the framework is the definition of a historical game. There are two prevalent definitions. More narrowly, MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler define the historical game as one that "has to begin at a clear point in real world history and that history has to have a manifest effect on the nature of the game experience" (2007, p.204). More broadly, Chapman, Foka, and Westin consider historical games to be "games that in some way represent the past or relate to discourses about it"(2017, p. 5). Though I suggest that an important distinction can be made about games that fit wholly into MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler's definition, functionally the HPS framework works just as well with the broader understanding of historical games proposed by Chapman, Foka, and Westin.

Exploring the Components of the Historical Problem Space Framework

The critical components of a game's historical problem space, again, are

  • A primary player agent representing some form of historical actor tasked with one or more designer-made goals, ultimately expressed as victory conditions, operating within
  • a virtual gameworld, a simulated world that usually refers to specific historical locations and contains the game components, essentially the game system, within an environment and geography that includes
  • gameworld elements: agents, minions, resources, obstacles, and tools, whose function primarily is to enable and/or constrain the player agent in achieving those designed goals;
  • and so, the player forms strategies, makes choices and adopts behaviors to reach those designed goals, optimally by capitalizing on abilities and circumventing, overcoming, or working within the constraints in the gameworld.
  • A meta space of genre conventions about gameplay that significantly shape the virtual space defined and contained within its components. Genre conventions are in turn shaped by all sorts of economic, social and cultural factors influencing design teams, though a full exploration of this practice is beyond the scope of this essay.

It is worth noting, however, that the linearity of text requires each of these components be discussed in some linear order. In practice, they are all part of a system encoded in the game program files and not fully understandable except in relation to each other. The player agent component, for example, is part of the virtual space and so shaped by it, but also in turn partially defines and shapes the virtual space. Historical content takes its form because of the overall historical space yet contributes to how the overall space is represented.

The Player Agent

Unlike the past, which has no favorites -- or perhaps many favorites -- historical games focus on a protagonist, a historical identity of some kind that is the focus of the gamic history. Within the virtual space, there is a player agent: the historical character in game that the player controls with its own role and goals that are contextualized in the gameworld. These player agents and roles, in turn, tend to fit into one of several categories, often overlapping and positioned along a spectrum based on their relationship to documented history. There are unhistorical agents and roles, agents who did not exist within the specific time and place according to the historical record and often take on roles that did not (for practical purposes) exist. The player characters of the Assassin's Creed series are excellent examples of fictitious characters in the fictitious role of assassins in an ancient guild. This does not mean that the unhistorical agent has no connection to history. Assassins in the Assassin's Creed series draw from all sorts of historical and fantastical ideas about assassins, templars and legendary cabals (McCall, 2018). The label only denotes that historically extraordinarily athletic, gymnastic and technologically empowered cabals of assassins apparently did not exist in the time and place they exist in the Assassin's Creed games. Though one could call these agents fictional, that term muddies the waters because all historical games have fictive elements, as indeed does all history. Unhistorical agents did not exist, nor is their role in game a role that existed -- at least at that time and in that place according to current evidence. Similarly, BJ Blazkowicz, protagonist in Wolfenstein: The New Order (Machinegames, 2014), is an unhistorical agent, a fictitious character that did not exist in the historical record, but assuredly draws from historical notions about freedom fighters and vigilantes in a corrupt world.

Then there are historical archetypes, fictional agents who did not, strictly speaking, exist in the historical record, but who take on historically documented roles. To put it another way, they are every-persons, those who engage the world in ways that we can historically document even though they do not represent a specific documentable individual. They are very common in historical games designed in the realist style. They include characters such as Red Daniels in Call of Duty: WWII (Sledgehammer Games, 2017). In the gameworld, the player agent, Red, is a corporal in the 16th Regiment of the First Division of the U.S. army in the Normandy invasion. While there is no evidence that Daniels existed, there certainly were corporals from the 16th Regiment of the First Division of the U.S. Army that landed on the beaches at Normandy. Again, this is something of a spectrum. When designing historical archetypes and unhistorical agents, all sorts of connections to history, documented and fantastical, can shape the ultimate character presentation.

Specific historical agents and roles form a third category, a historically documentable person in their historically documentable role. This agent is not commonly found outside of war games, probably for the simple reason that it can be very constraining for a designer to select a protagonist whose actions are known and documented. With an archetype or unhistorical agent, however, the designers have more creative license to present the agent and the choices available to the agent as they wish. Again, the primary place to find specific historical agents is the wargame, because it is not uncommon for players to want to take command in the role of a specific historical officer -- or more precisely a specific level of command -- in a historical battle. Many of the starting player-agents options in Crusader Kings II (Paradox Development Studio, 2012) are also specific historical agents, though, once the player's dynasty has proceeded more than a generation or two, the player-agents become archetypes of medieval rulers rather than specific historical agents. Sometimes the player agent is a specific historical person in a completely unhistorical role for them, as is the case with Harriet Tubman as a 19th century explorer in the game Curious Expedition (Maschinen-Mensch, 2016). This kind of mismatch between historical figure and historical role is probably more helpfully understood as a type of historical archetype -- the archetypical explorer influencing the agent more than the historical name and visual depiction. But again, these are categories that can overlap considerably.

Finally, there are historical collectives, where the player-agent represents a group of individuals like a government, society, or culture. The faction, civilization, and country leaders in the Total War, Age of Empires, and Europa Universalis series, respectively, are good examples. Again, there are overlaps. In only the most literal and narrow sense, for example, is a Civilization player truly playing as the specific historical agent Gandhi when taking that character -- they have the name and a recognizable graphic depiction of the famous person. For game purposes, the player is the super-human, powerful intelligence that guides a counterfactual Indian civilization from the Chalcolithic into the twenty-first century.

In addition to the relationship between the player agent and the historical record, the scope of powers that player-agent has in the game shapes the historical representation of the agent. The scope of power given to the player agent can be thought of as manifesting in at least two areas, perhaps more. The first is the player-agent's access to information. This exists along something of a scale. At one end, in realist-style games the player's information about the state of the world, its features and denizens, is often limited to what can be seen and heard by the player-agent's avatar -- though the common presence of UI elements for the player like radar and world maps provide information beyond what most any historical agent would have.

In conceptual-style games, players often have access to a great deal more information than their historical counterparts had. For example, the world spaces in Civilization, once revealed from fog-of-war, have precise terrain, resources, and boundaries that would have been the envy of any early cartographer. Player-agents can also consult tables of data listing the precise resources of each city, what it is currently producing, and so on. Mousing over a unit of soldiers in a Total War game provides the player-general the stats and status of the unit beyond what any historical or modern general could know (McCall, 2020). There are, however, some limits on player information even in these games. Fog-of-war, which covers unexplored maps, and incomplete information about the current state of a once explored region are common limitations employed in many strategy games.

Another important factor determining how the player agent is represented is their power in the gameworld. In some realist-style games, like Battlefield and Call of Duty, and action games like those in the Assassin's Creed series, the player character often has some supra-human powers -- examples include the ability to survive and function after being shot multiple times, and the ability to regenerate health. The protagonists in the Battlefield, Call of Duty, and other FPSs are limited in their movement, and are often blocked by various terrain obstacles that must be overcome through climbing, leaping, or circumventing. In Assassin's Creed games, on the other hand, the player-agents can scale buildings and monuments with skills that border the superhuman. Realist-style games also often supply the player-agent with a variety of weapons, sometimes with massive destructive power for fighting enemy agents, like the specialized high-level guns in the Wolfenstein series.

Conceptual-style games like those in the Civilization, Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, and Age of Empires series tend to emphasize not so much the player-agents' power as individuals as their power to command subordinates, explicit and implied. Subordinates include the individuals, groups, and systems that had to exist in the historical world for a leader's commands to be executed. Sometimes these subordinates are explicitly identified in the game and can accordingly be called explicit subordinates. Sometimes they are only implicit subordinates, not specifically referred to in the game, but essential to the particular task. In Civilization, explicit subordinates include all the various units in the game from scouts, to workers, to soldiers. Implicit subordinates include the peoples and systems of a city that historically must have existed to construct city buildings, research technology, and carry out other player-agent commands. In Hammurabi (Creative Computing Software, 1978), the farmers who planted the grain the player purchases in the fields are implicit subordinates.

When it comes to the power of the player-agent, the subordinates in a game like Civilization can be thought of as minions. They execute the player-agent's commands precisely, so long as those commands are allowed in the current world state -- i.e. the necessary resources are available, and conditions are met. At the other end of the spectrum are the subordinateagents who are vassals to the player-agent in Crusader Kings II. They are subordinate agents, but certainly not minions. They have personality models, can engage in plots and join factions, and supply taxes and troops to the player lord dependent on their relationship with them. Somewhere in the middle between subordinate minions and agents are soldiers that have a morale attribute in games like Total War, and Paradox grand-strategy games. These units attempt to execute the player-agent's commands, but only if their morale is sufficiently high. When it drops too low, they flee the battlefield, regardless of what the player-agent has commanded.

Goals

The player agent in the problem space presented by the historical game as designed, will have goals. Indeed, according to some, games themselves are defined in part by having goals, quantifiable outcomes that players desire to achieve (Costikyan, 2002; Juul 2003; Salen and Zimmermann, 2004; Apperley, 2006; Kapell & Elliot, 2013). We can term "primary goals" those defined explicitly by the designers as victory states for the player. Often these rely upon the achievement of secondary goals, necessary steps implicitly or explicitly established by designers for achieving the game's victory conditions. So, for example, though there are several ways to win a game of Age of Empires II, most require that the player accumulate a significant number of resources and advance through the technological timeline from the Dark Ages to the Imperial Age, making developing an effective resource-exploiting economic engine an important secondary goal. Here Sicart's (2011) caution is important, to resist extreme proceduralist understandings that assume all meaning in gameplay comes from the designer and the game design. Players express themselves through their play. While playing, players can certainly ignore designer goals or substitute their own goals. Still, historical games are usually, if not always, designed with explicit goals for the player agent to achieve.

It is worth noting that historical video games, particularly commercial ones, tend to be very teleological in their focus on goals (Apperley, 2013; Chapman, 2016). Players hoping to achieve the goals set by game designers need to keep those goals in mind when strategizing. So, for example, players make alliances in Total War games knowing that they will have to be broken at some point for the player to achieve the goal of conquest. In Civilization games, especially at higher difficulty levels, effective player choices about building and research must consider what kind of victory the player hopes to achieve. Assuming the player does not craft personal goals for success in the game -- commonplace in the sandbox Crusader Kings II and open world games like the Assassin's Creed series -- victory and defeat come down to achieving the goals defined by the designers (Houghton, 2019, 2020). Indeed, a heightened focus on victory in the endgame is one of the biases of historical video games as most historical games present a vision of the past agent as someone who clearly understood and pursued defined goals (McCall, 2012a; McCall, 2012b; Chapman, 2016).

The designers' choices of agent, role and goals dictates to a considerable extent how the rest of the problem space is conceived and created by the designers (McCall, 2012a; Houghton, 2020). It makes a great deal of difference, for example, whether the goal of the player agent is to conquer the known world, or to increase one's honor through the successful economic management of some holdings. Once a game is designed around a certain agent, it is generally less easy to portray other agents with very different roles and goals or incorporate new core elements that do not work well with the existing ones. So, for example, Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization (2008) represents the history of European colonization from a teleological and colonialist point of view. Designed limitations in agent, role, and virtual environment contribute to a story of Europeans "discovering" the "New World"; claiming and building European-style states and societies, and eventually achieving independence from their country of origin. The perspectives of indigenous peoples do not greatly enter into this portrayal; these people are mostly designed as obstacles and tools, not fully realized independent agents. Indeed, they are not capable of being player agents in the game without modifying the code and, even then, lack the in-game cultural, political, and economic depth of the colonizer player-agents (Owens, 2010, 2012; Mir, 2012). More generally, there are essentially no commercial video games that portray the problem space of the peasant, the industrial worker, or the day-laborer living hand to mouth. These games certainly could exist, framed around these agents and problem spaces, but there is little indication that the commercial sector entertains designing them.

Gameworld Resources, Obstacles, Tools and Agents

Within the virtual gameworld, there are any number of elements that enable or constrain the player-agent's actions. Sometimes the same element enables and constrains depending on the circumstances -- fortification walls, for example, protect one agent by keeping out the other and a weapon's effects depend upon the wielder and the target.

There are several common kinds of gameworld elements. Resources provide the virtual material needed to purchase and construct in-game. So, for example, wood is a resource in the Age of Empires series, which is acquired by woodcutters from trees and spent on constructing new buildings, and hammers (or shields or gears) are a resource used to construct units and buildings in the Civilization series. Sometimes resources also serve as metrics, to measure progress for the player in the gameworld and potentially serve to trigger in-game events. Accordingly, the popularity metric in the StrongholdHD games determines whether peasants immigrate or emigrate from the player's manor and the happiness/ unhappiness metrics in Civilization series affect citizen productivity. The health level, standard to first- and third-person action game series like Call of Duty, Battlefield and Assassin's Creed, also has some of the qualities of both metric and resource.

A second common type of element is the obstacle or counter. This can take the form of a physical obstacle in the gameworld restricting player movement, such as the Atlantic Ocean in Crusader Kings II, rocky outcroppings in Age of Empires, or fortification walls in a castle builder like the Stronghold HD series. Alternatively, it can be an agent whose primary purpose is not to win the game (as it is for rival agents) or help the player-agent (as it is for subordinate agent) but to obstruct or hamper the player agent's progress toward their goals. Wild animals that can attack and destroy units in Civilization, plagues in Crusader Kings II, and enemies in historical FPS games like Call of Duty and Battlefield provide good examples. The third important element type is the rival agent. These can be controlled by other human players, operated according to the artificial intelligence routines coded by the designers, or both. Rival agents are in direct competition with the player agent, attempting to achieve victory at the expense of the player. Examples include rival civilizations in Civilization, rival factions in the Total War series, and rival countries in Europa Universalis IV (Paradox Development Studio, 2013). Then there are the previously mentioned subordinates, those humans -- identified or implied -- who execute the commands of the player agent. The peasants in Stronghold HD (Firefly, 2011) that labor for the player lord, the nameless supporters of the Resistance in Through the Darkest of Times (Paintbucket, 2020) and the unidentified farmers in Hammurabi are all examples of subordinates. On the other hand, tools in the gameworld allow the player agent to perform some task in a game, perform it more effectively, or gain access to a new place or ability. The most prevalent example of gameworld tools are the weapons and vehicles in FPS and third-person action games, and the technologies in games like Total War and Civilization.

The Gameworld

All the components -- from player agents, to roles, goals, and enabling and constricting agents, tools, resources, and so on -- are contained in and contextualized by the virtual gameworld the designers craft. That gameworld commonly represents an actual historical geography. In some cases, as with the Civilization and Age of Empires series, outcomes depend significantly on the terrain and the player-agent's access to resources. In such instances, designers plan for players to play through the game many times; there are randomized (and thus unhistorical) worlds generated each play-through that do not refer directly to any specific locations on Earth. [2] Both games also have some modes and scenarios where the gameworld is ostensibly meant to point to a historical geography. Again, far more often the gameworld refers to a specific historical place and time. So, for example, Medieval 2: Total War's gameworld is represented by a stylized 3D rendering of Western Europe, West Asia, and North Africa, in the year 1080 CE. Through the Darkest of Times' gameworld is 1930s Berlin.

A distinction can be made between two kinds of game spaces in games dependent on whether they are actually rendered as playable spaces in the game: implicit and explicit game spaces. Implicit game spaces are spaces that are conceptually part of the gameworld: they are referred to, but are not rendered as actual spaces that agents can explore or traverse. The holdings in a province of Crusader Kings, which are not rendered onscreen spatially, but are an important conceptual part of the world, are a good example of an implied game space. The castle holding comes with a garrison of defenders represented by a number, but the player and opponent armies cannot actually enter the castle space. The Mesopotamian city state of Babylon in Hammurabi is an implied game space which the player-agent, Hammurabi, rules, and in which the fields and peasants of the game live. One cannot move the player-agent or subordinates through and around that city space in any meaningful way. In Through the Darkest of Times, the factories in Berlin where the player-agent, the leader of a Nazi resistance group, tries to recruit more members, are implied spaces. The factory is simply a point on the map though it is described as having workers that the player-agent's subordinates can recruit.

Explicit game spaces, as the label suggests, are explicitly rendered as spaces in the gameworld that can or can be navigated in or traversed; gameworld elements can be positioned in the explicit space. For example, the worlds in realist-style games like Battlefield, Call of Duty, and Assassin's Creed, the randomly generated worlds of conceptual-style games like those in the Civilization and Age of Empires series, and most wargame maps are explicit game spaces. A given historical game can have both implicit and explicit spaces.

Explicit game spaces have one or more of the following four attributes, essentially based on the main actions the player-agent can take in and on the game space. Explorable game spaces are those that are hidden from the player and meant to be explored, whether this is the rendered world covered by fog-of-war in the Civilization series, or the hidden rooms and locations for the player-agent to find in Assassin's Creed games. Traversable game spaces are those where the player-agent can move from place to place, generally navigating obstacles as they go; most FPS and historical action games contain these. So do conceptual-style games like the Curious Expedition whose main world is represented as a hidden map of an undiscovered land, ready for the player-agent to explore. Contestedgame spaces allow the player or rival agents to control parts of the space by occupying or otherwise limiting rivals' access to parts or all of it as in wargames, strategy and grand strategy games. [3] Developable game spaces exist where the player-agent develops the space, constructing cities or buildings, for example, extracting resources, changing terrain and essentially engaging in what Murthy insightfully identifies as gamic colonialism (2019). The worlds in the Total War, Crusader Kings, and Civilization series are explorable, traversable, contestable, and, in some parts, developable spaces. The 3D gameworlds in Assassin's Creed are certainly explorable, and traversable, sometimes contestable, but usually not developable.

In all cases the gameworld with all its spaces is an extremely important part of most historical games and represents to some extent a historical world that did or could contain past humans. This game space provides the context, influences the form, and thus influences the portrayal of the past offered by all the other components. It also often provides primary and secondary developer goals -- explore, traverse, contest, develop -- for the player-agent.

Strategies, Choices, and Behaviors

Within this virtual world, the player agent develops strategies, makes choices, and adopts behaviors that take advantage of abilities to overcome obstacles in the gameworld. It is this ability to strategize and choose in a problem space, to play the game, that is particular to the historical game; making the historical game medium different from text, film, or static image (McCall, 2012b; Kapell & Elliot, 2013; Chapman, 2016)). The player's choices and actions in the historical problem space of the game complete the system. The player in the historical shooter selects weapons, routes of travel, enemies to target and tactics, and these choices cause the player-agent to interact with the world system presented by the game. The player of Civilization develops strategies often based on victory conditions and geography. In a game of moral quandaries like We. The Revolution, the player decides what judgment to render in a variety of cases and, thereby, whether to appeal to commoners, bourgeois revolutionaries, or aristocrats. Understanding choices is fundamental to understanding agents, and modeling choices and their impacts is a core strength of the gamic medium (McCall, 2012b). Again, however, we should remember Sicart's (2011) warnings against extreme proceduralist views, and not assume that the player has no creative input in these strategies, choices, and behaviors. When played the game offers a "dialogue" as he notes, not a dictation (Sicart, 2011)

Genre Conventions

Genre is a slippery term, as Apperley (2006) and Arsenault (2009) point out. Still, it is the case, especially when it comes to commercial historical video games made primarily for entertainment, that the designers' conception of the historical problem space is heavily influenced by genre conventions about gameplay -- even if the exact distinctions between each genre are not wholly clear. Civilization VI (Firaxis, 2016) and the rest of the series essentially turn all playable cultures into imperial powers. Those powers ever expand productive, technological, and often military capabilities according to the 4X model -- eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate -- in accordance with the genre norms found in fantastical titles like Endless Legend (Amplitude, 2014) and Master of Orion II (Simtex, 1996). Equally important are the genre conventions established by earlier version of Civilization itself -- ranging from some of the core victory conditions, to the functions and types of units, the explorable, traversable, developable, and contestable gameworld and so on. Age of Empires' RTS conventions [4] are fully consistent with those of Warcraft II (Blizzard, 1995) and Command and Conquer (Westwood, 1995). Many of the early games in the Total War series -- its own genre of a hybrid turn-based strategy and RTS battles -- have the same conventions: characters to govern cities and command armies; agents to conduct diplomacy and trade; maps divided into provinces; settlements in each province that serve as economic and defensive bases. These elements are shared among titles like Medieval 2: Total War (Creative Assembly, 2006) very similar to Rome: Total War (Creative Assembly, 2004) and Empire: Total War (Creative Assembly 2009). There will, of course, be exceptions. Still, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the genre conventions of a historical game can be imposed on historical content; shaping, organizing and presenting it just as much as the historical content shapes the game genre.

Using the Historical Problem Space Framework for Analysis

This analytical framework provides an approach to historical analysis and criticism that is rigorous and meaningful, yet holistic. It is aware of the historical game medium as its own medium with its own ways of communicating aspects of the past. As noted earlier, a historical game, at least a well-functioning, reasonably bug free historical game, must be a functioning system -- or, put another way, must have its components fit and work well together. Because of how the components of the gameworld (historical player agent, role, goals, and so on) must function and interact precisely, commercially successful games tend to offer a very small set of roles and goals in the virtual world; often one role and one goal. Consequently, the designers' choice of problem spaces, or more pointedly, whose problem space to represent necessarily locks the game into certain portrayals of the past (McCall 2012b).

And so, given that a historical game's historical problem space is a functioning dynamic system that is better understood holistically, how can one reasonably use the framework as part of a meaningful analysis? First, instead of jumping into a list of historically accurate and historically problematic elements of the game -- and effectively treating them as discrete, atomic statements free from a systemic context -- the framework of the HPS suggests scholars of historical games ask questions like: "How does this component with its particular portrayal of the past function within the overall designed problem space and how does its function shape its portrayal?" Or to put it another way: "How does the overall historical problem space, including genre conventions, shape how this component functions and, accordingly, presents historical content?"

Breaking this down a bit more, a historical problem space analysis remains aware of the whole designed space of the agent(s), role(s), goal(s), elements, and choices available to the player. It includes the boundaries of the virtual world and genre conventions when considering the historical content presented by any of these game components. It is important not to lose sight of the overall space when examining this or that discrete element of the problem space, After all, the conceived historical problem space will powerfully influence the elements of the space, and how they are presented to the player. So, to better understand why a component of the game represents the past a particular way, consider the overall space and that component's part in it. The choice of an unhistorical agent in a largely unhistorical world, for example, suggests that the accuracy of elements and choices in the game will be hit or miss at best. The choice of overly simplistic or anachronistic goals should contribute significantly to overly simplistic or anachronistic elements in the space, and to choices and strategies available to the player agent. But whether simple or complex, historically valid or unsupportable, a game's historical problem space and its meta world of genre conventions will heavily dictate the historical presentation of each component, and the history each component conveys.

And so, another question arises for analysis: "how else might the designers have reasonably and more consistently with the historical record represented a particular historical feature in the game components and systems that realize this problem space?" Because another ramification of designers designing a systemic historical problem space is this: components that portray some aspect of the past that thematically happens to fit well within the overall problem space will be more likely to portray that past element in accordance with the historical record. Components, on the other hand, portraying some aspect of the past that does not fit as well within the overall problem space are more likely to portray that past element in distorted or overly simplistic ways. So, for example, a fast-paced simple economic and battleground RTS problem space is a better fit with components whose historical content focuses on wars and economic development; it will be a more awkward fit representing historical content about, say, peaceful meditative practices.

Let's close with a few brief examples. These are necessarily short and incomplete analyses, intended simply to point to the kinds of explorations a historical problem space approach to game analysis can foster and the kinds of connections that can be drawn between the different components of the game space.

Consider Valiant Hearts: The Great War (Ubisoft Montpelier, 2014). In the first levels of the game, the player takes the agent of Emile, a French citizen conscripted for the war. Later, the player plays as Karl, Emile's son-in-law and a German soldier; Freddie, a US soldier; and Anna, a Belgian nurse. The game largely conforms to the conventions of a side-scrolling, puzzle game. In each level, the player must solve a series of puzzles, often the conventional staples of point-and-click adventures focused on finding the right object to use in the right place; some requiring a bit of coordination and timing on the player's part. For example, in part of the second level involving a French assault on a German position, the player must find and return the dynamite to its place on the bridge trestle in order to detonate said dynamite and progress. In another part, the player must dodge incoming artillery shells. Elsewhere, the player cuts barbed wire or dodges taxies on the streets of Paris. Machine guns, poison gas, mining trenches and taxies -- all these elements have real-world counterparts from the war, yet all take on the appearance of either puzzles or tests of dexterity. Rarely does the game require a tactical response of the sort a soldier in battle in the First World War might employ. Instead the responses and decisions the player makes are about puzzle-solving. In a very real sense, the puzzle-genre significantly shapes the historical problem space that Valiant Hearts presents, resulting in a puzzle/ platformer imposed upon World War I. And so, the war becomes segmented into series of side-scrolling levels with puzzles and elements that nominally and visually correspond to elements of the first world war, such as artillery, machine guns and poison gas. The player-agent's choices are not about military tactics or other historical behaviors in the war, but rather about game puzzle solving.

For a more detailed example, consider Age of Empires: Definitive Edition (Forgotten Realms, 2018), the high-resolution upgrade and re-release of Microsoft Studio's highly commercially successful historical RTS game, originally from 1997. The game places players in the role of a collective civilization -- for practical purposes historical cultures associated with ancient states like the Assyrians, Shang and Romans. The player agent leads the civilization in a decisive military and economic struggle against one or more artificial-intelligence or human-controlled civilizations. The historical problem space designed for the game is heavily influenced by RTS conventions from that period, notably Warcraft II and Command and Conquer (Johnson, 2015). [5] Indeed, the problem space, one of militaristic and materialistic cultures struggling to locate and consume resources and progress technologically in their abilities, is itself an inheritance from earlier RTSs.

Elements in the game include:

  • villagers, in the form of subordinate minions, who supply the labor for the civilization, harvesting resources of wood, food, stone and gold from deposits scattered on the map and constructing buildings.
  • Buildings, as a set of tools that provide a range of capabilities including the ability to create military units and research technologies.
  • Military units, another set of subordinate minions, to defend one's civilization and destroy others.

To illustrate how this designed historical problem space shapes all the components presenting historical content in the game, consider the discoverable technologies in the game. Most are straightforward military technologies, adding bonuses to the player's units --like scale armor, which increases the armor rating of infantry by 2, or the broadsword, which enables the military unit, Broad Swordsman, to be created. These military elements fit well in a military-focused problem space and, while highly simplified, provide a recognizable depiction of the historical effects of scale armor and broadswords.

It is the technologies that were not primarily associated with military developments that even better show how the problem space the designers crafted strongly influences all its components and how they represent the past. Nobility, a Bronze Age technology in the game, historically as an ideology had a great number of social and political ramifications for ancient societies. In the game, however, the technology must formally affect some component in the problem space, and so it increases the hit points of a civilization's mounted units by 15%. Writing, another technology in the game, historically increased by many orders of magnitude the human ability to preserve and share knowledge. In the game it must function in the problem space, so it must enable knowledge that makes sense in the gameworld. Hence, writing reveals an ally’s knowledge of the game map to the player; a highly limited subset of the information, historically, that writing has allowed cultures to preserve, organize, and share. To take a final example, Monotheism allows the priests of a civilization to convert enemy priests and buildings to the player's side. A religious and philosophical development with many implications for religions and religious history becomes, in a game focused on technological and military domination, a tool to use in battle. The historical campaigns included with the game also illustrate the controlling influence the designed problem space has over the historical content presented by the game. Purely military conflicts, like the Roman Siege of Syracuse (214-212 BCE) and Caesar's mid-first century military campaigns are still cast as economic competitions between rival civilizations. Players must manage villagers and an economic engine of resource gathering and expenditure on top of the military conflicts. In short, it is not too far a stretch to suggest that Age of Empires imposes the conventions of an RTS onto the history of the ancient world just as much, if not more than, ancient history imposes itself on the game.

Civilization VI provides another useful example of the whole designed HPS shaping its components, in this case, player-agents and rival agents. Like its predecessors, Civilization VI presents a historical problem space this way:

  • The player agent is ostensibly a specific historical agent, a historical leader for a civilization, but for all practical purposes a collective since the agent is disembodied and the guiding intelligence and decision-maker for 6000 years of the civilization's development.
  • The established victory conditions, the goals of the world set by the designers, are essentially the same as they have always been in the series: Culture, Domination, Religious, Science, or Score victory.
  • The space in which the player agent and non-player agent rival civilizations compete to win the game is often a randomly generated work, explorable, traversable, contested, and developable with terrestrial physical geography and resources playing a critical role. On this map are the resources and spaces to place the cities that will serve as economic and scientific engines for the player's civilization in addition to military nodes.
  • Elements in the gameworld that can help or hinder the player include various resources, terrain obstacles, rival civilizations, units of subordinate minion solders, buildings, cities, barbarians, wonders and so forth.
  • The way that players achieve victory is by achieving quantifiable prosperity in faith, culture, research, or military capacities, greater than the player's rivals so that they can dominate militarily, culturally, religiously, or scientifically. Though more recent versions of Civilization enable civilizations with a few cities to win in certain cases, in general material and geographical growth and expansion to dominate the globe in one or more metrics is the core of the game.

This is the core HPS the design articulates.

When the game added the Cree as a playable civilization to Civilization VI, Cree Headman Milton Tootoosis expressed concern that the game depicted the Cree in a harmfully negative manner. The game essentially makes the Cree an expansionistic power just like all the other civilizations in the game and, in doing so, said Tootoosis, "It perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land." Tootoosis went on to say "It's a little dangerous for a company to perpetuate that ideology that is at odds with what we know. [Poundmaker] was certainly not in the same frame of mind as the colonial powers" (Chalk, 2018).

The HPS analysis certainly suggests, not the only answer to the question, "Why did the designers portray the Cree this way?" but a very meaningful answer nonetheless: Since Civilization VI is, as all commercially successful historical video games are, a closed, functioning, systemic historical problem space, it portrays its player and non-player agents in a particular way, in this case as expansionists who need to grow and dominate -- militarily, economically, scientifically, or religiously -- to win the game. Furthermore, since this is how the problem space was designed, it cannot easily be redesigned to accommodate a completely new problem space, or completely new and different roles and goals for the competing civilizations. When adding any new player agent, the existing problem space is likely to heavily shape how that player agent is portrayed, whether the Cree or any other group that, historically, did not seek domination and empire. A final thought: it is important to note this is not a matter of assigning blame, of saying that the game's portrayal of the Cree is good, bad, or otherwise. It is simply a matter of better understanding how the components of this and other historical games function together to portray the past.

Before closing, it is worth considering the usefulness of the HPS framework for educators who want to employ historical games in their students' learning environments. Essentially the HPS framework points to an effective approach to games as part of the history class. It is readily understandable -- in my experience as an educator -- to students and gives them a meaningful approach to analyzing historical games, going beyond rejecting a game when it does not "get the facts straight." It also provides a potentially useful way for better grasping the people, places and systems of the past. To effectively analyze the problem space of game requires students to understand, insofar as it is helpful, the past in terms of problem spaces. This means, in turn, that to effectively analyze a historical game, students will need to go beyond information they read or hear and construct knowledge, evidence organized into a framework about agents and their actions. While there are certainly limits to approaching the past in terms of problem spaces, the basic premise can be quite useful in an educational context. The framework shows how history can be understood as informed by agents' choices and actions, and how those actions are in turn shaped by the physical, cultural, intellectual, and social spaces around them (McCall, 2011, 2012a, 2012b).

Conclusion

There is certainly more work that can be done. The HPS framework's descriptive abilities can be expanded and developed further. There are aspects that will be revised in response to applying the framework to all manner of historical games to come. But I hope for this to be the beginning of a deeper conversation about the HPS framework as a practical and holistic approach to analyzing and understanding the history communicated by historical games; one that is sensitive to games as designed interactive systemic experiences. Rather than dissecting a game into a series of propositions and assessing the accuracy of each part independent of the whole, it approaches the game for what it is: not a text, not a narrative, but a historical game, and thus a closed, playable system representing an agent in an interconnected world. Agents in gameworlds make choices to capitalize on abilities and work within and around constraints. The HPS framework speaks to the very way that the gamic medium presents and shapes its message of the past and, ideally, helps us better understand this particular mode of history: the gamic mode. As such it can potentially be quite useful both for the academic analysis of historical video games, the classroom analyses of history educators and students, and for historical game designers looking for some guidance on common components of historical games.

 

Endnotes

[1] I have tried to remain consistent in my terminology throughout to aid in clarity and usefulness. I use component as the general term for all the different parts of a game system realized through the executed code: player agents, goals, gameworld, and gameworld elements.

[2] Uricchio categorizes these as games that "make no claims to historical specificity," (2005, p. 330) which is clear enough in the case of geography but not necessarily in other aspects.

[3] This is, in some ways, a specific instance in historical games of Jenkins and Squire's important general observation that video games are primarily about contested spaces (2004).

[4] An economy based on workers gathering resources, player home territories occupied by bases consisting of buildings that can produce different units and technologies, rock-paper-scissor combat mechanics between different types of infantry and ranged units etc.

[5] Bruce Shelley, a lead designer of Age of Empires, explicitly notes that the game was intended to be a Civilization-style take on Warcraft II and Command and Conquer in Soren Johnson's 2015 Designer Notes podcast (1:16:43 - 1:17:04).

 

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