Abbie Hartman

Abbie Hartman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and Archaeology at Macquarie University, Australia. Her research focuses on how popular culture influences historical knowledge, particularly how video games can be used to articulate, understand, and reflect moments of historical trauma.

Contact information:
abbie.hartman at

Rowan Tulloch

Dr Rowan Tulloch is a lecturer in digital media and video gaming in the Department of Media, Communications, Creative Arts, Language and Literature at Macquarie University, Australia. His research looks at the technological and cultural logics embedded within practices of interactivity and play: from the neoliberal rhetorics of choice and agency in video gaming, to the surveillance architectures of gamification. He seeks to understand the relationship between play and power, and explore the systems that shape our leisure practices and preferences.

Contact information:
rowan.tulloch at

Helen Young

Dr. Helen Young is a Lecturer in the School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University, Australia with research interests in popular culture, particularly speculative and historical genres across all media, medievalism and critical whiteness studies. Helen has recently published in postmedieval, ELN and the Journal of LGBT Youth and Continuum.

Contact information:
helen.young at

Video Games as Public History: Archives, Empathy and Affinity

by Abbie Hartman, Rowan Tulloch, Helen Young


Videogames are a common way that members of the general public engage with historical material. This article argues that historical videogames can and should be considered as a new and significant form of public history. Public history occurs outside formal learning contexts, involves the general public, is participatory and straddles history and heritage. Gaming embodies these qualities, offering the player a chance to explore the past in immersive and engaging ways, and for substantial periods of time as they play and re-play. Drawing on game studies, public history studies and education theory, this article offers a theoretical framework for understanding games as public history through three key concepts: the interactive archive; historical empathy; and affinity spaces. It takes Ubisoft Montpellier’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War (Ubisoft, 2014) as an illustrative case study. We explore why it has been highly acclaimed as an example of a ‘good’ historical game by both academic and popular sources, and what can be learned about the public reception of historical material from this. We argue that although Valiant Hearts is unconventional in its representation of war, its play mechanics build on established gaming conventions and, as a result, it is a valuable illustration of the affordances of videogames as public history practice. This article aims to enable public historians to understand the significance and nature of an under-analysed medium, and to offer game scholars tools for understanding the broader context of historical games as public practices of history-making.

Keywords: public history, interactive archive, affinity space, historical empathy, World War One



In early April 2018, a minor, but telling, controversy erupted within and around the defence forces veterans’ organization the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL). The Castle Hill branch of the RSL Club advertised a tournament for the videogame Call of Duty to be hosted at the club on May 8th. The tournament, to be run by a local eSports league, offered cash and prizes for winning players and was part of a regular set of eSports competitions held year-round nationwide. However, the proximity to Australia’s national day of remembrance -- ANZAC Day on the 25th of April -- and the RSL club venue led to a number of reported complaints and, in turn, the intervention of the state government’s Minister for Veterans' Affairs, David Elliot. Elliot stated that, while he had not played the game personally, he believed such a competition was "distasteful" and "inappropriate” and that “promoting war as entertainment a week after Anzac Day, in front of veterans and war widows is probably just stepping over the line” (Kennedy & Kontominas, 2018). Elliot’s comments reflect wider concerns around the commodification and trivialisation of significant, tragic, historical events through their representation in videogames. The tournament was swiftly cancelled by the RSL with apologies and promises that such a thing would not happen again.

There is much that could be unpacked in this controversy, and what it says about Australian national identity, war remembrance and the commodification of war. Here, however, we take it as an example of the complex and fraught relationship between gaming and history. We explore the question of how videogames teach the general public about history and how the general public engages with history through them. To do this we mobilise the concept of “public history.” Public history is a term used to describe history education and engagement that occurs outside traditional teaching institutions. We propose that videogames can be usefully understood as a form of public history, a 21st century addition to the museums, archives, films and fiction that conventionally occupy this territory. Arguably, all historical videogames set during a specific, recognisable period contribute to a public imaginary of that past. We argue, however, that not all games engage in public history with equal complexity or success, but that public history theory and surrounding scholarship can help us evaluate and recognise the potential of gaming as a new driver of public history discourses. To do so we offer a case study of Ubisoft Montpellier’s 2014 game Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Set in Europe during the First World War (1914-1918), Valiant Hearts allows players to explore how this conflict affected individuals of different genders and nationalities, and demonstrates the hardships of the conflict through an individualised and emotive experience. Valiant Hearts is an unusual game in the detail, sensitivity, and complexity of its depiction of war. The mechanics it uses, however, are far from unique to this title, and it therefore demonstrates the ways in which public history is, and could be, shaped through videogames. Created and released to coincide with international commemorations of the century of the start of World War One, it should be considered “in light of a wider movement towards memory and commemoration” of that conflict (Kempshall, 2019, p. 226). The specific creation and publication of Valiant Hearts within the broader context of international commemorations of the First World War invites consideration of how a commercial product, designed principally for profit-making and entertainment, might contribute to the wider context of public history.

Videogames offer an important way for large segments of the population to interact with detailed historical content for extended periods of time; a game typically takes longer to play than a film does to watch, a museum to visit or a book to read. Videogames, we argue, are a common form of public history which is only beginning to be explored and understood in scholarship in that field. Scholarship focussed on public history typically does not engage with video games, although Thomas Cauvin briefly acknowledges digital games as a form of public history practice but does not consider popular iterations (2016, pp. 195-197). Historical games have been explored and theorised from perspectives of historical games studies (e.g., Chapman, 2016; Chapman, Foka, & Westin, 2017), as historical fictions (e.g. De Groot, 2016b), as vectors for cultural memorial (e.g., Pötzsch & Šisler, 2019), heritage (Holmes, 2019) and history education (e.g., McCall, 2013). While these accounts do not all specifically engage with the concept of public history, they are all theorising of popular narratives of the past through the video game medium, and as such are foundational to our argument here. Scholarly engagement with video games as public history has emerged relatively recently within the broader field of historical games studies. Three broad intersecting areas of interest have emerged: a focus on online play communities formed around games (Majewski, 2021; McCall 2018; Webber, 2016), history pedagogy (Li, 2021; McCall, 2018; Wojdon, 2018), and player capacity to engage critically with the “vision of the past” in a particular game (McCall, 2018, p. 405; Wojdon, 2018) and practices of history (Webber, 2016, Li, 2021). Our tripartite theorisation of videogames and gaming as public history builds on this growing field’s discussions and debates in order to situate historical games in a broader cultural and social context and develop a framework informed by games studies to theorise how videogames and gaming can and should be understood as public history. In doing so we aim to offer game scholars tools for understanding the broader context of historical games as public practices of history-making, and to enable public historians to understand the significance and nature of the video game medium.

For much of the past decade, historical games studies “has focussed primarily on justifying games as something worthy of, and identifying what they offer to, the practice of history” (Holmes, 2019, p. 105) [1]. Building on this foundational scholarship, we explore why videogames should be understood as public history, and how public engagement with historical videogames both during and outside gameplay can be theorised. We begin with an overview of public history studies, then offer a framework for understanding videogames as public history through three primary concepts: interactive archive, the way in which games can operate as an explorable catalogue of historical events, objects and scenarios; historicalempathy, the way in which games create an emotional resonance and personal connection to the past; and affinity space, the means by which games can encourage participation in history-making experiences outside play contexts. Different historical games offer different configurations of these three dimensions, and not all dimensions can be seen in all games, but it is nonetheless a useful taxonomy for understanding how history is mobilised within gaming and for understanding how historical games contribute to and are connected with broader practices of public history.

Public history is both an academic field and set of practises. As an academic field it has as its focus the question of how a public engages with the past at a local, national or global level. As a practice it is a direct engagement between the public and historical material, information and experiences. Accounts of public history often focus on institutions and forms such as museums, war memorials, archives, walking tours, documentaries, historical movies, fiction and occasionally, in recent years, videogames (Dean, 2018) [2]. Faye Sayer positions public history at the nexus of academic history which “seeks to explore and explain the past by researching sources materials” and “heritage [which] uses the past in the present, populating and personalizing the past” (Sayer, 2019, p. 3). She argues that “public history is a merging of the two,” which “enables history to be valued and valuable to a broad audience and to have significance in the present beyond the creation of knowledge, providing a broader social, political and economic value” (Sayer, 2019, p. 3). Precise definitions of what ”public history” is are the source of significant discussion in academia [3]. In this article we are principally interested in the broad contours of public history practices. When the term first emerged in the 1970s it typically meant the interventions of academic historians in public discourse (Cauvin, 2018); this understanding is still relevant, for example in the work of academic consultants on historical games. A key point is that it happens outside formal spaces and structures of academia (Gardner & Hamilton, 2017, p. 2; Sayer, 2019, pp. 1-2). Public history also has a significant participatory element: it “is not doing history for the general public, but with them” (Cauvin, 2016, p. 14) [4]. As a result, public history has emerged as a powerful way to theorize and narrativize history with a specific focus on offering opportunities for non-academic audiences to interact with and find meaning within historical content and discourses.

Understanding videogames as public history offers a way forward for the field of history, which has been slow to embrace, if not avoidant or suspicious of, gaming as method and performance. History discourses around gaming often take issue with the violent and spectacular nature of many ludic representations of war, often leading to an absence of analysis of the medium or a rejection of its value as a tool for history [5]. Other accounts frame video games as a politically reductionist and problematic way of engaging with historical content, particularly in context of war. Historian Joanna Bourke, for example, strongly condemns the way videogames depict warfare, arguing that videogames not only celebrate and normalise military violence but coerce those playing into aligning themselves with the military:

Playing is always an interaction between self and world. Gamers and their virtual worlds are always embedded in a political space. In the case of war games… they are saturated with talk of ‘our troops’, habituating civilians with an armed version of themselves. Combat legitimacy is absolutely jettisoned for player proficiency. In fact, playing these games is a form of participating in war. (Bourke, 2014, p. 213)

Reservations about video games offering a glorified, selective or otherwise inaccurate representation of historical events and contexts have also been echoed by games scholars around industry mobilisation of discourses of authenticity (Chapman, 2016, p. 53; Salvati & Bullinger, 2013), and in exploration of games as public history (Wojdon, 2018). A crucial point for understanding games as public history is that we can shift the discursive framing away from the problematic concepts of legitimacy and accuracy, so favoured by the industry, and instead examine the political and cultural role games have in constructing a historical narrative for the general public. What Bourke is pointing to in her condemnation of “war games” is the persuasive power of these virtual experiences for players. For Bourke these games are so immersed in a militarised logic, that they train the player to be an “armed version of themselves.” Bourke’s reading of war games problematises their politics and content but recognises the power these games have in shaping player understandings of historic warfare, a point that has been taken up more broadly by games scholars such as Na Li (2021) and Nick Majewski (2016) who recognise the capacity of games to shape historical consciousness.

Within a public history discourse then, we must not just ask what does a game teach about the past, but also what does it say about the present that this particular historical narrative is being produced and popularised; and what other narratives are possible? Likewise, concerns around gaming like those witnessed in the Castle Hill RSL Call of Duty controversy point to the kinds of public history narratives and forms that are deemed acceptable and appropriate within a broader political and cultural climate. The question for public historians, is not should games with historical content be considered public history, they are already operating in this role, rather it should be: how can an informed and sophisticated narrative or experience be conveyed through this medium? Our case study below of Valiant Hearts seeks to do this. This is a game that constructs a more nuanced historical experience than commonly seen in other war-based video games, and we analyse the mechanics by which it does so.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War (2014)

Valiant Hearts is exemplary of many of the logics and conventions used by other games, demonstrating that video games can function as sophisticated practices of public history. Valiant Hearts is a cartoon styled point and click adventure puzzle game telling five interlocking stories; each offers insight into different facets of the First World War, and its participants, its events, and its horrors. Valiant Hearts differs from many games from triple-A studios that depict historical war, such as the Call of Duty franchise, in that the narrative and gameplay do not centre on the player enacting violence. Like other games set during World War One, it lacks “common heroic tropes'' associated with typical games set during historical wars (Anderson, 2019, p. 180). The game offers players the opportunity to step into the shoes of participants in the war and to understand the experience of soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire of global politics. In each section of the game, the player takes on the role of a different character as they navigate the brutal landscapes of war-torn Europe. The five playable characters -- three men, one woman and a dog -- span nationalities and allegiances, and each give the player a different experience of wartime existence. Emile is a French farmer who becomes a prisoner of war in 1914. Karl (Emile’s son-in-law) is living in France at the outbreak of war but, due to his German heritage, is quickly deported to Germany leaving behind his wife and young son. Freddie is an American driven by vengeance to join the French Foreign Legion. Anna is a Belgian living in Paris who enters the conflict to act as a freelance nurse, tending the wounded no matter what side of the conflict they are fighting on, while she searches for her kidnapped father. Walt, a dog, accompanies all four human characters at various times, linking their stories.

Valiant Hearts won numerous games industry awards including a BAFTA for “Original Property” (Kelion, 2015). Academically, it is also recognised as significant in its mobilisation of historical material. Chris Kempshall recently used it as a case study to show that “progress has been made in tying games into existing [scholarly] ‘historiography’ and occasionally challenging some ideas about the First World War” (2019, p. 227). Kempshall emphasises the role and influence of academic historians in the creation of Valiant Hearts (and other games). Involvement of consultants is a significant element of practices of public history, as noted by Cauvin (2018). Kempshall argues that typically “the impact of historical consultants can be highly useful through the creation of visual fidelity but have only limited reach in sculpting or redirecting a game’s narrative to bring it in line with up to date historiography” (2019, p. 234). However, with Valiant Hearts Kempshall reports a deeper than usual level of contribution from scholarly consultants (2019, p. 235). From shaping factual information, creation of historical text in the game, identifying key episodes in World War One that informed particular game sequences, and teaching artists and animators about the physical realities of trench warfare demonstrates, consultants had a very significant role in the making of this game (Kempshall, 2019, 235). Drawing attention to consultation with historians is reasonably common in games that foreground historical accuracy as a drawcard for players such as Warhorse Studios’ 2018 Kingdom Come: Deliverance (e.g., Peppiatt, 2016). This is not limited to strictly historical games: press coverage of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla (2020), the latest offering in a franchise that frames historical content through a science fiction premise, makes much of historians’ input into the combat system (e.g., Alshobaji, 2020). These studios’ desire to draw attention to such consultation even in games with significant ahistorical elements suggests that the public is deeply invested in the idea of historical accuracy, and accepts the authority of experts and the value of their input into games created primarily for entertainment purposes. This indicates that a wide range of videogames could be considered through a lens of public history because historians act as consultants on them, but also because the public understands them to have historical qualities even when significant ahistorical and non-realist elements are present in the gameworld [6].

The analytic framework we offer below, with its three key facets: the interactive archive, historical empathy, and affinity spaces, expands upon existing conceptualisations of historical gaming in order to offer a toolkit for understanding the complex and varied ways videogames function as public history. Through a close analysis of the mechanics of Valiant Hearts, we illustrate the framework through an example that is recognised as both a good game and good history in order to clearly demonstrate its structure and applicability. While it is beyond the scope of this article to include further case studies, the framework is potentially useful in understanding the “public history” elements of ahistorical games such as The Witcher and Dragon Age franchises.

The Interactive Archive

Archives are central to practices of public history. Be it museum, gallery, library or other form of collection, archives are the configuration and instantiation of the logics of public history. In this section we will explore Valiant Hearts’ incorporation and mobilisation of archival attributes and material, show how it differs from the way many games use archival material in service of ”authenticity” and analyse how this shapes the type of public history it offers.

Video gaming has a long history of using archival material [7]. In particular, videogames that represent warfare of the 20th and 21st century commonly use archival aesthetics and tropes. Media theorists Jaimie Baron and Clemens Reisner, have each analysed the function archival material plays in the Call of Duty series (Baron, 2010; Reisner, 2013). Baron notes the heavy use of archival film and news footage in her analysis of the World War Two based Call of Duty: World at War (Activision, 2008) and argues this footage functions to emphasise the ”reality” and “authenticity” of these past events; the film footage contrasting with the computer-generated game graphics to remind players of the very real history they are playing through (Baron, 2010, p. 304). Reisner mirrors this point in his analysis of the cold war focused Call of Duty: Black Ops (Activision, 2010), arguing the use of archival television footage, and “emphasis on classified documents, papers, and files hints at the authority and authenticity” essential for primary sources in history (Reisner, 2013, p. 251). Both Baron and Reisner, however, note the deep limitations of how the archive is mobilised in these games, particularly that the archival material is largely present in non-interactive cut sequences or scenes with limited activity. Reisner notes that Call of Duty: Black Ops often gives the player agency to look around, but not intervene during moments of historical importance. He argues players are thus encouraged to “witness” history, and this experience “follow[s] the logic of a theme park ride” (Reisner, 2013, p. 254). Baron, is deeply critical of such lack of player agency in the use of archival material, arguing that it functions to “promote a sense that history is teleological and can happen -- could have happened -- only one way” (Baron, 2010, p. 308). For Baron, Call of Duty: World at War, in its use of archival material for the purposes of authenticity, ignores one of the radical possibilities of the digital archive: the audience’s agency to construct their own path through the history, and understand how different archival materials offer different historical narratives (Baron, 2010, p. 308). This capacity for enabling player agency resonates strongly with Li’s argument that counterfactual thinking sometimes necessitated by playing historical games fosters historical consciousness (2021). Baron ends her piece imagining a future videogame that combines Call of Duty’s “riveting gameplay” with a “more reflective interactivity…which allows for thoughtful choice” and shows players “other possible histories that might have occurred if certain battles had not been won” and in doing so challenges the static teleology of traditional historiography (Baron, p. 312).

While Valiant Hearts’ use of archival material and structures does not seek to achieve Baron’s desire of deconstructing the teleology of historical inevitability, it does, perhaps, offer the more “reflective interactivity” she hopes for. The game foregrounds player agency, offering players the power to explore historical material in line with their own interests. Valiant Hearts functions as an archive in two primary ways: through in-game objects, and through the “Historical Facts” menu. While exploring the gameworld players can pick up objects, and the game then offers related historical details. A crucifix medallion, for example, gives the player an account of religious practices in World War One. These items are generally not needed for puzzle solving and so are optional to acquire, but choosing to do so will enrich the player’s understanding of the context of the war and the lives of combatants and civilians of the time. Valiant Hearts also explicitly incorporates archival material that can be accessed through the game’s menus. The game has a “Historical Facts” menu item that the player can access at any time. This option offers players photos, information, diary entries and other primary historical sources about the First World War. This material draws on historical sources from several international archival repositories including: the Australian War Memorial, Filmmuseum, Ministère de la Défence Belge and the US Library of Congress. It was assembled in conjunction with Mission Centenaire, a French organization specifically tasked with developing and increasing public awareness of French World War One Centenary commemorations. The active collaboration with major public history institutions is illustrative of the games’ clear position in that sphere. Personal archival material is also featured, with letters written during the war by the grandfather of the creative director, Yoan Fanise, and others sourced from the general public. Valiant Hearts, despite being a commercial product from a major game studio, was in-part created through participatory public history.

Historically-focused videogames actively engage in a process of “remediation” which is the “formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000, p. 273). It functions to make new forms seem more familiar, intuitive and useable (an operating system remediating the traditional physical desktop with files, folders and trash is one such example). To understand how a new media form is positioning itself culturally, economically, technologically and so forth, one can consider what it chooses to remediate. The Call of Duty games remediate the aesthetics of news and documentary film in service of authenticity. The limited agency offered to players, as Reisner notes, also calls to mind and remediates the spectacle of the theme park ride. Valiant Hearts’ use of historical material is a very different configuration of an archival logic. Where the Call of Duty games used archival material, Valiant Hearts also offers an archival structure. It is the interactive possibilities of this structure that show the public history possibilities of gaming. History here is not simply background content to be witnessed, but a space for exploration and reflection. Valiant Hearts’ incorporation of existing archival materials and its affordance of player agency, suggests a very different remediatory heritage in operation. Sky La Pell Anderson suggests that Valiant Hearts is more an “interactive museum” than a typical historical game set in war time and that as such it uses lore to convey history and affective design to help players invest in the experience” (Anderson, 2019, p. 193). Like a museum that can be explored, historical details and artefacts are spread through the gamespace and can be found (or ignored) at the player’s own pace, and reflected on, researched and incorporated into their own narrative in a variety of ways. The game, like many public history institutions, even directly offers online resources enabling the motivated player to do further reading and research. Valiant Hearts can thus be seen to be a particularly participatory example of public history. This game expands and radically refines the trope of mobilising archival material in gaming in order to open up the possibility for reflective and meaningful historical engagement. When coupled with its use of empathy and facilitation of affinity spaces (discussed below) Valiant Hearts can be seen to persuasively demonstrate the power of the videogame form as a vehicle of public history.

Historical Empathy

Historical empathy is the ability to relate to the past through an understanding of the “mentality, frames of reference, beliefs, values, intentions, and the actions of historical agents” (Yilmaz, 2007, p. 331). Such empathy will never be complete because it is impossible to read history outside of contemporary frames of reference and subjectivities, but historical empathy is about attempting to understand the past on its own terms, and appreciate the perspectives, motivations and desires of people in the past (see Foster and Yeager, 1998; Blake, 1998; and Endacott & Brooks, 2013). Videogames offer a unique opportunity to foster historical empathy for the general public; their active nature and the requirement that the player is the primary agent in progressing through their contents necessitates that games train players into the “correct” ways to engage with the gameworld. Games, therefore, are “sophisticated pedagogic systems” (Tulloch, 2014: 318) that guide the player as they build up a familiarity and fluency with that world, its rules and its systems of cause and effect. Videogames often use mechanisms of repetition (such as death and reloading) to encourage players to perform a process of scrutiny and reflection, both of the gameworld and of their engagement with it. To succeed, players must fine-tune understandings and perfect their performance. Given that many games can take dozens of hours to complete, this is a sustained pedagogical process. In a public history context, this process opens up a powerful possibility for historic empathy. In allowing the player to act as an agent in the recreated past, and in training them into its world, culture and logics, videogames can facilitate the establishment of a potentially nuanced and sustained form of historic empathy. The past recreated here, is of course mediated through the lens of contemporary framings, ideas and politics, as well as the tropes and conventions of video gaming, but it nonetheless enables players to engage with the problems and complexities of the reimagined past through the act of play (Chapman, 2016; Li, 2021; McCall, 2018). Not only can a game give the player the opportunity to experience the historical scenarios from a firsthand perspective, but they can also establish a space where to succeed the player must understand and predict the way the reconstructed historical world functions and will react. While a historical game should never be mistaken for a perfect representation of an actual time or place (such a goal would be profoundly naïve, despite how the concepts of accuracy and authenticity define gaming promotional discourses), the ability to simulate a system of cause and effect affords a level of intense immersive engagement with contemporary historical thought, that other traditional methods of historical instruction and public institutions, such as museums, cannot offer.

Educational psychologist Liz Boltz draws on a small-scale experiment using Valiant Hearts to demonstrate that particular gameplay elements can foster learners’ development of historical empathy (Boltz, 2017). She argues that the simple gameplay mechanics, non-violent focus, and use of historical archival material, offered in Valiant Hearts give players the chance to “engage with a complex and multifaceted historical period” (Boltz, 2017: 5). Her study reveals that some mechanics of the game were better at producing historical empathy in its various forms: encounters with historical facts and engagement with historical artefacts were the two most effective in Valiant Hearts, while puzzles were least effective (Boltz, 2017: 11). Her work points towards the potential power of this game as a tool for historical education. And while her small study size and lack of diversity of participants (four school age students from broadly similar demographic backgrounds) means we cannot necessarily generalise this for all players and playing communities, it does point to the power of Valiant Hearts specifically as a tool for creating historical empathy. More broadly, it suggests the ways in which other videogames could be designed to maximise the level of historical empathy produced.

Valiant Hearts’ mobilisation of historical empathy demonstrates that a complex type of engagement is possible with this medium. In contrast to many war-focused games, like the Call of Duty series, which give the player a great deal of training in shooting enemies and evading attack, but have relatively little focus on other aspects of wartime life and survival, Valiant Hearts is more character based and broader reaching. Aspects of warfare rarely addressed in other games, such as periods of boredom, friendships, grief and fear, are explored here. The game also teaches empathetic action to the player. One example is a simple encounter early in Valiant Hearts, where Emile, given the opportunity to escape from being a prisoner of war, comes upon an injured German enemy trapped under rubble. To progress, the player, as Emile, must pull the enemy soldier from the rubble. Valiant Hearts, frames this moment as a clear act of empathy, with Emile recognising the humanity of his enemy. This is also a rare choice in a medium where enemies are often interchangeable moving targets. The empathy here is not just a matter of one character’s compassion for another; the episode also generates historical empathy that helps the player understand the complexity and messiness of war as they experience Emile’s emotions through play. This act, in turn, teaches the player that empathy is not only possible but encouraged within the gameworld, a significant departure from most gaming conventions which sometimes offer the ability to rescue and heal teammates and allies, but not enemies.

Videogames offer an important possibility for increased historical empathy within public history. The pedagogic mechanisms, the systems of cause and effect and the sustained engagement with these worlds all present opportunities for understanding the culture, motivation and context of historical events. Not all games foster complex empathetic relationships, many military games offer the player an historical empathy purely on the level of sensory spectacle, seeking to create an affective empathy in terms of an overwhelming first-hand experience of the intensity, noise and destruction of large-scale battles. Others like Valiant Hearts, however, seek to have players relate to and understand the contexts and challenges individuals faced historically. While, as Boltz demonstrates, not all gaming elements are equally good at fostering historic empathy, gaming affords opportunities to offer a type of insight and engagement with the past that other forms cannot.

Affinity Spaces

Videogame culture is profoundly focused on, and enabled by, the internet. The myriad of game focused review sites, blogs, forum and streamers offer varied and powerful opportunities for affinity space building. Perhaps no media form is as widely discussed and interrogated online as video gaming. Gaming culture as a whole is deeply involved in the breaking down and obsessive analysis of gameworlds, as well as producing other game related content: from walkthroughs (play guides) and game modifications (such as new graphics and new levels), to fan fiction and movies made in game engines (Wirman, 2007). This deep level of engagement means players must have a deep understanding of the content they are working with. Online discussion forums for historical games are a significant space for engagement from and among the public. Nick Webber demonstrates that “it is as important to think about the communities around these games as it is to think about the content of the games themselves” (2016, p. 5). John Majewski’s analysis of social media commentary by players of Sid Meier’s Civilisation shows that most posts “are designed to help players master the game and not think about history,” but also demonstrates that the game has sparked interest in history itself and can enable “immersive critique” (2021, pp. 79-80). McCall argues that social media discussions “can illustrate some of the ways players interact with historical games” (2018, p. 410). He demonstrates that engagement with historical problems, complex discussions of historical accuracy and the methods and appropriateness of modding are among the topics covered (2018, 410-414). Theorising such forums highlights how these spaces can be usefully understood as examples of public history practices. The insights of leading game-based learning theorist James Paul Gee offer a useful starting point for conceptualising the role gaming communities can play in shaping public understandings of history.

Gee argues that the learning process in games does not just happen in the moment of play but continues beyond the game’s boundaries and takes place through the real world and digital communities and spaces that surround the game, which he terms “affinity spaces” (Gee, 2004, p. 76). An affinity space is an environment where informal learning takes place (Gee, 2004, p. 76). Gee uses videogame communities as a defining example of affinity spaces, taking the game Age of Mythology (2002) as an illustrative case study (2004, p. 74). Age of Mythology is a real-time strategy game where the player controls units drawn from ancient mythology and legend, including gods, heroes and mythic creatures. Gee notes that the Age of Mythology community spends a great deal of time deconstructing, analysing and discussing aspects of the game, from useful strategies with particular units, to details on the history and mythos behind gaming characters and cultures (Gee, 2004, p. 76). The game, its players, and the resources they create form an affinity space are a non-hierarchical, shared space of common interest and knowledge. Gee argues that affinity spaces offer a way for people to engage in a peer-supported learning environment where experienced and new players can intermingle and learn from and teach each other, and those with knowledge share and distribute their information freely.

While Gee’s concept must be re-examined in a contemporary context where online gaming communities can be deeply hierarchical and exclusionary, and are far from welcoming to all (Fox & Tang, 2017), the concept of the affinity space is still a productive tool for exploring the ways games shape players’ engagement with and learning about the past -- not just through formal game content, but in the communities and relations they facilitate and focus. This is crucial to understanding the power of videogames as a vehicle of public history. Gee’s framing suggests that videogames allow members of the general public to consume and contrast historical knowledge in an easily accessible but meaningful and collaborative manner. Games offer both a space to critically interrogate the past, and also a focal point for communal discussion, dissection and sharing of interpretations and research. What Gee calls affinity spaces are, in context of historical videogames, the sites through which a public history narrative begins to be negotiated and formed.

With Valiant Hearts, we can see this affinity space operating in a range of ways, from online discussions of the plot and characters to players sharing their own family stories, mementos and letters of wartime. In Valiant Hearts communities, we see analyses of the gameworld and potential play strategies, but somewhat unusually among gaming there is a stronger emphasis on discussing and giving greater context to the events the game represents. Twitter, Facebook and other forums offer rich discussions of the games events and suggest further paths for those interested in knowing more about World War One. Developer Ubisoft Montpellier encourages these types of engagements with links to online and social media resources that help players find and contribute to these discussions. The Twitter and Facebook communities surrounding Valiant Hearts feature a number of suggestions and guides for teachers in relation to how to incorporate this game into their lesson plans, as well as fan made art, stories and other extra content, much of which further develops the historical details of the game.

Affinity spaces are not limited to official or unofficial game discussion boards where players post. Ubisoft Montpellier also worked in partnership with the Apocalypse 10 Lives learning resource, with prominent links to the Apocalypse 10 Lives website accessible from the Valiant Hearts menu screen. This set of resources designed for teachers and students, offers another way to engage with World War One, covering topics such as “The Emancipation of Women in The Great War: Myth or Reality” and “The Combat Experience.” Like Valiant Hearts itself, this resource is based around the lives of fictional characters from different walks of life and countries from the period, but uses a variety of media formats other than gaming: from graphic novels, to more traditional written essays and articles. Here, Valiant Hearts is not just an object of public history in itself, but also what Gee terms a “portal”: a door to a wider set of resources and analysis. While most other games have official and fan run resources, few games so directly link to, promote, and expand educational content as Valiant Hearts. Ubisoft Montpellier here has invested directly in structuring the affinity space surrounding Valiant Hearts, they act as a facilitator and aggregator of a broader sphere of knowledge. While this affinity space is more hierarchical than those Gee examined (Ubisoft has a great deal of control over what appears on these forums, with the power to share, delete, retweet and highlight various items shared with them) the bulk of the content is still created by those not involved in the development of the game, and much of the learning about the events behind the game happens outside of gameplay itself. Here then, Ubisoft has mobilised the power of the affinity community to enhance Valiant Hearts’ potential to shape public understandings of history.

Serving as a portal to historical resources is an important part of Valiant Hearts’ strategy. However, where other games lack this formal emphasis on expert-created resources, often we find dedicated and organically created affinity spaces filling these gaps. The Call of Duty and Battlefield communities, for example, offer often detailed historical accounts, and discussions as to the “realism” and “accuracy” of game scenarios (e.g., Sharp, 2019). While they rarely feature the level of expertise displayed in Valiant Hearts’ community, this is more fitting with Gee’s original concept. For Gee, the lack of an established formal hierarchy opens the spaces for all participants to feel welcome to contribute, and it is in contributing as much as consuming that the user learns here. It is important to note that not all communities are equally welcoming. The exclusionary and toxic nature of some of these communities (particularly in regard to gender, sexuality and race) prevents all players feeling equally encouraged to participate. Yet among those who do we see a form of affinity space emerge and at times even a challenging of the exclusionary norms of the community. When the trailer for Battlefield 5 was released in 2018, for example, a great deal of discussion occurred in game forums (Shanley, 2018). The Battlefield 5 trailer featured a female soldier with prosthetics, leading to an outcry from a vocal group of players saying this was unrealistic. However, a number of members of the broader playing community, including historians and other experts, countered these claims by contributing articles and forum posts outlining both the history of women in warfare, and the use of prosthetics, showing the trailer to be less “unrealistic” than claimed (Farokhmanesh, 2018). This incident reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of the practices of these informal communities. Affinity spaces can promote a variety of voices, but with no guarantee that the most informed will be listened to, they can therefore reflect and reinforce inaccurate understandings and exclusionary politics. Yet, they often reflect popular social and political discourses and as such are likely to engage with the kinds of questions that many non-experts will be asking. These kinds of affinity spaces suggest that while in the context of public history one has to be wary of the way in which games and gaming communities facilitate learning about the past, the power of these spaces as sites of public history practice must be acknowledged.


The Castle Hill RSL Call of Duty controversy, with which we began this article, pointed to the difficult relationship between videogames and historical material. The accusation that Call of Duty is ”promoting war as entertainment” prompted the question: can any game offer an entertaining but meaningful and historically empathetic account of such periods of human suffering. Our analysis of Valiant Hearts suggests not only that it can be done, but that what we see in gaming is the rise of an important new form of public history. Although Valiant Hearts is presented as a simple and rather quaint videogame, it has the ability to inform those playing it about the lived experiences of the First World War. Valiant Hearts provides thoroughly researched historical information to its players while still presenting an entertaining game. Valiant Hearts presents a particular way of remembering the First World War through personal stories that emphasise aspects of war and war-time life not commonly seen in historical videogames. In presenting this war as a terrible event with a universally horrific outcome, Valiant Hearts positions players to move beyond nationalistic modes of remembrance and public history practices that commonly shape institutions such as museums and commemorations. It would be easy to see Valiant Hearts as an anomaly within the games industry, and to some extent it is in the funding arrangements, purposes and design choices, but it is also exemplary of the affordances of videogames as practices of public history.

By actively considering videogames as public history, we can begin to develop a critical literacy around them. Our focus here on the archive, empathy and affinity spaces is intended as a step towards establishing a theoretical framework for public historians to approach video gaming and for games scholars to develop new tools for exploring the wider contexts and impacts of historical games. We emphasise that these concepts speak to what videogames can offer public history: a complex but powerful set of possibilities for the public to engage with, learn about and derive value of different kinds from the past in the present. Our analysis of Valiant Hearts as a practice of public history works toward theorizing videogames affordances in that space. This is an early step towards establishing a framework to analyse games and public history, as much more work beyond this article is needed. Our goal here has been to recognise that video gaming plays a very significant role in public engagements with the past for a generation of people in the twenty-first century, and to develop a theoretical framework for how such engagements function.



The authors would like to thank the journal's anonymous reviewers.



[1] See, for example, (Chapman, 2016; De Groot, 2016a; Matthew Kappell & Elliott, 2013)

[2] Sayers (2019) and Cauvin (2016), for example, devote significant space in their books public history practice to such institutions.

[3] See, for example, (Gardner & Hamilton, 2017, pp. 1-4; Sayer, 2019, p. 2).

[4] See also Gardner and Hamilton (2017, pp. 2-3) and Hilda Kean and Paul Martin's The Public History Reader.

[5] The second edition of Faye Sayer’s Public History: A Practical Guide, for example, does not mention videogames despite including a section on digital media (2019, pp. 111-135).

[6] For discussion of the idea of historical accuracy in fantasy games see Young (2016, pp. 63-77).

[7] This includes Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Assassin’s Creed: Origins games which have “Discovery Modes” that function as educational spaces, quasi-digital museums that players can walk through. Players can navigatethe digitally rendered ‘historical’ world of the game, and access information panels containing text and images of historical items sourced from museum collections.



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