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I’ll be giving a workshop on El Cid next week and while working on it I found he is in a videogame – The Age of Empires II, Conquerors Expansion. I thought that was neat and included images from the videogame in the powerpoint lecture I prepared. During a practice-run of the lecture to a group of friends, one faculty member asked about the context in the videogame. We were discussing how later legends about El Cid refashion him as the ultimate Christian Knight whose mission it was to fight the Muslim hordes when in fact, he was a mercenary ready to fight for anyone willing to pay, whether Christian or Muslim. So the question came up the angle taken in the videogame – who is the enemy in the game? Does the player have a choice? Or is the enemy always Muslim? Not having played the game myself, I wasn’t sure but the question got me thinking about how popular videogames with a historical component are these days and how little historians have paid attention to them.

As videogames become more and more sophisticated, there’s increasingly more room for narrative within the game. I wonder who writes those and what role these narratives play in popular perception of historical events and characters. On the videogame Total War: Medieval II, the synopsis is telling: “Leadership on and off the battlefield is paramount. With the turn-based campaign map, you’ll control everything from building and improving cities to recruiting and training armies. Employ diplomacy to manipulate allies and enemies, outsmart the dreaded Inquisition, and influence the Pope. Lead the fight in the Crusades and bring victory to Islam or Christianity in the Holy War.”

As historians, we are always discussing the extent to which historical films shape popular perceptions and there is a huge scholarly literature on the topic of film & history. I have found nothing comparable that discusses videogames & history.

In The Age of Empires III, the focus switches from the Crusades in the previous installment of the game to Native Americans. In an interview, Sandy Peterson, the lead designer, argues that their aim was to focus on the Native point of view: ” In effect we are now giving the native nations full control of history. So in some ways we’re empowering them.” In other words, these games are also seen as venues in which history can be not only reshaped but to some extent, rebalanced. In that interview she also mentions that in the Crusades segment of the videogame, they aimed to show it from Saladin’s point of view. It would be interesting to see how that is done.

I’m going to start collecting these snapshots. It might be worth engaging with students about these issues…