Article Review: “Toward a virtual reenactment of history: Video games and the recreation of the past”

October 12, 2009

Brian Rejack’s article about video games’ relationship with historical accuracy was an informing read, discussing some problems about which I as well had previously thought.  For the article, Mr. Rejack used the game Brothers in Arms:  Road to Hill 30 as a case study.  His basic premise was that, while video games may use convincing narrative and visually accurate virtual worlds to simulate reenactment of historical events, they ultimately fail when compared to real reenactments because of the detachment involved in playing them.  This is something with which I can both identify and disagree.

The article begins with a look at an advertisement for a 2006 History Channel [then] new WWII documentary series, Dogfights.  Rejack examines how the documentary makers use virtual graphics to emphasize its excitement and accessibility to viewers, which leads him to Brothers In Arms, a 2005 video game set in World War II, during and after the D-Day invasion.  He goes on to talk about the game’s narrative, from a soldier’s point of view, and its virtual worlds, all modeled very accurately; however, he next asserts that these visual and storytelling techniques can only carry historical authenticity so far because “The player’s sole opportunity for interacting with the other characters occurs during a firefight, something that keeps the emotional register permanently ratcheted to fear” (Rejack 2007).  This is very true.  In order to experience the emotional engagement and understanding a reenactment brings, the participant must become involved.  During a typical reenactment the actors must coordinate with each other while experiencing the physical connection with the place, things a video game can never convey.  The playing experience is usually solitary and focused on gameplay, with the connection experienced only in brief pre-designed cutscenes.  Is the game fun, or is it accurate?  This self-contradicting trait is inherent in the designing of historical games, and it takes away from the credibility of the game as historically authentic.  Even with unlocked extras that shed more light on the historical side of the game, the player is still limited in their historical understanding because they are focused on shooting enemies instead of connecting with the event going on.

After discussing these limitations, Rejack points to another game which presented interaction in a different way, Façade.  In it, the player moves through the game by choosing different interactions with two virtual characters.  He says that if Brothers In Arms could present the same visual detail, but mixed with Façade‘s method of story progress, Brothers in Arms could engage the player much more effectively.  This way, the game brings the player to a more personal level by having them talk and interact with virtual people at the virtual historical scene, and the responses they receive could help them understand the event more powerfully.  This point is something on which I totally agree, as someone who wants to go into the gaming field.  I have looked at other games, such as Mass Effect (2007), and have found that this level of control over dialogue and therefore events does indeed heighten the player’s experience and connection to the virtual world and characters.  Narrative presentation is something which is constantly evolving in the video game field, and Rejack makes a good point about how static, cutscene-based storytelling can detract from the overall experience.

And yet, while I agree with the article’s points about the separation of historical understanding and the game’s structure, I disagree that the game’s use as a tool for understanding is as limited as he says it is.  In my view, it is still far better for a person to see and hear a virtual representation of the event than to simply read or hear about it.  If they can be engaged as fully as one is when playing a game, all the better.  More character and situational development simply needs to be thrown in to the action mix in order for it to succeed.

Source:

Rejack, B. (2007). Toward a virtual reenactment of history: Video games and the recreation of the past. Rethinking History, 11(3), 411-425. http://168.156.198.98:2136, doi:10.1080/13642520701353652

I believe the article is credible for the following reasons:  Rejack has an extensive bibliography on where he drew his ideas, both third-party and firsthand; his article was published in a peer-reviewed journal; all the information presented is completely objective and free of bias; and the article is still current, having been published in 2007.

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