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We see Mahatma Gandhi smiling benevolently behind his round glasses. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you,” reads the quote, “then you make them shit, then you win.” Behind him is a thermonuclear sunset, mushroom clouds painting the sky blood red. This ‘Nuclear Gandhi’ meme went viral for the first time in 2012 after a player of the game Civilizationin which you play a historical leader and build an empire, you falsely claimed that Gandhi’s character had a bug, which made him strangely aggressive and prone to a nuclear war. In a 2016 sequel, the developers of the game responded by writing a penchant for nukes in the code of Gandhi as a joke.
Nuclear Gandhi may be just as ahistorical as you can get, but the Civilization Strategy games are one of the most popular series to enable players to explore different periods of history, to encourage them to learn more about the past and play with it. Another franchise loved by history lovers is Assassin’s Creed, which takes you on stormy wind tours through ancient Greece and Egypt, Viking England, Renaissance Italy and revolutionary Paris. Even though the fantasy framework – magical cabal and invisible pause – is ridiculous, the details of time such as architecture, geography and clothing are carefully researched, thanks to historians kept to the staff to ensure the truth. Those looking for something more grounded can try the realistic Bohemia of the 15th century Kingdom Come: Liberation or the smoky 1940s Los Angeles of The black.
The popularity of historical environments is understandable: it facilitates different playing styles in a world that is relatively human but far enough from the present to provide escape. Yet tensions arise in gambling circles around the issue of accuracy. Should historical games choose between serving as knowledge or entertainment? Or can they both make sense?
Obviously, games should simplify history to amplify the drama, compress events together, and exaggerate the roles of key figures. But the real challenge for historical accuracy is the players’ agency. Games are determined by their interactivity, which means players make choices that shape the game world. No matter how exactly your game recreates an era, history will change once you take control of the player – Rome can never fall, or the Ottomans can invade Vienna and rule Europe. The more agency given to players, the further a game can deviate from the historical record.
Therefore, every designer of a historical game must make compromises. It’s partly commercial: what kind of past do gamers want to inhabit? What would they pay to revive? But they are also creative: what version of history will they present? What prejudices will they accept and what sources will they trust? How much latitude will they give players to deviate from the accepted history?
These complications are the reason why game developers often do not talk about accuracy, but about authenticity. Historical games do not represent the past – it simulates it. So if you as the allies play in multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty: World War II or Battlefield V, you can not win the war against the fact. Although the game deviates from history, it authentically conveys the abomination of battle and the uncertainty of being a soldier, not knowing which side will prevail.
While Civilization gives us Nuclear Gandhi, it also recreates the conditions that real leaders face, and leads players to explore how factors such as geography or cultural domination form the world power. By sacrificing accuracy, games can make players active participants in history, revealing another kind of truth – a human truth. They flank the deconstructionist view of history, claiming that it is not authoritative or established. It’s so much more than one damn thing after another.
Yet many players still hold historical accuracy as an ideal, and every few years a debate flies online about a specific anachronism in a new game. It happened around the inclusion of women in positions of power in Total War: Rome 2 and Battlefield V, with critics often using misogynistic language. In this way, accuracy can be invoked to disguise sexism in the gaming community. Such arguments are not really about history; these are Trojan horses that have been used in the present to wage cultural wars.
Research has shown that many children’s first interactions with history now come through video games, and therefore it is worth considering whether there is a danger in historical games. By offering authentic historical experiences that question the need for accuracy, modern games perform an elegant dance between fact and fiction, earning a unique historical value. In the words of an old Confucian proverb, which itself has been wrongly attributed by history: ‘Tell me and I will forget; show me and I can remember; involve me and I will understand. ”