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Don't dismiss history in video games as trivial – it's no less scholarly than documentaries and history books

After Apple temporarily banned video games that depicting the Confederate Flag, it's time to ask whether video games can handle history with accuracy.

Recently the Apple store pulled a slew of historical games from sale for depicting the battle flag of the Confederate States of America. This caused something of a furore, with the developer of one of these games, Ultimate General: Gettysburg, insisting, perfectly fairly, that they would not remove the flag for reasons of historical accuracy, and they’d wait for Apple to see sense.

Fortunately Apple has since seen sense and the dropped games have been reinstated.

While this might seem to be a storm in a mint julep, it does draw attention to how games depict historical events and how they are still perceived to depict them in a frivolous way.

Ultimate General: Gettysburg itself, for example, should not be considered any more worthy of disapproval than a documentary or history book. The game itself is an accessible yet reasonably detailed simulation of a single battle, there’s no glorification of one side over the other going on, and the game avoids controversy and political complexity by keeping a tight focus on a single event.

What it accomplishes, successfully, is historical accuracy by omission, the things it cannot cover appropriately it doesn’t try cover at all. Depending on how much you knew about the Battle of Gettysburg before playing it, the game could even be considered educational.

Some games handle historical accuracy differently. Some do the design equivalent of getting a couple of selfies with history but not really being acquainted. The Total War series, for example, might define its iterations by historical periods and include era-specific detail, but the eras serve as set dressing.

The underlying mechanics have remained largely the same whether the combatants are ninja teams or Royal Marines. When players have baulked at the inclusion of ahistorical units over the years, from incendiary pigs and super berserkers to heavily armed regiments of female gladiators, they are missing the war elephant in the room, which is that the entire structure of the game is fantastical. Like chess, it is intending to simulate a few general principles of its subject while not attempting to recreate it authentically.

Historical accuracy becomes a trickier topic when games set their sights on a greater level of depth. One example of this is found in the Hearts of Iron series, which are three grand strategy games (with a fourth on the way), based in the period of 1936-1948. The focal point of the game is as you might expect, World War Two.

The version of the war that you fight in the game however omits several events that largely serve to define how the conflict is remembered. In the world of Hearts of Iron there is no Holocaust, nor is there any mention of the attempted ethnic cleansings or famines outside of Germany that also killed millions. Terror bombing of civilians isn’t allowed either despite being an explicit part of German and British air campaigns. The effectiveness of the campaigns themselves is debateable, but the logistical effort put into them was significant.

The choice to include or exclude atrocities from games touches on the core question of historical games, which is what do designers and players really want from them? What is the purpose of historical accuracy? Is a historically accurate setting there simply to give us a readymade frame of reference so that players can dive right in, or is there a sense of trying to get the player to connect with people from another era?

If historical accuracy is simply there to give us an overview of what a game is about then, returning to the example of Ultimate General: Gettysburg, something like the flag wouldn’t matter. But the evidence suggests it does matter, it matters enough to the developers not to change it despite the game being removed from sale. It matters for players too and you need only look at the forums of any historical game to see that, any and all details are up for debate. Players want games to try to be authentic so long as the game stays fun.

Maintaining entertainment value and accuracy together is where things can get tricky for a historical game. For example, a Hearts of Iron game wouldn’t work very well if it didn’t have some way to compensate for players knowing about the various huge surprises the war would through up, (in this case the game makes Germany stronger to counter the possibility of France having an eye on the Belgian border).

Similarly, games like Ultimate General: Gettysburg wouldn’t be as accessible if orders to units had to be transported on horseback* rather than given instantly via the player.

Meanwhile, in terms of the tone of the game, players being confronted with all the incalculable miseries of war all the time might not be find the experience particularly entertaining. Sometimes an audience wants Kelly’s Heroes not Schindler’s List. Too much historical accuracy, too much realism, these are not things games will generally prioritise above enjoyment, nor should they, because if a game is not entertaining then it has fundamentally failed.

When it comes to the relationship between history and video games, there is still a sense as evidenced by Apple’s arbitrary, if temporary, ban that games are seen not as a scholarly pursuit, that they do not merit serious consideration alongside films and books on their subject matter. If the speedy reversal of said ban is any indication, however, that particular perception might not be around much longer.

*This method of sending orders does feature in the Scourge of War series of games, whose approach to realism makes Euro Truck Simulator look like Mariokart.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture