Distillations podcast

Deep Dives into Science Stories, Both Serious and Eccentric
August 3, 2021 Arts & Culture

Learning History with Video Games

Are historical video games an important tool for learning or do they corrupt our collective understanding of the past?

Illustration from the video game Assassin's Creed

The pandemic made gamers out of many Americans, including our producer, Rigoberto Hernandez. He played a lot of historical video games, and it got him thinking: can you learn history from video games even though they are obviously fiction?

Throughout history, there have been many moral panics about people consuming historical fiction and taking what they read and watch as fact, so how do video games stack up? It turns out that they can empower players in better ways than TV shows, films, and books.


Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer
Photo: Ubisoft

Resource List

Digital Games as History: How Video Games Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice
The Tyranny of Realism: HistoricalAccuracy and Politics of Representation in AC3
Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary School
Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History


Alexis Pedrick: Let’s begin with a story. It’s about Hippocrates. You may have heard of him. His contributions to the field of medicine were so numerous that he’s known as the father of medicine. He lived from about 460 BCE to 370 BCE. In addition to being responsible for the use of clinical observation, the systematic categorization of diseases, and the formation of the humoral theory, he also believed very firmly that diseases were not caused by superstition or by the gods. And that’s where the trouble began.

Today, we think that what he did was nothing short of revolutionary. I mean, Hippocrates is so revered that the ethical oath taken by doctors to treat patients to the best of their ability is named after him. But approaching medicine by subjecting it to systemic study rather than religious guidance put him at odds with ancient Greek religion. Hippocrates’ approach put him in the crosshairs of the Cult of Kosmos. Specifically, the Priestess Chrysis, who was part of the Cult of Kosmos, and this wasn’t just any old cult. It was one that hoped to achieve nothing less than complete control of the ancient Greek world.

If this is starting to sound a little suspect to you, a little bit like it’s not true, you’re right, at least partially right. Everything we told you up to the part about Hippocrates being in the crosshairs of the Cult of Kosmos is true. The rest is from the 2018 video game known as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

Hippocrates: He suffers from neglect.

Non-playable character: Neglect?

Hippocrates: Good food, warm clothing, so much could have helped. But since other caretakers assumed his condition was a punishment from the gods, they neglected him.

Kassandra: Challenging tradition. You must be Hippocrates.

Hippocrates: Yes. I’m also very busy.

Alexis Pedrick: We know, first vampires, then ghosts, and now this. But consider a good portion of Hippocrates’ biography in the game is actually accurate, and even if the Cult of Kosmos is made up, the fact that he was going against the grain to suggest disease was more science than superstition is also correct. And it all kind of begs the question, can we learn history through a video game?

I’m Alexis Pedrick.

Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago, and this is Distillations.

Alexis Pedrick: According to the research firm Nielsen, more than half of all Americans turned to video games during the pandemic, either for entertainment or escapism or escapist entertainment.

Lisa Berry Drago: That’s a huge number of people, but maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising. After all, the video game industry is bigger, money-wise, than the film and music industries combined.

Alexis Pedrick: Our producer, Rigoberto Hernandez, was one of the many people who turned to that escapist entertainment over the last year. Hi, Rigo.

Rigoberto Hernandez: So, two weeks before Philadelphia went into a lockdown in March 2020, I went to my local Walmart and I forked over $280 to buy a PlayStation 4. Now, keep in mind that I hadn’t played a video game since I was in the eighth grade, but the prospect of getting lost and escaping the pandemic seemed really appealing.

Alexis Pedrick: And so, what kind of games were you looking for?

Rigoberto Hernandez: So, I was in it for the single player experiences. Uh, I was partial to games with story and world building, what is known as open world games. And that’s why I turned to Assassin’s Creed games. I wanted to ride horses, play with swords, and hop on ships and sail to far away lands. I wanted to feel like a kid again, and I wanted to play. And what started out as kind of this informal encounter with history turned out to be a really profound learning experience.

Alexis Pedrick: Okay, a profound learning experience. So, how so? I mean, was it like watching a historical TV show or a movie?

Rigoberto Hernandez: It was actually an experience unlike other types of historical media like TVs or TV shows, because video games give the player agency, and because they are simulations in which the worlds are more immersive and realized. But video games are also just like other types of historical media, also known as historical fiction, in that they spawn endless debates about the intention of the creator, the accuracy of the work, and the representation of the people. And what makes historical games so compelling right now is that more people are playing. And that has created more interpreters of history, which really broadens our collective understanding of the past. And those are things that I want to talk about in this episode.

Lisa Berry Drago: So your experience left us with lots of questions. Are historical video games an important tool for learning? Are historical video game developers creating historical fiction? To what end? And do they need to be accurate to be credible or to be useful? And are the people represented as accurate as the worlds that game developers build?

Alexis Pedrick: But the big question we’re asking, the thing we’re really interested in is, is it okay to have informal encounters with history? What do we lose when we start putting engagement and imagination ahead of accuracy? And that’s a valid thing to ask, and as people who do the history of science, you might be wondering where we come down on this. But it turns out, if we flip that question around and start thinking about what we gain, the conversation gets a whole lot more interesting.

Lisa Berry Drago: Chapter one, developer historians. Over the years, there have been plenty of moral panics about students consuming historical fiction and taking what they read or see as facts and evidence. But that fear assumes that the facts and evidence that historians gather are complete and objective.

In reality, much of it is open to the historian’s interpretation, especially when there are gaps. Gaps are scary, or as historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel wrote in the novel Wolf Hall, “It is the absence of facts that frightens people. The gap you open into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”

Alexis Pedrick: History is, after all, sometimes impossible to verify, and historical fiction serves the role of filing in the gaps to make sense of the past. The point is not to blur the line between fact and fiction, but to actually highlight how that blur is history itself. This is why historian Adam Chapman, the author of Digital Games As History, also video game developers developer historians.

Adam Chapman: Though they work in very different domains and they have often different aims, the developers that are making historical games and the traditional historian writing history books actually share a lot of their processes. A lot of the time they’re both negotiating with evidence, they’re trying to be appealing, you know. There’s a rhetorical element both to games and to history books. You know, people forget that even the driest of academic writing has an appeal to an audience. It’s trying to convince an audience of something.

Both of them involve subjective decisions. You know, the evidence can’t tell us everything, occasionally you have to make a decision, or, well, often you have to make a decision about what that evidence means to you as a historian.

Lisa Berry Drago: So, game developers and historians both have to make the subjective decisions about evidence, but does that really extend to calling them developer historians? Well, let’s talk a little bit more about what historians do. In fact, let’s stay with the ancient Greek theme, and go all the way back to how Herodotus, aka the father of history, practiced his craft.

Alexis Pedrick: In the fifth century, he wrote a volume of books simply called Histories, and it’s all there right in the first sentence. Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiries. To him, it was vital that it not just be a long list of names and accomplishments to be blindly accepted and unchallenged. When he wrote about the Persian/Greek War, documenting the success and failure of both sides, he hoped to understand why events happened the way they did.

Lisa Berry Drago: Oh, and it just so happens that Herodotus is also one of the main characters in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

Herodotus: My name is Herodotus. I’m a storyteller.

Lisa Berry Drago: In the game, Herodotus follows you through your 50 to 100 hour, depending on your style of play, journey, from Athens to the Olympics. He’s there to document your progress throughout the game. Get it? ‘Cause he’s a historian.

Alexis Pedrick: But going back to the real Herodotus for a minute, the way he dealt with history perfectly encapsulates how developers are replicating the historical process. We often think about history as a straightforward series of events. One thing leads to the next in a neat, orderly, linear fashion. But that’s not always what history is for historians. For them, for us, it’s a system of constantly asking why events happened the way they did, and then creating a narrative based on the evidence they’ve gathered.

Lisa Berry Drago: And this is what Ubisoft, the developers of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, are doing when they’re making these games. All right. So, we’ve mentioned it a few times, but for those of you who aren’t gamers, let us explain. Assassin’s Creed has 12 entries in the franchise. The overarching conflict is between a group of assassins, the good guys, fighting for peace through freedom, and the Templars, the bad guys who also want peace, but want to do it through control of people and events. You know, as bad guys are wont to do.

Alexis Pedrick: Since its launch in 2007, Assassin’s Creed has set its games in the crusades, Renaissance Italy, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the 18th Century Golden Age of Piracy, Victorian era London, ancient Egypt, Medieval England, and, of course, Ancient Greece.

Lisa Berry Drago: There are always two timelines in these games, one in the present and one in the past. In the present, a modern day person has access to something the games calls the Animus. It basically reads genetic material from a past person or thing, and then renders the past world that that person or thing came from. A genetic time machine, if you will.

Alexis Pedrick: That’s really the game in a nutshell. And the developer Ubisoft not only has historians on staff, they also hire a lot of consultants to get some of the details just right. But wait a minute, you might be thinking. If they have all these historians on staff, then isn’t accuracy a major part of the game?

Lisa Berry Drago: Good question. The answer is yes.

Alexis Pedrick: But also, no.

Lisa Berry Drago: Chapter two. What’s the deal with accuracy?

Alexis Pedrick: In 2018, Marc Andre Ethier, a history teacher and professor at the University of Montreal, wrote a paper in which he interviewed consultants who worked on Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, the franchise’s take on the 18th Century Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean. Here’s what they told him.

Marc Andre Ethier: Ubisoft was asking very precise questions on many, many, many details. What kind of, uh, button was on that kind of coat that was worn by soldier at that time, or what color was the wall on this room in this building, uh.

Lisa Berry Drago: The reason developers care so much about these seemingly minute details comes down to something one of the original producers for Assassin’s Creed games, Jade Raymond, says. Quote, “By grounding a story in reality, you increase its credibility.” Or put another way, the more specific historical detail, the more immersed you can become in the game, and the experience will feel authentic.

Adam Chapman: This kind of phenomena of the granular details, as you say, uh, being very important is actually something we see throughout popular engagement with historical, uh, media. So, research has shown, for example, that if you ask audiences about the accuracy of historical films or historical, you know, period dramas, the thing they will focus on is material culture.

Alexis Pedrick: That’s Adam Chapman again. As he explains it, people tend to focus on whether the buildings or the clothes are right. That’s what makes something feel authentic to players, and that authenticity matters. As our producer, Rigo, can tell you, one of the biggest pet peeves for video game players is when a game “breaks immersion.”

Rigoberto Hernandez: That’s a sin. Uh, I can’t overstate how important it is to be immersed. That’s the whole point of playing the game, so that I don’t have to think about COVID-19 even for one second.

Lisa Berry Drago: So, to give Rigo that experience, games like Assassin’s Creed have to get the details right, taking the fantastical aspects oft he story and grounding them in reality.

Alexis Pedrick: Now, notice so far our discussion of accuracy revolves around giving the player a certain kind of experience, and this is where some historians and game developers start to part ways. The main sticking point always seems to be about accuracy. Do these games need to be strictly accurate in every detail?

Lisa Berry Drago: And for the developers, the answer is it’s more important to be authentic than factual. What video games are actually aiming to achieve is selective authenticity.

Matthew Kapell: To deal with history, don’t have to be historically accurate. They have to establish an authentic meaning of that period, of that idea, of that time. Because if you get the authentic feel of what it was like to be in the very first city, you have a much better understanding of early civilization than you would if you just read a book about the construction of the first grain storage facilities, right?

Alexis Pedrick: That’s Matthew Kapell, a historian and anthropologist who edited a series of books on video games. Game developers are really trying to convey the feeling of the past, not necessarily to give a factual report about it. And that feeling can be a gateway for people to dive deeper into history.

Take, for example, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, which is set in Victorian London. You team up with English naturalist, geologist, and biologist Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin: Charles Darwin. Delighted to make your acquaintance.

Alexis Pedrick: Your goal is to take down bad guys who are creating a “soothing syrup” that’s supposed to cure everything. But in reality, it was mainly opium and it was making people sick.

Lisa Berry Drago: In the game, you discover that the creator of the syrup is John Elliotson, a ruthless doctor who believes in mesmerism, a kind of hypnosis, and phrenology, a discredited field of study that supposes the shape and size of someone’s skull is an indicator of their intelligence.

Charles Darwin: He was a brilliant heart specialist until he became obsessed with phrenology and mesmerism. It ruined his career.

Alexis Pedrick: In the game, Elliotson is working out of Lambeth Asylum. There he performs cruel experiments on patients like drilling holes in their heads in front of an audience as a kind of show.

John Elliotson: We will compare the brains of our two specimens. Since both specimens have a propensity toward violent behavior, we should see similar protrusions in specific parts of their brains.

Alexis Pedrick: Your job as a player is to sneak through the asylum, pretend you’re one of the patients, and then use your moment when you’re lying on the operating table to, you guessed it, assassinate him.

Lisa Berry Drago: Like the story we told you about Hippocrates at the beginning of the podcast, not all the facts are accurate. Elliotson was certainly not killed by an assassin working undercover as a patient, and Charles Darwin was not the one leading the charge.

Alexis Pedrick: But Darwin and Elliotson were both real people, and the feeling of history this part of the game gives you is right. In the 19th century, people really did fall victim to quack medicines that contained everything from morphine to cocaine to, yes, opium. And people did get sick and often died.

Lisa Berry Drago: And John Elliotson was pretty ruthless. So much so that his students said, “One should let him diagnose but not treat the patient.”

Alexis Pedrick: And drilling holes in people’s heads? That wasn’t imaginary, either. It was part of doing a lobotomy, a real treatment that was widespread in the mid-1800s after the scientific community became fascinated with the case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who had a rod blown through his head in a work accident and developed a whole new personality.

Lisa Berry Drago: But the thing that struck Rigo the most was the location, Lambeth Asylum, which doesn’t exist.

Rigoberto Hernandez: The Lambeth Asylum in the game is actually based on the infamous Bedlam Hospital, known for experimenting and abusing their mentally ill patients. I knew of the real Bedlam Hospital, but when I was playing my mind just filled in the blank that Lambeth Asylum existed in real life. And the game did that through world-building.

Adam Chapman: What these developers are doing is also acting as historians. They are representing the past for people and whether we as historians like those representations doesn’t matter as much as the fact that those representations are having an effect, potentially, on how popular audiences think about the past.

Lisa Berry Drago: You might think that’s a bad thing, but consider the player who doesn’t work for a museum that explores the history of science. They are so immersed in the game, Lambeth Asylum feels real. So, they just have to Google it, just to check. And what they discover is a whole treasure trove of information about actual history for them to dive into.

Alexis Pedrick: And this question about historical accuracy in video games is near and dear to our hearts partly because, well, the Science History Institute is trying to develop one.

The Goldsmith’s Daughter: The game begins in the 16th century London home of Viola, a budding alchemist in her early 20s. She lives with her father, who runs a successful goldsmithing shop attached to the home in which Viola has trained and worked in since she was a young girl.

Lisa Berry Drago: For the last few years we’ve been working on the idea of a digital game that would center on the history of alchemy, set in early modern London. In 2017, we even received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to begin prototyping.

Alexis Pedrick: Our partners in this project are Drexel University’s incredible entrepreneurial game studio and the indie developers at Gossamer Games who specialize in innovative and highly visual game storytelling.

Lisa Berry Drago: Our proposed game will tell the story of Viola, a young, early modern woman who wants to escape her marriage and make her own way in the world. To accomplish this, she turns to alchemy. That’s right, alchemy, the art of transformation or transmutation. You know, turning lead into gold, making an elixir of immortality called the philosopher’s stone.

Alexis Pedrick: Really, alchemy was much more than that. Think of alchemists as early chemists. They used heat, pressure, acids and other techniques to separate metals, create chemical medicines, produce dyes and pigments, and a whole lot more. Part of the reason why we wanted to make this game in the first place was to show people how diverse and fascinating alchemical ideas were and how useful alchemy was in the early modern world.

Lisa Berry Drago: And according to Matthew Kapell, this is the point. He says that selective authenticity is powerful because it can help you understand your place in the world. For academics like him, the question of accuracy misses the forest for the trees.

Matthew Kapell: When you play a game that deals with history, whether it deals with real history or pretend history or counterfactual history, you know, the Nazis won World War II kind of stuff, what you’re really constructing is a myth. And that myth is a thing that lets you feel as though you are part of an overarching narrative yourself, and that’s how you become a member of society. You share myths with each other.

So, that’s why Batman is so useful. Or, I don’t think we’ve gone a year without a Law and Order franchise since the early 1990s, right? And that is the same freaking story every time that tells the viewer, every single time, that the system works for them. And they constructing those kinds of stories, you construct meaning. You make up a way to understand yourself and your society and your place in it.

Alexis Pedrick: He’s not the only one who thinks this. Plenty of teachers see the inaccuracy in video games as a jumping off point, a teachable moment. Take, for example, Jeremiah McCall, a high school history teacher in Cincinnati who uses video games in the classroom.

Jeremiah McCall: I don’t want my students to take anybody as a, an authority figure that you just follow their account. I don’t want them to take me that way. They probably do a lot of the time, but you know, I don’t want them to take me that way, I don’t want them to take their readings that way, and I definitely am not interested in a game where you just sort of sit there and go, “Okay.” It’s that moment, thousands of years, right? People have talked about how education is about lighting fires, not about pouring stuff into people’s brains, and it all kinds of goes back to that.

Lisa Berry Drago: Sounds like Herodotus would have approved. And there’s something else McCall is emphasizing about the experience he wants his students to have through video games. Agency.

Alexis Pedrick: Chapter three, agency and simulation.

Lisa Berry Drago: The biggest difference between an Assassin’s Creed video game and a period movie is that you, the player, have agency in the game. You push a button and the character does something. And Rigo, that was the whole draw for you, right?

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. In Assassin’s Creed Origin, you play as a misthios, which is the Greek word for mercenary, and you play as either Kassandra or Alexios, and I play the game as Kassandra because she’s a better voice actor. And with her as my avatar, I could park for famous landmarks, like the Acropolis. I could use a spear, a sword, a bow, and fight against the Athenians or the Spartans or both. I could carry out assassin missions in ancient Greece. I could move the main story forward by doing the tasks the game instructs me to do, or I could just spend hours doing site missions, like finding ancient artifacts for Pythagoras, the father of math, and your actual [laughs] father in the game.

And that’s the beauty of Assassin’s Creed. It’s a video game franchise that uses history as its playground. And since I play the main character in the game, it is also my playground.

Adam Chapman: Normally the story’s basis in where only the historian has any agency. They get to decide what comes and goes in that space and what emerges from that space and eventually produces the book. That’s not the case in video games. In video games, the audience is actually invited into the story space, because the narrative of the game isn’t decided until the player plays it.

You know, the developer puts in different narrative elements, different narrative possibilities, narrative units. But it’s really up to the audience to arrange those and decide them by the way they play the game by the decisions they make. And so the history play space is really trying to emphasize this unique quality of games.

Alexis Pedrick: That’s not the only thing that makes video games different. They’re also simulations, and we’ve mentioned that word before. Simulations are really helpful in science. They’re a way to predict what things will happen and why. Scientists use them to test out ideas and make models and see how complex systems are going to work.

Lisa Berry Drago: Assassin’s Creed is what’s known as a realist simulation where you play as a particular person in the past as it was claimed to be.

Adam Chapman: And the game will use what you would call kind of iconic signs. Um, so sort of signs that are to be taken literally, this is what the past looked like, rather than sort of more symbolic visual symbols. So in this game, really it’s about sort of sharing it as it was claimed to be.

Alexis Pedrick: According to Adam Chapman, you could also call realist simulations heritage experiences, which is a fancy way of saying they’re a lot like historic sites.

Adam Chapman: It’s like going to one of these living history places or going to a sort of grand estate somewhere and you sort of walk around and you see the, the actors, uh, all the NPCs, in this case.

Alexis Pedrick: By the way, NPC means non-playable character. All the other players but you.

Adam Chapman: Going around the daily life you learn from observation, from having the ability to move around towards what you’re interested in, and the arrangement of everything in, of material culture as well, you know. When you go to a museum, you see individual objects lacking context. When you go to a, a heritage site, you are given a special context. You know, if you see some weird piece of machinery in a museum you might not know what it is. If you go to a heritage site and you see it in a stable, you might realize it’s for horses.

Alexis Pedrick: And that’s akin to the experience you have in video games like Assassin’s Creed. So much so that Ubisoft has developed a kind of virtual heritage site using their historic in-game locations.

Lisa Berry Drago: Ubisoft is aware that Assassin’s Creed is too violent for schools. But they also know that many of their players, including academics and teachers, love the attention to historical detail. So as a balancing act, they created these things called discovery tours in which they keep the world they made in the games, strip out all the violent game play, and add additional educational content. They have two tours now, ancient Egypt and ancient Greece.

Alexis Pedrick: In the tour of ancient Greece, the player’s avatar visits the temple of the Greek god of medicine. You can approach this statue as it purportedly existed back then and a man will begin narrating his biography.

Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour: In sculptures, pottery, mosaics and coins, Asclepius was portrayed holding a staff intertwined with a sacred snake. The staff is a symbol of medicine that still endures to this day.

Lisa Berry Drago: Rigo, you’ve actually played one of these tours, right?

Rigoberto Hernandez: I did, and when I ran into that statue [laughs], I thought that was pretty cool. I had no idea that the staff with the snake that’s so dramatic in the game, that’s the same snake that’s often associated with medicine, and it comes from ancient Greece. And so, what I got from that was basically that Assassin’s Creed games gave me agency, which is something you can enjoy as a historian, but not always as someone who consumes history. And the simulation was, like, the virtual museum I could walk around in.

Lisa Berry Drago: It sounds like you’re describing feeling empowered.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah [laughs], I am.

Lisa Berry Drago: Chapter four, empowering the player.

Alexis Pedrick: In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Athens is one of the main cities you visit from time to time. In the middle of the game, when you return to Athens, the city has gone dark. There are rats and ravens everywhere. And when you ask Hippocrates what happened, he tells you about a plague.

Hippocrates: Look around you. Athens is dying.

Alexis Pedrick: He’s trying to stop the plague from spreading and he asks you to help fight off the fanatics and burn the bodies.

Alexios: Is there nothing that can be done?

Hippocrates: I try and leave this offering where I can. The plague is spreading through the victim’s excretions. I’m sure of it. The bodies must be burned. Fanatics are roaming the streets, trying to stop me in my work.

Alexios: What fanatics?

Hippocrates: The followers of Ares, superstitious fools.

Lisa Berry Drago: The plague of Athens depicted in the game did happen in real life, and there are some accounts that Hippocrates built a great fire which helped the unhealthy atmosphere around the city. The cause of the plague is still debated, as is his role in mitigating it. But the important thing is that this is a moment in the video game, Rigo, where you were surprised by a piece of information, and then you went and took control of your learning.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. When I was playing the game, I didn’t really pay attention to any of this. I thought, “Oh, well, plagues happen.” [laughs] And there’s this nice doctor who wants to help. But it did spark my curiosity, and so I looked it up, and that’s when the game really solidified my learning. The game provides lots of jumping off points and I just explored the ones that were interesting to me. And this is me talking to Adam Chapman about my experience.

The big aha moment for me was playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and, like, spending 60 hours in this world and then I was like, “Oh. Like, I wonder what Greece looks like.” And then I’ll, I Google Greece, and then [laughs] I, I saw the map and it was exactly the same map, and that was, like, whoa, this is really cool. Like, I, I understand this in a different way now.

Adam Chapman: Yeah, absolutely. And, and as I said, uh, Shawn Beavis was a research, the Ph.D. thesis before. That’s absolutely what she found. You know, that the games work as a great, uh, springboard, basically, to further historical learning. You know, they get people interested a lot of the time, get them excited about the past so they genuinely want to know more.

It’s both a problem and a strength of video games is, uh, in the same research by Shawn Beavis, which she did a survey of popular audiences. She found video games to actually be the least trusted popular source.

Lisa Berry Drago: That distrust might sound like a bad thing, but according to Adam Chapman, it’s not. Any history that destabilizes its own authority is a good thing. To echo what Jeremiah McCall said earlier about his students, it encourages audiences to think critically. But, this also complicates things.

Adam Chapman: It’s a problem if you want to teach people things if they don’t believe anything they see. [laughs] There’s a kind of interesting dynamic there as well, where you need people to not blindly trust games, but you need them to trust them enough tot think, “Actually, this is worth looking up about ‘cuz some of this is probably true,” or, you know. [laughs] It’s a very difficult thing to balance.

Alexis Pedrick: So Rigo, how did you feel about this balancing act, as someone who [laughs] works with the history of science? How did it affect you as a player?

Rigoberto Hernandez: I think to be engaged with history, sometimes it’s just enough for the game to spark curiosity about the past. After finishing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, I started playing other games in the franchise because, well, I work telling [laughs] stories about the past, so it was very much on brand for me, as the kids say. It was an excuse to learn about history while also playing games. I’m doing research. And for many people, these kind of games are sometimes the only avenue they have to learn history.

Adam Chapman: Perhaps the most exciting thing about historical games is the enfranchisement. You know, the way they enfranchise popular audiences into the kind of historical practices that exclusive, rare, or simply unavailable to popular audiences. You know, compare that to the traditional historical reenactor that’s got to buy all of their, you know, their costume, um, or the clothes. The, the, you know, replica weapons. They have to travel to events. They have to buy food. You know, all of these kind of things that made those kind of activities kind of restrictive according to, to class if you like. You know, or, or, uh, at least, uh, you have resources.

I think that kind of, like you say, democratization, that enfranchisement, that digital games are for allowing people that can’t afford to go to a heritage site to have a heritage experience. That can’t afford to be a reenactor to engage in reenactment. That haven’t got the time or the, the money to go to university to learn to become a historian, to engage in at least some semblance of what historians do. You know, that’s, that’s an amazing thing and I think that’s, uh, something that’s often overlooked about these games.

Alexis Pedrick: But, and of course this is us. You knew there waws a but coming. Just because historical video games are trying to give players an empowered, informal experience with history doesn’t mean that they’re excused from having to be thoughtful about what they’re presenting.

Lisa Berry Drago: Right. We’ve given a lot of credit to Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed for balancing attention to accurate detail while also ignoring accuracy if it makes a more engaging game. But there’s a huge down side to that. Adrienne Shaw is a media studies professor at Temple University. She says by focusing too much on realism, Assassin’s Creed deflects criticism and sidesteps the possibility of presenting history more critically. She calls it the tyranny of realism.

Adrienne Shaw: The tyranny of realism is trying to understand representation in terms of goodness or badness, in terms of what is the most accurate. And the truth is, once the representation is about accuracy, it really closes down what kinds of representation can be made available. Representation shows us what types of being in the world are possible, and the more diversity in those representations, the more types of being in the world we can imagine.

Alexis Pedrick: We’ve actually grappled with this issue in working on our game at the Science History Institute because our main character, Viola, is a woman. Most people think of alchemists as men, and some people who played our prototype thought our protagonist should be a man, too.

They didn’t think it was realistic that a young woman would be able to navigate the early modern world of science so freely. They argued that a young man protagonist would be better. He’d help them dive into the historical narrative and it wouldn’t take them out of the story, or “break immersion.”

Lisa Berry Drago: Yep, there’s a dark side to all that good stuff we said earlier about breaking immersion. They asked why we didn’t just pick a well-known male alchemist and feature him? After all, most famous alchemists, Roger Bacon, John Dee, Paracelsus, Robert Boyle, are dudes. A lot of history has already been written about them, and then we’d have a real-life figure to research, and we could make sure every little detail of his life was correct.

Alexis Pedrick: And this is where you run into trouble if empowering players is the only thing you prioritize in a historical video game. To some of our testers, an anonymous, fictionalized woman alchemist seemed too far-fetched, too difficult to research or to “prove.” They thought our woman protagonist was, well, just too much of a fantasy.

Lisa Berry Drago: But the historical fact is, women have always been engaged with alchemy from the very beginning. Women like Mad Margaret Cavendish, who not only wrote alchemical theory, but some of the very first science fiction. Women like Marie [Murdroch 00:33:13], who created one of the first chemistry textbooks to teach her women students.

Alexis Pedrick: Women distilled tonics and medicines as part of being family caretakers. They supported alchemical households and laboratories. For every John Dee, there was a Jane Dee behind him, literally. Women’s contributions are less well-known, but they’re definitely significant. And when we decided to create this game, we knew from the beginning that we wanted our protagonist to be a woman, partly because of exactly that attitude. Hey, what’s a woman doing in here? As if women were invented in the 1800s and didn’t start doing science until Marie Curie was born. But also because we’re looking at one of those gaps we were talking about early in the episode.

Lisa Berry Drago: Statistically there are more well-known men alchemists than women alchemists. Men alchemists published more books, got more contracts, worked for higher profile patrons. It’s true. But what’s more important here? Sticking to the statistical fact or revealing the hidden truth, that women contributed to alchemical knowledge and that they’ve been denied their place in science history for too long?

If our game can help change that narrative and make players more curious about the importance of women in science, well, to us, that’s the point. Not just historical information, but historical meaning.

Alexis Pedrick: Just think about what Matthew Kapell said earlier, that selective authenticity can help you find your place in the world. Consider that women are still under-represented in STEM, even though we’ve made progress in leaps and bounds. By showing an early modern woman cleverly navigating the world with her science savvy, maybe we can inspire a few young women gamers of today.

Lisa Berry Drago: And that what if we’re giving players, what if a woman was an alchemist in the 17th century, that’s a powerful tool. So powerful it even has a fancy word, counterfactual.

Alexis Pedrick: It’s a tool that historians sometimes use to drive home the point that history is random, contingent. This is Adam Chapman again.

Adam Chapman: So we always think about the meaning of something that did happen in relation to how it could have been otherwise, basically. And, and this is not just on a historical level. We do this in our everyday lives. You know, it’s part of sort of human perception, it’s part of human psychology. You know, that’s the only way we can experience emotions like regret, for example. We can only understand what we did do in relation to what we didn’t and then we might feel regret for that.

But we sort of interpret the past in the same way. So it’s not actually as far from traditional academic practice as it’s been seen as in the past. It’s just historians probably didn’t write down traditionally what didn’t happen, uh, even if they thought about it to understand what did happen. And this is why it’s a useful pedagogical tool, because if you confront, say, students or, you know, or players confront themselves with counterfactuals, they can get a much better sense of not what happened. You know, counterfactuals aren’t great for telling you what happened, but they can be absolutely fantastic for telling you why things happened.

Lisa Berry Drago: So, by empowering the player but letting them engage in counterfactuals, game developers are actually helping them realize how fragile history is, to help them see why things happened the way they did. Not because it was orderly and made sense, but because of personality and politics and weather and wars, all the things that historians think about every day.

Rigoberto Hernandez: Now that the city and the country are starting to open up again, uh, I’m going to [laughs] still keep playing video games, but maybe not as much as I was playing during the pandemic. Truth be told, the pandemic made me more grumpy than usual. But gaming reminded me about what it was actually like being a kid again, and the joys of playing. And what I didn’t understand until I reported this story is that the play is a vehicle to make sense of the world. This is Matthew Kapell again.

Matthew Kapell: And you think to a classic, um, game like Pac Man in which you’re just going around a maze eating dots, right? But that game has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the beginning is a maze full of dots and ghosts, and the end is the dots are all gone. So, while the people who study it as play see it as the play part, I tend to see it just as a, another form of narrative in which you start with all of the dots and the narrative is you eating those dots.

So, for one side of game studies, the story is really important. We’re not the species that plays. I, my cat is behind me right now playing. We’re the species that constructs stories. We’re the species that figures out what’s important by telling stories about it. The story itself is the thing, not the play. The play is important, but the story is the important part if you want to understand people.

Lisa Berry Drago: On some level, we know this and it makes sense. I mean, the Bible has multiple origin stories which can feel really loosey goosey until you take a look at history and realize that it was written at a time when people were trying to make meaning for themselves. They didn’t see individual words or sentences as being in conflict. For them, it was the process of talking through how they thought things came to be based on their religion.

Alexis Pedrick: And this holds true for written histories versus oral traditions. Remember, much of history for many generations was told out loud as stories. The emotions they evoke, the vivid imagery, the memories that they carry are just as important as the facts and figures. And for video games? Well, Rigo, why don’t you take us out?

Rigoberto Hernandez: The most enjoyable part about playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is that I see the game [laughs] in a totally different light now. I didn’t pay as much attention to all the historical characters until I started doing more research on them. And what started out as an informing encounter with history turned out to be a profound learning experience.

Alexis Pedrick: Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations.

Lisa Berry Drago: Remember, Distillations is more than a podcast. It’s also a multimedia magazine.

Alexis Pedrick: You can find our videos, stories, and every single podcast episode at Distillations.org, and you’ll also find podcast transcripts and show notes.

Lisa Berry Drago: You can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for news and updates about the podcast and everything else going on in our museum, library, and research cente.r

Alexis Pedrick: This episode was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez.

Lisa Berry Drago: And it was mixed by Jonathan Pfeffer

Alexis Pedrick: The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at ScienceHistory.org/givenow. For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick.

Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.

Alexis Pedrick: Thanks for listening.

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