From ‘Oregon Trail’ to ‘Uncharted,’ video games make history fun


The success of this year’s “Uncharted,” a film starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg and based on characters and themes from the popular video game series, drew attention to how historical themes and concepts can reach a wide audience. Like many other video games, “Uncharted” uses story fragments to advance its interactive storyline for the user. The Uncharted video game franchise, which now has seven iterations, began in 2007 with a plot centered on a man named Nathan “Nate” Drake who claims to be a descendant of privateer Sir Francis Drake. As he seeks to find the lost treasure of El Dorado, he finds himself entangled with Nazis who searched for the same treasure during World War II.

Video game designers and gamers have long been fascinated and inspired by historical stories and characters. Delving into the history of how video games have used – and distorted – the stories of the past reveals a persistent demand for historical education through entertainment, a reminder that people are constantly looking for new ways to engage and to find meaning in the past.

Video game education efforts began with computers. In 1973, for example, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, which worked with the state university system and the Minnesota Department of Education, began using computer technologies to improve student learning. A decade later, Minnesota boasted of having 10,000 computers in its public schools, with a ratio of 73 students per computer, which would be the highest ratio in the country at the time.

The consortium has also pioneered the creation of computer-based tutorials, including its most famous version: “The Oregon Trail”. Originally a text-based game for school use, “The Oregon Trail” was released for students and teachers across Minnesota in 1975. The game, which later spun off through Apple, Microsoft and others, is a strategy video game where the user takes the role of a wagon leader guiding settlers across the frontier during the 1840s. The player is tasked with making important decisions along the way, including choosing the best path, when to hunt and how to avoid diseases such as dysentery. Designed to encourage skills such as planning, strategy and memory, the game was a hit.

Such nostalgia sold well in the 1970s, when in anticipation of the bicentennial and the nation’s social, economic, and political turmoil, many Americans looked to the past in new and engaging ways. As Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska has argued, it was in the 1970s that history “became as much about feeling as about thinking, about being in the past instead of looking at it”. Immersive video games helped bring history to life in the 1970s, just as new period television shows, pageants, oral history projects, and museum exhibits did.

While Atari and its groundbreaking 1975 game “Pong”, a virtual simulation of a table tennis game, showed the potential market for home video games, commercial sales were on the upswing over the decade. next. Then, in 1985, the Japanese company Nintendo launched its Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States. This release quickly marked the success of now classic games such as “Super Mario Brothers” (1985) and “The Legend of Zelda” (1987). In 1990, Nintendo accounted for 90% of the United States’ $3 billion in spending on video games, with a survey suggesting that its main character, Mario, had become more recognizable to American children than Mickey Mouse. These commercial successes also meant that educational games would undoubtedly take a back seat to entertainment.

As new consoles entered American homes, including the 1989 Sega Genesis, numerous games emerged, some of which sought to tie historical themes of conquest and empire building to modern skills of achievement and success. ‘work ethic. For example, Nintendo released the military strategy game “Genghis Khan” in 1990. The game allowed four players to create a strategy of conquest on behalf of England, the Byzantine Empire, the Mongol Empire or the Japan, while facing challenges along the way. . As a 1989 review of the computer version of the game noted, “Conquerors must be calculating, charismatic and cunning, as well as courageous”, and this video game promised its players such lessons.

Similarly, players of 1991’s “Civilization” (originally on MS-DOS, but later released to several other platforms and consoles) were challenged to build and expand an empire spanning thousands of years, seeing civilization through military engagements, urban growth and colonization. Players who have become imperialists have sometimes encountered opposing civilizations that they could have read about in their history textbooks, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon Bonaparte. These games rewarded players for their perseverance and determination to conquer and colonize.

By the 1990s, another video game genre was also firmly established: World War II. In the United States and elsewhere, such attention to war reinforced a nationalist memory of the battlefield that emphasized the role of individual combat and violence. Often this has happened through the lens of the first-person shooter, which is often separated from the larger strategy of warfare. For many of these games, the story was often more of a backdrop or setting than a source of education. The focus on entertainment was also reflected in the original versions of the hit games “The Medal of Honor” (1999) and “Call of Duty” (2003) and their many sequels and knockoffs.

The ability to weave a strong nationalist story in video games is by no means unique to the United States or limited to the historical context of World War II. In 2012, the Cuban government released “Gesta Final” to help teach young Cubans about the 1959 Cuban Revolution. This game also adopts the first-person shooter format to tell a state-sanctioned story about the origins of the revolution and the successes of his people.

In short, video games reveal a lot about our culture, whether it’s educational initiatives or political agendas. They also became a way for players to tackle important questions about public history and a shared past – albeit created for the game itself. Game designers and programmers often use a generic or fictional museum or heritage site, for example, to allow the player to learn a particular past necessary to advance the character’s story. In this way, although primarily a form of escape, these features can function as a museum in the non-virtual world where visitors take away fragments of the past to form a sense of who they are in as a people.

Whether fictional or not, the inclusion of museums and historical and archaeological sites in video games can also tell us something important about changing attitudes towards accessibility and the protection of history. As museums have become spaces of reverence and exclusion, their virtual manifestations have offered players a different experience. Countless video games, including 2019’s “World War Z” about battling zombies, require clashes in museums or graveyards that even lead to the complete destruction of these virtual environments.

Today, many museums are inspired by the successes of video games to better engage their audiences, especially younger ones, with interactive and sensory experiences. In 2016, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled “MicroRangers,” an app game that interfaces with museum exhibits to help children learn.

Video games can make history more accessible, but there is a downside because these historical experiences are often presented without a lens or critical or analytical guidance. Likewise, we might wonder if the consumption of alternate, imaginary pasts in the virtual world can serve – even inadvertently – as a lure or distraction from coping and reckoning with the horrors and inequalities cemented in our histories.

Some data, however, suggests something more optimistic. A 2020 survey found that 93% of historical video game players felt inspired to learn more about a particular event or person in history, while 90% believed video games had the power to change. people’s perspectives on a historical event.

As the video game market continues to grow and progress, its ability to create and disseminate knowledge about the past may also increase. Those who study history would be well advised to answer the call.

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