Finally, it seems fans of the military shooter series Call of Duty are going to get what theyâve been wanting for almost a decade: the past. On Friday evening, Activision announced Call of Duty: WWII as the next instalment in the multi-million selling video game franchise, taking it back to the original setting.
For several years, the games have been moving forward in time, advancing beyond the near-future setting of the Modern Warfare titles into the space battles of Infinite Warfare, introducing drones, robots and, most controversially, rocket packs, along the way. But as the diminishi...
Finally, it seems fans of the military shooter series Call of Duty are going to get what they’ve been wanting for almost a decade: the past. On Friday evening, Activision announced Call of Duty: WWII as the next instalment in the multi-million selling video game franchise, taking it back to the original setting.
For several years, the games have been moving forward in time, advancing beyond the near-future setting of the Modern Warfare titles into the space battles of Infinite Warfare, introducing drones, robots and, most controversially, rocket packs, along the way. But as the diminishing returns from the game’s annual instalments have shown, hardcore fans have become alienated by the endless new technological additions, preferring the ‘boots on the ground’ authenticity of the first Call of Duty titles, with their cinematic renderings of Operation Overlord, the second battle of El Alamein and the advance on Berlin. It was similar feedback, aimed at the rival shooter series Battlefield, that encouraged Electronic Arts to set the latest title during the first world war – to critical and commercial success.
There is no information yet on where in the conflict Call of Duty WWII will be set and fans will undoubtedly be watching closely on 26 April when Activision promises to reveal more. There is another group of individuals who should also be watching the publisher’s twitter feed with an attentive eye: historians. This game is likely to be one of the largest pieces of historical entertainment ever released.
From an academic standpoint, engaging properly with games that depict historical events should extend far beyond simply picking apart their accuracy – it’s a matter of public history. Historians interested in seeing where a huge portion of society is engaging with themes, ideas and material from the past should – and often do – look to games. How history is represented in these titles, how the player interacts with the world and why historical settings are utilised in such a way are all big topics worthy of academic attention.
The concept of a historian sitting down and examining a Call of Duty game may seem a little odd to those unfamiliar with the medium. However, games are hugely influential both culturally and economically – ignoring them is a missed opportunity.
“Historical games have rapidly become one of the most successful contemporary forms of popular historical media,” argues Adam Chapman, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg and author of Digital Games as History. “This is now a way that millions of people engage with the past and I think we therefore have a duty to take the relationship between games, history and players seriously and explore its implications. Furthermore, these games have similar potential to historical film and television, they can easily communicate a lot of visual information about historical environments and artefacts and they add life, movement and colour to history in a way that can be very engaging.”
The redemptive popularity of Battlefield 1 has shown there is a vast appetite for games that treat their historical settings with respect. EA Dice, the developer of the Battlefield series, claimed to have spent months researching the first world war, studying battles, weapons, technology and geography, and drawing these into the game’s large combat environments. Ubisoft brought real-life historical figures into its Assassin’s Creed titles, while forthcoming role-playing game Kingdom Come: Deliverance promises an accurate depiction of Medieval Europe.
What developers have discovered is historical videos games have considerable emotive appeal, tapping into the shared cultural consciousness of players. Although those unfamiliar with games might recoil at the idea (the word “play” still conjures notions of frivolity and triviality) engaging with tragic or violent historical events through a medium that allows for interactivity can provide an enormous opportunity for better understanding and empathy. Games don’t always get it right, of course. Battlefield 1 garnered a lot of praise for its handling of the human cost of WWI, but the marketing often seemed unaware of its source material adding inappropriate hashtags to screenshots and attempting to crate memes out of historically charged imagery. These uncomfortable slip-ups are often read as a sign that games aren’t “mature” enough to be examined by historians – but they actually provide evidence that there needs to be a discourse.
Chapman argues that games like Call of Duty and Battlefield provide people with fresh avenues in which to experience, explore and research history. Through games, the public is given the chance to simulate exclusive historical activities such as re-enactment, exploring heritage sites, or experimenting with theoretical models of the past. “The most exciting thing about historical games is that their interactive nature adds new possibilities,” he says.
Historians examining video games as a facet of public history won’t change how the average Call of Duty player enjoys the game, and neither should they. Nobody wants to see academics swooping in and telling people what they can and can’t enjoy. However, historians seek to understand where modern society is interacting with history and what the implications are. It is meaningful and interesting that successful contemporary television dramas such as Downton Abbey and The Crown are choosing to present recent history to us through the eyes and activities of the aristocracy; it is just as interesting how military action games present and explore historical periods through their major battles.
This is already happening. There are courses and conferences exploring video games as public history, while the popular video series, History Respawned has academics analysing how games such as Assassin’s Creed IV and Fallout 4 present history to players, and how those players respond.
A greater dialogue between academic history and video games feels like a necessary part of understanding how we engage with the past. Games don’t need academic validation to sell, but academia needs to engage with games in order to modernise its approach to public history.
Holly Nielsen is a writer and historical researcher who has lectured on the use of history in video games.
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