By Sue Peabody , Asst. Prof. of History, Washington
State University Vancouver
Date: Tue, 17 Jun 1997
Prof. Peabody asks:
I'm interested in what you think of the changes that have occurred in the last decade since you wrote this -- what did you correctly anticipate? What was obscured in your crystal ball? Is there anything that you would like to add to the piece now that you couldn't or didn't when you originally wrote it?
Gee, it's actually been fifteen years since I wrote that in 1982, so I can be even less humiliated by its errors. I will not try to evaluate specific statements, but rather respond to the overall tone. I was pretty much on the mark in guessing the approximate rate of growth of revenues in entertainment software. The industry is indeed much bigger and better-funded than back in the early 80s. Where I was way off the mark was my optimism about the broadening of the marketplace. I believed that by this time we'd be seeing a wide range of entertainment software addressing a wide range of tastes. That has not happened; computer games now are completely unchanged in terms of their basic appeal. They are precisely the same fast-action shoot-em-ups or nerdy strategy games that we were dishing out 15 years ago.
What became of Excaliber? (I gather that it was very successful.)
Indeed not. It came out just as Atari collapsed and was lost in the dust of the disaster. Those few people who saw it, though, seem to have been impressed. I know that most designers regard it as a minor landmark in game design.
Do you think that the computer game lends itself better to certain kinds of history?
Absolutely! And this is both its strength and its weakness. Every form of historical examination has biases built into it. The stuff and substance of history -- documents -- has a built-in bias towards big shots. We know lots of details about Charlemagne, but damn little about the few million peasants who lived under his rule. We know some things about the Bronze Age better than the Iron Age, because bronze doesn't rust away.
Of course, computer games aren't evidence, but they are a prism through which we can look at the evidence, and they bias our view, too. This bias can be a strength, especially when it forces us to take an operational view of history rather than a mythological view. By this I mean that history can be "wondrous stories" or it can be "natural processes." Thus, the mythological style would tell us that Napoleon won so many battles because he was a brilliant strategist -- hooray for Napoleon! But we can also wargame out his battles, follow what he actually did and why he did it, and it makes a great deal more sense. What also emerges from an operational approach is that Napoleon was a lot more ruthless than his opponents in terms of "living off the land" (taking all the peasants' food).
I suspect that the written word is weaker for operational thinking than it is for mythological thinking. Most written descriptions of the Battle of Midway love to tell of that dramatic moment when the Japanese admiral looked up and saw the American dive bombers overhead, and in that one instant, the battle was lost. But how did they get to that juncture? Yes, written accounts do manage to communicate the intricate sequence of events that led to such a profound reversal of fortune, but the written explanations are either impossible to follow or have a mythological feel, as if this battle were some grand Greek drama acted out in the Pacific Ocean. When you actually play out the thing, you get a greater sense of how microscopically logical processes can lead to macroscopically astounding results. [Battle of Midway Game Design Plans]
A computer game, like any history, can be used to emphasize some aspect of history. For example, I designed a game some years back that I called Guns & Butter, in which I presented the thesis that technological development arises automatically from economic growth. Most histories of technology have a "great man" flavor to them, so I presented the alternative view that new technologies arise automatically as soon as an economy is large enough to utilize them. (By the way, would this be termed a Marxist view of technological history?) I won't claim that this thesis is necessarily correct, but it certainly offered a different view of historical processes. The tendency of polities to agglomerate at ever-larger levels came through quite clearly in the game.
Obviously, there's plenty of room for abuse here, and the relative opacity of the designer's assumptions and biases (compared with print) could make computer games a greater source of mischief than enlightenment. Goebbels was so frightening because he had a pretty good grip on how to use modern media for propaganda purposes. Right now, we're all too dumb to figure it out. Someday we'll have our interactive Goebbels.
One way to characterize the difference between the "thesis" of a historical game and the "thesis" of a book or article is that the game thesis can be written in present tense (e.g. "the French Revolution resulted from a government fiscal crisis, an economic emergency and a lessening of monarchical authority" ) whereas a conventional textual thesis is in past tense.
Interestingly, I was just clearing out some old paper wargames from SPI days, and they all sport, across the top of the box, the legend "The time is: 0600 hours, Thursday, May 21st, 1476" or some such. The sense of being in the present is vital to simulation -- and one of its most powerful attractions. Isn't the whole idea of history to make the past accessible to the present?
I'm caught up in the midst of a software deadline... Gotta go now.
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