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The Histories of/in Games

Adam Chapman (University of Gothenburg)

As games increasingly entwine with the fabric of daily life, the need for histories of video games becomes ever more pressing. Encouragingly, recent game histories engage the topic critically and self-reflexively, considering the historiography of the history of games field itself. These perspectives, echoing conventional historiography, consider the notion that there is no one history of games only various histories written from multiple perspectives and interests. In doing so, the field is healthily questioning what we might mean by game history. But these two words also intersect in another way. Video games symbolize the past not only by emerging from it but also by representing it. History remains a popular theme for video games. Hit series, such as Assassin’s Creed, Civilization, and Red Dead Redemption, herald the arrival of a new form of historical representation. In response to this, the historical game-studies field has emerged, examining the role of history in games, rather than the history of games. As the two areas of game studies inherently concerned with history, historical game studies and the history of games are natural sister fields. As such, I wish to repurpose the question to instead ask how historical game studies relates to, and might learn from, what its somewhat older sister is and could be.

Certainly, games play somewhat different roles in our respective scholarship. In the history of games, games are primary sources, evidence of the medium’s past. Comparatively, in historical game studies, games are critiqued as secondary sources that offer narratives and argumentation about the past. However, these two interests will inevitably sometimes converge. With historical themes having now been used in games for decades, it is important for us to begin to explore the history of history in games. Similarly, eventually game developers will start to explore their own history through their craft (i.e., making games about the history of games). Such moments offer opportunities for collaboration between our fields, demanding nuanced understandings of both the complex histories, and historiographical functions, of games.

Recent turns in the history of games field also echo and inform historical game studies. For example, the former field’s material turn and concurrent concern for how games are actually used by (and use) player bodies has relevance to the latter. The history in games is after all not simply contained within released code but is instead found in the full historical experiences offered by interacting with hardware, software, and other actors and (sub)cultures within varying contexts. One cannot, for example, explore historical reenactment in games without considering the materiality of the controller in comparison to the equipment of the reenactor. Similarly, the history of games’ concern with the multiple lives and contexts of use of games beyond their often-canonized production-line versions finds a parallel in historical game studies as increasingly we turn to the unexpected historical uses of games (e.g., historical modders extend game lives through negotiative dis/reassembly, while so-called realism clans dedicate themselves to playing multiplayer games in historically authentic ways). These approaches guard against prioritizing authorial/designer intentionality when searching for a text’s/product’s meaning. In both cases, these turns remind us that any investigation of games is also an investigation of play—and play (so too collective memory) can never be contained in the objects it leaves behind, which serve only as structural nodes in complex networks of stakeholders and cultural practice.

This turn toward considering multiple contexts also provides both an impetus and ready warning. Historical game studies has partly sought to understand the potential of historical games by considering their use in formal settings such as scholarly or educational practice. Such investigations offer insights, but they also necessarily involve enshrining games in artificial contexts of use. This is not in itself problematic, but just as the pristine museum version of an arcade machine cannot represent the many possible lives (or afterlives) such machines may encounter, the tempting institutionalized validation offered by experiments in historical pedagogy and scholarly practice should not blind us to the most important work that historical games perform in their natural habitat—the “wilds” of popular culture.

The history of games reminds us that just as there is no “proper history,” there is similarly no “proper” use (or condition) of games. The beautiful mess of playful activity creatively working within, pressing against, and even breaching the surrounding structural confines of late capitalism defines both of our fields. To ignore this messiness would be to deny the very thing that gives games and play the value that first drew our scholarly attention. Thus, we must keep one critical eye turned ever inward, regulating our scholarly desire for classification and delineation in the playful face of multiplicity and disorder. ROMchip seems reflectively poised to help us in this challenge and offers a vital opportunity for dialogue between our fields as each builds a future exploring the past.