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Game History as Public Debate

Patrick Harrigan

Things are very weird in 2019. Just as a quest for journalistic balance can lead to false equivalencies between climate-change realists and deniers or a fruitless search for the “good people on both sides” in Charlottesville, games studies run the danger of remaining too dispassionate about their subjects and consequently reiterating easy historical untruths.

A history of games must not only note fashions in the selection and treatment of historical themes in the games under study and examine potential inscriptions of political ideology into their game mechanics, but also identify to the best of our ability the broad trends in historical understanding that cause them. This isn’t all: historical narratives have always been sites for ideological battles, as we see confirmed in every day’s news cycle, and the fights these days seem to be bigger and more public than ever; it is necessary for games historians to engage in these public debates when they occur. As for what this debate might look like―well, listen, as Tom Waits said once: We’re gonna have to go all the way back to the Civil War.

Since the end of the American Civil War, the prevailing narrative has been that the war was a tragic battle of brother against brother, the result of fundamental philosophical and political differences centering on the relative importance of states’ versus federal rights. This is incorrect: the war was a white supremacist insurgency, the result of a tiny minority of wealthy slave owners desperately trying to protect a fundamentally immoral economic system.

This isn’t some sort of radical historical revisionism. It’s obvious to anyone who takes the time to look at the historical record. The Mississippi secession declaration of February 1861 states baldly: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” Yet, even in 2019 we find that many resist hearing this. Why? I would suggest that it is because, although the Union won the war, the Confederacy won the game.

In Avalon Hill’s tabletop wargame Gettysburg (one of the very first modern wargames, originally published in 1958; revised and republished several times up through 1988), players take on the roles of the Union and Confederate forces who fought at that battle. As one might expect, the game is effectively balanced; although individual units may be more or less capable than other ones, the overall arrangements of force make it more or less equally likely that either side can prevail, the eventual winner being decided by the players’ relative skill.

The Battle of Gettysburg’s historical position as, in the words of the artist John B. Bachelder, “the high-water mark of the Confederacy” serves to make this ludic instantiation of the event a metonymic stand-in for the war as a whole and encodes the conventional historical narrative within the game’s fundamental mechanics. There are no counters representing the Army of Northern Virginia’s thirty thousand slaves, nor is there a rule providing for the ANV’s capture and enslavement of free blacks in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Bleached of all historical color beyond the strictly military ones of blue and gray, the game reinforces the common narrative of the war as a contest of wills between noble adversaries.

Later wargame treatments of the Civil War generally follow the same pattern, although as the Lost Cause myth has receded in the American imagination, Civil War games have begun to incorporate some nonmilitary details. Card-driven games such as For the People (1998) and Lincoln’s War (2013) include political and cultural elements that influence the players’ military decisions, and Fort Sumter (2018) eliminates the military aspect entirely, focusing on the contest for political influence and public opinion in the immediate prewar period. Certain recent games move the reality of chattel slavery front and center: This Guilty Land (2018) recreates the congressional debates for and against emancipation, and Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012), a cooperative game, puts the player(s) in the role of abolitionists assisting slaves to safety along the Underground Railroad. Judging from their reception, casual gamers seem to find these games rather unsettling—it seems to be far more fun to pretend to be Stonewall Jackson whipping the Yankees at Bull Run than to think about the terroristic system he was defending.

There is considerable scholarship about the Civil War’s place in historical memory (see, for example, David Blight’s 2001 Race and Reunion), but almost thirty years after Ken Burns’s landmark miniseries The Civil War, we are still waiting for his long-promised Reconstruction follow-up, and we have yet to see a Fort Sumter–style game that takes as its subject the postwar struggle between Reconstructionists and Lost Causers for the prize of defining the nation’s understanding of the war. But I’m looking forward to playing it when it inevitably arrives.

A game design is an argument. A historical game design makes an argument about history. As scholars we evaluate those arguments, and as citizens we engage with them, pushing back against myths, half-truths, and fantasies. In 2019 it is important to critically evaluate how history is presented in our news, our fictions, and our games, and to speak out when that representation is one sided or false. When we play with our 2D representations of Gettysburg or Antietam, we should be careful not to become one of those people who insist that the world is actually flat.