On the subject of history, Walter Benjamin once said that “there is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”1 For me, this expresses not only the idea that history is littered with violent disputes and wars, or even simply that history is the winner’s version of a story. It is also about how, in the writing of histories, violent erasures go on in the process of constructing the very ground upon which the telling of subsequent historical versions becomes possible. Historicism, as Benjamin characterized it, operates as a triumphal procession of not only present rulers, but all past rulers, holding aloft their venerated cultural treasures, while trampling beneath them those they have bested. Could history be more than a dirty palimpsest of brutality? And can those being trampled upon do more than sink their teeth into the ankles of the victors, hoping to leave some bloody marks?
One particular violence that has shaped the ground of game histories is its continued embrace of specific notions of innovation, genius, and a future orientation. It is still largely a history focused on the technological, propelled by a notion of advancement and a sense of logical unfolding, always toward some ultimate and perfected outcome on the horizon. But this is a fairy tale of technological progress; it is science fiction, not history. Game histories are sited within, and constituted by, the larger goings-on of society. Game histories happen in a larger ecosystem populated by a whole lot of unnamed others, toiling along anonymously in the services of those Great Works of History that eventually crush them. Tara McPherson once gestured to this by reading the history of computation alongside that of race, powerfully demonstrating how they are not in fact parallel histories at all.2 Likewise, one cannot understand the notion of a universal computing machine through wartime military innovation without the attendant horror show of punishment endured by Alan Turing at the hands of a deeply homophobic society.3
Think, as well, on Silicon Valley, which is vitalized by a constant flow of global subjects, circulating into medical, scientific, engineering, and computational fields. This came to public view when in 2017 proposed limits on immigration, and more specifically delays to the so-called start-up visa, created problems for the tech industry. It was revealed that the tech workforce is constituted of more foreign-born workers than domestic ones.4 Yet, despite the enormous number of migrant managerial elites, software engineers, entrepreneurs, and tech workers who drive innovation, the ideological face of genius cannot be theirs.
Sustained engagement with methodological concerns and ethics will be critical to the future of game histories. Internal self-reflexivity and rigorous self-reflection that come from these tools can push game histories to not merely identify with the victors of industry. Instead, game histories can be self-aware as histories, that is to say, as having barbaric tendencies. Set in a skeptical constellation of relations with their objects of study, game historians, without any hope of ever conveying history as it truly happened, can instead create meaningful webs of relations that provide frameworks for understanding the present and the past, while gesturing toward possible futures. Game historians can counterbalance their own inevitable subjective positions by disclosing their own investments in, and relations to, their vantage point on the procession.
A history of games can be conceived as provisional, as necessarily a version of things. Then it becomes thinkable to understand game histories as entangled with and constituted by the other contexts in which they sit. Likewise, it becomes impossible to separate a history of games from politics, culture, economics, identity politics, and the interests of those who wish to codify that history as one thing and not another.
It is an exciting moment in critical game studies, when a whole new generation of scholars is earning doctorates, entering into the academy, and transforming the procession of game history. It remains to be seen what their histories of games will be: merely a replacement of one set of cultural treasures with another, or can it be a transformation of the terms of the procession?
1. ^ Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 256.
2. ^ Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 256.
3. ^ B. Jack Copeland, Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
4. ^ Michael J. Coren, “More Silicon Valley Tech Workers Were Born Outside the US Than in It,” Quartz, accessed June 3, 2019, https://qz.com/1029860/more-silicon-valley-tech-workers-were-born-outside-the-us-than-in-it/.