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Why I Care About Historical Accuracy

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Hello, my name is Mark. I study Ancient and Medieval History at university, I do historical re-enactment and I love historical accuracy in my gaming. It’s a very clear divide: those who whine about the accuracy and those who who don’t care. The most common answer is ‘why does it matter? or why do you care?’. And I want to explain why we do care. Why it does matter.

I wasn’t always this way; I started out as most other people do; I hated it when self-proclaimed historians ridiculed at the inaccuracies that they saw in films and games. I hated it when someone disregarded a game I enjoyed simply because it wasn’t up to their exact standards. And when I entered into my degree, I vowed to never be that way.

Last week, I watched Kingdom of Heaven with a group of my friends and I laughed at it and mocked the version of ‘history’ it proclaimed. I go to re-enactment events and criticise other societies kit and gossip under my breath about wrong colours and out-of-period helmets. I’ve become that which I hated. And I’ve realised why we do it.

The epiphany came whilst I was reading a rather boring article about the inheritance customs of the Normans. The article stressed that William the Conqueror’s inheritance to his son was not down to any system set in place, but because he chose who inherited what. And I thought: ‘why can’t I do that in Medieval II: Total War? I want to choose who inherits the kingdom, rather than letting the game choose my eldest son by default, because that’s how William did it. I was disappointed that a game I loved so much wouldn’t allow me to follow in the footsteps of a great historical figure.

And that’s the root of the grievance. As a gamer, I expect to be drawn into a world and I expect to feel like a part of it. That’s basic immersion; that’s what all fictional media attempts to do. The problem is that as I learn more history, I expect the same games to live up to my new expectations, and as I learn more and more I notice more and more of what doesn’t fit; what’s out of place; what isn’t accurate. And that breaks the immersion and I no longer feel as snugly in-universe as I did.

I’m now disappointed when I start Civilization V as Alexander III of Macedon, and get Athens as my starting city. Sure, I could change that, but that’s not the point. That’s not what makes me sad. Not only can I not follow in Alexander’s footsteps and start from his true origins, but I’ve been broken from the experience that I could be Alexander the Great.

And that’s where modding communities come into their own. There are always a bunch of people out there who are willing to spruce up the authenticity of a game. The Stainless Steel mod for Medieval II; mods that let you have a correct starting location in Civ V… stuff like this fills me with glee and breaths life back into a new game. And it’s not because I’m anal about the whole thing, it’s because I care about my own experience in the game: I want to follow such great historical figures and see if I can better them. And when a game doesn’t allow you do that to the best of your knowledge it’s frustrating to the point where your immersion and experience in that world is tainted.

So please, the next time you see a ‘historian’ complaining about the level of realism, take a step back from the standard response and think about what he feels is missing. I’m not saying not to tell him to STFU, I’m just hoping you understand more about why he feel it’s important. I’m just asking not to type that sentence.

‘Why does it matter?’

Don’t agree? Lemme know in the comments section.

Until next time, game well.

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About Mark Jansen

  • Jeremy Hill

    Mark, come on vent more…. we miss you 🙁

  • john cox

    games are games , it gives it self away by calling its self a game , play for fun , not historical wrongs , sci fi games are based on history , but only based , and if you cant get that start knitting

  • WraithIX

    @John Cox
    Last time I checked, FPS’ were marketing themselves with how much ‘realism’ they offered, as were most driving-based games. ‘Realism’ in games is neither new, or something to be mocked- it’s a benchmark put there by the game developers themselves. If you call something -historical-, it should be just that. Equally if I call something Strategy, and leave out the strategy, I’ve failed to live up to expectations.
    Essentially, it’s holding the developer to what they claim- not expecting something unreasonably. Age of Empires 2 even came with a (highly inaccurate) historical encyclopedia- actively educating people that their version of ‘medieval history’ was ”the truth”.

  • Felix

    Perhaps we need a new warning/disclaimer: “This game/film is historically accurate, with a certain degree of error introduced by playability, exigencies of plot, and how awesome the developers thought it would be”

    Any breaks with reality that can’t be justified by that (such as Alexander of Macedon beginning in Athens, chainmail or other armour with gaping holes in places people would be aiming for anyway, armour being worn inside out, and other basic inaccuracies that could be solved with a 20 minute trip to the library, or 5 minutes on Wikipedia) are signs that the developers were either lazy (and possibly ignorant), or believe that the average gamer or cinema goer does not know any better.
    That last is a rather sad indictment of either the average state of education, or of the opinion in which we, the public, are held.

    And the saddest thing is I have seen all of the examples used above- often many in the same work.

  • herpderpington

    At least we can rest assured that the Assassin’s Creed series retains its historical integrity.

  • Moogi

    Very enjoyable article Mark. You had me laughing and actually considering the point at the same time. Very well done.

  • DeathbyLampy

    surely a game should seek to be accurate (if at all possible) but only loosely unless it is total war style. for all others mods exist to satisfy your carnal urges