The Past as Entertainment
The Computer History Museum just published a new “world” in the education edition of the popular Minecraft game platform called The Great Tech Story. I was on the small team from the museum that collaborated with a game development company to create the educational content and fill the virtual exhibits with digital reproductions of artifacts and historic characters. It was a fun foray into an unfamiliar medium.
If you like history, I’m sure that, like me, you’ve shared your enthusiasm for the subject with someone only to receive a surprised or slightly disgusted look, as if you’d confessed an unsavory hobby, like hoarding your nail clippings. This is followed almost immediately by the emphatic declaration, “I hated history in school.” An aggrieved diatribe often follows, denouncing boring classes, dull memorization of dates, and out-of-touch teachers. I’ve always told myself that such a lack of curiosity about how we got where we are today is sad—the defensive, snobbery of a geek.
But, it seems that perhaps it really is about the medium after all. If we turn history into entertainment, and package it in movies, books, and even video games, it can become not just palatable but interesting to many. After a few attempts to gamify history with board games like The Oregon Trail, which came out in 1971, video games really got to work mining history. A brief survey of those with history themes shows a penchant for long-ago eras and a bloodthirsty preference for battles.
For example, the popular Assassin’s Creed series, according to a fan site, currently consists of twelve main games, seventeen spin-off games, several short films and various transmedia projects. Taking inspiration from a novel, itself based on the historical Hashashin sect of the medieval Middle East, it features historical fiction and characters intertwined with real-world historical events and figures. In the majority of the games, players control a historical Assassin, fighting for peace and free will against the Templars, who want order and control.
Honestly, it sounds kind of fun.
After working hard to distill key scientific discoveries and entire biographies into a mere 256 characters so as not to overwhelm the Minecraft players, um, I mean “students,” I have a new appreciation for those who turn history into entertainment. And I think it’s worth the effort.
Those of us who love history should embrace new mediums in which to share it. If we don’t, someone else will, and they might not care as much as we do about context and nuance. So, stand tall and let your geek flag fly when you share a history factoid at the dinner table, before the Zoom meeting starts, and with your airplane row-mates.
And please buy some poor author’s historical fiction or non-fiction book to give to someone for Christmas. They will be eternally grateful—not for the meager royalties—but for the warm feeling that someone else cares deeply, too.
Cover image: Assasssin’s Creed: Valhalla game. Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft via Polygon
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.