Engaging with the Historical Past through Gaming

By Special Contributor posted 07-14-2017 10:18


By Khanh Vo and Mariaelena DiBenigno

In video games, place is arguably one of the most important components to player engagement. From the smoke-filled streets of the “Silent Hill” series to the bloody battlegrounds of the “Call of Duty” franchise, video game makers carefully plan when and where to set the scene. Specifically, historically relevant locations help advance the games’ narratives and encourage a powerful, if unexpected, interactivity with the past. Though perhaps not the initial intent of creators or consumers, preservation happens all the time within the virtual realities of video games. This accessible re-creation occurs in several ways—or on several levels—across interactive gaming.

Level 1: Interactive, But Not Quite Gaming

At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, museumgoers enjoy a guided tour that takes them through preserved tenement buildings. But audiences unable to visit the physical museum can experience its simulation through an interactive activity: “From Ellis Island to Orchard Street.” This “online game,” as the museum has termed it, allows for "time traveling,” to borrow a term from Jay Anderson's book, Time Machines: The World of Living History. Players can enter a past preserved in buildings that may not be geographically proximate—and are certainly anachronistic—to them.


Expository film footage transports the visitor-viewer to the early-20th-century Lower East Side, where they must assimilate alongside their guide, recent immigrant Victoria Confino. Not only do they suspend disbelief in order to transform into immigrant characters but they also meet Victoria’s performed first-person persona and time travel to experience history alongside her. “You are about to become one of nearly 23 million people who immigrated to America between 1890 and 1921,” she tells them. Visitor-viewers are immersed in a specific time and place, where they engage in a point-and-click adventure through scenes of immigration.   


But “From Ellis Island to Orchard Street” is not quest-specific. It uses gaming tropes, like item collection, to foster interactive learning, but it stops short of requiring the use of those items to complete an objective, which would make it a full-fledged game. Its interactive elements are geared toward learning historic facts rather than completing a mission.  It moves visitor-viewers through the museum, making interpretation accessible in useful ways: they can “see” a tenement space and are able to move from room to room, exploring the objects in this humble space.


Visitor-viewers are asked to “make a life in America,” which gamifies the museum while keeping it accessible for general audiences. While the program does not allow the visitor-viewers full agency—and, thus, is more of an interactive experience than a true user-driven game—it does allow them to actually experience the Tenement Museum without visiting New York City, complete with a guided tour facilitated by an actor-interpreter. 

Level 2: Simulacra of Public Sites


Released in 2011, but set in 1947, “L.A. Noire” is a third-person video game heavily styled after the noir films of the 1940s and ’50s. Players take the role of Cole Phelps, who moves through the ranks from beat cop to detective with each crime he successfully solves. Central to designing the game’s process of interrogation was MotionScan, a technology that uses a 32-camera setup developed by Depth Analysis to capture and generate minute facial expressions. This helps players determine whether a character is lying or telling the truth. A relatively new technology at the time of the game’s release, MotionScan delivers a hyper-realistic rendering that, while impressive, makes the success of gameplay contingent on the quality of each actor’s performance.

MotionScan capture of actor's performance in LA Noire

In addition to facial rendering, the game is also notable for its meticulously researched gameworld. There is an option to explore eight square miles of Los Angeles, where players can find and collect 30 landmarks, 50 film references, and 90 period-specific automobiles. Team Bondi, the game developers, made extensive use of Robert Earl Spence’s photographs to recreate a vibrant city—from its sprawling suburbs down to its traffic patterns. Between 1918 and 1971, Spence shot more than 100,000 aerial photographs—now housed at the University of California, Los Angeles—that collectively chronicle the growth of California and the American West. The historical reconstruction of the city within the game is with narratives of police corruption and gruesome crime that players must also traverse in their quest to win the game. The result is a mashup of the real and the fictional—a simulacra similar to those in Chinatown or L.A. Confidential.

Circa 1940 image of city hall in LA Noire. | Credit: The Spence Collection, the Benjamin and Gladys Thomas Air Photo Archives at UCLA, Department of Geography.


The rendering of Los Angeles, the orchestral soundtrack, and the true crime mysteries create a hyper-stylized version of the 1940s. The game draws on our cultural memory—what feels authentically like the ’40s is grounded in the city’s cinematic legacy. At its core, “L.A. Noire” is a preservation of 1940s Los Angeles with an undertone of nostalgia for a space that never really existed.

Views of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Level 3: Immersion in Virtual [Historical] Reality

“Assassin's Creed III” is a historical action-adventure video game set during the American Revolution. Desmond Miles—who is reliving the memories of his ancestor, Connor Kenway—serves as the player’s avatar, leading them through spy missions set in rural and urban 18th-century New England. These missions occur alongside significant historical moments like the Boston Tea Party. In one spectacular scene, players get a bird’s-eye view of Boston by scaling New South Church—which was demolished in 1866.


New South Church in Boston, Massachusetts—then and now. | Credit: Boston Public Library

Being able to scale buildings and landscapes is a crucial mechanism in the game, as it gives players an overview of surrounding areas, insight on how to best navigate the landscape by unlocking new portions of the map, and opportunities to find sources of information. When the player “sees” Boston from atop the church tower, they are witnessing a historical landscape—one that cannot be recreated today due to significant environmental changes. And since 18th-century Bostonians would not have climbed the church, the game’s technology is, in effect, making this view accessible for the first time.


This synthesis of 21st-century technology and aesthetic with 18th-century conditions might begin to offer an alternative or revised definition of virtual reality. This new definition uses virtual reality's three-dimensional simulation of place to discuss histories that are often buried—construction methods, labor force, environmental shifts, architectural plans, and restoration efforts—in an aesthetically appealing format. This goes beyond flat recreation or passive viewing to show how we can learn by moving through the layers of a place, whether in the past or the present.

Modern games move through historical spaces and let audiences enter built environments, often ones that painstakingly preserve a particular moment in time. This entrance into history allows players to conduct their own first-person interpretation of locations that might be impossible to visit in 2017. Though not without their own limitations, video games can provide historic sites and museums with alternative, accessible ways to interpret places that are difficult to access or physically unavailable to audiences.

Khanh Vo and Mariaelena DiBenigno are American Studies Ph.D. students at the College of William & Mary. Vo’s research interests include gaming/technology and its uses in public history, and DiBenigno’s include the relationship between popular culture and public history. Both authors will be on an emerging technologies panelists at PastForward 2017.

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