Welcome to The Hall of Historic Heroes, the first edition of what we hope will become a weekly feature on our blog. In these posts we’ll briefly explore American exceptionalism as it appears in video games (both past and present) and/or in video game advertisements or box art.
For the inaugural entry, we’re exploring 1993’s “Liberty or Death,” produced by KOEI and available on the Sega Genesis, Super NES, and on PC. The advertisements and box art, studded with patriotic imagery and visions of Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson straight out of central casting for a community theater version of “1776,” promised players the exciting ability to “raise funds needed to supply your troops, build forts[,]…forge new weapons…and launch battlefield attacks or damaging guerrilla ambushes to inflict the most damage on your counterpart, Thomas Gage and his army of Red Coats.” The game developers also assured players that they would “experience historical events as they happen.” In other words, the developers are offering players a chance to engage in “real” history and learn important lessons from the experience.
Reviewers of the game were not so sure. GamePro reviewer Andromeda was less than enthusiastic about the game, writing, “per usual with KOEI simulations, you’d better bring a head for numbers, and a willingness to worry about minor details. You won’t learn as much about American history (unless you read the informative manual) as you will about the annoying details of keeping a rebel army solvent and happy.” (GamePro Magazine, May 1994 issue 58 p. 119)
Speaking of the manual, it is as the GamePro review says, quite impressive, logging in at 73 pages. The history of the America Revolution takes up 25 of those pages and includes detailed histories of important battles, maps, biographies of Revolutionary war figures, and a bibliography of both academic and popular histories of the Revolution. Its attempts to engage players in the history of the Revolution is commendable, but it presents the Revolution as a harrowing event of American bravery rooted in a character and “class of men [who] would not bear the same excesses from the head of their empire as those in England’s more foreign colonies.”
Throughout both the manual and in game play, American colonists are referred to in heroic terms: “courageous colonists,” “brave rabble,” “patriotic rebels,” and other valorous adjectives. The America heroes are those we’ve traditionally placed in the pantheon of American gods. Thomas Paine, Nathan Hale, Patrick Henry, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and others all take center stage at some point in the game’s narrative and are revealed to be the source of American’s enthusiasm for freedom and a player’s motivation for defeating the “brutal Red Coats.” Parades and broadsides in the honor of these heroes, statesmen, and orators can be used by the player to encourage both troop morale and colonial support for the war. News of their heroic antics will often trigger conditions in the game that turn the war in the favor of the rebels. In fact, there is an in-game win condition called the “Nathan Hale Martyrdom," in which players scheme to get Hale captured by British forces. If they’re successful, “the enemy may choose to eliminate him. Before being eliminated, Nathan Hale will give a speech to his fellow Americans that will lead to Nathan Hale’s fame as a martyr for the American cause and will raise support for America throughout the colonies.” This moment, which plays on the oft-told myth of Hale’s actual execution and his apocryphal last words ("I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country"), along with many other in game situations, rely heavily on these exceptionalist notions of the Revolution’s history and exalt the place of America’s traditional heroes in the war. Nowhere is the plight of the common soldier on the front, or stories of the countless women who participated both actively and tangentially in the war, told in the game’s narrative. In fact, women are ignored completely and common soldiers become literal pawns used to overwhelm the British enemy and earn glory for the likes of George Washington, Artemas Wad, or Charles Lee. Sure, one can play as the British, but in the several hours I played as Thomas Gage I was never able to change the tide of war.
The war is thus reduced to the antics and whims of heroic leaders, a complex historical moment becomes an unsatisfying us versus them fantasy that lacks the complex gray area that stood in the way of the colonial population as they weighed their own decisions to participate in the war. Loyalists or patriot it was never an easy or clear decision. As Spencer McBride writes in Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America, “For many American colonists, choosing a side in the American Revolution was a difficult task. The process entailed far more than simply forming an opinion the the extent to which Parliament was violating the colonists’ rights as Englishmen.” This reductionist view of the war that the game depicts viewing the revolution as a conflict between enthusiastic patriots and overbearing loyalists plays straight to traditional exceptionalist understanding of the war. While we wouldn't expect a game from this period or, for that matter, any other period to tackle a broader interpretation of the Revolution, it’s important to recognize the powerful myths and the ways that American history and historical actors are represented in the games that have and still inform our understanding of the past.