The Hall of Historic (Anti) Heroes

The Hall of Historic (Anti) Heroes

The use of historic figures in popular culture and video games runs a wide gamut. Sometimes they are employed to create an atmosphere of authenticity, Assassin Creed series, at other times they are employed for odd counterfactual commentary on the American condition, see Bioshock. This current exploration looks at the use of some seminal anti-heroes in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger published by Ubisoft in 2013 for all major platforms.  In this version of the Call of Juarez series, the central figure, Silas Greaves, relives his past exploits in a saloon in Abeliene, KS in 1910. His small audience is keenly interested in his life as a bounty hunter and his connections and friendships to real individuals from the late 19th century American West. 

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The Hall of Historic Heroes

The Hall of Historic Heroes

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.

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Pawns of Manifest Destiny: Native-American Agency and Visibility in History Based Tabletop Games.

Pawns of Manifest Destiny: Native-American Agency and Visibility in History Based Tabletop Games.

This piece is written as a follow up to the first three meetings of the Center’s History Games Club and serves as a critical reflection on our experiences playing with and observing student interactions with several history-based tabletop games.  

This post explores the representations and in-game use of Native Americans in three separate games: 1775: Rebellion; Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis and Clark; and, Bang! The Dice Game. While each game explores a different era with different mechanics, they all employ Native American characters as part of the gameplay. Most of this “inclusion” is to forward a particular narrative that reinforces or strengthens the Anglo protagonist(s) position. The purpose of this examination is not to engage in the totality of Native American representation, but to analyze the ways that the structure and mechanics of each game reinforce mythic identities in juxtaposition with a lack of purposeful agency for Native characters. The three games vary significantly in their organization and structure; however, they each employ Native Americans as passive and often aggressive. When there is an action for the Native characters in the games, it is initiated by or in service of the other player characters who are invariably Anglo. The representation of Native Americans on a variety of the gaming components (cards, dice, chits) utilize mythic and stereotypical imagery. The gaming narrative and interaction between player characters and the non-player Native American characters creates coded exchanges between game players about the mythic Native American, which furthers the marginalization of that group. The marginalization is closely coupled with the Native Americans lack of agency within each game and reinforced in the use or usefulness of those characters in the game.

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Masculinity and Video Games

Masculinity and Video Games

This paper was presented at the Southwest Popular / American Cultural Association conference in Albuquerque, NM on February 7, 2018.

The use and reuse of the epic and mythic West has been iterated in many forms throughout the years. This portrayed West, however, as Daniel R. Maher writes “is the copy of a copy of a fiction.” [1] The “copy of a copy of a fiction” goes back to the middle 19th century, but it was always an invention – an invention that sought to reorder and reorganize how society understood and imagined itself. Dime novels in the mid-19th century used Davy Crockett to encapsulate the individual and the West; Buffalo Bill and his Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World brought the “adventures” of Western settlement and war to large arenas in the East in the late 19th century; Films, beginning with The Great Train Robbery in 1903, and later T.V. in the 1950s began to infuse the tropes of a gendered, ordered, and necessarily controlled West; Film and T.V. copied the copies of the fiction and presented a mythic representation of the “Old West,” further enhancing the idea of a lawless West needing order. Video / arcade games have more recently incorporated, or layered, a new copy of the mythic West with its concomitant masculinity and violence into this newest medium. As video / arcade games rose in relevance and popularity in the 1970s, they borrowed heavily from the well of established western myths. Early versions of these video games included titles such as Gun Fight, Boot Hill, and High Noon. While rather simple in form and action, they contained the essential copied forms of earlier mediums. As video game technology improved, the gaming platforms provided a different and more immersive experience for gamers. And while the incorporation of the Western narrative has become more complex in many of these games, they all maintain a connection to the violence and the individual cowboy of western myth –  the copy of a copy ad nauseam. Many of these more recent games have garnered a strong following and some critical acclaim, including GUN, Call of Juarez, Red Dead Redemption, Lead and Gold, and Six-Guns.

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Playing with the Past: Can Video Games Teach History?

Playing with the Past: Can Video Games Teach History?

As most of us know the past three decades have seen an important evolution in video games and video gaming, taking them from a niche market and nerd culture oddity to an omnipresent form of mass media that has equaled and, in some cases, surpassed the film industry in popularity and global earnings. Many of the most popular games are set in historical eras, engage in historical narrative, or actively immerse players as historical figures. For many college-aged students, their first experience with history-based video games came through classroom experiences playing video games like "The Oregon Trail," a game based on the mass migration of thousands of Americans westward in the 1840s. First published in 1974 by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), it is still being played today and its popularity led to many other historically driven video games such as "The Yukon Trail," "Freedom!" and later "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego." Anyone who has spent any time in a history classroom, and many who have not, will know that these games have had a lasting impact on students' historical understanding and have shaped their understanding of those historical eras.

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An Interesting Conversation About Retro Games.

There is an interesting conversation on the subreddit r/askreddit today about which games provide the best introduction to classic gaming. The top comments so far mention the following games: 

  1. Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic
  2. Star Fox 64
  3. Super Mario 64
  4. Super Mario Bros. 
  5. Super Mario Bros. 2
  6. Super Mario Bros. 3
  7. Mario Kart 64
  8. The Oregon Trail
  9. Portal 1 
  10. Portal 2
  11. Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn
  12. Chrono Trigger
  13. Ages of Empires 2
  14. Roller Coaster Tycoon
  15. Runescape 2
  16. Twisted Metal 
  17. Need for Speed Underground 2
  18. Diablo 2
  19. StarCraft
  20. The Curse of Monkey Island 
  21. Maniac Mansion
  22. Day of the Tentacle
  23. Sam and Max
  24. Metal Gear Solid
  25. Ocarina of Time
  26. Goldeneye
  27. Spyro the Dragon
  28. Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2

It is obvious that many commenters are speaking from a place of pure nostalgia and no real thought has been given to the meaning of the term "classic games." So many of the games in the list are relatively new games that for someone like me who has been gaming since the days of the Atari VCS haven't stood the test of time long enough to qualify as a "classic." But what does that even mean? In "Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon" edited by Henry Lowood,  Melanie Swalwell offers an entire chapter dedicated to unpacking the term classic gaming/games, suggesting that the term is often offered without any critical intent. She writes that claiming a game a classic is "ultimately to make a judgment about its cultural status, value, or meanings." She further problematizes the definition by asking, "who gets to decide what constitutes an authentic and sanctioned canon of classic games and, by implication, the classic gaming experience?" Is it as J.C. Herz argues that gaming firsts should be privileged? Or is it some sense of timelessness that ranks a game in the pantheon? Can, as these redditors suggest, a game like Portal (2007) or Portal 2 (2011) be considered a classic? There is no simple answer and I'm not sure there will ever be a common canon of classic games. What is classic to an American audience won't translate well to other areas around the world. What is classic to someone who grew up in the 70s or 80s will be different from those who grew up in the 90s or 00s. Where do we draw that line? What constitutes a classic game?