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?