As millions rush out this holiday season to buy the latest historically infused video games such as “Assassin’s Creed Origins,” “Call of Duty: WWII” and “Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus,” historians should take note.
Popular histories such as Ken Burns’s “The Vietnam War” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” generate an incredible amount of scholarly analysis — from thorough and reasoned op-eds to tweetstorm hot takes. This analysis reflects scholarly concern about the effect that entertaining histories have on the popular memory of past events. Indeed, concern about television and film’s influence on popular memory is often so great that experts now weigh in on mere proposals for new popular histories, most notably HBO’s upcoming series “Confederate.”
These interjections are necessary and valuable, but they betray an obsession with traditional mediums over newer forms, such as video games, that have a greater influence on popular historical memory, especially among young adults. Historians need to change with the times and realize that video games present both a risk and an opportunity. If historians ignore them, they risk allowing historical distortions to take root. But if they focus on ensuring that video games are as historically accurate as they are fun, these games can reach an audience that historians often miss.
While the origins of history games date back to much-beloved but unsophisticated (by today’s standards) games such as “Oregon Trail,” they now occupy center stage in a multibillion-dollar video game industry. “Assassin’s Creed Origins,” “Call of Duty: WWII” and “Wolfenstein II” were all published by triple A studios that poured hundreds of millions of dollars into their development and marketing. All three games were released in the immediate run-up to Black Friday, based on the assumption that they would be among the biggest sellers of the year.
Of these recent history games, the most important to consider is “Call of Duty: WWII” because of its overwhelming popularity. The game’s publisher, Activision, reported that it amassed a whopping $500 million in sales in its first three days on the market.
More important in terms of historical literacy, the average playtime for “Call of Duty: WWII” is more than six hours — a figure that does not include time spent with the game’s multiplayer modes, which gamers can play indefinitely. Whereas viewers of popular historical movies such as “Dunkirk” will be finished with them after two hours, players will continue to actively engage with the interpretation of World War II in “Call of Duty” for dozens of hours. As a result, the game will represent an important touchstone for the historical memories of millions of young people worldwide.
Thanks to the proliferation of Let’s Play videos and Twitch streams — which allow anyone to watch a player go through the entire game for free — the game’s influence on historical memory can even extend to those who never play the game themselves.
What kind of history does “Call of Duty: WWII” offer players? As many game journalists have noted, the narrative rests on a mixture of clichés lifted from other World War II genre fiction, including “Band of Brothers” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
Players control Ronald “Red” Daniels, a Texan who serves as a private in the United States’ 1st Infantry Division. The game’s campaign follows Red and his platoon mates from the invasion of Normandy to the Battle of Remagen over the Rhine River. With the exception of a short, quiet infiltration mission during the middle of the game, “Call of Duty: WWII” offers a run-and-gun approach to the “good war.”
Courageous and chummy GIs obliterate Nazi resistance across Europe and deliver wisecracks along the way. No mention is made of the war’s other fronts. No mention is made of American allies, beyond a brief appearance by British Special Operations officers and French Resistance fighters. The GIs themselves embody fictional archetypes rather than historical realities: the streetwise Jew from Chicago, the educated private called “College,” the father-figure 1st lieutenant and the tough NCO sergeant. Worst of all — at least for this Texan — is the main character, Red, who often recalls in a meandering accent dealing with huge grey wolves (!?) and snow (!?!?) back home in Longview.
Alongside the single-player campaign, there are two additional game modes: multiplayer, which includes 1940s newsreel-like introductions for player divisions, and Nazi Zombies, which is a cooperative survival mode where players attempt to fight off hordes of undead fascists (yes, really).
Given the game’s ahistorical and undead elements as well as the theme-park-ride approach to the single-player story, it would be easy to toss aside the use of history in “Call of Duty: WWII” by saying “it’s just a game.”
Yet this wantonly bombastic and reductive shooter also includes one of the few depictions of a Nazi concentration camp ever seen in a video game. The final mission of “Call of Duty: WWII” finds Red and his platoon searching for their squadmate Robert Zussman, a Jewish private captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Their search takes them to the deserted Berga concentration camp, where hundreds of American Jewish GIs were subjected to slave labor.
When players arrive at the camp, their movement speed is restricted, and their gun — normally affixed like an extra appendage in a firing position in front of a player’s view — is suddenly lowered. Players are restricted to slowly walking and looking at the surroundings, which include evidence of mass graves, executions and squalid survival in camp structures. As players move through the camp, a non-player character snaps a series of photographs. After each snap of the camera, the image is instantaneously presented to the player as a black and white archival image that temporarily takes up the entire screen.
In this way, a largely breezy and vacuous romp through World War II concludes with a somber and inescapable march through a digital Holocaust museum.
The awkward juxtaposition of frivolity and reverence that emerges by the end of “Call of Duty: WWII” presents a microcosm of the problems and potential presented by historical video games more generally. On one hand, we have a disposable, American-centric depiction of World War II riddled with clichés and … zombies.
On the other, we have a respectful depiction of a concentration camp that will be seen — if not played — more than any other film or television history this year. Maybe more important, it has the potential to reach an audience that might not read serious history or even take in darker films such as “Schindler’s List.” Games like “Call of Duty: WWII” represent the front lines of historical memory in the digital age, and dismissing them as simple entertainment does not displace their influence.
Instead, historians must embrace them and offer rigorous critiques of games to influence their design and to reach an otherwise untapped audience with the best history. They ought to explore avenues for developing a greater say in ensuring the accuracy of such games. Historians serve as consultants to films and television series, and they ought to explore whether and how they could similarly influence video game creation.
The need for expert criticism of games appears even more vital given the growing influence of game players on politics and society. Indeed, it was from the video game world that many of the characters and characteristics of the “alt-right” emerged, including Milo Yiannopoulos and the rally cry “Deus vult.”
Increasingly, games are providing space for the presentation of expert and scholarly knowledge, whether in triple A titles like “Assassin’s Creed Origins” or independent games, such as “Burden of Command” or “Walden, a game” — which had historical consultants shaping their content. The political, social and financial stakes related to games will continue to grow. The question remains, however: Will historians and other experts take notice?