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It's time for a new history in video games

Xav de Matos, @Xav

Welcome to The Level Grind, a column hell-bent on asking questions about video game design from the gamer's perspective.

Stay with me here: If an extraterrestrial being landed on earth and attempted to learn about the history of our world based on video games, things could go awry. This outlandish situation illustrates the fact that games made with the intent to share our planet's rich history – for the vast majority – boil down to battles. Video games are war's biggest fan.

Video games require some semblance of conflict to remain entertaining, however. From the war-torn battlefields of first-person shooters to the internal fear and pressure found in indie horror games, there's always a driving force that pushes players forward.

But it's war between countries or different sides of a coin that are the primary focus in historical games. Shooters have featured World War II and other great (as in large) battles countless times, strategy games help us relive gripping tales of land-grabbing conflict and even games that use history as its tapestry – Assassin's Creed for example – are all threaded through a story of a war. A story about killing.

Our planet's past is made up of much more than words of war. Rich, amazing stories are littered through our history books, yet video games have mostly ignored these tales. If you look at the history of art, film, music and books, adaptations about our past beyond the scope of war exist. Video games need to take this plunge.

But war as a driving force is a known quantity to gamers. We understand this basic battle between good and evil. Conflict drives games, but there is more to conflict than simply killing, and there are more ways to tell stories about history than spawning onto battlefields. So, rather than think of a war-based game where players are thrust into the line of fire, perhaps we should look for the stories that helped shape the course of these important world events.

Think, for a moment, of a game based on the American Civil War, designed specifically to never peer toward the hail of bullets from the warring sides. Imagine instead taking the mantle of one of America's most important figures in the abolitionist movement.

A History of Violence War games and the history of the world
Araminta Ross, who later changed her name to Harriet Tubman, was born into slavery around 1820 and escaped for fear of being sold to the South after being married in her thirtieth year. About a year after leaving Maryland for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – at the time a free state – Tubman returned to Maryland to help free members of her family. Around the official start to the American Civil War, Tubman made nearly twenty trips to and from Maryland helping to free slaves – known as "packages" or "passengers" – to free states in the North and to Canada.

Working with the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, Tubman was one of the many legendary "conductors" of the Underground Railroad. Some reports postulate she was responsible for the safe passage of approximately 300 slaves.

Despite freeing her family – save for her husband who had remarried and refused to leave Maryland behind – Tubman continued to risk her life in the hopes of freeing more men, women and children.

Stories of this brave woman's quest seem almost too incredible to be true. One report said that she overheard bounty hunters reading her wanted poster aloud – which offered $40,000 from the South for her capture – noting that Tubman was illiterate. In a successful ploy to pass the men, Tubman feigned reading a book as they crossed paths. She was never caught.

"I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land."- Harriet Tubman

But her powerful spirit aside, Tubman knew that freedom of the many was greater than the lives of a few. It's said that she carried a gun, threatening to kill anyone – men, women, or children alike – if they threatened the group's safety. "You'll be free or die," she would promise. As Tubman proudly proclaimed to former slave and abolitionist movement leader Frederick Douglass, in her life as a conductor she "never lost a single passenger." John Brown, an aggressive abolitionist, called Tubman "one of the bravest persons on this continent" for her service to the movement.

Later in life, Tubman would work with Susan B. Anthony to promote the cause of women's suffrage. She passed away in 1913 having helped change the course of history for an entire nation.

Make no mistake: I strongly believe that the real men and women featured in war-based video games deserve the accolades and attention they get. Nor do I wish 'war games' to disappear, as it's a type of game I still enjoy playing.

But we could do more. In the case of Tubman and the Underground Railroad, I don't know what kind of game you would create – maybe it's a mixture of systems including stealth and branching conversations; a true survival story – but there is no combat. That isn't what this story is about. It's about the human spirit and it's about helping others escape a perilous world. War is a backdrop for this story, but this isn't a story about war. In the Civil War video game we'd really get, Harriet Tubman would give you missions. If she was featured at all.

A History of Violence War games and the history of the world
Tubman (far left) with a group of slaves she helped to free

The Underground Railroad has been featured in interactive entertainment in the past. In 1993, Oregon Trail developer MECC released Freedom!, a game where players would attempt to escape to the North via hidden passages. Freedom! was eventually removed from the market after a parents' group sued a school that provided the game, which featured racially insensitive stereotypical characters, to students. Education group Mission US also developed a free game based on the Underground Railroad, used to teach students about the abolitionist movement. Both titles were developed primarily as learning tools.

The argument against this concept is fairly straightforward: video games, developed primarily to be fun, may trivialize such an important moment in history. But haven't other mediums proven that a gripping and tense story can make for powerful entertainment? Like the terrifying story of identity in the Brandon Teena biopic "Boys Don't Cry" or the retelling of Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi in the award-winning 1982 film. Though their situations are difficult to parse, they offer a story and introduce you to people that remain with you once completed.

There are countless amazing men, women and events from history that our industry should honor; stories this industry should strive to tell. Our history is made up of many wars, but our history is not war. Our history is an unshakable pursuit of peace.

Music, movies, book, and film based on history have helped paint this picture of the world we've lived through. They help celebrate what our planet has accomplished and the good that men and women throughout history have fought for.

Like the real men and women from war, Harriet Tubman is a true hero. But unlike many war heroes, our industry doesn't even attempt to relay her story.

I don't want to look at video games for the rest of my life in terms of a history in technology. I don't want to be pulled through a war zone every time I want to look at our world's past. It's time video games put itself on equal footing with other mediums.

It's time to tell new, old stories.

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