Many of today’s video games developers are finding inspiration in history, from Red Dead Redemption’s Wild West setting to TE Lawrence’s First World War experiences in Battlefield 1. As debates continue about what it means for video games to be historically accurate, Esther Wright examines the real history behind three popular video games: Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire and Battlefield V…
Red Dead Redemption (2010)
Although the early 20th century historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier at its end by 1890, this didn’t stop the creators of Red Dead Redemption from setting the game in 1911 and aiming to depict a period when “the Wild West is dying”. In the game, reformed outlaw John Marston must hunt down his former criminal associates while his wife and son are held hostage by nefarious law enforcement agents. Helped along the way by a colourful cast of characters – snake oil merchants and honest ranchers, Mexican military dictators and revolutionaries – Marston fights to leave the past behind him and become an ‘honest rancher’.
In this image of America’s western past, outlaw gangs belong to a ruthless world. New technologies like telephones, the railroad and automobiles have changed the landscape of the west, and federal law enforcement agents have encroached on even the most remote frontier outpost. Players can ride horses, hunt wild animals, or even shoot up unsuspecting towns – usually with lawmen in hot pursuit if they do.
The real Wild West?
Though promoted as an authentic picture of what ‘the Wild West’ was really like, this perception owes much more to the imagination of American filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood, or the gunfights of Italian director Sergio Leone, than it does to real life at the turn of the century. The ‘Wild West’ was more than simply a brutal, hostile place, where progress was only achieved down the barrel of a gun and it was impossible to build a life. The outlaw experience was unrepresentative of the American frontier, but such is the power of western imagery – especially in Wild West shows and movies – that it’s become an ingrained part of our global cultural memory. The ‘reel history’ is practically the real history for many all over the world, and Red Dead Redemption does little to correct this impression.
American actors Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef star in the Sergio Leone western ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, 1966. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Following the release of Red Dead Redemption 2 in October 2018, it seems that to make a video game about America’s western past, developer Rockstar Games is intent on offering tales of the brutal Old West that mostly revolve around violence and male outlaws. There’s comparatively little about the real lives of families, women and children – not to mention Native Americans and other people of colour – to be found in the franchise.
L.A. Noire (2011)
It’s tempting to view 1940s American society through the lens of film noir: a world of hard-boiled detectives, femme fatales and Hollywood glamour, with corruption and intrigue around every corner. L.A. Noire, which is heavily inspired by neo-noirs like Chinatown (1974) and LA Confidential (1997), is no exception.
The game tells the story of Cole Phelps, a Second World War veteran and rising star in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). While players crack cases – from traffic infractions to homicide cases – flashbacks depict Phelps’s service in the Pacific during the war, fighting the Japanese with the marines. Sometimes the game includes fictionalised versions of real crimes that took place in 1947 LA, including the infamous unsolved ‘Black Dahlia’ case (in which a young woman, Elizabeth Short, was found cut in half in a vacant lot).
Elizabeth Short (1924–1947), an aspiring American actress and murder victim. Short became known as the ‘Black Dahlia’ after she was found murdered, her body naked and severed in two, in a vacant lot in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
L.A. Noire’s virtual world is historically authentic in some respects. The developer used maps of downtown LA in 1947 to construct around 90 per cent of the buildings that would have been there, as well as real interiors, period costumes and movie props. Players can also drive around this virtual city in a number of classic cars, listening to Hank Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, and original episodes of the 1930s–50s comedy radio show, The Jack Benny Program.
The noir–inspired story tries to tackle certain historical themes, and one of the most vivid of these is postwar gender relations. Though some historians have argued that the war was probably not the watershed moment of women’s liberation it’s often perceived to be, L.A. Noire delights in portraying women as newly independent and keen to leave their husbands behind – but usually at their own peril.
Given what L.A. Noire tells players about the relationships between women and their husbands or lovers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that women were brutally assaulted and killed on the streets every day in the late 1940s. Once again, popular perceptions and the ‘reel history’ of the period work to obscure and outweigh the more complex picture of postwar American society.
With these deeply-entrenched popular perceptions, the game presents Hollywood as an inherently dark and seedy place that ate people up – especially naïve young women who’d do anything for stardom. But life and work in Hollywood held more opportunity for women in its ‘classic’ period than popular perception suggests. Some historians have sought to uncover the long-forgotten story of women in Hollywood’s fabled studio era, finding them working in crucial roles behind the camera, as much as performing in front of it. For example, in Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women who Ran Hollywood (2018), film historian JE Smyth uncovers the stories of women who worked – among other roles – as editors, screenwriters, producers, cinematographers, union reps and board members for the major Hollywood studios in the period.
Though the makers of L.A. Noire claim to have based “virtually all” of the game’s homicide cases on real unsolved crimes found in newspapers and LAPD archives, the sheer number of them – and their violent nature – ultimately creates a world that more closely resembles noir-tinged films like Se7en (1995) or The Black Dahlia (2006). It reveals far more about what we now think of when we say ‘classic Hollywood’ than being representative of the true nature of society in the 1940s – particularly with regards to relationships between men and women, or anyone that doesn’t fit the ‘hardboiled’ mould.
Battlefield V (2018)
The video game industry is hardly the epitome of progressiveness, especially when it comes to representing historical complexity and ambiguity. But sometimes popular games endeavour to move beyond the Hollywood image of the world at war. Battlefield V (released on 20 November 2018) is one such example.
The game was revealed in a live launch on video-sharing website YouTube earlier in 2018, in an exclusive event featuring representatives of the game’s developer DICE. The host of the event, The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, asked the team whether the game was going to be more “Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Inglourious Basterds (2009)?”. The response was that, yes, although we’ve seen it all before, DICE wanted to offer players the chance to witness the untold stories of the Second World War: perspectives that are rarely shown in blockbuster retellings (and for a long time, the historiography of the conflict, too).
In the run up to its release, Battlefield V’s website promised players the chance to experience “untold tales” from the Second World War; deliberately inserting ‘ordinary people’ into the public image of a conflict that is often dominated by frontline fighting or the heroic deeds of men. The story of a young female Norwegian resistance fighter – who fights for the survival of her family, as well as Norway’s liberation from the occupying German army in 1943 – promises to be just one of these.
In 2016 Battlefield 1 began this gradual revisionism with its representation of the First World War. The game’s box art depicted a member of the famous African-American infantry regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters, which spent more days in frontline trenches than any other American regiment and suffered the heaviest losses too. The game tells six different ‘war stories’ altogether, portraying the conflict in France, Britain, Gallipoli, the Italian Dolomites, and the Arabian Peninsula. The latter – despite its references to First World War officer TE Lawrence and the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) that dramatised his wartime activities – even incorporated a woman’s perspective on the frontlines.
Yet the games industry that spawned GamerGate in 2014 – a co-ordinated campaign of harassment against certain figures in the games industry, predominately women – continues to reveal some gamers’ attitudes as to what’s considered ‘accurate’ or ‘authentic’ about recreations of the Second World War. When Battlefield V’s trailer showed a British woman with a prosthetic arm fighting on the frontlines, and used it as central to the game’s promotional campaign, some rallied behind the hashtag #NotMyBattlefield. Accusations of historical inaccuracies abounded, even claims that DICE had fallen prey to “political correctness”, which some felt threatened to ruin the game.
‘Night Witches’ was a German nickname for the female military aviators of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th ‘Taman’ Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, of the Soviet Air Forces during the Second World War. Here they receive orders for an upcoming raid, c1944. (Photo by Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
The controversy spawned an inevitable series of articles pointing out that there were women who served in active duty during the war. Around the world, women undertook secret operations in Nazi Occupied Europe. In Russia, a squadron of female aviators – nicknamed ‘Night Witches’ – served as bomber pilots. In Britain, women served in a number of armed forces like the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) had around 190,000 women by the end of the war (including Elizabeth II, before she became queen) – and many served in north Africa and France.
Both supporters of Battlefield V and its developers responded to the criticism by pointing out that video games have always taken liberties with the historical record to make experiences that are ‘fun’. After all, people rarely claim that including ‘Nazi zombies’ ruined Call of Duty. Really, these arguments have little to do with wanting historical accuracy in video games, but do tell us a lot regarding what is considered acceptable about the way we remember historical events and periods, even in 2018. Vitriolic reactions to the reveal of a single trailer, released months before players can get their hands on the game itself, demonstrate that the perception of video games can tell us much about the way historical periods continue to be popularly remembered.
More specifically, it can tell us a lot about how popular perceptions can be skewed, even in the face of actual facts. Women were crucial to the outcome of the war, even serving in active combat. But history has had trouble remembering them because they don’t necessarily fit into the male-centred narratives taught both in schools and by popular culture, or the image of what frontline fighting is perceived to be – at least by many.
After all, a hashtag counter-protest #EveryonesBattlefield reveals that while these negative voices are often the loudest, they aren’t the only people talking about what the past continues to mean for us today in popular media. While video games are not generally thought of as bastions of historical truth, they are one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds in the media today, in which people can choose to fight for their perceptions of the past.
Esther Wright is a PhD student at the University of Warwick.
This article was first published in issue 11 of BBC World Histories magazine (August/September 2018).