How Historical Accuracy Became a Euphemism

It's rarely about the past.

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Dec 21 2018, 8:56pm

'Battlefield V' screenshots courtesy of EA

When developer DICE revealed that Battlefield V would feature playable female soldiers, depicting them as fighting on the front lines of World War 2, there was a swift and predictable backlash. Taking issue on the grounds of historical accuracy, there was a particular group of players who vehemently argued that women almost never served in regular combat on the Western Front.

Less predictable was the fact that Creative Assembly would make a point of changing Total War: Rome 2, now several years into its life, to feature female generals. Again, a games studio found itself criticized by players who argued that women leading armies in the classical world isn’t historically accurate. What distinguishes these controversies in a landscape that too often features routine harassment of women working in games and complaints about feminist perspectives making their way into more and more corners of gaming is that, in both these cases, the complaints had a grain of truth to them. Both DICE and Creative Assembly were choosing depictions of history that were debatably ahistorical. In each case where we find appeals to "historical accuracy," however, we also encounter the flaws with historical accuracy as a concept. It's a term that supposes the existence of an objectively knowable past, a view which hurts more than it helps when it comes to understanding history.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance was staked much of its identity and setting on this idea of there being something concrete and quantifiable about the distant past. But in reality this was less proof of the game's commitment to historical accuracy than a refusal to question its own biases when it came to the ethnic and sociological history of Europe. In every case, we find an appeal to history as an objective source of truth and judgement about the past. This is naive. The fact is that history—how we view it, the stories we tell about it, the things depicted as normal as opposed to aberrations—is highly political.

Deliverance
'Kingdom Come: Deliverance' screenshot courtesy of Deep Silver

The practice of history involves drawing from a pool of documentary sources to form arguments about the past. They’re always based on factual evidence, but these arguments are necessarily subjective. In other words, they’re profoundly colored by our politics. We’re all biased in some way, shape, or form. This explains why people often come to completely different conclusions after examining the same sources of evidence.

And that's where we tend to find backlashes. Consider Company of Heroes 2, which sparked an historical accuracy controversy when it came out in 2013. It wasn't a battle fought by transparently reactionary antifeminists, but was instead about some very real divergences in opinion about how historical evidence and statements should be interpreted.

Complete a few campaign missions in Company of Heroes 2 and you’ll notice that soldiers are often shot by their own officers when told to retreat. Based on Joseph Stalin’s Order 227—the infamous "not one step back" directive that attempted to stiffen the resistance of a Red Army that was thrown back on its heels by the German invasion—this mechanic is definitely grounded in factual evidence.

Russian troops advance in the snow
'Company of Heroes 2' screenshots courtesy of Sega

The feature still presents a fairly problematic perspective on the past, though. Since retreating soldiers in the game are shot by communist commissars, the argument in Company of Heroes 2 seems to be that Order 227 was the product of a political regime which failed to motivate its people. The systematic implementation of this mechanic also implies that Order 227 was routinely carried out. In this the game is echoing (sometimes explicitly) the most famous and dubious scenes in Enemy at the Gates, which depicts "blocking detachments" of Soviet machine gunners who massacre retreating soldiers There’s reason to believe that none of these assertions is entirely accurate. Stalin for example couched Order 227 in the language of patriotism as opposed to oppression; the passage about shooting soldiers for cowardice is one of a series of possible measures that the order allows for, along with more pedestrian measures like cashiering underperforming officers. Reports from the battlefield also indicate that retreating soldiers were rarely shot on the frontlines.

The developer behind Company of Heroes 2, Relic, was immediately criticized for this feature. Pointing to such debatable assertions, a particular group of players called on the company to change the campaign. Relic responded by claiming to have done its due diligence in terms of research. In other words, the developer believed that its game was historically accurate, and had its own evidence to back up its assertions. Who was right?

Though they drew different conclusions from the same sources, the fact is that both sides made valid arguments. The involved parties definitely saw things from opposing political perspectives, though, and wanted to emphasize different aspects of the story of Soviet resistance to German invasion. While some people saw it as evidence for an oppressive and inhumane regime, others took Order 227 as an appeal to patriotism in a time of desperate need, and argued that it was a disservice to the memory of the Red Army to depict its soldiers as being motivated largely by the constant fear of execution. Both views have evidence for them, and each view tends to diminish the valid points raised by the other. Your own interpretation may depend more on whether you're more interested in emphasizing the legacy of Stalinism or the combat performance of the Red Army.

Eastern Front urban warfare

What we choose to emphasize and what we tend to erase was at the heart of the Total War: Rome 2 controversy. Creative Assembly decided to feature female generals in Total War: Rome 2 nearly five years after the game was released. Play with the latest patch, in other words, and you’ll soon see women leading an army. The change was purely cosmetic (and was itself a knock-on effect from how Creative Assembly revamped how family political dynasties worked).

Were there actually women in command? There are some cases: We know for example that Hatshepsut led an army in Egypt. Boudica did in Britain, too. While these were both powerful women, they were still members of what were probably patriarchal societies. But as an archaeologist with a background in Classics and Egyptology, I have to admit that female generals in the ancient world were probably few and far between. Convincing evidence to the contrary simply can’t be found. Women sometimes wound up on the battlefield, but they seem to have rarely taken up arms under normal circumstances.

The decision to feature female generals in Total War: Rome 2 came under fire almost immediately. Players were soon calling attention to this nearly complete lack of evidence. Some of them wanted women removed. Responding to the mounting controversy, Creative Assembly stated that it saw the feature as being historically authentic in a game that's never been exactly historically accurate. Since powerful women like Hatshepsut and Boudica prove that men weren’t always in command, there’s definitely an argument to be made that more female generals may have existed than we actually know about. Perhaps their deeds were simply never documented.

Strategy map
'Rome 2' screenshot courtesy of Sega

There isn’t actually much that we can say for sure about the past. History is mostly a matter of interpretation of available evidence (which itself is constantly evolving as new sources come to light). Some are better supported than others based on the available evidence, but interpretations of this variety are necessarily subjective. History is in, other words, political. It is under constant reconsideration as we attempt to correct blind spots and recover evidence or make hypotheses about what our sources don't tell us, or about what their own biases or blind spots may have been.

Does this mean that we can’t say anything about history? The fact is that we can only grasp at what actually happened by examining a variety of biased opinions and incomplete evidence about the past. This means that it can even be a good thing when games create a bit of historical controversy. Players just need to be open to seeing the past from a new perspective.

Rome 2 warfare scene

There are also points where a more accurate depiction of a single aspect of history ends up fueling a legacy of erasure and indifference. If the choice is between a game in which women do not exist because historically they were largely excluded from playing an active role in a setting, and a game which embraces anachronism in order to include them, which is more important? Which depiction gets history "right"? It's also revealing that battles about "historical accuracy" so often about race and gender, and never about things like armies of Ptolemaic Egypt looking more like they belong in Age of Mythology than Total War, or the fact that Battlefield V shows V-1 rockets being used as tactical support weapons in 1940? What's being protected here is not the actual reality of the past (few players complain when ancient combat is made so fantastical it looks more like Lord of the Rings or The 300) but a popular historical memory that has consistently valorized Great Men and Martial Glory and ignored just about everything and everyone else.

The fact is that arguments about the past are often arguments about the present. Becoming a battleground for normative assertions about contemporary society, history stops being about what actually happened. We sometimes use and abuse it for our own purposes. In the case of Total War: Rome 2, the issue at stake was actually gender equality, and the way a popular game about the past has tended to depict the role of women (or not depict it). The same could be said for the controversy about Battlefield V.

Kassandra talks to Sokrates
'Assassin's Creed Odyssey' screenshot courtesy of Ubisoft.

Developers aren’t directly accountable to players for their political perspectives. They’re actually free to frame history however they like. Game makers have been doing this for as long as there have been games.

With its detailed depictions of the past, Assassin’s Creed is bound to come up in almost any discussion about historical accuracy in games. The developer behind the franchise, Ubisoft, creates incredibly realistic environments. Walk around Athens in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and you’ll soon see what I mean. The characters aren’t quite as convincing, though. Kassandra for example seems to reflect remarkably contemporary cultural values. Women may have been relatively empowered in Sparta, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they were almost completely disenfranchised in every other part of ancient Greece. Could we call Kassandra historically accurate? This kind of question really misses the point. Kassandra is a reflection of what Ubisoft wants the world to be—not the way it was.