Using video games to communicate history


Robert Whitaker is a historian of Europe, empire, international crime and policing. His project, “Policing Globalization: The Imperial Origins of International Police Cooperation, 1918-1960” studies the relationship between the British Empire and international police organizations, such as Interpol. Robert is a founding member of the British Scholar Society, and is the creator of the video series History Respawned.

Can video games be used to communicate historical scholarship? YES. That’s precisely what historian Robert Whitaker has spent the past few years doing. In writing about how other historians can take advantage of the medium, Bob writes:

“The emergence of the video game industry is obviously a great development for players and game makers, but I believe it also represents a boon for historians as well… scholars should look upon this lack of connection with scholarship as an opportunity.”

Some facts from Bob:

  • According to the Entertainment Software Association, 65% of American households are home to someone who plays video games regularly and 67% of American households own a device used to play video games.
  • Many of the most popular video game titles and franchises are historical simulations or adventures.
  • Video games offer an opportunity to educate a younger public than those attached to books, movies, and television.
  • Scholars need to adopt the right mediums of contact in order to reach game players.

Bob had the idea to create a YouTube channel dedicated to analyzing historical video games, and modelling the channel’s content on the popular YouTube genre called Let’s Play.  The results? Videos on the YouTube channel History Respawned:

“The idea of producing videos for YouTube may seem daunting, but the tools and skills needed to create such content are easily within the reach of scholars. Most modern PCs and game consoles include software to record and livestream gameplay. For instance, I often use the free Xbox app on my PC to record footage from my desktop, and my PlayStation 4 includes free capture software that can begin recording or livestreaming at the push of a button. Once I’ve collected footage, I overlay audio of myself or a guest scholar talking about the game using Audacity, another piece of free software.”

Bob says the players he encounters through History Respawned have been eager to hear from scholars and to learn about the wider historical context behind the games they play. Many of the comment sections for History Respawned videos have turned into spaces to explore additional topics and questions not addressed in the video.

“I’m eager to see other historians get involved in this field because there is room for growth. In particular, more can be done to build relationships between scholars and game developers, both at the triple A and independent levels.  I attended this year’s meeting of the Game Developers Conference, and I encountered a whole host of developers interested in working with scholars to develop history games for education or entertainment.”

Finally, Bob points out that not only do more historians need to get involved in video games, it’s essential that it be a diverse set of historians.

“YouTube, arguably the most important medium for the video game community, is famous for harboring sexist and racist videogame broadcasters who often feature historical games, particularly games in the strategy genre. Part of my goal with History Respawned is to turn the tide of purposeful misinformation regarding history … I  believe that a more diverse group of scholars creating their own videos may be more effective in building a more diverse audience and establishing a more accurate historical memory among game players…”

“We need more historians in video games, and I’m only too eager to help others press start.” -Robert Whitaker

To start your video game #histcomm project, connect with Bob on Twitter @whitakeralmanac.



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