PLAYERS GONNA PLAY, PLAY, PLAY, PLAY, PLAY

HISTORY IN GAMES, GAMES IN HISTORY

The games we play are often steeped in history. Many take place in a real or imagined past, drawing on both popular and scholarly understandings of history to craft a believable setting. Yet all games have their own histories, and some relationship to historical processes - even when the setting is in the present or future, the ideas they knowingly or unknowingly draw upon are all rooted in the human past. This panel explores these relationships between gaming and history, and what they tell us about both the history we leisurely consume and the games themselves.

MODERATOR

DR. SARAH GILBERT (/u/SarahAGilbert)

PANEL MODERATOR

SARAH A. GILBERT (SHE/HER) is a Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Maryland, College Park. She earned her PhD in Library and Information Studies from the University of British Columbia. Dr. Gilbert’s work focuses on understanding and designing healthy online communities, studying topics like what influences participation, how people learn in online communities, and how volunteer moderators’ labor impacts community governance. She is also a moderator of r/AskHistorians. 

SPEAKERS AND PAPERS

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ADAM BIERSTEDT (/u/sagathain)

CORPOREAL CORRUPTION: SKULLS AS NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIOUS SIGNIFIERS IN ASSASSIN’S CREED: VALHALLA

​This paper explores how Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla uses skulls, both human and animal, to depict medieval British and Irish religious practices. Christianity, the iconography of Roman paganism, and the imagined home of the Norse gods in Asgard are portrayed with a notable absence of skulls or bones, creating a perception of moral rectitude and familiarity. Old Norse paganism and some forms of Celtic paganism have human and animal skull decorations, but exclusively as set dressing - these have an innate moral ambiguity. Finally, Old English paganism and other forms of Celtic paganism feature skulls worn over and obscuring the human face, and are explicitly negative, dangerous, and malignant religious practices that exist to oppose the player and be aggressively opposed by the player.

 

This use of skulls in religious practices is based on modern expectations and perceptions of pre-Christian religions as more "natural" and less "civilized", Othering these religious practices while simultaneously invoking both fear and curiosity on the part of the modern observer. These modern expectations the game draws on partially invert historic evidence of these religious practices. The bones of Christian Saints are important relics and objects of religious practice for medieval Christianity, so common and important that entire trades would develop to trade both legitimate and fraudulent bones between individuals and institutions. Comparatively, there is an absence of evidence to suggest the use of skulls in particular in non-Christian religious practice for the religions depicted in the game, though human and animal sacrifices are sometimes attested. In doing so, the game prioritizes modern expectations over historic realities, and depicts certain religions as lesser to others by invoking problematic images of naturalism and incivility.

 

ADAM BIERSTEDT (HE/HIM) has an MA in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies from the University of Iceland, and is working on a second MA in Library and Information Sciences. His research interests include: the legendary sagas, human-environment interactions in medieval Scandinavia, and modern reception of the Vikings, particularly in video games. He does public historical outreach through game analysis on Twitch and YouTube under the name Ludohistory.

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EMMET TAYLOR (/u/For-cith)

CORPOREAL CORRUPTION: SKULLS AS NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIOUS SIGNIFIERS IN ASSASSIN’S CREED: VALHALLA

​This paper explores how Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla uses skulls, both human and animal, to depict medieval British and Irish religious practices. Christianity, the iconography of Roman paganism, and the imagined home of the Norse gods in Asgard are portrayed with a notable absence of skulls or bones, creating a perception of moral rectitude and familiarity. Old Norse paganism and some forms of Celtic paganism have human and animal skull decorations, but exclusively as set dressing - these have an innate moral ambiguity. Finally, Old English paganism and other forms of Celtic paganism feature skulls worn over and obscuring the human face, and are explicitly negative, dangerous, and malignant religious practices that exist to oppose the player and be aggressively opposed by the player.

 

This use of skulls in religious practices is based on modern expectations and perceptions of pre-Christian religions as more "natural" and less ‘civilized’, Othering these religious practices while simultaneously invoking both fear and curiosity on the part of the modern observer. These modern expectations the game draws on partially invert historic evidence of these religious practices. The bones of Christian Saints are important relics and objects of religious practice for medieval Christianity, so common and important that entire trades would develop to trade both legitimate and fraudulent bones between individuals and institutions. Comparatively, there is an absence of evidence to suggest the use of skulls in particular in non-Christian religious practice for the religions depicted in the game, though human and animal sacrifices are sometimes attested. In doing so, the game prioritizes modern expectations over historic realities, and depicts certain religions as lesser to others by invoking problematic images of naturalism and incivility.

 

EMMET TAYLOR (THEY/THEM) is a doctoral student at University College Cork. Their research explores the concept of the hero in medieval Irish literature, how the concept develops, and how it changes throughout the medieval period. They are particularly interested in the modern reception and remediation of medieval Celtic literature, history, and mythology, especially in Tabletop Roleplaying Games and video games. They are part of the editorial team for the Association of Celtic Students of Ireland and Britain and are one of the two managers of the Association’s blog.

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JASON DYER (/u/jbdyer)

RECONSTRUCTING THE SIERRA LEONE GAME

In 1962, the District Superintendent for Schools in Northern Westchester County, New York approached the company IBM about a collaboration in education: the staff of the school districts could work with the technical side of IBM to produce new research, leading to Project 2841, where three simulation games were to be tested on a group of sixth-graders.

 

One of these games, has had almost no discussion from scholars, but—despite it not spawning the same legacy The Sumerian Game did—is historically interesting in its own right: The Sierra Leone Game. The author, Walter Goodman, "felt that the economic problems of newly-independent African countries were important for pupils to understand" and had assistance from Frank Karefa-Smart, from the staff of the United Nations (and brother of Dr. John Karefa-Smart, the first Foreign Minister of the newly independent country), who by extension became the first African involved in computer game development. 

 

​This paper describes the history of The Sierra Leone Game and my attempts to reconstruct it, making it missing no more, and reconstructing how it stands near the front of a long lineage of strategy games.

 

JASON DYER (HE/HIM) works for a technology company in San Francisco and has maintained the All the Adventures project at his blog Renga in Blue since 2011, endeavoring to play and document every adventure game ever made. He has degrees in Mathematics and Fine Arts Studies and is a digital humanities and interactive fiction enthusiast.

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ADAM FRANTI (/u/PartyMoses)

NOT NATURALLY ADAPTED TO HORSEBACK: RACE AND RACE THEORY IN DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS

Dungeons and Dragons, a popular tabletop roleplaying game, allows players to create fantasy heroes to play through fantastical adventures. Among the many choices given to a player is the choice of race. Each race in the game comes with particular strengths, weaknesses, and attributes that affect the player’s approach to the world. 

Many of the racial elements involve essentialist elements: dwarves live underground and love gold; elves are graceful and great archers, but “not naturally adapted to horseback;” orcs and other monster races are brutish, violent, and dimwitted. These ideas did not originate with Dungeons and Dragons, yet they are ideas so common to fantasy fiction of various mediums that they have become axiomatic. Though fictional, many of these elements are based on real-world ideas, rooted in real-world theory.

Attempts to explain why some societies achieved “civilization” and others remained “primitive,” led Enlightenment and colonialist thinkers to speculate on biological causes of different “levels” of civilization around the globe, leading many to formulate elaborate, essentialist theories about of biological categories of humanity called races. These explanations were enthusiastically employed in the defense of chattel slavery and imperialist conquests, and spawned a number of knock-on pseudosciences like phrenology and eugenics. Structural effects of governments embracing these ideas linger to this day.

So how did a role-playing game come to include such theories? This paper will examine the intellectual theories and pop-culture inspiration behind the ideation of race in Dungeons and Dragons, and how popular culture can inadvertently perpetuate harmful institutional theories

ADAM FRANTI (HE/HIM) is an adjunct professor of history at Grand Rapids Community College, and earned his Master's degree in history from Eastern Michigan University in 2018, focusing on military and cultural history of North America. He has worked on research projects for the National Parks Service and presented research at international conferences. He is particularly interested in the ways that culture, and popular culture, influences politics and warfare.