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Academics hope history in video games spurs interest

Thu, 11/12/2009 - 5:05am

Editor's Note: I've heard this one before. Sadly, video games have yet to obtain legitimacy--in many folks' eyes, their greatest value is as a gateway of sorts (in this case, to study history). Little attention is paid to the merits of the game itself. Of course, this hasn't effected business in the least, but "intellectuals" may never fully embrace the artistic value of video games. 

Karma-WWII-web(Reuters) - Portraying Leonardo da Vinci or World War II in a video game is challenging game developers to mix fun with facts while academics hope this growing genre will get players more interested in history.

Gary Keith Brubaker, a lecturer in game study at The Guildhall at SMU in Texas, said historical games always have to try to balance accuracy and fun.

"Just as movies about the past adapt the story to medium, so do games. However as limited as this history is, it can be a gateway for further exploration and interest for players," said Brubaker.

Although no data examines historical games as a genre, Michael Pachter, videogame analyst for Wedbush Morgan Securities, estimates games incorporating history into their stories have made up about 10 percent of overall sales over the past year.

The American Library Association (ALA) has realized this link, offering people the chance to play games and learn more about the real stories behind them. It has earmarked November 14 as National Gaming Day at U.S. libraries.

"We have found that by adding board and video game formats to library collections we are providing users with tools to build strong literacy practices while sharpening technical and critical thinking skills," said American Library Association (ALA) President Dr. Camila Alire.

Ubisoft's "Assassin's Creed II" is a typical example.

Set in Italy during the Renaissance, the game introduces hero Ezio Auditore. As players progress through the game, they interact closely with a young Leonardo da Vinci who provides Ezio with various gadgets and contraptions, including a flying machine, to aid his quest.

GAMEWAY TO HISTORY

"Most people picture an older, bearded man (made famous by his early 16th century self portrait), however our game begins in 1459 and ends in 1499 so the Leonardo players encounter and interact with is much younger," said Corey May, lead scriptwriter for the game at Ubisoft Montreal.

"Our Da Vinci is vivacious and manic, full of youthful exuberance and delighted by every new discovery he makes," added May. "He's still a genius - the very definition of a Renaissance man - but he's not perfect."

As with the original game that was set in the Middle East during the Third Crusades and sold over 8 million copies, this title creates a huge audience of gamers who could then dig deeper into the real history that envelopes the game's fictional story.

May worked with historian Margaret Meserve to ensure accuracy with the game.

When it comes to exploring history through games, World War II has been a popular setting for shooter games over the years but "The Saboteur," a new action game from Electronic Arts, serves up the French resistance to Nazi occupation as its setting and introduces a protagonist based on a real-life war hero.

Players step into the boots of Sean Devlin, who was inspired by William Grover-Williams, a half-English/half-French grand prix champion driver for the French Bugatti racing team in the 1930s.

Like Grover-Williams, Devlin joins up with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and is airdropped into France. Unlike the real war hero, who was executed by the Nazis, Devlin - and the player - survives and helps liberate France.

Tom French, lead designer of "The Saboteur" at Pandemic Studios, said to many people, World War II was only fought by soldiers and viewed as epic battles like the Normandy Beach Invasion or Pearl Harbor.

"But there are so many smaller heroes with personal struggles and stories that took place far away from the front lines during the war that are barely mentioned at all in the history books that are extremely fascinating," he said.

"My hope is that bringing the idea of these types of characters into more popular culture will arouse some people's curiosities to investigate further and learn more."

 

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