Battles are Easy, or Feelings and Facts

Verisimilitude.

Now that a fun word, right? To say that something  has verisimilitude is to say that it has the appearance of reality- that it feels true, in other words.

Note that distinction. The something feels right does not mean that it is right. As any physicist can tell you, common sense notions are often the most wrong.  Verisimilitude simply giving something the impression of being real. It can be convincing, but it doesn’t have to be true.

My favourite example of this sort of think come from the world of set design.

Greebles, despite sounding like a particularly unfortunate children’s breakfast cereal is the technical term for all those little bits and pieces that model designers put on their spacecraft a la Star Wars

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All those cubes and boxes and pipes and doohickies that cover the spacecraft’s hull don’t do anything- but they look like they might. The purpose of all this is to convince the viewer- that is, us- that this is a great big complicated machine, and nothing says complex like a very busy mechanical landscape. A perfectly smooth surface would probably look even more futuristic, but that’s best left to those super advanced evil aliens who show up around Act 3. This is verisimilitude- it’s the act of seeming. You can’t help but say “Wow, that looks real!”.

For everyone who isn’t into fictional spacecraft, I present another example: Forced Perspective. Theme Parks use this all the time. By changing the scale of building or structures as they move further away from you, Disney can make their themed environments larger than life.

Main

Look carefully at these buildings (From Main Street U.S.A., Disneyland). It appears to be a three story shop, though only the ground floor is tall enough to admit adult humans. The rest is an (increasingly) underscaled mockup, designed to make you, the visitor, feel smaller, and hence more child like. World of Magic, Eh?

It works in the reverse as well.

Epcot

This two story building is actually more than five stories tall.

Exped

And only Disney can make an Everest easily traversable by train.

The point is that we can given someone an experience- one which they can indeed enjoy vividly and undergo what seems to be real- which leaves a lasting impression on them, without it being necessarily real.

This is where the digital portion comes in, folks.

Historical Computer games are not perhaps the best way to learn history. There’s been a lot of arguing back and forth over the relative merits of games as teaching devices- can they aid? Do they affect people at all? Is there value in their messages at all?

I’m not really worried about that. A video game is more or less an interactive movie. You not only get to watch unrealistic people do impossible actions, but you get to control them as well! Perhaps this isn’t the best medium for a deep reading into, say, the economic effects of the Crimean War.

It is, however, a great medium for getting the feel of an age. I am thinking specifically of the newly released (as of this writing) Assassin’s Creed Unity, a game which takes place in Paris during the French Revolution. Are the characters real? Nope. Is the plot a historical narrative? Nope. Is the backdrop real? Oh yes.

The only games that can really pull off guiding the player through a historical event are war games, where, for example, you could play both sides at Waterloo, or mess around with tanks in North Africa. At least battles have fairly simple objectives that can be quite historically accurate. You play as Napoleon- your object is to re-play and win all these battles that he won- very straight forward.

But how does one model situations that don’t involve guns? How do you make a game that simulates the life of a British farmer, circa 1750? Or life on the home front of WWII? Or just surviving during the Great Depression? Storylines that would make sense in these settings would probably not involve a lot of gunplay or car chases and thus don’t exactly appeal to most folks who are buying games.

Games can, however, have very accurate backdrops to their unrealistic gameplay. Unity may be about a fictional assassin, but it’s about a fictional assassin running about and exploring a very real city during a very real period. Players can, while they kill, pick up something of how that period felt. The crowded streets, the strange, medieval layout of the city, the anger of the people, the uncertainty of the times can all be easily expressed. Actual names, dates, and facts are unlikely to be espoused by the game (or remembered by the players), but the sights and sounds of Paris will stick.

The game does do this- we see dirty streets and maze-like alleyways, foppish nobles hiding from angry crowds, impromptu trials and sudden executions and the player’s character is involved in all of it.

It’s all about seeming. The best way to understand historic clothing is to wear it. The best way to understand old cars is to drive them. Since we cannot go back in time, the best way to experience an earlier period is to simulate it. What could be better than a simulation where you can interact with your surroundings? Unless a museum is willing to shill out truly enormous funding, the best simulations are going to come from video game engines.

Just like Expedition Everest impacts the size of Everest while being much smaller, or Main Street USA invokes nostalgia for a childhood may people did not have, well done video games set in historical periods will probably not replace textbooks, but they will help players visualize what the past looked like.

Now to find a game about 19th Century Lumberjacks,

Scott W. E. Dickinson

 

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