Is Historical Authenticity in Games All That Important?
One of the most surefire ways a game can stir up controversy nowadays is to bring into question the issue of historical authenticity. It seems like no other topic has the capacity to incite such an incendiary response from the gaming community. Copious microtransactions...meh, unfulfilled gameplay promises...whatever, being able to customize your multiplayer only character as a race/gender which would have been uncommon for the time period presented...get me my torch and pitchfork! In just the last year alone there have been several high profile instances of extreme backlash to games for the “crime” of historical inaccuracies. With the release of Call of Duty: WWII in late 2017 there was a string of complaints revolving around the inclusion of people of color and female character models in the game’s multiplayer. Needless to say, some people were off-put at the image of a black woman fighting for the German Army in WWII. The announcement for the upcoming Battlefield V also heralded a new wave of outrage, particularly over the inclusion of female soldiers, as well as some admittedly outrageous character customization options. While DICE has held firm on its commitment to include female soldiers, they have chosen to dial back on some the customization options in order to provide a greater sense of authenticity. Most recently, Total War: ROME II was the victim of negative “review bombing” after it was speculated that recent changes to the game made the occurrence rates of female generals in the campaign mode significantly higher. This controversy, as it turns out, was almost a complete fabrication as a statement by developer Creative Assembly refuted the claims entirely, explaining that the changes affected only a few of the games factions.
The primary instigators of these incidents appear to be a mix of armchair historians upset at the realism of the setting being curbed and those with the misguided belief that these inclusions are the result of game companies attempting to push an agenda onto their player base. Allow me to play devil's advocate for just one moment here. I like to consider myself something of a history buff, therefore, a little bit of authenticity can go a long way for me, especially when the game is specifically focused on a single period in time. Thus, when a game sacrifices accuracy for the sake of player determined customization or just having diversity for diversity's sake, it can adversely affect my immersion, even if these features are just relegated to multiplayer. That being said, I’m more than willing to accept a level of creative license as female soldiers, while not common, were far from being completely unheard of. So who’s to say you’re not just part of an impromptu unit of soldiers cobbled together from men and women? But, when you have people of color fighting for the Axis Powers and characters with 1940’s era prosthetics effortlessly wielding firearms, my suspension of disbelief starts to wane. All I ask is how many liberties do you take with authenticity before you wonder why they chose to have the game take place in this setting in the first place?
Now that I got that out of the way, I can begin to explain why everything I just said should have ZERO bearing on whether a game is actually good or not. The issue of historical accuracy is not, and never should be, a metric for which to judge the actual quality of a game. As I said before, the main draw for committing to an authentic representation of a time period is to provide a sense of immersion. The standards for immersion are something that vary in degrees from gamer to gamer, and for some it isn’t even a factor at all so long as the game is fun. The issue is that some people are unable to separate their own personal opinions on what they think the game should be versus what the game is. If a game does not meet your grade of authenticity then simply look elsewhere - there are tons of other games that strive to deliver painstakingly accurate depictions of their respective settings. For WWI or WWII enthusiasts, games like Verdun or Red Orchestra leap to mind and probably represent the closest you’ll get to those wars without having actually fought in them. The point is, there is no reason to boycott or “review bomb” a game because it violates some unwritten rule that historical integrity should be of paramount importance. Nor should you throw a tantrum on social media because you think that games are under threat from some imaginary conspiracy to proliferate political correctness. Sadly, such is the zeitgeist of our times. If the reaction to Red Dead Redemption 2’s announcement that black cowboys will play a larger role in the game is anything to go by, the internet is far from done with this tiresome trend.