To begin this article in the most honest way I can think of, I must state that as a biologist I’ve always complained about those absurdities in the Pokémon franchise that could have been solved if the designers had taken 10 minutes to Google them. And I’m not alone in this! – There are issues such as mistaken cephalopod anatomy (Salvador & Cavallari, 2019), using Japanese species on a setting that’s clearly France (Tomotani, 2014), the impossible water-holding capacity of Blastoise (dos Anjos, 2015), and the skewed biodiversity of the Pokémon world towards cats and dogs (Prado & Almeida, 2017; Kittel, 2018; Salvador & Cavallari, 2019).
Maybe that’s why one Pokémon in this new generation (Gen VIII) has caught me so off-guard. Given that the whole franchise is about making monsters beat other monsters, I was not expecting something with an ecological/conservationist edge out of it. I was particularly not expecting a new Pokémon to reflect one of the major environmental problems our planet is facing: coral bleaching. The Galarian form of Corsola was a slap to the face and a brilliant addition to the game, so hats off to Game Freak Inc. and The Pokémon Company in this regard.
CORSOLA AND CORALS
Corsola’s first appearance on the franchise was on Gen II, the famed Gold and Silver games (Fig. 1). It is a dual-type Pokémon (Water/Rock) based on a coral, likely the red corals, a moniker given to several species in the genus Corallium (Fig. 2).
Corals are animals belonging to the phylum Cnidaria, which also includes jellyfish and anemones. Broadly speaking, there are two types of corals: soft corals (Alcyonacea) and stony corals (Scleractinia). The latter, as can be surmised by their name, have hard skeletons made of calcium carbonate (Fig. 2). That explains Corsola’s Rock type – or would, because the red corals that are the likely inspiration for Corsola, are not stony corals. Rather, they are soft corals (Alcyonacea) that – atypically for the group – have calcareous structures in their otherwise organic skeleton (Grillo et al., 1993; Debreuil et al., 2011).
The live polyps (Fig. 3), however, look very different from the dead coralline skeleton. But oddly enough, Corsola looks more like a dead coral colony skeleton (Fig. 2) than a living one. Also, Corsola looks like a single creature rather than a colony, as it would be expected of red corals.
Despite being colonial, red corals (and other soft corals) are not reef-building corals. Even though, to better explain the issue with coral bleaching and threats to ecosystems, I need to provide a brief explanation on reefs and reef-builders.
Stony corals are often colonial and a group of them known as “hermatypic corals” are reef-builders; that is, their skeletons fuse to become coral reefs (Fig. 4). These corals often have symbiotic zooxanthellae (single-celled photosynthetic algae) embedded in their soft tissues. Since they depend on photosynthesis to acquire nutrients, they are typically found in shallow and clear tropical waters.
Coral reefs are hotspots of marine biodiversity. They sustain and shelter a myriad of species: lobsters and shrimps, snails and squids, worms, fishes, turtles, and many others (Fig. 5). So, why does that matter? Simply put, the highest the biodiversity (number and types of different species), the more ‘ecosystem services’ we can benefit from (CORAL, 2019). Think of these services as everything nature can provide us if we could just take good care of it. To help inform decision-makers, many ecosystem services are being assigned economic values. It seems ridiculous that we have to assign an economic value to nature, but unfortunately that’s how our short-sighted governments work.
Inevitably, coral reefs are extremely threatened by overfishing and pollution (including the now pervasive microplastics) and by climate change, because the increased temperatures lead to coral bleaching and ocean acidification (McClanahan, 2002). But I will come back to this later; first, let’s take a look at the Galar region and its Corsola.
The Galar region is the setting of the newly released games Pokémon Sword and PokémonShield, the franchise’s Gen VIII. Galar is based in the United Kingdom and several locations in the game were inspired by real-world places. Part of the new fauna (but not all of it) is also appropriate to the UK, such as ravens (Corviknight) and cormorants (Cramorant). However, as the game says, Galar is heavily industrialized and this has influenced some Pokémon living there, like Weezing, whose Galarian variant manages to look even more noxious than the original form from Kanto (but see Box 1).
The Galarian variant of Corsola is a Ghost-type Pokémon, clearly indicating it’s already dead. It is entirely white (bleached) and has a sad face (Fig. 6). Its Pokédex entry in Pokémon Shield bluntly states: “Sudden climate change wiped out this ancient kind of Corsola.” In Galar, Corsola also have an evolution, named Cursola (Fig. 6), which is likewise Ghost-type. It is a larger and more branched coral.
However, contrary to regular Corsola, the Galarian Pokémon are not based on the red coral. Instead, given the shape of their branches, they seem to be based on actual reef-building corals such as Acropora spp. (Fig. 7). That is fitting, because Acropora are major components of reefs and are one of the most sensitive corals to climate change (Loya et al., 2001). Also, Acropora corals are what you usually find when googling for “bleached coral”. So it seems Sword and Shield developers are finally using Google, after all.
Box 1. Galar/UK and Kanto/Japan
Galar is badly industrialized and that is true for its real-life counterpart too. Great Britain is famous as the starting point of the Industrial Revolution and infamous for social problems associated with it, such as poor working conditions and child labor. But a fact that is often overlooked is the collapse of the English Channel’s ecosystem. The Channel separates southern England from France and is one of the busiest fishing areas in the world. The place has been overfished to a scary extent and the habitats on the bottom of the Channel has been destroyed by trawling (Southward et al., 2004; Roberts, 2007). As is, the Channel’s ecosystem cannot recovery and the biodiversity in the area has plummeted (Molfese et al., 2014).
Even so, Japan is not truly in a position to point fingers about this topic. The country has one of the most destructive fishing practices in the word, including harvesting shark fins and being one of the only nations that still hunt whales (Clover, 2004; Sekiguchi, 2007; McCurry, 2011). Japan has overfished several, if not most, edible animal species in their EEZ, from the famous bluefin tuna to squids and crabs; as a result, the country’s fisheries have witnessed a sharp decline in the past decades (Popescu & Ogushi, 2013; Katsukawa, 2019). Researchers within Japan are now arguing for a change to sustainable and scientifically informed fishing practices (Katsukawa, 2019). We can only hope they will.
When ocean temperatures increase, the symbiotic zooxanthellae leave the corals. This makes the corals become white (Fig. 7); they “bleach”, so to speak. Also, without their photosynthetic “buddies”, corals are under more stress, start to starve, and overall have a serious decrease in their chances of survival (Fig. 8). Decline in coral ecosystems have been reported from all over the world: from the Caribbean to the Indo-Pacific, most famously including the Great Barrier Reef (Bruno & Selig, 2007; Edmunds & Elahi, 2007; De’ath et al., 2012). Reports from the Galar region are yet to come.
Decline in coral reefs will start a cascading effect and most other species dependent on them (lobsters, squid, fish, etc.) will decline as well (Jones et al., 2004). This might lead to ecosystems collapses and, needless to say, it will affect all those ecosystems services (including food) we derive from the sea. When corals die, the dead rocky reefs become dominated by low-productivity and non-commercial invertebrate species such as sea urchins, starfish, and small snails (McClanahan, 2002).
Bleaching, however, is not the only threat to corals. Our oceans are acidifying due to increased CO2 concentrations in the air since the Industrial Revolution. When CO2 is absorbed into the water, it reacts to become bicarbonate ions, making the water more acidic. This effect is, of course, amplified by higher temperatures (Humphreys, 2017). Acidified waters make it more difficult for corals to produce and deposit calcium carbonate (Albright et al., 2017), which is the substance that makes up their skeleton, as we’ve seen above.
Unfortunately, corals are not the only animals threatened by rising temperatures in the ocean. Mollusks have shells made of calcium carbonate and are thus vulnerable to more acidic waters, especially during their larval or juvenile phase. Mollusks such as planktonic sea-butterflies (pteropod snails; Fig. 9) and bottom-dwelling bivalves are as important as corals for ecosystems, and several other animals depend on them, from other mollusks to crustaceans and fish (Manno et al., 2017). Here, the situation might be even worse than with corals: while reefs are restricted to tropical regions, ocean acidification will affect mollusks in temperate regions as well (Soon & Zheng, 2019).
As much as we can protect the natural world by creating nature reserves (including marine ones), unfortunately they will not work in this case (Allison et al., 1998; Jameson et al., 2002). Reserves can protect the reef ecosystem against overfishing and trawling, but it cannot stop ocean acidification. That is linked to climate change and we are already passing the tipping point in which the change could be turned back (Aengenheyster et al., 2018); soon, all we’ll be able to do is damage control.
Aengenheyster, M.; Feng, Q.Y.; van der Ploeg, F.; Dijkstra, H.A. (2018) The point of no return for climate action: effects of climate uncertainty and risk tolerance. Earth System Dynamics 9: 1085–1095.
Albright, R.; Mason, B.; Miller, M.; Langdon, C. (2010) Ocean acidification compromises recruitment success of the threatened Caribbean coral Acropora palmata. PNAS 107(47): 20400–20404.
Allison, G.W.; Lubchenco, J.; Carr, M.H. (1998) Marine reserves are necessary but not sufficient for marine conservation. Ecological Applications 8(sp1): S79–S92.
dos Anjos, J.P.P. (2015) Turtles with cannons: an analysis of the dynamics of a Blastoise’s Hydro Pump. Journal of Geek Studies 2(1): 23–27.
Bruno, J.F. & Selig, E.R. (2007) Regional decline of coral cover in the Indo-Pacific: timing, extent, and subregional comparisons. PLoS ONE 2(8): e711.
Clover, C. (2004) The End of the Line: how overfishing is changing the world and what we eat. Ebury Press, London.
I am very grateful to Alexander Semenov for giving me permission to use his fantastic Limacina photograph. I am also grateful for Farfetch’d finally having an evolution.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist who specializes in mollusks; fittingly, his favorite Pokémon is the West Sea Gastrodon. Part of his research is on marine snails and slugs, but he’s also interested in other marine animals – except fish maybe, which are mostly boring. He has played Pokémon since Gen I, but never really cared about Corsola – until now.
 Not in other regards, though. We did not need a new Mr. Mime or a Pokémon who’s a walking dollop of whipped cream. Not to mention that the ice cream Pokémon were included in the game, but Abra, Starly and Lord Helix were not.
 Also known as ‘precious corals’ because people like to use its red/pink/orange skeleton for making jewelry.
 Ecosystem services are split into four categories: provisioning (e.g., food production); regulating (e.g., climate buffering); supporting (e.g., oxygen production); and cultural (e.g., recreational and spiritual benefits).
 For instance, one of the starters is a monkey.
 Curiously, Pokémon Moon (Gen VII) had the following Pokedéx entry for Sharpedo, a shark Pokémon: “It has a sad history. In the past, its dorsal fin was a treasured foodstuff, so this Pokémon became a victim of overfishing.” So, the absence of Sharpedo in Sword and Shield could be explained by an extinction event.
 Water pollution can also be a cause for bleaching in some cases.
 Just using this footnote to point out that this person has a PhD and is thus known as Dr. De’ath. That is one of the coolest Marvel-esque names I’ve ever seen in academia.
 Phione and Manaphy are Pokémon based on the pteropod species Clione limacina (Salvador & Cavallari, 2019). Their absence in Sword and Shield could be explained by an extinction event due to climate change.
The Climate Trail is a new and totally free game for PC and mobiles developed by Willian D. Volk. The game takes place in the in future, when our inaction regarding the climate crisis has rendered much of the world uninhabitable. The player leads climate refugees as they flee from ever worsening conditions, combining adventure, survival and visual novel elements. The Climate Trail follows the footsteps of the famous series The Oregon Trail (MECC, 1971–2011).
The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Willian D. Volk to understand how The Climate Trail came to be. You can read the full interview below.
Q: Firstly, thank you for making The Climate Trail; the world desperately needed it. Being such a hot topic (no pun intended), it’s amazing no one in the video game industry has faced it heads on yet. So how did you become the first one to step up to this task?
A: The mainstream video game industry is risk-adverse because unlike film, there is no secondary markets (cable, etc.) for their games. With high budgets, they don’t take big risks and rely on franchises (i.e., Call of Duty, Overwatch, Grand Theft Auto) for most of the revenue. There’s also an aversion to tackling controversial topics. There are some indie games that have addressed the climate issue, but The Climate Trail may be the first to put players into a post climate-apocalypse world.
Q: Before The Climate Trail, did you have any experience in communicating about climate change? Or maybe even joining up some marches and protests?
A: I have degrees in Physics, a wife who used to work for the EPA and a brother who is a meteorologist. I’ve done way too much online debating on the issue, which was one of the motivations for making this game. I have participated in some climate events as well.
Q: As the game’s title and website make clear, it has drawn inspiration from The Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail series is classified as ‘educational games’. Do you see The Climate Trail equally as an educational game or more as a call to action?
A: My goal is to add more educational content into the game so it can be a resource for climate information, but I also want it to be a call to action. Both are important.
Q: Would you like to see The Climate Trail being used in classrooms?
A: I do. This is why there’s no “roving band of cannibals” or other violence in the game. I present information about climate change in the title and expect to have the game serve as a resource for climate education.
Q: To create The Climate Trail, did you use models and predictions made by climate scientists? If so, which studies and reports have you used?
A: Yes, here are some studies and information about feedback loops.
What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk
Existential Climate-Related Security Risk [foreword by C. Barrie]
Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided
Scientific articles by Farquharson et al. (2019) and Schneider et al. (2019)
Opinion articles by Hewett (2019) and Kristof (2019)
Q: To many (if not most) people, science alone is not enough reason to take action. The emotional impact of a game might be more crucial, and art might play a bigger role here. The Climate Trail has all of that, so how did you approach the mix and balance of science and emotion?
A: I’ve always believed that games can have social value. Chris Crawford’s 1985 classic game of geopolitical brinkmanship, Balance of Power, showed the futility of nuclear war. There are other examples, the 1997 PlayStation game Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee covered the exploration of workers in a moving way. For me the example that best represents a creative effort that moved me to tears is the 1959 film On the Beach.
On the Beach scared me and I’m sure many other “cold war” children (and adults). The ending scene of the film shows a deserted world with banners expressing futile hope in a dramatic image. I want to invoke the same feelings about our ever more likely climate apocalypse as On the Beach did for nuclear war. As the scientist in that film says: “Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the Earth?”
I simply can’t believe we’re stupid enough to cook ourselves off the face of the Earth. If I can achieve 1/10th of the emotional impact of Oddworld or On the Beach I will be happy with the effort.
Q: In The Climate Trail, players must survive a journey from Atlanta, USA, to Canada, across a climate-wrecked landscape. Did you choose this area for any particular reason?
A: Single highway route made design easier, all the locations are far enough above sea level to still be passable even if all land ice melts. I’ve been to that Canadian town as well.
Q: The USA in The Climate Trail looks terrible. In what year exactly does the game take place?
A: I’m deliberately not specific. Kate (the scientist) mentions Greenland Ice Melt when she was in college (dog sled picture) so the idea is it could be anywhere from 30 to 50 years or more.
Q: We love that the game’s difficulty levels are represented by greater increases in global temperature. How do the different temperature increase scenarios change the gameplay?
A: They effect heat wave and storm frequency, how many seeds you have at the start and the odds of finding supplies and capturing rain.
Q: You funded the game yourself and made it available to the public for free. Why did you opt for that approach?
A: It’s easier for climate organizations to support a game if it’s not a commercial venture. Also want to get it into schools.
Q: Ultimately, what is your hope for The Climate Trail?
A: Have it become an educational resource (as we add more climate info) and as with On the Beach create emotional impact that moves people to action. I want to see millions playing it.
About the Team
William D. Volk is a game developer, founder of Deep State Games, and environmental advocate. He began his career in 1979 helping to launch the computer game division of Avalon Hill. He has worked at Activision and Lightspan and produced over 100 educational adventures. George Sanger, also known as “The Fat Man”, is a musician who has composed music for several video games, including Wing Commander and SimCity 2000.
 Farquharson, L.M.; Romanovsky, V.E.; Cable, W.L.; Walker, D.A.; Kokelj, S.V.; Nicolsky, D. (2019) Climate change drives widespread and rapid thermokarst development in very cold permafrost in the Canadian High Arctic. Geophysical Research Letters 46: 6681–6689.
 Schneider, T.; Kaul, C.M.; Pressel, K.G. (2019) Possible climate transitions from breakup of stratocumulus decks under greenhouse warming. Nature Geoscience 12: 163–167.
Mondo Museum is an upcoming simulation game developed by Viewport Games where you can build your dream museum. Equipped with dinosaurs, Books of the Dead, classical paintings, and space-age stuff, Mondo Museum has something for everyone. The game will be soon published by Kitfox Games and is already listed on Steam.
The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed designer/programmer Michel McBride-Charpentier to understand how such a wonderful game like Mondo Museum came to be. You can read the full interview below.
Q: There are lots of sim games around, but as far as we know, there has never been one about curating and running a museum. So how did you get that idea?
A: After the announcement, a few people have said they’d also had the idea of a “SimMuseum”, so I don’t think it’s a wholly original concept. I’m actually really surprised nobody else has made a game like this since the idea first popped into my head over a decade ago and I’ve spent the last 5 years really expecting one to drop on Steam at any moment.
The idea, like most good ones, came to me through synthesizing a lot of different interests I’ve developed over my life: visiting a wide variety of museums in school and later as an adult, a love for Maxis and Bullfrog management games, and a personal desire to create work that is educational and engages players with systems thinking without being a dry capital-letters Serious Game.
Q: Do you have any particular type of museum you enjoy the most? Or an all-time favourite museum?
A: Museums that contain a wide variety of exhibits that have no apparent relation to each other are always the most fun for me to visit. For example, The Met in NYC which has collections ranging from Ancient Egypt to medieval European armour to Rembrandt paintings. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is also in this vein, with dinosaur skeletons and fossils next to Chinese sculpture.
Asking for my favourite is an impossible question, but I’ll use this opportunity to shout out the Noguchi Museum in Queens, NYC. It’s entirely focused on the life and work of Japanese-American sculptor/designer/landscape architect Isamu Noguchi. Walking through those galleries and the sculpture garden for the first time sparked a real appreciation for abstract sculpture I never had before, and he instantly became my favourite artist of the 20th century.
Q: Did you bring into Mondo Museum some of your personal experience or preferences?
A: Choosing which collections to include at launch was definitely driven by my personal preferences. When I was a kid I wanted to be an Egyptologist and archaeologist, so including an Ancient Egypt collection was an obvious choice. Many of the things that invoke a sense of wonder in kids but are often lost as we become older are represented, such as dinosaurs, space exploration, and the geology of the Earth.
Q: Have you or anyone in the team worked in a museum before?
A: C.J. Kershner is writing the exhibit item descriptions and the few characters who are directors/curators of other museums, and has many years of experience volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History as an info desk attendant (so obviously had to know a lot about the workings of the museum from the visitor’s perspective), and as an explainer for a live exhibits team.
Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What is the players’ goal in Mondo Museum? Are there different scenarios and objectives to be met?
A: There’s a sandbox mode where the end goal, or how to achieve the highest prestige ranking, is mostly up to the player to define. There is a task/objective system that provides short-to-medium term goals, such as unlocking new items or receiving more funding.
As for scenarios, the current plan is to have those, though what exactly they will look like is still undecided. A campaign where you move between different museums with unique challenges and constraints is the goal, but will likely only come in an Early Access update.
Q: From what we’ve seen, the game includes all types of museums: natural history, technology, archaeology, anthropology, art, etc. How did you manage to gather all these different areas of study and interest into a single package?
A: As I mentioned above in what my favourite types of museums to visit are, it’s not uncommon for real museums to display a wide variety of collections under one roof. But we go one step further, and let players mix and match items from any collection. The challenge was in selecting items that complement one another and allow players to discover these relationships between items. One example is how in the Ancient Egypt collection there’s an astronomical chart, and tools for observing the stars, that can be combined with items from the Space Exploration collection to create a kind of “Astronomy through the Ages” combo. Right now I’m explicitly defining these combos, but might try out a more free-form tagging system, where for example any item tagged “Tool” could be placed in an exhibit hall with others that share that tag.
Q: And now perhaps the most important question of all: does Mondo Museum include exhibits of the giant squid (Architeuthis dux) or the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni)?
A: “The Ocean” is on a shortlist for collections to include in a future content update, but if you’re really desperate to see some horrors of the deep, mod support means if a player can make a 3D model of one then it will be very easy to put in the game.
Q: Did you bring in any museum staff as consultants while making the game?
A: No real consultants other than C.J., but if anyone is brought in will likely be to review specific collections for cultural sensitivity issues we might have been oblivious to. For example, someone recently brought up the debates museums have around the subject of human remains when making exhibits about ancient burial practices and so on, which I hadn’t considered before. That kind of insight is really helpful (in our case, this helped me decide to only have mummified animals because a) they’re actually pretty cute while human mummies are pretty gross and b) a human mummy is kind of unnecessary since the real interesting artefact/art is the coffin and sarcophagus).
Q: There is a lot of discussion today around ownership and repatriation of artefacts, especially in archaeology and anthropology. It is a tough subject, but does Mondo Museum tackle it in some sense?
A: Absolutely, and it’s core to the politics of the game. I didn’t want to recreate the systems of colonialism and looting that resulted in many museums in the West originally acquiring their collections. Mondo Museum takes place in a more just and utopian world, where all items have been repatriated (or never left in the first place). The way you unlock new exhibit items is by satisfying the conditions of visiting directors/curators from these museums around the world, who will then effectively give you permission to display parts of their collections.
Q: The game focuses on the exhibitions, which are the public face of museums. Will there be any mention to the vast collections of objects and specimens museums have and of all the research (scientific and otherwise) that is done based on these collections?
A: The research and archive aspect of the game is still a work in progress (there are researcher staff you hire who can improve the quality of your items/the understanding visitors get from it in a sort of abstract way), but I like the idea of the item we have created that is on display representing a lot of associated items that don’t have 3D models but you need to manage to some extent. I’m trying to keep the scope achievable for the moment, but big updates are planned throughout Early Access.
Q: Do you hope the players will learn something with Mondo Museum or maybe spark their interest to visit a museum?
A: I really do hope it encourages players to go to museums if they haven’t been in a while, or maybe since a school field trip. Hopefully the game will give everyone a deeper appreciation of the work behind creating an exhibit that makes sense to the public, or consider what curation decisions they might have done differently to tell a different story.
Q: Do you hope museums worldwide might learn something from Mondo Museum?
A: The people running modern museums are generally doing a really good job in engaging visitors these days, so I’m not expecting to reveal anything they don’t already know. Maybe there could be more museum activities for adults, and not just kids or currently enrolled students. I’m targeting an audience of all ages, and there’s been a lot of interest from adults intrigued by the game. Curator talks, seminars, group tours, opening parties, etc., are fairly common, but I’d love to see more creative activities and workshops designed with adults in mind, since there’s clearly an adult audience for “playing” with museums.
ABOUT THE TEAM
Michel McBride-Charpentier is Mondo Museum’s designer and programmer; the other team members are Genevieve Bachand (artist), Farah Khalaf (producer), C.J. Kershner (writer), and Rhys Becker (artist). Viewport Games is a small studio based on Montréal, Canada. Kitfox Games, also from Montréal, is an independent games studio focused on creating intriguing worlds to explore.
The ability to reliably perceive the emotions of other people is vital for normal social functioning, and the human face is perhaps the strongest non-verbal cue that can be utilized when judging the emotional state of others (Ekman, 1965). The advantages of possessing this ability to recognise emotions, i.e., having emotional intelligence, include being able to respond to other people in an informed and appropriate manor, assisting in the accurate prediction of another individual’s future actions and additionally to facilitate efficient interpersonal behavior (Ekman, 1982; Izard, 1972; McArthur & Baron, 1983). In the current experiment the consistency with which emotions display by a human female face and a Pokémon character are investigated.
The current study employed 30 hand drawings of Pikachu, a first generation electric-type Pokémon character, depicting a range of emotions (images used with permission from the illustrator, bluekomadori [https://www.deviantart.com/bluekomadori]; based on the video game characters belonging to The Pokémon Company); see Fig. 1a for examples. Also, 30 photo-quality stimuli displaying a range of emotions, expressed by the same female model, were taken from the McGill Face Database (Schmidtmann et al., 2016); see Fig. 1b for examples. Ratings of arousal (i.e., the excitement level, ranging from high to low) and valence (i.e., pleasantness or unpleasantness) were obtained for each image using a similar method to Jennings et al. (2017). This method involved the participants viewing each image in turn in a random order (60 in total: 30 Pikachu and 30 of the human female from the McGill database). After each image was viewed (presentation time 500 ms) the participants’ task was to classify the emotion being displayed (i.e., not their internal emotional response elicited by the stimuli, but the emotion they perceived the figure to be displaying).
The classification was achieved via “pointing-and-clicking” the corresponding location, with a computer mouse, within the subsequently displayed 2-dimensional Arousal-Valence emotion space (Russell, 1980). The emotion space is depicted in Fig. 1c; note that the red words are for illustration only and were not visible during testing, they are supplied here for the reader to obtain the gist of the types of emotion different areas of the space represent. Data for 20 observers (14 females) was collected, aged 23±5 years (Mean±SD), using a MacBook Pro (Apple Inc.). The stimuli presentation and participant responses were obtained via the use of the PsychToolbox software (Brainard, 1997).
Figure 1. Panels (a) and (b) illustrate 3 exemplars of the Pokémon and human stimuli, respectively. Panel (b) shows the response grid displayed on each trial for classifications to be made within (note: the red wording was not visible during testing). Panels (d) and (e) show locations of perceived emotion in the human and Pokémon stimuli, respectively. Error bars present one standard error.
The calculated standard errors (SEs) serve as a measure of the classification agreement between observers for a given stimuli and were determined in both the arousal (vertical) and valence (horizontal) directions for both the Pokémon and human stimuli. These are presented as the error bars in Fig. 1d and 1e. The SEs were compared between the two stimulus types using independent t-tests for both the arousal and valence directions; no significant differences were revealed (Arousal: t(58)=-0.97, p=.34; and Valence: t(58)= 1.46, p=.15).
Effect sizes, i.e., Cohen’s d, were also determined; Arousal: d=0.06, and Valence: d=0.32, i.e., effect sizes were within the very small to small, and small to medium ranges, respectively (Cohen, 1988; Sawilowsky, 2009), again indicating a high degree of similarity in precision between the two stimuli classes. It is important to note that the analysis relied on comparing the variation (SEs) for each classified image (reflecting the agreement between participants) and not the absolute (x, y) coordinates within the space.
What could observers be utilizing in the images that produce such a high degree of agreement on each emotion expressed by each stimulus class? Is all the emotional information contained within the eyes? Levy et al. (2012) demonstrated that when observers make an eye movement to either a human with eyes located, as expected, within the face or non-human (i.e., a ‘monster’) that has eyes located somewhere other than the face (for example, the mythical Japanese Tenome that has its eyes located on the palms of his hands; Sekien, 1776) the observers’ eye movements are nevertheless made in both cases towards the eyes, i.e., there is something special about the eyes that capture attention wherever they are positioned. Schmidtmann et al. (2016) additionally showed that accuracy for identifying an emotion was equal when either an entire face or a restricted stimulus showing just the eyes was employed. The eyes of the Pikachu stimuli are simply black circles with a white “pupil”, however they can convey emotional information, for example, based on the positions of the pupil, the orientation of the eye lid, and by how much the eye is closed. It is hence plausible that arousal-valence ratings are made on the information extracted from only the eyes.
However, for the Pokémon stimuli Pikachu’s entire body is displayed on each trail, and it has been previous shown when emotional information from the face and body are simultaneously available, they can interact. This has the result of intensifying the emotion expressed by the face (de Gelder et al., 2015), as perceived facial emotions are biased towards the emotion expressed by the body (Meeren et al., 2005). It is therefore likely that holistic processing of the facial expression coupled with signals from Pikachu’s body language, i.e., posture, provide an additional input into the observers’ final arousal-valence rating.
Whatever the internal processes responsible for perceiving emotional content, the data points to a mechanism that allows the emotional states of human faces to be classified with a high precision across observers, consistent with previous emotion classification studies (e.g., Jennings et al., 2017). The data also reveals the possibility of a mechanism present in normal observers that can extract emotional information from the faces and/or bodies depicted in simple sketches, containing minimal fine detail, shading and colour variation, and use this information to facilitate the consistent classification of the emotional states expressed by characters from fantasy universes.
Brainard, D.H. (1997) The psychophysics toolbox. Spatial Vision 10: 433–436.
de Gelder, B.; de Borst, A.W.; Watson, R. (2015) The perception of emotion in body expressions. WIREs Cognitive Science 6: 149–158.
Ekman, P. (1965) Communication through nonverbal behavior: a source of information about an interpersonal relationship. In: Tomkins, S.S. & Izard, C.E. (Eds.) Affect, Cognition and Personality: Empirical Studies. Spinger, Oxford. Pp. 390–442.
Ekman, P. (1982) Emotion in the Human Face. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Izard, C.E. (1972) Patterns of Emotion: a new analysis of anxiety and depression. Academic Press, New York.
Jennings, B.J.; Yu, Y.; Kingdom, F.A.A. (2017) The role of spatial frequency in emotional face classification. Attention, Perception & Psychophysics 79(6): 1573–1577.
Levy, J.; Foulsham, T.; Kingstone, A. (2013) Monsters are people too. Biology Letters 9(1): 20120850.
McArthur, L.Z. & Baron, R.M. (1983) Toward an ecological theory of social perception. Psychological Review 90(3): 215–238.
Meeren, H.K.; van Heijnsbergen, C.C.; de Gelder, B. (2005) Rapid perceptual integration of facial expression and emotional body language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102: 16518–16523.
Russel, J.A. (1980) A circumplex model of affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39(6): 1161–1178.
Schmidtmann, G.; Sleiman, D.; Pollack, J.; Gold, I. (2016) Reading the mind in the blink of an eye – a novel database for facial expressions. Perception 45: 238–239.
Sekien, T. (1776) 画図百鬼夜行 [Gazu Hyakki yagyō; The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons]. Maekawa Yahei, Japan.
About the Author
Dr. Ben Jennings is a vision scientist. His research psychophysically and electrophysiologically investigates colour and spatial vision, object recognition, emotions, and brain injury. His favourite Pokémon is Beldum.
Paul Mountfort1, Anne Peirson-Smith2 & Adam Geczy3
1 Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand. Email: paul.mountfort (at) aut.ac (dot) nz
2 City University of Hong Kong, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Email: enanneps (at) cityu.edu (dot) hk
3 University of Sidney, Sidney, Australia. Email: adam.geczy (at) sydney.edu (dot) au
* This is an extract from Chapter 3 of Planet Cosplay: Costume Play, Identity and Global Fandom, by Paul Mountfort, Anne Peirson-Smith and Adam Geczy (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books; Chicago, US: University of Chicago Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission by Intellect Books. Note that this version may display minor editorial differences to the final published version.
Cosplay is a performance medium in which embodied textual citation and photographic practices come together and sometimes collide. Moreover, photography both documents and preconditions elements of the cosplay performance, via visual genres typically spanning those of the fashion runway, studio and ‘hallway’ shoots. This chapter brings these textual and visual analyses together to present a situated photo-essay shot in the candid style. It documents five years of an Australasian-based fan convention that celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2015, the Auckland Armageddon Expo. In doing so it offers a snapshot, as it were, of a half decade of ‘glocalized’ cosplay practice. The term ‘glocalization’ refers to twin processes at work in late capital. Firstly, capital and regulatory frameworks elide from the national upwards to the global scale and reciprocally downwards to the scale of the local. Secondly, economic activities and networks between business entities become simultaneously more localized, regionalized and transnational.[i] This model has been widely applied to the sphere of cultural capital and is of particular relevance to cosplay, which tends to grow by osmosis out of local conditions but owes its provenance to wider networks of cultural production and associated fandoms.
Armageddon is an instance of the organic way in which glocalized conventions develop and proliferate. It began as a comics and trading card event in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1995 with follow-ups in 1997, and within a few short years had spread to the capital city, Wellington (1998), and on to Melbourne, Australia (1999).[ii] Starting off in small community venues, progressing to more major urban events centres, and on to large-scale convention spaces, the Expo has evolved into a major regional sci-fi, comics and gaming convention with over 80 events to date, some 70,000 annual visitors in its home city and 130,000 across its Australasian diaspora. In aggregate, it is, therefore, close in scale to San Diego’s annual Comic-Con and exhibits a similar mix of cultural and industry practices. While the Auckland Expo has some factors that are specific to its geographic location, genealogy as a gaming and fan con, specifics of the main site and its mix of events, the photos in this chapter could have been taken at almost any con in the western world, both in terms of the diversity of participants and the franchises, storyworlds and other source media texts represented in the costumes on display. The first part of the commentary, which follows, discusses the range of sources being cited—the individual trees amid the forest of citations—along with some identifiable trends in the 50 photographs that comprise this selection.
With the identity of the cosplayers included in this chapter being anonymous, the focus of discussion here is on the characters and source texts identifiable in the sample of photos on display, and the popular cultural milieu out of which they have arisen. Many of the sources being mined here are comparatively ‘timeless,’ harking back decades to milestones in their respective media, such as the 2014 San cosplay and crossplay (Figures 23 and 40) inspired by Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime) (1997).[iii] Half a decade is long enough, however, for micro-historical forces to operate in fan cultures, wherein recent movies, games and media elements enjoy rapid waves of meme-like popularity. Of course, even the most up-to-the-minute sources being cosplayed may spring from long-lived media franchises. For instance, Marvel or DC’s blockbuster transmedia storyworlds have comic book precursors going back to the 1930s and 1940s. However, particular movie or game adaptions are often very specific: for example, a 2012 costume of The Joker (Figure 2) is not any old joker but identifiably Heath Ledger’s Joker from Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). Similarly, the 2016 release of the movie Suicide Squad, set in the DC Comics universe, indelibly marked the portrayal of Harley Quinn in that year.[iv] Nor do new waves of influence always overwhelm old favourites: stormtroopers and even sets from the original Star Wars (1977–83) trilogy jostle alongside Sith and other characters from the more recent prequels and sequels (Figures 25, 35 and 36).[v]
Identifying the ‘trees’ in the forest of citations that comprise even a medium-size convention would prove a challenging, if not impossible, task for even the most pop culturally literate geek or otaku. This is because, as we have seen, cosplay draws on multiple media sources: comics, movies, manga, anime, games, pop idols and other media identities, as well as online memes. Most, though not all, of the costumes in this essay proved readily identifiable.[vi] However, others were more elusive, with some cosplay, being, in any case, modelled after what Matthew Hales terms a generic (as opposed to discrete) character type[vii] or fashion style rather than a titular protagonist—though these two dimensions (character type and style) often go hand in hand. Common western character types include vampires, zombies and other genera of the undead, who shuffle convention spaces alongside Japanese-inspired samurai, ninjas, shōnen (boys) and shōjo (girls), including sub-types such as bishōnen (beautiful boys) and mahōshōjo (magical girls). Among the most important generic styles—which may comprise not just fashion but lifestyles—are Lolita and steampunk. As previously discussed, these styles have often infected source media, such as anime and manga. Furthermore, crossovers and mash-ups abound, especially at larger cons with more established player communities who have the confidence to push cosplaying boundaries. This said, superhero action franchises, sci-fi and fantasy television shows, multi-season anime series and protagonists from popular gameworlds tend to be the dominant fauna at most cosplay cons.
There are identifiable cultural fashions within cosplay, and one of the affordances of an extended photographic study is that we are able to see how the portrayal of certain characters, or iterations of certain characters, spike in relation to recent film, game and other media releases. Photos from Armageddon taken between 2012 and 2016 document a number of character iterations from Marvel and DC. Both are deep-rooted comics franchises from the early twentieth century that have had many iterations, adaptations and spin-offs over the decades, and which are now the subject of multiple big movie and television series versions. Marvel exerts a particularly powerful gravitational pull on western cosplay today, with Avenger’s franchise characters such as Captain America (Figure 32) much in evidence in the wake of the Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), The Winter Soldier (2014) and Civil War (2016) instalments.[viii] The interconnected nature of the Marvel universe, where the storylines of characters from discrete shows intersect at various junctures, rewarding fans focused on the detailed timelines and backstories, provides the perfect template for the kind of vast inter-referential networks that operate within the cosphere.
In recent years DC has made serious moves to mimic Marvel’s integrated storyworlds in an attempt to establish its own universe, though with mixed success. As mentioned, ‘Heath Ledger’s’ Joker (Figure 2) was cited at Armageddon in 2012, four years after the release of DC’s The Dark Knight (2008). Ledger’s Joker attained iconic status not just through his riveting performance and the relative critical acclaim of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy[ix] but also due to the actor’s tragic death in the same year as the movie’s release, which cemented his cult following in popular culture and ensured both actor and character iteration a viral afterlife. Nolan’s trilogy restored a cachet to the Batman storyworld notably lacking for DC in the pantheon of contemporary popular culture, including cosplay circles. Hence characters such as the Scarecrow (Figure 25),[x] who was the only villain of genuine vintage to star in the entire rebooted Batman trilogy (2005–12), Bane and Harley Quinn (Figure 5) showing up in cosplaying circles following the 2012 release of The Dark Knight Rises, even though Quinn does not appear in this particular trilogy. She has had many iterations and her popularity spiked in 2016’s Armageddon in response to Suicide Squad’s (2016) fishnet stockings and baseball bat toting version (Figure 39, 50), even though the movie itself was ambivalently received. Superman and Wonder Woman undergo periodic revivals, with 2016’s Armageddon showcasing both female and crossplaying versions (Figure 48) in anticipation of the Wonder Woman’s 2017 Warner Brothers’ reboot directed by Patty Jenkins, while the Green Arrow (Figure 44) from DC’s The Arrow (2012–) television series reboot also put in a guest appearance.[xi]
While some character iterations clearly follow more or less ephemerally on the heels of a movie or other media release, others enjoy relative longevity. For example, at Armageddon 2014 stormtroopers from the first Star Wars (1977) movie (Figure 25), a Ringwraith (Figure 21) and Quidditch player (Figure 20) were in evidence despite the original Star Wars trilogy dating back to 1977–83, Lord of the Rings from 2001–13 and Harry Potter from 2001–11.[xii] Of course, like the DC and Marvel storyworlds, these cinematic works have deep and massive roots in popular culture, functioning practically as cultural mythologies in the west, and continue to have currency courtesy of the follow up Star Wars prequels, sequels and spinoffs (1999–), The Hobbit movie adaptation (2013–14) and Potter prequel (2016).[xiii] The troupe of stormtroopers who posed in 2014 against a lovingly re-created backdrop from the original Death Star returned in 2015 to find themselves joined by a red guard (Figure 35) from Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones 2002 and a scruffy ‘sandtrooper’ from the extended Star Wars universe (Figure 36). Characters from the wider Star Wars universe may also make cameos, such as the Twi’lek woman from Armageddon 2014 (Figure 27). Although not an identifiable character from the canon, such as Aayla Secura, she is clearly a member of the alien species that figure in the television series Star Wars:The Clone Wars (2008–15). Creative adaptations from the storyworld are fairly common in cosplay, and could be described as fan-driven spinoffs, akin to fanfiction’s world building.
Legacy movies that are not part of a larger franchise or storyworld can also provide cosplayers with material, especially where the imagery is iconic or has proved to ‘have legs’ in popular culture. Examples include the ubiquitous V For Vendetta (2006) masks that reference not only the film, but the Occupy movement, the cyber-insurgent group Anonymous and, more recently, NBC-Universal hacktivist drama Mr. Robot (2015–), in a feedback loop of popular cultural inter-referentiality (Figure 29).[xiv] Of course, anonymous masks may also be a cheap and easy way to simulate cosplay while retaining an aura of subcultural capital that other mass-produced masks do not convey. A movie’s cult status may ensure the relative immortality of its characters in the cosphere, such as the appearance of the eponymous heroine (Figure 37) from Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005) coming back to life in 2015.[xv] Long running movie series spread out over years mean that the distinction between legacy and current characters is often fluid. Pirates of the Caribbean’s (2003–)[xvi] Jack Sparrow is the source of numerous memes and has been widely cosplayed, there even being a professional cosplayer in Italy who has based his career on cosplaying Sparrow. ‘Jack’s’ appearance at Armageddon in 2016 could be a back reference to instalments 1–4 of the seemingly endless Pirates movie franchise mill, or may have anticipated 2017’s much dreaded Dead Men Tell No Tales.
There are character iterations, and then there are regenerations (when dealing with a certain 2822-year-old Timelord). Among the many television shows that jostle for attention with characters from live action movies, the long-running British sci-fi series Doctor Who (1963–) is a particularly popular media source. Contemporary characters (e.g. Madame Vastra, Figure 18) rub shoulders with both ‘classic’ and more recent iterations of the Doctor, as do daleks and newer menaces such as Weeping Angels, the Master in ‘his’ gender bending guise of Missy and The Ood (Figure 26). Along with sci-fi shows, quasi-historical series such as Spartacus (2010–13), represented by a slave gang (Figure 38) and, particularly, fantasy TV shows have massive constituencies, with Game of Thrones (2011–) being a major source of cosplay performance.[xvii]Occasionally, characters from popular novels that are not transmediated, such as the titular hero (Figure 24) from Skulduggery Pleasant (2007–), are cosplayed, ostensibly based on book cover and fan art.[xviii]
Western animation is sometimes adapted for cosplay, notable examples being Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–8) and The Legend of Korra (2012–14) (Figure 7).[xix] However, Japanese visual media comprise the twin lodestar, along with western live action films and television, around which contemporary cosplay gravitates globally. This is doubtless due to the sheer profusion of visual riches and the subcultural cachet afforded by Japanese manga, anime and gaming. As with live action, characters from classic anime staples continue to appear, such as the face-painted, dagger-wielding San (Figures 23 and 40) from Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime) (1997), along with many other Studio Ghibli characters and those from other anime studios, such as Toei Animation, Sunrise, Production I.G., Madhouse, Manglobe, Studio Pierrot, PA Works, Kyoto Animation and Bones. Characters from anime TV series spotted at Armageddon include Menma (Figure 9) from A-1 Picture’s Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai) (2011), Q (Figure 1) from [C] The Money of Soul and Possibility Control (2011), Mami Tomo (Figure 42) from Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Mahō Shōjo Madoka Magika) (2011), along with abundant fauna from big ticket franchises such as One Piece (Wan Pīsu) (1997–), Bleach (Burīchi) (2001–) and Naruto (1999–) (Figure 10).[xx]
Game characters are a widely represented—and perhaps the fastest growing—fictional demographic at cosplay cons, doubtless due to the massively increased penetration of gaming platforms into people’s homes in the early twenty-first century. Among the many examples of stand-alone game series characters in 2016, for example, was Shay Patrick Cormack (Figure 49) from Assassin’s Creed (2007–).[xxi] However, games are widely transmediated and evince complex relations with other media. There are, of course, the manga/anime/trading game tie-ins, resulting in cons being stacked with endless Pokémon (1995–)[xxii] characters along with identities from other systems such as Yami (Figure 30) from Yu–Gi–Oh! (Yū Gi–Ōh!) (1996–).[xxiii] These franchises are truly gargantuan, with Pokémon alone having grossed close to US $50 billion prior to the release in 2015 of the short-lived augmented reality (AR) craze for Pokémon GO.[xxiv] Their reach and formative influence on Millennials and Generation Z make it unsurprising that they constitute a major source for cosplay performance. Many characters and storyworlds migrate from manga to anime and onto gaming platforms, such as Naruto and One Piece. Indeed, the anime/games crossover is a huge subject that could easily comprise a book in itself.
Quite apart from trading games, there is a broad distinction between games that have evolved out of manga/anime source-texts and those that were games first but have subsequently been made into movies or television series. Thus, for example, the Colossal Titan (Figure 15) from Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) (2009–) references an acclaimed series that has also spawned official and unofficial games, while Namine and Roxas (Figure 8) are avatars from Kingdom Hearts (Kingudamu Hātsu) (2002–), a role-playing action game in the crossover genre—in this case Japanese studio Square Enix’s characters occupying a setting from the Disney universe.[xxv]Final Fantasy (Fainaru Fantajī) (1987–) is a long-running gaming franchise that was transmediated from the original games into films, while Tomb Raider (1996–) started as a game and was adapted to comics and into movies.[xxvi] Lara Crofts of various iterations remain a convention favourite throughout the west (Figure 41), though she is not unknown in Asia. Some game characters riff off anime genres, such as the magical girl anime style of Monimi Usami (Figure 45) from Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair(Sūpā Danganronpa Tsū: Sayonara Zetsubō Gakuen) (2012),[xxvii] despite, or perhaps because of, the game itself being shōnon (young male). Indeed, the abstracted look of many avatars and certain generic conventions in the depiction of costuming and weapons both here and in some anime can make identification of such cosplay sources difficult. For example, some Samurai cosplay (Figure 13) and fantasy figures (Figure 28) can be hard to distinguish from the general type. Similarly, it can be difficult without asking to tell at first glance if a particular player is Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow or The Hobbit’s (2012–14) Thor Okenshield (Figure 7). There are whole books devoted to making Japanese Kimono-inspired costumes, ‘because doing so requires specialized dressmaking skills that are different from western dress-making techniques’[xxviii] and the resulting kimono and yakata cosplay (Figures 33 and 34) can be hard to distinguish as genera or specific character references.
In Japan, characters from transmedia storytelling franchises are sometimes also pop cultural idol (aidoru) figures who may embody, or are embodied by, real-life avatars, from media celebrities to café ‘maids’ and ‘butlers.’ Some also may be stand-alone complexes, so to speak. The Hatsune Miku cosplay (Figure 43) at Armageddon 2016 comes from a digital avatar used in a synthesizer application Hatsune Miku (2007–) by Crypton Future Media.[xxix] As a further complication, there are the previously mentioned generic character types such as zombies (Figure 31) and fashion subcultures, such as Lolita and steampunk (Figure 7) that may or may not allude to films and games in which specific Lolis and steampunk characters figure. In some cases one might initially mistake the sackcloth and noose tooting costume from 2014 that was DC’s Scarecrow (Figure 22) as a repurposed Halloween mask. Increasingly prevalent is meme cosplay, which is hard to identify for those not in on the joke, and which tends to have a fairly rapid turnover, though less so perhaps in coser circles than online. Examples of this include the Onision ‘I’m a Banana’ (Figure 12) meme from 2009 and zipper-face (Figure 14) and zombie nurse (Figure 31) memes observed at Armageddon 2013 and 2014, respectively (the former meme dates back to at least 2011). More generic garb, such as the not-uncommon ‘horse head’ masks (Figure 17), may be adopted as an easy way to come costumed to a convention and to create dramatic effect on the cheap. Finally, where the current gallery of photographs is concerned, there are shots that document typical kinds of convention activity from milling around outside the convention (Figure 4) to common commercial features of the covered exhibition halls. These include the promotional application of prosthetics (Figure 3), themed mannequins (Figure 6) and sale of merchandise, such as mood-reflecting nekomimi (cat ears) sold at booths on the convention floor (Figure 11). These ‘costplay’ zones await further documentation within the archives of cosphotography, as do many other domains, both physical and virtual, of the ever-expanding cosphere.
Note: Many comic, film, television and game series have multiple directors and are the result of collaboration between several studios, production houses and distributors. For the sake of brevity, the following references limit credit to the main one or two directors, with additional directors noted by et al. Author’s names appearing before titles refer to comics or literary works. Production credit is generally given to the distributor, often a dominant partner in the production, due to many works being the result of collaborations with multiple studios. Readers who wish to know more about the specific commercial and artistic collaborations that give rise to specific productions can find detailed info
[i] See Erik Swyngedouw, ‘Globalisation or “Glocalisation”? Networks, Territories and Rescaling,’ Cambridge Review of International Affairs 17, no. 1 (April 2004).
[iii]Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime), directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Tokyo: Studio Ghibli, 1997), Anime film.
[iv]Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer (New York: Warner Brothers, 2016), Film.
[v]Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, directed by George Lucas (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 1999), Film; Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones, directed by George Lucas (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 2002), Film; Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, directed by George Lucas (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 2005), Film; Star Wars IV: A New Hope, directed by George Lucas (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 1977), Film; Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, directed by Irvin Kershner (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 1980), Film; Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi, directed by Richard Marquand (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 1983), Film; Star Wars: The Clone Wars, produced by Dave Filoni (US: Disney/ABC, 2015), Film; Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, directed by J. J. Abrams (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 2015), Film.
[vi] Grateful thanks to Jasmin Darnell, Fin Mountfort, Felix Mountfort and to Sye Johnson and his cosplaying circle, for assistance provided to the authors in the identification of cosplay characters and other storyworld, gameworld and media content for this chapter.
[vii] Matthew Hale, ‘Cosplay: Intertextuality, Public Texts, and the Body Fantastic,’ Western Folklore 73, no. 1 (2014): 10–14.
[viii]Captain America: The First Avenger, directed by Joe Johnston (Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 2011), Film; Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Antonio Russo and Joe Russo (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2014), Film; The Avengers, directed by Antonio Russo and Joe Russo (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2014), Film; Captain America: Civil War, directed by Antonio Russo and Joe Russo (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2016), Film.
[ix]Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan (New York: Warner Brothers, 2005), Film; The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan (New York: Warner Brothers, 2008), Film; The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan (New York: Warner Brothers, 2012), Film.
[x]Scarecrow, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, et al. (Burbank: DC Comics, 1941), Comic book.
[xi]Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shudter, et al. (Burbank: DC Comics, 1938–), Film; Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins (New York: Warner Brothers, 2017), Film; The Arrow, Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg (New York: Warner Brothers, 2012), Film.
[xii]The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson (Wellington, New Zealand: Wingnut Films, 2001), Film; The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson (Wellington, New Zealand: Wingnut Films, 2003), Film; The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, directed by Peter Jackson (Wellington, New Zealand: Wingnut Films, 2002), Film; Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, directed by Chris Columbus (New York: Warner Brothers, 2001), Film; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, directed by Chris Columbus (New York: Warner Brothers, 2002), Film; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuarón (New York: Warner Brothers, 2004), Film; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, directed by Mike Newell (New York: Warner Brothers, 2005), Film; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, directed by David Yates (New York: Warner Brothers, 2007), Film; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, directed by David Yates (New York: Warner Brothers, 2009), Film; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 1, directed by Mike Newell (New York: Warner Brothers, 2010), Film; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2, directed by Mike Newell (New York: Warner Brothers, 2011), Film.
[xiii]The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson (New York: Warner Brothers, 2012), Film; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, directed by Peter Jackson (New York: Warner Brothers, 2013), Film; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, directed by Peter Jackson (New York: Warner Brothers, 2014), Film.
[xiv]V For Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue (New York: Warner Brothers, 2006), Film; Mr. Robot, Sam Esmail (US: NBC/Universal Television, 2015), TV series.
[xv]Corpse Bride, directed by Tim Burton (New York: Warner Brothers, 2005), Film.
[xvi]Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, directed by Gore Verbinski (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2003), Film; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, directed by Gore Verbinski (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2006), Film; Pirates of the Caribbean: At the World’s End, directed by Gore Verbinski (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2007), Film; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, directed by Rob Marshall (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2011), Film.
[xvii]Doctor Who, created by Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber and Donald Wilson (London: BBC, 1963–), TV series; Spartacus, Steven S. DeKnight (Meridian: Starz, 2010–13), TV series; Game of Thrones, directed by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss (New York: HBO, 2011–), TV series.
[xviii] Derek Landy, Skulduggery Pleasant (London: Harper Collins, 2007).
[xix]Avatar: The Last Airbender, Micheal Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (US: Nickelodeon, 2005–8), Animated TV series; The Legend of Korra, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (US: Nickelodeon, 2012–14), Animated TV series.
[xx]Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai), directed by Tatsuyuki Nagai (Tokyo: A1 Pictures, 2011), Anime film; [C] The Money of Soul and Possibility Control, directed by Kenji Nakamura (Tokyo: Fuji TV, 2011), Anime TV series; Puella Magi Madoka Magica(Mahō Shōjo Madoka Magika), directed by Akiyuki Shinbo (Tokyo: Shaft, 2011), Anime TV series; One Piece: Defeat Him! The Pirate Ganzack! (Wan Pīsu: Taose! Kaizoku Gyanzakku), directed by Gorō Taniguchi (Tokyo: Fuji TV, 1988), Anime TV film; Eiichiro Oda, One Piece (Wan Pīsu) (Tokyo: Jump Comics, 1997), Manga; One Piece (WanPīsu), directed by Konosuke Uda et al. (Tokyo: Jump Comics, 2003), Anime TV series; One Piece: Romance Drawn Story! (One Piece: Romansu Dōn Stori), directed by Katsumi Tokoro (Tokyo: Toei Animation, 2003), Anime film; Tite Kubo, Bleach (Burīchi) (Tokyo: Jump Comics, 2001), Manga; Bleach (Burīchi), directed by Noriyuki Abe (Tokyo: TV Tokyo, 2004–12), Anime TV series; Bleach Nintendo Home Console (Sega, 2005), Console game; Masashi Kishimoto, Naruto (Tokyo: Shōnen Jump, 1999–2014), Manga; Naruto, directed by Hayato Date (Tokyo: TV Tokyo, 2002–7), Anime TV series; Naruto Shippuden, directed by Hayato Date (Tokyo: TV Tokyo, 2007–), Anime TV series.
[xxi]Assassin’s Creed (Carentoir, France: Ubisoft Entertainment SA, 2007–), Computer game.
[xxii]Pokémon, directed by Kunihiko Yuama et al. (Tokyo: The Pokēmon Company International, 1997–), Anime TV series.
[xxiii] Kazuki Takahashi, Yu-Gi-Oh (Yū Gi-Ōh!) (Tokyo: Weekly Shōnen Jump, 1996–2004), Manga; Yu-Gi-Oh (Yū Gi-Ōh!), directed by Hiroyuki Kakudō (Tokyo: Toei Animation, 1998), Anime TV series; Yu-Gi-Oh (Yū Gi-Ōh!) Duel Monsters, directed by Kumihisa Sugishima (Tokyo: TV Tokyo, 2000–4), Anime TV series.
[xxv]Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin), directed by Hajime Isayama (Tokyo: Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine, 2009), Anime TV series; Kingdom Hearts (Kingudamu Hātsu), Tetsuya Nomura and Shinji Hashimoto (Tokyo: Nintendo Entertainment System, 2002), Anime TV series.
[xxvi]Final Fantasy (Fainaru Fantajī), created by Hironobu Sakaguchi (Tokyo: Nintendo Entertainment System, 1987), Console game; Tomb Raider (London: Eidos Interactive, 2001–), Console game; Tomb Raider (Los Angeles: Top Crow, 1997); Tomb Raider, directed by Simon West (Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 2001), Film.
Squids Odyssey is a role-playing game by French studio The Game Bakers. It is the latest entry in the Squids franchise, released in 2014 for Nintendo 3DS and WiiU, and more recently, in 2018 for PC and Nintendo Switch.
The fun fact about our Squids games is that we were actually all fascinated by octopuses and cephalopods in general long before we created the game. We even almost named our game studio “Happy Squids”… It was when we were working on the game mechanics and looking for some characters that could be “stretchable” on an iPhone screen that we thought about “tentacles”. Then we knew it was a perfect fit! We started designing our little heroes inspired by real octopuses, squids and other cephalopods.
We did a lot of research to get inspiration on shapes and colors, but of course there is also a lot of redesign in cartoon style so sometimes it might be hard to see the direct reference. But you can still recognize a few: for instance, Clint was inspired on the vampire squid. Baron, the bad guy in the story, is inspired by a more regular octopus.
We also looked at shrimps and crabs for the enemies. The big boss of the first game is a coconut crab, while a basic enemy you meet in the game is a hermit crab. You can tell the influences directly from the designs.
We took inspiration from other real underwater fauna and flora for the environment design. Even their habitations or their helmets are inspired by things you can find on the bottom of the sea. And in the comic book, we extended the character design to fish; for instance, one of the characters was inspired on a swordfish. In our game, squids and turtles actually cooperate, even though this might not be the case in real life.
For simplification, our little characters only have 4 arms. It’s funny that we’ve been told by some members of our Japanese audience – experts in octopuses and squids – that our little heroes did not look enough like these animals!
ABOUT THE TEAM
The Game Bakers are an indie game studio founded by Emeric Thoa and Audrey Leprince, and based in Montpellier, France. Besides the Squids franchise, they are also responsible for the acclaimed Furi and the upcoming Haven.
 Squids and cuttlefish have 8 arms and 2 tentacles. Octopuses have 8 arms and no tentacles.
 Shrimps, crabs and lobsters are crustaceans and belong to the Phylum Arthropoda, alongside insects and arachnids. They are not related to cephalopods, which belong in the Phylum Mollusca alongside snails and clams.
Through the Darkest of Times is a historical strategy video game taking place in Berlin during the Third Reich, from Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 to Germany’s surrender in 1945. The player leads a civilian resistance group fighting off the new regime how they can. The resistance is made up of common people, from all walks of life, so it’s the leader’s job to win hearts and minds and hold the group together. The player will be responsible for planning the group’s activity and survive by avoiding the Gestapo. All of this while actual history unfolds outside: the game follows the actual historical time-line, which influence the player’s options. The game is under development by Berlin-based studio Paintbucket Games, made up by the duo Jörg Friedrich and Sebastian Schulz. It will be published by HandyGames in the near future and is already listed on Steam.
The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Jörg Friedrich to understand how such a unique game like Through the Darkest of Times came to be. You can read the full interview below.
Q: On your website, you mention that a game focusing on the civil resistance during Third Reich Germany just had to be made. We agree, of course, but would you care to elaborate a little more on this?
A: The story of civilian resistance fighters in Germany is a story that people must learn about – these normal people with families, with normal jobs, saw what was going on the world and decided they had to do something against it. They went underground and risked their lives to stop an inhumane regime.
We think this is a story that must be told.
As political people, certain developments in the world, the fact that we see fascists rise again, here in Germany but also in many more countries in Europe and in the US, worries us a lot. In 2017 we wondered what we could do about this and the only thing we are good at is making games, so we thought “hey let’s make a game that takes an anti-fascist stance and maybe it will make the world a better place!”
As game developers and artists, we like to push the boundaries of the medium. Sebastian and I met when we were working for YAGER, where we made a game called Spec Ops: The Line – an AAA shooter that asked players to shoot people and blamed them when they did. It was supposed to make players feel bad.
Back in 2012 this was special. It felt like a game that needed to be made. We felt like pioneers, we felt like we tried something new by taking a new stance on war and on war in games.
Making Through the Darkest of Times feels similar – we try to find a new way on how games treat Nazism.
Q: Do you believe game developers have a responsibility when representing History? Should this come before artistic freedom?
A: We learn history not only at school, but also from the stories told to us by movies, books and well – video games.
But if someone would learn everything he knows about Nazism from games, he might conclude that Nazis are villains like the Empire in Star Wars: somewhat evil, but they have cool uniforms and tanks and are in the end just a faction like any other.
I find it problematic, that most games with Nazis don’t even mention the murderous anti-Semitism, the slow rise of Fascism or the Shoa.
I know that these games usually have no bad intention by omitting these facts, they often do it to avoid controversy. But honestly: if you think mentioning the historical crimes of the Nazis is inappropriate for your game, maybe picking Nazis as a faction or theme for your game is what is inappropriate here.
Q: Nazism seems to have become just another Hollywood trope nowadays. Are you concerned about how Nazi Germany is depicted in current games?
A: Here is the problem: if your game is about Nazis, but in your game, they do not commit any war crimes, there is no Auschwitz, no Shoa, then you create a historical narrative in which the Nazis didn’t commit these crimes.
And that’s the narrative that is told by Neo-Nazis who try to white-wash historical Nazism, so people are less hesitant to open for far-right ideologies.
Video games is the most important narrative medium of our time – as developers we must take responsibility and tell things the way they happened just as movies did a couple of decades ago.
Q: Current gaming culture is often referred to as toxic, where sexist, racist, homophobic behavior unfortunately abound. Do you believe that might be related to the ideals that games historically presented? Can game developers help change this culture?
A: Yes, I think so. The way games were marketed since the 1990’s until recently, towards young men, featuring the ideal of tough white guys who like hot girls and solve problems with their guns, appealed to a specific type. And this type feels now entitled to games. They think it is their medium and that developers need to create games for them and only for them.
This was never true, because of course there were always all kinds of people playing video games, but we now have this extremely entitled, extremely loud and toxic bunch of guys who yell the loudest and think they can dominate the Internet and our medium.
We must not let them. We must not listen to their demands; leave them stew in their own juice and just ignore them. Let’s make games that are open and inclusive, for an open and diverse audience instead of making games for the Christchurch killer.
Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What exactly is the players’ goal in Through the Darkest of Times?
A: You play a leader of a civilian resistance group in Berlin in 1933 when Hitler becomes chancellor. You try to fight the regime with acts of sabotage and later attacks, educate people and let them know the truth about the Nazis’ plans and their doings, and help the persecuted, by hiding them or getting them out of the country.
Your goal is to persist as a group until the end of the war and do as much of the three things mentioned as possible without being caught by the Gestapo.
In order to achieve this you need to send your members on missions and organize resources necessary for your fight.
The group members are civilians, who are suddenly thrown into a situation where they must do something illegal and risk their life to resist the regime. Members have different biographies and political views, which can lead to conflicts within the group and keeping up morale and members from simply giving up can be tough.
So you try to do as much good as you can and lead you and your group through the darkest of times.
Q: There are some games out there with a healthy dose of historical backgrounds, such as Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts and Assassin’s Creed. How does Through the Darkest of Times approach History?
A: Every turn in the game is one historical week. At the beginning of each turn you get the news with what happened in that week – based on the historical events of that week. But history influences the game mechanics too: at the beginning you don’t need to be too worried, there are even public protests against the regime happening in the streets where you and your group can join. But over time, the repression increases; after the Reichstag fire, the city is full of SA and things are dangerous; and once the Gestapo is founded and the first concentration camp is built, things are dangerous.
There are also big historical events that you witness through narrative sequences to give you more a feeling of being there, than just in the strategy mode.
History also influenced the looks of the game. Sebastian was inspired by German expressionists of the 1920’s who were later banned by the Nazis as un-German art. He tried to create a look that the Nazis would have banned.
So I would say, history plays a very important role in Through the Darkest of Times.
Q: What kind of source material did you use while building the game? Books, historical documents, interviews?
A: All of this. We read a lot, we went to places and museums – luckily, as we are in Berlin and the game takes place in Berlin, there are a lot of memorial sites and local annalists we got in touch with. We read interviews of course and we talked to descendants of civilian resistance fighters.
Q: How faithfully does the game follow real-life events of the Third Reich? Can the players expect to “change the course of history”?
A: In the main game, the historical events and what you read in the news all follow the actual historical timeline. Your character, the members of the group and your supporters are fictional though, and so are their actions against the regime.
But characters and actions are inspired by real civilian resistance groups that were active in Berlin at that time, such as the Schulze-Boyssen/Harnack group or the Jochen-Baum group.
Most of the missions wouldn’t have an impact on grand politics – if this is what you mean by “changing history”. However, the way we see it, history is not only changed by generals and leaders but by all of us.
Who saves people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea today is changing history – more than most politicians and in a better way if you ask me.
But since we have all these rogue-like elements in the game and since we like the idea, we are thinking about a second mode – a “New Game+” if you want – in which events happen less predictably and you might be able to stop the regime before the end of the war.
Q: Do you hope players will learn something about German and World History by playing Through the Darkest of Times?
A: When I talk to people about the Nazi time they often have the idea that it started with war and holocaust right away. But it didn’t. Hitler got elected. He became chancellor in a legal way, because we had conservatives who thought that they could handle a fascist in power and that this would still be better than the left – 12 years later half of Europe was destroyed and millions of people had died.
I hope people might be able to recognize the patterns when playing Through the Darkest of Times when they look at what is going on in the real world.
Q: Is there any takeaway message you’d like the players to get from your game?
A: It would be great if our players took away the same message that we took away when we started to learn about civilian resistance fighters: some developments are so wrong, they are so evil, that we have to overcome our day to day disputes, unite and fight for the fundamental human rights even if it means taking a risk.
About the Team
Paintbucket Games is a Berlin-based indie game studio founded by two ex-AAA developers. Jörg Friedrich does design and code and Sebastian Schulz does art and design. They have been making games for more than 13 years each and worked on 10 of those together. Among the several titles they worked on are: Spec Ops: The Line, Dead Island 2, Albion Online, and Desperados 2.
HISTORYING, PUBLIC HISTORYING, AND HISTORICAL VIDEO GAMES
While traditional history, as a discipline, is important, that should not obscure the fact that doing history, sometimes called “historying,” is something everyone does. For history is fundamentally just the communication of the past through a medium (Dening, 2006; Chapman, 2016). That is certainly the case when the most traditional forms of history are crafted by academic historians: books and textbooks. The dominance of text and speech in history classes should not mislead us: they are not the only media for communicating the past and certainly not the only legitimate media (McCall, 2012b). There are many more, and once we leave the realm of academic historians, it’s easy to find pretty much everyone doing history in some form. They do this when they tell a story about their day, draw a picture about their vacation, or debate something that happened in their peer group. Film, painting, theater, sculpture, toys, music, even social media can and often do communicate aspects of the past and, when they do, they are history.
So, historical video games certainly qualify as a medium that can do history, that can communicate aspects of the past. To use a more formal term, historical video games are a form of public history. Because the term’s meaning varies widely, for purposes of this article, let’s define public history as any communication of the past crafted outside traditional academia with little or no involvement of academic historians. This includes games whose designers read published histories and even games where an academic historian was on board as a consultant but did not make the driving decisions in the design process (McCall, 2018).
So, what makes a video game count as historical? This is another area of debate, but a useful broad definition runs like this: a historical game “has to begin at a clear point in real world history, and that history has to have a manifest effect on the nature of the game experience” (MacCallum-Stewart & Parsler, 2007). This definition works for most commercial games set in the past: the big budget titles Call of Duty: World War II, Total War: Rome 2, and Battlefield One; Sid Meier’s Civilization series (now for almost three decades with III, IV , and V still sold and VI released in late 2016); Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey (and many earlier entries in the series); the favorite games of last decade like Stronghold, Sid Meier’s Pirates, and even Age of Empires; and hosts of recent games by independent developers such as Field of Glory II,Egypt: Old Kingdom, Bomber Crew, Nantucket, and TheCurious Expedition.
Some games that connect to the past, however, are more difficult to categorize. Wolfenstein: New Order, for example, imagines a counterfactual history where Nazi Germany conquers the United States in 1948. The game begins in 1960. Not a historically documented world of 1960, but a counterfactual United States ruled by Nazis. Though Wolfenstein deals with important historical topics like the Holocaust, it does not neatly fit the definition of a historical game noted above (McCall & Chapman, 2017, 2018).
Games in Assassin’s Creed series, on the other hand, do begin at a clear point in real world history but focus on player characters that did not exist (Altair, Ezio, Bayek, Kassandra) occupying roles (Assassins and Templars in cabals) that did not exist historically – at least not according to the best evidence and analysis. It’s best to remember that, ultimately, categories like “historical games” are useful not for their rigid application but only insofar as they help us focus on what is essential. Accordingly, this article is concerned primarily – but not exclusively – with exploring those games that fit the narrower definition of historical games most neatly: large-budget games like Civilization, Total War, Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Call of Duty,Battlefield, and countless independent games like Field of Glory II and Bomber Crew. Despite their many differences, these games have real-world historical settings and have player agents that – generally speaking – either existed historically or take on roles that existed historically (McCall, 2019).
HISTORICAL VIDEO GAMES: WHAT KIND OF HISTORY?
There are a great many kinds of these historical games: shooters, strategy games, adventure games, city builders, management sims, and so on. These games take two main approaches to representing the past: realist and conceptual (Chapman, 2016). Three-dimensional first- and third-person shooter games like Call of Duty, Battlefield One, and the Assassin’s Creed series take the realist approach to representing the past. Their designers present a visually verisimilitudinous environment, the past as it arguably appeared and as a world the player can navigate through the game’s protagonist. Much like historical novels, these games center on fictitious characters who act in historically documented setting but do not alter conventionally accepted larger historical narratives. So, for example, the Assassin protagonists in the Assassin’s Creed series do not alter the outcome of the French Revolutions in AC Unity or negate Cleopatra’s alliance with Julius Caesar in AC Origins as they have their adventures. Protagonist Red Daniels’ actions in Call of Duty World War 2 do not spawn an alternate history without the Allied Push through western France. Rather, the player character develops their own fictitious narrative within the backdrop of the more-or-less documented historical setting. Players decide some of the in-game protagonist’s actions but do not change the larger historical narrative.
The other main approach to historical games is the conceptual simulation approach. Games like those in the Civilization series, Total War series, and Paradox’s grand strategy games like Europa Universalis IV, Crusader Kings II, and Hearts of Iron IV focus not on showing how the past looked but telling how the systems and processes of the past functioned. They do this, not through immersive visually realistic environments, but through underlying rule sets and systems, communicated to the player through stylized and sometimes abstract symbols and graphics (Chapman, 2016). So, Civilization, for example, does not show what ancient civilizations looked like so much as tell, among other things, how geography shapes the development of civilizations. Crusader Kings II does not show how medieval barons lived but tells about the political fragmentation of medieval Europe. In these games, players can make choices that have a grand impact on historical outcomes: managing ancient Egypt to become the dominant world power by the time of the Renaissance, preventing Rome from falling, fending off the Crusaders, etc. These are approaches are not mutually exclusive, however, and many games have elements of both, such as the Total War games that combine the conceptual-style large-scale grand strategy of campaign maps and city-management screens with the more realist verisimilitudinous representations of individual soldiers and battlefields rendered in 3D.
What kind of histories are these historical video games? The vast majority whether their approaches to the past are realist, conceptual, or some combination, present that past as one or more historical problem spaces (McCall, 2012a, 2012b, 2016a, 2018). That is, they present the past in terms of:
A primary agent, the player character of the game, with one or more roles and goals, operating within
a physical space, a virtual world with an environment and geography that includes
any number of elements, including other agents modeled by the AI as non-player characters, that can afford and assist player actions, constrain player actions, or both depending on the situation; and so, the player crafts
strategies and makes decisions to take advantage of available affordances, work within or around constraints, and achieve their goal.
This certainly can be a problematic way to approach the past: It can over-emphasize agents’ conscious goal-oriented behavior and cause humans other than the primary agent to be cast as instruments (McCall, 2012b: 16–19). When applied specifically to the study of agents making decisions in systems like politics, trade, management, construction, battle and so on, however, the historical problem space approach of video games works reasonably well. For in these and other spheres, there was a great deal of conscious goal-oriented behavior, taking place in a physical geography containing elements and agents that could afford and constrain actions – terrain, weather, the physical condition of agents, their morale, and so on. Merchants and revolutionaries, soldiers and farmers, all formed strategies and made choices to reach their short- and long-term goals within their environment, their space.
Historical games model historical problem spaces in significantly different ways from narrative historical texts (McCall, 2012b: 13–21, 2016a: 8–10). The basic distinction is that games are interactive where text-narrative histories are fixed. Texts are fixed by the author and though, of course they can be interpreted in many ways by readers, the reality of the actual letters on the actual pages is objective and fixed and the narrative outcome of the text is fixed. For example, every reader that reads the book as designed will experience the same words in the same order. To that extent, the narrative outcomes of the text are fixed. Videogames (and boardgames for that matter) are interactive. The player is faced with meaningful choices and a variety of possible narrative outcomes based on those choices. Different players playing the game as designed will experience different scenes and episodes in different orders, a different narrative overall. In practice, this means historical games will necessarily include counterfactual history, events and outcomes that did not happen, but might have.
Crusader Kings II, for example, allows a player to start their games at various times in the 9th to 15th centuries CE. At any given date, the world map is divided into territories under the control of historical local rulers according to the historical evidence the game developers have been able to find. So, to use the European Middle Ages as an example, starting the game in late 1066, the player finds William of Normandy as the new king of England. The game designers did not stop with historical monarchs; lesser nobles generally correspond to historically documentable agents when that information is known, and the political boundaries of the world map change to match the history of the time and place. Thus, to a certain extent, Crusader Kings II accurately simulates the political geography of the time period in its various starting points. Once the player selects a dynasty to control and starts to play, however, the game simulates the actions of all the lords great and small in the game that the player does not control. Each lord operates according to the rules and priorities established in the game code. The player’s freedom of choice and the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) agents’ choices are coded as probabilities, not certainties, means that the narrative of gameplay will bear similarities to the broader historical context of the period and place but almost certainly not match the specific historical chronology. So, one can centralize eleventh-century England under King Harold instead of William the Conqueror, lead a Mongol king to conquer all of Eurasia, and so on (McCall, 2012b: 12–16, 2016a: 8–10, 2018: 408–409).
This key feature of historical games, interactivity and, as a result, counterfactual outcomes, makes games potentially a very powerful medium for exploring the past. Historical games, in short, can do a very good job presenting the past in terms of systems and interactions, the causal connections that made past societies and people act the way they did. They can also represent the past, to a certain extent, as it seemed to agents at the time, as a contextualized world of possibilities where agents make choices in the hopes of achieving or avoiding certain outcomes, without any certainty how everything will come out in the end. Indeed, this is how life is experienced for most of us, past and present. Interestingly, however, as Copplestone (2017) noted, the standard form of representing the past, textual history, tends to present the past as anything but open-ended, as simply a linear set of events destined to turn out the way they did. Games offer a sense of exploration, of control, of possibility, possibly a sense of sober consideration, not just passive determinism. As such they can helpfully move history education beyond the archetypal monotony of “one damned thing after another.”
Historical games generally make two kinds of claims to being historical, to conforming with evidence and scholarship about the past: implicit and explicit. Essentially, all historical games make implicit claims to having at least some accurate historical detail. Consider this: When designers craft a historical game, they can choose to make it about a historical topic and world – Civilization or Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed – or not – Scrabble, Super Mario Odyssey, and so on. By opting to connect the game to a historical world with historical names, visuals, symbols, and rules, the designers implicitly suggest the game is historical to some extent and has some level of accurate portrayal of the past – though of course that level can vary widely within and between games.
Many historical game publishers go beyond these implicit claims to claim explicitly that their games are historically accurate. “Historical accuracy” is a problematic term in-and-of itself and means different things to different people. Copplestone (2017) found in her research that many video game designers understood “accuracy” in terms of verisimilitude, correctly portraying architecture and material culture. Many players, on the other hand, considered accuracy to be judged in the degree to which a game matched something they had read (Copplestone, 2017). Gilbert (2019), however, found some players judged games to be more accurate than history texts to the extent that the games seem to espouse more diverse points of view than standard historical textbooks or teachings. Those investigating the connections between video games and history have their different definitions too and some advocate distinguishing between accuracy, defined as exact capturing of historical factual details, and authenticity, a more systems-based general feel that may err on details but gets an overall valid impression (Chapman, 2016; McCall & Chapman, 2017, 2018). Still, many would recognize historically accurate or even historically authentic representations of the past must conform to some debatable extent to sound historical evidence. In other words, they are consistent with at least some of the evidence. And this is what some game developers explicitly claim. The manual for Civilization IV, for example, boldly proclaims:
“Civilization IV is the latest iteration of Sid Meier’s Civilization, first released in the early 1990’s. From its inception the Civilization series has been acknowledged as the first and best world history simulation, lauded for its incredible depth of play and its extraordinary addictive nature.” – (2K Games, 2005)
And Paradox Interactive claims its game, Europa Universalis IV allows one to “Rule [their] nation through the centuries, with unparalleled freedom, depth and historical accuracy” (in store.steampowered.com; accessed on 04/Apr/2019). Activision, publishers of the 2017 World War II shooter, Call of Duty: WWII, crowed, “our teams at Sledgehammer and Raven (…) captured the epic scale and authentic atmosphere of the most brutal war ever fought” (Jones, 2017). Creative Assembly, makers of the historical Total War series, play with definitions some, but still claimed their historical games conform to historical evidence when a spokesperson noted, “Authenticity is probably a better word than accuracy, and that’s what we aim for” (Brown, 2013).
Historical games not only promise to connect players to a real past, however; they promise all the traditional appeals of video games, elements that shape the type of history these games deliver. Beyond the tendency to cast players as goal-oriented agents within a problem space, video games often seek to indulge power fantasies where players have not just choices, but interesting and important choices that determine the fate of the game world. And because games try to satisfy this desire to make important decisions, they tend to be made about topics that seem more readily cast in heroic terms. This is at least part of the reason why there are very few peasant agriculture history games or games about herding flocks – despite the importance of these activities in human history – but there are myriad games about battles and politics.
Several other common biases of the medium are worth noting. Beyond presenting agents as empowered goal-seekers who face interesting choices, historical games also tend to simplify and streamline the topics they cover to make them more readily graspable, and, as a result, more appealing to consumers. Converting the health of soldiers into hit-points, calculating the experience of a player agent in terms of levels, treating all the nutritional requirements of humans as a simple all-purpose food commodity, expressing diplomatic relationships as positive or negative numbers. These are all examples of simplification and abstraction (McCall, 2012b).
On top of designers’ goals to craft engaging gameplay, and the historical problem space framework, game histories – like indeed all historical media – are also shaped by their designers’ understandings of the past. At a basic level, when a designer attempts to model the past, the elements in a game function according to that designer’s understanding of the past. To give some recent examples, the Civilization series continues to emphasize the designers’ understandings that advantageous geography and the development of Western arcs of technology are primary determinants in a civilization’s success, a quantifiable success often expressed in militaristic terms. The Roman city-builder game from last decade, CivCity:Rome, has a happiness level, that is essentially a material comfort level, and this measures the success of the player. In other words, the game promotes the “bread and circuses” approach to government – give the people material gifts and entertainment, and they will be happy. The popular Total War series suggests that morale is a critical part of battles, because soldiers fight not until they die, not always anyway, but until their morale dips too low and they flee in fear. None of these understandings are necessarily in conflict with historical evidence. They simply illustrate that designer’s understandings of the past shape their games (McCall, 2010; McCall, 2014).
GAMING THE PAST: VIDEO GAMES AND HISTORICAL THINKING INSIDE AND BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
Designers do a considerable amount of historying when crafting their historical games, and this alone suffices to make them an interesting manifestation of public history for historians to explore. These games also have great potential to inspire and enhance all sorts of historical inquiries in and outside of the classroom. Since 2005, I have advocated that historical games’ ability to:
immerse and engage through choice and multi-modal channels,
provide systems-based interpretations that emphasize causal connections,
offer historical problem space approaches to understanding the past,
makes them useful tools for formal history education. Treating games as historical interpretations to critique, not as factual accounts, is critical to this approach. In other words, teachers and students should approach historical video games critically, study historical evidence, discuss ways the games simulate the past effectively and ways that they misrepresent it. This approach integrates reading historical sources, having discussions, direct instruction segments, and gameplay in class, and engaging in activities ranging from discussion to critical analytical writing, all designed to get students thinking about the historical claims of game models, and thereby, hopefully, developing a greater understanding of the past by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the game versions. At the same time, I have explored the flip side of the coin, students crafting historical simulations as a way to practice the craft of historians, think carefully about cause and effect, and explore the choices of historical agents in the past. Most recently that has manifested itself in research and work on Twine, the choice-based interactive text tool, that allows students to research and craft interactive historical texts, allows them, in short, to do interactive digital history (McCall, 2016b, 2016c). The powerful potential of historical video games as pedagogical tools for history education is just starting to be realized.
Even when not used in class as part of well-crafted learning environments, however, historical video games are an important medium of participatory public history. Players do history just by playing, for they interact with the game and engage in play that leads to historical narratives. Theorists about public history talk about the idea of shared authority, that non-academic historians, the public, can share authority for reconstructing and interpreting the past with academic historians. Game players and designers also share authority for reconstructing the past in video games. The game does nothing without a player, and so the act of playing is, in a very real sense, a dialogue between player and designer about what the past was like and how it functioned (McCall, 2018).
There is some research in this area, trying to understand what players think about as they play and reflect upon a historical game, though more is needed (Gilbert, 2019). Internet game forum discussions offer an important and largely untapped resource for investigating the historical reasoning and journeys of game players. True, most game players likely never post on game forums. So, one can rightly question how representative forum posts are of game-players’ thoughts in general. Still, they are an important resource for understanding some of the possibilities for players’ historical thinking: since the forums allow essentially any gamer to participate in them, they publicize players’ ideas ranging from support to analysis and criticism of their games. Forum threads, therefore, illustrate some of the types of experiences and understandings players can have interacting with these games. This is a critical point: the forums show a range of possible interactions with games available to anyone who wants to share their thoughts, and these interactions are no less possible for those who choose never to post. In short, the forums tell us what kind of reasoning can happen, a critical data point for those investigating historical games as media for learning history (McCall, 2018).
Forum posts suggest that some players engage in considerable amounts of historical reasoning as they reflect upon and discuss their gameplay. Discussion topics include:
the difference between a fixed representation of the past and a simulation;
the tensions that often exist between historical accuracy and engaging gameplay;
the role of counterfactual history in games;
how accurately games simulate elements of world history ranging from a historical state’s political and military power, to the role of women in the politics of a period, a religion’s characteristics, and to institutions of slavery.
Sometimes posters just assume the truth of their historical claims. Other times they provide reasonable historical statements (“facts”) to back their assertions. Occasionally, they refer to a historian’s work or text to back up their claims. In these ways, posters clearly engage in significant historical thinking on varied important topics and also think about the accuracy of the games (McCall, 2018)
In short, historical video games have an impact on how players approach and understand the past (McCall, 2018; Gilbert, 2019). Indeed, they can serve as foils for important arguments about past and present. It’s time to consider this final point in our exploration of historical video games as means of encountering, learning, and thinking about the past.
WHEN GAMES ABOUT THE PAST TROUBLE THE PRESENT
Far from desiccated topics of debate only of interest to antiquarians, video games histories inspire intense, sometimes inflammatory debates about past, how it is portrayed, whether those portrayals are historically accurate, and how those portrayals affect the present. This final section will examine a few cases where contemporary controversies have arisen about how accurately certain video games represent the past.
Some video games have proven to be politically charged in how they represent military and political powers in the past, causing some to challenge their historical accuracy. Assassin’s Creed Unity (2014), for example, places the player in control of a fictional Assassin based in Paris during the French Revolution. The game, developed by French company Ubisoft, sparked criticism from some French politicians, most notably former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. He challenged the seemingly bourgeois depictions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as honorable victims of revolution, the radical Maximilien Robespierre, author of the Terror, as a vicious despot, and the Parisian working class as a bloodthirsty mob. Debates about these and other actors in the Revolution have existed since the time of the Revolution itself and continue to take place, now around video games (Chibber, 2014).
Company of Heroes 2, a real-time strategy game about the Eastern Front in World War 2, was released in 2013, causing an uproar among some in Eastern Europe and Russia. Some of those upset signed a digital petition, hoping to block the sale of the game in the Russian Commonwealth. Critics “review-bombed” the game, flooding a videogame review site, in this case Metacritic, with negative reviews to lower dramatically its overall review scores. At issue was the depiction of the Soviet Army and war effort in the Second World War. At different times in the game, the Soviet army is depicted as sending soldiers into battle without rifles, ordering officers to shoot any soldiers who retreated, and fielding battalions of convicted criminals. Critics suggested that these elements caricature Eastern Europeans as violent and obedient to the point of self-destruction and the Soviet state as evil. Relic defended its history and noted that there is enough evidence to suggest that two totalitarian states were brutal in their clashes on the Eastern Front and soldiers there were often caught between a rock and a hard place, between their enemies on the battlefield and their own states (Campbell, 2013).
The Civilization series, created by Sid Meier back in 1991 and now in its sixth iteration, has received significant criticism not only for its questionably accurate portrayals of the past but also the problematic messages those portrayals send to players. In this extremely popular strategy game franchise, players take on the role of leader of a “civilization.” These are ostensibly historical national leaders, but functionally deities, the guiding intelligence for their civilizations. Starting with the foundation of their first city in about 4000 BCE on a world map of earth-like or random geographic features, players navigate geography, and compete, collaborate, and fight with rival civilizations in a race to create the best civilization. Some have objected to the game’s caricature of historical figures and cultures. Other have criticized that the surest path to victory, to having the “best” civilization, is following the historical imperialist trajectory of technological and military development found in Western Civilization (Poblocki, 2002). Still others have pointed to the game’s problematic presentation of technological and industrial growth. In most playthroughs, a civilization can truly expand without to all the corners of the world, exploiting ever more land and resources, without any problematic effects on the environment. Interestingly enough, anthropogenic global warming and its effect on sea levels were built into the earliest games of the series, CivilizationI (1991) and CivilizationII (1996), and not seen as particularly controversial. The phenomenon disappeared from CivilizationsIII through V (Tharoor, 2016). Most recently the developers of CivilizationVI (2016) have released an expansion, “Gathering Storm” (2019), that adds, among other human made crises, anthropogenic climate change.
Still others have questioned how Civilization portrays certain historical leaders and cultures. Recently the Cree Nation criticized Civilization VI for including the Cree, without their consultation, as a historical civilization along with their historical chief Poundmaker. Said Cree Head Milton Tootoosis, “It perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land” (Chalk, 2018). Tootoosis further opined, “That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view (…) It’s a little dangerous for a company to perpetuate that ideology that is at odds with what we know. [Chief Poundmaker] was certainly not in the same frame of mind as the colonial powers” (Chalk, 2018).
This concern about historical accuracy takes a grim turn when some argue, even against the historical evidence, that a game obscures the reality of the past in order to be “politically correct” and inclusive of diversity. Assassin’s Creed Origins (2017), for example, since its unveiling, has sparked debate and a considerable amount of racist rant and memes on Steam forums and elsewhere about the skin tones of ancient Egyptians, ancient Mediterranean peoples, and so on. Much of this discussion focused on whether Ubisoft was historically accurate in its racial portrayals of ancient Egyptians. Though not always, much of this discussion reeked of blatant efforts to promote racist ideology in the present by attempting to apply it to the past (as a search in the Steam forums under Assassin’s Creed Origins will illustrate) (Tamburro, 2017).
Similar debates about including women as protagonists in historical video games have surfaced in recent years. Creative Assembly’s Total War: Rome 2, a strategy game in which players command an ancient state and its armies, received an update in March of 2018 that increased slightly the chances of certain states to receive female generals as potential recruits. These adjustments corresponded with Creative Assembly’s release of the Desert Kingdoms CulturePack that added Kush and Nabataea, among other new playable states (Grayson, 2018; Lukomski, 2018; Scott-Jones, 2018).
Ultimately, the changes assigned some ancient states in the game a 10–15% chance to receive female generals as potential recruits. A few received greater chances. The ancient Nubian state of Kush, for example, received a 50% chance to reflect the greater frequency of women in political and military roles there. The most historically patriarchal societies – Rome, Greece, and Carthage – had no chance of recruitable female generals appearing.
Several months later, in September 2018, Creative Assembly released a tweet to respond to forum posters who did not condone the inclusion of women. The developers spoke in terms that demonstrated their interest in history and in representing the past in fairly viable, broad strokes. They stood by the changes.
Almost immediately after the tweet, negative reviewers review-bombed Total War: Rome 2 in the Steam reviews section for the game. Many of the protests claimed that the game was historically inaccurate in its inclusion of women in the game. Much of the criticism also suggested that Creative Assembly was pandering to the so-called “SJWs”, or Social Justice Warriors, a label of derision often applied in forums to designate those who are too interested in supporting diversity and inclusion (Grayson, 2018; Lukomski, 2018; Scott-Jones, 2018).
Battlefield V, a popular first-person shooter game focused on World War 2, became the topic for a similar debate. A trailer launched for the game in May 2018 included a female sniper with a prosthetic arm engaged in a pitched skirmish. Critics, often in volatile misogynistic terms, protested the game’s inclusion of playable women characters as historically inaccurate (Plunkett, 2018).
The striking feature of the Total War: Rome 2 and Battlefield 5 controversies is not so much that the critics of these aspects of the game – the inclusion of more women characters in political and militaristic historical contexts – often use inflammatory language calling out “the politically correct” and “Social Justice Warriors,” as interesting as that is. What is truly striking is that these critics levy the at-first-glance-more-objective claim that Creative Assembly and EA DICE are in the wrong because these features make their games “historically inaccurate.” In reality, however, there are any number of basic features of these games and indeed the larger Total War and Battlefield series that fail the test of historical accuracy, if that means consistency with the critically researched available historical evidence. This was pointed out by Lukomski (2018) in an insightful essay titled: “Accuracy” vs Inclusivity: Women in Historical Games. And, in fact, there is ancient evidence that in some cultures women indeed participated in the political and military conflicts of their states as rulers, generals, and even just combatants. The same is true for World War 2 where women did play combat roles, especially in the Soviet forces, legendary for lethal women snipers and an air unit, the Night Witches, composed entirely of women pilots (Arbuckle, 2016; Holland, 2017). In short, it appears a number of posters have appealed to historical accuracy to support what essentially are racist and sexist arguments to limit diversity and representation in games.
The case of Kingdom Come: Deliverance (2018, henceforth KC:D) is a particularly interesting one to end this exploration with, because of a role reversal: instead of a game developer, as in the case of Ubisoft, Creative Assembly, and EA DICE including diverse people, increasing representations of diversity, and sparking cries of historical inaccuracy, the developers of KC:D presented a largely monolithically white, patriarchal, Catholic vision of Medieval Bohemia that pushed some to question how historically accurate this un-diverse vision of the Middle Ages was. In response to a query from a reader, the blogger at People of Color in European Art History investigated the game’s Kickstarter and raised questions about the game’s very un-diverse portrayal of medieval folk in Bohemia. Angry Internet sparring followed, and ultimately KC:D lead designer, Daniel Vávra, tweeted, “would you please explain to me whats [sic] racist about telling the truth? There were no black people in medieval Bohemia. Period,” a problematically binary and ill-defined statement. In response to this doubling down, considerable debate has spawned on the Internet over whether indeed there were people of color in this small section of Medieval Bohemia.
In response to the ensuing flame war, blogger Robert Guthrie noted Vávra’s claims were misleadingly selective. There are many elements in KC:D, Guthrie (2015) notes, that are not historically accurate, but ignored in the game designers’ claims to accuracy. And so, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion captured in Guthrie’s title: “When historical accuracy is used to deny agency” (Guthrie, 2015). By insisting this exclusion of people of color and women in anything other than stock subordinate roles is required of a historically accurate game, KC:D essentially erases these groups from history, at least from the audiences of their game.
All of this raises interesting questions for historians and history teachers who hope to leverage historical video games that are, like all historical sources, limited in their scope and representation of issues and people. Historical accuracy certainly seems to be a reasonable value for history educators, and reasonably accurate historying by game designers seems to be a positive goal. But what happens if the claim of historical accuracy is used, not as the basis for civil discussion about the past and how it is represented but as a way to exclude others? There is, indeed, a critical point here. When whole groups of people are left out of historical narratives and analysis, whether in a history book, class lecture, or video game, the effect is to almost erase those peoples from the record. This is not a problem that is unique to historical video games, of course. Even the best historians must be selective in their treatments and topics and will have their own biases. Thoughtful and reasoned debate and discussion are critical to navigating the often-muddy waters of historical accuracy in video games.
And those thoughtful and reasoned debates can certainly take place in the classroom. When it comes to use in history classes, the learning experience enhanced by games will be successful to the extent educators and students ground their discussion and analysis in historical evidence. After all, a game that is largely historically inaccurate – however one wants to measure that – can still be useful for learning history because the flaws in the game provide grist for the mill of critique (McCall, 2010, 2011).
Historical games, accurate or loose, exclusive or inclusive, problematic or purposeful, are history. They communicate their designers’ understandings of the past, not only in terms of what the designers think about the past, but also in terms of what they think is important to know, engage, and remember. They offer the possibility to game the past, to immerse oneself in historical problem spaces, seek out goals, make choices, and see the impact of those choices in a causally-connected systems. Accordingly, they offer significant possibilities for learning history whether it comes to students honing their abilities to critique modern media or developing their appreciation of systems and problem spaces. Regardless of whether they are leveraged in formal history education, they communicate messages about the past that reach considerable numbers of people. They should not be ignored by anyone concerned with how the past is perceived, portrayed, and played.
Copplestone, T. (2017) But that’s not accurate: the differing perceptions of accuracy in cultural-heritage videogames between creators, consumers and critics. Rethinking History 21: 415–438.
Dening, G. (2006) Performing cross-culturally. Australasian Journal of American Studies 25: 1–11.
Gilbert, L. (2019) Assassin’s Creed reminds us that history is human experience: students’ senses of empathy while playing a narrative video game. Theory and Research in Social Education 47(1): 108–137.
McCall, J. (2011) Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History. Routledge, London.
McCall, J. (2012a) Historical simulations as problem spaces: criticism and classroom use. Journal of Digital Humanities 1(2).
McCall, J. (2012b) Navigating the problem space: the medium of simulation games in the teaching of History. The History Teacher 45: 9–28.
McCall, J. (2014) Simulation games and the study of the past: classroom guidelines. In: Kee, K. (Ed.) PastPlay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. Pp. 228–254.
McCall, J. (2016a) Teaching history with digital historical games: an introduction to the field and best practices. Simulation & Gaming 47: 517–542.
McCall, J. (2016b) Twine, inform, and designing interactive history texts. Play the Past. Available from: http://www.playthepast.org/?p=5739 (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).
Dr. Jeremiah McCall is an historian who writes about the political and military culture of the Roman Republic and about videogames as a form of history. He teaches high school history, quite likely his true calling, at Cincinnati Country Day School, where he has been for most of the past two decades. For more details on his work, please visit Gamingthepast.net.
 History and accurate/authentic history are not the same, and a work that qualifies as history can still be a very flawed communication of the past, whether a monograph, a lecture, a visual artwork, a film, a game, etc.
It feels like a long time since Altair first adventured through the Holy Land. Now Assassin’s Creed, by Ubisoft, became one of the highest selling video game franchises of all time. It is even bigger if you consider the novels, comic books, animations, and well… that movie-thing. It is also one my top 3 favorite game series, so no wonder it would pop up on one of my articles eventually.
Besides the nice action and beautiful historical settings of Assassin’s Creed games, my favorite moments are when I suddenly stumble upon one of my real-life heroes. I enjoy talking to their in-game reconstructions and to see how they match both my expectations and the historical accounts of their real-world counterparts. Most of these people are, of course, scientists, even though some lived in a time where the word “scientist” was yet to be coined.
So, my goal here will be to show how these people are portrayed in Assassin’s Creed and how this matches reality. I will also explain their major achievements and their importance to science. But with so many games in the franchise, it would be a monumental task to write a single article with every scientist; thus, I decided to present this in parts. The first one, as you might have surmised from the title, will be about James Cook and Charles Darwin.
At first sight, this might seem a strange pairing, but it has its reasons. I’ve chosen to start with them because this year marks some anniversaries – and us humans just can’t help but be attracted to round numbers and meaningful dates. The year of 2019 marks 250 years from Cook’s historical first visit to New Zealand and 240 years from his death. It is also Darwin’s 210th would-be-birthday and the 160th birthday of the most groundbreaking book ever written: On the Origin of Species.
CAPTAIN JAMES COOK
James Cook was born on 7 November 1728 in Marton, in North-East England. He attended local school, apprenticed as a shop boy, and in his late teens became a merchant navy apprentice. During that time, he learned navigation skills and a healthy dose of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and astronomy. In 1755, he joined the Royal Navy, just when Britain was preparing for the Seven Years’ War.
Cook served aboard several ships; most remarkably, he was part of the HMS Pembroke crew when the British captured the Fortress of Louisbourg from the French in 1758, during the Seven Years’ War. Due to his talent as a cartographer, he was put to good use during that time, mapping several parts of Canada in the late 1750’s and early 1760’s (then aboard the HMS Grenville). This is the part of his life seen in Assassin’s Creed, but he is most famous for what came afterwards; so let us take a look at that before turning to the game.
In 1768, the Admiralty made Cook lieutenant and put him in command of the HMS Endeavour on a scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean. His main goal was to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti in 1769, which would help to determine the distance of the Earth to the Sun (the solar parallax). After that was out of the way, Cook opened an envelope with further orders: to navigate the South Pacific in search of the hypothetical continent Terra Australis and to find New Zealand’s eastern shores. He set off to the south and then westwards, reaching New Zealand and precisely mapping its entire coast. He also took the opportunity to record the transit of Mercury. Cook also needed to document the flora and fauna and establish a relationship with native people; in the long term, the goal was to acquire their consent to take the land for His Majesty. That was the beginning of the British history of New Zealand.
BOX 1. The discovery and naming of New Zealand
Despite what might be assumed, Cook did not discover New Zealand. Polynesian settlers arrived there between 1200 and 1300 CE and became known as the Māori. They called their new home Aotearoa.
The first non-Polynesian person to arrive in New Zealand was Dutch explorer Abel J. Tasman, who first sighted the shores of South Island in December 1642. Tasman’s crew would have landed there, but were driven off by the Māori. They assumed that land could be the western shore of the imaginary continent Terra Australis. In any event, Tasman named the “new” land Staten Landt, which is a straightforward horrible choice. Dutch cartographers recognized this and renamed the place Nova Zeelandia in 1645, after the province Zeeland in the Netherlands. This name stuck, even under later British control.
Even though he did not stay long, Tasman literally put New Zealand on the map and right under the radar of European colonial efforts. His name lives on today in the Tasman Sea (separating Australia and New Zealand), in Tasmania (Australia’s southern island), and in the Abel Tasman National Park (in northwestern South Island, New Zealand).
Once back in England, Cook was promoted to commander and sent on a second voyage in search of Terra Australis, which everyone now knew was not New Zealand. Cook took the HMS Resolution, with the HMS Adventure serving as its companion ship, and navigated the southern oceans. He almost reached Antarctica, but his “failure” to find land put an end to the Terra Australis myth.
Back in England once again, he was made captain and soon became involved in a third voyage, commanding the HMS Resolution once again (the companion ship this time was the HMS Discovery). His goal was to find a northern passage, through the Arctic, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. He couldn’t do it, of course, and became frustrated with the voyage. During a prolonged stay in Hawaii to fix the ship, tensions began to rise with the locals. Cook tried to kidnap the Hawaiian king to put an end to it; the Hawaiians naturally didn’t like that and Cook was killed.
Captain Cook was responsible for mapping large parts of the world, as well as for several astronomical observations and for collecting dozens of ethnographic artifacts. He might not convey the impression of the typical scientist, but can and should be counted as one.
He was not the only scientifically-inclined person on his expeditions, though. During his voyages, Cook counted with botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel C. Solander, astronomers Charles Green, William Wales and William Bayly, and naturalists Herman Spöring, Johann R. Forster, Georg A. Forster and David Nelson. There were also artists to illustrate the new lands, their people, flora and fauna.
Cook features in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue (henceforth ACR), released in 2014 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (2015 for Microsoft Windows) and remastered for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in 2018. This game is different from the others in the series in that you play as a Templar instead of an Assassin. The game follows Shay Cormac in his convoluted journey from Assassin apprentice to senior Templar.
Cormac first encounters Cook towards the middle of the game’s story. By that time (June 1758) Cook was master of the HMS Pembroke. Even though he appears several times, his presence is not as well-marked as one would hope. Cormac and his crew go after him due to his “mathematical mind” and expertise in deciphering secret codes. They comment that Cook’s “seamanship is second-to-none” and that he had a self-policy of strict honesty. Cormac and his colleague Gist discuss how Cook would be a good addition to the Templars, but in the end decide that his total lack of guile would be bad for the Order: the man would not be able to keep the secret.
The presentation of Cook’s character and personality is in line with contemporary sources and his many later biographies, which paint him as intelligent, honest and driven. However, he faced many trials during his voyages and sometimes dealt with them using more brutality (towards his crew or the native people of the Pacific) than we can now accept. Furthermore, he seemed to have had a drastic change of personality on his third voyage. In any event, the depiction of young James Cook in ACR is very compelling.
The first mission in ACR involving Cook is very straightforward: to beat the French. Cormac takes the helm of the HMS Pembroke to aid Cook in turning the tide of the battle and finally, capturing the Fortress of Louisbourg. This aligns rather nicely with the historical record.
Cormac meets Cook again in Percé, in 1759, and asks him to decipher some encrypted maps. Cook also helps in tracking down a French-Canadian Assassin, after which he asks Cormac whether he belonged to a larger organization. After getting a reply in the lines of “we couldn’t say even if we were”, Cook then assumes Cormac and his crew were under direct orders of the King. The Templars seem satisfied with this and do not correct Cook. Instead, they say their group will contact him about sponsoring future voyages.
The last bit is a clear reference to Cook’s three exploration voyages to the Pacific. What interest the Templars might have there remains unknown for the moment, but it could definitely involve Terra Australis. In any event, real-life Cook indeed got the attention of the Admiralty and the Royal Society during his years in Canada, especially because of his incredible work mapping Newfoundland; indeed, this latter led to his appointment as commander of the first Pacific voyage.
CHARLES R. DARWIN
Darwin (1809–1882) needs no introduction – but here’s one anyway. He is THE most important figure in Biology and of the most important scientists of all time. He is most famous for his book On the Origin of Species (henceforth Origin), first published in 1859, but his contributions to the natural sciences extend beyond that. As late American paleontologist Stephen J. Gould argued, Darwin’s ideas rank with Copernicus in the way they revolutionized not only science but also the very way our silly species sees itself.
There is simply way too much to write about Darwin: his early life, his voyage, his books, his garden experiments, his immense legacy, etc. There are dozens of books written about him and, if I start writing all the things I find interesting here, I might just end up with a whole book. Since I do not want that, I will focus here on very small parts of his life that are related to what happened in the game.
Darwin features in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (henceforth ACS), released in 2015 for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Windows. The game takes place in London, starting in 1868, and revolves around the brother and sister pair of Assassins, Jacob and Evie Frye.
In the game, you first meet Darwin investigating a factory that produced an opium-based drug called “Soothing Syrup”. It was made by the Templars, of course, and Jacob decided to help Darwin in his investigation. They find out that Richard Owen (see Box 2), who was responsible for an article defaming Darwin, knew something about the syrup. Jacob interrogates Owen and discovers the name of the doctor who was behind the new drug, confronting and killing him in an asylum.
BOX 2. Sir Richard Owen
Owen is clearly linked with the bad guys in ACS. He was a controversial figure indeed, hated by his adversaries, but maybe not quite the “video game villain” kind. Sir Richard Owen (1804–1892) was a brilliant naturalist and authored outstanding works in animal anatomy and paleontology. In fact, he is the one who coined one of the most important words in our vocabulary, “dinosaur”. He is also responsible for the magnificent Natural History Museum in London, built as a cathedral of Nature.
However, Owen opposed Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural (and sexual) selection. Owen was well aware of the anatomical features that established lines of descent and relatedness among animals. Still, his belief in human uniqueness, immersed in what he saw as “natural order” arranged by a creative power, escalated his quarrel with Darwin and his followers, mainly Thomas H. Huxley and Joseph D. Hooker. He could not agree with humans being “just” a weirdly naked species of ape.
In ACS, Darwin even says to Owen: “Mr. Owen, you are truly the most insufferable fellow I have ever had the misfortune to count among my acquaintances!” In real life, after Owen’s involvement in an event that undermined one of his colleagues, Darwin wrote in a letter: “I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred & contempt to the last days of my life.”
Back to the real world, first I should point out that Darwin was somewhat of a hermit. He lived in the countryside near London since 1842 and his home was known as Down House. Darwin reportedly did not enjoy going into town that much, so you would be hard pressed to find him in London as the Frye twins did. But that is totally excusable, as a game set in Victorian London must include Darwin somehow. Also, by that time Darwin already had his share of adventures during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle around the world, so you would be even more unlikely to find him poking around criminal activities in London. Thus, the whole “Soothing Syrup” quests would be very unlikely, especially because they involve more medicine and chemistry than actual biology.
Later on in ACS, the Frye twins meet Darwin again, who says that his critics were threatening him and his colleagues with violence. He was waiting for a certain German colleague of his, identified in the game simply as Dr. Schwartz, who was bringing an important fossil to London. Darwin asks the Fryes to protect Schwartz, but they discover that the German scientist was intercepted and killed by Templars. Even so, they manage to recover the fossil and deliver it to Darwin.
This mission is simply perfect for the setting, even though it is slightly historically inaccurate. The mission is called “The Berlin Specimen”, which is a name that can only refer to one thing: the fossil specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica from the Natural History Museum (Museum für Naturkunde) of Berlin. This species is one of the most important in the world from a historical perspective: its first fossil was discovered in southeastern Germany just two years after Origin was published and was a major evidence in favor of Darwin’s work, showing that the origin of modern birds lays within the group of theropod dinosaurs.
The Berlin specimen is the most famous (and most complete) of all the fossils of Archaeopteryx lithographica; we typically see a replica of it in exhibition in museums worldwide. However, it was only discovered somewhere in 1874–1876, some years after the setting of ACS, but still reasonably close. Curiously, a man named Schwartz, from Nuremberg, tried to buy the actual fossil before it was bought by the Berlin museum (funded by Werner von Siemens, founder of Siemens AG).
There is in fact a “London specimen” of Archaeopteryx, discovered in 1861 and bought by none other than Richard Owen for the Natural History Museum in January 1863. Perhaps this fossil would have been more appropriate for ACS; especially given that Owen is already in the game.
Back to ACS, Darwin first asks the Fryes to investigate a plant that can make people delirious and then to secure him a copy of that day’s newspaper, which had a rebuttal to Owen’s defamation mentioned above. The Fryes then discover a Templar plot to spread newspaper articles with anti-Darwin propaganda, epitomized as a caricature.
In fact, Darwin was constantly under the radar of the Templars in ACS, who tried to buy him (and his research) out. Darwin answered that “[s]cientific knowledge cannot be bought, it belongs to everyone.” The Fryes, of course, would come to his aid. They discover who was behind the caricature (spread through London as posters) and sabotage the printer shop.
Darwin’s ideas of evolution by natural and sexual selection and their implications for our own species were the cause of many heated debates during his lifetime. In fact, to this day many people are still in denial regarding his ideas (especially in religious countries like the US and Brazil), despite the massive amount of evidence in his favor. Darwin knew this would happen and that is basically why he took so long to publish his main book: he needed to amass as much supporting evidence as he possibly could. In ACS, Darwin says to Evie that “I am used to people challenging my ideas”.
The last mission involving Darwin in ACS is called “A Struggle for Existence” and alludes to the full title of his main book: “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. But the mission is not as poetic as it sounds; rather it is very literal. It begins with Florence Nightingale telling the Fryes that Darwin had been arrested and that she feared that “Mr. Darwin is no longer the fit, young man who once traveled the world.” The Fryes then rescue him from a Templar base and Florence suggests that Darwin retired with his family to the Isle of Wight to recuperate in peace. Darwin, though, argues that “[t]he acquisition of knowledge is in itself sufficiently recuperative.” Real-world Darwin actually spent a holiday with his family on the Isle of Wight during 1868; the latter of the photos shown above was taken there.
ASSASSIN AND TEMPLAR SCIENTISTS
As I said in the beginning, Cook and Darwin (and Owen, I suppose) are hopefully just the first on a series I intend to write exploring all the real-world scientists that feature in the many Assassin’s Creed games. (I’ll definitely include Florence Nightingale at some point, in case you were wondering.) Also, since several games take place before the establishment of modern science, you’ll also see some philosophers and historians around here. Until next time!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist who studies mollusks or, to put it shortly, a malacologist. He loves reading about the scientists of old and can’t help but share this sometimes. He is hyped by Assassin’s Creed games ever since the very first images of Altair came out. His favorite entry in the series is Origins, because… Egypt, but his favorite Assassins are still Ezio and Evie.
 Herdendorf (1986) argued that the Transit of Venus, first in 1761 and then in 1769, was the first international collaborative effort in science, including dozens of observers in tens of stations spread worldwide. He considered it as the establishment of the modern scientific international community.
 Actually, while Darwin was working on his book another British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), independently conceived the idea of evolution through natural selection. His work on the subject was jointly presented with Darwin’s in 1858 to the Linnean Society of London.
Valleys Between is an environmental puzzle game, where your goal is to grow your world for as long as you can while protecting it from threats that will damage its health.
When we started designing Valleys Between we wanted to explore ways to get people thinking about environmental issues, and while the game has evolved during the game development cycle, the core themes of the game are still there. While we considered real world ecology and nature, we realised early on that to create a fun and engaging game we would need to take inspiration from them without being too literal.
One of our goals is to create a strong bond between the player and the world they’ve created, and one of the ways we do this is by allowing you to literally shape the world with your fingertips. Players only have the ability to swipe up or down to interact with the world, but small actions such as pulling a tree up out of the ground can actually have a big impact. Much like the real world, one action isn’t always enough to solve larger problems but a group of small actions can result in a big change.
Many of the games mechanics are inspired by nature, though in a simplified or abstract way. This allows us to craft gameplay that’s enjoyable and relatable without ever straying too far into something that feels completely at odds with reality (at least in most cases). With that in mind we had two important rules that guided our design:
The game is inspired by nature, so the environmental theme should always be present while never overpowering or distracting the player from the gameplay.
We won’t sacrifice enjoyable gameplay for the sake of keeping something too realistic or similar to how our real world works.
These rules allowed us to find a balance between fun and relatable mechanics that are easy for the player to understand. When designing mechanics we often started from an ecological concept and explored how we could distill it down to base elements to see how they could work well within the game. The best way to illustrate this is to look at the primary mechanics in Valleys Between.
At its core, Valleys Between is about creating a thriving world. The first step to doing this is to create an environment where things can grow, so the first move a player makes is to create water tiles in their new world. Water makes all dirt tiles around it turn into grass, and trees can only be planted on grass. To plant a tree, the player pulls up on a grass tile and essentially plucks a fully-grown tree out of the ground. While this is clearly a few steps removed from reality, it feels close enough, and this familiarity helps create a stronger connection between the nature presented in the game and what the player expects from nature in the real world.
Trees that are next to each other can be combined to make a forest, which grows your world by adding a new row of land. In this way, the base relationship between water and trees are shown as being critical to growing a world. Groups of forests can be further combined to make a house, which introduces humans as part of the ecosystem in Valleys Between. While this is an incredibly simplified representation of nature to a few small mechanics in Valleys Between, it’s part of what makes it feel environmentally rich.
The game wouldn’t be very fun without something challenging you, so we decided to introduce the two sides of human influence on the environment. The first is a positive influence of creating a house by combining trees which helps your world grow and expand. However, as your world grows, we also introduce a negative influence in the form of factories and other man-made objects. Factories threaten the health of your world and they can spill oil to surrounding tiles if you leave them for too long. While there isn’t necessarily an easy action to fix things these things in our world, we wanted players to want to protect their world from these threats even if they can’t stop them from occurring. We also found in early playtests that people became very attached to the animals that wander their world, and this helped them feel connected to it, so we decided to tie these concepts together and have animals act as the primary protectors of your world. Animals wander throughout your world, and while you can influence their path, you aren’t able to control them directly. You can choose to use them to nurture and enhance a specific area, or use them to convert a factory to something that won’t damage the health of your world. Once you’ve used an animal, they fall asleep for a period of time so the player has to choose when to nurture and when to protect their world.
While these mechanics may seem to be quite a stretch from the real world, we’ve found that by taking inspirations from nature rather than literal representations, we’ve been able to craft an enjoyable game.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Niamh Fitzgerald is a producer and game designer at indie studio Little Lost Fox, based in Wellington, New Zealand. She organised the New Zealand Game Developer Conference in 2017 and 2018, and likes to combine her love of travel with game development by getting involved in game developer events around New Zealand and internationally.
 Released in 2018 by Little Lost Fox. Currently available for iPhone/iPad and coming soon to Android. Learn more at http://littlelostfox.com/