This blog post, linked from Slashdot yesterday bemoans the ‘revisionism’ rumored to be present in the new Age of Empires game. The blogger laments that one reviewer has reported that Native American tribes in the New World campaign are depicted as cooperating with European colonists to conquer and exterminate rival tribal groups.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that such cooperation really did happen and as such can’t really be seen as revisionism, there is a larger issue here that the poster seems to be missing. There is a difference between fictionalization and revisionism. Fictionalization is taking historical facts and embellishing them with imagined detail, characters, and scenarios in the interest of creating an entertaining and/or artistic work. Revisionism is the attempt to represent as historical fact false situations, relationships, events, etc with the intent to deceive.
The Age of Empires series is, despite its historic trappings, thoroughly ahistorical. The Japanese battle Vikings on vast forested plains. The Normans lose the Battle of Hastings to the English with comical regularity. Trebuchet sling their projectiles from one continent to the next. None of this means that Age of Empires is ‘revisionist’; rather, Age of Empires is a game, a game with historical trappings and packaging that makes little or no attempt to adhere to historical reality. If the player could do nothing but play out scenarios in the ‘historically correct’ manner, then the game would be uninteresting. Historians want accuracy; gamers want enjoyment. What’s the point of playing Napoleon if there’s never a chance you might win the Battle of Waterloo?
Age of Empires, like any number of works of fiction in other media, is firmly in the tradition of fictionalized history. While teenagers across the country may know, as the poster asserts, what a trebuchet is because of AoE, that is no reason to believe that the game should be held to the same standards of objectivity as a history text purporting to provide detailed and accurate analysis of historical events. Furthermore, while the media producer may have an obligation to think of the lessons that they are imparting, that does not trump their rights as artists and creators to make what they (or their consumers) want without regard to a ‘correct’ moral framework. Nor does the producer’s obligation negate the responsibility of media consumers to think critically about the sources and messages that they consume. Any of the ‘facts’ presented in Age of Empires can very easily be verified with a cursory glance at an encyclopedia or history text.
The question then becomes: are the producers of Age of Empires attempting to deceive the public by depicting their product as being 100% historically accurate? Looking through the marketing material for AoE on Amazon and the publisher’s website, I see no reason to believe that’s true. Any game which promises that the player can “control the destiny of humankind from the fall of Rome through the Middle Ages” can hardly be said to be aiming for total historical accuracy.
Obviously, even fictional works can be intended to deceive, by normalizing an idea of history that deviates from the understood facts. The line between this sort of deceptive ‘infotainment’ and regular historical fiction can be difficult to draw. It depends largely on the willingness of the author to acknowledge their deviations from then-current historical facts. But the real threat of revisionism is not fiction representing itself as fiction; it is fiction representing itself as fact, as is the case in the history text that has recently helped damage relations between China and Japan. China’s use of the situation to further its own interests is a clear indicator that real revisionism can do much more than just muddle history; it can have real effects in the present as well.