On the potentials of digital games for remembrance cultures I: Some Preliminary thoughts

This text is based on a keynote I gave at the conference “Erinnern mit Games” on June 24, 2021. At the suggestion of my colleagues, I have decided to divide the text into two parts: A first theoretical part here, and a second part with concrete reflections on digital games, which will also appear here within the next few weeks. A German version of the talk has been published on the blog of the “Stiftung Digitale Spielkultur”. A French version can be found here. For the English version I have thoroughly revised the text again with the help of Tobias Winnerling, Peter Färberböck and Christian Günther.

1. Before I became more involved with the concept in my research, when I thought of culture of remembrance or memory culture – “Erinnerungskultur” in German – I did not necessarily think of digital games, but first of memorials, museums and monuments, of publicly celebrated anniversaries, perhaps also of history lessons in school and university debates. All of these instances, places, and rituals are an integral part of a culture of remembrance. At the same time they are surrounded by an aura of seriousness. These rituals and acts of symbolic politics communicate via their form that remembrance is not primarily about having fun, it should be perceived as something “serious”. Perhaps that is why it might seem absurd at first to speak of a culture of remembrance when dealing with so-called entertainment media. (I should however write more correctly of cultures of remembrance in the plural – as it became customary in research, because there is not one culture of remembrance, but a multitude, as I will show. There are national, regional, communal but also transregional and transnational cultures of remembrance. )

2. While less prestigious than, say a speech by a head of government, I would like to argue that our collective memory/memories and, our collective identities are also and especially constructed and perpetuated via less prestigious moments. This happens for instance in series like The Crown (UK 2016-2021), Downtown Abbey (UK 2010-2015), Mad Men (US 2007-2015), or The Americans (US 2013-2018). These very different British and American series are united by a common staging of a respective imagined common past. Similar examples can also be found for other national identities. In Austria I could name the recent biopic-series Maria Theresia (A 2017-2022), in Germany the series Ku’Damm (D 2016-2021), in France Versailles (F/CA 2015-2018) but also Au Service de la France (F 2015-2018), etc. etc. Especially the American examples can potentially also function – maybe to a lesser degree – as agents of remembrance across borders, imagining a common if vague “Western” collective. This collective remembrance also happens in movies, (graphic) novels, songs and digital games. 

3. Regardless of origin, people often come into contact with individual historical episodes for the first time in modern media societies in feature films, novels, pop songs or even digital games. They know that they cannot necessarily trust these representations, but the first contact shapes all later knowledge, it frames it, so to speak. I, for example, first learned about the Spanish Civil War in the game Panzer General II (SSI Windows u.a. 1997), long before I had read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) or André Malraux L’Espoir (1937). From this initial contact I was left with a supposed knowledge of the technological and organizational inferiority of the Spanish Republic, which I had never actively questioned.

Panzer General II (Official Screenshot from SSI website via MobyGames, 1997)

4. Our collective memory of distant events such as the Second World War, but also the Industrialization, the French Revolution, the Golden age of Piracy, the Crusades, etc., is in fact fed to a good part constructed in films, series, graphic novels and in the meantime, increasingly in digital games, because these have become a natural part of our culture of remembrance. In Assassin’s Creed: Unity (Ubisoft Windows u.a. 2017)  and We, the Revolution (Klabater Windows u.a. 2019), as in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859) or Ettore Scola’s Il Mondo Nuovo (I 1982), a common memory of the French Revolution is every time negotiated anew. I have deliberately chosen the example because the representation is always accompanied by a valuation of the memory, which can also lead to contradiction. The example of Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s negative portrayal of Robespierre and the revolution as a whole also showed how national cultures of memory (in this case French) can clash with others (in this case British-American) [1]

Official Screenshot from Assassin’s Creed Unity from ubisoft.com

How Digital Games Reproduce and Construct Worldviews

5. Digital games as a mass phenomenon are now more than half a century old. The percentage of the population that regularly plays digital games in Western Europe and the US for which we have figures, but probably in the whole world, is growing from year to year. This is why games are becoming increasingly relevant as objects of study for sociological and cultural studies as well as for political science questions, if only because their content is reaching ever broader segments of the population.

6. Games are products of the society and culture they originate in; they are not created in aseptic underground laboratories without contact to the outside world. Whether consciously or not, developers are always inspired by their environment, their experiences and worldviews in the creation of their game worlds. Fantastic game worlds, just like historicizing ones, transport, consciously or not, political statements. Ideas of domination, gender and economy thus find their way into global strategy games, role-playing games, and economic simulations. These communicated worldviews are however not immune to change over the years. On the contrary, they evolve with our historical societies. 

7. This becomes apparent if you compare today’s games with games from the 1980s. Not only technology has changed but so have narratives and game worlds. In the 1980s – during the Cold War – many games naturally took this conflict as their background. With the end of the Cold War, however, the Soviet Union overnight was no longer opportune as an unquestioned enemy stereotype . Instead of the Soviet Union, terrorist cells from the Middle East increasingly became the stereotypical enemy in games.

8. Just as games are cultural or popular-cultural products of their time, they also shape the players who play them. In digital games, for example, players are shown how a good leader should act, how a war may be justified, or where the limits of what is permissible lie when it comes to protecting one’s own community. In other words, games communicate values, taboos, and worldviews in general. In this respect, they do not differ fundamentally from other media. This is also the moment where digital games interact with cultures of remembrance. The phenomenon of such knowledge transfers in popular culture has long been known. [2] Researchers speak of socialization or cultivation processes that for the most part take place unconsciously. It is important to point out that these are not in themselves dangerous processes, but, on the contrary, a normal and even necessary phenomenon of any highly complex and diversified society. Indeed, popular culture is always more than just entertainment; it is also a site of negotiation for collective values, on which societies must always agree anew as times change.[3] This negotiation of common values not only happens in parliaments and at universities, but also in pop songs, TV series and video games. This also applies to the central question of what a society  wants to remember – in other words, its culture of remembrance. 

9. In an original version of this text, I had rather thoughtlessly used the term “we” and “our memory” or “our culture of memory” very often, which prompted my colleague Tobias to write me the following comment, which I will quote here: “This is problematic insofar as the question arises how the ‘we’ is meant here: as a collective noun, i.e. representative of ‘society’, or as a summary of individual terms, i.e. ‘all of us’ in each case in our capacity as individuals? For what each ‘of us’ individually wishes to remember and what is distinguished as worthy of remembering on a collective level may coincide, but need not, and I would think that the differences between the two will in most cases be greater than the correspondences. The same ambiguity applies to ‘Erinnerungskulturen,’ for the term can refer on the one hand to the way of remembering, or more properly commemorating (‘commemoration’), prescribed ‘from above,’ and on the other hand to the actual observable practices of the particular set of individuals. Unfortunately, this problem has rarely been addressed stringently in research on cultural or social memory, but that does not mean that you have to take over this gap here. So, if possible, the post should be resolved in one direction or the other.” I am very grateful to my colleague for the detailed comment because it reminds me of what I actually want to show, namely that culture(s) of remembrance are not only the result of different political actors from above or from below, but can become an actor as a system itself. In my opinion, this can be seen in all clarity in popular culture.

What are cultures of remembrance?

10. As far as I understand, the concept of culture of remembrance, as it is now increasingly used in research, has its origins in a German academic discourse. It was rooted in a specifically Austrian and German preoccupation with the history of the country’s own Nazi past and, more specifically, with the Holocaust. This can be seen, for example, in the English Wikipedia page “cultures of remembrance” which cites mainly German and Austrian authors. At the same time, however, it is also clear that the concept is equally applicable to other cultures of remembrance, as demonstrated by the recent founding of the “Institut France Memoir,” for example. But it seems to me that there are yet no correspondingly established terms in English and French, but rather different translations, or sometimes simply the German term is used. Aleida Assmann’s monograph Das Neue Unbehagen an der Erinnerungskultur became The New Unease toward the Culture of Remembrance in English (Assmann 2013). Astrid Errl, on the other hand, used the term “memory culture” in her monograph Memory in Culture.  When I asked my peers on Twitter, the picture was similarly mixed, with a slight tendency toward “cultures of remembrance.” (https://twitter.com/Trogambouille/status/1488849496935219202). Incidentally, a similar picture emerges in French discourse. This surprises me, because France can pride itself on having two of the most cited thinkers in the field of collective memory: Maurice Halbwachs and Pierre Nora. I have chosen the English translation “culture of remembrance” for this text because it emphasizes the active in remembering.

11. “Over the last two decades or so, memory has emerged in various parts of the world as a key concept for the interdisciplinary study of culture, involving disciplines as diverse as psychology, history, sociology, art history, literary and media studies, philosophy, theology and the neurosciences.” [4]  In view of the fact that these terms are over all used more and more frequently, but at the same time are rarely made clear what is actually meant, a brief definition is necessary. According to Christoph Cornelißen, “Erinnerungskultur”is defined as: 

“an umbrella term for all conceivable forms of conscious remembrance of historical events, personalities and processes, […] , including the discourse of historical scholarship as well as the merely ‘private’ memories, at least insofar as they have left traces in the public sphere.” [5]

12. Cornelißens definition is thus quite comprehensive, but we can distill two core moments: remembering in a public sphere. While not explicitly mentioned in Cornelißens text, this public sphere also includes digital games. In fact, all imaginable mass media are prerequisites for common remembering. Astrid Errl writes apodictically, “Collective memory is inconceivable without media.”[6]

13. In academia you also encounter the terms “collective memory” coined by Maurice Halbwachs, “lieux de mémoire” by Pierre Nora and “cultural memory” by Aleida and Jan Assmann. Of interest to me are especially the points shared by all of them:

  • Memory is a cultural practice, that is, memories do not persist naturally but are culturally conditioned. Our culture prestructures how we remember something.
  • They all show, to a greater or lesser extent, that collective remembrance serves above all to build identity, that is, to create a collective identity, or a sense of community.
  • A collective memory serves the legitimation of a community, of rule and/or of binding common values.

14. Jan Assmann sees the function, the motif of a culture of remembrance in an associated social obligation: “What must we not forget?”[7] It is through the shared memory of certain events, but especially by the moral evaluation taking place in the process, that individuals determine what is seen as “good” and what is seen as “bad” for the society they live in. To take a historical example to illustrate this thought: In the 19th century German nation-building, Arminius the Cheruscan and the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest were conjured up in paintings, monuments, historical novels, but also lectures at universities as a unifying German memory. The central values conveyed here were military vigilance and a willingness to make sacrifices, as supposedly basic German virtues.[8] Another example of the potentially (different) remembrances of one and the same historical event are the very different (national) memories of the First World War. Is it told as a great adventure, as a trial of strength between grandiose commanders and technologies, or as the slaughter brought about by a bloody and blind nationalism?

What do we remember and what don’t we remember?

15. The example of the First World War also shows that memories are never comprehensive. It is characteristic of memory cultures that a selection must necessarily take place. It is impossible to remember the entire past, which is why we must constantly decide what to remember and what to forget. Thus, when most Western Europeans think of World War I, they think first and foremost of the trench warfare on the Western Front: the battles of Verdun and the Somme, while the no less bloody and no less cruel battles on the Eastern Front have not found a corresponding place in the collective memory of popular culture. The same applies to the fighting in Africa and Asia. This is also evident in the few games that use World War I as a setting: In the German game Historyline: 1914-1918 (Bluebyte MS-DOS et al. 1992) and Valiant Hearts: The Great War (F 2014) the Western Front alone is playable. There are certain historical episodes and periods that become settings more often than others, and this applies to digital games as part and parcel of popular culture.

Back Cover from the German version of 1914-1918 Historyline via MobyGames

Let us therefore take a look at which wars are remembered in digital games and which are not. With an overwhelming majority of games, it is the Second World War.[9] The First World War, on the other hand, is used much less frequently in games as a background.[10] While the Napoleonic Wars are also remembered quite well,[11] the Thirty Years’ War[12]or the War of the Spanish Succession,[13] are almost not remembered at all. The greater temporal distance is not sufficient as an explanation for the lesser number, since, for example, the American Civil War[14] as well as the Sengoku Wars,[15]  i.e. the power struggles over the Japanese shogunate, are remembered frequently in games. The reasons for this are, of course, manifold. However, it seems to me that a partial explanation is that both these historical events or periods are of central importance to US-American and Japanese identity, respectively. Remembrance in popular culture is centered primarily on events that are supposed to be central to the collective identities of its cultures of origin. Developers have resorted here to historical settings that, on the one hand, they themselves are interested in, but on the other hand, that they know to find an audience.

16. What is important for its function as a place of remembrance is that the historical settings appear to be “authentic”, which does not mean that it has to correspond to the latest state of historical research. A thorough, critical scientific reconstruction of the past is not a prerequisite for the functioning of cultures of remembrance. On the contrary, it may even become a hindrance. Much more important here is consistency with the respective collective memory: it is a matter of repeating what is already known. Americans and Europeans therefore know the Second World War primarily as a sequence of the same battles and scenes familiar from film and television and now also games [16]: the Normandy landings from Saving Private Ryan (US 1998), the bridges at Arnhem (A Bridge to Far UK/US 1977) and Remagen (The Bridge at Remagen US 1969), the house-to-house combat at Stalingrad (Enemy at the Gates D/UK/US/F/EI). Jan Assmann has aptly summarized this phenomenon – even if he was not thinking primarily of popular culture – in saying “What counts for cultural memory is not factual but remembered history.”[17] This is especially true for digital games, with their affinity for transmedial quotes, as I will show in the following part.

Call of Duty: WWII (Screenshot by the author)

17. To Summarize:

  • Cultures of Remembrance are the sum of our collective memories. This includes museums, monuments, history lessons, but also popular culture.
  • This is where we decide what we want to remember and how, and what we do not need to remember or should even forget. On the one hand, this process takes place consciously, for example when individual authors consciously want to recall specific episodes, but it also very often takes place unconsciously, when popular historical settings are staged according to genre conventions. Certain historical settings cannot prevail because they do not meet (or create) demand.
  • This kind of remembrance has an identity-forming function; shared memories create a community. These can be regional, national but also transnational identities. These memories also have a legitimizing function for the respective community or identity.

The second part, in which I apply these considerations exemplarily to games about the Second World War, can be found here.


Further Reading:

  • Felix Zimmermann, “Introduction. Approaching the Authenticities of Late Modernity”, in: Martin Lorber & Felix Zimmermann (eds.), History in Games. Contingencies of an Authentic Past. Bielefeld: Transcript 2020, 9-22 DOI: 10.14361/9783839454206-002
  • Eugen Pfister, “Why History in Games matters. Historical Authenticity as a Language for Ideological Myths”. In: Martin Lorber & Felix Zimmermann (eds.), History in Games. Contingencies of an Authentic Past. Bielefeld: Transcript 2020, 47-72.

Filmography

  • The Americans (US 2013-2018)
  • Au Service de la France (F 2015-2018)
  • A Bridge to Far (UK/US 1977)
  • The Bridge at Remagen  (US 1969)
  • The Crown (UK 2016-2021)
  • Downtown Abbey (UK 2010-2015)
  • Enemy at the Gates (D/UK/US/F/EI)
  • Ku’Damm (D 2016-2021)
  • Il Mondo Nuovo (I 1982)
  • Mad Men (US 2007-2015)
  • Maria Theresia (A 2017-2022)
  • Saving Private Ryan (US 1998)
  • Au Service de la France (F 2015-2018)
  • Versailles (F/CA 2015-2018)

Ludography

  • Assassin’s Creed: Unity (Ubisoft Windows et al 2017)
  • Historyline: 1914-1918 (Bluebyte MS-DOS et al. 1992)
  • Panzer General II (SSI Windows et al. 1997)
  • Valiant Hearts: The Great War (F Windows et al. 2014) 
  • We, the Revolution (Klabater Windows et al. 2019)

[1] Eugen Pfister. „ ‘Des patriotes, ces abrutis!’ Imaginationen der französischen Revolution im digitalen Spiel Assassin’s Creed: Unity” in Frühneuzeit-Info 27/2016, 198-201
[2] Eugen Pfister and Arno Görgen. „Politische Transferprozesse in digitalen Spielen. Eine Begriffsgeschichte“, in:  Krankheit in Digitalen Spielen, edited by  Arno Görgen and Stefan Simond , Bielefeld: Transcript 2020, 51-74. [open access hier: <https://www.transcript-verlag.de/media/pdf/c7/94/5f/oa9783839453285.pdf>].
[3] Eugen Pfister. „Political Communication in Digital Horror Games” in:  Horror-Game-Politics, <http://hgp.hypotheses.org/1062> 11.05.2020.
[4] Birgitt Neumann and Martin Zierold. “Cultural Memory and Memory Cultures” in: Travelling Concepts for the Study of Culture, edited by Birgit Neumann and Ansgar Nünning. Berlin/Boston 2012, 225-248, 225.
[5]Christoph Cornelißen. “Erinnerungskulturen, Version: 2.0”, in Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 22.10.2012, <https://docupedia.de/zg/Erinnerungskulturen_Version_2.0_Christoph_Corneli%C3%9Fen>. “Oberbegriff für alle denkbaren Formen der bewussten Erinnerung an historische Ereignisse, Persönlichkeiten und Prozesse zu verstehen, […] , darunter den geschichtswissenschaftlichen Diskurs sowie die nur ‚privaten‘ Erinnerungen, jedenfalls soweit sie in der Öffentlichkeit Spuren hinterlassen haben.” Translation by the author.
[6] Astrid Erll. Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskulturen. Stuttgart 2005, 122, <https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-476-05007-6_5>.
[7] Jan Assmann. Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. München 2018, 30. Translation by the author.
[8] The Hermann myth is analyzed in far greater detail in the monograph by Andreas Dörner: Andreas Dörner: Politischer Mythos und symbolische Politik. Opladen 1995.
[9] In a statistic I created for the WASD magazine in 2018, based on games tagged “historical event” in the MobyGames database, I created a list of 757 games that could be clearly assigned to a historical war. 380 of them were set in World War II. Eugen Pfister.  “Von Krieg und Spielen”, in: WASD 13 (2018), 34-38. The numbers are not complete given the source, but give us a good idea of the distribution.
[10] 41/757 (see footnote 9).
[11] 45/757.
[12] 1/757.
[13] 1/757.
[14] 54/757.
[15] 31/757.
[16] Rolf Nohr, “The game is a medium: the game is a message”, in: Early Modernity and Video Games, edited by Tobias Winnerling and Florian Kerschbaumer. Newcastle upon Tyme 2014, 2-23, here: 2-4.
[17] Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen. München 2018, 52. “Für das kulturelle Gedächtnis zählt nicht faktische sondern erinnerte Geschichte” Translation by the author.


Eugen Pfister

Eugen Pfister leitet das SNF-Ambizione-Forschungsprojekt "Horror-Game-Politics" an der Hochschule der Künste Bern - HKB. Er forscht zu digitalen Spielen als historische Quellen (spielkult.hypotheses.org).

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3 Antworten

  1. Michael Kleu sagt:

    Spannende Überlegungen!

    Guter Punkt mit Dominanz der Westfront, was die Erinnerung des 1. Weltkrieges angeht!

    Zu dem Punkt, dass Du per Computerspiel vom Spanischen Bürgerkrieg gehört hast:

    Wir sollten mal in Deutsch als Hausaufgabe einen Text über die Hanse lesen – ich weiß jetzt gar nicht mehr warum. Jedenfalls hatte ich das natürlich nicht gemacht und kam dann dran. Als exzessiver Patrizier 1-Spieler habe ich da einen hervorragenden Kurzvortrag liefern können 😉

    • Das erinnert mich dran, dass ich endlich, endlich das Buch vom Chris Kempshall zum ersten Weltkrieg lesen muss! Ausserdem hat er für einen Themenband beim Ontological Geek den ich mitbetreut hab einen coolen Aufsatz mit dem Adam Chapman geschrieben. Und das Hanse Beispiel finde ich extrem spannend, weil natürlich war das bei mir genau dasselbe! Eugen

  1. 7. September 2022

    […] thoughts », Arbeitskreises Geschichtwissenschaft und digitale spiele,4 mars 2022, disponible sur https://gespielt.hypotheses.org/4629 (Consulté le 13/07/2022)[14] Juggler Games, My Memory of Us, IMGN.PRO, PC, 9 octobre 2019.[15] […]

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