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Middle Ages in computer games: instructive or romanticized?

In a seminar, students of the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt (KU) investigated the portrayal of the Middle Ages in computer games. They looked into the question as to whether the virtual presentation of the era gives users factual information on historical connections and contexts or whether the games rather portray distorted stereotypical images. The students summarized their findings in videos and also offer suggestions on how to see these “digital Middle Ages” in an appropriate light.

In a video, KU students explain how the Middle Ages are portrayed in computer games. (screenshot: YouTube)

In a video, KU students explain how the Middle Ages are portrayed in computer games. (screenshot: YouTube)

“Often, computer games tend to reveal information on the game developer’s individual view of history rather than actually conveying hard facts about the Middle Ages” summarizes Kilian Baur, who works as research associate at the Chair of Medieval History. He went on to say that the historical images portrayed in computer games were very similar to those seen in other media.

The aim of the seminar was to critically reflect on medial products: Does it actually correspond to historical facts if the Middle Ages are portrayed as a romanticized era characterized by gentlemen and people’s closeness to nature or if the era is shown as sinister times? The working group started their project work by creating analytical framework conditions that corresponded to the current state of research in game studies and the science of history. Taking the developed criteria as a basis, the students then looked into computer games from different genres such as strategy, role-playing games or economy simulations. They chose classics such as “Stronghold” or “Age of Empires 2” as well as current bestsellers such as “Kingdom Come: Deliverance” or indie titles, for example “Mount&Blade” or “Reigns”. The students summarized their findings in videos with the kind support of the KU transfer office and the “Mensch in Bewegung” project.

Here is what they found: Many computer games play in war scenarios or players have to reach the goal of the games as heroes by using violence. Negative aspects such as pain, death and grief are blocked out completely or trivialized and gender roles are depicted in a stereotypical manner. Often, modern ideas and concepts are transferred to the Middle Ages. This is for example the case in building strategy games in which the player acts as a dictator and can take decisions alone without having to secure and exert his or her powers by maintaining a mix of personal relations, administration and force.

However, computer games can still mirror partial aspects of medieval history in a simplified form: For example by bringing whole cities or regions and their medieval appearance back to life, some well researched game concepts which are based on historical models give a very lively idea of audiovisual dimensions and spatial components of medieval history. This was hardly possible in traditional historical science and the methods and means available to it, says lecturer Kilian Baur. He believes that by presenting an interesting choice of historical scenarios, computer games are a good incentive for looking into medieval history in greater detail off the screens.


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