Considering the popularity of digital games and their ability to shape historical consciousness, Adam Chapman explores digital games as a historical form in his book Digital Games as History. The author examines how games represent the past and discusses the kind of opportunities they offer in engaging with historical practice. He suggests that even if digital games are part of an ever-increasing entertainment business, many of them engage players with historical representations and provide more opportunities for historical reenactment than other historical forms; they thus necessitate deeper study. His work also seeks to define the relationship between different popular forms of history and their engagement with the past in an effort to broaden and complicate questions of history as practice.
Chapman pursues three key research goals in his book: (1) to create a framework of analysis for historical digital games, (2) to describe the nature of historical representation in these games, and (3) to examine games as broader systems of historical practice. The book is thus organized in three corresponding sections. In the first section (Chapters 1–2), the author puts forward his main arguments for the utility and necessity of studying digital games and presents concrete concepts and categories of these games and their structures. In these introductory chapters emphasis is also placed on player agency as well as on the tension between that agency and the game structure that are foundational to historical practice.
The second section (Chapters 3–6) examines game structure in more detail, paying attention to their different attributes, rules, and controls. The unique possibilities and limitations inherent to different game structure impact the ways in which the past is represented, experienced and reproduced in each game. For example, the author discusses key differences between games that have a more emphasized element of reenactment (realistic simulation) and those that offer a more abstract representation and thus require a higher level of interpretation (conceptual simulation). He then goes to argue how such differences in game structure deal differently with time and space and thus shape the way in which each game engages with the past (Chapter 4). Chapman also draws our attention to different narrative structures and their affordances that allow players to construct powerful arguments about the past. For example, while some games explore more narrow historical events, others offer more possibilities for considering the wider historical conditions around an event and engaging with wider historical themes, such as diplomacy and conflict, colonialism, slavery, etc. (Chapter 6). To illustrate his points on game structure, Chapman employs a variety of well-known strategy, tactical and resource management games including the Brothers in Arms series, Medal of Honor, Legion, Total War, Europa Universalis, and Making History. Arguments extend also to games with a wider historical scope—not limited to warfare—even when they combine historical events with science and historical fiction such as the popular Assassin's Creed series.
In the book's final section (Chapters 7–9), the focus shifts from historical representation to the active process of both experiencing and producing history in digital games, considering both the role of game developers and players. Chapman here argues that from experimentation with alternative histories and counterfactual historical narratives emerges the category of player-historians who actively produce history by the act of playing.
Chapman is successful in producing a well-researched, theoretically informed, and compelling work on historical digital games. The strength of this book lies in the author's examination of historical digital games in relation to other forms of history and to wider historical approaches. On the one hand, he advocates for studying digital games in their own right and consistently points to characteristics unique to the nature of games that set them apart from other forms, the most obvious being players' active participation and agency. On the other hand, he intentionally compares games to other forms of history, ranging from scholarly practices to historical reenactments and films, to challenge the primacy of the written word—especially that of the academic word. In doing so, he is able to offer a broader vision of what historical practice might entail.
Throughout the book, digital games remain in direct dialog with wider historiographical and epistemological discussions pertaining to the study of history and the ways in which our understanding of the past has been shaped. While Chapman acknowledges elements in games that might promote a deterministic and structuralist interpretation of the past or even overemphasize personal skill in historical outcomes, he argues that games can support multiple, even contradicting, historical narratives. The ability to provide different arguments about the likelihood and impact of historical events, Chapman suggests, is what allows games to question linear and fixed notions of historical narratives and thus align with postmodern historical studies.
This book seeks to produce strong arguments about the role that digital games can play in historical discourse, and it does so successfully. Comparisons with other historical forms and connections to current historical debates allow Chapman to address a wide audience interested in the study of the past in different historical forms and in the representation of the past in different media. To that goal, small adjustments in information organization and dissemination would have made the book easier to read and handle overall. For example, when specific games are used as examples, the author is very effective in illustrating particular game structures and their impact on historical representation, and thus I wish he had done that more frequently. Weaving more examples and allocating more space to brief game descriptions and their characteristics would make this book more accessible to audiences which are not too familiar with digital games. In a similar vein, the book includes many technical terms which are well defined, used consistently and align well with the author's aim to provide a strong analytic framework for digital games. However, the volume of terms used runs the danger of making the book too technical and hard to read. A glossary with key terms and their meaning would have allowed easier access for readers. Similarly, a full list of all the games mentioned in the book would have been a welcome addition. Finally, there is such a large number of direct quotes from other scholars throughout the book that they are often disruptive to the narrative's flow.
The book would also benefit from more reviews and responses to the games by communities of players. Chapman acknowledges the need for more experiential and ethnographic studies towards the end of the book (Chapter 9) and even occasionally inserts his own and other players' experiences. The lack of further discussion on players' reception, however, prohibits a full understanding of games as historical practice. It also prevents the book from moving beyond questions about what games can offer to explorations of how digital games are being understood as historical representations and practices by the players themselves.
Overall, this is an exciting and meticulous investigation of digital games as historical representation and practice that contributes to a more expansive idea of what constitutes history. It is an invitation to rethink how we explore and experience the past and an encouragement to pay more attention to popular access to historical production that can shed light on history's impact on modern society. Chapman rarely discusses how digital games' structure and affordances can be relevant to other domains, such as education, preservation of cultural heritage, or even tourism. Yet his emphasis on the player's agency and the ability to produce historical meaning and construct arguments about historical events though playing opens new horizons for the ways in which we can study the past and engage the wider public in historical debates.