As a History major in college, I have a unique perspective on games based on the past. Where most gamers are content to play a game and not fact check the accuracy of historical facts, I'm a bit more exacting. I like history based games to be as accurate as possible when I play and not just cast aside for sake of entertainment. For me, games that have a historical backdrop are more enjoyable than ones that are made up, fictionalized, and sensationalized. No game is completely accurate when it comes to following historical fact, but putting forward the best effort to be accurate when possible makes for a better game. Let's look at a couple examples.
Rome: Total War is a good starting point. Roman civilization is rich in history. It began in 753 BC with formation of the Roman Kingdom. In 509 BC, the king was deposed and the Republic was formed. This lasted until Julius Caesar's nephew, Octavius, became emperor in 27 BC. The empire would fall apart and dissolve in 476 AD with the end of the Western Roman empire (the Eastern Roman empire split off in 330 AD and lasted until 1453). Within this time, many famous people, events, and battles took place. The empire grew and declined and eventually passed away. But today, we know it as the greatest empire (or at least one of the greatest for those who would debate it) to have ever existed. But enough of the history lesson for now.
RTW starts in 272 BC in the latter half of the Roman Republic. The player must initially choose a Roman family faction to play as to unlock other factions in the game. These factions, while identical in cultural and military makeup, have different paths of conquest to follow. The Julii face the barbarians of the north, initially the Gauls. The Brutii look to the east to the Hellenic (Greek) civilizations of Macedon and the Greek City-States (Athens, Sparta, etc). The Scipii are left to capture Sicily and battle the Carthaginians and nomadic peoples of North Africa.
In truth, the Roman family factions themselves are fictional in the fact that land was not controlled by just those three families. The families were historically patrician (upper, ruling class) and did exist, but the Republic was democratically based with no single family having more control than the others. The system was made to be balanced and prevent the rise of a king or emperor (though this happened eventually anyway). The military units do have some historical basis. Hastati, Principes, and Triarii were all Republic units that varied in equipment and experience. Rome did not have a uniform military until later on which is reflected in the game.
There are other liberties taken by the game designers with historical fact in RTW. Names of factions are not accurate. Names would have been more Latinized in pronunciation and would have been more archaic than familiar to students of history. The Egyptians, after Alexander the Great's conquest of the ancient world, would have been more Hellenic in culture and organization than in ancient times. Point is, while fun and entertaining, Rome: Total War is only moderately historically accurate.
Another historically based game is the Assassin's Creed series. The original game is based in the 11th Century in the Holy Land (modern day Israel and the surrounding area). Following games such as Assassin's Creed 2, Brotherhood, and Revelations were based in the 14th and 15th centuries in Italy and Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). Assassin's Creed 3 is based in 18th century America during the War of Independence. Ubisoft tried hard to be historically accurate when it came to weaponry, clothing, city design, and famous people. But games are made to be entertaining first, not accurate in actual fact.
The pistol from AC2 is one example. Gun technology at the time was poor. Muskets and pistols were woefully inaccurate even at close range. Reloading took a very long time compared to now. The pistol is simply too accurate and too quickly reloaded to be considered accurate for the time period, even if the technology was passed down from godlike peoples. Another example is the portrayal of famous people having an important role in the Assassin and Templar orders, some even being influential leaders. Both orders, though loosely based on history, are fictionalized as is any roles famous people from history in those orders.
Language is translated to English for sake of the gaming audience, although the in-game explanation for this is that the Animus (the machine which replicates the past for the user) translates the languages of the past into English so the main character can understand them. This is reasonable and likely given the type of technological advances this game proposes exist in the future. However, players in a sense can do what they like in the past, only needing to hit historical progress points along the way before proceeding on in the story. Assassin's Creed is much more loosely based when it comes to history than Rome: Total War, but still fun and entertaining to play.
The bottom line is that game designers and gamers have lower standards for historical accuracy than historians. Games are about having fun, not learning about the past which is understandable. But that doesn't mean it is right. While no game should be too fictionalized when dealing with the past or so accurate as to give the player no free room to experience the past in his own way, finding a balance between the two is the best option. Games can still be fun while presenting the past in an accurate and believable way.
But where game designers fall short in historical reflection, historians and modders pick up the slack. In researching this topic, I came across two mods for Rome: Total War which are more historically accurate: Roma Surrectum II and Europa Barbarorum. Both mods were carefully created with historical accuracy in mind for gamers (such as myself) who appreciate such detail.
However, it bears mentioning that the downfall of history is that we don't know everything that happened precisely. We don't always know what was exactly said by famous people. We don't know every detail surrounding the death of Julius Caesar, the Crossing of the May Flower, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But we can fictionalize and imagine what could have happened by piecing together the facts we do know. We can do our best to piece together history in the way we think it might have happened and have a little fun while doing it.
I don't expect games will ever have the historical accuracy standards of a history class or textbook. I don't expect designers to get every detail right or to get every characterization exactly correct. But I do expect a decent, honest effort to at least try to be as accurate as possible while still making a fun game. Historians should always be involved on these types of games and provide designers with tips and advice on how to be historically accurate. It wouldn't hurt gamers to learn a little about the past while having fun at the same time.
This was originally posted as an Informer Gaming