Beyond the Oregon Trail: Industry and History Working Together

All to often, video game developers look to history to create a fascinating context, plotline, or side quest for their game. For years, games such as the Assassin’s Creed franchise or Ghost of Tsushima have remained wildly popular, in part for their impressive use of historical events and settings. Even games such as The Witcher, based on a book series later turned into a popular Netflix show, use aspects of history and culture (in this case, Slavic folklore) to enhance gameplay for their users.

All too often, however, some historic games end up missing the mark for accuracy or proper portrayal of the communities presented in their games. While many developers have managed to contract historians in the early phases of game development, what seems to be missing is inclusion of historians that follows through the testing of the video game.

As a result, my proposal calls for the creation of a website that allows for alpha and beta testing with historians in the field. Historians have the opportunity to test out new historical video games, and give their feedback on the representation of the history and peoples within the game, allowing developers to further enrich their video games and create a more immersive experience during gameplay.

While there are plenty of platforms available for alpha and beta testing video games, such as AlphaBetaGamer, who call themselves the “the world’s biggest beta testing site.” The site covers alpha and beta testing for all platforms, and for free, however, to have your game tested on the site it must be free itself.

In this case, not only would the site be specialized for a specific type of game development, it would also offer both free and paid options to expand the option for different developers making both free and paid games.

Just pretend there aren’t a million tabs open in this screenshot…

The audience for the platform would be both historians interested in gaming or the particular time period/plotline of the game, and gaming developers interested in finding an informed testing group. There could also be levels to the service; for example, a free version where anyone in the history field who has signed up as a tester can play your game, and paid versions where you can request individuals with specific background and research interests.

Publicity for this service would be twofold, to correctly build interest in both relevant audiences. Much of the contact with video game developers would include social media/web campaigns, as well as direct contact with manufacturers, distribution companies, etc. It would also be useful to have a physical presence at events such as the Game Developer’s Conference. For the academic outreach, larger national conferences (such as AHA) would be a good opportunity, as well as social media and platforms such as H-NET for reaching potential users. There could also be an opportunity to utilize graduate students in this process as well, and testing could be incorporated into a class syllabus.

Early iterations of the site would be tested by several selected developers and historians; ironically, the site itself would require it’s own alpha and beta testing to work out the logistics of the platform, which would need to have the ability to run a variety of video games for a large number of users at any given time.

Now, to find someone who can actually enact this idea, so I can play some video games and maybe get paid for it!

2 Replies to “Beyond the Oregon Trail: Industry and History Working Together”

  1. Sajel, this is a fascinating idea. It could be used to expand diversity in video games as well and reflect greater intersectionality. Also, are historians consulted in video game creation and development currently?

  2. Sajel, this is a really creative concept! I very much appreciate how you’ve thought through the idea of who the audience for this would be and the kind of impact they could have. If you were to run with this as a project, it strikes me that one of the biggest conceptual challenges would be to sort out the extent to which video game companies would value this kind of feedback and input. That is, I know that some video game companies have retained historians to give input on parts of video games, but in keeping with your observations here, the focus in that kind of consultation is more on issues of look and feel in a game (what buildings look like, or how characters would dress) instead of on the more substantive aspects of the games (like what the subject of the game is or what the core mechanics or narratives of a game are.) All that noted, this is a really creative and interesting idea and those questions would be interesting things to explore in prototyping and or more fully conceptualizing an initiative like this as a project. Great work!

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