The impact of Digital Media: a contemporary view on history


This essay aims to explore the impact of digital media on the perception of history, focusing on its effects on historical understanding, memory, and identity. Furthermore, this essay will analyse if and how digital media, mainly ‘historical’ video games and internet memes, as they are used and consumed by younger generations, could be used as an engaging educational tool on a large scale.

Key words:

; ; ; ; ; ; ;


  1. Introduction
  2. The digitalization of history
  3. Historical representation in video games and memes
  4. Digital Media as an educational tool
  5. Conclusion
  6. Notes
  7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The impact of digital media on the perception of history has been a topic of interest for scholars in recent years. The prevalence of digital media, such as video games and internet memes, has led to new and innovative ways of presenting historical events, figures, and concepts. However, these new forms of media also have the potential to shape the way people understand and remember history. This essay will explore the impact of digital media on historical understanding, memory, and identity and will also analyse whether digital media can be used as an effective educational tool on a large scale.

One of the most significant impacts of digital media on historical understanding is the way it presents history. Video games, for example, allow players to interact with historical events and characters, immersing them in the world of the past. This can provide a more engaging and memorable experience than traditional textbook learning. However, the accuracy of these representations can be called into question. Some games take liberties with historical events or characters for the sake of gameplay, while others are more faithful to the historical record. This can lead to a distorted understanding of history, as players may come to accept fictional or exaggerated representations as fact.

Similarly, internet memes have become a popular way to convey historical events and concepts. These memes often simplify complex historical topics, reducing them to humorous or relatable images or phrases. While this can make history more accessible to a wider audience, it can also lead to a shallow understanding of complex events or concepts. Additionally, the spread of false or misleading memes can contribute to a distorted perception of history.

In terms of memory, digital media can have both positive and negative impacts. Video games and memes can help to make history more memorable by associating it with positive emotions or humor. This can make historical events or concepts easier to recall in the future. However, the same simplification that makes memes and games more accessible can also lead to a loss of nuance and complexity, making it more difficult to fully understand and remember historical events.

Finally, digital media can also impact identity by shaping the way people see themselves in relation to the past. Historical video games, for example, can allow players to take on the roles of historical figures, allowing them to identify with a particular person or period in history. This can create a stronger sense of connection to the past, but it can also perpetuate narrow or one-dimensional views of historical figures and events. Similarly, memes can reinforce particular historical narratives or stereotypes, contributing to a distorted or incomplete understanding of history.

In conclusion, digital media has had a significant impact on the way people perceive and understand history. While these new forms of media can be engaging and memorable, they can also contribute to a distorted or incomplete understanding of the past. As such, it is essential that digital media is approached critically and used in conjunction with more traditional methods of learning. However, digital media, such as historical video games and memes, can also be used as an effective educational tool on a large scale if they are carefully designed and integrated into a comprehensive learning program.

2. The digitalization of history

The perception of history has evolved over time, shaped by a variety of social, cultural, and political factors. As the world continues to change and evolve, so too does our understanding and interpretation of historical events and their significance. In his book Digital Media & Society, Lindgren argues that media are essential tools that shape our communication and interaction with the world around us.1 The rapid evolution of media and technology has brought about significant changes in how people relate to society and how they understand social change. From cave paintings to the internet and mobile phones, media have played a crucial role in our understanding of history, society, and social transformation.

Media not only enable us to communicate and interact, but they also structure the possibilities and limitations of our actions and interactions. In this sense, media are structures that impact how we perceive and engage with the world. The media we use can also influence what we create, think, and achieve. As a result, a science of the social must take into account the media of its time.

For sociologists, it is crucial to study the role of media in shaping social reality. Beyond the analysis of media genres and conventions, there is a need to examine the broader sense of media’s role in society. Media plays a critical role in creating and maintaining social reality, and it is an essential aspect of modern society. Sociologists from different traditions, such as Marxist, Weberian, Durkheimian, and symbolic interactionism, must understand the tools and structures used in the creation and maintenance of social reality.2

Digital media has provided new ways for individuals to engage with and remember historical events, such as online memorials, social media posts, and virtual exhibits. Digital media has also allowed for the preservation and dissemination of oral histories, photographs, and other primary sources of historical information.

The democratization of knowledge, facilitated by technological advancements and the widespread availability of information, has had a significant impact on the modern perception of history. The availability of historical information on digital platforms has led to a more accessible and democratic understanding of history, with a wider range of individuals and communities engaging with historical events and narratives. The availability of historical information on digital platforms has allowed individuals to engage with their own personal history and heritage. With the rise of the Internet of Things, this availability and accessibility of knowledge has become even more extensive.

The increasing interconnectedness of the world has led to a greater awareness of global historical events and a recognition of the interdependence of nations and cultures. This has led to a more nuanced and interconnected understanding of history, with a greater recognition of the complex and diverse factors that shape historical events. For example, the recognition and celebration of cultural diversity has led to a greater awareness and appreciation of the histories and experiences of marginalized groups. This has led to a more inclusive and diverse understanding of history, with a recognition of the important contributions and achievements of groups who were previously excluded from dominant historical narratives.

However, the impact of digital media on the perception of history is a complex issue, with both positive and negative aspects. There are concerns about the impact of digital media on historical understanding. Some argue that the availability of historical information on digital platforms has led to a decline in critical thinking and analysis of historical information. The ease of access to information on digital platforms can lead to a lack of engagement with primary sources and critical analysis of historical information.

Furthermore, some argue that the use of digital media to remember historical events can lead to the spread of misinformation and inaccuracies. There is also the concern that the use of digital media to remember historical events can lead to a focus on the sensational or dramatic aspects of the event, rather than a deeper understanding of its historical context, as will be explored deeper in following chapters.

Aside from an increase in interconnectedness, globalization has also led to the homogenization of history, with a tendency to focus on dominant historical narratives and the histories of the most powerful nations and cultures. This can lead to a narrow and limited understanding of history, excluding the histories of marginalized groups and perpetuating the dominance of certain cultural and political perspectives.

Furthermore, the large availability of historical information on digital platforms can lead to the creation of narrow and essentialized identities, which may exclude certain aspects of historical experience and can also lead to a fragmentation and essentialization of history, with a focus on individual cultural histories at the expense of broader historical narratives. This can lead to a lack of understanding and recognition of the complex and interconnected nature of historical events and can perpetuate cultural divisions and stereotypes.

3. Historical representation in video games and memes

The media can influence the cultural and symbolic mythologies we use to understand the world, and how we interact with it. For example, historical memes are a form of media that is becoming increasingly popular in shaping how people understand the past. Memes are internet-based still or animated images with short pieces of text superimposed over the scene. More recently, ‘meme’ can also encompass short viral videos like on the platform TikTok and, though outdated, Vine.

Historical memes are a type of meme that uses historical events, figures, and themes to create humour, irony, or satirical commentary. They have become a significant source of historical information for many people, especially younger generations, who might not engage with traditional forms of historical education. Historical memes are often relatable, accessible, and enjoyable to consume, making them a compelling means of engaging with historical topics.

Historical memes can also be used to challenge dominant narratives of history and provide alternative perspectives. For example, memes that address colonialism, slavery, and imperialism can challenge traditional narratives and offer critical perspectives that might not be represented in mainstream media or education. Historical memes can, therefore, play a crucial role in shaping how people understand and engage with the past, and how they perceive social change and progress.

As Williams and Razzore state in their essay titled Medieval Memes, the phenomenon of internet memes has a democratizing effect as well, which allows for a collaborative method to thrive in digital media and bring academics into conversation with other interested parties.3 The authors explore the process by which memes are created, distributed and consumed, and discuss their accessibility, light-heartedness and collaborative essence. Memes are a visible manifestation of a new kind of dialogue that is bringing academics into conversation with non-academics, and encourage trained medievalists and professional artists to engage in such open discussions. However, entry into the conversation still depends upon financial or class status, the availability of technology, and access to education.

Another popular form of digital media among the youth is video games. Video games have become a massive industry and a major part of contemporary youth culture, with many historically themed games being popular and financially successful. While video games are primarily for entertainment, they also offer a unique mode of engagement for thinking about the world and its past, allowing players to actively engage in simulations of history and even modify alternate visions of what could have happened in the past.

As Fogu analyses in his text Digitalizing Historical Consciousness, video games participate in a process of spatialization and virtualization of historical semantics, detaching the notion of history from its reference to the past and to the real. A good example of this phenomenon would be the video game franchise Sid Meier’s: Civilization, which as the author mentions is considered by many to be the “greatest game of all time” and which claims to “rewrite” history. The author discusses the game’s historical character, in which players act as historical leaders of civilizations and pursue various strategies of development. Fugo highlights the game’s postmodernist or poststructuralist principles, which allow players to construct scenarios against both historical reality and historical plausibility.

The author also suggests that historical video games challenge the semiotic production of “historic events” that has characterized the construction of modern historical consciousness. Video games replace representation with simulation and presence with virtuality, which can marginalize the fluctuation of the modern historical imagination between historical facts and historic events, transcendence and immanence, representation, and presence. Fogu states “that although digital reworkings of historical semantics have not produced any grammatical transformation of the signifier, history […] the impact of video games on our contemporary historic(al) culture is of paradigmatic proportions…”.4

Furthermore, Fogu suggests that digital technology is having a significant impact on the field of historical production, from archives to textual and visual representations of history. He argues that video games are a particularly sophisticated and popular form of interactive remediation, but cannot be analysed in isolation from other forms of digital encroachment on traditional media. The author also notes that our historical imagination and conceptual frameworks have been constructed in response to linear media, and that interactive media may oblige us to focus on the terms of the definition of historical consciousness that have largely been taken for granted. This includes notions of communication, community, collective, and ultimately identity, all of which are radically modified by the building up of interactive communities of avatars playing history online.

4. Digital Media as an educational tool

Digital media can be a powerful educational tool that has the potential to engage students, provide them with interactive learning experiences, and foster critical thinking skills. Digital media can be a powerful educational tool when used effectively. With the widespread availability of digital devices and internet access, teachers have more opportunities to use digital media to engage students, enhance learning, and foster creativity.

One advantage of digital media is that it can provide students with access to a wide range of information and resources that might not be available otherwise. These digital media tools can offer a more personalized and dynamic learning experience with a variety of interactive features, such as videos, images, audio, and animations, which can help students to understand complex concepts and engage with learning in new ways. Moreover, digital media can help students develop skills that are essential for success in the 21st century, including digital literacy, communication, collaboration, and problem-solving. For example, online discussion forums, collaborative projects, and social media platforms can allow students to work together, share ideas, and receive feedback from their peers.

However, it’s important to note that digital media is not a panacea for educational challenges. Teachers should be intentional about how they use digital media, and should carefully select and evaluate digital resources to ensure they are accurate, relevant, and appropriate for the intended audience. Additionally, it’s important to balance the use of digital media with other forms of learning, such as hands-on experiences, face-to-face discussions, and traditional reading materials.

In their text Gaming History, Metzger and Paxton highlight the importance of understanding the use of history in media, particularly in historical films and video games. They draw on Marcia Landy’s three philosophical constructs of cinematic uses of history: monumental, antiquarian, and critical history, which can be translated to video games as well. Monumental history uses the past for veneration and fascination, antiquarian history uses the past for ossified objectification and attachment, and critical history uses the past for over-valuation of individual agency, iconoclastic relativism, or denial of a fixed past narrative.

The authors argue that historically oriented media, including video games, tend to focus on dramatic, heroic, violent, and controversial events, while downplaying or ignoring other traumatic and divisive elements in the past. The media can influence the way students think about the past and shape the cultural toolkit by determining what historical elements, perspectives, and narratives receive ongoing public attention. Therefore, the concept of historical film literacy needs to be broadened into a wider conceptualization of historical media literacy, which includes video games as an emergent and important aspect. Internet memes pertaining to history could be viewed under a similar lens as well, as the historical aspect in both internet memes and video games pertains to a certain ‘marketability’ that should be dissected critically when used for educational purposes.

Metzger and Paxton conducted a study on selected historically themed commercial video games, with the aim of developing a typological framework for analysing content in these games. The authors intentionally chose games that contain or refer to historical topics frequently taught in U.S. and international history curricula, but not explicitly designed for educational purposes or for use in schools. They focused only on the base games and did not include any of the numerous expansions or downloadable content subsequently released, to play a wider range of games.

The framework developed by the authors offers an initial vocabulary for recognizing and analysing features, narratives, mechanics, and textual or aural-visual rhetoric in video games that make use of the historical past. The framework considers environmental and playable elements, visual/aural representations of the past, and the nexus of video games, academic teaching and learning, and ultimately broader historical consciousness. The authors emphasize that their typology is not meant to categorize specific games vis-à-vis each other, and their concept labels do not describe a game overall or classify it as a whole.

Metzger’s and Paxton’s methodology was grounded in observational/experiential data from their own gameplay and comparative discussions. They nominated initial ideas for how the past could be depicted and positioned in media, hypothesized a base body of constructs grouped around these initial ideas, began playing the selected videogames and observing gameplay through this initial lens, took note of phenomena as they played or watched others playing and began to group observations and experiences across games, reflectively expanded and refined their constructs through ongoing play experience, and discussed their gameplay experiences and observations in light of the emergent constructs and refined their articulations to increase their coherence and utility.

An important aspect of this engagement with video games and memes themselves for educational purposes, is that their main objective of entertainment is not overshadowed, as that would quickly eliminate the enjoyment and immersiveness of the medium. As students will interact with such media outside of class regardless, it is essential to give them the tools needed to analyse them critically on their own. A clear example of this is given by Metzger and Paxton as well; namely the “Disney Effect”.5

The “Disney effect” refers to the phenomenon in which popular media, particularly Disney movies, have a significant influence on how young students perceive historical events and figures. This influence can be particularly strong among students who have limited prior knowledge or understanding of the history being portrayed, and can sometimes even override or distort the information presented in more formal educational materials such as textbooks.

In the case of Afflerbach and VanSledright’s study, mentioned in Gaming History, they found that students were using the Disney movie Pocahontas (1995) as a frame of reference to judge the accuracy and veracity of the information presented in their history textbook. While the students were engaging in a form of intertextual analysis, they were not yet critically evaluating the film itself as a source of historical information, which suggests the need for more explicit instruction on how to analyse media texts in the context of historical learning.

Therefore, to effectively use digital media like video games and internet memes as an educational tool, they should be used alongside the curriculum, not instead of. Creating digital media for the explicit purpose of education is often costly and time-consuming. Furthermore, the material will mostly likely be ineffective as the appeal and immersiveness will not be as successful as commercial products, as it will most likely feel as an extension of traditional homework. By incorporating popular media into the curriculum, educators can tap into the students’ pre-existing knowledge and interests, and use that as a starting point to build on. This can make the material more engaging and relevant to the students, and help them see the connections between what they are learning in school and the world around them.

5. Conclusion

Digital media has a significant impact on how we perceive and understand historical events. The democratization of knowledge facilitated by technological advancements has led to a more accessible and democratic understanding of history. However, the use of digital media to remember historical events can also lead to the spread of misinformation and inaccuracies, as well as a focus on sensational or dramatic aspects of an event, rather than a deeper understanding of its historical context.

One such medium is historical video games. Historical video games are games that are set in a historical context and feature historical events, characters, and artifacts. These games provide a unique opportunity for individuals to engage with history in an immersive and interactive way.

Historical video games can be a powerful educational tool. They offer a unique opportunity for individuals to experience history in a way that is both engaging and interactive. By placing individuals in historical contexts, historical video games provide a sense of what it was like to live during a particular time period, providing insight into the cultural and societal norms, values, and beliefs of the time. By experiencing history through gameplay, individuals are encouraged to think critically about the historical events and the contexts in which they occurred.

Historical video games also have the potential to make history more accessible to a wider audience. By providing an interactive and engaging medium through which to experience history, historical video games can make history more appealing and accessible to individuals who might not be interested in traditional forms of historical media, such as textbooks or documentaries.

However, there are concerns about the accuracy and authenticity of historical video games. While historical video games can provide an engaging and interactive way to experience history, they can also perpetuate historical inaccuracies and stereotypes. This can lead to a distorted understanding of history among individuals who primarily rely on video games for their historical knowledge. To address these concerns, historical video games should be developed with input from historians and should strive for accuracy and authenticity in their representation of historical events and contexts.

Another form of digital media that has had an impact on historical understanding is internet memes. Internet memes are cultural artifacts that are created and shared on the internet, often in the form of images, videos, or text. Internet memes are often used to convey humour or satire, but they can also be used to communicate political or social commentary.

Internet memes have the potential to engage younger generations in discussions about historical events and their significance. By using humour and satire, internet memes can make history more relatable and accessible to younger generations. Internet memes can also be used to challenge dominant historical narratives and provide a more nuanced and diverse understanding of historical events.

However, there are concerns about the accuracy and appropriateness of using internet memes for historical communication. Internet memes can perpetuate stereotypes and inaccuracies, and they can also be used to trivialize or make light of historical events. To ensure that internet memes are used appropriately for historical communication, individuals and organizations should strive for accuracy and sensitivity in their creation and dissemination of historical memes.

The impact of digital media on historical understanding is a complex issue. While digital media has provided new opportunities for individuals to engage with history, there are concerns about the accuracy and authenticity of historical representation in digital media. Historical video games and internet memes have the potential to engage younger generations in discussions about historical events and their significance, but they must be developed and used responsibly to avoid perpetuating historical inaccuracies and stereotypes.

Overall, digital media has the potential to engage and educate individuals about historical events and narratives. However, it is important to approach digital media with a critical eye, and to prioritize accuracy and historical context in any use of digital media to understand or remember history. It is important to teach digital literacy to younger generations and help them apply critical analysis to media they already consume outside of the academic environment.

6. Notes

  1. Lindgren, Digital Media & Society (2017), p. 14
  2. Lindgren, Digital Media & Society (2017), p. 14
  3. Williams, Razzore, Medieval Memes (2015), p. 323
  4. Fugo, Digitalizing Historical Consciousness (2009), p. 103
  5. Metzger, Paxton, Gaming History (2016), p. 535

7. Bibliography

  • Ashton, Gail, Williams, Maggie, Razzore, Lauren. “Medieval Memes” Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture, 2015: 322-331.
  • Bogost, Ian. Play Anything : The Pleasure of Limits the Uses of Boredom and the Secret of Games, 2016: ix-26
  • Brennan, Claire. “Digital humanities, digital methods, digital history, and digital outputs: History writing and the digital revolution.” History Compass16 (10), 2018.
  • Fogu, Claudio. “DIGITALIZING HISTORICAL CONSCIOUSNESS.” History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History 48, no. 2, 2009: 103–121.
  • Lindgren, Simon. Digital Media & Society, 2017: 9-35.
  • Metzger, Scott Alan, and Richard J. Paxton. “Gaming History: A Framework for What Video Games Teach About the Past.” Theory and Research in Social Education 44, no. 4, 2016: 532–564.