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. Specifically, 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.
The media we consume can influence the cultural and symbolic structures we use to understand the world, and therefore how we interact with it. 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.
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. Similarly, internet memes have become a popular way to convey historical events and concepts. 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. While this can make history more accessible to a wider audience, it can also lead to a shallow understanding of complex events or concepts.
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.2 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.
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. Similarly, memes can reinforce particular historical narratives or stereotypes, contributing to a distorted or incomplete understanding of history. Additionally, the spread of false or misleading memes can contribute to a distorted perception of history as well.
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 what could have happened in the past.
As Fogu analyzes 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.3 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.4 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.5 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…”.6
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.7 He argues that video games are a particularly sophisticated and popular form of interactive remediation, but cannot be analyzed in isolation from other forms of digital encroachment on traditional media.8 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.9 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.
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.10 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.11
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 analyzing 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 which were 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 ensure a wider range of games.
The framework developed by the authors offers an initial vocabulary for recognizing and analyzing 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, as well as the nexus of video games, academic teaching and learning, and therefore 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 basic body of constructs grouped around these initial ideas. Afterwards they began playing the selected video games and observing the gameplay through this initial lens. Following this, they took note of phenomena as they played or watched others playing and began to group their observations and experiences across games, reflectively expanding and refining their constructs through ongoing play experience. This let them discuss their gameplay experiences and observations in light of the emerging constructs and refine their findings 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 analyze them critically on their own. A clear example of this is given by Metzger and Paxton as well; namely the “Disney Effect”.12
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 that is 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.13 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 analyze 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 most 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.
In conclusion, 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. Another 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. 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.
- Lindgren, Digital Media & Society (2017), p. 14 ↩︎
- Williams, Razzore, Medieval Memes (2015), p. 323 ↩︎
- Fugo, Digitalizing Historical Consciousness (2009), p. 103 ↩︎
- Idem. ↩︎
- Fugo, Digitalizing Historical Consciousness (2009), p. 105 ↩︎
- Fugo, Digitalizing Historical Consciousness (2009), p. 103 ↩︎
- Fugo, Digitalizing Historical Consciousness (2009), p. 107 ↩︎
- Idem. ↩︎
- Idem. ↩︎
- Metzger, Paxton, Gaming History (2016), p. 532-534 ↩︎
- Idem. ↩︎
- Metzger, Paxton, Gaming History (2016), p. 535 ↩︎
- Idem. ↩︎
- Ashton, Gail, Williams, Maggie, Razzore, Lauren. “Medieval Memes” Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture, 2015: 322-331.
- 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.