The success of this year’s “Uncharted,” a film starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg and based on characters and themes from the popular video games series, has brought new attention to how historical themes and concepts can reach broad audiences. Like many other video games, “Uncharted” uses fragments of history to advance its user-interactive storyline. The Uncharted video game franchise, which now has seven iterations, began in 2007 with a plotline centered on a man named Nathan “Nate” Drake who claims to be a descendant of privateer Sir Francis Drake. While on his quest to find the lost treasure of El Dorado, he finds himself embroiled with Nazis who sought the same treasure during World War II.
Video game designers and players have long been fascinated and inspired by historical narratives and figures. Delving into the history of how video games have utilized — and distorted — stories of the past reveals a persistent demand for historical education through entertainment, a reminder that people are constantly searching for new ways to engage and find meaning in the past.
Efforts to educate through video games began with computers. In 1973, for example, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, which worked with the state university system and Minnesota’s Department of Education, started using computer technologies to improve student learning. A decade later, Minnesota boasted of having 10,000 computers in its public schools, with a ratio of 73 students per computer — reported to be the highest ratio in the country at the time.
The consortium also led the way in creating computer-based courseware, including its most famous release: “The Oregon Trail.” Originally a text-based game for school use, “The Oregon Trail” was released to students and teachers throughout Minnesota in 1975. The game, which later saw release through Apple, Microsoft and others, is a strategy video game where the user embodies a wagon leader shepherding settlers across the frontier during the 1840s. The player is tasked with making important decisions along the way, including choosing the best path, when to hunt and how to avoid illnesses such as dysentery. Designed to encourage skills such as planning, strategy and memory, the game was a success.
Such nostalgia sold well in the 1970s, when in anticipation of the country’s bicentennial and social, economic and political unrest, many Americans looked to the past in new, engaging ways. As Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska has argued, it was in the 1970s that history “became as much about feeling as about thinking, about being inside the past instead of looking upon it.” Immersive video games helped history come alive in the 1970s, much like new period-piece TV shows, historical reenactments, oral history projects and museum exhibitions did.