Simulational Realism—Playing as Trying to Remember

Konrad Wojnowski 1
  • 1 Performativity Studies at Jagiellonian University, , Kraków, Poland


In this text, I describe a specific way of addressing the past in video games which are set in historical times but at the same time deliberately undermine the facticity of their virtual worlds. By grounding my argument in analyses of two blockbuster productions—Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft, 2007) and Call of Duty: Black Ops (Activision, 2010)—I introduce and define the notion of “simulational realism”. Both games belong to best-selling franchises and share an interesting set of features: they relate to historical places, events, and figures, establish counter-factual narratives based around conspiracy theories, and—most importantly—display many formal similarities. Like most AAA games, Assassin’s Creed and Black Ops intend to immerse the player in the virtual reality and, for this purpose, they naturalize their interfaces as integral elements of reality. However, in the process of naturalizing simulation, objectivity of the past becomes unthinkable.

In my considerations, I situate this problem in two contexts: 1) of a cultural and epistemic shift in perceiving reality which was influenced by dissemination of digital technologies; 2) Vilém Flusser’s prognosis on the effects of computation on human knowledge. According to Flusser’s theory of communication, history—as a specific kind of human knowledge—emerged out of writing that was always linear and referential. Consequently, the crisis of literary culture resulted in the emergence of new aesthetics and forms of representations which—given their digital origin—dictate new ways of understanding reality. As history is now being substituted by timeless post-history, aesthetic conventions of realism are also transformed and replaced by digital equivalents.

Following Flusser’s theory, I assert that we should reflect on the epistemological consequences of presenting the past as simulation, especially if we consider the belief shared by many players that games like Assassin’s Creed can be great tools for learning history. I find such statements problematic, if we consider that the historical discourse, grounded on fact, is completely incompatible with the aesthetics of sim-realism which evokes no illusion of objective reality.

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