Total War: Rome II and the hypocrisy of “historical inaccuracy”

Have you ever heard the phrase “history is written by the victors?” This common piece of advice asks us to be skeptical of anything that proclaims to be “historically accurate.” History is, in a way, a story, specifically a story of a past event recounted by either people who lived them, or people recounting the story told to them by people who lived them through a huge string of retellings. Yes, even our accounts of the great battles of Rome were originally told by someone who witnessed those battles firsthand.

But here’s a problem: eyewitness testimony is flawed. It’s a problem we grapple with in legal proceedings basically every day. Testimony can change based on any number of factors, from the witnesses emotional state, to environmental factors that cloud the witnesses memory, to pre-existing biases.

Now couple this flawed testimony with retelling that testimony over and over and over again through hundreds or even thousands of years. Something, somewhere, is going to get messed up. Some fact is going to be wrong. Our retelling of historical events in 2018 is going to be far different from the same retelling in 1918. We can, of course, support these stories with anthropological evidence and we strive to be as accurate as possible, but we can never perfectly know what really happened in the past.

Women in war

So why am I waxing philosophical about history on a site about videogames. It’s because of one of the dumbest complaints about video game content that is repeated time and again: “this game is not historically accurate.”

In a broad sense I am saying no game is historically accurate, since history itself cannot be considered “historically accurate.” However, in a more narrow sense I want to call attention to the fact that this argument is never actually about historical accuracy. It’s about being upset about a piece of content that you, personally, don’t want to see in a game and using “historical accuracy” as an excuse for your otherwise unreasonable complaint.

I’m writing this on the heels of a recent scandal involving Total War: Rome II, a game that has had nothing from decent to positive reviews since its release in September 2013. Over the past few weeks, it has received over 350 new negative reviews which, is rather astounding. Even getting people to re-review an old game is like asking a mouse to lift a mountain in our constantly evolving video game world. So why was everyone upset?

Because a recent update allowed most factions, with a 5 to 10 percent chance, to have female generals. Someone decided to post a screen shot of a probabilistically unlikely outcome of having a full roster of six female generals, and the internet went nuts. People started screaming that the game was not historically accurate and that it was “pandering to SJWs” simply because women existed.

And this is why I felt the need to stress that all history is a story, and an inaccurate one at that, because Total War: Rome II has a lot of historical inaccuracies. For example, the amount of troops that one can include in an army is usually a historically inaccurate number. The methods of diplomacy players can take are historically inaccurate to assumed diplomatic methods of the time. Heck, battles themselves are historically inaccurate as small wounds should not only have a huge chance of death, but also a huge chance of infection ravaging your troops in the barracks. Then, of course, there is the fact that everyone speaks English in, you know, Rome.

None of this is “historically accurate.” This is why Total War community content editor Ellen McConnel said “Total War games are historically authentic, not historically accurate,” back in August.

Total War games are a story, a story of a rough historical period featuring facsimiles of historical factions and societies. We fudge bits of that story to make it fun. We fudge the way battle works to make it strategic. We fudge how diplomacy works to make it easy to understand. We fudge timescales so that the game isn’t boring. We fudge the types of people we can play as to make the game exciting. We are telling a story of history filtered through modern day expectations of what makes a strategy game enjoyable to play.

So when someone complains about the historical accuracy of having six female generals in an army but doesn’t complain about all these other historical inaccuracies, they aren’t really saying anything more than “I don’t enjoy playing as female generals.” But it’s never framed that way because… well that would kind of make you sound like a jerk… wouldn’t it?’

Women break the fantasy

I don’t mean to single out the Total War: Rome II scandal right now. Games have always come under flack for being “historically inaccurate.” Battlefield V came under fire for almost the exact same reason earlier this year. Motherboard pointed out that this is a game that allows you to jump out of a plane, shoot someone in the head with a pistol, and then fall into the exact same plane. That’s not historically accurate, and that’s the point! It’s these fantasy war scenarios that make the game fun!

via GIPHY

I mean think of all the historically inaccurate games out there that are a blast to play. Games were historically inaccurate as far back as Oregon Trail. World War II shooters tend to have inflated gun technology and no one ever seems to complain about that. Heck, Assassin’s Creed is basically historical inaccuracy the franchise.

No one complained about these games because no one actually cares about historical accuracy. This isn’t historical accuracy. This is a historical fantasy. What does that say about these angry gamers that inaccurate weapons, health, historical events, and languages are all perfectly fine pieces of their historical fantasy, but women are a step too far?