English Heritage yesterday found itself at the centre of something of a social media storm when it was noted that a recent marketing campaign by the history charity took a swipe at gaming.
As highlighted in a tweet by Paul Kilduff-Taylor of indie developer Mode7, an English Heritage leaflet targeting parents asked on its cover: ‘isn’t it time to make their virtual world history?’. The message of the leaflet seemed to be explicitly leaning into the notion that youngsters should be entirely putting down game controllers to get out into the real world and – in this case – explore history. The leaflet quickly garnered considerable attention on social media, with many criticising English Heritage’s approach and messaging.
@EnglishHeritage that's a no from me and also the entire UK games industry – how about collaborating instead of this nonsense? There's a huge heritage aspect to games which you're casually dismissing with this daft campaign pic.twitter.com/UOLyD27zJI
— Paul Kilduff-Taylor (@mode7games) February 11, 2020
The idea that playing games should be complemented by time away from the screen is a good one. Visiting English Heritage sites can provide superb learning experiences. History is great.
However, the concept of ‘making games history’ – accompanied by the image of a sword passing through a game controller – seemed to take a rather absolutist line. Was it that English Heritage thought all games were implicitly bad? That interaction with games was completely incompatible with education, exploring the real world and taking benefits from play? That was the suggestion, if not then intent; that games as a medium should be consigned to history.
It seems inconceivable that such a message was fully thought through and decided as worth pursuing. Even a little research reveals that the ability for games to be beneficial or harmful is full of nuance. There are so many types of game, ways to interact and contexts for play. There is also a very wide spectrum that encompasses everything from occasional to problematic play. Indeed, in response to the criticism, English Heritage explained that their campaign was meant to be ‘tongue-in-cheek’, and likely missed the mark.
The key learning for English Heritage and observers here is to be wary of the danger over over simplifying issues so as to serve up clear, to-the-point and striking marketing or ad campaigns. Certainly, English Heritage has now received plenty of attention. But it has also inadvertently presented itself as ill-informed, distant from contemporary culture and technology, and prone to reactionary or overly simplified insights. Few modern organisations would deliberately court those associations – and once again, it seems like naivety is English Heritage’s real fault here.
But clearly stereotypes and cliches about games and the game playing public that have existed for at least as long as the media violence debate do persist, and there is very much a long way to go with updating mainstream perceptions about games impact and role; especially in young people’s and families’ lives. Games can be problematic. Playing games should be balanced with enjoying other aspects of life. There are certainly bad games, and the medium does have the potential to be harmful; that’s why age ratings exist and are critically important as a means to protect consumers and the industry.
But games can also educate, engage and enthuse youngsters, and much more positive besides. As pointed out by those responding to the sharing of the English Heritage leaflet, numerous games whisk users away to historically significant locations. The Assassin’s Creed series alone has likely engaged numerous players young and old with the thrill of thinking about bringing the past to life.
And, as noted by DualShockers, English Heritage has even commissioned the recreation of Kenilworth Castle as it would have looked in 1575 in Minecraft; something that could surely be understood to be employing game’s ability to engage to connect youngsters with the past?
English Heritage seem to have taken the feedback seriously and sincerely, and in one Twitter response admitted: We’re sorry for missing the mark on this one. This was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek take on a debate among parents, who this leaflet is aimed at. We certainly didn’t intend to dismiss the value of digital culture but appreciate it may have come across differently.
“We recognise the power of digital and video gaming. Our partnership with Google Arts and Culture, our Minecraft workshops and the recent VR reconstruction of St Augustine’s Abbey are just some of the ways we champion the gaming industry.”
The game playing public is tremendously large, currently counting somewhere around 2.5 billion people globally. The game industry and gaming influencers also have a significant presence and reach across the likes of social media and the mainstream press. As such, as a marketing ploy berating games or their value is tremendously risky; especially when making an absolute or linear statement that does away with any nuance around the medium’s increasing breadth.
More than that, there is a real danger in misinforming, scaring or misguiding parents and young gamers. And what we need more of is clear, nuanced and balanced practical advice for youngsters and families; the type you can find on AskAboutGames, which is backed by UK game industry trade body Ukie, as well as PEGI, which sets game age ratings in the UK [full disclosure: TGE’s current editor used to work with AskAboutGames]. Explaining the reality of games’ impact on youngsters – both good and bad – is much more helpful than scaremongering. That may not have been English Heritage’s aim, but the leaflet may well contribute to exactly that.
We inside games also have something to learn from all this. It’s a simple lesson. If you intend to lean on a sensationally popular phenomenon you don’t fully understand for marketing purposes, resist instincts or ideas that may be informed by dated or overly simplistic notions. It should be obvious; do your research, and double check the foundation of your own perceptions.
And rest assured it is fine to both play video games and visit historic sites across the UK. Both can be very valuable as an experience.