Memory Reloaded


The treatment of history in video games as exemplified in a work by Paolo Molleindustria

Alessandro Ludovico

Digital media, with their extraordinary ability to radically manipulate information, can affect every form of cultural production. The subtle differences employed by a media strategy can produce a loss of previous historical memory that is induced by the spectacle of a new narrative conveyed to the masses using a series of special effects. And this is especially true of the field of entertainment, which seems to be responsible for many re-writings of history that are much more willingly accepted than the original documented versions. In the video-game field, this is made even more apparent owing to the high degree of involvement felt by the player through his/her immersion in the programmed interaction. The »first-person« perspective (popularized by publicly available engines like the extensively used Unreal or Quake engines), along with the simulation process with all its »scientific« premises, forms a tempting, pretentious re-construction of famous events. During play, many variables can be altered, with the result that the truth of what really happened is changed. The quantity and quality of detail included in the games make the experience worthwhile and emotional, and they have become the most appealing version of history for the younger generation in particular.

In »JFK reloaded« [ ], for example, one has the chance to »simulate« as nearly as possible the murder of John F. Kennedy. Impersonating Lee Harvey Oswald is not just a shooting game, but another »simulation« of a dramatic historical event, in this case based entirely on the famous Warren report. But an arbitrary simulation that is not publicly verifiable is worthless, and all its advertised algorithmic accuracy is just hype. Nevertheless, the game was very popular, even if it generated a great wave of anger; in other words, its media strategy was extremely effective in convincing players to play with a past »reality«.

Some counter-strategies to this spectacular rendering of history have been developed by artists. One of the most ingenious artists with regard to video-game language and ludic mechanisms is the Italian Paolo Molleindustria (»molleindustria'« literally means »loose industry«) [ ]. He collaborates with others to develop Flash video games that provide a fun playing experience in a contemporary critical environment. His hacktivist approach, spiced with an irresistible cartoon aesthetic, spans themes like the precarious nature of employment, the Catholic Church's use of propaganda, the representation of sexual identities, the virtual representation of protesters and the spectacle of terror. One of his most valuable works is undoubtedly »Memoryreloaded« [ ], a historically inspired, manipulated version of the classic »Memory / Find matching pairs« game. The players have to match pairs of famous personalities or events in recent history, but during the game the cards slowly change their content to become the opposite. For example, the dictator Mussolini becomes a remarkable statesman, or Nazi concentration camps become sunflower camps. The more time passes, the more changes happen. The game ends with a summary of the history as revised during the game. The typical results are frightening because they are so similar to some mass media trends and propaganda, and the players are equally powerless to influence the manipulation process. According to Molleindustria »The big opportunity offered by video games is the possibility of creating an extremely dynamic representation. >In Memory Reloaded<, we were interested not only in underlining the actual fight for the redefinition of values in our contemporary age, contrasting the two opposite visions of the past, but also demonstrating that history is an extremely flexible narration that depends on the balance of power created in the present, expressed metaphorically in the player-algorithm conflict.«

The time given to historians to separate the chaff from the grain has gradually shrunk over the last thirty years, due to pressure from the media industry. The current mandatory real-time updating is a process that implies less time spent on reflection and research and, on the other hand, much faster decisions on what is worthwhile and what not. As in many other cultural fields, academic circles are still cultivating methodologies that are however not adopted on a broad basis, while the entertainment industry is quickly producing its own versions without any kind of control. »Memory Reloaded« is about writing the background history of humanity, comparing fights and changes in the long timeline of this history and so, in a way, promoting political values. As Molleindustria states, »This dynamism is also effective for describing the ambiguous and mutable processes that constitute the basis of the new forms of work. We believe that the crisis in the workers movement is parallel to a workers’ representation crisis: the old pop icon of the blue suit can't stimulate the imaginary of the new precarious masses, because it is based on stereotyped characterizations, rigid identities and oppositions: Angry and dirty worker vs. fat and slimy employer. The video game's implicit variability, in Manovich's sense, can help us to build a new mythology of the flexible worker, forced to wear a suit of multiple colors and to endure multiple employers.«

Molleindustria is also one of the most lucid critic of the new trends and distortions in historically-based video games. Commenting on the above-mentioned »JFK reloaded«, for example, he says: "Leaving alone the question of the trustworthiness of the basic assumptions, the problem is the high degree of mediation in the interactive documentary. The essential shift from the sources to the model is considered only as a qualitative task (more or less faithful to reality). To persuade customers of the implemented accuracy, the producer mentions the involvement of experts and ballistic consultants and the notorious >many months of hard work<. This is the primary danger of simulations with a real referent: not considering the fact that the modelization process entails an arbitrary and questionable evaluation. The result is then packaged in a black box that connects some input to some output, without explaining the mechanisms that lie behind it to the user. The players can do something and draw their own conclusions, with no Michael Moore around to suggest what to think. But in fact they are more distant than ever from the original documents«

Molleindustria also points to another underground game, »Soviet-Unterzögersdorf'«
[ ], made by the Austrian group Monochrom. Unterzögersdorf is the last state of the Soviet Bloc to remain faithful to socialist principles, and the main character, Vladislav, is the local communist party's secretary, fighting against the Western cultural invasion and the scarcity of food. As Molleindustria remarks, »re-proposing an ironic vision of the past, now no longer fashionable, is another opportunity that video games provide. They can recreate historical systems through simulation. The simulation allows past facts to come to light again after they have been deleted by the mass-media information fury.« So, in the end, historical video games can even be a valuable feature (and not always just a »bug«) in our collective imaginary.