Ghost of Tsushima provides players with plenty of beautiful scenery as they traverse its island setting.
Earlier this year in mid-March, Hiroki Hitakatsu, mayor of the Japanese island of Tsushima, made a unique announcement to the world: Nate Fox and Jason Connell, two of the masterminds from Sucker Punch Studios, the company behind the incredibly successful 2020 videogame Ghost of Tsushima, would be made permanent tourism ambassadors of the island.
“[Fox and Connell] spread the name and history of Tsushima to the whole world in such a wonderful way,” he said. “Thanks to the two of them, Sucker Punch Productions, and SIE, I have heard from people all over the world who have learned about Tsushima through their works, and now want to see, know, and go to Tsushima.”
The open world action-adventure title is set in the 13th century during the Mongol invasion of Japan. The player takes the role of Jin Sakai, a samurai warrior who is determined to repel the invaders from his home, even if he has to forgo the samurai code of honor and adopt questionable tactics to achieve victory.
Since its release in July 2020, Ghost of Tsushima has been a critical and commercial success. It sold over 2.4 million copies globally in its first three days and recording the best launch sales of any Playstation first-party game in Japan. A film adaptation by Chad Stahelski, director of the John Wick film series, is also in the works. However, the game’s greatest success has come not from its fully-realized gameworld, various awards or massive sales numbers-the real success of Ghost of Tsushima lies in the recognition and attention brought to the real island of Tsushima since the game’s release; it is a unique instance of a virtual world blending with our own. The game has generated high levels of interest in its real-life island setting and its history. In a unique example, fans helped raise more than $260,000 to restore a shrine on the island that was damaged by a typhoon in January 2021.
One of the largest areas of interest comes in the game’s attention to historical details and the accuracy of its setting. In a Playstation blog post, Ian Jun Wei Chiew, Sucker Punch’s lead concept artist, described the process that went into creating the game’s expansive environments. “First and foremost, we wanted to create a visually stunning game, and working in a historical setting can often be tricky to find the right balance for accuracy. We always had to think about what to keep historically accurate, and when to break away. ‘Realistic’ is not a word we like using here, our goal was to make sure the game had a sense of style, even though we were making a historical epic. We wanted to create a world that feels like 1274 Japan, but at the same time be more expressive with it,” said Chiew.
“This came in many forms, like bold color choices, stark environment themes, impressive set-ups for the player to stumble upon, etc. In general, what ends up in the game is often a toned-down version of the concepts, so it was important for us to really push and crank up the themes and colors from the concept stage to ensure it was delivered more evidently in the final game.”
Chiew explained that this same level of care was taken in other aspects of the game as well, with a lot of time taken to research the period that the game was set in. “Our main story inspiration was the Mongol invasion of Japan of 1274, and the main character was a survivor of that invasion who defies all odds to defend his homeland. This was the core player fantasy that served as an overarching guide for everyone at the studio. We began by exposing ourselves to as much research and content as we could on the Kamakura Era, Japanese culture, old Samurai films and the Invasion of Tsushima, which led to the final designs of our characters, outfits, landscape, architecture, etc.” explains Chiew. “A lot of the references we gathered were from museum exhibits and photos taken by teams that the studio sent out to Tsushima as well as the main island of Japan.”
Despite the many hours of research that went into creating the game’s world, Ghost of Tsushima isn’t exactly an accurate portrayal of what life on Tsushima in 1274 would have been like-the game does take liberties. This is understandable, as historical accuracy is rarely a core design principle for history-related games-a good game deserves to be able to take liberties. Thus, Ghost of Tsushima can be viewed as a prime example of historical fiction. However, there are kernels of historical truth in the game that make it quite compelling and clear that Sucker Punch respects history.
For starters, the island’s in-game geography hugely differs from that of the real island-a necessary sacrifice for gameplay purposes. However, players can visit many landmarks that are present in the game with a helpful tourism collaboration site to guide them. The characters of Jin Sakai and his nemesis Khotun Khan never existed-although they are grounded in the historical portrayals of samurai and Mongol warriors. A major gameplay element revolves around the use of gunpowder, both in Jin’s arsenal and that of the Mongols. Samurai would not use gunpowder until several centuries after the period when the game takes place, but it was introduced to Japan by the Mongols, and the game makes sure that the player acquires gunpowder technology from the invaders, as opposed to having it be a core tool from the start.
Of course, these are just a few small examples of differences. The game might not be an accurate portrayal of Tsushima in the 13th century, but it doesn’t have to be-simply by setting their game in a world inspired by Japanese history, Sucker Punch has earned a unique accomplishment: inspiring legions of gamers around the world to go beyond their game and become interested in the distant past by bringing it to life with modern technologies. The fact that there are so many articles discussing the game’s historical accuracies are a testament to this fact-people are interested in learning more. “Even a lot of Japanese people do not know the history of the Gen-ko period. When it comes to the world, the name and location of Tsushima is literally unknown, so I cannot thank them enough for telling our story with such phenomenal graphics and profound stories,” says Hitakatsu.
Ghost of Tsushima is just the latest and most popular example of a trend I’ve noticed in the gaming industry that has been growing over the past several years: a rise in prominence of historical fiction. Another great example is the Assassin’s Creed series; each year fans look forward to what historical setting the next game will bring, whether it be the Vikings, ancient Egypt or the Renaissance. While the stories and characters they bring to the table my not always be real, they are grounded in real events. For example, the 2009 title Assassin’s Creed II focuses on the fictional character Ezio Auditore di Firenze, and is set in Renaissance-era Florence, featuring appearances from real historical figures such as the Borgia family and Leonardo Da Vinci. You don’t have to look very far to find a wide variety of games embracing history. More and more games are now choosing to root themselves in historical settings and, as someone who is clearly interested in history, this is great for so many reasons, not the least of which can be gleaned from my own experience with the medium.
My own experience with historical settings in videogames started in 2008 when I was in high school and was life-changing; it was singularly responsible for kickstarting my lifelong interest in history. That year saw the release of Call of Duty World at War, following hot on the heels of the massively successful 2007 title Call of Duty Modern Warfare, one of the seminal games in the modern shooter genre. At the time, I had a Grade 10 history class with an excellent teacher who just happened to be covering the Second World War at the time. Already being interested in gaming and shooters in general, I decided to check out the game for myself and was immediately hooked. My interest was also piqued when my friend invited me over to his house to play the now-famous co-op zombies mode, which debuted in the game.
Call of Duty World at War was a fantastic game in every way, maintaining a unique atmosphere that separates itself not only from other titles in the franchise, but also other shooters set in the same period. The game takes the approach that the second World War was hell; an approach not normally seen in the realm of gaming. It goes out of it’s way to emphasize the horrors of war and the soldiers’ experience. This is immediately enforced when you boot up the game and reach the main menu, only to be greeted by sombre, ominous music, with the singer asking “brave soldier, die with me.” The game is noticeably dark, grimy and gritty, with environments and weapons being covered in layers of dirt, rust and blood. It’s also among the most violent entries in the series, and the first game to feature “gibbing”-when shooting an enemy, body parts will be violently separated from the body. For example, toss a grenade into a Japanese machine gun nest and you’re sure to see limbs go flying. The game isn’t really about spectacle and heroism; there’s no Omaha beach here. Instead, it’s about just trying to survive amidst one of the most horrifying conflicts in human history.
This uniquely grim take on an era we’ve all seen before is what truly hooked me. From the gritty portrayal of the Russian assault on Berlin while Gary Oldman is yelling commands in your ear with a thick Russian accent to capturing flags and fighting the forces of the Imperial Japanese Army with friends in multiplayer, the game’s high production values stood out to me from other titles at the time and made me want to learn more. It made me question the accuracy of what I was seeing in the game-what was the storming of the Reichstag building really like? How difficult was it for the American forces to storm tiny Pacific islands like Okinawa or Peleliu and fight tooth and nail for every inch of ground against an enemy who gave no quarter?
From here, the Second World War became a fascination of mine. I started researching everything I could about the topic online, watching Youtube videos that explained the history, learning how Fascism took root in Europe, and discovering the backgrounds of the weapons I was using in multiplayer. Of course, the game isn’t fully accurate to the historical conflict, but it was enough for me that the foundation was there- you could almost compare it to a gateway drug, although not in the negative sense of course-it was like a gateway for me into a large and vast historical world that I was only touching the surface of and was determined to learn more about.
This interest followed me to university, where I took two elective courses focused on the Second World War and others focused more on general history in a bid to further my own knowledge, never satisfied and always wanting to uncover more. Gradually, my interest extended further back into European history-the First World War, Medieval times, the Hundred Years’ War-my eyes were opened to stories and experiences I never could have possibly imagined that spirited me to a different time halfway across the world.
These stories are truly incredible, and the past can teach us a lot. It is for this reason that although I graduated from journalism and have a passion for writing, I am seeking to further explore my passion for all things history. The choice I made way back in 2008 to check out Call of Duty World at War on a whim because of my history class has now led me to go back to school to pursue a teaching degree so I can spread my (hopefully infectious) enthusiasm for history and really show people why the past matters and that it’s way more interesting than you might initially think.
All because of a videogame.
Contrary to what you might initially believe, games have plenty of educational value. The best part about the medium is that since there is a wide variety of genres, almost any game can contain something of educational value to the player, no matter their age. Puzzle games can teach critical thinking skills, simulation games such as Civilization or Sims can teach players about governance, while adventure games such as Okami can provide glimpses into Japanese mythology that isn’t taught in schools. According to a blog post from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), videogames can specifically help improve a child’s reading skills by requiring the player to read and understand dialogue in order to progress in the game and can act as great incentives to help kids polish up on their reading.
Furthermore, many studies have shown that videogames can function as effective tools for improving students’ skills and promote learning. As with the example of my own interest in the subject of history stemming from a game, a 2015 study from the American Psychological Association found that well-designed games can motivate students to learn less popular subjects, such as math, and that game-based learning can actually get students interested in the subject matter.
In addition, psychologists are also studying Operation ARA (Acquiring Research Acumen), a learning game designed for high school and college students that teaches research methodology through a narrative about aliens invading Earth with “bad science.” Students are taught about research examples taken from psychology, biology and chemistry through the use of avatars, and are then asked to identify flaws in that research. The game’s developer, psychologist Art Graesser, PhD, of the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis, reported improvements in scientific reasoning and critical thinking skills among students at three different types of institutions: an open admissions community college, a state university and a private college.
However, although games can be quite beneficial, there are some obvious practical concerns that can discourage teachers from including them in a classroom curriculum. The biggest factor is that of technology; while many schools today feature computers, they might not have the requirements necessary to run modern games. In addition, schools may not want to spend to either upgrade their computers or acquire a gaming console-both of which can be expensive options. Another potential constraint is time; it may be difficult to find enough time to integrate sections of a game into the curriculum or to get students used to playing the game.
If you were to ask the people around you what their favorite subject was in school, you probably wouldn’t get history as an answer. The subject is usually derided as boring and stale; who cares about what happened hundreds of years ago?
And yet we exist in a society that thrives on a historical dichotomy; many people say they don’t care for or enjoy the subject of history, but we live in a popular culture that’s obsessed with history and historical content- some of the most popular shows in recent memory such as Vikings, The Crown and Narcos are all based on different historical periods. Videogames are a massive part of that popular culture.
The conscious choice of game developers to create historical fiction is a choice that I strongly applaud, and one that I think has positive ramifications for society for one simple reason: videogames can be quite a compelling educational tool because of their entertainment value. If consciously implemented in an educational way, games can inspire learning in an unconscious way. As we can see with the example of Ghost of Tsushima, complex historical topics can be made much more interesting and palatable to a general audience when presented in a fun and interactive way, even if that history suffers from inaccuracies-it’s no accident that one of the biggest games of the year has brought so much attention to Japanese history.
I believe that the true draw of historical fiction in the gaming medium lies in its ability to entice the player and draw them into worlds based on historical periods an to make that experience interactive and fun. These types of games have the potential to inspire historical inquiries both inside and outside of the classroom. By doing so, it makes the player want to learn more and understand the digital world they are interacting with-researching, reading, and consuming historical content in order to contextualize their experiences with the history of that period and fill in the gaps (the inaccuracies). We cannot say we are truly learning history through the historical fiction in gaming because of the inaccuracies, but we can say we are being introduced to it; it provides an essential foundation for learning more and questioning what we are interacting with.
According to Jeremiah McCall of Cincinnati Country Day School, the key feature of historical games, their interactivity, makes them a powerful medium for exploration of the past by presenting it in terms of systems and interactions and exploring the connections that made past societies and people act the way they did. Videogames can help further historical education by eliminating the main criticism levelled against it: “it’s so boring”.
This claim is often made because the standard way of presenting history is portraying it as a series of connected events that happen one after another. Games can fix this issue by making historical topics or periods seem more open-ended and by letting a player participate in and explore these periods, lending players a sense of agency and engagement. The act of playing through the game functions as a dialogue between the player and the designer on what the past was really like and how it functioned. For example, it is infinitely more fun to play through the chaos of the French Revolution in Assassin’s Creed Unity than to read about it in a school textbook.
Now, more than ever, historical fiction in gaming has had an increased impact due to our modern focus on digital media, both in the social and educational spheres. The noted increase in gaming titles with a focus on history in recent years shows that people are interested and drawn to historical topics, and I strongly believe this should be taken advantage of to promote historical education, particularly in a post-COVID-19 society with a focus on digital education. I think teachers should try to find effective ways around the roadblocks to implementing games within the curriculum. The shift to an increased focus on digital learning resulting from the pandemic has created the perfect way for games to be integrated into teaching. If incorporated properly, videogames can be highly effective tools for learning, just like films and textbooks.
McCall himself has been advocating for the inclusion of videogames in classroom learning since 2005, and I fully agree with his approach. According to McCall, the key to using videogames as effective tools for education lies in treating the games as something to critique; we must accept the inaccuracies that inherently come with creating a videogame based in history. These games should be approached critically and include the study of historical evidence to facilitate a discussion of the ways the game portrays the past both effectively and ineffectively. In the classroom, this approach can include reading historical sources, having classroom discussions, direct instruction segments, gameplay in class, and engaging in various types of activities ranging from discussion to critical analytical writing. All these activities are designed to get students thinking critically about the historical claims made by the games in question and developing a greater understanding of the past by assessing both the strengths and weaknesses of the digital version of history being portrayed.
In doing so, I strongly believe that there can be a positive change in the perception of history as a subject as well as an increase in historical education-the past is interesting and is something that everyone can learn and benefit from. As the old saying goes: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Not only can we learn lessons applicable to the modern day, but it is also fascinating to learn about the events that shaped our modern world, society and attitudes.
Since December of 2020, I have spent countless hours roaming the virtual island of Tsushima, finding everything there is to find and observing the beautiful landscapes the game had to offer. It sparked my nest historical interest: learning about the Mongol invasions of Japan and the history of the samurai. Titles like Ghost of Tsushima and Call of Duty: World at War have shown me that videogames based in history, regardless of how closely or loosely they follow past events, are still considered to be history. They offer the player the unique ability to immerse themselves in and “play” through the unreachable past, giving them a chance to learn and understand historical eras in ways that a book or a textbook just can’t. Games like these have had a huge impact on my life and my studies, and I hope I’ve managed to convey the power they have to go beyond a form of pure entertainment and act as powerful agents for historical education. I strongly believe they possess untapped educational potential because they can communicate messages about the past in a way that is easily accessible and can reach a mass audience, thus inspiring interest and nurturing historical study.
I believe the time is now to change the way we think about gaming; we shouldn’t be ignoring games any longer. As our classrooms and society shift more and more towards digitization, we should be finding ways to incorporate different mediums into education and finding new ways to inspire learning.
We shouldn’t forget the past; we should study it, explore it, learn from it and make it part of our future.