This past September was the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, and the Museum of London has augmented its commemorative “Fire! Fire!” exhibit with a Minecraft map in which players explore the city and fight the fire as it occurs. (NYT article here – one Youtube video of gameplay can be watched here.) One stated goal of using games to convey historical information is to attract and engage children and non-traditional museum patrons — but it’s also interesting to think about ways in which the game might provide a new learning experience even for people with a more conventional history background. For instance, you might read in a book or article that the spread of the fire is partly attributed to the Mayor’s delay in ordering the destruction of houses to create firebreaks — but you could also, as in the gameplay video linked above, run a long way through confusing, similar-looking burning streets to find the Mayor and bring him to the site where the fire started, because your objective as a player is to get him to give the order, and then feel the frustration when he refuses! (Empathy is a subject that comes up in discussion of history-based and history education video games.)
Another video game-related map is Pudding Lane Productions’s 2013 Cryengine map of the area where the fire began, which won the “Off the Map” competition for developing 3D video game scenery based on maps from the British Library. The developers’ discussion of their process reveals some of the challenges that also face scholars working with historical documents. Using the maps as their source, they were able to lay out the streets and the footprints of the buildings, but found that the resulting model was not cramped enough and lacked vitality. Revisions increased the overhang of buildings’ upper stories into the streets, as well as adding crates, carts, vendors’ stalls, wares hung outside shops, washing lines, and other “props” that wouldn’t have made it onto maps, but that were nonetheless a part of London and people’s experience of life in the city. Additionally, they added as many real attested businesses as possible, using historical sources like Samuel Pepys’s diary; this lends the map a great deal of accuracy, but also highlights the gaps in our knowledge of day-to-day life, since most of the houses and businesses on the map did simply have to be generic and modular.
Interestingly, the Pudding Lane developers also mention that “[o]ne key issue caused by following the source material so closely was that a lot of seventeenth-century London looked very similar”. They addressed this by using different palettes in different areas. (This map doesn’t have any people on it, but if it had, perhaps the difference in areas would be established by populating them with different kinds of non-player characters going about their business.) This issue is very prominent in the less-sophisticated Minecraft map as well, but in that game it might be a feature instead of a bug.