09/12/03
Playing History
    by Laurie Taylor

Brief sound clip

While listening to the soundtrack for a Japanese video game recently, like the one from "Onimusha" that you've just heard a little of, I started thinking about how video games from Japan teach so much about Japanese and Chinese history and myth. The characters in "Onimusha," for example, are named after real people who have been mythologized. For instance, one of the characters you can play is the historical/mythical figure of Jubei who must fight against monsters like Oda Nobunaga, who was also a historical presence -- a particularly viscious one -- in medieval Japan and who now lives as a mythical monster in the game. The same sorts of mythologizing holds true for the characters in other video games like "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and "Dynasty Warriors." This raises some interesting questions about the cross-cultural pollination that occurs as these stories and their symbols evolve and get imported.

Half of all video games are made in Japan, and along with the beautiful images and epic music that fills many of them, they often fill a cultural void on this side of the Pacific, since Chinese and Japanese history doesn't find its way into the regular history curriculum of most American schools. But like they've learned about George Washington and the cherry tree, American young people are assimilating the Asian epics, tall tales, historical legends, as they play the games about them.

Both "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and "Dynasty Warriors" are set in the 3 Kingdom era of Chinese History, from 220 - 263 A.D. In "Dynasty Warriors," for example, you must choose to play as any one of a number of historical Chinese soldiers and generals, like Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Sun Quan. You fight actual historical battles in their historical settings, and you discover historical secrets along the way. Games like "Dynasty Warriors," "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," and "Onimusha" teach some history, but more than that, they demonstrate how history gets retold and serves as a basis for many other cultural narratives. In video games like these, we can watch and listen for all stories that history has to tell.

Copyright 2003 Laurie Taylor

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