Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column
History as a Valid Reference for Fantasy and Sci-Fi

Jonathan Steinhauer | 5 Jan 2009 01:56
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In many of my recent articles, I've made real life comparisons with what is found in games. I have always assumed this to be a logical and natural progression. Apparently, I am mistaken. On multiple articles I have received comments asking why I attempt to force such comparisons. After all, I am told, the game is fantasy (or science fiction). It's not supposed to be real! So today, I will take a step backward and look at history (and reality in general) in order to establish why it plays an important link to the fantasy and sci-fi genres. For simplicity, I will use the term fantasy for the remainder of this article though I am also referring to sci-fi unless specifically stated.

Of the fiction genres, fantasy has always been my favorite and, based upon the number of books, games, and movies of this variety, I am not alone. The concept of modern fantasy was born with Tolkien and started its hay day in the 60's and 70's when demand for books was greater than the number of authors. Today computer games have proved to be one of many prolific avenues for the genre. I would submit that there are three primary reasons that authors and game designers choose a fantasy setting. Doubtless there are others, but these three should encompass most motivations.

The first tends to be more obvious in books and movies than in games. That being the value it has for socio-political commentary. One of the great joys of fantasy is the ability to step beyond the here and now. This allows the audience to see some issue from a new perspective. For example, this was one of the great visions of the original Star Trek. One of the most famous examples comes from the episode "Let that be your Last Battlefield" which demonstrated the absurdities of racism in a fashion divorced from the direct tensions of the 60's. In this case, the tie between fantasy and reality are obvious. Star Trek never would have aired that episode but for the rife racial tensions of the era in which it was produced.

A second, more subtle, allure of fantasy is the ability to write a story unbound by the fetters of accuracy. It frees the author or designer from specific ties to the past and reality. It can be gruesome to read a book or watch a movie set in a modern or historical setting where the author makes a blunder due to failed research. Perhaps they mention a U. S. Military Academy grad that flies an F-16 or they have a chase through the heart of Washington D.C. where the villain turns his car from Pennsylvania Avenue onto Massachusetts, or they tell of a battle between Patton and Rommel during World War II. Most people might not know the difference: that Air Force Academy graduates officers who may pilot fighter jets, that Pennsylvania and Massachusetts don't intersect, or that Patton and Rommel were never in the same theater of war at the same time, but someone always does. Credibility is lost. A fantasy author developing his own maps, cultures, politics, and military is not constrained by such problems.

On a similar note, many fantasy authors use history as the primary reference point for their works yet, because it is fantasy, they don't have to be true to specific details. A few examples include George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" which pulls from the English Wars of the Roses, R. Scott Bakker's "The Prince of Nothing" inspired by the Crusades, and S.M. Stirling and David Drake used the campaigns of Belisarius in "The General" series. With this technique, these authors have been able to pull pieces of real history that they want without being completely tied to the specific political, social, or military situation. People take their hobbies seriously, as I learned to my grief when I misspelled Icewind Dale in a previous article, and fantasy allows for the borrowing from reality without having to take everything.