Digital Historicism: Archival Footage, Digital Interface, and Historiographic Effects in Call of Duty: World at War

Jaimie Rachel Baron


Historical videogames offer the promise of a new relationship between the reader of history and the account of an historical event, potentially transforming the “reader” of history into the active “user” or even “maker” of history. Indeed, the concept of historical videogames suggests that the user may play an active part in the construction of historical narratives and, thereby, in the implications of these historical events for the present. In this paper, I examine the appropriation of indexical archival documents into two instances of what I call “digital historicism” – the videogame Call of Duty: World at War (Activision, 2008) and the database narrative Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O’Neill (Pat O’Neill, Rosemary Comella, and Kristy H.A. Kang, 2002) – and their respective historiographic effects. I argue that the appropriations of indexical archival footage in each of these two digital media works produce in the user a phenomenological experience of the documentary “real,” but at the same time shape and limit the meanings that may be attributed to this footage. Indeed, I suggest that Call of Duty, while at the cutting edge of game design, imports and reinforces a conservative and even reactionary historiographic model into the emergent genre of digital history. Moreover, I argue that although Tracing the Decay of Fiction offers a less teleological and more open-ended encounter with the historical past, it is precisely its lack of a singular narrative that may ultimately (and paradoxically) undermine the user’s sense of historiographic agency as she is confronted with the unruly indexical traces of the past.


games; digital media; archival footage; history

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