Business Insider has an eye-catching take on the fire of Notre-Dame: “rebuild effort could get help from an unlikely source: a videogame” – basically, they recreated it so accurately in Assassin’s Creed that the research that went into the game could now be used in restoration efforts. So far so postmodern – simulations are informing the construction of reality, heritage is a simulacrum, history is over.
The notion that the Notre-Dame spire could be rebuilt based on a level designer’s work “to make sure that each brick was as it should be” is impressive, and it’s a bit of a testament to the value of artists’ painstaking attempts to document the world. I trained as a design historian, so I care about preserving the history of the built world. But I’m secure enough in that commitment to be a bit contrarian about it. Preserving history isn’t the same as reproducing it. “As it should be” is a different proposition to “what it could be”.
As people talk about what it will take to rebuild, I wonder whether we’re going to hear much critique of the subtle conservatism in conservation, or the hegemonic mythology in heritage. This is a question that comes to mind often when I think about bigger issues such as climate change and neoliberalism. What images are even available for us to think about rebuilding? What is most readily available to us is our shared cultural memory of things as they were, or as described here, “as they should be”.
Assassin’s Creed games have worked to reify a particular image of history and turn it into a playground of monuments – now that image of history is shaping what people expect to see from attempts to rebuild in the future. This is a particularly on-the-nose example of how videogames’ imaginaries contribute to wider cultural imaginaries. On its own, there’s nothing tremendously problematic about deciding to rebuild the spire in the image of its original design, but we should pay attention to these moments when we assume consent for investing resources in recreating the past rather than building something new.
Without wanting to engage in too much whataboutery, it might be worth noting that the Grenfell Fire did not stimulate this same cultural reflex – as I remember it, we did not all start commonsensically talking about how we’re going to rebuild our social housing stock, and as such we did not start looking at how videogames could help planners to imagine the way forward.
Rather than leaning on a self-congratulatory story about how videogames are helping to rebuild heritage, anybody committed to the cultural value of videogames has an opportunity here to be critical about what heritage is, what it does, and what other forms rebuilding could take.
In Staying with the Trouble, Donna Haraway talks about some of the imaginaries of flourishing and ongoingness that have developed in marginalised cultures – that is relevant here as we think about communities that have seen repeated destructions of their own heritage, through slavery, colonialism, and ongoing violence. A videogames culture that elevates marginalised voices could help to expand our imaginaries of the future. A videogames culture that values fringe work and creative risks might not be seen as an “unlikely source” for worldbuilding. A videogames culture that takes responsibility for its cultural role might offer futurisms other than gritty dystopias, disrupting the assumed dichotomy between conservation and ruin.