Michał Kłosiński

Dr hab. Michał Kłosiński is an associate professor at The Faculty of Humanities, University of Silesia, Katowice, Poland. He is an active member of Utopian Studies Society and The Society for Utopian Studies. During his doctoral studies, he participated in the Paris Program in Critical Theory. He published various articles on Polish literature, literary theory and video games. His most recent book Hermeneutyka gier wideo. Interpretacja immersja, utopia [Hermeneutics of video games. Interpretation, immersion, utopia] (Warsaw 2018) develops a framework for researching utopianism in video games. His current hermeneutical and post-phenomenological research can be placed at the intersection of literary theory, game studies and utopian studies.

Contact information:
michal.klosinski at us.edu.pl

Digital Recycling: Retrotopia in representations of warships in World of Warships

by Michał Kłosiński


This essay introduces and operationalizes the notion of quasi-historical digital objects. This category, constructed by bringing together Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of historical narration and Yuk Hui’s notion of digital objects, serves as a vehicle for analyzing and interpreting digital reconstructions of World War I and II warships in the videogame, World of Warships. Digital representations of historical content are problematized by relating them to contemporary reflections about how technology can work as a medium for preserving cultural memory or creating prosthetic externalizations of memory. This article further offers a critique of digital reconstruction as a practice from the perspectives of retrotopia, nostalgia and memory by analyzing their part in cultural production; particularly how they develop new ways of representing historical artifacts as playable objects. The essay concludes with the idea that this phenomenon constitutes a form of digital re-cycling of history, arguing that such re-cycling reconfigures cultural memory.

Keywords: Memory, history, hermeneutics, digital objects, representation, philosophy, retrotopia, nostalgia, World of Warships



In this article I propose an interpretation of ORP Błyskawica, a famous Polish World War II destroyer digitally represented in the videogame, World of Warships. The ship’s significance lies in its conjoined in-game meanings: its symbolic association with lightning, the historical value of the original naval unit and its simulation in the game system. I propose a way to understand this type of object as a medium for exploring and idealizing the past. Therefore, the scope of this study is to examine the process of recycling history through videogames. I propose to do so from the perspective of existential ontology coupled with game history. To begin, I introduce the notion of quasi-historical object, a category tailored to grasp the complexity of the digitally reproduced and simulated warship. I believe this notion will shed some light on the way games participate in reinventing the past by manipulating the ontology of the historical artifact and digital objects created in its image. What I want to underline is that this manipulation happens at the level of objects, because these objects function as memory prostheses: they are played, used and remembered as vehicles of memory about the past. As such they participate in the process of producing social memory.

The first section of this article is devoted to defining the notion of quasi-historical object, its operationalization and its situation in game ontology. The second section presents the rhetorical strategies used by Wargaming.net to produce the object in question. Here, I present the mythologization and simulation of ORP Błyskawica. The third section of this essay focuses on the idealization of the past and links the quasi-historical object to the notion of “retrotopia.” In the final section, I analyze the commodification of the quasi-historical object as part of a digital archive. I conclude by stating that digital recycling in videogames is an ambivalent process which participates in the production of a new form of social memory.

I. The ontology of digital reproduction -- the quasi-historical object

Introducing the quasi-historical object requires differentiating a group of entities (Zagal et al. 2007, p. 29) which, on one hand, are presented as digital reproductions of real historical artifacts, while on the other hand are commodified, mythologized and manipulated to perform a playful role. I believe this notion will assist in understanding how games produce the ideological and affective claims to a historical object. In works focusing on game ontology, two basic approaches have been identified as dominant: formal and existential (Aarseth 2016, p. 484). The formal approach proposes a structural study of various game elements such as interface, rules, entities and goals; and aims to produce typologies useful for game analysis (Zagal et al. 2020). Such an approach has become the basis for the Game Ontology Project, the most ambitious endeavor to construct a metalanguage for researching each part of every game (Zagal et al. 2007, p. 24). The existential approach tries to solve problems with concepts such as fiction, reality and virtuality; which concern the status of game narratives, objects and representations (Aarseth 2016, pp. 490-491). Although Espen Aarseth has identified two major trends proper to the existential approach (fictionalists vs realists), I find his description of the problem insufficient, especially considering more recent studies which focus on existential philosophy as the basis for game research (Kłosiński 2018; Vella, Gualeni 2020, p. 11). The existential ontology in game studies is founded on various approaches, posing questions about the relationship between the subjective experience of being in the world and being in gameworlds. This relationship has been described in terms of extension (Leino 2010, pp. 187-188), experiencing another lifeworld (Vella 2015, p. 97), or utopian space for existential dreaming (Kłosiński 2018, pp. 49-51). Moreover, innovative ontological approaches focusing on new materialism expand this line of study with posthumanist reflection (Janik 2020). I position the concept of quasi-historical object at the threshold of formal and existential game ontology. Firstly, it is a simplified representation and simulation of a concrete historical artifact: its digital reproduction. Secondly, it is a digital entity and a medium of specific game mechanics. Lastly, it is a nexus of meanings which participates in producing knowledge about history, and allows players to experience it as fiction. Therefore, the problem of historical representation in games is both ontological, existential and ideological.

By focusing on the objects which function as historical representations, I want to introduce clarity to the discussions concerning games as historical media -- or a documentary form (Bogost, Poremba 2008). Adam Chapman already identified that games, which realistically simulate environments, objects, characters, or events offer very limited access to historical representation (Chapman 2016, pp. 61-62). In his works, Chapman focuses on critical disenchantment of the epistemological reconstructionist positions founded on the idea of experiencing history via videogame simulation (pp. 66-67). He introduces the concept of digital-ludic reenactment to describe the reanimation of the past through gameplay, which allows players to explore alternative, counterfactual scenarios. Chapman points out that digitalized historical objects lose their authority, materiality and aura as they undergo a process of commodification (p. 209). Although I support his line of critique of game ideology regarding the political economy of historical representation, I propose a different approach to the ontology of the reproduced historical artifacts. Studies focusing on counterfactuality (Apperley 2013, p. 189; Schulzke 2013, p. 262) or counterhistoricity (Chapman 2016, p. 237) of ludonarratives [1] give insight into games as historical form or as medium of history. I address the problem of counterfactuality and counterhistoricity from a different angle. While “historical game studies” (Chapman et al. 2016, p. 4) stresses the representational and referential side of realistic simulations, I am more interested in examining how historical artefacts are ontologically manipulated. For this reason, I’ve turned to the notion of quasi-historicity analyzed by Paul Ricoeur for this investigation. I argue that Ricoeur’s theory strengthens ideas already present in the game studies discourses described above, while introducing a layer absent from such debates: that of memory, remembrance and rememoration. I think the notion of quasi-historical objects can be seen as a missing link between studying games as a historical form and studying them from the perspective of archeology and heritage studies (Copplestone 2017; Reinhard 2017). Moreover, quasi-historicity offers a way out of the binary opposition of fact and fiction, and allows for a deeper understanding of the process I call digital recycling. I aim to depict how hermeneutics of history games problematizes the claim that historical games engage us in a self-reflexive process of enfranchisement, which Chapman praised in his works (Chapman 2016, p. 238, 272). Furthermore, the notion of quasi-historical object allows me to show that games are a new form of producing social memories. By tracing the ontological aspect of this form, I aim to rethink what games do with history and how they do it.

I would like to begin with unpacking three aspects evoked by the object in question, the Polish destroyer ORP Błyskawica. Błyskawica [English Lightning] is first and foremost a meteorological phenomenon. In the Polish language this word has a very specific ring to it thanks to bilabial plosive "b," superseded by voiced labio-velar approximant "ł," near close vowel "y" and two ejective consonants "s" and "k." This sound, by voice instrumentation expresses speed inscribed in the root of the word "błysk" with the added word formation exponent "-awica." This blinding phenomenon is thus represented through the onomatopoetic quality of the word. Perhaps because of the symbolic connotations of lightning with speed, power and impact, two famous Polish World War II destroyers were christened with meteorological names forming a symbolic duo: Błyskawica (lightning) and Grom (thunder). Of the two, only Błyskawica survived the war and later became a part of the Museum of Naval Warfare in Gdynia (2020). In 2015, this historical artifact served as a model for a simulated in-game reproduction made in collaboration with Wargaming.net, the designers of the World of Warships online multiplayer action videogame. I propose to call this third Błyskawica a quasi-historical digital object.

This notion conjoins two philosophical ideas: quasi-historicity and digital ontology. In order to better understand the creation of the simulated Błyskawica in World of Warships, I turn to the reflection of Yuk Hui, who writes that “By digital objects, I mean objects that take shape on a screen or hide in the back end of a computer program, composed of data and metadata regulated by structures or schemas” (2016, p. 1). In short, Błyskawica is a digital object both as an on-screen, three-dimensional model covered with textures and as an element of the game code hidden from our sight. On the one hand, Błyskawica is a 3D reproduction, on the other hand it is an element of a specific library and code structure subjected to engine procedures. In his works, Hui describes two dominant forms of producing digital objects. He calls this process “digitalization” and explains that it can be divided into “objectification of data” and “dataification of objects” (Hui 2016, p. 50). Objectification of data describes the process of producing physical entities from digital images; the best example is printing (of pictures on screen or 3D objects). In order to do so, one has to program equipment by creating a map of correspondence between data and various devices. The final product is a physical realization based off of a digital object. If we can see Błyskawica on our screens, it is because the digital image has been mapped to specific pixels on our monitor. If we build its 1:1000 scale plastic model, it is because the model was printed as a physical, mimetic manifestation of the digitalized data. Dataification of objects works the other way around: by scanning and attaching information to physical objects in order to introduce them to the digital space. Błyskawica in World of Warships is a prime example of this process, as the digital object is based on data gathered by the developer in collaboration with the museum -- which had access to the original ship and its blueprints. Therefore, in World of Warships, all ships are depicted both as the production of digital images and the dataification of objects: they are not only representations, but have found a new milieu of reference and meaning in the game itself. Furthermore, the ships have been effectively simulated, which means some of their features and behaviors were simplified to fit into the game system (Frasca 2003, p. 223). Hui’s reflection sheds new light on the role games can play in the process of “digital recycling” historical objects. By reproducing such objects in virtual environments, the objects in question are not just simulations, narratives, or representations, but have to be seen as complex nexuses of meanings only games are capable of producing.

The second notion important to my study of digital objects in World of Warships is quasi-historicity. I take this concept from Paul Ricoeur, who used it to describe the function of narratives in which fiction is used to explore scenarios that did not take place. However, the concept of quasi-historicity is not limited to historical fictions, as Ricoeur explains that the quasi-historicity of fictional narratives mirrors the quasi-fictionality of historical ones. Quasi-historicity is a mode of narrating even the fictional past as history. A good example would be to see the narrative in The Game of Thrones as a quasi-historical narrative in how it tells the history of a fictional world in the same mode that we might depict the history of World War II. Similarly, quasi-fictionality describes the idea that historical narratives use the same narrative devices which are deployed in fictions, even if they refer to historical documents. Ricoeur explains that quasi-historical narratives can be seen as tools to liberate the hidden potentiality of the past:

If it is true that one of the functions of fiction bound up with history is to free, retrospectively, certain possibilities that were not actualized in the historical past, it is owing to its quasi-historical character that fiction itself is able, after the fact, to perform its liberating function. The quasi-past of fiction in this way becomes the detector of possibilities buried in the actual past. (1988, p. 191-192)

In this sense, World of Warships constitutes a virtual test site where possible and unrealized scenarios of the past are explored in this quasi-historical mode by the power of simulation and fiction. Therefore, Ricoeur focuses on the positive side of counterfactuality (Apperley 2013, p. 189; Schulzke 2013, p. 262). Błyskawica is, thus, a quasi-historical object as it retrospectively frees historical-fictional potentiality that does not have the historical ship berthed in Gdynia as its witness. As a new nexus of meaning, Błyskawica unites the symbolism of lightning, the historical artifact and its recycled digital simulation.

The following hermeneutic analysis (Majkowski 2019; Kłosiński 2018) offers an interpretation of the quasi-historical, digital object. I believe hermeneutics to be the go-to method to relate game ontology to questions of history and memory. Unlike excellent “historical game studies” (Chapman et al. 2016, p. 4) which addresses the broader question of historical representation in games (Apperley 2013, Chapman 2016), I would like to focus on just one game object to examine the ontological manipulation of a particular historical artifact. The object in question is a medium of knowledge about the past, the world and human experience, because it constitutes an exterior memory prosthesis. The digitalization described by Hui sheds new light on the issue at hand: games do not only depict, narrate, or falsify history, but also operate at the level of historical ontology by modifying artifacts for historiosophical studies. To better understand this phenomenon, I turn to the philosophers who offer reflection on the problem of memory in relation to history, ontology and media: Paul Ricoeur and Bernard Stiegler. Both philosophers describe mnemic phenomena with the notion of retention, which points to the content which is retained in memory. They greatly develop the project of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology of memory which posits retention as the primordial mnemonic phenomenon (Ricoeur 2004, pp. 33-35, 109-117): it describes the human ability to store knowledge and experiences in primary or short-term memory (primary retention) as well as secondary or long-term memory (secondary retention). Ricoeur offers an insight into the phenomenon of mnemonic representation by showing that memorization and remembering are processes of replacement and reformulation: to remember is to constantly reiterate a story about the past in order to replace and reformulate the past itself. This is why he stresses the relationship between fiction and history, and their codependency on narrative and storytelling. Stiegler develops his own reflection by analyzing tertiary retentions, which are exteriorizations of memory in the form of writing, images, pictures, data, etc. (Stiegler 2015, p. 112). His main thesis is that different forms of memory exteriorization change how society produces, disseminates and relates to knowledge. In short, he analyzes the history of humankind as one centered around the production and proliferation of knowledge, and how these processes constantly shift and reform to create the basis of the social realm. (Stiegler 2014, pp. 22-23). I propose to analyze Błyskawica as a tertiary retention -- an exteriorized memory prosthesis which participates produces individual and social memories. This process is important because it offers a new perspective on game ontology in relation to history and memory. Game studies scholars such as James Ash (2012a, 2012b, 2013), Patrick Crogan (2014, 2018) and Ben Egliston (2017) have already described game mechanics, objects and virtual worlds using Stiegler’s notion of tertiary retention. In their works, I see a new opportunity to research complex in-game systems of control, and the management of players affects, affective design and economies (Ash, 2012a, p. 6). Therefore, I present an interpretation of a specific quasi-historical object -- ORP Błyskawica -- to further the hermeneutical study of game ontology in relation to history and memory.

II. Mythologization and simulation of the quasi-historical object

In-game, Błyskawica is characterized as follows:

Entered service: 1937. Ships in a series: 2. The most powerful destroyer of her time in Europe. The ship greatly surpassed rival navies’ destroyers in terms of speed and artillery power. When commissioned, she had the most powerful AA defense among all destroyers in the world. Błyskawica is now preserved as a military museum ship in Gdynia, Poland. (Lesta Studio, 2020)

This excerpt exemplifies the knowledge production discourse surrounding the ship. Here, the ship’s historical narrative interweaves with a specific program to produce a myth of Błyskawica, making it an object of affective economy and procedural rhetoric (Bogost 2007, pp. 28-30). Rhetorical amplification was used in three out of four sentences characterizing the ship: twice in the superlative form of adjective "the most powerful" and in the phrase "greatly surpassed" stressing the decisive advantage over rivals. These statements are further modulated by putting them in the right context, also focused on amplification and hyperbole as the reference is: "of her time" and "among all […] in the world" which intensifies an image of the ship’s power. Błyskawica’s description has a mythologizing function because it transforms the historical narrative into a “stolen language” (Barthes, 1991, p. 131). The language characterizing the historical object undergoes a transformation into a language-object, becoming a signifier for a metalanguage which ascribes it a new signified (Barthes, 1991, pp. 113-114). This way, the language of history is reduced to a language of affective economy. This mythologization of Błyskawica depicts the translation of historical narration into the procedural rhetoric of the game. Gonzalo Frasca and Espen Aarseth identify this translation as the core idea for understanding games as simulations (Giddings 2016, pp. 260-261). Simulating the historical ship (as a quasi-historical object) means reducing its complexity and mapping its historical features onto the reference framework of game statistics: speed, artillery power and anti-air defense. The description simplifies the historical narrative, revealing that Błyskawica acquired a new in-game teleology. As such, mythologization and simulation can be seen as functions of dataification. Dataification transforms historical objects, and inscribes them into a virtual archive. The process of producing a quasi-historical object involves simplification, ideological tinkering and procedural rhetoric.

Through this process, World of Warships creates a new digital archive in which relationships between quasi-historical objects are formed to produce retention and affective economies. The dataification of Błyskawica can therefore be analyzed as a form of grammatisation, which Stiegler defines as a process of rearranging the human psyche, memory and the way we cognize and think (Stiegler, 2010, pp. 33-34). Digitalization is already the process of creating a new grammar for historical artifacts -- a grammar produced by the medium specific organization of information, rhetoric and translation. Stiegler’s notion reinforces the idea that videogames are a fascinating new means of rearranging our memory, because they operate at the affective level of human biology. Therefore, Błyskawica, and other quasi-historical objects are technological externalizations of memory, which enable game developers to rewrite and rewire historical narratives.

However, grammatization does not simply produce affects, as argued by James Ash in his analysis of affective design (Ash, 2012a, p. 11). Ash argues that videogames do not create affects themselves, but channel, modulate and adapt to the affective potential of the player. He writes that, “Because they are constitutively open to indetermination, games cannot simply create or transmit affect; they modulate affect within a specific bandwidth” (Ash, 2012a, p. 13). The rhetorical devices, simulation and mythologization all serve the purpose of modulating the player’s vision of Błyskawica; strengthening its affective design. Therefore, the ship becomes a promise of dominance over rivals -- a vision of grandeur that encourages the player to create an affective relationship with this quasi-historical object. This relationship is characterized by expectations, possibilities, desires and projections. Therefore, Błyskawica becomes a vehicle for visions, actions, retentions and projects in the gameworld. The quasi-historical object functions as a replacement for a real historical object by “standing for” this object. Ricoeur describes this paradox when writing on representation as “a present image of an absent thing” (Ricoeur, 2004, p. 280). He argues that historical cognition and historical condition are based on the replacement of the past by a representation that sanctions it as the past. In this sense, Błyskawica becomes a hyperreal simulacrum: it replaces the original ship by modulating its affective economy and producing memory about an absent thing. Moreover, the relationship between a player and a virtual ship changes Błyskawica from an object arrested in the museum as part of the exhibition into a tool to be used in action. In this sense, we can speak about affective materiality and spatiotemporality of quasi-historical objects. When projected on screen and controlled by players, Błyskawica affects their bodies, physiology and existence. Ash explains that we form a biological and existential connection to the images in videogames because they touch our bodies on a material and symbolic level: they mediate meanings and emotions. He writes:

By ‘affective materiality’ I mean that images affect the whole body, on a series of biological, existential, and sensory levels that are not determined by the historical moment of their production. Biologically the image hits the skin and has physiologically demonstrable effects, such as increased heart rate or the raising of hair on the back of the neck; existentially images always-already relate to the worlds of human meaning, and shape this meaning; and sensory images alter and construct relations between different sense capacities such as touch and vision, or smell and touch in multiple ways. (Ash, 2009, p. 2106)

This reflection about affective materiality shows that Błyskawica offers a completely new form of fictionalizing historical discourse (Ricoeur, 2004, 262) as it is both a tool for agency and a medium of pleasure. This form is a playable memory prosthesis; a tertiary retention. In fact, we control, touch, weigh and feel the ship with our whole body. Its affective materiality touches us biologically and bodily. Therefore, it is possible to feel Błyskawica’s aggressive silhouette and her steel hull, her deck riddled with cannons and her sleek profile that enables full speed evasive maneuvers as one anxiously waits for enemy ships to turn and fire. Speaking from the perspective of an immersed player (Calleja 2011; Kubiński, 2016; Kłosiński, 2018), Błyskawica becomes a ship linked to the body, and a body conjoined with a ship. This sensual and bodily connection can be seen when players tilt their bodies while steering the ship to avoid torpedoes, or when players shudder as their destroyer is detected by airplanes or cruisers. The ship’s hull is covered with rust and there is no crew on any of the in-game models to keep the in-game violence in-line with PEGI rating norms for the game’s target audience. This process of simulating Błyskawica turns it into a ghost ship. Opaque windows on the hull further the feeling of emptiness, and her open turrets remain unoccupied both in port and in battle. In this sense, these ships -- relics of the past with empty rotting hulls -- are quasi-historical objects brought to life in connection with the player’s living, material body.

III. Quasi-historical object as a vehicle of retrotopian nostalgia

The nostalgic character of quasi-historical objects can be examined by critiquing the common-parlance notion that they "resurrect the past." Zygmunt Bauman analyzes this myth in the beginning of his work on retrotopia (2017, 7-9). I would like to relate his reflection on the idealized vision of the past to the process of remembering and memory. Raffaella Baccolini explains that the basic meaning of nostalgia is linked with the act of remembering. We feel nostalgic when we return to the positive memories from our past, but realize that the past itself is forever gone. This produces both yearning and sadness (Baccolini, 2007, 173). Retrotopian nostalgia is a drive to merge historical past with present -- in other words: a desire to realize the historical object as fetish. This process is not present in World of Warships’ mere recreation of historic ships, but in the way the ships, as quasi-historical objects, are commodified and rhetorically transformed into simulacra. Fredric Jameson described this phenomenon as a pop cultural search for lost historical experience (Jameson, 1991, p. 24). He identifies it as a symptom of the contemporary subject losing the ability to organize his or her experience of temporality into a meaningful story about the past. He argues we are no longer able to plan the future based on a coherent grand narrative, because the postmodern subject produces and perceives history as a fragmented phenomenon:

If, indeed, the subject has lost its capacity actively to extend its protensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organize its past and future into coherent experience, it becomes difficult enough to see how the cultural productions of such a subject could result in anything but «heaps of fragments» and in a practice of the randomly heterogeneous and fragmentary and the aleatory. (Jameson, 1991, p. 24)

Błyskawica is an example of this new way the postmodern subject produces and perceives historical experience. Błyskawica, as a historical ludic form, operates with fragments -- it has lost the ability to produce a coherent teleology of history. The quasi-historical object nostalgically mediates our fantasies about power, glory and social position to channel them into the past, giving them a retrotopian vector. Contrary to Jameson’s view (though perhaps paradoxically strengthening it) the quasi-historical object makes history not out of reach, but ready-at-hand, as players get the tools to build alternative, better worlds in the past. Moreover, the past is transformed into a space of contemporary possibilities, and gives rise to retrotopia. Bauman explains that this form of utopianism is born when we locate the alternative to contemporary social problems not in the future, but in the lost or stolen past. Furthermore, retrotopia ideologically transforms the past it into an idealized and false milieu (Bauman, 2017, p. 8).

The retrotopia of World of Warships clearly presents its ties to the past through para- or inter-ludic [2] dimensions (Heilmann, 2014; Denson & Jahn-Sudmann 2013). An in-game, inter-ludic echo is the map, which features a grid from classic “Sea Battle” pen and paper games -- where the horizontal axis is composed of columns marked with letters A through J, and the vertical axis is marked with rows numbered 1 through 10. This reference to Wargaming.net invites a feeling of nostalgia for a classic ludic forms, which become mythologized, transformed and replaced by this new one. Furthermore, the projection of nostalgia is amplified by the quasi-historical setting of World War I and II, which strengthens the retrotopian vision of challenge issued to an enemy in direct combat. Nostalgia is, thus, produced not only by the game’s aesthetic, but also by the ethics projected onto an armed combat between ships using conventional weapons. After all, players do not control modern warships, drones and automated rocket systems. Setting the conflict in a reality preceding the era of guided missile systems has deeper ludic implications. Retrotopian projection is possible precisely because the game’s developers have left out many automated elements (leaving only AA guns and secondary artillery), as these are often criticized by players as immersion-breaking mechanics that disrupt gameplay and limit player agency [3].

Błyskawica occupies a very special place in the game’s semiotic system -- it is a premium ship that can be acquired with special in-game currency or real-world money. Such products differ from other ships placed in the technology ladder, which are unlocked with in-game tokens such as credits or experience points. In this position, Błyskawica shares the teleology of premium ships which give permanent bonuses to battle rewards, and are the best tools for earning credits and free experience points. In this sense, Błyskawica and other premium quasi-historical objects can be viewed as tools that produce both authentic and inauthentic players; which Sebastain Möring and Olli Leino (2016) define as those who realize themselves through the game, or who work for the game [4]. This division of authenticity according to the teleology of in-game work can be related to the problematics of otium and negotium in Stiegler’s For a new critique of political economy. Otium is free time for realizing one’s own desires and working on self-development, whereas negotium is the time of economic exchange, negotiations, employment and fulfilling needs (Stiegler, 2010, pp. 52-53). It is of course possible to question this juxtaposition as the dichotomy presented by Möring and Leino assumes that players can creatively transform their world through the game. The vector of retrotopian nostalgia in World of Warships points, rather, toward escapism. Nevertheless, Błyskawica is a quasi-historical object put to work in service of a liberal/romantic retrotopia in which playbor (Kucklich, 2005; Frelik, 2016) allows players to fulfill their dreams, realize future projects and participate in constant revival of an undead vision of liberalism. In this sense, World of Warships uses quasi-historical objects as memory prostheses to construct a liberal retrotopia in which playbor relates to the hope of acquiring a better ship, upgrading one’s status and transforming oneself from a weak player into an expert. Through this projection into the past, the game allows us to capitalize our abilities, and realize the myth of the self-made man -- an entrepreneur investing time and money in new projects, or an athlete participating in agonistic challenges against rivals, or perhaps a tactician devising battle strategies. This whole process takes place through the mythologization, simulation and commodification of quasi-historical objects as vehicles for retrotopia.

IV. Quasi-historical object and digital archive

The idea of participating in a pop-cultural second life of history is what constitutes the basis for both retrotopia and the desire for an archive. World of Warships realizes the idea of a participatory and convergent model (Jenkins, 2006) of contemporary popular culture by using broad intertextual, interludic, transmedial and transfictional references [5]. For example, patch 0.6.8 from 19 July 2017 introduced operation Dynamo. This is a scenario enabling players to participate in the simulated evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk. Day-one players could take part in events which had been presented to them only a week earlier by Christopher Nolan in his film of the same title (Dunkirk) -- the movie entered theatres on 13th July 2017. This strategic co-release of two historical fictions about the same historic event reveals a logic of cultural production that is strictly linked with nostalgia. This ludic reenactment takes a nostalgic and retrotopian shape not only via the transmedial convergence, but first and foremost, because it allows digital access to a historical event. Despite the fact that the in-game operation allows the usage of destroyers (which did not participate in the operation), the simulated evacuation has been carefully constructed to modulate and amplify the affective economy of gameplay to reconstruct the historical drama. In this sense, the game introduces scenarios which have clear “documentary quality,” because it allows players to participate in a reconstructed simulation of a real historical event and reflect on it (Bogost, Poremba 2008, p. 18-19). That, however, is not the end of the story. In July of 2017, Wargaming.net published three popular video documentaries directed by Michael Lovan: the first on the 7th titled, “Remember Dunkirk: Timeline of a Miracle” (2017a), the second on the 19th titled, “Remember Dunkirk: Tank Battles” (2017b) and the third on the 21st titled, “Remember Dunkirk: Ships of Hope” (2017c). The description under each video read: “The miracle of Dunkirk formed the backdrop of our partnership with Warner Bros. for Christopher Nolan’s World War II action thriller, DUNKIRK.” The mythologisation of Dunkirk is accomplished here by conjoining the archive, historical narrative and the language of documentary to transform the “miracle of Dunkirk” into the foundation for a business relationship. The very title connecting these documentaries sets the retrotopian vector of this historical appropriation. Remembering, here, becomes what Ricoeur would describe as an act of “rememoration” (Ricoeur, 2004, pp. 87-89): “The duty of memory is the duty to do justice, through memories, to an other than the self” (p. 89). But this call to justice, to remembering, is displaced. It is disjointed (Derrida, 1995, p. 24, 49), as it is no longer the justice of history and memory that requires this act to be reflexive, but a playful action thriller and videogame that reconfigures the act of remembering into an act of playing or consuming. In this sense, the act of remembering, rememoration, becomes what Ricoeur calls an abuse of memory -- when the duty of historical reflection is replaced with non-reflexive spectacle of commemoration, oftentimes serving empty ideological or political purposes (Ricoeur, 2004, 89). Ricoeur points to the fact that commemoration as a repetitive process of remembering can become an ideological mechanism mishandling the idea of justice that underlies an act of remembrance; especially when affects take control over the claims of memory [6]. With World of Warships, this rememoration fixes the act of justice on the thrill of participation in the historical fiction. “Remember Dunkirk” from a call to justice and memory, becomes a call to play the game and watch the movie. Remembering is, thus, transformed into the act of consumption. This is structurally not anything new, considering the critique of consumerist culture in the works of Zygmunt Bauman (Bauman, 2007) preceding his Retrotopia (Bauman, 2017), where he projects a vision of one of the modes of retrotopia as a “return to the womb” phenomenon originating from: “the scare of the future embedded in the exasperatingly capricious and uncertain present” (p. 125). In case of World of Warships, this return is expressed in the call to ludic rememoration, or “digital-ludic reenactment” -- which Adam Chapman explains in Digital games as history as a process. Such a process allows us gain insight into the existential and experiential dimension of historical challenges (2016, p. 186). The aim of this form of documentary gaming is to experience the historical event by reconstructing its logic within the rule structure of the game (Bogost, Poremba 2008, p. 18). Chapman thoroughly analyzes various forms of this digital-ludic historical reenactment by comparing them to traditional historical reenactment (Chapman 2016, pp. 222-224). This gives us much insight into the modes in which game structure, realist simulation (pp. 61-65, 199), and affordances given to players turn games into a historical form. Chapman bases his reflection about digital games as history on an ecological approach (2013, pp. 62-63), which focuses on analyzing game affordances that attune players to the environment that videogames and their equipment create. Thus, what Bauman calls the “return to the womb,” and Ricoeur posits as a kind of abuse of memory, can be seen in Chapman’s historiosophic lens as an effect of a specific environment in which the remomorisation and reenaction of history produces retrotopia. This specific utopian form in case of World of Warships presents an interesting impulse (Jameson, 2005, pp. 3-4) which can be seen in the phantasm of participation in historical events, the vision of grandeur based on the ownership of warships, and the display of skill in gameplay and identification with the community. At the same time, the digital-ludic reenactment in World of Warships is less invested in rememoration of historical battles, and focuses on digital reproduction of playable ship models pitied against each other in random battles. Here, the archive [7] seems the most pressing matter, as the drive to digitally recreate and represent historical warships lies at the very foundation of the retrotopia based on rememoration and reenactment. As Ricoeur explains, the archive preserves a documentary trace and constitutes a physical and social space thanks to its ability to institutionalize and deposit testimony (Ricoeur, 2004, p. 167) [8]. It is here that we find the drive that unifies the documentary aspect of the historical archive with its digital reformulation for the purpose of the game teleology. Wargaming.net developers are very much aware of this unification, which is mirrored in the advertising sentence located at the product webpage: “World of Warships -- become a Commander and plunge into global naval history!” (January 2020). This sentence gains even more significance when supplemented with the footnote located at the bottom of the page, which serves both as a legal information, but also as an important insight into the documentary aspect of the game. The footnote reads:

References to specific designs, models, manufacturers, and/or modifications of ships and aircraft are used only for the purpose of historical consistency and do not assume any funding or other involvement in the project on the part of the holders of trademarks. Characteristics of all models are realistically reproduced on the basis of technical elements of warships and aircraft from the first half of the 20th century. All trademarks and trademark rights pertaining to warships and aircraft are proprietary to the respective rights holders. (January 2020)

The very message that welcomes players to the World of Warships website produces a vision of entering, or jumping into “global naval history,” further mythologizing the gameplay which is -- in all its forms -- completely disjointed from proper historical narrative. Only in the case of singular game events can we speculate whether World of Warships as a whole can be called a “documentary digital game” (Bogost, Poremba 2008, p. 17). The only things bearing the mark of historical consistency are the playable models of ships and aircraft. What then is implied by the phrase “global, naval history” is not history as a narrative based on its reliable usage of documents, testimonies etc. What this new historical form really presupposes, is the disjunction of the historical narrative from the realistic reproductions of historically consistent models. This means a critical change has occurred in how we engage and narrate history when we attempt to archive history in game form. (Copplestone, 2017, p. 85; Reinhard, 2017, p. 104). The archive in World of Warships is constituted by realistically reproducing models, and forms a simulated archive focused on producing a hyperreality; a reality in which ships that were actually built are placed next to ships which only ever existed as schematics, and never left the design phase (Baudrillard, 1998, pp. 50, 71-72). In this movement to produce what has never been produced, in this drive to materialize what has not been historically materialized, the true retrotopian nostalgia surfaces under the vision of producing the global naval history. In a way, this drive to materialize the raw data expresses the fantasy to reorganize or re-produce the past as it could be. By such investment, Wargaming.net participates in reconstruction of the past through simulation in accordance with the rule of reconstructivity. Jan Assmann posits this rule as the foundation for the work of collective memory. Reconstructivity works in relation to constantly changing frames of reference projected by contemporaneity (Assmann, 2011, pp. 26-28). In this sense, the videogame is a-historical because it is driven by retrotopian nostalgia, which relinquishes historical stability and invites petrification, replacing it with emotional and affective experience (Assmann, 2011, p. 30). This shows us that the only way that history becomes a playable experience is by relocating it, or translating it into a simulated experience. This use of history forms the basis for a new collective memory -- not of the past, but of the reconfigurability of historical objects through fiction in the present: as quasi-historical objects. Therefore, the real stake of this digital-ludic reenactment is the consumption of historical representations in the form of simulacra, which forms the foundation for the experience of consummating the archive and participating in its playful rememoration.

This new, digital archive of warships that were and were not produced is also an expression of the archons -- the magistrates that hold power over its rules and regulations. These are the expression of a new authority over the past, and of a new hermeneutic competence (Derrida, 1995, pp. 9-10). By locating and consigning ship representations to four categories: destroyers, cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers, the developers from Wargaming.net deconstruct history and reconfigure its possible narrations by limiting its agents to four ship types. This reconfiguration of historical representations, performed under the idea of giving access to a “global naval history,” calls for an analysis of its economy, in the double sense that Derrida points to when interpreting Freud’s museum as a house turned into an archive:

An eco-nomic archive in double sense: it keeps, it puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion, that is to say in making the law (nomos) or in making people respect the law. A moment ago we called it nomological. It has the force of law, of law which is the law of the house (oikos), of the house as place, domicile, family, lineage, or institution. (p. 12)

It is important to stress that, what Derrida wrote about Freud’s museum cannot hold in case of World of Warships. The game constructs its digital archive not to keep history in reserve, but to consume and use it. Moreover, the law (nomos) that holds true and enforces a kind of justice in the case of a museum, that is to say, by institutionalizing memory, is used by Wargaming.net to enforce gameplay rules and institutionalize the playable space; not to govern history as such. In this sense, the game developers construct family / national technological trees, warship lineages, a domicile of the home port, the institution of ranked battles and more, but hold authority only over the quasi-historical objects. Thus, World of Warships’ digital archive goes further than saving, keeping and putting data in reserve. It governs and produces the need to play, work, purchase and own digital objects in order to participate in the retrotopia of historical fiction. This reiteration of the archive’s economic foundation turns the archive into a place of transactions; turning the house of justice into a house of commerce.

The retrotopian model of nostalgia underlies the process of working with historical memory, and reactivating it through technology as a form of social memory. This, in turn, produces new archives, enabling playful consumption of the past. This reactivation, however, does not mean what Baccolini calls “re-vision” (Baccolini, 2007, p. 162); that would constitute a critical refiguration of knowledge, identity, or history, giving a necessary, reflexive insight into oneself. The intersection of history, memory and technology makes the retrotopia of World of Warships something we might call a technical memory synthetizing machine, following Yuk Hui’s insights into the problem of the archive as a technical milieu (Hui, 2017, p. 317). Working with notions of Gilbert Simondon, André Leroi-Gourhan and Bernard Stiegler, Hui introduces a new critical approach to data technology and its role in producing, synthesizing and giving access to social memory. What Hui theorizes is that the tools and institutions, which governed the production of social memory -- such as archives, museums, or landmarks -- have been superseded by the new digitalized form: ensembles of digital objects (Hui, 2017, p. 320). He sees in this digitalization of social memory a completely new process, which makes history an element of life practice. Historical objects cease to be guarded artifacts placed under constant surveillance in museums, and become nodal points -- vehicles which produce vivid memories and amplify affective relationships with history. This process gives us much needed insight into the role games play in producing social memory. The problem we are dealing with in case of World of Warships is precisely the effect of this reconfiguration of social memories both at the level of the digital-ludic historical archive, and the social reticulation it serves. The true power of retrotopia lies exactly in this impactful machinery, which synthesizes memories, gives them meanings and installs them at the heart of quasi-historical objects -- rematerialized, reproduced warships which serve as vehicles for engagement in algorithm-defined relationships. Here, the question raised by Ricoeur and Derrida (and also upheld by Stiegler, Hui and Bauman) returns as part of a hermeneutic duty: the duty to remember. The problematic element of nostalgic, retrotopian, digital-ludic reenactment, is how it skews the memory of its subjects towards its objects. This produces a perverse form of rememoration, an abuse of memory, which turns into digital object fetishism. This perversion constitutes the comfortable, prenatal nostalgia opposite the critical, uncomfortable nostalgia that Baccolini considers when discussing the positive, utopian side of its affective potential (Baccolini, 2007, pp. 167-168).


One cannot deny that there is a sense of poetic justice in the digital production and reproduction of naval warfare -- the scrap metal of history. All in all, the retrotopian nostalgia for rematerializing warships works against the oblivion of forgetting them. The poetic justice discussed above echoes Derrida’s reflection on archive and testimony. In Agata Bielik-Robson’s fascinating analysis of the figure of Marrano (a survivor of Shoah, the Holocaust), she critiques the role of the witness as a perverse one (Bielik-Robson, 2018, pp. 20-22). Describing the witness as a role always already faced with the allegation of falsehood, Bielik-Robson quotes the famous prophetic sentence of Tadeusz Borowski: “There will remain after us scrap-iron and the hollow, jeering laughter of generations” (Drewnowski, 2007, p. 324) [9]. It might seem anti-climactic to start turning this analysis on its head, but if the scrap is the only thing left for us to play with, then World of Warships could be understood as a retrotopian digital recycling of historical waste. This project, hermeneutically grounded in the drive to reconstruct senses and meanings, could be understood as a dramatic search for meaning by witnessing the past through the lens of a simulacrum. Retrotopian nostalgia lies in an idea expressed by William Viney in his philosophy of waste, that “the value of things rises and diminishes according to the work they do or the future imagined for them, in other words, to their potential realized in time” (Viney, 2014, p. 4). The game, thus, is all about taking objects that have lost their potential, and repurposing them by giving new meaning and teleology to historical waste; thereby working against entropy (p. 9). This process, as Viney explains, is founded on the production of time: “In order for waste to mean all the things it can mean, a time is produced and the event of this temporal production can be described” (p. 30). Therefore, the retrotopia of World of Warships recycles time -- specifically the first half of the 20th century, by repurposing, reactivating and bringing back to life the hollow waste of scrap-iron warships. Nevertheless, even this digital recycling seems unable to provide us with a kind of “restorative and reflexive nostalgia” (Baccolini, 2007, p. 174), which might offer us a healing experience. Without properly orienting the nostalgic vector, retrotopia arrests its transformative power, as even recycled waste can serve pleasure and consumption. This hauntological, digital space of nostalgia-filled objects fulfills Borowski’s prophecy at a level unimagined by the poet.



[1] Here I am following Chapman’s understanding of the term “ludonarrative” -- he writes:

As such, this chapter aims to provide clear explanations of different functioning elements of narrative in (historical) games by utilising the concepts of framing narrative (discrete narrative fragments not changeable by gameplay) and ludonarrative (the narrative that emerges through a player’s play). The chapter also suggests the idea that ludonarrative should be understood as comprised of both lexia (the elements that can be combined into a narrative) and framing controls (the rules and pressures which limit and determine these combinations), as well as player agency.” (Chapman 2016, p. 119)

[2] “Whereas para- and inter-ludic seriality occur between individual games (e.g. in the form of game sequels and series) and in relation to their larger cultural framework (e.g. as games adapted from other media such as comic or film), intra-ludic seriality manifests in recurrent ludic elements and structures within games: power-ups, lives, boss fights, levels, and so on.” (Densen & Sudmann, 2013, p. 35)

[3] The force of this critique can be seen in the fact that the game’s developers felt the need to officially respond to this accusation about automated systems in their FAQ material (Especially the answers after 13:10 in the below video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6e-qpq1Zt8 [Accessed 22.01.2020].

[4] “The authentic player, being negatively free -- that is, free from constraints of, for example, productivity due to play being part of her leisure -- seeks to change the world in order to realize himself or herself. She is different from the liberalist worker who transforms the world for the sake of extrinsic reward -- that is, the wages he or she receives in exchange for his or her labour. […] The ‘inauthentic’ player is, technically speaking, free from the constraints of everyday life simply by way of being a player, but the place of these constraints becomes occupied by the constraints imposed upon him or her by the game as soon as he or she starts striving for the extrinsic reward. The high score and achievement badges are the wages paid in exchange for the labour of the inauthentic player, who appears to be working for the game” (Möring, Leino, 2016, p. 149-150).

[5] “Convergence occurs within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with others. Each of us constructs our own personal mythology from bits and fragments of information extracted from the media flow and transformed into resources through which we make sense of our everyday lives” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 3-4).

[6] Another form of abuse or pathologisation for Ricoeur is, as Katerine Basset and Michèle Baussant elucidate, the utopian nostalgia. (Basset and Baussant, 2018, p. 5).

[7] I am using the notion of archive outside the scope of video ludic archivisation and ludic historiography, which is not what I am interested in for this paper (Montembeault and Dor, 2018).

[8] Ricoeur writes: “Thanks to a reiterable character that confers upon it the status of an institution, testimony can be taken down in writing, deposited. This deposition, in turn, is the condition of possibility of specific institutions devoted to the collecting, conserving, and classifying of documentation with an eye to its subsequently being consulted by qualified personnel. The archive thus presents itself as a physical place that shelters the destiny of that kind of trace I have so carefully distinguished from the cerebral trace and the affective trace, namely, the documentary trace. But the archive is not just a physical or spatial place, it is also a social one” (2004, p. 167).

[9] The quoted translation comes from Tadeusz Drewnowski, who edited Borowski’s correspondence and relates to the “Song” finale. (Drewnowski, 2007). Jan Kott gives this poetic prophecy yet another meaning by relating it to Borowski’s time of capture by the Nazis: “The last poem, «A Song,» concluded with a prophecy delivered like a sentence: «We’ll leave behind us iron scrap / and the hollow, mocking laugh of generations». A few weeks later Borowski was arrested. His fiancée, with whom he was living, had not returned for the night. She had fallen into a trap set by the Nazis at the apartment of some mutual friends. The following day Borowski began searching the city for her. He ended up at the very same apartment -- and that very same trap. He had with him his poems and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World” (Kott, 1984, p. 170).



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