I hated studying history in high school. It was as if the curriculum had been designed to leave out everything that impressionable minds could possibly associate with, while making no provisions to seem like it was anything but handed down from an institution. However, in recent years it’s a totally different story. I won’t read any book that isn’t related to history. I can watch History Television and the Discovery Channel and be immediately engrossed in a program related to some aspect of world history or anthropological pursuits. How did this happen? In a word: games.
Do games provide a valid platform for educating gamers about history? I think they do, and excuse me for using a tired axiom of the games industry, but it’s because of their interactivity and audiovisual presentation. Why would someone simply watch a documentary on the Roman Empire, when they could in fact be Caesar, and lay claim to the entire globe? Or pick up a rifle and storm the beaches of Normandy? By participating in this kind of activity, players gain at least a hint of what it may have been like, and are more likely to retain the information.
The most ubiquitous example of this would the World War II first person shooter. Indeed, war shooters are an easy target, because they capture a well-known aspect of our culture that has been rehashed countless times in other forms of media and is therefore immediately recognizable. At the very least I learned the nuances between a Thompson submachine gun and a Browning automatic rifle. But what about anthropology? Is the desire to learn about the foundations of our culture as alluring as unabashed bloodletting?
I was introduced to the Civilization series in my first year of university. Civilization II (Microprose, 1996) was only a year old. I got a copy from of a friend that insisted I was not a PC gamer until I had stayed up all night playing the game. I did not make him a liar. The greatest thing about Civilization was that it allowed you to essentially rewrite history, with the Civilopedia providing indispensable reference material for the components of the burgeoning civilization that you were building on screen.
Microsoft’s Age of Empires series takes a similar approach in that it allows the advancement of a civilization through a series of Ages, but real-time battles are the core of the game. The Age of Empires series also has its own in-game encyclopedia, providing context for the units within the game alongside their actual place in history. The recent Age of Empires III (Ensemble Studios, 2005), which focuses on the settlement of the New World, took some unfortunate liberties with the story-based single player campaign despite its best attempts to recreate the time period. I probably spent more time browsing its beautifully illustrated Encyclopedia than actually playing the game, making note of each civilization’s reasons for wanting a piece of the New World.
The inadvertent assimilation of information through gameplay caused me to pursue the “truth” as it were, by further educating myself on the historical background of what I was playing. This informal study of history has in turn allowed me to cultivate a more critical approach to games that adopt aspects of history, and permits a deeper investigation of their design. Compromises often must be made to make a game more fun than it is realistic; learning about where the ideas came from in the first place allowed me to see where they were taken too far.
This of course prompts the burning question regarding a game’s design: do you choose authenticity or accessibility? While maintaining historical accuracy is a noble goal, sometimes this ties the player’s hands. After all, it’s not like no mistakes were made in history — what if the player had a better strategy for Napoleon’s conquest of Europe? What if the Roman Empire never fell and ended up winning the space race? However unrealistic these questions may seem, these scenarios can be realized within games.
Personally, I’d prefer a bias towards authenticity in historical games. The technology has already been pushed to a point where visual fidelity is only seeing incremental improvements in quality. So now the game itself can be advanced instead of simply using history as another theme park. Tell a new story based on historical events. Have respect for the audience and don’t let them put cavalry in a canoe.
Games allow people to participate in history, however loose of an interpretation it may be. As games are continually compared with books and films — which do their own share of revising historical events — history is similarly being preserved through gaming. On a purely mechanical level, the interaction the player has with the game allows information to be absorbed more readily, imparting even the smallest nugget of knowledge. Whether a game has you trudging through the sands of Tunisia with a Thompson submachine gun or colonizing a continent, I’d easily recommend it as time well spent. You might even learn something.