Video Games Can Teach History. Seriously.

Erstwhile’s Sam Bock explains how instructors might productively bring video gaming into the classroom.

Mention historical video games to most professional historians at your own peril. The ensuing snort of derision will surely be loud enough to rattle the very masonry of the ivory tower. While this attitude is certainly not unexpected, it is born of  a prejudice that instructors would be well advised to re-examine. The popularity of historical games like Sid Meyer’s Civilization continues to grow, meaning that the students heading into our classrooms this fall might have learned more about history from a simulation than from books. With this in mind, perhaps it is time for historians to use the popularity of digital games like Civilization as an opportunity to “level up” their pedagogy.

Of course I would not go so far as to say that digital gaming is the best means of teaching people about the past. The medium certainly has its pitfalls, one of which is the fact that video games rarely present an unbiased or wholly accurate historical picture. Yet, taking Civilization as an example of a potentially useful tool, we can see that talking about history through games might help us engage with some of our less enthusiastic students.

If you’re still skeptical, bear with me while I explain why Civilization might work as a teaching tool.

In Civilization, players must choose which society they would like to make their own. Choices range from the Iroquois or Ethiopia to Rome or China. A famous leader from the past represents each society (George Washington fittingly heads the American contingent), and the artificial intelligence driven personalities of computerized leaders against whom players pit their empires correspond to the historical characteristics of individual civilizations. As such, Genghis Kahn tends to be very aggressive with his territorial expansion and will try to conquer weaker players nearby.

But Civilization isn’t just good at teaching players about well-known historical leaders. It also provides detailed information about the factors that made each playable society unique or powerful. Every civilization starts with attributes and units corresponding to the historical strengths of the chosen empire. When playing as Queen Elizabeth I of England, for example, players are granted the “Sun Never Sets” advantage, which extends the reach of the English civilization’s navy. While civilization-specific boosts might strike some as simply part of the gameplay, they give a basic sense of each empire’s actual history and the unique adaptations or attributes that made it an important regional or global power.

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A brief overview of each civilization’s history appears at the beginning of every game.

For players who are more curious, Civilization provides a built-in encyclopedia with historically accurate information about the unique military units and buildings for each civilization. Reading through the entire “Civilopedia” would take more hours than graduate students put into the typical monograph, but the fact that Civlopedia is built right into the game means that players are more likely to access this information, and thus learn something about the past. What’s more, Civilization also contains pre-programmed scenarios that allow players to engage with historical moments like the American Civil War or the fall of Rome. Players taking the helm at these critical moments learn much about real leaders and moments in world history, all while immersing themselves in a richly detailed and extremely entertaining fantasy world of their own creation.

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A screenshot of the Civilopedia entry for the janissary.

So this all sounds great. Gamers learn something while they wage costly wars, spread their religions, and build world wonders. But why would anyone in his or her right mind use this as a tool for teaching history? For one thing, Civilization can demonstrate the ways professional historians approach the past. While the continents and oceans in Civilization might be the stuff of fantasy, computer algorithms use Earth’s geography as a model. As a result, players might find themselves settling in an easily defended mountainous location with ready access to resources or in a desert between two other warlike civilizations. These factors simulate historical contingency, and influence the trajectory of each civilization’s development. Properly interpreted, games can counter the pervasive impression that historical outcomes were often predetermined or inevitable.

Historical video games are a great way to start a dialogue about the past, but doing so requires proper context and interpretation from an instructor. To my knowledge, Genghis Kahn never engaged in a violent and destructive contest with Hiawatha, and it’s critical for students to understand that some parts of the game are pure fantasy. BUT, (and this is the important takeaway) historical video games continue to grow in popularity among college-age males. So, for many of our students, video games represent the primary point of contact with history. Instead of lamenting this trend or trying to resist the undeniable fact that games are more entertaining than lectures, why not turn whatever background knowledge our students do have to our advantage? Why shouldn’t we use what knowledge they gain through video games as a platform for posing more interesting questions about the past? If nothing else, we gain an excuse to game in our offices and call it lesson planning!

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