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Using Computer Games to Teach History

By James Cobb, PhD, Cardinal Stritch University, 15 June 2012

A serious look at how our hobby becomes a solid educational tool

Historians and history teachers have been locked in a struggle with popular media since Gutenberg published the first scurrilous woodcut. Mass popular novels, movies and TV have made the struggle worse, giving students and the populace in general a single, simple image of complex issues: One game developer said “The sentence I dread most from a customer is ‘I have this book that…’”. D. W. Griffith explained Reconstruction and John Wayne won the war in the Pacific with a bulldozer. Even the best documentaries such as “World at War” and Ken Burns’ work have agendas which slightly distort the subjects. The various TV history channels are double-edged swords: they keep history per se in the public view but their products are usually simplistic to the point of absurdity. We can only hope that viewers are inspired to investigate further, perhaps through teaching company products.

TV news also presents a visual difficulty for getting points across to students. Historians teach that the first civilizations developed in Iraq and Egypt but all students see on broadcasts is dust and rock. Similarly, TV reinforces students’ ingrained rationalism. How can they be convinced that people actually went to war over concepts like the Eucharist?

At first blush, computer games seem like one more threat to teaching serious undergraduate or advanced secondary history classes as they offer one more distraction for students. Most of these games have no educational value. However, thoughtful research into some genres will unearth useful gems. Teachers can’t control movies or TV shows and using novels presents a possibly dangerous set of legal and pedagogical problems. Oddly enough, teachers can control computer games for use in the classroom. This paper will provide guidelines on how to use games pedagogically, the types of games most useful and the few skills needed to optimize these games for academic purposes.

Some assurances are needed. The games described below are between seven and ten years old, making them well-tested and largely bug-free. They were designed for systems that are four generations old now and will run on the vast majority of computers. Prices are low and interfaces can be handled by the most non-tech of educators. If questions persist, ask elementary school teachers; they have been using computer games since the early 1980s.

First, a few terms need to be defined. “Serious games” are those products that eschew fantasy and attempt to model reality. Such games can deal with business, science, and logic; we’ll concentrate on history. The two common modes of play are “turn-based” and “real-time simulation” (RTS). “Turn-based” is like chess or checkers where one player makes a move and then an opponent moves. Variations of “turn-based” allow for reaction moves or having both players plot moves for simultaneous resolution. With RTS, action is continuous with players entering orders during the action or pausing the game to give orders while catching their breath. The games presented here are for the PC, although serious games for tablets such as the iPad are available.

Most serious games are military. Unfortunately, the majority of these are tactical or operational scale, yielding little of value for regular history courses. ROTC instructors may find them useful but not even military historians could use them unless they wish to focus on a specific campaign, battle, or weapon platform. Exceptions to this dreary situation are the few “grand strategy” games. This type of game deals not only with general military matters but those elements of societies at war that fit into a non-military course: diplomacy, economics, politics, production, and home front morale. For World War II, Making History: The Calm and The Storm (available free for schools), Hearts of Iron III, and War Plan Pacific are useful. Forge of Freedom covers the American Civil War very well as Crown of Glory does for the Napoleonic era. Thus, the perspective is not one of a general but of a government meeting domestic and geo-political challenges.


Germany in 1936

(Making History: the Calm and the Storm, © Muzzy Lane Software, 2006)

A more useful genre can be labeled “broad brush” games such as the Sid Meiers Civilization series. These games don’t follow a strict historical timeline. Rather, they are a combination of anthropology, archaeology, and history. Players lead a tribe/nation from the hunter/gather stage, although the start can be later, to the twenty-first century. A settlement is established near water and explorations of surroundings start.



An Early Egyptian settlement with exploring party.

(Sid Meier’s Civilization 4 – Warlords, © Firaxis Games, 2006)

Through the development or technology, population mangement, and use of resources, the people develop religion, infrastucture culture, writing, trade, and contacts with other people. As time goes on, enviornmental problems arise.



The Technology Tree.

(Sid Meier’s Civilization 4 – Warlords, © Firaxis Games, 2006)

Players must choose the kind of victory they want: world conquest, economic, cultural, or diplomatic domination or being the first to land on a new planet. Different emphasis on aspects of the game is needed to reach each goal but a balance of elements is required. The most peaceful people need a military and the most warlike needs to meet the cultural and infrastructural demands of the populace.

These games can show two important points: the elements needed for a successful civilization and the need for balancing all aspects of society while showing their interaction. Teachers can accomplish these objectives by using screen shots as shown above to illustrate items like the necessity of rivers for survival and the step-wise advance of technology. Screen shots can be made with several tools including ones built into Windows and many games offer built-in screen captures. More ambitious instructors can create lesson-specific scenarios and have students play them out. For example, students should bring their people from the start of the Classical Age to the Renaissance. If a class is divided into study groups, controlled competitions can be set up via multi-player mode.

The most popular turn-based game is Sid Meier’s Civilization series, considered a breakthrough in computer gaming as a whole. The encyclopedia included with the games is a fine educational aid in itself. Although up to five very different versions have been produced, the third or fourth iteration are best for teaching because the fifth requires an on-line client and, frankly, has been dumbed down. An iPad version, Civilization Revolutions is surprisingly good. Rise of Nations is very similar to Civilization but in an RTS format. Both of these games can be had cheaply on the Internet or some retail store’s bargain bin.

City building games are broad brush games on a micro level. Games deal with the essentials of maintaining a city in ancient times. Education, entertainment, medicine, sanitation, marketing and class distinctions are all modeled. Greece, Rome and China have been covered but the most interesting one may be Children of the Nile which covers not only the major factors of urban life in ancient Egypt but documents the development of pyramids from the mastaba stage forward.

Classes or lessons with more specific historical themes require more specific tools. These tools can be found in “event-driven” games. Here, historical events occur regardless of player actions. Barbarians will execute incursions on the Roman Empire; the Crusades will be called; the Reformation will happen. Players assume the role of eminenc gris of a dynasty or nation and deal with many of the same factors as in broad brush games. However, these factors are much more detailed in event-driven games. For example, a casus belli is needed to go to war; medieval succession can follow four different laws; trade is handled by moving merchants into trade centers and diplomacy can have over ten options. Other elements have been added. Dynasties include parents, siblings and other relatives with distinct personalities that may threaten the throne. Councils and officer corps must be populated even if the best men for the job aren’t available. “Overweening lords” may forget they’re vassals and revolt. In later eras, demagogues and revolutionaries pick up that role. Maps are divided into distinct provinces, each having different resources and needs with other rulers having counter-claims. Super-national entities such as the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire lurk over all players. The computer player is more engaged in these games, sending various marriage and alliance offers, threats and information. Victory is open-ended. Although missions appear and prestige points are gained, mere survival and prosperity is enough to make players satisfied with their strategy.



The Plantagenets at Home.

(Crusader Kings II, ©Paradox Interactive, 2011)



The Palatinate in 1618

(Europa Universalis III Divine Wind, ©Paradox Interactive, 2011)

The Swedish company, Paradox Interactive, has a virtual lock on serious event-driven games, although other companies such as the French AGEOD have studied specific periods like the rise of Prussia and the mid-Victorian era in a turn-based fashion. Paradox has a series of five games covering late antiquity, the medieval period, Renaissance through the Napoleonic era, the Victorian period through to the aftermath of World War I and the 1930s through the early Cold War. The maps of the first two are limited to Eurasia, the Middle East and North Africa but the later games cover the globe. All have hundreds, if not thousands, of individual provinces. The Paradox games are all RTS with a time scale of one day. Fortunately, time can be sped up considerably, slowed or paused to make play comfortable.

Methods for using event-driven games the classroom can be much the same as for broad brush games: screen shots to illustrate lectures and controlled scenarios as assignments. However, these games have an additional possibility; actually watching events unfold. Time periods, countries and many parameters can be set to start an event. The event rolls along so students can see how and why things happened as they did. Instructors can change a factor, e.g. raising taxes, to demonstrate how matters cold have been different. The English Reformation is an easy example of how this method can work. The screen below shows England in 1532 as prosperous, stable, peaceful and happy. The only cloud is Henry VIII’s “Great Problem.”



(Europa Universalis III Divine Wind, ©Paradox Interactive, 2011)


In 1533, the player as Henry clicks the “Convert to Protestantism” button as the picture changes as shown here:



(Europa Universalis III Divine Wind, ©Paradox Interactive, 2011)


Meath in Ireland revolts and two other provinces are unstable. France has declared war but Protestant powers have become friendly. As the scenario progresses, the player can introduce the Test Act, dissolve the monasteries, and dismiss Thomas More from the council. Future events will be the Pilgrimage of Grace and restless nobles. Lecturers can describe all these events but students can now actually see them occur. Another possibility would be to have England remain Catholic and see how that could have affected Europe as a whole simply by not pressing a button.

This last concept touches on academic historians’ repressed urge to look into “What Ifs.” Speculation and extrapolation can confuse students and give them a wrong memory of facts. Yet, the importance of what did happen can be underscored by showing possible results from other chains of events. Would the Western Roman Empire lasted longer had the Goths been treated decently as promised? Could the Reformation have survived if the Valois and the Hapsburgs had kissed and made up in the 1490s? These questions can be explored through games and shed light on why events panned out as they did.

Using computer games in a classroom setting comes with many caveats. Serious games go through many patches, expansions, add-ons, and user-created “mods.” Instructors should purchase titles with the words “Gold”, “Complete,” or “Collection” appended as these games are at the stage where development is typically finalized. The games recommended above should run on the vast majority of Windows-based computer systems but history departments are often penurious and have incredibly old machines. Instructors should know the specifications of the machines they and their students will be using before purchasing the game. The number of copies bought is also a function of budgets. Further confusing matters is that game distribution is moving away from CDs to direct downloads with limits on how many computers the software can be used on or through on-line client servers that require Internet connection even when playing in solitaire mode.

The biggest caveat is the limitations of the history detailed in these games. Not even the best can cover all important nuances. Games are only teaching aids, not robo-instructors. Having said that, the age of interactive education is here, trumping the “Shut up and listen” paradigm. Games can not only make the learning experience more accessible and enjoyable but will give students a tangible tool for historical study for the rest of their lives.

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