Historical Games and Learning

I really dislike historical computer games.

Well, let me qualify that: I really dislike the dodgy history that so easily gets propagated by these games. I realize that this is not a completely PC view to have, but I can’t help getting slightly irritated whenever I read yet another post by someone who seems to have picked up their historical facts from a game – at least when (as is usually the case) – those facts are wrong.

It is often argued, in the scope of movies particularly, that representing history poorly is not a problem; i.e., historic movies – even if just a veneer of history – encourage people to read up on the facts and learn. I remain unconvinced; I don’t know a single person who picked up a book on Roman history after watching Gladiator, but I know a lot who are now convinced that Rome conquered the world thanks to the awesome power of its catapults.

The problem, it seems to me, is even more acute with games. I’m not sure why; but I suspect it may be because – in historical games – we often try to justify the game mechanics based on history. That is always a slippery slope. For instance, in the recently released Rome game, the absence of political marriages is justified with the argument historically it was not a factor. Correct, perhaps, if viewed from the early Republic, but highly incorrect from any other perspective. Of course, political marriages were as frequent (and as useful) in this period as in any other period of history; c.f. Cleopatra, Sophonisba, Laodike and Berenice – or the Ptolemaic marriage policies (a direct counter-move against external dynastic claims on the Egyptian throne). Frequently, such “historical” justifications get carried to silly extremes; for instance, a fan countered the criticism surrounding the lack of women in the game by attributing it to wide-spread homosexualism in Rome. I think that would have surprised the (comparatively) homophobic Romans.

This attempt to justify game mechanics (no matter how prosaic) from history, seems often to lead to another phenomena: people justifying history from game mechanics. I don’t think violent games caused the Columbine massacre, but games do shape opinions. It happens in all genres: visit any football forum, and you will find people arguing football from “facts” they have picked up in football manager. Historical games seem particularly susceptible to this; even when people should know better.

Now, I’m not arguing that historical games should not depart from history; games, after all, are supposed to entertain. But I do believe that a reasonably accurate view of history is important for most people. And I think that, no matter how accurate a game tries to be, it risks creating these kind of misconceptions.I’ve heard/read as many dubious (if perhaps less outrageous) facts claimed by players of D.B.M, as I’ve heard /read from Total War players.

But since I can’t help seeing games as somewhat educational, I do wonder how one can minimize this kind of problem. In his discussion of Great Battles of History, Troy discusses one of the better examples of a game trying to make a point. I suspect this is a legacy of its board gaming roots; it’s a poor historical boardgame that does not try to provide some of the historical background for the events its portraying. I doubt enough people read game manuals to make this be much of a point in a computer game, though.

I suppose some of what has been done with the Civilopedia in the Civilization series, is one of the best (if not the only) example I can think of integrating some historical/educational knowledge into a historical game. At an earlier stage, I considered doing something similar (but rather more comprehensive) with Imperium; having each unit, state, and historical personality have a some brief text to provide the historical background. I doubt I’ll have the time/resources to do so, however, but I think that is at least one way of improving this aspect of games.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. What games have you played that inspired you to learn more? And how did they make it so?