Videogames based on history should teach us about the past – not just use it as a backdrop

When it comes to educating us about historical themes, games have to do more than simply present the same old tropes in period costume. 

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Videogames do not generally do history very well. Watching the antics of the ostentatiously camouflaged heroes of the Assassin’s Creed series or marshalling the conveniently symmetrical armies in a Total War game you’d be forgiven for thinking that, as far as game development is concerned, the past is just another backdrop. Revolutionary Paris might as well be the Mushroom Kingdom, while ancient Europe becomes a glorified chessboard.

Not all games play so fast and loose with history, of course. The degree of historical accuracy in a flight simulator, for example, is normally a major selling point. While there is only so much you can learn about history from a flight simulator, one in particular, Rise of Flight, stands out from the crowd. Rise of Flight is a singularly educational experience because rather than going over the well-trodden ground of World War Two it deals with the Great War.

Flight simulators set during the Great War differ from those set in other time periods in two significant ways. The first way is that the controls are very easy to pick up compared to those for more modern aircraft, because there isn’t much to control in an early aircraft. This generally makes the games more accessible even on the highest realism levels, although accessible shouldn’t be confused with easy. Secondly and most importantly, they are horrifying to fly. Wings tear off with disturbing ease during manoeuvres. Engines choke on their own fluids as soon as they take a hit. The body of your aircraft provides about as much protection from enemy gunfire as a cardboard box. No part of being in the air feels safe or comfortable, even before combat starts.

Rise of Flight manages to make the experience of playing a flight simulator into something quite alien, a faintly ludicrous endeavour as your plane chunters slowly through the air like a poorly constructed kite that has slipped its string and made a bid for freedom. You soon gain an appreciation for how, even in just the two decades between the Sopwith Camel and the Hawker Hurricane, the business of flying an aircraft changed beyond all recognition.

Teaching history in a broader sense is a trickier enterprise, as any game that allows you to change history as you play is going to have to approach the subject in an abstract manner.

One series that almost manages this is the line of grand strategy games by Paradox Development Studio, using their Clausewitz Engine. Starting off with Crusader Kings 2, set in the dark ages, before moving onto Europa Universalis 4 for the early modern period, Victoria 2 for the industrial age, and rounding off with Hearts of Iron 3 (with 4 expected next year) wrapping up the line at World War Two.

What these games manage to accomplish is not so much an examination of history as a chain of events but rather an examination of the systems of power in their respective eras, showing how the forces that make the world go round have changed. What this means is that Crusader Kings 2 isn’t simply the same game as Hearts of Iron 3 except with knights instead of tanks, rather it operates in a different way – in keeping with the time period it portrays.

In the case of Crusader Kings 2, power is not tied to a nation state; you play as an individual. Maybe that individual is a king, maybe they are a duke or other noble, or you can even play as a veritable nobody. This means that, unlike similar games, you are not playing as some sort of disembodied mind that makes all the important decisions in the country. You have a character on the ground. This reflects the era the game takes place, when nations as we know them didn’t exist; they were possessions.

In theory, this doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but, as you play the game, the significance of it begins to emerge. Managing what will one day become a nation state (especially if you import your saved game into Europa Universalis 4) requires not just the classic strategy game land-grabbing skills of games like Civilization or the Total War series. Instead you have to manipulate your peers and also the law to cement control for you and your descendants, while at the same time protecting what you have with force of arms if necessary. The game also illustrates the precarious and chaotic nature of medieval politics, where the future of Europe can be completely rewritten by a single stroke of luck, as it has been numerous times. An accidental death in the family can destroy years of careful planning.

By contrast, the nation states in Europa Universalis 4 are more established and robust. However, in this phase of history they are also at their most ruthlessly expansive. The early modern era, depending upon which side of the Atlantic Ocean your people inhabited at the outset, can be seen as one of the darkest periods in human history and Europa Universalis 4 embraces the cruelty of the times. Slavery, colonialism, and conquest are all fair game when you’re trying to win and it is a safe bet that any forbearance you might show for the sake of morality won’t be echoed by your rivals. In this period of history anything goes. This is, after all, the era so singularly rotten that Christopher Columbus could come out of it a hero.

The lessons of Victoria 2 are more subtle. Victoria 2 is a game about industry, economies and empires, and it has two main modes of play in my experience: playing as the British, and not playing as the British. The British game is built around maintaining and expanding an empire, of leaning on people, of exploitation and military coercion. Alternatively, if you choose not to play as Britain, then you’re forever trying to work your way out from underneath, trying to get a sniff of glory and power without the British deciding you need to be cut down to size and taking a gigantic iron-clad dump on you.

The biggest change that Victoria 2 brings is that your people are more independent-minded. In Europa Universalis 4 you can run your country however you like, going around the world murdering and enslaving anybody you feel like. In Victoria 2, should you adopt that approach, your people will simply leave. They’ll pack their bags in search of a better life somewhere more enlightened. This change brings with it the need for soft power and diplomacy. It’s no longer enough to be powerful; you have to be appear righteous too. Victoria 2 shows us the birth of modern nationalism and exposes the myth that, unlike all those other countries that are run by villains for nefarious reasons, this country, whichever it may be, is good, civilised and a shining light unto the world.

With the last game in the timeline, Hearts of Iron 3, Paradox drops the ball, at least in terms of what can be learned from the game. Hearts of Iron 3 shifts the focus onto military strategy in order to portray the time period around the Second World War, but, having done that, what we have is a game about corralling enemy divisions into pockets and wiping them out. That is not to say it’s a bad game, it’s just that it is not a particularly educational one. The war as presented is stripped of its politics and atrocities, pared down into a purely strategic exercise.

When it comes to teaching us about history, games will always have to do more than simply present the same old tropes in period costume. More than anything they have to lead us to think about things differently. This is not easily done, as evidenced by the fact that even the developers who do it best don’t always get it right.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture