Conversations on History and Gaming: Exploring the Intersection of Video Games and Historical Narratives – Part 1 of 3

For a very long time, I’ve wanted to go back to this kind of more academic and reflective content. Originally, this is what Strategy and Wargaming (former OneHexAway) was supposed to be. I recently had the opportunity to delve back into this kind of content. The story is rather simple: a year ago, a former university professor of mine was doing a presentation on the importance of video games and their relationship with History and decided to ask me a couple of questions about how important this connection can be, what might be its potential, and possible downfalls. These are some of my reflections, edited because some things were either too academically specific and might not have a lot of interest, or some things were written after the fact for added value. Have in mind this is a conversation with a university professor, that doesn’t have a lot of knowledge on more obscure- even if they’re more historically accurate- titles, so don’t be mean! I hope you enjoy it.

Games and teaching History. Is it possible?

In today’s world, video games play a crucial role in shaping how people perceive history. Games like Battlefield, the Total War series, and the Company of Heroes sell millions of copies each year, raising a couple of questions: What is the current state of history representation in video games, and is it okay to use games for teaching?

Video games have become the largest medium in the world, evolving from a hobby to a household name in entertainment. As an interactive medium, they have the power to engage and captivate audiences, redirecting their attention to worlds, cultures, ideas, eras, and problems in ways they might not otherwise experience. You already know that it is my personal opinion that this makes video games an ideal tool for teaching history, and for that, games have to respect the History they’re setting their games in.

Video games can make history stop being an abstraction and become a real-life interaction, puzzle, or problem to solve. This requires thought, skill, and cognitive abilities. By immersing players in different historical settings and situations, video games can teach players to think critically and develop problem-solving skills. In conclusion, video games are a powerful tool for learning about history. They have the ability to engage and captivate audiences, making history a real-life interaction to solve, rather than an abstract concept. As the largest medium in the world, video games have the potential to teach millions of people about different eras, cultures, and problems in a way that is both engaging and memorable.

Games offer a unique way for audiences to enter and engage with constructed historical worlds. As players, they become agents within the universe, interacting with its rules, dilemmas, and social and political fabric. Whether they take on the roles of kings, commanders, soldiers, merchants, or farmers, games immerse players in their universes and provide fertile ground for a new way of historical thinking based on interaction, action, reaction, and reflection.

Simulated historical settings, even if not entirely accurate, present themselves as based on history and offer a domain where audiences can engage with historically-based problem-solving skills. Players are faced with the same problems of the past, even if simplified and simulated, and are more prone to develop a better understanding of the course of history.

By immersing players in different historical settings and situations, games can teach players to think critically and develop problem-solving skills based on history. This unique interactive nature of gaming allows for a new way of historical thinking, based on action, reaction, and reflection.

In conclusion, games offer a unique opportunity for audiences to engage with historical worlds and develop problem-solving skills based on history as long as that’s their intent. As players become agents within the universe, they are more prone to develop a better understanding of the course of history. By immersing players in different historical settings and situations, games can create a new way of historical thinking, based on interaction, action, reaction, and reflection.

Would you say that video games have been striving to attain a more mature state? Any titles you would say were “game changers”?

Videogames are separated by “generations”, whose criteria have been ever-changing, but these days the innovation is so rapid, everything turned into a blur. Yesteryear, things were easier to compartmentalize: from 8-bit to 16-bit, the differences were clear and immediately noticeable upon booting up the game. The gameplay might have not changed a lot, but the graphical fidelity and sounds were substantially different. In the end, generations ended up following the releases of consoles that came to market around the same time, with no more than a couple of years difference between them. We have the PlayStation 1, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64. Then the PlayStation 2, Xbox, Sega Dreamcast, and the Nintendo Gamecube. After that came the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and the Nintendo Wii. So on and so on. Currently, we’re living in the 9th generation, and if we can all agree that gaming evolution happened in leaps during its early years, right now things are much harder to discern.

It’s hard to answer if video games have reached a more mature state without criteria. Are we talking about sales? If so, then games have long reached their maturity when they surpassed the sales of other entertainment industries in the early 2010s. Is it popular? Half of the world’s games (mobile included). Hardware accessibility? Computers and consoles were remarkably expensive twenty years ago and updates happened less frequently, nowadays we change phones every couple of years, upgrade our PCs whenever a new component comes out and use powerful tablets as portable toilet entertainers for a couple of minutes. Is that maturity found within artistic merit? It’s ever more frequent to have videogames exploring mature and previously untouchable content: from violence to love and everything else in between, videogames have been evolving at a very rapid pace. We sometimes forget that video games have been around for quite some time now, for nearly five decades, so if we’re going to compare them to other entertainment media, then things have been evolving at a much slower pace than they did with cinema, for example- The relationship between video games and art is a complex and fascinating one. Video games have often been dismissed as purely commercial products designed for entertainment, but over the years, they have increasingly been recognized as a legitimate form of artistic expression. What’s especially fantastic, is how video games are a unique art form by being a combination of different artistic mediums. Video games incorporate elements of visual art, music, storytelling, and game design to create immersive and interactive experiences that can be just as emotionally powerful as a film or a painting. As with any art form, video games can inspire powerful emotional responses in their audience. Players can become emotionally invested in the game’s characters, world, and story, and the interactivity of video games can create a unique sense of agency and immersion that other art forms can’t match. Overall, the relationship between video games and art is a fascinating and complex one that is still being explored and defined.

But I’m going on a tangent here, but the matter of the fact is that if you ask one thousand people this question, you would get one thousand different answers. So, for me, personally, maturity happened with the advent of eponymous and ubiquitous characters that permeated the public’s imaginarium: Super Mario, Pac-Man, Sonic The Hedgehog and so many others. But I’m sure others would consider some very important landmarks to be the defining moments when video games transition from being just a novelty to a mainstay in popular culture and entertainment. 3D, especially, changed everything, freed game developers from the constraints of 2D design, and opened a lot of doors to create more involved and complex experiences. Me, personally, I would also consider that transition to be fundamental. Same thing with multitrack recording for songs, or the possibility to take color photographs. This is all very fascinating stuff we could spend days and weeks talking about.

I would like to elaborate on what games I think were game-changers in the way people look at the relationship between video games and history. While they’ve been intricately linked since the early days of gaming, some games do stand taller than others. Now, things can get a bit murky here, because this was hardly a reason for academic concern when the first historical games came out. There are some obscure games that should be on this list, but probably won’t, and the matter of fact is, that more mainstream games that might not focus much on historical realism did to bring people into History than more realistic games ever did, just by sheer force of their appeal. So while it would nice of me to place games like UMS, Gary Grigsby titles, and John Tiller here, it just isn’t true. Instead, games like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Age of Empires II, Call of Duty, Brothers in Arms, Victoria, Europa Universalis, Battlefield, and Total War would be a better fit. I will go in-depth into some of these in due time. This is a very interesting topic because a lot of the player base is extremely sensitive to this. If a game that’s leaning on History goes a bit off track, the developing team gets called out. Things in gaming have been a bit heated for the last half a decade or so- for reasons I don’t know, nor do I care to, but game series like Battlefield and Call of Duty have been constantly on the receiving end of bitter reactions from the player base when they mistreat the historical reality in order to fit a particular narrative.

Are there games that portray history in a realistic way?

Without a doubt, the answer is a resounding “yes.” While some games have successfully broken through to the mainstream audience, there are countless others that do an even better job of portraying history as a tangible and less abstract reality. These lesser-known games also pique interest in deeper exploration, making them just as worthy of recognition. I’ll explore a list of comparable games that strike an intriguing balance between realism (or “authenticity,” as I prefer to call it) and accessible gameplay. Let’s do this in chronological order and list some of my favorites:

Field of Glory II and Pike and Shot (oh! and Sengoku Jidai) are turn-based strategy games built on the same engine and by the same developer. Based on the tabletop wargame Field of Glory, these games feature meticulously recreated armies ranging from Alexander the Great to the early Crusades. Pike and Shot, as the name suggests, focuses on the impact that Tercios formations had in 16th-century Europe, and even includes the Battle of Alcácer Quibir. With endless army lists, these games are essential for anyone interested in historical battles and wargaming.

Crusader Kings II and III – It’s very rare that someone that enjoys this kind of game hasn’t heard about this title. Far from being one of Paradox’s sole success stories, it definitely helped put the middle ages on the map and bring a lot more people into the age of medievo. Crusader Kings is a political simulator that has you taking control of a single person (as long as it’s a member of a noble family, and it doesn’t matter how high or low-born this character is, as long as they have land, you can play them. This a game that contemplates nearly all aspects of political life – court intrigues, arranged marriages, power struggles, sabotage, poisoning, assassinations, and dungeon-keeping. If you can scheme it, the game probably has it in-store waiting for it to be used. CKII is about reading the political implications of your actions and thinking a couple of generations ahead. Power moves don’t always entail raising your levies and marching into the nearby counties, instead, it is better to patiently wait- or accelerate the untimely demise of a court power player before making such a drastic move and wait for their house to weaken and losing favor in court before committing to such an act. Sending gifts and bribes can go a long way to secure loyalties and conspiracy partners. Money and influence can also assure your line finds a suitable party to marry that benefits both your families.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance is set in the 15th century Bohemia (and it’s meticulously recreated), and it is a story-driven open-world RPG that tries its best to immerse players in its medieval times. It’s excessively preoccupied with small day-to-day details and it features a sickening realistic combat system that hasn’t been replicated elsewhere. If you’re one of those that always wanted to know what it was like to live under the guise of the Holy Roman Empire, then this is the game for you. It’s very recent, it has gotten a lot better since it was first released five years ago. It’s a worthy recommendation.

Scourge of War: Waterloo – Few video games can impress with their scale, scope, attention to detail, and historical accuracy like Scourge of War: Waterloo. This 1:1 representation of the Battle of Waterloo (including Quatre Brás and Ligny with their expansions) redefines the meaning of realism. Each regiment in the battle has been meticulously researched, with uniforms recreated down to the belt buckles, officers’ names and ranks, number of troops present during the battle, and types of weapons used. The game also features a real-time messaging/ordering system, forcing players to anticipate enemy movements hours in advance. Unlike in Total War, players must delegate orders to subordinates, who then delegate to their own subordinates, adhering to established military procedures until the order is executed. Scourge of War is essential for anyone interested in understanding the dimension and complexity of managing an army of tens of thousands of people, sometimes separated by several kilometers. Unfortunately, you cannot buy this game anymore (temporarily), so if you don’t own it… yeah.

Close Combat series – a real-time strategy game set during World War II that focuses on the crucial concept of ‘combat morale.’ By striving to materialize this often-overlooked aspect, the game brings to light the complexity of soldiers as individuals with their own will and personality, rather than mere pawns following orders. To achieve this level of authenticity, the Close Combat team consulted with numerous experts to create a model that simulates soldiers’ mental states. Though this approach has its limitations, it marks an impressive step towards a more realistic gaming experience.

Combat Mission series -, a collection of real-time strategy games that delve into modern-day conflicts (as well as some set during World War II). Like the Close Combat series, Combat Mission partnered with the United States Army to develop proprietary simulations aimed at training officers. This collaboration highlights the games’ commitment to authenticity and accuracy, making them a valuable tool for military education and strategic thinking. It’s a game that strives to faithfully recreate the experience of tactical warfare in true 1:1 scale and 3D environments. True to life ballistics and the realistic fog of war are paired up with “soft factors” (morale, experience, etc.) and attention to detail to every single aspect of the battlefield, to deliver a wargame that, akin to Mius Front, cautiously threads the thin between simulation and game.

Graviteam Tactics: Mius Front – Mius Front is the ultimate World War II tactical experience with a 1:1 scale. No game does it better, not even Combat Mission. Each new DLC brings a quality and sheer amount of small details, including meticulously recreated orders of battles, dozens of square miles of new locations to fight on, and 3D models that can impress even the pickiest of wargamers. Its battles are disturbingly realistic, working as a perfect Swiss clock with all the small pieces coming together to a perfect cadence. It’s the most authentic depiction of World War II to ever grace monitor screens. While it lacks comprehensive tutorials and an easy-to-understand UI, the tactical game goodness beyond the learning curve is worth the effort. If you are a fan of the Eastern Front and specific operations, Graviteam Tactics: Mius Front is the game for you.

Age of Empires IV – This is a real-time strategy game that while its gameplay is far too arcadey to be considered something realistic, goes out of its way to try and teach real history to its audience. Every campaign mission is properly contextualized. These “Campaign Historical Lessons” go on for nearly one hour and a half (longer than some proper documentaries), from the construction of Guédelon Castle in France, the use of Norman crossbows, and the introduction of gunpowder. It’s just public service done right, and you can find it pretty easily on Youtube. And this isn’t something half-assed, no. It’s high-quality, expertly-produced content.

There are so many games that do justice to History nowadays it’s going to be hard to list them all, so I would advise you to check out these articles:

The Ultimate List Of The BEST World War II Games Of All Time

The Ultimate List Of The BEST Medieval Games Of All Time

Other titles could be Sid Meyer’s Gettysburg, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Gary Grigsby: War In The East 2, UBOAT, Ultimate General: Civil War, Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865), Brothers in Arms Series, Hell Let Loose, Cauldrons of War, Second Front, WarPlan, Attack At Dawn: North Africa and if you’re imaginative and knowledgable enough, even Arma III, so many others. Maybe one day I’ll do a massive list comprising every single game.

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