Conversations on History and Gaming: Exploring the Intersection of Video Games and Historical Narratives – Part 2 of 3

Hello, hello. This is part 2 of 3 of my long-winded article about the relationship that video games and History can have. As previously mentioned in the last article, this stems from a conversation I had with a former university professor of mine when he asked me about this exact topic for a presentation. What follows are some of my reflections on how I feel about the topic. If you haven’t read part 1, I highly advise you to do it otherwise, you might be losing a lot of the context. As previously mentioned, 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 about it.

As a teaser: in part 3 I’ll be delving into the idea of how we should look into the future, how important digital literacy is, and why History university courses should consider creating subjects on Historical Media.

What kind of audience do these games usually attract?

It’s fair to say that for the longest time, the general perception is that video games have traditionally been a male-dominated hobby. And that might be true, at least if we go back 20 or something years. But back then, video games were still these sorts of mysterious and nerdy things that didn’t fair very well in the public eye. So no wonder only a fringe of the boys and girls of way back when played them, and of these, I think it is fair to say that men were the major demographic. Even so, numbers vary wildly from country to country. But as games started to become more and more mainstream, its demographic naturally widened and increasingly became more diverse, with a wider age range and a smaller gender gap. Just go on a metro and bus ride and you can see people from all walks of life playing games on their devices to burn a couple of minutes while they wait for their stop. Now, some might say that playing video games on a smartphone isn’t being a “real gamer”, but that’s a discussion I’m not willing to have just because it doesn’t make much sense. The bottom line is: do you spend money on games? If you do, then you’re an important part of the audience for the companies creating video games. Maybe a better definition would be that there are two audiences: people who play video games casually, and people who play more avidly.

That would be enough for me and 99% of the people, I think. Again, there’s no need for strict definitions because it doesn’t make any sense and they’ll always contradict each other. Take me, for example, I only play video games 2 to 3 times a week for a couple of hours at most, and that’s due to the fact that I have very little free time. However, I buy and play a wide range of games in that small time frame, probably spending quite a lot more every year than most people (this average ranges from 20 dollars to about 70 dollars a month per person). Now, take for example someone that spends 2 hours every day playing a free title like League of Legends without ever spending a dime. Also, consider someone that spends 60 dollars every year to buy FIFA and proceeds to play said game for 1000 hours for the next 365 days. They spend way less money than someone like me, yet play substantially more. See the futility in arguing who’s the “audience” without narrowing it down to an almost perfect representation of the segment game developing companies are trying to reach? While I have absolutely no data to corroborate what I’m about to say, my experience in the wargaming genre is that most of the audience is older than the average person playing video games. And the reasoning behind that, other than guesswork based on my interactions with the community is that these were the people that grew up playing tabletop games and eventually transitioned to digital gaming.

Other “digital native” strategy genres (like real-time strategy) are probably more populated by a younger audience that grew up with those. Heck, I’m here just because I stumbled into Age of Empires II, Stronghold, and Red Alert 2 when I was a kid. That ended up with me studying History at the University and eventually becoming a communication professional.

Is there any possibility these games might arouse curiosity for the Middle Ages?

Video games can be just as engaging as books or movies when it comes to sparking an interest in history, and the Middle Ages are no exception (for me, Age of Empires II did that, and later Medal of Honor kindled my love for the Second World War). Like other forms of media, they can reshape our perceptions of the world and how we imagine the past. It’s easy to forget that the world of the past was just as vibrant and colorful as today because we’ve gotten so used to seeing the past in black-and-white, mainly because of all the footage of World War I and II we grew up with. Yet, one just needs to enter a museum to see how the humans of eras gone by also enjoyed the same things we do: they loved music, art, reading, painting, architecture, writing, dancing, and all the myriad of little things that make us who we really are. Fortunately, there are works that stand out in how they portray history, such as Peter Jackson’s incredible documentary “They shall not grow old”. This should be mandatory viewing for all students of History.

Now imagine how fascinating it would be if universities had the resources to do what Peter Jackson did to every single film reel there is since cameras first came to be. Maybe one day, AI will develop to a point that it just might be able to do that on its own, even reading lips and generating sounds, cheapening the entire process and making these snippets come very much alive. I don’t think we’re very far off, but I’m going off track again. It’s all about trying to figure out how video games can provide a unique perspective on the past and inspire us to learn more. Here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote about that: “Academic William Uricchio, in 2005 asked an important question about the idea of video games as a new medium for simulating history: “What happens if we push the notion of mediation beyond language, to the domain of game, enactment, or simulation? Does this allow us to slip out of the well-critiqued trap of representation? And if so, where does it land us?” Opposed to books, movies, and even music, where the individual only stands as a mere observer, watching history unfold. In video games agency is given to the one playing it, he is not watching history, he is making it. History can now be rewritten, battles can have their outcomes completely changed and civilizations can have a totally different path of progressing history.”

“Of course, you can read an entire book about WW2 logistics and get to know how every little detail work but there’s nothing quite like launching a naval invasion and seeing your army cut off from being re-supplied because the left wing of your troops that were tasked with capturing the enemy’s ports was pushed back into the sea and how you have 20 divisions encircled and unsupplied being slowly withered away from attrition. Really makes you think, uh? Is it a historically correct fact? No. Is it a historically accurate problem that real-life commanders had to face? Definitely yes.”

That is why I believe video games can be excellent tools for teaching history, whether it’s the Middle Ages or any other period. When created with historical authenticity in mind, they force us to reflect on contexts that are unfamiliar and help us better understand why certain decisions were made by historical characters. They allow us to explore the dilemmas and problems of long-forgotten times and reflect on them. Games can be crucial in supplementing historical understanding in a way that other media, due to their lack of interactivity, cannot.

As an example, I recreated the Battle of Aljubarrota in Stronghold and allowed the artificial intelligence of the game to run and make its own decisions. Interestingly, it made the same decisions that occurred in real life. This can be attributed to a number of factors, and not just because art is imitating life to an uncanny degree- in fact, you can almost attribute it to the game’s own limitations and design decisions -totally outside of my control. This is something I’ll explore in part 3.

Of course, once a player takes control of a game it will immediately become a-historical. However, what’s most important is that rather than ensuring the accuracy of little details like the buckles on the soldiers’ armor are the correct shape and size (if they are, even better) is making sure that the systems governing the game allow the players the freedom they need in order to make decisions comparable to those of the historical figures they’re trying to emulate. Games must strike a balance between forcing the player into a rigidly realistic experience that takes away all agency, turning the game into an interactive movie, or offering freedom in excess that any semblance of Historical similarity just ceases to exist (say, what Paradox has been doing with some of their most recent titles). By the way, this isn’t something new I’m trying to postulate here. This has been happening for over 200 years since Krigsspeil was created and swiftly put to use to teach battlefield tactics. To this very day, wargaming plays a very important role in training and challenging military personnel to think about their decision-making – just take a look at these two articles from Mitch Reed from No Dice No Glory: The Operational Wargame Series: The best game not in stores now and A Night with Georgetown University Wargaming. As long as teachers and experts interacting with their students know and work around the limitations of the game’s design, things should go swimmingly.

Again, going off track! Where were we? Oh! Games that focus on the middle ages! Of course. There are 5 quintessential games that every digital constable should try once in their lives: Crusader Kings III, Age of Empires 2, Field of Glory II: Medieval, Stronghold (and Crusader), and Total War: Medieval II. All of these are relevant for different reasons, and they all differ wildly in the topics they cover. In part 1 I described Crusader Kings 3, and why it features here also is simple: it’s the only game (apart from its predecessor) that attempts to simulate the feudal relations in medieval Europe (and surrounding regions). Of course, given that it is a Paradox Interactive title, and if things go unchecked there’s a chance some wild stuff might start to happen, as Paradox’s games tend to get a bit… meme-ish from time to time. Age of Empires 2 is impossible to ignore, as it probably was the game that started the Medieval craze in the first place and is widely considered to be a masterpiece at this point in time. Is it realistic? Of course not. But it perfectly embodies the popular perception of what Medieval times were like if you printed the public imagination into a videogame format.

Field of Glory II: Medieval – This is the best medieval wargame of all time. Period. No other game offers so much in such, and demands of you so little, while at the same time giving you the freedom to create your scenarios with a very simple scenario editor. Cannot find the battle you wanted to play? No problem, just go ahead and create it. Stronghold (and Crusader) is almost a medieval city-sim with a focus on castle building and management, with a pinch of militarism. Last, but not least, Medieval: Total War is still a very nice entry and it’s almost unrivaled if you’re looking for the Hollywood spectacle of big battles while maintaining an interesting (but lackluster) strategic layer on top.

What’s the history behind Medieval: Total War?

The Total War franchise is an absolutely essential franchise when History and Video Games decide to join forces. Arguably, no other game has created as many amateur historians as this one, maybe except for Age of Empires II. In fact, Total War: Medieval II was not the first medieval focus game by The Creative Assembly, but the fourth! The first game was released in 2000 and was called Shogun: Total War, which, as the name suggests, took place during the Sengoku Jidai period. The same game engine was adapted two years later for the first Medieval: Total War.

What made the game so memorable was the well-conceived combination of two distinct game elements in the same digital space. There was a strategic aspect that was played on a political map of Europe (anachronisms aside, given that the game places the player at the head of countries that, in many cases, did not exist at the time), where the player acted as a statesman, drawing the broad strategic strokes of their nation, building armies, working on diplomacy, managing their economy, and improving their infrastructure. On the other hand, there was a more tactical aspect where the player occupied the position of a commander of an army on the battlefield, directing their troops from the front line. What was most impressive at the time, in 2002, was the number of “sprites” that the game engine could put into battle, exceeding thousands of units on the screen at the same time.

Two years passed, and in 2004, the game that truly popularized the series in the world of strategy video games and brought it to new audiences was released. Although the critical and commercial reception of the two previous games was positive, Rome Total War managed to sell more copies than the previous two games combined in the first few years after its release. Rome Total War maintained the same formula (Strategy on one side, Military Tactics on the other) but built on a new engine that allowed battles to take place with 3D models instead of using “sprites” (2D models that can be rotated to give the impression of being 3D). The increase in graphic fidelity, coupled with a set of structural changes in the strategic component of the game (now you can “manage” an influential family in the empire, engage in political intrigues, the map is no longer arbitrarily divided by regions, and is instead divided by political influence), added granularity to the gameplay that allowed players with aspirations of becoming the next Caesar to have a range of options and ways to do so that were never seen before.

The History Channel also partnered with Creative Assembly, resulting in an interesting “documentary” series called Decisive Battles, where they used Rome: Total War to “simulate” battles from antiquity.

In 2006, the famous Medieval II was released, to which so much is referred. In fact, Medieval II is just Rome: Total War with a medieval mask, as the Rome systems are fully replicated in Medieval. This could lead, as you can imagine, to some dissonance between historical reality and the game. Even so, the sheer spectacle of having thousand of units on screen and the possibility of living out every armchair general dream of commanding a large army was incentive enough to popularize the title.

The Total War franchise is still alive and very active to this day and has explored a range of scenarios that go well beyond the Middle Ages (historical: Total War: Empire; Total War: Napoleon; Shogun II; Rome II; Three Kingdoms. Fantasy: Troy, Warhammer I, Warhammer II, and Warhammer III).

The modding scene (player modifications on the game) is a thriving one in the Total War franchise. Since I already know that this conversation will always end up in medieval times, one of the best available mods is Medieval Kingdoms 1212.

The Total War franchise, along with Age of Empires, has proven that it’s possible to bring history to millions of people and inspired other game developers to do the same. It’s important to note that they were not the first games to do this. As far back as the 1980s, there were digital adaptations of classic board wargames inspired by Kriegsspiel. In the late 1980s, UMS, led by D. Ezra Sidran, sold 125,000 copies, indicating a substantial level of interest in these subjects. The 1990s were particularly fertile ground for this genre of games, with Gary Grigsby creating classics like Steel Panthers and Sid Meier with the Civilization series. Both series are still active today, with Gary Grigsby releasing War in the East 2 in 2021, an absolutely monumental game about Operation Barbarossa.

And that’s that for this one. In my next and final part, I’ll be going over why Military History is usually the basis for every other game out there and why Universities should be using games more often to teach their students.

Hope you’ve been enjoying it. If you have a different opinion or want to share something with me, comment down below!


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