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The Zeal of the Convert

May 24th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Design, History

Best-selling historian Niall Ferguson has written an essay about his experiences with Muzzy Lane’s Making History: The Calm and the Storm. Ferguson is thrilled to find out that he can test counterfactuals with PC strategy games.

I’ve always loved counterfactuals and alternate histories. (What if Alexander had lived to consolidate his empire? What if Pompey had died of his illness in 51? What if the Crusades had worked? What if the Ming hadn’t scuttled Zheng He’s fleet?) There’s a trick to doing this rigorously – maintaining that certain things stay constant, recognizing which effects happen at which level of interaction, etc. – and I recommend Ferguson’s Virtual History very highly.

But he’s really picked a peculiar game to model this sort of thing with.

I’m writing a review of Making History, and I don’t want to step on the toes of that review, but suffice it to say that there is too much randomness in your standard game. Certain things will fire regularly, but in the wrong way. Take the Anschluss. Hearts of Iron does this by event – Germany can choose to annex Austria. Making History can only handle this by war, so Germany attacks Austria. The war inevitably goes easily, but since it’s a war, all kinds of strange things can happen. Franco’s Spain can defend the victim, for example. As Ferguson’s article notes, trade makes a huge difference in how states respond, but the difference is almost too huge – tiny countries jump into pointless wars to support someone who buys the occasional parcel of food. Not to mention the woeful military AI.

The big thing about the article is how amazed Ferguson seems. He somehow lumps Empire Earth in with Civilization and still (to my horror) thinks Axis and Allies is a good game. Making History is the first real attempt at historical strategy gaming he has played, and he is blown away. It’s as if someone had never seen a science fiction movie until Attack of the Clones and decided to write an article about special effects will change the world.

Then he asks Dave McCool if he has ever won as Germany. McCool recounts how this happened and Ferguson is thrilled. “Now ask yourself: How many other companies in the world are run by a man who has led Germany to victory in World War II?”

Maybe if I ever win as China, I can get that small business loan.

The article is useful if only to remind us strategy gamers that some people take the educational promise of gaming seriously only because their benchmark knowledge is so low. Ferguson lumps Empire Earth in with Civilization as games that teach the importance of economics. He shows no sign of having tried other games based on other historical periods. And he heaps copious praise on the game that most heavily promotes itself as an educational tool.

In any case, I welcome Dr. Ferguson to the world of historical strategy gaming. Be sure to try the buffet. There’s a lot to choose from.

(Ferguson article spotted at The Strategy Gamer.)


4 Comments so far ↓

  • JonathanStrange

    I like it when an obvious non-gamer expresses some interest in our hobby so I’ll bite my tongue and avoid what might be perceived as “geek-like” fussiness about his opinions. Truth be told, it’s always tempting for the cognoscenti to be amused or disagree with the opinions of people with apparently limited knowledge of their field; I know when I give my opinions on rifles or motorcycles to my brothers, they roll their eyes. Amateur!

  • Scott R. Krol

    One thing you may have overlooked in the Wired article is that not only did he just discover computer strategy gaming, but now he’s going to start *making* them. From Wired:

    “Ferguson became so delighted with Making History that he has joined forces with Muzzy Lane to design a new game. Due out in 2008, this one will model modern, real-world conflicts such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the nuclear confrontation with Iran.”

    That should be ah, interesting.

  • Alan

    As is often the problem when non-gamers “discovering” gaming, there’s a huge risk of disappointment when they realize that games are constrained by technical limitations. Ah, the joys of technology.

  • David Csonka

    Troy, thanks for the link back, its much appreciated. In fact, I’m glad I stumbled onto your blog, its a really great read. I look forward to sifting through some of your previous posts.