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The limits of strategy games and education

January 17th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

I’m doing my teaching training at the moment (I feel like I’ve been in school my whole life…) and when my colleagues learn that I am an avid computer gamer, many of them ask about the applicability of gaming to learning history. This is a common theme. A lot of people claim that a particular game got them interested in studying history or that their favorite game would make an excellent teaching tool.

The former may be true. I have no way of telling whether playing Civilization is really a great way to introduce people to history. It strikes me as a little suspicious – I tend to think that people who have a passing interest in history are likely to play Civ and it might accentuate what’s already there. I know that Europa Universalis made me more interested in the early modern period, but I’ve always been a history geek.

The latter claim – that historical strategy games would make great teaching tools – is almost certainly untrue. Beyond the fact that people who say this have a very antiquated idea of what history is (names, dates, geography, etc.) and blinders as to what games are (rule sets that do not mimic anything beyond what the designers intended), historical strategy games fail as teaching tools for one important reason. They tend to whitewash history until it is no more than events happening one after the other.
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A good example is from Paradox’s forum on their new game Hearts of Iron 2. I’ll quote it in its entirety.

“NOTE: There will not be any gulags or deathcamps (including POW camps) to build in Hearts of Iron2, nor will there be the ability to simulate the Holocaust or systematic purges, so I ask you not to discuss these topics as they are not related to this game. Thank You.

NOTE: Strategic bombing in HoI2 will be abstracted and not allow you to terror bomb civilians specifically. Chemical weapons will also not be included in the game. Any threads that complain about this issue will be closed without discussion.

NOTE: There will not be any swastikas in the game, because it IS illegal to show them in Germany and various other countries. Same goes for other Nazi symbols (e.g. related to the SS) or Nazi propaganda material, including songs etc. Any link posted to a mod which includes a Swastika or other illegal Nazi symbols will be deleted. Any threads that complain about this issue will be closed.”

Now I have no complaints about this specific policy. I would find a game that encouraged the massacre of civilians or forced the player to repeat the worst crimes of human history to be beyond distasteful. The game does offer the Soviet player the chance to purge his/her military though (with disastrous effects to Soviet military readiness), so there is a little duplicity here. But it does severely undermine anyone who wants to seriously argue that this game is a useful tool for understanding World War 2. How can you possibly teach the greatest human conflict ever without understanding the motivations of Nazism or the industrialized murder of millions of innocent people? As it plays out in the game, the war is no more than the settlement of outstanding territorial claims. It is entirely possible to play Germany with no sense of horror or outrage.

This is, of course, typical. There would be no WW2 strategy games at all if you couldn’t play Germany. It is just a game.

The Holocaust is a peculiar evil – not unique in human history – but so close to our own time and so modern in all its features that its mere mention stirs up unease in all who hear of it. Paradox certainly thinks so, since their earlier Europa Universalis 2 had the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Jews from Spain and even had slaves as trade goods, even if the controlling power had no logical reason to use slaves.

But even these crimes of history are treated with kid gloves. The evils of slavery are granted an historic inevitability instead of being placed in the context of a triangular trade that made captive Africans the primary good of sale in Western Africa.

I don’t mean to pick on Paradox – they simply stand out since their games are the most deeply researched and fact-filled and are often held out by their customers as people who make educational games. They aren’t alone though.

Civilization 3 is a big leap forward from its predecessors, but, for the first time, has game mechanics that encourage the razing of cities. Corruption and waste are such a problem that it is much more feasible to burn an enemy settlement to the ground than it is to garrison it. Rome: Total War has the same issue – extermination is easier than dealing with the foreigners you just conquered. This is normal for ancient warfare of course, but none of the horrors of the cleansing are apparent. Even your typical wargame never gives you casualty figures or home front consequences for disastrous failures.

I am certainly not advocating that all this stuff should be put in a game. I play enough “unfun” games as it is without all this doom and gloom put in them. But before people start celebrating a game as an aid to history education, they need to have a better idea of what history education is all about. Teaching history means teaching the ugly side of humanity as well the cool stuff like kings and battles. Showing people a map of Europe on a computer screen is no more educational than showing them the same map in a book. Letting students pretend to be FDR in a strategy game is no more educational than watching a movie about the Great Depression. For a game to be an educational device, you have to be clear on what it is you are trying to teach. Once you have that cleared up you can look for a game to fit the lesson. And it may not be the one with all the pictures of famous people in it.


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