Playing with history

This past week included Memorial Day in the US. I attended a parade and a dedication to a Korean War monument. Afterwards, I struggled a bit trying to recall the details of the history of The Forgotten War. I did some reading on the web; unfortunately I seemed to have lost texts I used to have on the subject. Yet I found compensation, I discovered a boxed copy of Victory Games' "The Korean War (June 1950-May 1951)" in storage. Originally published in 1984, I obtained my copy in the early 90's to PBEM with a friend.

What I love about its 51 page rules/scenario manual is what I love about most manuals of this genre of game - they provide a succinct accounting of a model of history. I skimmed the rules, I remembered the board game, and in so doing I recalled something of the history - albeit one narrowly focused on the (geo-)political/military one spanning 1950-51...

Mine is therefore an amateur's recollection of a history of the Korean War.  Yet that is just fine.  Where I think these board games triumphed was in their ability to communicate history as a coherent model: history as a system of rules. History as an interlocking LEGO set of measured hypotheticals and realities. Players moved the pieces around to see what happens.  If it was only an amateur's recollection, it was a rich one.

On the point of amateurism, comes a great quote via Rob MacDougall from Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s (1998):

Hundreds of thousands of Americans who do not earn their living as history professionals dedicate considerable time, money, and even love to historical pursuits. They volunteer at local historical organizations, lead tours of historic houses, don uniforms for battle reenactments, repair old locomotives for the railway history society, subscribe to American Heritage and American History Illustrated, maintain the archives for their trade union or church, assemble libraries from the History Book Club, construct family genealogies, restore old houses, devise and play World War II board games, collect early twentieth-century circus memorabilia, and lobby to preserve art deco movie houses.

One might have thought that with the advent of computer and video games, the opportunities to play with history would have been enhanced. As a personal opinion, I don't believe this to be the case. Niall Ferguson in a 2006 New York Magazine article tells us eloquently of his strong disappointment with the lousy historical value in what passes as WW2 video fare (FPS). In his words, "I hate them. And that’s despite the fact that I sincerely believe computer games have a potentially revolutionary role to play in the teaching of history."

To tie this back to a previous moment on TN ("Grognards"): historical simulation games were never big business, not in the way that mass entertainment console gaming is (for example).  Another way of saying this, perhaps, is to say that these games were largely developed for amateurs, by amateurs.

One could only suppose that if more video game product were developed by amateurs that we might see more history, more playing with history, and - to cite Niall Ferguson's claim - a greater appreciation in society of the lessons of history.

If you believe as I do that history has an important role to play in the success (or not) of society, then the enthusiasm and energy of amateurs is an essential resource when you consider that there is an awful lot of history and for much of it, the pay is lousy.

Too bad cutting code is not yet as easy as cutting cardboard or we might see more playing with history in the CG medium.

Monuments need not always be in granite.


BoardGameGeek,  VG's  "Korean War" (images).

Kotaku discussion  ("'Playing With History': the State of Historical Games").

Comments on Playing with history:

Adam Hyland says:

The people are still there, but the outlet is different. While we don't see more accuracy and historical content in new games, we see the army of historical amateurs on Wikipedia.

More to the point, I think that we are (and Ferguson in particular) attempting to shoehorn a medium into a role it just doesn't fit. We did the same thing with television. Asimov and Clarke (among thousands of other futurists and educators) figured the television would be a great teaching tool. In retrospect, that was a terrible prediction. Even if we accept the premise that Tv/Radio would be radically different with differences in media ownership, it wouldn't be different enough to make it a "teaching tool".

Computers are better, structurally, as teaching tools. they allow for feedback, flexibility and lots of data. But, that doesn't mean that computer GAMES are the outlet for that difference. How many of those grognards (or their younger equivalent) are working in the Project:Military History section in wikipedia, reveling in a new sea of rules and information? Is gaming the critical component of that outlet for them? Or was it just what they did at the time?

Posted May 31, 2008 11:30:18 AM | link

Chris Armstrong says:

I think one of the problems with games about war is that sometimes the more historically accurate a game is, the less "fun" it is to play. Gamers like killing Nazis or running Rambo-style through the jungle. They don't want to go on a patrol for several hours without encountering an enemy or see one of the many innumerable atrocities of war. War is horrible. If a game company were to develop a game that would accurately portray what it was like to first uncover the concentration camps in Europe, would it sell? Would the vast majority of people play it?

There are some (relatively) historically accurate games that found a balance between fun and education. One of my favorites is the Age of Empires series. I learned a lot from playing that game, and it was extremely fun too. I think if more games capitalize on this sort of balance they'll get the history buffs and the gamers too. Win-win for everyone.

There can be a game that accurately portrays history while minimizing the more mundane aspects of it. We must also remember that playing a game needs to be fun. If it's exactly like the real world, why wouldn't we go outside and engage the real thing?

These are just a few of my thoughts and this post flows terribly. I'm not the best of writers!

Posted Jun 1, 2008 9:54:46 PM | link

greglas says:

At the risk of annoying self-promotion, I'm going to point to my student project on this again, particular with respect to models. I also have some comments about AOE there.

Re models, I was actually talking with Richard about this last week -- the curious thing is that you actually can't simulate *history*.

I'll put aside the question of whether we live in a mechanically or quantum statistically determined universe since we're not at that Bostromish moment yet. Because simulation allows you to choose differently, and all choices influence subsequent events, you can model certain aspects of a given historical moment, but after that it's a tough question about how much sandbox the game is and how much you have to drag the player along the narrative path that history actually followed.

I love AOE (and AOE II) personally (as do my kids) , but AOE II doesn't teach history as much as it has elements of what good grognards would call "chrome." You play and you get some sense, e.g., of the visual and functional distinctions between trebuchets, mangonels and onagers. And despite the enthusiasm for the Civilization games, which are also fun to play, I really wonder whether the historical chrome there does much that is educational at all.

But all this is beside Nate's main point, with which I heartily agree. Amateurs as a class are those who do things for the love of doing them and the respect of a community, not for the financial rewards anticipated.

My personal guess is that our entertainment culture would be in a healthier place if amateurs (including, but not limited to, historically-obsessed grognards) played a more central role and the EAs of the world played a lesser role.

Posted Jun 4, 2008 1:36:16 PM | link

nate_combs says:

Because simulation allows you to choose differently, and all choices influence subsequent events, you can model certain aspects of a given historical moment, but after that it's a tough question about how much sandbox the game is and how much you have to drag the player along the narrative path that history actually followed.


In the spirit of the post, what *historically grounded simulations* (perhaps a better turn of phrase) may do best for promoting an understanding of history is IMO, thus:

1.) From comment on Kotaku site (link above): "the desire to enter into some kind of sympathetic engagement with the people of the past, not just the events"

2.) Communicate a better sense of the context and trade-offs surrounding a moment in history around which the sandbox (or game) has been fashioned.

To take a basic grognard example. AH's Afrika Korps may not capture the history of Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, but I think it does well to capture something close: the obsession with supply/logistics and the see-saw nature of that conflict in desert wastes.

On the other hand AH's Russian Front I used to find to be a chillingly stark game: the russian player is trying to buy time by sacrificing space and units; the germans are in a desperate rush to strike a decisive blow across vast spaces before winter(s) and the reinforcement schedule turns against them. None of these game moments were "history". But they were games of a historical time that captured the really terrible historical choices available to those participants and frame a context for those times.

I don't think (1.) and (2.) are unrelated. Engagement in this case I feel to be a product of the ability to empathize by participating in a moment of the times.

Just my thoughts.

Posted Jun 4, 2008 8:32:19 PM | link

greglares says:

Yes, I guess that's right -- perhaps I overstated the point.

I was quibbling about the difficulty of maintaining a historical narrative while offering real choice to the player. It seems to me that you could not do that for long without departing from the historical train. But that's a quibble about history as storytelling.

History is much more than that, of course. A good simulation certainly does give an appreciation of historical circumstances (via forced engagement with the model) that you really can't get any other way. You certainly do understand an event much better when a simulation provides you with the terrain, materials, and objectives that are faithful models of the original situation faced by historical actors... and then requires you to act in that situation.

This is a pretty deep and important point, educationally. We learn by being actively engaged, and appreciate the achievements of others only when we understand the nature of the challenges they were facing.

Posted Jun 4, 2008 9:08:56 PM | link

waldo says:

historically-obsessed grognards - I like that :^)

So I was on the original development team of a Half-Life mod called Day of Defeat. It (and us) got acquired by Valve and it went on to be (and still is) a commercial product. It's a team-oriented FPS game, your typical multi-class shooter like Team Fortress 2 is. One side is "Allies" (US) and the other side is "Axis" (German).

When we made the game back in our amateur days, we had no goals or motivations beyond, "WW2 is interesting". We went out of our way to make it be a "guns versus guns" game and not an "ideology versus ideology" game. No "NAZI" references for example and no "Hitler Salutes."

What you might say is that we made a game that was historical, but not history. In many ways I think we had a lot in common with the WW2 reenacting crowd. We basically offer a setting for virtual reenactment of WW2 battles.

The politically tricky part in any WW2 game is to put Germans into a game like this, and to let people play them. And you just can't do this if you make a "good guys versus bad guys" game. So our game was just "soldiers versus soldiers" Despite our best efforts (and in some ways much to our amusement), we actually got mentioned by the JDL as an example of a "NAZI simulator."

Also, most every game map is a purely fictitious location with names like "Donner" or "Flash" or "Kalt" When your team (Allies or Axis) wins the map, there is no great moral victory. Nobody is "One step closer to Berlin" or "One step closer to a Glorious New Reich" Instead it's one in many thousands of battles won or lost in the same little fictitious town that you'll fight over many many times in the days and months to come.

What's also interesting is how we saw people in our online forums become more historically aware. People got curious and learned things on their own about history because of the game.

Posted Jun 7, 2008 12:24:31 PM | link

nate_combs says:


The politically tricky part in any WW2 game is to put Germans into a game like this

Excellent insight. Per the quote above, yes I think this sounds tricky. Another example of why first-person multiplayer games might be the wrong vehicle for some kinds of historical examination.

A reason why "board-games" (or its CG equivalents) may have design advantage for handling some historical material. Their advantage may lie with a more systematic view and interaction style.

Many of the old AH/VG etc games used to print 2 numbers as short-hand on the back - to quickly inform potential buyers: "complexity" (how complex is it to play), and "solitare suitability" (how well suited is its ruleset for a single player to play the game by herself).

I think the solitary play aspect is less well appreciated outside of the genre. Take the Russian Front example cited earlier - it was only a moderately complex game of its genre. Yet set-up could take hours and to play the full campaign game - the box says upwards of 18 hours, but I'd say double that, easily - and that would be dedicated play (/edited *)

I wouldn't be surprised if most of these games were played solitaire by grognards who were "what-if" playing both sides. For example, something up, try it, see if it worked. Try something else.

A "moral victory" cannot be a motivator in such a design (only unless one had something to prove to oneself). To design a game that is capable of solitare play - even if one didn't play it that way - may imply design elements that help them when it came time to working more closely with historical material. A thought.

For example, ruleset complexity (thick manuals) might help in this regard. But it also discouraged mass appeal. The very long time it took to set up and play a single game (days, or months by PBEM) I think qualitatively changes the game experience as compared to a more episodic FPS gaming experience. Linking points/victory conditions to historical scenarios and benchmarks may encouraged a view that "winning" was pointless beyond a historical comparison. For example, many WW2 games of this genre might have scenarios something like where the Germans win if they can last through 1945... to most of us in the 21st century, a technical win only. Yet it is a historical measurement that invites further thinking about where a player might have deviated from historical trendlines and performance.


* 18x2 hrs would be the extreme case, to my mind: advanced rules, no blunders, no concessions, game played to completion with full attention and attention-to-detail. Admittedly, few games ended this way.

Posted Jun 7, 2008 6:01:01 PM | link

Erikc says:

isn't September 12 in a sense, an historical game?
History as a term seems to change definition according to context: a living person or existing building can historical, and they can be simulated.

Yet sometimes historically unique events are seen to be history per se (pure history?) The polemic battles, systems of interpretations, models of cause and effects, extrapolated motives are as much history as a singular fixed event in time. History is not just fate, a frozen shard of time that hides behind our shoulder (ironically even Dewey said something like this).

Every time we remember a song or a place, it is actually different brain cells being searched and data placed together from different parts of the brain (hence how our emotional responses can change when hearing previously loved or hated songs). Our cognitive maps are piecemeal, they aren;t fixed beacons. And the same for our memories. They are easily contaminated, yet we so often refuse to believe that our (historical) judgement is dynamic and variable. Hmm, sorry for the rant, I think there was a point in there somewhere.

Posted Jun 12, 2008 5:11:16 AM | link

Tim says:

You'll know we arrived at an interesting time and place when there are games where you can play the "terrorists"

Posted Jun 12, 2008 12:31:34 PM | link

dmx says:

Eh. Counterstrike you could always play the terrorists. Mind you that was pre 9/11.

I think historical modelling is an interesting idea. I'd certainly think theres a whole world of opportunities for MMO roleplay based on historical events and the life, but some might be a little uncomfortable.

I mean do you REALLY want griefers in nazi uniforms pranking virtual 1930s poland. Things could go horribly wrong here.

Posted Jun 14, 2008 3:33:22 AM | link

ErikC says:

But dmx, the basic scenario has already been done!

Posted Jun 16, 2008 12:12:41 AM | link

Derek says:


It didn't occur to anyone that educational mass media is like communism; looks great on paper but simply does not take human nature in to account.

Posted Jun 21, 2008 6:35:46 AM | link

Mike Cosgrave says:

I'd be one of those history obsessed grognards who has the good fortune to teach history in college - this year I got a second year class to design a hex-and-counter wargame for their midterm; i blogged a bit on my site, and am trying to put it into a paper for AISHE in late August.

For military history, there are a huge number of board wargames which embody a decent amount of research and models of conflict of varying complexity. What I regret is the lack of a similar range of games for general history, but we can work on that I guess. Having the model explicitly laid out in a paper rulebook is, I think, more useful for College level teaching than having it buried in a black box of C++ code.

Posted Jul 7, 2008 5:21:41 PM | link