What can we learn from video games?

What’s the point of a historical video game? What do you get from setting a battle in ancient Rome or on the battlefields of the Second World War, rather than in space, the far distant future, or an imaginary world? From a historian’s perspective, we might gain a number of new insights by playing through historical events on our computers, consoles or phones.

Think of Call of Duty: World War Two or Assassin’s Creed Unity (a game set during the French Revolution). Both of these are games where the player takes on a character and moves through various battles and historical events, tries to avoid being injured, to preserve their supplies, and even attempts to capture enemy soldiers. These games can give players a chance to imagine what participating in major historical events might have felt like. World War Two, for example, saw a massive mobilisation of soldiers – ordinary men and women who were sent across the globe to fight. Playing these games might give us a sense of what it felt like to be dropped into an unfamiliar landscape, to find yourself as one person in a much bigger military unit, and to be faced with powerful and frightening forces far beyond your own control. These aren’t experiences we tend to get in everyday life in 2018. In that sense, playing a first-person game is similar to reading a historical novel or a memoir: it might give you an understanding of events which you can’t access through a textbook.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that there’s been considerable public debate about what is an appropriate setting for a video game. Some people have asked whether conflicts in which thousands or even millions of people lost their lives should be used for the purposes of entertainment. Whether some battles are so bloody and horrific that they should be ‘off limits’ to games developers is a discussion taking place today, especially with reference to games set in World War One.

The other type of ‘battlefield game’ is the kind based around strategy. Examples of this include games like Civilization and Age of Empires. You are put in charge of a historical group, nation or civilisation and can lead them into battle (if you wish) in order to build up your resources and power. The player has to make command decisions on the battlefield: which enemy will you decide to fight; which weapons will you develop to arm your soldiers; is it better to fight and risk defeat or to flee and rebuild your forces?

From the perspective of a historian, these strategy games can also teach us something. They can make us reflect on how easily the course of history might have been different: could the ancient Britons have defeated the Roman Empire if they had adopted a different strategy? Could the Aztec Empire have conquered the world? Asking this sort of question is referred to as ‘counter-factual history’, and is a useful way of challenging our historical assumptions. Strategy games can also make us aware of exactly how much effort and expense was involved in historical warfare. Battles aren’t just won with soldiers: you need supply lines, efficient messengers, and ways to maintain the morale of your troops. Military victories depend both on careful planning and an element of chance: historical losers might easily have been winners (and vice-versa).

It goes without saying that not all ‘historical’ video games are historically accurate. Many take historical scenarios and add into them elements of magic, invent their own characters, or play with chronology and timelines. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be historically useful. Many of these games take historical accuracy very seriously, and developers employ ‘historical consultants’ (history graduates) to help them get the details right – even down to the background scenery and the buttons on soldiers’ uniforms.

Further reading:

Playing with history: what Sid Meier’s video game empire got right and wrong about ‘Civilization’

Video games based on history should teach us about the past – not just use it as a backdrop

The Assassin’s Creed curriculum: can video games teach us history?

What if historians started taking the what if seriously?

Dr Philippa Byrne


My research concentrates on the twelfth century, and the intellectual, legal, and political developments associated with the rise of scholasticism and the phenomenon known as the ‘Twelfth-Century Renaissance’. The focus of my work is the connection between theory and practice, between the schools and politics.  Or, to put it another way, I ask how twelfth- and thirteenth-century thinkers attempted to understand the Bible and drew on scripture to make sense of, and reform the social and political structures around them. More recently, I have moved into ‘global history’, specifically in relation to Sicily and the Near East, and considering the reception of Arabic traditions of philosophy in medieval Europe.

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