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Video Games Could Be Serious Tools for Historical Research

An undergraduate history course incorporating strategy games is just the beginning: computer simulations are allowing people to study the past in ways that have never been possible.

MIT Technology Review

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One of the extraordinary consequences of computer modeling techniques is that they make it possible to simulate various real-world phenomena in fantastic detail.

Computer fluid dynamics, for example, has largely replaced the use of wind tunnels in many applications. Social-network simulations have changed the way we understand traffic jams and crowd control as well as the spread of fake news and infectious diseases. And many games, such as the Grand Theft Auto series, Second Life, and many others, re-create the real world in ways that allow players to experiment with alternate realities.

But while this phenomenon has had a huge influence on science, its impact on the humanities—and in particular on the study of history—has been less marked. Which creates something of an opportunity for enterprising historians. Various computer games simulate past events in ever-increasing detail, allowing players to better understand the forces at work and explore alternative histories.

Could this kind of computational history change the way we understand the past and the lessons it holds for us today?

Today we get an answer thanks to the work of Mehmet Sükrü Kuran at Abdullah Gul University in Turkey and a couple of colleagues. These guys have developed an undergraduate history course in which students use historical computer games to better understand their subject.

The process is straightforward. Over the last four years, Kuran and co have incorporated a variety of computer games into their history course to determine which best stimulate discussion and improve student understanding.

The course covers three ages in history: the Middle Ages, focusing on the Great Schism in the Christian world and the Sunni-Shia split in the Islamic world; the early modern age, including the Industrial Revolution; and the modern age, essentially the two 20th-century world wars.

Kuran and co experimented with a number of games, including Sid Meier’s Civilization series by Firaxis games, the Total War series by the Creative Assembly, and the Grand Strategy games such as Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, and Hearts of Iron IV by Paradox Interactive.

Each module in the course began with a learning and discussion session, followed by an introduction to the chosen game. Students were given certain goals to achieve in the game on their own and then asked to write about their experience by comparing it with other sources of historical information.

After two years, Kuran and co decided that one game series was clearly better for learning purposes. “The games from Grand Strategy series provided the most comprehensive experience due to their level of detail, high historical accuracy, and versatility on modeling different cultures and nations,” they say.

So they continued their course using the Crusader Kings II game to help study the medieval period, Europa Universalis IV to help study the early modern to industrial ages, and Hearts of Iron IV to study the early to mid 20th century.

After each session, the students had to write a 500-word blog post about their experience. Then they chose one era to specialize in and wrote a 3,000-word essay on the research they undertook.

Kuran and co list a wide range of advantages for the students in this form of teaching. For example, the game play gave students a much better understanding of global geography and its political and economic implications for trade routes and military supply chains.

The games also taught students about the complex interactions between economic, religious, technological, political, and cultural forces, which play a crucial role in all societies. In particular, the students learned how societies were different in the past and how this affected outcomes. That change from viewing events from a modern point of view to viewing them from a historical point of view is crucial. “This change of perspective greatly increases their understanding of certain historical key events,” say Kuran and co.

The games also gave students a better experience. “Most of the students report that learning history through a video game has a critical immersive component,” say the team. That leads to better recollection and analysis of events.

Kuran and co are clearly convinced that games can play an important role in understanding history. “Although it requires some effort to set up such a blended world history course, we observe the gains outweigh the challenges and allow for a more deep and immersive learning experience,” they say.

It's not hard to see why students might enjoy and benefit from such an approach. But this is clearly just the start. The ability to simulate the past with increasing detail could be of huge value to historians themselves. Data points in history are often sparse and inaccurate, so historians have to fill in the gaps. Computer models are ideal for testing hypotheses and assessing whether they fit with known data points.

Of course, there is a huge difference between game series like Civilization and Grand Strategy and proper scientific simulations. Not least of these is that games are black-box systems affording little or no insight into how they work or how they model events. That makes them hard to assess from an evidence-based point of view.

A good model must allow researchers to control the parameters behind the simulation so that it can be fine-tuned and so that researchers have a clear view of how the input data is processed.

But with such an approach, good models have huge potential. In the same way that climate models allow scientists to explore different ways we can influence the climate, good models of history could help historians study alternative outcomes.

One interesting idea is that there are certain points in history when circumstances ensured that there could be only one outcome, regardless of how the relevant actors behaved. For example, in 1914 the world is widely thought to have been on the precipice of war; so much so that the supposed trigger for the conflict—the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914—was inconsequential. Almost any act of international significance could have pushed Europe into war at that time.

But is that true? Computer models ought to be able to test this idea. And if it is true, how often throughout history have circumstances been such that no alternative outcomes were possible? How can we use this knowledge to prevent similar circumstances?

Readers of this blog will have been following the emergence of computational history as a discipline. Students are beginning to benefit. And a new breed of computational historian is surely set to emerge as well. The question now is how this new discipline will change the way we understand our past and use this newfound knowledge to benefit our future.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1805.00463 : History-Themed Games in History Education: Experiences on a Blended World History Course

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This post originally appeared on MIT Technology Review and was published May 11, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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