Using Civilization Simulation Video Games in the World History Classroom
|The field of history has evolved in many ways over the past century. New theories, methodologies, and approaches have altered the discipline in ways that would have surprised our professional ancestors. Indeed, the sub-field of world history itself is one such product of a historical discourse that worked to develop new approaches less informed by national borders and Eurocentrism.1 Still, in many ways history remains a conservative discipline. We continue to follow a model dependent on written texts that are interpreted by scholars who then present their findings in vetted journals. The book, the document, and the article remain the primary tools for the historian not only in their research but in their teaching endeavors as well. It should be of no surprise, therefore, that history has been slow to recognize the value of non-traditional tools in the teaching of history. One such tool that has only recently emerged is the civilization simulation video game. By examining three particular titles, Civilization III, the Age of Empires series, and Rise of Nations, this paper will discuss why it is important to recognize that these games have a substantial impact on the layman's understanding of history, how they present topics important to the world historian, and methods by which these games can be used to not only teach historical concepts but also instruct students how to critically evaluate and deconstruct historical representations found in popular culture.||1|
|The Rise of the Games|
and educators have been suspicious of video games since they first appeared
in the late 1970's. They are blamed for a variety of detrimental effects,
including the breakdown of social relationships, rewarding violent behavior,
limiting creative play, and generally degrading both the physical and moral
character of their players. Even so, in the 1980's several attempts were
made to compose games that had educational value. Titles such as Where
in the World is Carmen Sandiego and The Oregon Trail were specifically
designed to be educational and represented critical financial successes
for the companies involved. For a brief time, it seemed as if "edutainment"
titles could be viable in the larger marketplace.
by the early 1990's it was clear that commercial software companies only
interested in producing entertainment products were in the ascendant. Benefiting
from large bankrolls, well-trained developers, and a hungry market, commercial
software companies quickly surpassed the ability of smaller educational
firms in producing slick, technologically sophisticated, and entertaining
titles. Since that time, the computer and video game industry has grown
by leaps and bounds. Statistics released by the Entertainment Software Association
underscore this trend.2
The organization estimates that 69% of heads of households play some form
of electronic games and sales of computer games in 2005 reached almost one
billion dollars and thirty-eight million units sold. Each title can take
between twenty-five to one hundred hours to complete, representing a considerable
investment of time in a learning process not controlled by formal educational
institutions. Even without considering console games, it is obvious that
computer games represent a powerful component of popular culture media.
|The Educators Take Notice|
|Because of the obvious importance of the gaming culture and perhaps because many new scholars are gamers themselves, a shift has occurred in educational literature arguing that games may not be wholly detrimental to the learning process. James Gee, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, is recognized as a pioneer in the study of computer games as educational tools. He notes that people learn best when they are entertained, can connect intellect with emotion, and when they can immediately assess the outcomes of their decisions (termed recursive play).3 He argues that educators have been too concerned with imparting mere factual information, without connecting these atomized data into coherent systems.4 As world historians, we are well-aware of the importance of examining historical processes from a systemic viewpoint, a viewpoint that integrates complex relationships between entities in ways that lead to emergent properties. It is precisely this methodology that is employed in civilization builder games.||4|
Jenkins, the director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies department, identifies
some other aspects of gaming that make it an attractive teaching tool.5 Games foster student interaction,
sometimes leading to ad-hoc learning groups that build on the strongest
talents of their members. They allow for different learning modalities,
thus encouraging students who are ill-suited to traditional teaching methods.
Indeed, Kurt Squire, a graduate of the Instructional Systems Technology
Department at Indiana University who wrote his dissertation on the use of
Civilization III (hereafter referred to as Civ III) in the
classroom, noted that some of the students who got the most out of his unit
were those very students who were failing in their more traditional classes.6
Squire's study showed that the use of games can engage students otherwise
uninterested in history, assist in classroom management issues, and create
an environment that fosters self-learning.7 Perhaps most crucially, recent
research has shown that computer games not only teach important critical
thinking and problem solving skills–traits that are particularly important
in the interpretation of world history–but can also alter the biology
of the brain. Michael Posner, a psychologist at the University of Oregon,
notes that games can activate neural pathways that are important for both
numerical and literacy skills.8 This trend towards acknowledging
the importance of games in the learning environment has exploded in recent
years, with over 2,500 schools now using software intended for entertainment
as teaching tools.9
|Therefore, as educators, it is necessary for us to at least be aware of the impact of gaming in the wider world and the pedagogical arguments for using games in the classroom. I would now like to turn to civilization builder games in specific, as these titles have the most import for the teaching of world history. While there are some differences, the basic designs of these games are quite similar. The player assumes the role of an omniscient ruler of a polity in opposition to other polities in the game world. These polities are identified with actual historical groups, such as the Babylonians, the Aztecs, the British, and a plethora of others, and the maps on which gameplay takes place emulate to some degree the actual geographic and environmental features found in real life. Typically, the time frame for these games starts at the end of the Agricultural Revolution and the player progresses to the modern day and beyond. Players are required to manage resource extraction and expenditures, research new technologies that bestow particular benefits, build and maintain cities as the core of their state, establish relationships with other polities in the gaming world, chose governments, create and maintain armed forces, and recognize the importance of geographical features in the development of their society. The goal is to achieve world domination, either through force, diplomacy, or the cultural and material wealth of your society.||6|
|Learning From What They Got Right|
|There are several aspects of these games that reflect our understanding of world history. It has often been argued that geographic and environmental factors have been ignored in the historical narrative. This has only changed recently with the development of environmental history and the growing recognition in the world history field that geography has played an integral role in cultural and material development.10 However, geographical concerns have always been a major component of these games. For instance, in Civilization III, only some land is arable, such as territory adjacent to rivers or lakes. Thus, while the game does not force a player to choose a particular path, students playing the Egyptians will find it is to their benefit to develop an agricultural society while those playing the Greeks will tend to have more success by establishing colonies and trading relationships. Certain resources can only be found in appropriate geographical locations. Minerals are associated with mountain ranges, while forests provide much-needed timber while at the same time limiting the space available for agriculture. Some goods can only be found in specific areas, most commonly luxury products that benefit the player with some kind of bonus. For instance, in Rise of Nations, amber is available from Scandinavia, obsidian is found in North America, and spices are located in Southeast Asia. The quest to obtain as many of these specialized goods as possible is a key factor in the eventual success of a civilization. In Civilization III, luxury goods are given a more sophisticated treatment. Instead of merely conquering a territory to obtain the product, in Civ III, players can form trading relationships to get what they need.||7|
|Civ III also gives the student an opportunity to consider the geographical ramifications of technological diffusion.11 Technologies can be shared between civilizations, and in heavily populated zones, such as the eastern Mediterranean,12 diffusion occurs rapidly. But in North America, low population densities and few opportunities to contact other polities limit the ability to share technology, with the result often being surprise when far more technologically sophisticated cultures finally make contact with the New World. Geography also plays a role in warfare. Echoing the importance that John Keegan gives geography in his text A History of Warfare, these games stress the significance of different terrain types on unit movement and deployment.13 Units will move more slowly in difficult terrain, while altering the environment by building roads ameliorates this effect. In Age of Empires, if a unit is located below an enemy-controlled plateau, it will suffer penalties in both its defensive and offensive capabilities. Units on high ground have the ability to "see" farther, and likewise gain tactical benefits from their position.||8|
|As mentioned above, trade and economics play an important role in both Rise of Nations and Civilization. Establishing mutually beneficial trade relationships can be crucial for success. In Rise of Nations, currency is primarily generated from trade routes established between cities. Other goods can be sold to obtain wealth, but glutting the market with a particular product lowers the price a player can gain for their resources. Large scale economic phenomena that interest world historians can even be modeled in Civ III. For instance, the silver cycle that emerged after Spanish contact with the New World can be roughly recreated, with New World metals collecting in Spanish coffers which are then spent to purchase luxury goods from China.14 Thus, the student playing as China can have her economy impacted by New World products even if she has never encountered the Americas herself. This complexity extends throughout the game. A player will quickly find that neglecting even one aspect of a society, such as military power, technological development, or a strong economy, will lead to failure. It is only through balancing resource expenditures that a civilization can succeed.||9|
|Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of using these games as a teaching tool is that they help to eliminate a teleological understanding of history. Students often believe that history is pre-determined; there is no alternative outcome to an historical event than the one that occurred. By playing these games, students learn to recognize the contingent nature of history. For instance, in the silver cycle example, a student playing the Spanish may decide to use his New World wealth to develop new technologies and infrastructure rather than utilizing it merely for the purchase of luxury products or manufactured goods. This divergence between "game history" and actual history creates new paths and different outcomes that encourage the student to consider how the choices not made in real history could have changed historical events. Likewise, in the game worlds, any of the polities have the ability to be successful and win the game. It is possible to have games where North Americans colonize Europe, where Africa successfully resists imperial occupation, or where Russia is the first to establish a modern republican form of government. Indeed, Kurt Squire sees this as an important motivating factor for students of traditionally oppressed groups.15 He found that the opportunity to turn Western European dominance on its head was a powerful draw for minority students who often feel that history was not written for them. The ability to play out different versions of history make these games a powerful tool for comparing events in the game world and actual history.||10|
|Learning from What They Got Wrong|
|For all of their sophistication, civilization building games have numerous faults that detract from their historical authenticity. However, rather than lessening the value of these games as a teaching tool, these faults can actually be used, in conjunction with more traditional methods such as texts and lectures, as a way to not only teach students correct historical information, but also how to deconstruct artifacts from their own culture in order to detect biases, factual inaccuracies, and structural flaws in the models used by the game developers. One major flaw in these games is that, while they allow for a non-linear approach to history in terms of events, they are extremely linear in terms of technological, political, and cultural development. In Age of Empires, for example, history is divided into ages. Progressing to the next age gives players more benefits with no costs. There is no opportunity to deviate from these ages, or for different societies to choose different ways of progressing. What's worse, these ages are based on a periodization of history that favors a Eurocentric view. For instance, in Age of Empires II, the Persians are forced to progress through a "Dark Ages" followed by the Feudal Age, and finally the Renaissance, a periodization that is completely inappropriate when considering the reality of Persian history. Even Civ III, by far the most robust and historically correct program, forces progress through Ancient, Middle, and Industrial ages conceptualized through a Eurocentric lens.||11|
|The conceptualization of political systems also present a few problems. In all of the games, political systems are chosen directly by the player, as opposed to being generated from the discrete cultural and physical environment occupied by the player's polity. In both Age of Empires and Rise of Nations, players can choose political systems that are completely disconnected from the other economic, cultural, or military aspects of their society. Thus, it is difficult to use these games to teach students that political organization is based on protracted negotiations between stakeholders in a polity, stakeholders that are defined by their relationships to other aspects of a community. Civ III is slightly more robust in this respect, with the choice of political system dependent on earlier research choices, however ultimately it is still the player that chooses the governmental structure. These games also make biased assumptions about the most beneficial types of government. In Rise of Nations, a player can progress from despotism to a monarchy to "capitalism" each with more benefits than the last. It is impossible to alter the political system after the choice has been made, so "backsliding" to a more "primitive" form does not occur. In Civ III, a player can revert to "earlier" forms of government, but the costs involved in such a move make it unlikely that a player would choose this path. In all of the games, a capitalist democratic republic garners the most benefits, leading players to adopt an Amero-centric perception of the relative worth of political systems.||12|
|These games also incorporate ideas about nationalism and national identities that were only fixed in the nineteenth century and are thus inappropriate when considering the whole span of human history. For instance, in both Rise of Nations and Civ III, it is possible to play the British. The notion of what it meant to be British is a relatively recent development, informed by centuries of history that saw the indigenous Celtic population displaced by the Anglo-Saxons who were themselves displaced politically by the Norman French. Even this process only resulted in an English identity that was further elaborated with deepening connections to the Celtic peripheries of Scotland and Wales. Finally, A unified British identity was really only solidified through the experience of empire, where the presence of "outside" peoples of the imperial periphery allowed the British to define themselves as whatever those people were not.16 This formation of national identity is completely submerged by these games, which allow a player to start as the British during the Neolithic and maintain that identity through the entire course of the game. Likewise, zones of political control mirror modern ideas about discrete national boundaries. It is not possible in the games to model loose confederations, or areas where political control may be present but incomplete. For instance, the Iroquois in both Rise of Nations and Civ III are presented as a unified polity with a single national identity, instead of a confederation that developed to meet the particular challenges of European colonial expansion.17 Additionally, each playable group is given particular intrinsic characteristics that are teleologically defined. The Dutch in Rise of Nations have increased commercial and trading powers that are in effect from the very beginning of the game. Instead of the commercial nature of the Dutch evolving out of the contingent events and processes of the gaming world, it is bestowed on the Dutch as an intrinsic property of their character.||13|
|The biases of these games are perhaps no better typified than by the American example. In both Rise of Nations and Civ III, the Americans are a playable group that begins during the Neolithic on the East coast of North America. They are described as intrinsically industrious and expansionist, have a unified national character from the beginning, and are predisposed to choosing a democratic form of government. It is obviously absurd that a nation that grew out of complex processes related to colonial expansion, imperial conquest, and cultural amalgamation could exist as a recognizable entity before any of these events took place, but nevertheless, a player can find herself playing a colonial nation centuries before the technology allowing for European travel to the New World even existed. Likewise, the Americans begin with the intrinsic abilities to replace the standard jet fighter that can be built in the latter stages of the game with an F-15 in Civ III and lower their costs for aircraft in Rise of Nations. American airpower in the twenty-first century is predicated on historical developments of the recent historical past, but this software grants this ability from the moment a player loads up the game. Indeed, American exceptionalism is a possible critique of civilization builder games. No other settler communities are represented in any of these titles. South Africa, Australia, nor any of the modern Central or South American states are playable groups in the games. Matthew Kapell, in his article "Civilization and its Discontents", argues that games such as these unavoidably favor elements of the American mythos, such as the expansion of the frontier, the benefits of a capitalist economic system, the moral correctness of a "benevolent" hegemonic world power, and a faith in the inherent ability of technological progress to ameliorate human suffering and oppression.18||14|
that are not available choices for a player also present a difficulty. They
are invariably described as barbarians, uncivilized peoples that not only
lack the sophistication to achieve world domination, but can never hope
to experience any cultural or political change. In Rise of Nations,
these states only exist to be conquered by the playable human and computer
polities in their quest for world domination. In Civ III, they can
be peacefully incorporated into playable groups, but can never be on their
own anything but "primitive" non-complex villages. By setting up this
dichotomy, these games draw a sharp line between those societies that are
worthy of further advance and those that will always exist outside the protections
of civilization and progress due to their intrinsic characteristics. In
this way, these games mirror imperial ideologies that underpinned much of
the nineteenth century.19
|There are numerous other aspects of these games that do not stand up to close scrutiny. For instance, the importance of infectious diseases in the course of history is ignored. In Civ III, it is possible for cities to become overpopulated and diseased, but contact between civilizations does not initiate plagues. The ramifications for the colonization of the New World are enormous, as most historians view the importation of disease as a primary factor in the ease with which Europeans conquered the Americas. Despite using Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel as one of his sources, Squire failed to recognize this important omission, highlighting the need for trained world historians to take a more active interest in the interpretation and utilization of civilization builder games.20 Even in the realm of military tactics, an area in which this software is particularly robust, there are deficiencies. All armies, regardless of the polity, basically operate in the same way. For instance, in the game world, the Aztecs and the Spanish field armies under the rubric of total war. In reality, the Aztecs had a far different perception of the role of warfare, utilized allied polities for the bulk of their fighting force, and defined control as being over people as opposed to over territory. The differences in the way that the Spanish and the Aztecs waged war had a crucial impact on how the Spanish conquest progressed. 21 The deficiencies in these games do not preclude their use as teaching tools; indeed, they enhance opportunities for instructors to challenge their students to think critically about the media they consume.||16|
|In the Classroom|
|How an instructor can use civilization builder games in the classroom is contingent on the resources she has available to her. The use of software in an educational environment is dependent on the technology available, the amount of time instructors have to incorporate non-traditional teaching methods, the knowledge level of the instructor in regards to the game being considered, and the educational level and motivation of the students. Before discussing particular lesson plans, some general comments are appropriate. Out of the three games, Civ III is by far the most robust.22 It is the only game that allows the player to win by some other method than military conquest in any meaningful way. Its models of trade, technological diffusion, and cultural progress are well beyond those of either Rise of Nations or Age of Empires. However, it is arguably the most difficult of the three games to learn. Squire estimates that teaching with Civ III requires up to twenty hours of play just for students to learn the intricacies of the interface and the relationships between the choices they make and the results of those choices.23 Rise of Nations is less complex while maintaining a wide variety of possible teaching points, but it is geared towards military conquest, representing a strong bias that diminishes its ability to be used in a complex way. Age of Empires is the least robust of the three games, and should probably only be considered for classroom use in connection with deconstructing its biases and inaccuracies.||17|
|No matter what game is chosen, instructors will require regular access to a computer lab with enough computers capable of running the software. Luckily, none of these titles are particularly taxing for modern systems, but large classes may have difficulties securing enough machines for in-class projects. Instructors will need to be quite familiar with the software chosen, as they will be expected to answer student questions not only about the basic mechanics of gameplay but also about the historical issues that underpin the whole rationale for using this software in the first place. The instructor will have to carefully assess the abilities of his students and tailor lessons accordingly. It is impossible for students to recognize biases and inaccuracies if they lack basic historical understanding in the first place. This can be ameliorated by creating lessons that incorporate both the game and traditional teaching methods that impart both basic historical information and critical evaluation skills. Indeed, no matter how an instructor ultimately decides to incorporate this software, it is necessary to frame it with traditional teaching methods and material.||18|
|What follows are three potential projects that instructors could use with civilization builder games. Because different instructors will have access to different combinations of resources and teach different age grades, they are designed in a way so that they can be used as in-class assignments, out of class assignments, or even optional projects presented as end-of-term assignments or extra credit.||19|
|This paper can only serve as a brief introduction to the concept of using civilization builder games in the classroom. Obviously, not all instructors in all places will have the ability to deploy lesson plans that depend on good access to technology and the time to properly prepare students to master the game well enough to gain some historical insight. Still others may object that such games have no place in the classroom. But it would appear that world historians ignore these games at their peril. They are widespread in the outside world and many of our students will already have been exposed to them. Civilization III has sold more than three million copies,24 Rise of Nations has sold over a million,25 and the Age of Empires series, the least historically correct of the titles, has sold an astonishing sixteen million copies.26 Civilization IV was the eleventh most popular computer game of 2005, and strategy games make up over 30% of total computer game sales, the largest single category.27 Beyond the pedagogical benefits identified by writers such as Gee, Squire, and others, showing that the use of games is not only a valid but in some cases preferable method over more traditional approaches, it is clear that many people are learning historical concepts from software designed purely as entertainment. Instead of bemoaning this fact, world historians can take an active role in shaping students perceptions towards these games, and perhaps teach them a little about history in the process.||20|
Game Publication Data:
Age of Empires II
Release Date: Sep 30, 1999 (more)
Rise of Nations
Release Date: May 20, 2003
For more information on this project, including the prototype lesson outlines found above, please visit:
Note: Aaron Whelchel
is a Ph.D. student in the World History Program at Washington State University.
His particular interest is the examination of the effects of imperialism
on theories of education, whether in the metropole or colonial possessions.
When not engaged in his studies, he can often be found spending far too
much time playing computer games.
1 For a full discussion of the development of the world history sub-field, see Patrick Manning, Navigating World History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
2 The Entertainment Software Association, 2006 Sales, Demographic, and Usage Data <http://www.theesa.com/archives/2006/05/2006_essential.php> (15 June 2006), Entertainment Software Association.
3 Scott Carlson, "Can Grand Theft Auto Inspire Professors?," The Chronicle of Higher Education no. 49, (15 August 2003), 31-33.
4 James Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 48.
5 Susan McLester, "Game Plan," Technology and Learning no. 3 (2005), 18-26.
6 Kurt Squire, Replaying History: Learning World History Through Playing Civilization III (Unpublished Dissertation, Indiana University, 2004), 153.
7 Squire, Replaying History, 147.
8 School Library Journal, "Computer Games May Foster Learning," School Library Journal no. 11 (2005), 20.
9 Cliff Edwards, Class, Take Out Your Games, February 2006, <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_08/b3972100.htm?campaign_id=search> (15 June 2006), BusinessWeek Online.
10 For a complex and detailed study of the importance of natural factors, see Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
11 For a collection of essays regarding technological diffusion, see Michael Adas, ed., Technology and European Overseas Enterprise: Diffusion, Adaptation, and Adoption (Brookfield: Variorum, 1996).
12 Some titles, such as Rise of Nations, treat certain bodies of water as zones of connection rather than separation. This concept can be seen in many works discussing the Southeast Asian littoral, several of which were based on the ideas of oceanic connections proposed by Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean in the Ancient World (London: Alan Lane, 2001).
13 See John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993) for a complete discussion of the impact of the environment on the development of warfare.
14 See Andre Gunder Frank, ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998) for a complete discussion on the early modern silver cycle.
15 Squire, Replaying History, 345.
16 See David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) and Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992) for more information on how British national identity formed and was transformed through the ages.
17 See Thomas Abler, "Beavers and Muskets," in Brian Ferguson and Neil Whitehead, eds., War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1992) for a fuller discussion of the effects of European intrusion on the Iroquois political structure.
18 Matthew Kapell, "Civilization and its Discontents: American Monomythic Structure as Historical Simulacrum," Popular Culture Review 13 no. 2 (Summer 2002), 129-136.
19 See Anthony Pagden, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France 1500-1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) for a full discussion of how Roman imperial ideology established strict barriers between "civilized" and "uncivilized" groups and how this ideology continued to be manifest in European empires.
20 Squire, Replaying History, 374.
21 See Ross Hassig, "Aztec and Spanish Conquest in Mesoamerica", in Brian Ferguson and Neil Whitehead, eds., War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1992) for a complete explanation of the differences between Aztec and Spanish warfare methods and goals.
22 It should be noted that Civilization IV has been released. This successor to Civilization III further deepens the complexity of gameplay. The most significant addition is a more robust system of religion, allowing players to send missionaries and (if they control areas central to a particular religion) exert a degree of influence over the territories of fellow believers. It should be noted that Civ IV has higher system requirements than any of the games discussed in this paper.
23 Squire, Replaying History, 403.
24 Firaxis Games, Company Bios, Jeff Briggs <http://www.firaxis.com/company/bios.php?bioid=7> (15 June 2006), Firaxis Games.
25 Microsoft, Microsoft Press Release, October 27 2004, <http://www.microsoft.com/games/press/?no=riseofnationsgold_20041027001> (15 June 2006), Microsoft.
26 Microsoft, Microsoft Press Release, May 11 2005, <http://www.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/riseofnationsriseoflegends/news.html?sid=6124100> (15 June 2006), Microsoft.
27 The Entertainment Software Association, 2006 Sales, Demographic, and Usage Data, <http://www.theesa.com/archives/2006/05/2006_essential.php> (15 June 2006), Entertainment Software Association.
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