Taking advantage of our screen-based lives in modern times, college professors are now using history-based video games in university classrooms around the country, instilling a love and appreciation for history in their students.
Exploring the realities as portrayed in these historical video games allows students a pain-free introduction to history. The Assassin’s Creed creators have also explored scenarios including the Crusades, the American Revolution, and the Golden Age of Piracy.
A University of Kansas historian tells Smithsonian Magazine that video games are now crucial to the “creation of public knowledge of the past” and, as such, do indeed belong in the classroom today.
Associate professor Andrew Denning says that the increasing sophistication of history-based video games and the growing number of professional historians who themselves grew up on such games are making inroads on long-held skepticism about using such methods in the learning process.
Of course, Denning, 38, is one of these young professors who is not afraid to use whatever learning tools one can in the quest to spark interest in and understanding of our history.
One of his own courses uses the “Red Dead Redemption” series, which explores issues in turn-of-the-century America. The detail and background in games such as this “far outstrips that of a historical monograph,” Denning states in a recent paper he had published in the American Historical Review.
Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft—the best-known history-based video game
In the Assassin’s Creed series, which is justifiably famous for using real historical events as a backdrop for games—a series based on Ancient Greece and the eleventh in the long history of the video game series—has become wildly popular. Using real figures and places as the settings for their games, students learn how their decisions could lead to a range of outcomes in the fascinating world of ancient Greece.
The company beckons players to “become a legendary Spartan hero in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, an inspiring adventure where you must forge your destiny and define your own path in a world on the brink of tearing itself apart.”
Opting for either a male persona of “Alexios” or a female one named “Kassandra,” the game creators tell participants that they can “embark on an epic journey that takes you from your humble beginnings as an outcast Spartan mercenary to a legendary Greek hero and uncover the truth about your mysterious past as Alexios or Kassandra.”
“Sail to the farthest reaches of the Aegean Sea, forming alliances and making enemies,” it is said. “Along the way, you’ll encounter historical figures, mythical characters, and a whole cast of others who will impact your journey.”
Introducing the character of Kassandra, the game’s creators say that they call her ‘misthios,’ or mercenary, and she will take what she is owed. Kassandra was raised to be a tough Spartan child, but when she is stranded on Kephallonia, she finds work as a mercenary away from the constraints of Sparta.
Some game companies have taken their creative heights to unprecedented levels, portraying Ancient Greece and other historical backdrops with great artistry. And they pay great attention to accuracy now to the point of even hiring historian consultants as they create their games.
“The new edition of Oregon Trail has referred to scholars of Native America,” Denning tells Smithsonian. Here are some other games that may justifiably find their way onto a college syllabus. Perhaps a young person you know could find that history is far from a rote recitation of dates and facts and indeed quite fascinating, especially when it comes to the world of ancient Greece.
Action-adventure series not only provide beautifully-rendered representations of architecture, Ubisoft’s “Discovery” mode also offers video tours which have been professionally curated by historians and archaeologists of these ancient places.
Spartan Wars: Blood of Fire, Tap4FunCorps Ltd.
This strategy-based video game has 155,000 five-star reviews out of a total of 220,000. It is a real-time mobile and tablet game, using beautifully-rendered animation, which allows you build your own ancient Greek city.
Spartan Wars: Blood and Fire also allows you to assemble your own army to defend your land in the (unlikely) event of “server vs. server wars.” The game was developed by Tap4Fun Corp. Ltd.
Zeus: Master of Olympus, Impressions Games’ City-Building
When it comes to a city-building game series, this is one of the best which features ancient Greece. You, as the player, are thrown into the ancient land during a time of great intrigue and adventure, where Greek gods, mythology, and legends all played a crucial role in society.
The game has several options for players, including a story mode, missions mode, and a sandbox mode. This is the fifth stand-alone game in the series by Impressions Games’ City Building.
300: March to Glory, Collision Studios/Warner Bros.
Most modern theatergoers know the extremely popular recent movie 300. Similarly, in the 300: March To Glory game, the player is Leonidas, the ruler of Sparta, before the time of the famous battle of Thermopylae.
Inspired by the movie and comic book which were very popular at the time of its creation, the game was developed by Collision Studios and published by Warner Bros. Games. 300: March to Glory gives the player the chance to rewrite history—and who wouldn’t want to be able to do that?
God of War, Santa Monica Studios
God of War is a bloody, battle-filled adventure and strategy game also set in ancient Greece. Developed by Santa Monica Studios, it revolves around Kratos, the protagonist, who encounters all of the most well-known Greek gods of Greek mythology. The graphics are quite detailed, as Kratos completes his “quests” while taking players through ancient landscapes.
Attentat 1942, Charles Games
Other games, however, take us to places that are not far removed from us at all—places we would perhaps rather not go to but we must if we are to understand our world. One such history-based video game being used in curricula today is Attentat 1942, which portrays the grim reality of living under the Nazis in World War II.
This game depicts characters living in Czech lands in those dark years with players asking characters to relate what happened to them during the Occupation. This type of interactive storytelling shows students how personal and collective histories are an integral part of any historical conflict, and how they reflect different facets of reality.
Crusader Kings, Paradox Development Studio
In this complex strategic game, players rule over a medieval dynasty, choosing from an array of scenarios regarding alliances, and exploring potential outcomes if history had taken alternate turns.
For example, students can see how history would have played out if tiny Wales had been able to rise up and taken over England instead of the other way around. Such thought experiments are useful in the understanding of history and how our reality today is contingent on many factors which easily could have been completely the opposite.
Battlefield, EA DICE
Bringing the realities of WWI and WWII into focus for a generation that is now far removed from them, players can explore their cataclysmic events from many different perspectives, including the Italian Arditi of World War I. Many other such games focus exclusively on the major battles undertaken by the US, British, or Soviets. This series makes the chain of events of those times more easily understood, several decades after the ward were concluded.
Brothers in Arms, Gearbox Software
This game, focused on shooting skills, is taken to a higher level by its realistic depictions of places and events. It can also offer cinematic depictions of historical drama. The tactics chosen by the participants in World War II, including the use of infantry units, are explored here in all their many facets. Their reenactments of the battles of the War allow for completely immersive experiences in exploring the strategy and results of the conflict.