Learning history through video games

January 23, 2021

There’s a lot of talk about gamifying education, and an uncountable number of startups creating apps to do this. Some, like Duolingo, are successful, and some not so much.

I’d like to share a story about how I gained an interest in history as a result of video games last year.

I had purchased a new Macbook Pro to upgrade my old Macbook Air and thus for the first time in 10 years (since I stopped using my old PC), I could play video games. One of the games that really made an impression was the Civilization series.

Sid Meier’s Civilization 6 is a game where you play as a leader of a nation starting from a hunter-gatherer society to modern day where you have to deal with things like climate change. You set up cities, build infrastructure, go to war with others to gain more resources, and ally with others to face the bigger threat together. You can win the game through one of five methods: science (being the first in the world to launch establish a Mars colony), domination (conquer every capital), culture (have the most tourists), religion (have more than half the world follow your religion), diplomacy (gain control of UN).

In my opinion though, the game is most interesting when you’re not trying to win. The game is at its best when you play it as a geopolitics simulator- paying attention to events happening around you and taking advantage of them. Grow too large too quickly and another player might surpass you in technological innovation. Focus too much on technological innovation and someone else might overwhelm you just through sheer numbers in an unexpected war. You quickly understand why defence spending is justified because if you don’t, others will take advantage of that. Despite the simplistic view of an economy in the video game, you see how trade is important, and how the longer a war gets dragged on, the worse everybody gets.

After I learned to play the game I saw every piece of news as a gameplay mechanic. While the game does present an extremely simplified view of history- an immortal leader rules forever, the economy is just a single number, progression is straightforward, it did what no history class I’ve ever taken did, that is it put events into perspective. It’s easy to be a peaceful ruler during good times, and you’re almost certain to start spying and sabotaging others when times are bad. It didn’t do the job of teaching history, but it did get me interested in the topic.

The game does get boring after a while, and the newer content and DLCs feel more gimmicky than anything, so I moved on. That’s when I found Paradox games. And boy are these games awesome.

Paradox Interactive is a Swedish company that makes grand strategy games. The ones that stand out are the four titles that cover history from the medieval to WW2 era.

Crusader Kings 3: 867-1453

Europa Universalis 4: 1444-1821

Victoria 2: 1836–1936

Hearts of Iron 4: 1936-1950

So far, I’ve only played Crusader Kings 3 and Hearts of Iron 4.

Crusader Kings 3

CK3 was the first game Paradox game I tried. It takes place during the medieval period, and the special thing about this game is that you play as a character instead of an immortal ruler. This way you see the consequence of what happens when a king dies in a kingdom. You see the fractures in the kingdom you so painfully fought for, you fight civil wars because your two sons can’t settle things peacefully. After a few hours, you start arranging marriages between your heir and his cousins, and in no time you’ll give your daughter away like it’s nothing for an alliance.

Hearts of Iron 4

This game is less of a grand strategy and more of a military simulator. You get to play any nation on earth and your goal is to come out on top at the end of World War 2. Frankly, I didn’t find this game to be that interesting, but I did enjoy playing the game in the Asian front of the war as it’s not very often covered in my history education. History is awesome, and I never knew. Paradox games are honestly the closest I could get to try to experience it. Until we have time machines, I highly recommend these games if you’re interested in history.