My Glorious Failure

[a version of this article first appeared on GameSpy in 2007, but I thought y’all might appreciate it]

“Vespasian has converted to Judaism!”

The cheery message came as something of a shock. After all, Vespasian and his son Titus together were responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple – hardly likely converts to Judaism. But I was play-testing a scenario I had been building in Civilization IV, and so this ‘counter-factual’ brought up an interesting conundrum. I wanted to use the scenario in my teaching for my ‘Intro to Roman Culture Class’ at my university (I was teaching via distance-ed; anything to make the class more engaging!) Did the unlikeliness of the event undermine the utility of my scenario? If I used it, was I going to get papers like the one in this cartoon?

When I was a student in the early ‘90s, Civilization ate entire days of my life. As I plodded through the years at grad school, I had precious little time to invest in playing a game. Then, a few years ago, I was given a copy of Civilization IV for Christmas, right at the same time that I started teaching via distance education. In one fell swoop I lost days to the game again, but this time I could put it on the clock: I realized I could use Civ IV in my teaching!

In one class, student after student kept coming up with variants on the following bit of wisdom: “Of course Titus Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian) would win the Civil War of AD 69 – the Year of the Four Emperors– because Vespasian was later the founder of the Flavian Dynasty”. Spot the error? We look back now from a vantage point where we can see all of the various trajectories that led to Vespasian’s victory,  but the crucial point is, at the time, no one could have predicted it. Vitellius, Otho, Galba or Vespasian: in AD68/69 it was a toss up. I realized that maybe -just maybe- if my students could see the Year of the Four Emperors from the vantage point of one of the other factions, they’d start to get the hang of this ‘historical contingency’. I thought that maybe, if they explored the ‘what ifs’ and ‘might have beens’ of history, they’d get a better understanding of what it is really like to be an historian. After all, gamers play games partly for the fun of seeing what happens next – and historians are historians for the fun of seeing what happened then. It’s really the same motivation for both.

I embarked on making the scenario. I found a map of the Mediterranean. I set up the pieces on the board, using the Worldbuilder. I decided I needed a Senate in Rome to decide which faction to declare Emperor. I posted my quest on Civfanatics, and was welcomed into a world of genuine interest in modeling antiquity as authentically as possible in the game. With the help of that community, I turned the ‘United Nations’ wonder into a Senate. People played the scenario at various stages, and their feedback made it into a much better scenario than what I’d initially put up. (I’m told that mod and scenario building is much easier in Civilization V).

I was playing as Galba when Vespasian converted to Judaism. I played again as Vitellius and Otho, and still Vespasian converted. His conversion I discovered is a result of the way the game reckons the impact of culture and religion. When I talk to people about using games in their teaching, one of the stumbling blocks is this question about how the game models history, and the interplay of forces like religion and culture. Many don’t like it at all. But on reflection, I realised that this was not a big obstacle. In fact, it was something I could use to my advantage. Would my students notice and comment on this unhistorical religious awakening of Vespasian? Bonus points for those who did! I contacted my students and presented the scenario to them. I offered it as an alternative to writing an essay. Instead, they could keep a game diary of what happened in the game as it progressed (each turn in the scenario represents a week), reflecting on the depiction of history in the game and the ‘true’ history set for them in the text book (lesson plan here). Then I sat back to see what would happen.

Play a game, or write an essay? I figured it would be a no-brainer. Now of course, not everyone had a copy of the game, and I couldn’t force them to buy it (if I had had this idea when the course was being designed, that’d be a different matter). There were a number though who did have a copy, and they gave it a try. The response was…. well, you know that odd uncle you have, who turns up at family gatherings, and everyone tries to humour him without causing too much disruption? It was something like that. “I enjoyed it Sir, it really made me think differently about what was going on in AD69… but if it’s alright with you, I’d rather write an essay” was a typical response. But they didn’t write that Vespasian’s win was foreordained (or similar) any more.

So why did it fail? Partly it was because I did not realize that being a student is a much bigger game. The hit points of being a student are grades. Successful students if we are honest are successful not just because they learn something sitting in class (as though by osmosis), but are successful because they have also mastered the game play mechanics: this is what an A essay looks like; here is how you pick up the marks for in-class discussions… play-a-game-for-grades is not a game play mechanic that students are familiar with (at least not in Classics). I also did not prepare the students well for this alternative assignment. Where the exercise did have some traction was at Civfanatics itself, in the community of players-cum-history buffs who were already in the correct head-space for what I was trying to do.

The biggest failure though was in how I conceived of the exercise in the first place. It wasn’t me who should’ve been building the scenario. It was my students. The choice of era to model, the mapping of game mechanics to historical dynamics, even the process of working out which areas were beholden to which contender: all of these would have been strong learning exercises.

I’m hoping for a copy of Civ V for this Christmas, so I can have another crack at this. This time, my watchwords will be, work from the bottom up. Let the students do it. Don’t just hand over a scenario and say ‘go play’. The learning is in the building.

What have been some of your glorious failures? What have you learned?


  1. Great experiment and I think you reached exactly the right conclusions. As far as I’m concerned thinking about how to design/redesign the games is simultaneously the most fun and most intellectuality engaging part of civ style games.

  2. Shawn, did you model the game for them at all or put in any scaffolding for those unfamiliar with the Civilization series? I have to wonder how much unfamiliarity with game mechanics would be a deterrent for those knowing that a grade would be attached to it.

  3. Hi Kevin,
    The platform we were using at the time, and the model for our distance education courses, didn’t really allow for effective modeling of the game… or at least, I tell myself that now. Instead, I first went around the students to find out who had played the game, and who had a copy at home. I directed the alternative assignment to this subset of students (in a class of about 20, there were seven who were familiar with the game and were willing to give it a shot). So I didn’t launch it onto the others in the class.
    If I were to try this again, I would absolutely have to put in the time first of playing the game with the students, exploring its mechanics and structures before assigning any for-grade interaction with it. As Trevor said, it’s in the redesigning that Civ and its progeny are at their most engaging! (and where I think we’d likely get the most student buy-in).

  4. Shawn,

    Back in college I had a professor of Roman history who assigned his class three papers but there were alternative projects you could do instead, including video game reviews. One of the projects that – to this day – I lament not working on was an option to construct a ballista in the Roman method.

    Don’t get discouraged though. Yes, your students were non-plussed by the project but now that you’ve got it done, don’t be afraid to assign it to more classes. You might really reach someone through it.

    Also, if your students are concerned about the grade issue, make sure you lay out clear expectations going into the assignment. Keeping a journal is a little free-form whereas writing the paper (depending on the essay prompt) might be very straight-forward.

    More guidance as to what you’re expecting the journals to be about and an up-front guesstimate of what kind of play time a student is going to have to invest would probably also improve your adoption rates.

    My hat is off to you, however. Teachers who are willing to innovate are the heart and soul of a great college experience.

    1. Hi Chris,
      Thanks for the words of encouragement! Your comments on spelling expectations out explicitly are absolutely spot on. When we’re pushing students outside of their comfort zone for being-as-a-student, the more Linus blankets we can provide, the better.


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