Games as Historical Scholarship

We talk a lot about how history is represented in games and about how cozino games can be used to teach history, but I’d love to spark a conversation here about how games themselves can actually be a form of scholarship in their own right. That is, can we imagine getting to a point where a historian might compose a game or a simulation in the way they would write a journal article or a monograph.

If games can serve as a mode of journalism and are modes for persuasion, instruction and activism, then it makes sense to think through how they could be a mode for historical scholarship. I’ve previously suggested that “non-fiction games” are becoming an increasingly viable and valuable mode for communicating.

Here are three reasons I think this is something worth exploring. I would be curious to hear if you have comments on these points, or if you have other ideas for these.

Potential to reach broader audiences:

Many historians would like to write for broader audiences and the audiences for historical games are rather large. In particular, there are a lot of very wonky board games and historical simulations whose players I would imagine would be rather excited to play and critique games that historians would get involved in creating.

Games Make contingency and causality explicit in their rules.
Games Make contingency and causality explicit in their rules.

Potential to make explicit and operationalize models of change over time:

Historical writing, at least implicitly, involves articulating causal models for why something turned out the way it did. This is something games and simulations are particularly good at. If you design a game or simulation you have to be very explicit about what exactly causes what and how it does it. What would a better simulation of Detroit look like? What would a more authentic representation of Colonization look like? While we can (and will continue) to write about and comment on games I think there is a significant power to be leveraged in building games that represent and bring to the surface tensions and complexity in models. The ability to manipulate and toy with a whole set of interrelated assumptions is something that games have something to offer that text doesn’t and I think it’s something for us to explore.

Potential to get away from some of the inherent limitations of writing narratives:

When you write a book or an essay it has a beginning, middle and an end. Modes of communicating the past are not transparent or interchangeable. Linear narratives bring with them their own baggage as a mode of communication. The linearity of text helps make the past seem far more tidy than it actually was. One thing proceeds after another ignoring the contingency and complexity of how a range of forces converged and interacted to result in outcomes. In contrast, if you take a game like The Sims, each player is effectively composing his or her own narrative within the model and framework of the game. Instead of playing out a particular story, you are playing out a interconnected web of possibilities weighted and structured by theories of motivation and values. In short, by tinkering with and publishing these kinds of models historians could have access to another kind of tool for thought. One that can shore up some of the weaknesses inherent to writing itself.

There are significant barriers to making this a reality. It’s a mode of communication that historians are unfamiliar with, it’s a mode of communication that has it’s own steep learning curves. At the same time, I think for these three reasons it is also a valuable area to explore. In particular, given the availability of tools to mod existing games, I think there is a lot of possibility for historians to jump in and create works that comment on and critique some of the games that they might otherwise simply write about. What do you think? Oh, and if you think you have any good examples of games historians have been involved in that would fit this idea of “games as historical scholarship” please share them in the comments and give a brief explanation of what you think they accomplish.


  1. On a similar note, Ian Bogost has previously argued for the use of programming in classical trivium-based education, replacing the usual study of Latin. While this mainly focused on using programming for the purposes of practice and training, rather than for the production of finished scholarly work, I think that the comparison is apt. The same sort of rigorous, scholarly work can still be accomplished, simply through a different medium that allows for different kinds of arguments to be made.

    Now if I could just convince my department to let me make a game for my dissertation…

  2. Hi,

    The fist name that cross my mind is the british historian Niall Ferguson, the expert in counterfactual approach of history, with the game “Making History – The Calm and the Storm”. A few monthes ago, i wrote a text about him (in french but you have some links in english) “Niall Ferguson, a strange hybrid. When an historian meets videogames”:
    But it is not really a good game and he is a very controversial scholar with his neo-con ideology…

    Crusader Kings II (Paradox Interactive, Sweden) is a very interesting (and very funny) game for modding. I know some history teachers who mod it in a way to improve its accuracy and its historicity. My paper (again in french !) about it:

    My current work with Grade 11th students is about how videogames tell us the World War One. I hope i will find some time to write something about this topic.

    Vincent (and sorry for my bad english !).

  3. The issues & potentials raised here are very much analogous to those encountered in (for instance) archaeology and the creation agent based models/simulations. Although it’s usually always the attendant paper that gets published while the model languishes on a website somewhere. There are journals however who will publish the model as a piece of scholarship in its own right (Internet Archaeology, for one, as I recall).

    In my tenure application I listed archaeological abms that I’ve made as scholarship, in the publications section of the tenure cv, by referencing their Figshare DOIs – and that seemed to work. So maybe, slowly, bit by bit, these things can become normalized? (see ).

  4. I’m a long time fan of a game called Europa Universalis, which covers the entire world from roughly 1400-1820. The game has a devoted following, including writers of AARs (After Action Reports). They often take a narrative approach, crafting stories around things that are happening in game. I’d recommend the following as a great example of a funny, semi-narrative account of a playthrough of Naples.!&s=2a4ff90258349c4b592db2d7114ec9df

  5. Just popping in here before Matt Kirschenbaum does…
    Dr. Phil Sabin, a lecturer in the Department of War Studies at Kings College London, has been workign in this field for some time, and has published two books on the subject: Lost Battles, where his research on ancient battles is presented in game form, and Simulating War, about the use of conflict simulations in education and presentation of scholarship.
    He is quite vocal about the resistance he meets within academia to accept a game as a serious presentation of one’s research. See Topics 1 and 5 in the following link where he addresses this:

  6. Excellent!
    I am always happy to see people discussing video games in a scholarly sense. I also completely agree with your statement about the board game community, there is definitely some headway to be made there. What I appreciate most about this post is your prioritization of constraints. The ability to toy with games and experiment with historical simulation is one which should be exercised by the historical community more often. This being said I think we should always be aware of the limitations that these systems have.
    Sadly I could not think of any games that I know of whose creation has had scholarly historical assistance, but I could think of some neat games which have an interesting play-style and whose structure allow for some creative story-telling.
    I suggest: Europa 1400, Sins of a Solar Empire (more so for its game structure and rule-sets), FTL, and Antichamber

  7. Author

    I had another thought/argument for the idea of games as scholarship. Most of my initial consideration was about the ability of games to communicate/represent an argument about the past. Which is one goal of scholarship. But it strikes me that there is also a more activist tradition of scholarship, one more engaged in making a difference and impact in how people understand the past than simply better describing the past. In that vein, I could imagine the emotional valance, the ability for games to make the player feel culpable in their in game actions means that there is a lot of potential for games to be used as tools for radical or activist work in history.

  8. A while back, I wrote a paper looking at how 4X gaming was an excellent mechanism for the presentation of scholarly claims, for many of the same reasons outlined above:

    I think much of the difficulty in following this line of thinking is that folks lump all games together, when I think that map-based strategy games particularly are well-suited and comprehensible for an academic audience, while side-scrollers and FPSes and MMOs &c would take a lot more effort to be repurposed as a vehicle for presenting scholarship.

  9. I think here is a fundamental problem here. Historians may enjoy playing historical games, or even contribute expertise to their design, but they have a different agenda from game designers. The former are concerned with analyzing the past, and the latter are concerned with creating an experience for gamers. These two agendas involve different values, different levels of reality, and different outcomes. I also doubt that games can ever be effective in teaching history — gamers may learn the names of various city-states and historical figures, but they gain only a shallow understanding of their actual relationships.

  10. I think a lot about this and all I can say is that I hope it happens, or happens with more regularity. I think there is a potential positive and potential negative side to games as scholarship. On the positive side, if scholars treated games as an appropriate medium, we would more than likely get not just better history in games, but also different histories – something away from the route military or imperial counter counterfactuals we see so often. On the negative side, educators or historians don’t make for the best game designers. Would their games be entertaining enough to attract an audience? The public’s distaste for traditional scholarly books would suggest no. Despite that, I think it is worthwhile to try.

    I would like to poke a stick at your notion of the “linearity of text” making history seem tidy. I would think that games would have an even greater problem with this issue. Most games are severely limited structurally, particularly when it comes to narratives. This is even the case with games that allow options in narrative choices (the funnel effect) – Walking Dead, Mass Effect, or Stanley Parable come to mind. Add to that mix the strictures of historical accuracy (and, potentially, the author’s argument about that history), and you have an even greater potential for an ordered, tidy history. With text, at least, you can jam some of the outliers or counter arguments into footnotes or an appendix. The costs of putting those sorts of added narratives into a game seem cost prohibitive. Could be wrong, of course.

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