Designing an Undergraduate Course in Historical Game Studies: Interview with Thierry Robert

At Play the Past, we’ve had a long-standing interest in the intersection of history, games and education.

Many of our current and legacy contributor hail from the world of education, and you can read them on as varied topics as video games and educational theory, gamification vs. game-based learning, educational design and class-room pedagogy.

In the last decade, we’ve seen a slow but steady rise in classroom experiments with game-based learning – Play the Past contributors who are teachers have often reported on their own game-based learning trials and tribulations. Concurrently, a new field of academic research began to emerge, around the time of this blog’s founding in 2010, to reckon with the rich production of historical discourse that video and table-top games now offer. This field now goes under the name of “Historical Game Studies”.

Beyond isolated applications of game-based learning, we are now reaching a moment in time in which the fruits of this experimentation and research are beginning to show in official educational programs at our post-secondary institutions.

As editor of Play the Past, I participate in a number of communities dedicated to theoretical and applied research around historical game studies. This September, a member of the Facebook Group Historical Game Studies Network, PhD researcher Julien Bazile announced a new undergraduate history course being offered at the University of Sherbrooke, in Quebec, Canada, teaching both the history of video games and representations of history in video games. I messaged Julien to see if he and his course lead, Thierry Robert, would be interested in doing an interview.

Both Thierry and Julien generously accepted my offer. And so we are happy to report that the next three posts will present to you, dear Play the Past readers, the content of these interviews.

Part one, below, is the interview conducted with Thierry Robert, the main instructor and curriculum designer of HST 287 “History, video games and gamification”. The following two interviews will feature Julien Bazile, who is a PhD student at the University of Sherbrooke, and co-lecturer for the HST 287 course. We hope our readers will find the discussion as eye-opening and stimulating as we found it.

N.B. The interview that follows was conducted in French, then transcribed and translated into English by the interviewer. For our interview with Thierry’s collaborator Julien Bazile, click here.

Thierry Robert interview

Thierry Robert, thank you for accepting this interview. Let’s situate for our readers who you are, and how you came to be associated with this project. Describe your career path? How did you end up teaching HST 287 at the Université de Sherbrooke?

I studied at the Université de Sherbrooke. My thesis focused on the history of leisure in Quebec, between 1960 and 1980. During that time period, Quebec was in a peculiar situation: for twenty years there had been ongoing secularization of core sectors of society, including health and education. Oddly enough, one social sector that remained relatively untouched in this wave of secularization was recreation. So, I became interested in social transformations in Quebec, in the wake of the so-called “Quiet Revolution”, that is, the transition from a religious to a secular society. In my case, its particular impact on leisure. I examined the rise of our consumer society, and how one could interpret changes in education, the rise of hedonism, and what was also called at the time “occupation” in French, i.e. “how to keep people active.” I was also noticed by my professors and peers because, being a fan of games, much of my university works dealt with video games.

College student during the 1970s in Quebec

After, this I completed master’s degree in library and information studies (bibliothéconomie). I kept my passion for video games alive, to such a point that when I came to be employed by the City of Montreal, my first mandate was to introduce video game collections in municipal libraries. My role revolved around how to promote the culture of play in the more traditional setting of libraries. To do this, it was necessary for me to develop a strong argument on the contribution of interactive “cultural products”, to ensure integration, relevance, and access.

Subsequently, I also co-founded the Montréal Joue Festival (with the seventh edition this year). I was director of this festival for the first five years. We successfully attracted a hundred partners – given that Montreal is a hub of video game culture and production – including Square Enix and Ubisoft. II developed a “boots on the ground” approach to cultural programming, and got to know the actors, academics and businesses that comprise the scene. Being big fan of board games, I was also able to promote the local game industry in Quebec at this festival.

During those years, I really learned the ropes of cultural programming. In the process, I got to better understand the objectives of the different studios, companies and shops located on the Island of Montreal. Afterward, I changed the course of my career: I became a consultant for new library planning with the city of Montreal, which is now my role. Less related to the world of games …

In your university training, you started at the University of Sherbrooke. Is it this the link with the HST 287 course given at that university? Otherwise, how did this project come about? Who are the people behind the creation of this course at Sherbrooke U?

You should know that this is not the first time this course is given. It’s the second time. The course which had the same title “History, video games and gamification” was first given in 2014. At the time I had been invited by a former professor to give a lecture on the “gamification of history” “i.e., how to use games to make history “more engaging”, or transpose history into game mechanics.

There was some good timing involved around my presentation. There was a professor at U Sherbrooke, Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec, who had just been a consultant on Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry. Le Glaunec wanted to talk about his involvement in the production of the game in his class. There is a pragmatic side to the Université de Sherbrooke, the objective being to put people in touch with the industry. People in the department perceived that this was a potential avenue for a historian to consult on the production of a historical game setting, and so I think that’s where my opportunity came from. So, I gave the course for the first time in 2014, and it took five years before the course to be offered again, but now it’s official – the course has an acronym, its own structure, and is part of the undergraduate offering of the department of history in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

Now let’s talk about the course structure … What were your inspirations for the creation of this course?

How does one structure a course? For starters, this is a passion project. My motivation for doing this course is not monetary, and I warn my students from the start: “Coming down here, from Montreal to Sherbrooke, is a day trip for me. I also take a good part of my vacation time to prepare it. I do it out of passion. So I expect you to be motivated, present, and participate in class discussions.”

Montreal Game History Symposium

At the department, we asked ourselves: how do we differentiate this course from what’s on offer elsewhere? At the University of Montreal, there is a film department, they have the big names. They also organize a symposium on the history of video games. But in that milieu, video games are approached with the tools of media and film criticism. At UQÀM, they have more of a “gamification” approach, and they offer courses on video games in their communications department.

So, I asked: could we create, in Quebec, a course on video games in a history department? If so, how do we make it unique? And knowing 45 course hours is little time – in other faculties, they will spend 45 hours on one type of game – and that I have to cover the history of video games, what’s the “hook” with the course idea?

Can you describe the major themes and approaches proposed by your course offering? Why did you choose these themes?

Spacewar! on the PDP-1

In the structure of my course, I put forward three different “lens”, or perspectives. The first, which takes about half of the course, is the history of video games. In six classes, I take a look at the history of video games from 1945 to 2005. Along the way, I try to focus on the cultural, social, and economic aspects of video games. Thus, each class has its own time frame. For the first class, I begin with the appearance of proto-video games in 1945, until Spacewar!. After, the arcade era. Then, I explore narrativity in PC games. The historical trends of video games are not always neatly periodized; however, I put forward a framework for looking at the evolution of video and computer games. What is most relevant – and what I would like to emphasize – is the importance of historical context. Example: how can one explain the rise of Japanese video games without referring to the World War II?

And so, I propose to draw connections between cultural and economic phenomena, and their impact on the production of video games. I’m trying to be careful so that I don’t just put out a purely evolutionary narrative, ex. “here you have the early consoles, then there’s microcomputer revolution”, etc. Rather, I trying to propose “major trends”, to provide an explanatory framework for the examples we examine in class.

That’s my first third. My second third – and this is where I think the specificity of my course – is that I take the “lens” that I’ve used the history of the video game, I enlarge the focus, and tell the story of games, sport and leisure from the earliest civilizations to present. Here, the overarching narrative is even more synoptic, but I seek mostly to provide themes for analysis. Take for example the recent controversies on aggressive monetization practices in Fortnite. The relationship between gaming and gambling was not born in 2019 with Fortnite. One of the things that interested me when I wrote my master’s thesis was the regulation and censorship of video games by elites.

I come from the world of libraries. The library has a rather traditional view of media and knowledge. The book has lost some of its appeal and documentary value in the last decades with the advent of the Internet. The book has also lost some its standing as a cultural object, thanks to the popularity and increasing legitimacy of video games and cinema. But the Book (with a capital “B”) remains a symbol of “cultural value”. So, I’m interested in this value hierarchy around leisure activities, ex. good vs. good bad leisure, and this is the theme I try to locate for every epoch, so my students can grasp the context from which media criticism can take place. I try to show them that criticism of games is not a new phenomenon, and that so-called “leisure activities” have always been circumscribed in time and space. Despite the fact that we call it “leisure time”, in reality, this time has always been very regulated.

And that’s my second “lens”.

My third major theme is historical games – that is, how historical narrative is communicated through games, what are the peculiarities of this medium versus a book approach (which is more linear), or cinema, (linear and image-based). Toward the end of each class, we discuss criteria for assessing the “historical authenticity” of a chosen game, and also the game’s unique approach to history and gameplay. We ask: how should we analyze the presentation of history made in different media, different games and games series, and what are the constraints over historical representation of each medium, including video games.

‘What if’ I build my city here? Civilization V

Let’s take an example. When we talk about the game Civilization, we ask: “What is this game’s core “message”? Sid Meier claims that his game is “ahistorical” (with regard to empirical historical narrative). But, can we really say that Civ “steps out” of the culture from which it comes? Or does it not rather, in its rules and theme, equate the finality of History with American narratives of progress? I therefore analyze with my students what a game can convey as a message about history, and the limits of the historical representation in games. There are also limits of representation imposed by game genre. Civ remains a “4X” strategy game. The question then becomes: how does Civ play with the constraints of the 4X genre, to push them in a certain direction? In my class, we talk about Civilization, Age of Empires, Assassin’s Creed, etc. And board games, too: Axis and Allies, The Making of a President, etc. Oregon Trail is also analyzed. We even dedicate a course segment on Europa Universalis IV!

If you had to describe the academic profile of your students and their level of affinity with the subject matter, what do you think attracts them to your course?

To put a little context on the creation of the course in 2019: the department of history intends to offer this course not only to the students of the department, but to all undergraduate university students enrolled at U Sherbrooke. The same decision was made four years ago, but sadly no non-history students enrolled. So, we asked ourselves the question, how do we create a course when we do not know to which discipline enrolled students will belong?

At least this time in 2019, enrolment has been roughly 50% history students, 50% students from other departments. I have a lot of students who are in engineering, in computer science, and in literature and general humanities. Of course, students who are in history. As I have students from outside disciplines, I get questions like “what is a historical essay”? One of the peculiarities of a “niche” course is that I have enthusiasts who know everything about the history of video games. They sit in front of class, and whenever I approach a new game or historical theme, they “spoil” the topic for the rest of the class [laughs].

I definitely have gamers enrolled in my class, but I also have people who have a very generic ideas about video games as cultural objects. At the beginning of the course, I asked everyone about their favorite game, or the last game they played. For some, it was Europa Universalis IV, for others “Monopoly with my grandmother twenty years ago”. I must admit that engineering students tend to be gamers. For them, what interests them is a course on the history of video games. I also have history students who have good historical knowledge, but little experience with video games. And sadly, at the level of gender parity we are at an 80/20 male to female ratio. So, the world of video games still has big challenges on this front. I talk a lot about the issue in the course, because when we discuss the history of video games, when look at the advertising mentality of the 80s and 90s. I place a lot of emphasis on this problem in gaming, and game development.

So you’re faced with the challenge of teaching your class to video game enthusiasts as well as complete novices…

Yes, definitely. The approach I take is to go with more accessible than advanced content. I do not want to lose people who know less about video games. In any case, the history of video games is condensed in six courses. And even if you have knowledge of video games, few students are knowledgeable about the history of games, leisure and sports on a larger time scale. So, there are always things that students will learn. In the first part of the course, it is certain that students will have more background knowledge. I stop the historical chronology in 2005, to leave some historical distance. Typically, “historical distance” is supposed to be around 30 years or so after an event. With video games, if you remove 30 years, you’re cutting off some pretty big chunks of history…

So, I said to myself: in a completely arbitrary way, let’s give ourselves 15 years’ distance. I’m going to stop my historical chronology in 2005. But even when we get to the early 2000s, it’s the era of the Game Cube, the PlayStation 2. Some of my students were children at that time will have a point of view on what I’m presenting, which is not typical of a history class in which we explore modern times, or antiquity. The image that we will propose in those cases, come from films, visual media, or an image that we have constructed while teaching the subject. In my case, you get this “hey, I played this on console, I know exactly what you’re talking about”. The relationship with the subject taught for many is rather invested. Many people played the games of this period, so they are very close to the material. 

However, I must admit that there are also many novices who have never had a PlayStation 2. For this reason, my teaching must remain accessible – even if I know that I have many students who are passionate and have a self-constructed image of the topics presented and discussed. In any case, my approach is not centered on particular games, but rather on the context surrounding their production and reception. It is more of a historian’s approach than a video game critique approach.

In HST 287, how do you approach the “language” of video games in your presentation of the “gamification” of history, ex. video games, game mechanics, narrative vs. systemic approaches, etc. especially for students who have not been exposed to the theoretical corpus on video games?

That’s a good question. The first half of the first course is devoted to terminology. I take an hour or so to present the ideas of narrativity, emergent narrativity, etc.. I generally try to integrate terminology directly into my presentation. But what is even more complex is the academic discourse on historical video games, where one tries to unpack issues of “historical authenticity”, or “historical immersion” in games. In this regard, PhD candidate Julien Bazile came to give a one-hour lecture on the theory of video games. When we talk about FPS, RTS or MMORPGs, since these video games genres emerge at certain moments in history, I try to present each genre as they surface. At the level of video game literacy, it’s also necessary to brush off the lexical field surrounding video games, for example with concepts such as “playability” (and replayability). In my very first class, I look at definitions of video games, i.e. “What is a video game, exactly?”. Your blog highlights this, the question is rather exhaustive, it is difficult to put an intellectual frame on the cultural object we call “games”. We also discuss the history of the many definitions surrounding games, from Huizingua to Jane McGonigal, to provide students with benchmarks for the critical study of games.

What pedagogical approaches (lectures, workshops and labs, student projects, etc.) have you tried in the HST 287?

Problem #1: the University of Sherbrooke does not have a game library! At the University of Montreal, they have a games research laboratory, and a game library for students. At the University of Sherbrooke, there are no such possibilities, so I mostly use Let’s Play videos on YouTube to demonstrate selected games. In doing this you lose the interactivity, but at least you can demo games and gameplay, and provide references for student work. Certainly, this is not the ideal model, but in the academic world right now the possibilities are fairly limited.

So the format of the course is quite traditional, though my teaching style is oriented toward discussion and exchanges with students. The first time I gave the course, I tried to get students to keep “logbooks” and assigning roles to students, to have a slightly more “game-like” approach. This gave mixed results. So, what I’m trying to do this year is to add a creative assignment to the standard course requirements. The mid-term exam focuses on the history of video games, the final exam on the history games and video games. I also allow myself a workshop, where the objective will be to design game mechanics for a quasi-“historical” game. To this end, I will give students a historical theme, and the goal will be to design mechanics that represent “authentically” the history that needs to be represented in the game. In addition, students will have to explain and justify why they chose, for example, something as simple as a random player choice, and what does this design decision entail in the student’s understanding of this historical theme? If the chosen mechanics are not oriented on hazard and probabilities, for example, it could mean that the level of historical contingency is “lower”, or more controlled, in the student’s estimation.

So, there will be an assignment of this kind added to the course. The assignment will be from a game that already exists, and I will ask them to modify existing mechanics, or add new ones. It will not be a historical event to be adapted in game mechanics: the requirements would be too heavy, since most students in my course are not history majors. I have long wondered what I was going to do for this assignment, and I think I came up with an interesting solution: using a video game production sim! In the assigned game, the player is a video game startup, and must produce and market video games (i.e. Game Dev Tycoon, Game Dev Studio, or Mad Games Tycoon).

Students will need to demonstrate that they understand what has been presented to them about video game history and understand how design and financial success should be presented. Thus, they will have to apply their learning from the first part of the course. We’ll see how it goes. But I think it’s an interesting idea, given that many students do not have a lot of historical knowledge. Another possibility could have been the Second World War. At some point I even wondered, [as most students are from Quebec] should it be about the political history of modern Quebec? But even here, historical knowledge is far from evenly distributed. So, if my assignment makes reference to the content presented earlier in the course, in principle, students should all be “on the same page”.

You had to take into consideration the shortcomings of your students, and the diversity of disciplinary backgrounds.

Exactly, I can’t ask students to possess enough background knowledge of WWII in a 45-hour course on a completely different topic. Having had the time, I think it would have been more interesting to do the exercise around a specific historical event. And also move away from the phenomenon of historical battles that has already been sufficiently treated in historical games. Take on, for example, representations of death during the Black Death in Europe, or even the “discovery” of the Americas by European explorers, but from a different angle. But I cannot ask my students to engage in research that is off-topic. 

What critical approaches do you propose to your students for analyzing video games? What game genres are presented during you course, and analyzed by students?

I don’t just talk about “historical” games in my presentation on the history of video games. I deal with the history of games as culture and media. I can talk as much about the “visual novels” as about the strategy game. I treat, I hope, a large majority of games and video game genres. Let’s take an example: early on in the course, I present text games like Colossal Cave Adventure (1976), and Zork (1977). Then we move on to King’s Quest (1984), and the arrival of point-and-click.

With the material I present, students are able to contextualize a game like Oregon Trail (1971, etc.) which was originally a text adventure game. So that’s how I see things: I provide general context, and then when we discuss a game like Oregon Trail, I make links with what was shown in the first half of the course. This overall approach makes it possible for me to better define the limits and the choice offered by the mechanics in various game genres. For example, in Oregon Trail, how does the game weather systems, and their impact of gameplay? We try to see how the designers have chosen to implement weather mechanics in the game, knowing that it is a text game.

Do you associate different gaming genres with their technological platforms?

Yes. Take the example of the difference between the RTS and the FPS. I point out that in the 90s both genres were very popular in the PC gaming market. However, the decline of PC gaming due to different factors, such as the proliferation of graphics cards and the impact of computer piracy on publishers, allowed the FPS to survive and flourish because it could make the transition to the console market. The RTS on the other hand could not be adapted to this platform and suffered a decline – it has since made a comeback with the MOBA genre.

So yes, I associate game genres to their respective platforms; to explain the RTS, you need to explain how this genre was born on PC. Another example: I show links between the Intellivision strategy game Utopia (Don Daglow, 1981) and Sid Meier’s original Civilization, to 90’s strategy games. Then I explain why strategy games (turn-based and real-time) remain niche games today.

In HST 287, do students analyze a historical game in an assignment?

The analysis of the “historical authenticity” of a video game is one of several essay topics choices offered to students. To date, it has not the most popular topic. The game analysis exercise is in the part of the course where I examine two historical video games. The moment I hope where there is going to be an “a-ha” is when students will have to design mechanics on a historical theme. I would like my students to ask questions about historical authenticity, the limits imposed by game genre and mechanics, how can we try to represent the mentality of another era in a video game, which historical facts are represented in a game, etc., In short: how does a game convey the culture and experience of another era.

Practically speaking, I want students to choose a subject, to “express” it in game mechanics, and look at how the game has addressed [this historicity]. If, for example, in their work on the history of video games, students do not express the emergence of the video game console in the form of game mechanics, I will consider that their work is lacking in their understanding of the history of video games.

In assigning the task of creating mechanics, I try to encourage students to go beyond simple issues of historical representation in video games. I include fewer questions about historical representation in exams because, once again, that would require addressing historical content in some depth. If we try to evaluate Medal of Honor (2010-2012), for example, students need to know the mindset of WWII soldiers in order to assess the historical authenticity of the game.

So my practical choice is to take the creation of game mechanics as a starting point, and derive learning from the content presented in class. With Oregon Trail, students may not know what the American “frontier” looked like in the 19th century, but they can take the parameters of travel in general to assess game mechanics. And to glimpse a certain mathematization of the lived context of historical actors. For example, hours of raining can decrease your rate of travel in Oregon Trail. For students with a humanities background, I hope that this mechanics creation exercise will produce an “a-ha” related the nitty-gritty and concrete aspect of the historical phenomena being represented in games.

Is it possible to look forward to, in the future, a student cohort that has received sufficient training in history and minimal theoretical knowledge in video games, with which you could do your “authenticity authenticity” / game design assignment?

It depends, to be honest, on the age of students, and their background knowledge. The course I offer is a first-year course in a bachelor’s degree, that can be taken as an elective. I would rather consider this approach at the master’s level. Masters students already have their subject, which they know very well. From this perspective, students are then asked to mathematize and express their historical subject using game concepts. This would be a great opportunity – at least for history students, as this could not be offered students from other faculties. But if students [in history] had a basic terminology in video games and game design, it would allow them to transform their knowledge into a mathematized ludic “application”. So, there is an issue of student historical knowledge, and a master’s degree in history seems a good time for this kind of history-gamification exercise.

Might having a game design toolbox encourage history M.A. students to find more career opportunities, after graduation?

As part of my own master’s degree in history, I took a career preparation course in 2008-2009. It was about how we could communicate historical knowledge on-line. Today, we could place equal emphasis on careers in gaming, alongside this approach. So, yes, this could be an avenue for curriculum designers. I am not myself directly involved in academic programming in a university department, but the potential would be there, to analyze a game, or to take a historical element and turn it into game mechanics in a professional training course.

This kind of practical approach allows students understand, through application of concepts, how existing games on the market have arrived at certain design decisions, and how they present their historical content. That being said, I do not want to approach pedagogy overly from a design perspective, because even if I talk to students about balancing mechanics and gameplay – as well as simulation approaches – I’d like students to explore the question, more fundamental to me, of transforming historical content into an interactive experience. From this larger perspective, students can then become interested in design practices, and keep a critical orientation toward the study the games, from the angle of communications media.

When film students we start making their own films, they develop an “insider’s perspective” on all films they watch. In the end, you seek to equip your students with both theoretical and practical approaches that will allow them to deepen their understanding of “gaming history” …

Yes, my pedagogical approach seeks to combine theory and practice, I understand that other educators will seek more to advance their students in theory, or game criticism. But, in my opinion – and I could be wrong, here – the “critique” approach may be more appropriate in a game studies department than in a history department.

How do you explain the enthusiasm that students (and the general public) can feel for the treatment of historical themes through the “medium” of video games? Why this excitement over Assassin’s Creed or Europa Universalis? Why the passionate discussion on historical interpretation in video games on on-line forums?

I have always been fascinated by the passion exhibited by Civ players in forums, specifically on the representation of historical phenomena in games, or their “translation” into game mechanics. Often when I engage in an analysis of a game, I put my magnifying glass a little further, and I ask myself the question: what is the difference between this cultural product – games – and other types of cultural artifacts dealing with history? The historical novel is one of the most popular genres of fiction. Historical cinema is also extremely popular. I do not know if these types of niche fandom take precedence over historical games. Perhaps we are looking at a fascination with history, to begin with. And so, if someone is passionate about history and video games – as many are – this “mix of genres” will generate a lot of enthusiasm, just as history and film lovers will be enthused with historical cinema. Witness, for example, the level of academic production around the Braveheart movie. [laughs]

So, I think history is fascinating to the multitudes, and the video games have millions of fans. Early on in the history of video games, someone got the idea of mixing historical themes with games, and the mix proved to be hugely successful. And we can see this across game genres: most types of games have addressed historical themes. The RTS was born, with science fiction themes, then took over the tropes of medieval fantasy. Then Age of Empires (1997) arrived shortly after, and sold millions of copies. In general, I would say that historical themes came early in the development of the major genres of video games. I think this is due to the fascination with history that can be found with other “media”. Whether public engagement is higher for historical games than with other media, would make for a worthwhile investigation.

There is probably a link to be made between different media, and popular genres that convey the historical content in an accessible way. Today, someone with historian’s training who seeks to communicate with a wider audience, can consider the range of “media” available to communicate history to different audiences. But no matter what form this dissemination takes on, educators must tackle the Big Question: “What is the public interested in?”… You put your finger on public enthusiasm for history, and for different cultural forms. Perhaps the best way to approach this question is to study the specificity of video games. For example, Sid Meier might have had an excellent game concept, but if his game had not found an eager audience …

At the same time, Sid Meier was also inspired by the Civilization (1980) board game. Board games also have their own parallel development. Risk (1957, et. al.), for example, had a development that preceded video games. So, in my opinion, we should present video game and board game development, in parallel.

We haven’t talked much about board games in our interview. Is the development of board games covered in HST 287?

This is a secondary topic in my class, because of the more “niche” place board games occupy in the leisure space. On a personal level, I am passionate about the topic, and I would certainly like to spend more time on it in class. But again, the subject is complex, and has a potentially high learning curve.

Often board games will be presented in a more superficial way, within the history of leisure. This is partly due to the form of play of board games. Most board game come with a rule book, for one. Rules must be simplified enough for onboarding, because no one would play a game that is too complex. The level of abstraction of board game mechanics tend to be higher than with video games, because there are more rules, procedures and overall information in video games that can be hidden in the menus or present in the gameplay without the player necessarily being aware of them. In board games, players must at least understand the rules to a sufficient level of mastery before playing. This imposes a certain limit on the complexity of the rules. So, I have to admit that historical board games can often be more abstract in their mode of representation.

Table-top games offer another type of “immersion”, at the same time, which is both social and theme-related.

Indeed, the social aspect is part of the immersion with board games. I always wanted to put on the brakes when people talk about “immersion” in board game – compared to a video game, I do not feel at all the same level of immersion – but it’s true that table-top games offer strong “social immersion” values. So, this involves a wholly different approach, for the presentation of their history.

And beyond Monopoly, it’s an engaging niche universe in itself, with wargames, Eurogames, etc.

I give an overview of wargamesin my class, from the advent of the Kriegspiel all the way down to simulation role-plays. In my presentation of table-top gaming, I place emphasis on different contexts in the history of leisure, play and sport. I also talk a bit about the current renaissance in board games since Catan (1995), but I do not delve into the topic in detail because these are niche products, which do not have the same reach as an Assassin’s Creed. But I probably talk about i relatively at length in relation to the many other forms of games and play, because of my personal passion for the subject.

What future for this type of course, in Quebec and elsewhere? What new opportunities have opened up for you because of this teaching experience?

I have no idea what the future holds. I would not be surprised that in the next few years there would be more courses on the history of video games in history departments. This will depend in part on sustained student interest, and engagement. As for HST 287 at University of Sherbrooke, enrollment is nearly full, so we can say that it has been a success. But if the course does not continue to attract enough students, it will no longer be offered.

Finally, there is also a professionalization of the domain to take into consideration. A passionate amateur like me can bring his contribution, but I do not have a PhD in the field. People like Julien Bazile could eventually take my place, and I would be happy about this development. The field of historical representation in games is quite new, and expertise is nascent. With the professionalization of game studies, we will probably begin to see more courses like this on offer at different universities, especially related to the emerging field of “digital humanities”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.