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Games & Simulations for Historians

I’ve compiled a number of posts from this year’s session of HIST3812 into an epub, for posterity’s sake. You can download the hist3812-2013 book here.


(an Epub version will arrive eventually, once I figure out why it’s not saving properly. I’m using Anthologize.)

Salary statistics released from Game Developer Magazine. I thought the last paragraph especially interesting, given the imbalances in some of the gamer statistics we’ve analyzed. I assumed it was a male-dominated industry, but am still surprised at the degree—

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The title of this post quotes Professor Graham, our theory programmer and grade designer. It was a curious comment made in yesterday’s class— curious because I have never before considered gaming separate from fun, whatever your personal interpretation of fun may be. To me they are synonymous. A game is a game because it is fun, or at least attempts to be, and not because it is a simulation. There are simulations which are not fun, and they may well be effective simulations. But an effective game is one which is, if I may assert my perspective for a moment, exciting, memorable, interactive, and addictive.

Yes, addictive. That is really my defining quality for an effective game: One which I want to play, have to essentially stop myself from playing, and lingers in some way so that I desire to play it again.

Fun with the intention to cause change

Fun is relative, but some games can be judged by universality. World of Warcraft (WoW), for example, is a commercially successful title with a peak of approximately twelve million accounts, various extensions (novels, card games, board games, possibly a film), a multitude of hosting nations, and which has influenced just about every mainstream MMO release of the last five years. This is in large part because of its success. In turn, WoW’s design team fed on the success of other games deemed fun by a considerable portion of the MMORPG-inclined gaming community. This ouroboros-like cycle extends beyond digital gaming to culturally embedded games like Monopoly, or Snakes and Ladders, or Chess, or Hockey, which have themselves undoubtedly participated in the genesis of other, similar games, and come from some other, perhaps more complex historical concepts.

Universality is an indicator of fun that can aid change for these reasons: the successful object draws from other sources considered fun, thus passing on their “genes”, and it passes on its own ideation to later generations of games. Whether you consider mechanics or themes or simply the essential concept, some part of the game becomes historical. And that life extension means it is more likely to reach more people.

Do games need to be fun? Is it a central criteria? Maybe not, and Professor Graham has given me something to return to when I’m not on the verge of illness. But if we extend the concept of “game” or “gaming” to simulation in general, or interaction in general, it loses much of its cultural significance.

Fun and accuracy

There’s nothing fun about oppression. Many historical subjects are not lighthearted or playful, but rather require stoicism and extended reflection in order for the individual to effectively (and respectfully) become part of their articulating dialogues. But there is a way in which these subjects can be treated so that they retain their somberness, but also realize a form of entertainment, something which can become universal and accessible in media streams rather than delimited by closed circles. We may not see a deluge of essays from the general public, but we can generate awareness and interest in topics that are otherwise taboo because they carry so much emotional freight, or are at times so laden with jargon that the layman intellectual can’t casually participate. And I’m all for that, because when all is done there will still be spaces for critical thought (academia, for one). Plus we may gain interesting insight into how our current society “thinks” by considering how and why it reorients a historical idea through pop culture.

To illustrate what I’m getting at: Specific histories outside of our own geographic or familial background are generally not well known to us, but if a game can make a specific history fun, that history can gain momentum. I think of the NES title Uncharted Waters and what I learned about trade, privateering, and international relations during the “Age of Exploration”. Years later, motivated by how much I enjoyed playing the game, I was also able to criticize and fill in the blanks of Uncharted Waters’ narratives through independent research and the insight of some brilliant, hard-working academics.

For a less dated example in an alternate medium, consider George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (also revisited as the Game of Thrones HBO television series). Hugely successful and spreading fast to “fave show” bios everywhere, Martin treats with topics from feudalism to incest to slavery and Othering (not referencing the in-story Others also known as Whitewalkers, but the cognitive and social processes involved in reactive identity formation). Although we can’t currently say exactly what Martin’s getting at in his use of these historical concepts, as the series is unfinished, we who have read Martin’s work can understand how he creates an ethics-based consciousness of slavery in the novels through Daenerys’ struggles, how he plays with naming and its importance for the individual’s relation to social praxis (Arya, Sansa, Theon, the Unsullied), how he teases out authority’s sway over subjective truth through the often changeable interactions of myth and reality… it goes on. Basically, Martin’s created a readable, fun, entertaining series of texts which carry important themes to broad audiences for further processing. In this same way, inaccuracy through fiction allows gaming to retain its “funness”, so that it can potentially become universal, while still exploring inherently serious topics that we might otherwise not want to deal with.

What I’m arguing here is this: Let’s make history addictive. Because hey, for many people I’ve met there is one particular block when it comes to consideration of difficult historical issues: “My life is hard enough, why would I want to further complicate it?”

_Cole Labelle_

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This is the only topic that seems to be speaking to me at the moment (that could just be a lack of sleep finally showing itself), but it does pose an interesting question. What is the purpose of a simulation? Looking at this question as scholars and historians, the most obvious answer seems to be that it allows the past to be manipulated and experimented with in order to test hypotheses. Dr Graham has mentioned several times his experimentation with Roman peasants (there seem to be quite a few plagues in his version of Rome), and yet it seems that this only scratches the purpose of why simulations can be so engrossing for people.

A number of games seem to incorporate a simulation element (I’m looking at you, Civilization), but these serve a different purpose than simulations that have strictly academic applications. Whenever a new version of Civilization comes out it sells millions of copies, and it seems unlikely that a majority of these buyers are using it for academic purposes. Simulation-based games create alternate worlds that allow a player to exercise god-like power over certain aspects of the game. If players aren’t playing it to explore historical theories, what makes these simulations so engrossing? I believe that for a large group of people, the attractiveness of simulations like Civilization come from omnipotence of the god-like powers that the game gives you as well as providing a means of being declared a winner. I know personally that I wouldn’t enjoy Civilization nearly as much if there was no end-game victory objective.

There is also a third aspect of simulations that can be linked to the growth of social networks. Large groups of people play games on Facebook, and often these games provide neither of the aspects discussed in my first two paragraphs. These games are distractions that people can spend a few minutes on, and offers the opportunity to connect with their online friends. Games like Farmville or Mafia Wars (where a person controls their own mob family and they can assist/be assisted by friends that play the game) have enjoyed large amounts of popularity within the Facebook community. There is a social aspect to these simulations, and it could be that people play these games in order to connect more with their friends.

In conclusion, there seems to be a number of reasons that people use/play with simulations. These reasons might extend beyond the ones that I’ve discussed, and so I leave you with the question: what purposes do simulations serve in your opinion?

-Phillip Wallner

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Due to the fact that my colleagues have already dealt with a couple stellar internet, game, or computer based simulations, I would instead like to focus on some different areas that utilize simulations of various sorts for different purposes. First of all though, it might be pertinent to know what exactly a simulation is as this will help to clarify what it is that is being discussed. Well, according to Wikipedia a simulation is: “the imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time.” This helps to shed light on the fact that simulations have been around much longer than the computers that now most often model them. Simulations of varying degrees have been used by many different people for various different reasons.

Most obvious should be their use by the military as well as government institutions. In such high stakes areas it can be rather fruitful to be able to teach a pilot how to fly a multi-million dollar piece of equipment in a slightly less expensive piece(s) of equipment which is itself a lot more difficult to break or destroy. On the other hand, when dealing with something such as an election, simulations or a variant of such prove rather effective at aiding those who utilize them. For example, it would greatly benefit a politician to be able to run a simulated vote before the actual one in order to classify what areas require immediate improvement and how much of it is required.

These two areas that I have mentioned are quite obvious, but there are still many more that might not as quickly jump to mind. These include but are not limited to: financial simulations related to stock trading or other business transactions, disaster preparedness training and evaluation which also highly benefits from the use of simulations and specifically the organizing of mock disasters, sports simulations both at a professional level and an amateur one, medical simulations involving modeled scenarios with imitation or real actor patients, and lastly but not least noteworthy is that of weather forecasting. Especially when it comes to weather forecasting, the simulation is heavily based on figures and data from the past being compiled together in order to offer a best guess at what might occur given similar factors. Especially in the case with weather, but it can also be related to most if not all simulations is this best-guess scenario. That is all that a simulation can really offer us is a best guess given the parameters put into the model. No simulation can truly mimic the randomness that real life brings to every moment; certainly not yet, but maybe never either. There is no proper substitute for real life but with the advancement of technology, specifically when referring to simulations run by a computer, one may adequately prepare themselves for most anything that life might have waiting up its sleeve to spring on an otherwise unsuspecting person. The old saying goes that practice makes perfect and nowhere is this more true than when looking at a simulation compared to what it is simulating and the benefits that this provides to the simulator.


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Ohhhh Sim City; quite possibly the most frustrating and satisfying simulator that will have you ripping your hair out and crying for joy at the same time.  The newest installation of Sim City offers fresh graphics, online play and a plethora of new buildings. The challenge for players is to build a city that will constantly be making money and expanding while minimizing damages and keeping the populace happy. The difficulty arises when tough decisions about managing your available funds arise. Should I make a bigger police force to lower crime? Or hire more firefighters so that my industry stops burning down. (Side note: my roommate had a store that went out of business due to crime, yet it was right beside the police station, which one of the many “oh C’MON” Radioactivemoments in Sim City) Indeed, city management offers players meaningful play as it tasks them to not only be economically responsible but also to make practical decisions when locating buildings. (Putting a nuclear power plant beside a school is not good planning) What makes Sim City work so well is that players can witness the behaviour space of city planning and learn from mistakes. There are so many outcomes that this simulator can throw at you  which will help the player learn when constructing a new city. Going back to a January class, one of the major objections to simulations is that they can only do what we program it to do. However, this supposed limitation works brilliantly in SimCity as it allows us to figure out the consequences and benefits of placing industry/commercial/residential buildings in certain locations within the city.

-Matt Becktead

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Hello class, while it is not my day to Blog, I just thought I would share a neat little game my friend showed me. It is Called “Papers Please”. In it you play as a border guard on the border of a communist state that has recently revised its border policies. You must work a full day, deciding who may and who may not enter the country while trying to make enough money to support your family. You have to pay for rent, for food, and for medicine when your family is sick. I just thought that this game really showcases how even the simplest games can be fun and express an idea….

– Alex

Here is a playable browser version of the game, although I recommend downloading the free Alpha from the site and trying that. Warning: It’s super addictive!

Browser Version:
Full Alpha (Downloadable here):

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Of the 3 simulations we were told to play around with this week, I found ORBIS/Via to be the most interesting. ORBIS is an interactive geospatial network model of the Roman world created by Stanford University. In much simpler terms, ORBIS is sort of akin to Google Maps for the Roman world. It allows users the novel feature of exploring what factors influenced the time and cost of travel in antiquity. “By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.”1

ORBIS/Via is a is self-described “simple proof of concept demonstrating that models like ORBIS can provide multiple points of interaction with humanities scholarship.”2  Understandably, this is not the most thrilling interactive experience (and nor is it meant to be), but it is still one that was quite engaging. Bumbling through Europe, I found that it took close to 77 days to travel from Rome to London.  More importantly, in my opinion, this was far more interesting to discover than simply plugging in the start and end destination into the ORBIS network model. Using ORBIS/Via and exploring the Roman landscape myself was much more engaging when using a ‘gamified’ tool.

Apparently I’m not the only one to have enjoyed the game application of this tool; “users of ORBIS have suggested that it would be useful for improving strategy games and wargames, such as the expected sequel to Rome: Total War.”3

However, I doubt this is a possibility; realism and complexity outside of warfare is not the primary concern of Total War games.

I do look forward to the future as there – hopefully – begins to be more cross-over between digital humanities, and video games.


– Aaron

  1. ORBIS Stanford, ORBIS home. [online] Available at: <> []
  2. ORBIS Stanford, ORBIS Via. [online] Available at: <> []
  3.  Elijah Meeks, Applying ORBIS. [online] Available at: <> []

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You have to take this seriously — you have to help myself and the billions of other people around the world in surviving against this energy crisis. The more people who play Collapsus, the more we can simulate what can happen in the future and maybe some of you can figure out a potential solution to my problem. You have to simulate the future to figure out the clues and the puzzles to what we’re going to do. Maybe you can find me and let me know what happened in the game. Comment on this blog with what you did while playing so that way even if I get caught, somebody, somewhere, will know what to do with this information I’m leaving you. Here’s some clues that could help you in solving the problem:


I have to run.


Please, help us. Save the planet or save yourself.


-Matthew Tucciarone

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Beyond Good & Evil, Ubisoft, 2003.

The player characters have had an interesting week. They have evolved from street urchin, to revolutionary, to the hand of god(s). Our discussions have often maintained a constant theme: the issue of representation, of accuracy. What can be represented, and what cannot, and furthermore, what should not? (I hear that ‘practical necromancy’ is often met with a raised brow). We have discussed many of the ‘heavy’ topics throughout the semester: nationalism, gender, sexuality, and race. Group Seven’s upcoming presentation will complicate matters further, adding indigineity and the colonial experience to our discourse. How can you responsibly represent a people whose only history is oral, or non-written? It is my firm belief that regardless of how ‘taboo’ a subject, as long as it is depicted to the best of our current knowledge and ability, any topic is appropriate.

Current knowledge is a key portion of this argument. As historians we operate largely in the realm of hypothesis. Since we cannot fully realize the past (we simply re-present), we make our best educated guess based on our observations. Should we seek to represent any of the aforementioned topics, it is absolutely vital that we remain open to changing information and concepts, lest we succumb to confirmation bias (the tendency to maintain existing beliefs as absolute). It is a frightening thought, especially considering once published, video games, interactive fiction, or even augmented reality simulations are difficult to review and resubmit (I imagine some sort of DLC centred on keeping things updated). When your product is released, it’s out there, and if you got it wrong, you will have to defend your position. Perhaps this is part of the reason we don’t seen many industry titles that foray into this area: it’s not worth the trouble.

“What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” 1

Tom Sloss

  1. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Cricket House Books LLC, 2012. []

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