Thursday, December 22, 2016

Playing with history: the problem with historical gaming and education

I love games. Board games, card games, computer games - I'll try all of 'em. I didn't grow up in a particularly game-y house, so the recent growth in popularity of tabletop gaming - up 20% in the past year, according to research quoted by the Guardian newspaper - has been really exciting for me. 

Reproduction of a lithograph by T.A. Steinlen (from Wellcome Images, operated by Wellcome Trust)

As a medievalist, I am a particular fan of historical games, especially those set in the Middle Ages. There is something about immersing yourself in a medieval game-world that really makes the period come alive. Examples of these kinds of games are:
  • The battle-simulation game Lion Rampant.
  • The board game Lancaster (set in England in 1413).
  • The computer game Crusader Kings (which has a sequel, Crusader Kings II).
  • The videogame series Assassin's Creed (variously set during the Third Crusade, the late fifteenth-century in Italy, and Ottoman-era Constantinople).
  • The board game Bruges (takes place in mercantile fifteenth-century Belgium).
  • The medieval version of the ubiquitous Sims franchise, The Sims Medieval.

My interest in these kinds of historical games is part of the reason why I attended an event hosted by Blackwell's bookshop in Edinburgh called 'Gaming with History'. A collaboration between academics and games developers, the evening asked the following of panellists:
  • How does the games industry make use of history?
  • What role does it play in shaping historical knowledge? 
  • How can it be interacted with?
I learned quite a bit about how historical games are created in order to strike a balance between gaming and history. Creators will often look to the specific history of a period for help constructing the game's rules. I even found out that board games were used in centuries past to train the military. 

The latter part of the event focused on the use of historical games in education. There are LOADS of games out there that claim to be or have been used in some kind of educational context; this list, on Jeremiah McCall's website, gives a pretty good idea of the number of educational historical games out there. The benefit of games for learning has been discussed for a long time - one 1992 article reviewed 67 studies dating as far back as 1963 looking at whether games help students to learn (they conclude that "subject matter areas where very specific content can be targeted are more likely to show beneficial effects for gaming"). The panel (and the audience) at 'Gaming with History' were certainly in favour of games being used to make the study of history more interesting.

But therein lies the problem. Most of the historical games we have (especially the medieval ones) tell particular stories - of Europe, of white people, of men. Alternative narratives are often excluded from these games. Now this isn't necessarily a problem in and of itself (gaming has long been recognised as a less diverse cultural medium) but when we are using those same games to educate young people, this lack of diversity becomes more of an issue. Statutory guidance for the English National Curriculum - that determines what is taught in schools - states: 
"History helps pupils to understand the complexity of people’s lives, the process of change, the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time." (my emphasis)
If the games we use in education never feature women or people of colour, or, worse, routinely present certain groups of people negatively (e.g. Muslims in the Crusade-era games) this is perpetuating a dangerously homogeneous and one-sided view of history that isn't meeting that guidance. In short, the lack of diversity in historical games is a problem.

Some might point out that the lack of diversity in games simply reflects the historical past - game creators are using the research produced by historians. While it is important for the academic study of history to be diverse (which, to its credit, it is increasingly doing), I'm not sure historical-accuracy is an excuse that works for gaming. I've written, in the past, about how contemporary historical romances set in the medieval period change elements of the past to make it more palatable for modern readers (e.g. they ensure the heroine is at least 16 years old before she gets married). Why, then, could historical games not do the same - adapt their historical settings to make them more diverse? Gamers have long enjoyed 'fantasy' wargaming scenarios, where historically anachronistic combatants battle each other (Caesar vs. Richard the Lionheart, anyone?). So why not extend that fantasy to include women, people of colour, those with disabilities, LGBT+ people? Why not make games a place where alternative histories can be told? 

What seems more likely, to me, is that rather than history not being diverse, it is the modern world of gaming that lacks diversity. The sexism entrenched in gaming was highlighted in 2014 by #Gamergate and its fall-out, but it's clear that gaming (in the UK at least) is still dominated by white men, who live (and learn) predominantly in North America and Europe. As ever, when it comes to history, the choices of whose story to tell reveals much more about the modern world than the past. 

I should point out that at the 'Gaming with History' event some people in the audience approached me afterwards to suggest historical games that do focus on the experiences of women and minorities. A few to mention include:
  • Night Witches which tells the true story of an all-female Soviet night-bomber regiment in World War Two.
  • Steal Away Jordan, a role-playing game about slavery and "the social and psychological implications of life in a society where people can be property".
  • any game by Emily Care Boss who has created some brilliant games about love and dating (and there's a medieval variation for Under My Skin called 'Ere Camlann).

So why not try one of these games next time you want to play a historical game? Because history (including the Middle Ages) is full of incredible, fascinating, game-worthy women and it's about time we made time for their stories.