The intellectual value of gaming: Sid Meier’s Civilization, Oregon Trail and a streetview of London in the 1660s

Brodie Waddell

Some time ago I claimed that Eric Hobsbawm’s work was one the initial spurs that pushed me towards becoming a historian. However, it would be misleading to leave the impression that the long journey to my current profession was prompted solely or even primarily by such an academically reputable source. In fact, a larger part was probably played by a computer game: Sid Meier’s Civilization.

Look out, Romans! You’re about to get smashed by my English cavalry!

Look out, Romans! You’re about to get smashed by my English cavalry!

I think I started playing Civ at around age eleven or twelve and didn’t stop until shortly after I began university. From my perspective, it’s simply a brilliant game: multi-layered and multi-linear, intellectually challenging and visually simple. It was also more addictive than many Class A narcotics, making ‘one more turn’ a truly dangerous phrase. However, alongside all of that, Civ was also a wonderful way to learn about history. You began as a single group of settlers in 4000 BC and attempted to struggle through to the present day via hundreds of technological discoveries, civic buildings, political systems and military units. Much of the historical content is obviously simplified, but it nonetheless offers an outstanding survey of the multitude ways in which different societies have developed over the last six millennia. Here, the role of the ruler (i.e. you) is important, but the success or failure of your civilization depends just as much on fundamentals such as local terrain and on contingencies such as luck in battle. Social and economic historians would surely approve.

Civ Tech Tree

Yep, you need to learn ‘ceremonial burial’ and ‘code of laws’ before you can become a monarchy.

Civ thus taught me a hell of a lot and stirred my passion for history. This isn’t, however, something that can only be achieved by a single brilliant game. I’m sure other people have been inspired by games like Pirates, Age of Empires and – most famous of all – Oregon Trail. Although I never played the latter, it was available in North American high schools and has become so embedded in popular culture that you can now buy a tee-shirt printed with one of the game’s iconic phrases. For most players, such games were simply that: games. But for some, they were educational in a way that goes far beyond merely learning about some facts or places. They could potentially instil a sense of wonder at the complexity, variety and humanity of the past.

Gaming - oregon-trail-you-have-died-of-dysenteryWhich brings me to my final point: this intellectual value continues today. I’m too distant from the current gaming community to have any sense of which programmes on the market are the most promising, but historians such as Timothy Burke suggest that this medium still has some vitality left in it and recently I was pleased to see a good example of how such genuine ‘Virtual Learning Environments’ continue to be created. Over the last year, a German video game company called Crytek ran a competition to create an ‘interactive environment’ based on maps held at the British Library. The winners were a team of De Montfort University students called Puddling Lane Productions, who created the equivalent of a google streetview walk-through of London just before the Great Fire of 1666. You can see the very impressive result below.

Although it is not (yet) a fully interactive game, even the walk-through seems like exactly the sort of thing that could be used to get school kids, undergrads and even crotchety lecturers like me excited about studying seventeenth-century London. It could also encourage debate: How does the absence of people change our perception of the city? Was it really that grimy? How different would it look a decade later after the rebuilding?

I’d love to hear from our readers if they’ve encountered any similarly intellectually valuable games, whether in the past or today. Any recommendations?

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8 thoughts on “The intellectual value of gaming: Sid Meier’s Civilization, Oregon Trail and a streetview of London in the 1660s

  1. Paradox Interactive’s games aren’t as well-known as titles like Age of Empires and usually have too steep a learning curve to have widespread appeal but they’re a) very well-regarded by critics b) great for explaining the complexities of pre-modern political and economic systems and c) actually quite fun. There’s several games, with each one covering a couple of centuries (my favourite, Europa Universalis III, covers the 14th to 19th centuries), and they basically play like the Civ games but with a bit more depth.

  2. I would recommend the Total War games and Europa Universalis. Both are good for incorporating historical events and maps into gameplay. I would be tempted to recommend them to students, but they are both as addictive as old-school Civilization.

  3. Thanks for the recommendations, Isidore and David. I’d forgotten about Europa Universalis: it’s great for us early modernists who aren’t particularly interested in all the WWII games.

    I agree with David that it is difficult to know whether to recommend such addictive games to students. I’m hesitant to suggest something that captured so many hours of my life!

  4. Civilisation did me absolutely no favours as an undergraduate, and the sequels have probably done my personal and professional life no favours ever since. Maybe fortunately, they seem to have completely lost their way in the latest Civilisation V so maybe the cycle in broken. You haven’t mentioned the spin off “Colonisation” which was surprisingly different and gripping in a subtly different way.

    Incidentally I have been (partially) defending Hobsbawm recently at

    http://eagleclawedwolfe.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/the-vindictive-press-from-ralph-milliband-the-prince-rupert-in-two-motifs/

    • Thanks for mentioning, Colonisation. I haven’t played it myself, but I’ve heard good things from a few different people so I may need to give it a try.

      Thanks too for drawing my attention to your post on the Mail and Hobsbawm: very interesting. Ta-Nehisi Coates has a couple a couple of posts on Hobsbawm that I’ve found really illuminating as he’s coming at the issue from the perspective of an intellectually honest outsider encountering Hobsbawm for the first time, grappling with his histories and politics at the same time.

      • Brodie, I’d not paid a lot of attention to The Atlantic before, but it is now bookmarked. How many publications would give you 4 pages of hits for a Hobsbawm search?

        I wonder what the late Marxist Sage would have thought of the Civilisation series? I found the Communist government type handy for making war (as long as you already had established technical advantage or at least parity) and dealing with a suddenly enlarged empire. Either delighted or horrified, no doubt.

      • If I were to guess, I’d think Hobsbawm would like the ‘macro’ approach of Civ. Although he was very able to give big events a human face in his writing, ultimately I think he believed that there were big forces and patterns at work, just like a complex, well-programmed AI.

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