Simulation Games as Historical Interpretations

Simulation Games as Historical Interpretations: Critiquing Rome: Total War in the High School History Classroom

“Simulations Games as Historical Interpretations: Critiquing Rome: Total War in the High School History Classroom” by Jeremiah McCall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at gamingthepast.org.
Creative Commons License

The serious application of computer games as learning tools in the classroom is still very much in its infancy. Consequently, recent research has noted the need to establish greater practical connections between the theoretical benefits of games and the actual educational experiences of students (Thomas 2005; Squire 2005). To forge these links, classroom teachers must assume an active partnership with educational technologists and learning scientists to develop game-based classroom pedagogies. As an effort to meet this need, I have drawn on my training as a historian and experiences as a high school history teacher to suggest how games may be used effectively in the history classroom. Following the outline of this theory is the description of a lesson using Creative Assembly’s computer game Rome: Total War to teach 9th grade history students to criticize historical interpretations.I have two goals in mind: to offer a practical implementation of a game applied within the real educational context of classrooms and to elicit other classroom teachers to share their own practical experiences using games as effective learning tools.

This article approaches the values of simulation games in the classroom with a basic conviction that I have acquired through my years of training in history, writing and publishing a historical monograph, and teaching history to adolescents and young adults for the better part of a decade: history students are best served when they are taught that history is a discipline and learn to practice skills and methods of historians. On the flip side, students are least served when they are taught that history is a fixed body of dates, events, facts, and stock interpretations and that their own job is simply to memorize this corpus of information. Therefore high school history curricula should focus on training students to evaluate evidence, form evidence-based interpretations of the past, and critique competing views through writing and meaningful debate.

The ability to critique others’ interpretations of the past by comparing them to independent evidence is a crucial part of the historian’s role. It is critical that students of history also learn this skill. Certainly, practicing historical criticism will help students develop their analytical and evaluative abilities. Critiquing a historical interpretation involves several elements of higher order thought. First, students must analyze the interpretation. Then they must identify, evaluate, and use valid evidence to assess the ideas contained within an interpretation. Ultimately, they must judge whether and how much the interpretation is warranted by the evidence. Essentially, therefore, students learning to critique historical interpretations are learning important ways of thinking. More importantly in the real world vocal political, religious, and media figures offer versions of reality that are often in conflict. It is extremely valuable for students (and adults) to be able to evaluate these competing claims to the truth.

This skill does not come easily. Studies of high school history students examining historical texts, such as those of Wineburg (1991a; 1991b) and Rouet, Britt, Mason, & Perfetti (1996), have done much to help us understand the nature of historical thought. The results of these studies emphasize the challenges teachers face: students do not naturally practice the skills of evaluating evidence, placing it within historical contexts, and developing interpretations; nor do they demonstrate any particular inclination to criticize textbooks as sources of information. This underdevelopment of historians’ skills, however, comes from a lack of training, not aptitude. If we are to avoid a world of young adults who accept uncritically what they read and see, we must teach them to marshal valid evidence and evaluate historical accounts from a variety of media. This requires active teaching and ample use of effective lessons so that students can develop and practice their skills.

Historical computer games can be an engaging and effective form of interpretation for students to criticize. Certain games have a level of authentic historical detail that merits their treatment as accounts of the past. This is not to say that these games represent the past in wholly accurate ways—not even the best historians manage that. The games, however, do present detailed systems of cause and effect based on models of the past. To this extent, they can be treated like historical reconstructions. There are tangible benefits to doing so. Well-designed games are basically interactive simulations that allow students to explore the relationship between different factors in history (see Foreman, 2005 for a discussion of games as simulations). Through these interactive simulations, learners can test how different decisions might have produced different outcomes in the past. At the same time, students can learn to critique the underlying assumptions adopted by these simulations.

Presenting games as models to be challenged is a proposition different from using games as an engaging means to promote students’ interest in various subjects. Certainly, it is a viable use of computer games to generate students’ empathy with historical figures and to increase their appreciation of the constraints under which actors made their decisions in the past. Still, more can be done with games in a curriculum designed to teach students historical thinking. The real-world discipline of history requires practitioners to analyze evidence and critique interpretations. Therefore, when students encounter historical games, they should be encouraged to critique them, not passively accept them. Use in this way, games can provide students much needed and engaging means to practice evaluating others’ versions of the truth.

Before turning to the implementation of this theory, it is worth considering the potential objection that few designers of historical games claim to represent the past wholly accurately. Indeed, none probably imagine that their games could or should be subjected to historical criticism. For the purpose of training students to judge interpretations, however, the intentions of the designers simply does not matter. The value of this exercise is that it encourages students to think about what can and cannot be sustained by historical evidence. So long as a game has enough historical merit that students will be challenged to critique its validity, the pedagogical objectives of this lesson will be served. Indeed, inaccuracies in the game serve a useful function: they give students an opportunity to challenge, just as the accuracies give them a chance to support. This is not to say that a fantastical game or one too simplistic in nature should be selected for a class to critique. If a game offers a blatantly poor model of the past, students would likely be encouraged to dismiss the whole exercise of critiquing.

As an example of the phenomenon where game critique blurs into the practice of history, see the Rome: Total War Online Strategy Guide at GameSpy - Not only is this site a helpful overview of the concepts in RTW, it provides an interesting example of how the analysis of a historical game can become–consciously or not–an act of historical criticism and interpretation. The author ends up addressing a number of game play principles that historians of ancient warfare would recognize.

Rome: Total War as a Simulation of Ancient Warfare

RTW is a real-time strategy game that places players in the roles of ancient generals. The campaign mode contains a number of engrossing but unhistorical concepts that are best left to gamers. The custom battle creator, on the other hand, provides the flexibility to create a variety of conflicts between armies of historically belligerent cultures. Two players may compete or one player can fight against a computer opponent. In either case, a battlefield is selected with terrain ranging from plains to hills and forests. In the single player game, the player begins by looking down on her troops from a bird’s eye position. Before the battle begins, the player arranges her troops by clicking on them and indicating where they should be positioned. She knows the direction from which the opposing army will come, but does not know the arrangement of her opponent’s troops.

Once the troops are deployed, the battle begins. The player-general commands by right-clicking on the desired unit and left clicking on the desired objective. If the objective is a location on the map, the unit will march or ride to it. If the objective is an enemy, the unit will close and attack. Additional commands order troops to, among other options, change formation, charge, and fire missile weapons. Each unit has a set of associated statistics including an attack rating, defense rating, and morale level. So long as units have sufficiently high morale, they will follow the player-general’s commands and do battle. Units suffering from low morale can rout, however, and flee the battlefield. Victory comes in one of two ways determined prior to the battle. Either the side with most enemy units destroyed or the last side with un-routed units on the battlefield is declared the victor. Once one of these two conditions has been met, a statistics screen gives a summary of the battle.

It is a truth of ancient military history that no account can give a true depiction of the reality of war. That said, RTW’s combat model is reasonably faithful to conventional ideas about ancient warfare—enough to warrant using the game as an interpretation of the past.5 Although there are some bizarre troop selections available (incendiary pigs), most troop types faithfully reflect the historical considerations of the period. Roman options, for example, include all the various types of infantry available in the Republic as well as early and later imperial legionaries. Weapons are also portrayed essentially accurately. The Greek phalanxes fight with spears while the Roman hastati have both pila (javelins) and gladii (short swords). Additionally, formations are faithful to what historians assume was true of the past. Troops that historically fought in close order, such as hoplites and Roman legionaries, do so in the game. Loose order troops from history also maintain their spacing in the game. Finally, although maneuvering troops in the game is assuredly far easier than it was in real life, troops commanded by mouse clicks are not always quick to react and take time and space to change formations. In these respects, RTW is faithful to historians’ understandings of ancient warfare.

Additional elements add to the overall authenticity of the game as a simulation. Light cavalry will not engage enemy troops directly unless directly commanded, preferring to harass opponents from a distance with missile weapons. Similarly, light troops automatically retire after casting missile weapons rather than fight heavy infantry. The player-general can only override these behaviors by deliberate commands to close with the enemy.

The inclusion of morale as a significant factor lends further credibility to the game model. Units will not always fight to the death. If a unit’s morale sinks below a certain level, its soldiers will flee the battlefield. Certainly this is consistent with the consensus view of historians that ancient battles were more a contest of morale than casualties; most casualties occurred only after the soldiers in an army chose to flee and exposed their vulnerable backs to the weapons of their enemies. Whether the levels of morale are set appropriately in the game is open to debate. At times RTW’s Greek phalanxes fight enemies to the front and side (a horribly demoralizing situation in real battles to be sure) and stand firm with a casualty rate greater than 90%. On the other hand, cavalry charges against an army’s flanks can have a devastating effect on enemy morale, as can the charge of war elephants. Regardless of one’s feelings about how morale is factored into the RTW battles, the fact that it is included enriches the experience of evaluating the game.

RTW’s strengths as a model outweigh its flaws, most of which are the understandable result of efforts to make the game entertaining. The greatest inaccuracy is that the player-general has an ability to survey the battle and command troops that even a modern commander would envy. The player can control his view of the battlefield by rotating the game camera 360º and zooming in or out on almost any point in the field. All units are listed below the view-screen and their fighting strengths and morale levels can be determined by holding the mouse over them. Any unit can be selected and ordered. None of this information, of course, was available to ancient generals. They were limited to a ground-level view of the battle and commanded through the strength of their voice and the speed of their messengers. Provided they could have even seen an already engaged unit on one wing or the other, they would have been nearly powerless to control it. The excessive power of the player-general, however, provides a helpful way to discuss limitations of command in ancient battles. By thinking about the flexibility the player-generals have in the game, a better appreciation might be had of the difficulties real generals faced.

Using the Game in the Classroom

Recently, I implemented these theories in the classroom. Although it was conceivable that students begin their excursion into critiquing games by playing a demo version on their own, I opted to create a battle scenario that the class would observe as a whole. According to the plan, I would control the troops in the battle, but solicit input from students to guide my control. Several factors dictated this choice. The purpose of the exercise was to introduce students to historical criticism, a difficult enough task in itself. It seemed appropriate in this first encounter, therefore, for students to focus on their thought processes, not on issues of controlling the game. Many students have never played a complex computer game of this sort and it would have been rash to assume that all children would have immediate facility with such games; indeed, research has suggested that children can find it quite difficult to learn to play computer games (McLester, 2005; Squire, 2005). So long as the first lesson went well, I planned for my students to take a more independent role critiquing RTW in a future lesson. Most difficult concepts—critiquing games among them—can best be taught by progressing through stages of difficulty, and this teacher-led observation was only meant to be the first stage.

I created a simple custom battle between phalanxes for the lesson. A few minor issues had to be addressed along the way. RTW was designed to depict the battles of the Roman Republic and Empire, not those of Classical Greece. To simulate Greek phalanxes, therefore, a battle had to be created between the Carthaginians and the Greek cities. Although the Carthaginians seem an odd choice, the game does not allow custom battles to be created between two armies of the same culture (except for the Romans).6 The Carthaginians, under the circumstances, offered an adequate substitute for Greeks because their forces include Sacred Band units, a type of Greek phalanx. The army of the Greek cities consisted of five armored hoplite units while the Carthaginian army consisted of five Sacred Band units. More units could have been deployed, but keeping to five per side allowed the whole battle to be surveyed easily. Grassy flatland was selected as the terrain option both because Greek phalanxes tended to fight on plains and because the flat terrain would provide an unobstructed view of the battle.

On the first day of the lesson, the purpose of the exercise was presented to the students. As a class, we discussed the importance of critiquing historical interpretations and explored the idea that historical computer games offer versions of the past just as movies, textbooks, and historians’ writings do. After this introduction, it was time to move to the instructions for the lesson itself: students would examine a packet of primary sources and photos of Greek vases depicting hoplites. Using these documents, they would form an idea of Greek phalanx warfare. Then they would view the game, ask questions, and record their own observations. Finally, they would evaluate whether the game was accurate or inaccurate.

Curiosity was high, and the students dug into the research component. In groups of three or four, they read through the sources and generated inferences based on the evidence. Each student recorded their inferences, along with the supporting evidence, on one side of an observation log according to the following categories:

  1. Weapons and Equipment
  2. Formations, Organization, and Fighting Style
  3. The Role of the General
  4. The Role of Casualties and Morale

The next day, we discussed the conclusions generated for the first two categories. At this point, eight weeks into the year, my students knew enough of the discipline of history to challenge their peers’ interpretations and support their own opinions by referring to specific evidence from their primary source packets. Because the sources themselves were insufficient in number and scope to allow full responses to categories 3 and 4, these categories were discussed more hypothetically. First, the students brainstormed the limitations a real general might have faced when commanding armies of this type. Then I explained the concepts of casualties and morale to the class and suggested we pay attention to how RTW simulated this aspect of ancient battle.

It was time for the game to begin. RTW was run from a Toshiba M-200 tablet computer and projected onto a screen. Students watched and took observation notes on how the computer game simulated the weapons and formation of the phalanx, the role of the general in battle, and the role of casualties and morale in determining whether units remained in battle. The battle progressed in stages. The class watched from the vantage point of the player army while the computer army slowly advanced across the screen. As I pointed out the number of soldiers in each unit and surveyed the army from above, the students continued to record their observations. Finally the game camera was set just behind the front ranks of the player army and we waited as the computer phalanx approached (see figure 1). Before the two armies collided, I paused the game, and the class took the opportunity to ask questions and share initial observations. The game continued and armies clashed.

Figure 2. Awaiting the enemy phalanx.

Soon I let the students guide my control of the game. We paused when they had questions, and I moved the camera to focus on those parts of the battle they wanted to see. They began to offer input on the conduct of the battle. I had intentionally left a reserve unit in the rear; after several minutes of the battle had passed, some grew increasingly discontent with this seeming misuse of forces. We discussed where reserves were needed most. The majority of the class concluded that the enemy phalanx’s flank was open to attack. I duly dispatched our reserves, and the class observed how the game rendered the marching, and reformation of the unit on the enemy flank. Some students wanted to see what would happen if a unit were commanded to wheel while already engaged. We gave the order and watched—the students were a bit skeptical at how easily the unit followed orders while supposedly engaged in battle. We also paid particular attention to those units who had received considerable casualties noting that these units did not flee until they were reduced to a single man.

Figure 3: Maneuvering the reserve unit into position.

After twenty-five minutes of observation and experiment, the class was over. On the next day, students wrote a brief reflection about their reactions to the game. As a final assessment for the activity, they each argued in outline form how effectively RTW simulated Greek warfare.

Student Feedback and Assessment

Three types of writing assignments provided a picture of the classes’ overall success with the activity: the observation logs, a “Supporting an Argument” assessment, and a written response to a set of reflection questions. The number of assignments gave students practice writing in a variety of formats and allowed for the collection of different types of anecdotal evidence. Collectively, they testify to the success of this activity.

According to the observation logs, some elements of the simulation were deemed accurate such as the rendering of the weapons and equipment of the hoplites. The formations were also considered realistic. An archetypical comment from one student: “[The hoplites] fight together as a team more than as individuals.” Another student felt the game portrayed ancient infantry formations in too perfect a manner: “[RTW] showed every man moving together. The idea is correct, but if it were a real battle, they would be a little less together.”

Other elements of the game met with greater skepticism. The power of the player-general, for example, was a particularly enticing target for the class. “How could a real general get the word to the infantry during a battle?” inquired one student. Another judged that the role of the general in the game “is not accurate because there is no way that all of those people would be able to hear him.” A third student remarked, “The game shows you who’s dying, who’s fleeing, who’s giving up, etc. A general back then wouldn’t have had that control.” This particular student also found it suspicious that “the game lets you move troops around in the middle of battle.” The role of morale and casualties also spurred some disbelief. According to one student’s commentary, “The units never flee unless they are ordered to, which is very unlike real life.” Another observant participant pointed out an error in the program by noting that “a guy in back [of the phalanx] died when no one tried to stab him.”

In the “Supporting an Argument” take-home assessment, students had to judge whether RTW effectively simulated one of the four categories—weapons, formations, the role of the general, or the role of casualties and morale—by referring to evidence from the primary sources. This entailed writing a thesis statement, describing how RTW simulated one of the categories, and finding three pieces of evidence to validate or refute RTW’s simulation of that area. The majority chose to focus on the weapons or formations—not surprising given the nature of the available evidence. Most decided that the simulation was reasonably accurate in these areas and were able to offer credible evidence in support. From a purely academic perspective, therefore, the students were successful in their efforts to critique the game and, thus, successful in practicing higher order thinking.

In the third written assignment, each student had the opportunity to reflect on the whole experience by writing free-form answers to any or all of the following prompts:

  • What were the advantages and disadvantages of using a computer simulation to study Greek warfare?
  • Did the primary sources help you see accuracies and inaccuracies in the simulation?
  • Was the activity a good way to practice critiquing interpretations of the past?
  • Did watching the simulation give you a better sense of how Greek phalanxes may have fought?

The responses to the activity were resoundingly positive; there is no question that the class was engaged with the experience. Some students commented on the interactive nature of the experience as opposed to a lecture. Others who identified themselves as strong visual learners felt it was especially effective to critique a visual interpretation rather than a text-based one. Still others found it helpful to critique a game, something so familiar to them from their daily lives. All noted that it was a fun experience.

Other responses demonstrated that the students, in general, grasped the learning objectives for this lesson and found the game to be a particularly effective tool for meeting those. Some students noted that the game was useful because it had a balance of accuracies and inaccuracies, which offered many options for critique. Others suggested that because of this activity they had learned to compare sources and not simply trust what they saw. One student said the game made for a good lesson on historical criticism.

One of the most meaningful responses, however, came from one student, not a computer game player, who journeyed through the reflection to come to some real understanding. Asked whether the activity was effective at teaching historical criticism, this student responded: “Yes and no because one thing that confused me was the difference between the game and what was based on history, but I guess that is what made it good practice for critiquing an interpretation of the past. So, actually, yes, it was a very good activity because I had to separate what was real (based on history) and what was not. Overall, I really enjoyed the game.” The student journeyed from an initially negative response to a full appreciation of the merit of this activity.

Conclusions – The Promise of Historical Games as Interpretations

The effectiveness of using games more often in these types of activities needs to be researched further. Nevertheless, the students clearly did succeed in analyzing and evaluating RTW. Their feedback suggests they found the activity intellectually engaging and felt the medium of a computer game was particularly helpful when learning to practice historical criticism. The thoughtful comments from the observation logs and reflections combined with the success of the “Supporting an Argument” assessment suggest that the learning objectives were reached. It is worth remembering, too, that this was an introduction to historical criticism, a skill set that is often difficult for students just out of middle school to acquire. With these factors in mind, it is not unreasonable to be optimistic about using games in this way.

A final element in the student evaluations hints at the real potential of using games as historical interpretations. A small, but not insignificant, number of students remarked that it was difficult to tell what was accurate and what was not in the game. In other words, far from feeling that the critique of a game was mere play, these students felt challenged by the experience. Perhaps this was the first time they had formally been asked to distinguish between valid and invalid claims.

If the class is to learn the skills of historical criticism, they should experience lessons similar to this RTW activity often. Much of the time students will evaluate written accounts, but the lessons learned in this game activity will serve as a valuable reference point. In January, my students will return to critiquing the interpretations found in RTW. This time, however, the challenge of the task will increase. In conjunction with a unit on ancient Rome, teams of students will play through the battle of the Trebia River7 contained in the demo version of RTW. After learning how to play the game, they will have several weeks to critique its interpretation. The evidence for their critique will come from the ancient battle accounts of Polybius and Livy and some excerpts from modern historians’ works. Students will need to move beyond critiquing the model of ancient battle to comparing the disposition of troops and terrain in the game with what is attested by the ancient sources. The inclusion of excerpts from historians’ works, furthermore, should help reinforce the idea that there are many versions of the past, whether written on paper or rendered into binary code. I hope to assess this expanded critical thinking exercise in a future article.

For now, it is worth recalling the guiding historical principle of this experiment. E.H. Carr may have said it best in his seminal work, What is History: “To praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using well-seasoned timber or properly mixed concrete in his building. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential function” (1961, p. 8). Historians and history students alike should not be distinguished by their ability to master facts about the past. Knowledge of historical facts is simply a prerequisite of the discipline, not a goal. Instead, historians and history students must be skilled in amassing and using valid evidence to judge others’ visions of the past and construct their own, whether in text or game form. Therefore, while there is value in students learning facts about the content and processes of history from games, such an approach limits the extent to which students actually learn how to be experts in history. Far better that students learn to identify the models inherent in games and critique the accuracy of those models. These are the skills that will serve them as they navigate the real world.

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