Theory, design, research,and use of historical games in and beyond history education. Look here for links to current research, lists of available historical video games, reviews, and essays on a variety of topics connected to historical games. Created and maintained by Jeremiah McCall (jmc.hst@gmail.com; @gamingthepast), teacher, historian, researcher, and author of Gaming the Past

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Historical Game Design Theory and Practice with Luke Homes

After a too-long hiatus (4 years), a new series of dialogue-blogs start on Gaming the Past with this installment. This time my very-esteemed interlocutor is Luke Holmes, Game Designer at Creative Assembly (previously museum-worker, with a History MA). We’ll set out on what we both excitedly hope will be a series of substantial discussions by talking about developer goals and the design of historical games 

LUKE: I’m going to jump right in! When studying historical video games, historians often think about what games are trying to say, and how they say it. We do our best to draw conclusions from the characters, levels, narratives and mechanics, and to some degree judge these products by their historical interpretations. How faithful was Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey to ancient Greece? How far can Civilisation be used for teaching and studying history?  

We look at the goals given to the player, and we analyse whether they are historical. Is the decision of whether to hire knights or archers in Age of Empires IV reflective of the kind of decisions that historic nations had to make? I know you’ve done a lot of work in this area, Jeremiah, so I’m interested to explore this a little more. 

JEREMIAH: One of the reasons I am so pleased to get to work with you on this, Luke,  is because the developer perspective is so critical to historical game studies but not explored nearly enough. Historical game developers are historians. They meet the basic criterion:  they create curated representations of the past (something any number of historical game studies folks including myself have emphasized, not least of all Chapman 2016). So, it follows that a key to better understanding the medium of historical games is to better understand developers’ approaches to designing GAMES that are historical. Your insights will be of great interest in this light. It’s always good to remember that history, categorically  ≠≠ academic written history.  

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Prototype A Available – De Agricultura: The Universal Abstract Overly-Simplified Ancient Peasant Agriculture Game

July 1, 2022 1 comment

Update for September: I did playtest prototype A with students and found the core game solid–at least enough for a good class reflection. Here is the most recent prototype that I used.

Like all prototypes, this will break, and I’d be grateful if you sent me a note about how it broke so I can improve on it. But I think Prototype A probably works well enough (I haven’t group playtested it — that’s where you all come in) to use in a class (I’m going to this August).

Prototype A PDF

Briefly, the goals of the game are this.

A better appreciation/understanding of peasants in agrarian societies. It is very hard for moderns to appreciate that the vast majority of ancient agrarian societies (some 80-90% of population) were peasant farmers, i.e. subsistence farmers. They lived and worked in a state of subsistence, just enough to get by, with little bits of surplus food. That tiny surplus, magnified over thousands of peasants, was what the state extracted to fund non-farming activities from armies to building projects etc.

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Categories: Game Design, Lesson PLans

Dreams of Darkness as a Historical Problem Space: A Discussion

June 20, 2022 1 comment

Friend and HGS colleague currently working with Dream of Darkness, Tamika Glouftsis, wrote an insightful blog in April Can the Historical Problem Space framework help us make better history games? I was excited to see her thoughts, not least of all because I’m considering a book project specifically on using the HPS framework to guide game design for students (in the form of interactive texts, and physical boardgame design) a guide that, hopefully, would have value for teacher-designers and historical game developers too. So with that in mind, and the pleasure of exploring this topic for any synergistic insights we or others might developed,  I wrote some interlinear comments to Tamika’s post to continue the discussion, and Tamika wrote some additional comment to turn this into a dialogue. So what we have is, we think, an interesting discussion of ideas and a continued exploration of how developers (in addition to those studying historical games) might use the Historical Problem Space framework (McCall, 2020) as an analytical tool for historical game development. Both Tamika and I welcome further conversations on this, so please reach out to us with questions and comments

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An Introduction to Historical Problem Spaces 

This is a reprint of my original PlaythePast post . It offers a brisker survey of the Historical Problem Space framework that I lay out in greater detail in the academic journal Game Studies article, The Historical Problem Space Framework: Games as a Historical Medium, also published in late 2020. The ambition to write a series of these for PlaythePast.org has not yet been fulfilled.

I’m returning, happily, to my roots to write a series of essays on PlaythePast. In 2012 I proposed the outlines of a framework (first here on PtP and then elsewhere in The Journal of Digital Humanities) that I have come to call the “historical problem space framework.” Since then, I have spent a considerable amount of time–both as a history educator who uses historical games and as a historian studying games–developing and refining this historical problem space framework. While I have an article in the works on the subject, and regularly make use of it in my classes and research, the framework has developed considerably since I first proposed it 8 years ago. Someday, perhaps I’ll get to write a book on the topic. But for now, in hopes of providing a hopefully easy-to-understand, holistic, and practical approach to analyzing and explaining the history in historical games, I’m writing a series of essays here on Playthepast, where the concept was born. Hopefully, readers will find the framework useful for their own research, teaching, and design and just for thinking more about how historical video games work. This is a work in progress and comments, questions, and constructive criticism are most welcome.

The historical problem space framework (HPS) is a holistic, medium-sensitive, design-focused framework for analyzing and understanding, designing, and teaching with historical games. It is, above all, meant to focus practically on how designers craft historical games, based on an understanding that games are mathematical, interlocking, interactive (playable) systems.

History is, in broad terms, the curated representation of the past, so pretty much any medium that can communicate ideas about the past can function as history. This is as true for video games as it is for texts, images, cinema, and so on. It is critical to understand, however, that each medium has its own characteristics, its own ways of presenting the past. This point has been made increasingly clear by historians studying historical film and is certainly true of historical video games. Both need to be approached not as a deficient forms of textual history, but as media that are simply different from text, talk, or lecture.

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New Encyclopedia Article – History Games

My encyclopedia article, an introduction to historical video games and historical game studies has just been published as part of the open-access online Encyclopedia of Ludic Terms

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Making a roll-and-write for history class using Roll through the Ages as a guide

November 5, 2021 2 comments

So, I want to begin simply by promoting Eagle-Gryphon Games Roll through the Ages: The Bronze Age as a terrific game to use with secondary and higher learners in a lesson, unit, or course on ancient agrarian states. https://www.eaglegames.net/Roll-Through-The-Ages-The-Bronze-Age-p/101119.htm But do keep reading if you are interested in creating your own roll-and-write games for history classes that may have nothing to do with ancient history. RTTA Bronze Age provides an excellent model for a roll-and-write game structure that could be used to inspire games about all sorts of historical topics, even ones far removed from RTTA:BA’s setting with Bronze Age states.

Just wanted to pitch both that it is a terrific game to use in an ancient history class, but it models a type of game structure that works very well in history classes. That structure is easily abstractable to then allow for creating other good games on any number of subjects for history class

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(Tweet Thread) Games with Historical Player Agents that Aren’t Rulers or Warriors

June 15, 2021 2 comments

Recently I received a Twitter question asking what kinds of historical games are available that do not place the player-agent (the character the player plays as) in the traditional game role of a ruler, commander, or warrior. Here’s my response, slightly reformatted from the thread: A partial list of some cool historical games that have more varied player-agents.

When Rivers Were Trails, (When Rivers Were Trails by indianlandtenure (itch.io)) where the player agent is an indigenous person (Anishinaabeg) in the 1890s forced from their Minnesota home and required to survive a journey to relocate on the west coast of North America.

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Video Interview on Games and History with the Arise Project

March 26, 2021 2 comments

I had the pleasure of being interviewed this past July by Vinicius Carvalho and crew with the Arise Project part of the USP Archeology and Ethnology Museum, in 2017. They asked all sorts of great questions and gave me the chance to talk about the wide range of historical games studies topics I work on as a researcher and an educator.

After a Portuguese intro, the interview is in English. Since it’s about 52 minutes long, I thought it might be helpful for those interested to give a little breakdown of the questions I talk about and their place in the interview.

Start: My history and how I came to the work on history and games in education

4:45 What makes a historical game a good fit for learning and classroom use?

8:15 Have you had any experiences where students didn’t actually want to play the game?

10:30 Tell us about Res Publica, a tabletop game you designed for Roman History class I have designed. (also gets into principles of historical game design).

14:40 How can we as game developers assess/judge the knowledge students acquire when playing historical games?

21:00 My work with interactive text design tools by students; for students; by historians. Twine and choice-based games. Parser based games.

28:00 Historical Problem Space Framework in some detail and the philosophy

36:00 The historical problem space framework as a useful guide for historical game design.

39:00 Where are you headed next?
Interactive History class – Imperialism and Colonialism
Testing out the HPS in class more

42:20 What are the challenges and benefits of getting realtime feedback on a game you have designed from students in the class. Working with Teachers to try out historical games. and some suggestions for the Arise project’s work. Matching a historical game to history education.

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Through the Darkest of Times’ Historical Problem Space

January 24, 2021 2 comments

This is a republication of my two-part essay on Playthepast.org, (original Part 1 and Part 2 here). It is the first long-form historical game analysis I have written using the Historical Problem Space framework. The first half of the essay is more descriptive, illustrating the details that go into a historical problem space analysis. The second part provides more analysis and conclusions about the game as a history.

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Essay on Through the Darkest of Times up on Play the Past

December 17, 2020 2 comments

My two-part essay on Paintbucket Games Through the Darkest of Times is now published on Play the Past. This essay uses the historical problem space framework to analyze the game. Let me know what you think.


Through the Darkest of Times’ Historical Problem Space, Part 1 (playthepast.org)

Through the Darkest of Times’ Historical Problem Space, Part 2 (playthepast.org)

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