Author Archive

Gaming the Past, Second Edition, Is Published

November 19, 2022 1 comment

Gaming the Past, Second Edition, is out with Routledge! I am so very grateful and excited to have had the chance to revise significantly and add to the first edition work that came out over a decade ago. If you’re interested in reading more about my bibliographical road to Gaming the Past First Edition and the decade between it and 2.0, I’m working on a series of posts about my time in historical game studies as one of the earlier academics.

— Jeremiah McCall

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18 Years in Historical Game Studies: A Biographical/Bibliographical Musing Part 1 (2005 – 2012)

November 11, 2022 2 comments

Gaming the Past, Second Edition, is out today with Routledge! I am so very grateful and excited to have had the chance to revise significantly and add to the first edition work that came out over a decade ago. I thought perhaps it is a good time to reflect a little on my time and work in Historical Game Studies and in teaching history using video games as tools. Here’s a first post to see if it’s of interest to anyone else.

— Jeremiah McCall

Though I experimented a little with interactive learning in history in my graduate years finishing my PhD on Greco-Roman History with Nate Rosenstein at the Ohio State University (2000), I did not work with making and integrating actual physical games until my first history teaching position in a secondary school. Hoping very much to add life to my ancient history courses (high school) I made a couple of physical game prototypes: One a simulation of Roman politics in the Republic and the other a simulation game of ancient warfare. For students, the interest these games brought to the areas we studied was palpable, and I knew I wanted to do more with games in history education. This process continued when I came to Cincinnati Country Day School and had access to laptop computers. I experimented with some board games like Diplomacy and continued to work on designs for tabletop prototypes–many never reaching a truly playable state. I was struck along the way with the amount of research I had to do to make a historical game. Inspiration–get students to design games as a way to encourage them to study a historical topic in depth. This led to my first “Historical Simulations” senior elective at CCDS, in the winter and spring of the 2004-05 school year. While the course was focused on having students design their own historical tabletop games I was also struck by Civilization III as a potential model to play and study. So, in addition to the design part of the class, I had students play Civ III and compare it to the first chapter or so of Patricia Crone’s Pre-Industrial Societies. This experiment with Civilization (III) caught the attention of friend and colleague Kurt Squire (now UC Irvine) who invited me to speak at the Education Arcade in May of 2005. I was part of a panel discussing the use of Civilization III in the classroom. There’s still a video of the whole panel to be found on Youtube (and me considerably younger with a great deal more hair.)

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Mobile Civilization Building Genre (Draft)

November 6, 2022 2 comments

I wrote this section on MCB games for the genre chapter Gaming the Past, Second Edition, but had to cut it for reasons of space. Just posting it here in case it’s of interest

A somewhat more unique mobile genre is the Clash of Clans clear mobile genre (we’ll call “mobile civ games” for short) These games are clear examples of the freemium game model where players may play for free but get access to extra abilities, resources, etc. if they pay money to the developers through microtransactions. In games of this genre, the player agent leads a civilization—from a list of historical states whether Roman, Chinese, Aztec, or any number of other options depending on the game. The player agent constructs settlement in a home-base location with some geographic features: generally open land and land that must be cleared to be developed upon. The player agent fills their home-base settlement with various types of buildings. The core buildings are houses, each supporting a limited number of workers for the player agent. These workers then construct all the other buildings of the civilization. Buildings range in function from barracks to resource storage to defense to research.

There tend to be a small number of standard resources in these games, two or three: often food, coins, and wood or stone. These are stored in stockpiles with finite capacities in the player agent’s settlement. Resources are sometimes gathered automatically by the civilization when the player is logged out; sometimes the player must log in to gather resources, a design technique to encourage players to regularly visit the game and keep up the player base. If the player agent’s resource stockpiles are full, all additional harvesting of those resources is stopped until the player logs in and spends the resources. So, for example, if the player-agent’s food stockpile is full, all additional incoming is wasted, a lost opportunity, and the player will need to log in and spend food on some project to avoid missing out on acquiring resources. Indeed the whole game is designed around real-world time consumption and players can decide whether they want to commit more real-world time to the game, logging in and playing more frequently, and, as the level up, waiting longer and longer times to construct more powerful buildings and armies, or purchasing special resources with real-world money to cut down on time.

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Historical Problem Spaces on the Studying Pixels Podcast

October 23, 2022 Leave a comment

In late September, I had the pleasure of talking with Stefan Simond over at the Studying Pixels podcast about games as historical problem spaces

Historical Game Design Theory and Practice: Dialogue with Luke Holmes, Part 2

October 19, 2022 1 comment

Part 1 of our dialogue blog is here. Last time, Luke left us with Chris King’s argument that game developers should choose their historical interpretation based on whichever suits the gameplay best. I always felt a bit uncomfortable with that, but maybe I have too much of an agenda as a historian! . We’ll start this second instalment from there.

JEREMIAH: That does seem to be a rather bold statement. Here my response as an educator with historical games and as an academic studying historical games might differ. King’s suggestion works perfectly for a history class so long as the teacher presents the game as an interpretation, a model, that needs to be critiqued for defensibility by students (McCall 2011 and now McCall 2022, forthcoming). I suppose though that even from a more formal academic analysis, the idea of picking a historical interpretation based on mechanics is probably not noticeably different than the practice we mostly all seem to recognize: that in a conflict between fun/playability and historical accuracy (leaving aside how problematic that term can be), devs on record tend to say that they will usually go with fun/playability–I’d have to go back to look for references; pretty confident Sid Meier has said that. Also pretty confident that Soren Johnson agreed and elaborated on this principle back on my first GTP:Designer Talks podcast. In a sense “picking the historical interpretation to suit the game mechanics” is just a variation on this right? Even so, it’s a generalization of course, so whether devs pursue something more on the consistent with historical evidence (“defensible”) or less will depend on their originality pillar, right, to the extent that advancing a certain historical proposition could be part of a game’s originality? (or the expectations pillar if players expect a defensible historical model?)

 LUKE: I wonder too if video games’ position in media-culture-hierarchy also gives game devs a lot of flexibility precisely because they don’t have to be defensible. Academics (and a lot of devs, too) would I think argue that video games very much are vehicles of history, but I’m not sure all audiences would agree. When video games aren’t presented as an authority (in the way that a book, museum, or academic might be, however flawed that is) the worry about whether a historical model fairly represents the period or discourse becomes unimportant – it is, after all “just a game”. For me though, games that take this line run a risk of trivializing the past, or even exploiting it for inspiration and genre appeal. It creates a nonsense proposition: that fun is directly incompatible with good history. 

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Historical Game Design Theory and Practice with Luke Holmes, Part 1

July 18, 2022 1 comment

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 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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