Exploring Historic Decisions Through Gaming

Hi, friends! Hope you’re all doing well. In this Practicum, we’ll take a little break from reality by exploring games that will take us to two distinct time periods where historical actors had to make quick-fire decisions that shaped the course of history.

First up: 1066. In this game, it’s the year 1066 (shocker) and we’re transported to the bloody battlefields of the Battle of Hastings, during the Norman conquest of England. The game, designed to “educate and engage teens in a historical gore-fest,” begins with some truly rousing battle music and gives users the choice to play as a single-player or multiplayer. It also gives you the chance to read up on the game rules, which I’ll go over a bit here.

You’ll play the game as the English, Viking, or Norman army. The goal of the game is to defeat your enemy army by killing and/or scaring off as many soldiers as possible. To do this, you need to learn about the different sections of your screen. The top portion is the Battle View. This shows the battle as it plays out, and you can use the arrows on your keyboard to shift your view at any point during the game.

Next up, in the middle section, is the Army Info and Mini-Games Panel. This small section contains a lot of information including: your army morale, the game timer, and your unit info. Each unit has an icon that corresponds to important measures like your attacking strength, defensive strength, and the number of troops you have left. You can also check out the number of troops your opponent has left by looking at the right side of the screen.

Finally, you have your Battle Map, which is where you plan your troops’ actions and issue commands for the battlefield. You’re also able to see your enemy’s actions and thus plan accordingly. The game is played in rounds, which are then divided into two phases. Each round begins with the Select Commands phase (which is when you issue orders to your troops), followed by the Executing Commands phase (which is when the orders are played out on the battlefield).

So, what are the commands? During the Select Commands phase, you can click on your units and choose to move, fire, taunt, fortify, or break. Each command affects both your army and your opponent, in terms of number of soldiers and morale.  Moving your troops directly next to enemy troops leads to hand-to-hand combat and (likely) the most deaths. The game is over once either army is killed or scared off.

So, let’s play (or…fight?)!

I first chose to play “Story Mode,” thus starting a new battle campaign and, because I’m a noob, I opted to play an Easy game. Before fighting, the game gave a little history lesson about the Battle of Hastings and its impact on early European politics and geography (though there’s the option to skip this).

I got assigned to play as the Vikings (dope!) and the game gave me a brief overview on their historical fighting techniques, plus the option to randomize the number of units I had. After that, it’s battle time!

Alright… unsurprisingly, I lost my battle and was awarded the battle rank of “Peasant.” Rough. However, the game was pretty fun to play, though there was a bit of a steep learning curve in mastering the commands. It was longer than I expected, lasting about 20 minutes, but moved really quickly. The Executing Commands round consisted of a bunch of “mini-games,” where you would have to perform actions (like typing in a phrase or hitting the correct keyboard arrows) to actually execute the command.

For example, you could change the angle and power of your arrow shots using your mouse. My arrows usually killed more of my own army than my opponent’s. Sorry, Vikings.

Overall, I wouldn’t say 1066 is very educational (maybe about battle techniques, but you don’t learn much at all about the Battle of Hastings unless you watch the intro), but it is a good way to spend some time, especially if you’re into war history.

Next up: Jamestown Adventure. We’ll jump about 600 years into the future to 1606 Jamestown, where we’re a captain setting up the colony. The introductory page gives a brief overview of the settling of Jamestown and its failed early years. Your job is “choose your own adventure” by making a number of key decisions to see if you can do better than the actual colonists. You’re able to consult the London Company’s Charter, or ask fellow colonists or Native Americans for advice. At the end, you’re scored on the food, health, wealth, and morale of your colony, which you can then compare to the historical Jamestown and “learn from the mistakes of history.”

Alright, let’s play!

This game is a lot less complicated than 1066 – I was done playing in about 3 minutes! It also seems like it’s geared toward a younger audience. The first question asks where you want to land to set up your colony. I chose to live on a protected bay island, since the colonist I asked said Spain might attack land directly on the coast.

Next, I was confronted by Native American chief, Lord Powhatan. Because I know my history, I offer to trade with him rather than attack. The Native American I consulted also counseled me to be a good neighbor, and this is just good advice for everyone.

Good question, Lord Powhatan.

Next, I’m asked what kind of structure I want to build. Once again, I listen to the natives and decide to build a town rather than a wood fort or a small castle.

Next, I choose to make everyone (including gentlemen!) work, doing hunting and fishing, and planting corn, wheat, and tobacco. Once again, I mostly consult the natives on these decisions since they’ve already lived there.

Then, it’s time for my results and…

My colony’s a success all around! I’m not sure if there’s a rating better than “Good,” but compared to the real Jamestown, I’d say I did alright.

Overall, Jamestown Adventure (while not as fun to play) is definitely more educational than 1066. I imagine it would be a good, interactive way for elementary/middle schoolers to learn about the failure of the Jamestown colony, and also makes for a good springboard into topics such as Native American history and the detrimental effects of colonialism.  What’s interesting about both games, though, is that you actually can lose both of them – and are expected to learn from your failure. This is something that I appreciate about both games and (regardless of the amount of educational historical content) seems like an important lesson to learn young.

What did y’all think of these games?

5 Replies to “Exploring Historic Decisions Through Gaming”

  1. Great post! I think your comparison draws out some really great points. 1066 is a lot more game, it clearly cost a lot more and it’s much more complicated. On some level, I’m sure that 1066 would teach me something about this historical invasion if I delved deep enough into understanding how the different units worked and really tried to master it. That said, it appears to be primarily focused on this enthusiast military history type. It seems to be successful in that context, but it does not necessarily seem to be great at teaching critical things about the past.

    In contrast, as you note, Jamestown Adventure is very simple but does come with some important sets of decisions that are ostensibly relevant to understanding this moment in American history. As you noted, the context for Jamestown Adventure is evident as being educational. It seems like something that a classroom teacher could well scaffold an set of classroom activities around based on a short period of time.

    Together I think these both illustrate some good aspects of how games have been deployed as tools for telling historical stories in an intentionally educational capacity. I’m curious for everyone’s thoughts about these games and in relationship to some of the other games and readings we are exploring this week.

  2. Thanks for your post Jenna! Jamestown Adventure’s model of “learning from history’s mistakes” is really interesting to me. A player’s “success” or “failure” seems based only only speculation – that if you decide to do one thing differently, the colony would have been successful (that’s very simplified obviously, but you see my point). I’m not sure how responsible that kind of basis is for teaching history, but it does make for an entertaining game!

  3. Hey Jenna! This is a nice overview of these games, they seem like they would be excellent for elementary and middle school kids as you said. I find it interesting when games engage in recreating actual historical events, especially with the Jamestown game. That game actually wants its players to compare their choices with the real Jamestown which is kind of cool and weird to me, it feels like it’s taking the events of history slightly out of context and simplifying them severally. However these are games for kids, so I think they are successful teaching them a little bit about the time period.

  4. Thanks for the post Jenna. Interesting games. It definitely seems like 1066 was made more with gameplay in mind. Really just sounds like a strategy game with a historical skin. But if the mention of real world events like the Battle of Hastings encourages people to look into the history, is suppose that could be seen as a win.
    The Jamestown Adventure definitely seems like it was made more with the history in mind, though I would also echo the concern of teaching how to do better than what happened. It does seem like that strays a bit too much into trying to answer counterfactuals which is generally frowned upon in the history world. But nonetheless I could see ways in which this sort of game could at least provide an introduction to the history of Jamestown or even just the trouble faced by settlers in general.

  5. Jenna,

    Thanks for breaking down these games in great detail. Wonderful post!

    Full disclosure: I loved playing historically-minded video games growing up. Strategy games were my thing! Echoing some of the sentiment that has already been tossed around in the comments, I find that these types of games often attempt to blur the line between normative histories & the sorts of decolonized histories we try to tell. Ultimately, games are designed to entertain, and it is difficult to entertain if one is forced to question their assumptions about history. I think game-designers understand this dynamic, even if they are knowledgeable about inclusive histories.

    In addition, alternative histories can be an appealing premise for entertainment/replayability, but fly in the face of historicity. For example, Jamestown Colony assumes that a single decision will trigger a linear result; in reality, historical actors have agency & respond to social/political forces.

    I do see how some historically-minded games might be excellent platforms to teach history. I also wonder if games have not been embraced by the academy for the same gatekeeper-ish reasons as blogs, digital spaces, etc.–perhaps the academy presumes that they are inherently rooted in popular notions of history and are of a “lesser quality.”

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