What Can We Learn about Video Games from those who change the rules?

Granted, this is a strange way to begin analyzing this subject, but it seemed like a reasonable question. Trevor Owens, formerly with the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University certainly thought so.  He took Sid Meier’s popular game Civilization – both praised as an educational tool and criticized for promoting Eurocentrism – and studied the problematic issues in interpreting this game by examining the ways in which gamers modify play and how they approached the history of science, technology and knowledge represented in the game. Owens discovered that Civilization modders (gamers who modify the game) use reason and argument rather than their intuition for developing historical models. Community members value a form of historical accuracy, they prize subtlety and nuance in models for science within the game, and they communicate through civil consensus building.

Instead of mining information from interviews, surveys, or questionnaires, Owens used message boards and forums to explore discussions about science and technology in the Civilization games. He keyed in on two specific game communities: the CivFanatics and Apolyton web sites.  The two groups provided a way to discuss game play and work collectively on modifying projects.

He then focused on how game modders were working with the system of civilization commonly known as the “tech tree.” Owens’ examination included a single thread discussion allowing him to record the objectives and considerations that Civilization game modifiers pursued and discussed.  From the Apolyton site, four main points emerged in the modders’ philosophies and values. They established a desire to increase historical accuracy in the game. They assessed how game mechanics mirror socio-historical behavior. They introduced distinctive changes to make the game more factual. They held their discussions by consensus building.

Unique to this game is a “science advisor” who provides potential cultural progressions and technologies. Players decide on a research agenda, generate research points and acquire technologies yielding game play advantages. Gamers create the research points by assigning a portion of their civilizations taxes to research. More points are earned if citizens are turned into scientists and buildings constructed which produce additional research points.

Most revealing was one gamer’s reason for modifying the game. Simply put, the gradual progression of human learning and advancement cannot be summarized into 100 unrelated milestones and a player is unrealistically limited to doing one thing at a time. In this example, historical accuracy and authenticity helped better reflect this gamer’s concept of the past.  Additional posters finessed how Civilization could be altered to reflect their understanding of how knowledge, science, and technology:

Technology should be affected by what the player does in the sense that if he builds a lot of ships, his shipbuilding technology should go up, and if he stops making ships, the technology deteriorates. Maybe technology level could be a property of a population whereas scientific knowledge is the proper of the whole civilization?[1]

The shipbuilding argument explains this gamer’s line of reasoning that a specific technology should develop additional expertise with that technology. His idea settled a perceived problem from a previous posting, namely that rudimentary scientific and applied technical skills are modeled in the same way.

Instead of examining the flaws in Civilization’s representation of the history of science, game modders looked at this as an opportunity to consider their own understanding of technology and science.  Changes within the paradigm of a “See the game, play the game” mindset allowed players to discuss historic fact. Along the way, they developed the methods and courtesies of scholarly conversation. Modders replayed history; they constructed, critiqued, proposed, and developed real simulations for understanding historical events.[2] Civilization was designed to be altered and changed. Owens’ presentation illustrated that a positive discourse, accuracy, and consensus building can occur within the worldly confines of digital imagination and can help engage both the public and students in a valuable process of developing and refining their understanding of science and its role in society. A true win, win scenario for all.

[1] Trevor Owens, “Modding the History of Science: Values at Play in Modder Discussions of Sid Meier’s Civilization,” accessed 4 April, 2011, http://www.sagepub.com

[2] Hayden White, Metahistory:  The historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.


Jamestown Adventure

I was excited to review the game Jamestown Adventure because my interest is in colonial America. Unfortunately, the game is very simplistic and I was able to complete the entire game several times during several different scenarios in a short amount of time. After completing your adventure you are given the option of printing out both the results of your game and the actual history for comparison.

When I followed the known history of Jamestown and recreated those events in the game the colonists were hungry because their crops did not do well in the marshy soil, suffered a malaria epidemic, were poisoned by brackish water, sanitation was poor, found Pyrite instead of gold and were disappointed about not finding gold – all in less than five minutes. By following the actual history my ratings were: Food – fair (trading with Powhatan Indians provided several bushels of corn); Health – poor; Wealth – good (trading with Indians provided a refined form of tobacco) however the moral rating was good and I was promoted to Governor of Virginia!

The game does have redeeming quality of the game is that you can play the game multiple times using different scenarios making better decisions each time. While I find the game simplistic and somewhat boring, it is actually an excellent learning tool for elementary age students and a unique way to teach history to that age group.


My digital project has gone live!  SHOUTATYOURTV is a web exhibit that explores the ways in which YouTube users engage the traditional media in a social, political, and historical dialog.  It’s probably not surprising that there’s a lot of weird stuff going on YouTube…  I had a lot of fun putting it together, so please feel free to check it out and offer your feedback.

1066, or A War of Insults

1066 is a rather interesting flash game. It’s crafted really well and it’s not bad for a flash game, but it’s not the greatest either. From a gaming standpoint, it’s very pretty to look at, but the controls were a little off. You have three types of units, each capable of attacking and forming groups when in the right formation. Each unit is given three options: Move, Taunt, or Fortify, with the exception of Archers who can fire. Personally I never used the fortify option as the one time I did it didn’t see much of a difference and the game went faster if I moved the units into an attacking position. Units automatically attack when next to an enemy unit, capable of charging if you move them in a straight line from a distance. There are a great many options for strategies, including just having the computer randomize how many of each unit you have, and you quickly figuring out if your strategy is working.

However, the battle system is a little too easy to figure out. Here’s my strategy for winning: 1) get 1 or 2 groups of attacking units have them move together 2) have the rest of the attacking/soldier units go charging at the enemies individual units 3) line up archers with as many of the enemy as possible or their leader depending on situation 4) have your leader taunt. I didn’t have much time to experiment with other strategies, but usually it all boiled down to this. By the end of the battle, most of my soldiers were dead, I still had my archer and my leader and I won by calling them silly names. Every time, the battle fell into a fight of calling each other silly names and I won because I managed to keep my moral higher.

The battle system also has little mini games which while interesting for variety, weren’t always as well implemented. Taunting required you to do some fast typing, fighting requires you to hit the arrow keys at a specific time a la DDR, charging requires pressing the space bar really fast (more fun than it sounds), and archery makes you choose an angle and a firing strength very quickly. The archery was the worst in my opinion as you have no idea which angle is correct until you fire and if you accidentally select an angle that you didn’t want you can’t fix it. The others were really fun, though sometimes I suspected that the fighting mini-game was a little off on timing.

From a historical standpoint, the game is very interesting. You play through three battles that occurred in 1066. You get all your quick historical exposition in lovely cutscenes, and each army has different units to add to the flavor, i.e. only the Normans have knights on horseback. Each army also has customized taunts, the English being fond of ones involving poop and the Vikings calling you a troll. You get to play all three armies, and are on the historically winning side for each battle. This works great for those trying to learn a little about 1066, as then you are required to win to find out more. This bothered me because I didn’t get invested in any side and already knew that whenever the Normans showed up they would win. If each army had a campaign I felt I would have learned more and had more opportunity to learn tactics for each side (this is not overly complicated for flash games, as some are very in depth).

While the history set up the idea for the game, while playing the game I felt it could be any two armies, and 1066 was just the flavor chosen. This is a problem known as gameplay and story segregation. This comes in degrees, and for this game it wasn’t horrible, but it was noticeable. I felt no difference between the Vikings and English, and did absolutely nothing to change my strategy. The Normans I felt a noticeable difference as they had knights which just murdered everything. History can work as a setting for a game, it’s just that it needs to be more than a flavor, it needs to be visible in all aspects of the game.

Graphs, Maps, and Trees

When reading Franco Moretti ‘s “Graphs, Maps, and Trees”, I felt that I saw him focus on two main points. First of all, he brings up that scholars of literary history tend to spend plenty of time documenting the classics of a given period, buy pay almost no attention to the average, everyday works that were published in said period. The second point regarded his philosophy of studying stories and trends in stories by using, “graphs, maps, and trees”.
On one hand, reading his first point makes perfect sense. There seems something almost perfectly human and expected in people focusing on the major works of a given era rather than what was written and read from week-to-week by the ordinary people. We are a big event kind of species. And yet, somehow, this seems truly tragic. How can a person be a real historian if they do not have some knowledge of what reading a book for the average person would look like? In this sense, his book is not just a description of a style of analytical thinking. It is a bold call to action for historians to delve into the past and really immerse themselves in the writings of the time.
The second part of his argument brings to mind the Robin Williams movie, “Dead Poet’s Society”. In this movie, at the beginning of the school year at an elite prep school, Williams, playing the unorthodox English teacher of a group of young men, has them tear out the pages of their literature books that teach students how to judge the greatness of a work based on charts. As this (and the rest of the movie) make clear, Williams character greatly prefers the qualitative over quantitative.
However, there is a place for everything, and this work by Mr. Moretti would seem to provide the answer. Fine, he says. You can’t use quantitative methods to analyze the book itself on a merit basis. But you can to find its place in history, to chart not only the progression of actions within the book, but the place of the book in the genre predominant of whatever time the book is from. This is what I approve most of his system…the reliance of these charts for analyzing trends. In previous posts, the method of using pictures to tell history as a future way of communicating it on the internet was discussed. While the chart system Moretti proposes is not something that could only come about in the internet age, it does make said idea more in depth. If we truly are living in the age of the database, this system would seem perfect for taking that information and molding it to tell the story of history.