Researching Early Modern History

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Research blog entry 8, part 2 – F. Lauwaerts

In “Research blog entry 8” T.D. Jacobs discussed the concept of ‘gamification’ and the usefulness of games in training the skills of history students. He concluded that games can be used to improve critical thinking and the ability to examine historical themes, but fell short when it came to training more basic skills used in historical research. This blogpost serves as an addition to Jacobs’ piece, by focusing on game based learning in secondary history.

At first glance, video games lend themselves well to use in secondary history, as many have historical settings, e.g. the Total War and Age of Empire series, Battlefield 1, Valiant Hearts – The Great War, etc. As such, games seem a creative way to present subject material. However, a teacher should be mindful of the pitfall of using games solely to make a lesson entertaining, rather than as a means by which to optimize student engagement. Valiant Hearts – The Great War, for example, can teach how the First World War affected individuals of all nationalities, but it can also be used as the foundation for several lessons that build the subject matter around the four playable characters. Furthermore, the game can also be analyzed as a medium, linking it to other video games and media such as graphic novels.

Research on the use of history games has often focused on simulation games like the Total War-series by Creative Assembly. These strategy games are set in different time periods, and each has the goal of establishing an empire by reaching a political, cultural or economic objective. In Total War: Empire, you can play as an Indian or several European factions on the American, Indian and European continent in the 18th century. Total War: Empire can be used in several ways. While it contains information about historical events, military units, technologies, buildings, etc., these are largely superficial facts, with little or no attention given to historical processes, and there are historical inaccuracies. This is partly caused by the generalization of historical phenomena, as each faction can research the same technologies, with little regard for separate developments in different societies. However, such shortcomings are an ideal starting point for an analysis of the game on both a factual and conceptual level, thus training critical thinking. Moreover, the game also teaches task management as students must manage the progress of their faction by controlling political and economic variables and preventing social and cultural instability. The player must supervise his income and expenditure, and consider how to maximize the exploitation of resources by looking at taxes and trade. By utilizing simulation games, students can gain a deeper understanding of the workings of society by confronting them with the political, cultural, social and economic variables that often serve as a framework in secondary history, but which are frequently regarded by students as rigid. A simulation game can help students realize their relevancy.

As Jacobs pointed out in his blogpost, games also allow for the evaluation of more complex historical subjects and theories. Martin Wainwright proposed using Total War: Empire to discuss the question of the inevitability of Western dominance. Other theoretical discussions fit Total War as well, such as the Clash of Civilizations, the Colombian Exchange, etc. Additionally, students can play history games such as Total War to run counterfactual scenarios and subsequently analyze them. What if France succeeded in conquering Western Europe in the 18th century? What are the requirements and obstacles in successfully establishing a military or economic empire? Such scenarios can also help students to consider why things ultimately happened the way they did.

Finally, history games can also be analyzed as vehicles of history. As McMichael has put it: ‘computer games will help to understand how Western culture packages, “uses”, and “consumes” its history’. Through history games, students can become more aware of the relevance of history to their own lives. McMichael rightfully points out that ‘history PC games are about more than using history as a vehicle for entertainment and profit. PC games can also present a view of history that has the potential to become ingrained in our culture’. He further remarks that games can be used to teach students ‘to think critically about how history is used in our society & to understand the ways in which commodification of history through vehicles such as the History Channel & multimedia affects our understanding of past events.’ Ultimately, video games are well-suited to analytical exercises, either by individuals or in groups, but they can also be used to stimulate class discussions about historical theories or the depiction of history in society.


Creative Assembly. Total War: Empire. 2009. At:

Thomas Donald Jacobs. “Research blog entry 8”. At:

Andrew McMichael. “PC Games and the Teaching of History.” The History Teacher 40, No. 2 (2007). At:

Ubisoft. Valiant Hearts – The Great War. 2014. At:

Martin Wainwright. “Teaching Historical Theory through Video Games.” The History Teacher 47, No. 4 (2014). At: .

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