Perhaps learning something: Crusader Kings II and Pharaoh
Educational games are something of a pariah these days. The phrase calls to mind well-intentioned yet flawed works of anthropomorphised animals, beloved characters espousing rote memorisation, or at the absolute worst the scourge of gamification. I’ve discussed the complications surrounding historicity in games and how it can lead to engendering false ideas, but it’s also true that the interactive medium can be a truly great tool to express ideas and concepts to the player in a way no other medium can. And, perhaps the most effective element it can do so without overtly presenting an idea or concept must be learned. A player that is engrossed, involved and active in the systems of a game that has the added benefit of being a delivery system for information is exactly what can make learning effective.
The grand strategy games by Paradox Interactive offer an excellent example of passionate people working hard to deliver to players an experience as much as a game, and are “grand” in their dizzying scope and vast mechanical recreation of life for people in ages past. Crusader Kings II (and its many expansions) in particular offers a scope far larger than its title implies, giving the player an almost unreasonable amount of choice in whom to be and at what time in between the beginnings of Charlemagne’s campaigns of unification and the fall of Rome in the East. It’s within this almost inconceivably vast framework that Crusader Kings II allows the player to run wild with as little regard for historicity as they: yet, they are still be able to see how and why our world looks like it does today. As thousands of separate people are born, work, chase goals, marry, spread or defend their culture, deal with mundane activities and world-shaking events a map that the player had a hand in creating takes shape. In every game a world map evolves where every part of may be fiendishly difficult to make sense of and yet has a perfectly ordinary chain of cause and effect behind it. But perhaps more important than highlighting how intensely complicated history can be, Crusader Kings II excels at demonstrating the difficult lives of those marginalised within it. Those playing as a female character whether by choice or by circumstance face a uniquely difficult set of challenges not shared by male counterparts. Not the least of those is the closed lose state and end to your game should your character have a patrilineal marriage. Giving your power up to your husband is the end of your family line, and the game: by not doing so, your options for strategic marriage (a key mechanic) are severely limited, and dying childless ends it all the same. As a far different example, even an attentive player might find themselves quelling an uprising they weren’t expecting due to a ruler, a member of the court or a spouse being from a different culture, even one from the province right next door, even after decades of them being there. It’s easy to feel marginalised, isolated and unsafe simply for wanting the same things everyone else does in Crusader Kings II.
Other games such as Sierra’s city sim games benefit from a narrowed focus. Titles like Pharaoh put you in charge of a whole city and working out issues like sanitation, food security, cultural and religious life all on your own. Alot of the joy of Pharaoh is in seeing famous monuments slowly take shape as you manage the stone they’re made from and the workers who build it. But beyond that it’s able to deliver some small sense of what the logistics of building them and running a city must have been for the people at the time. Part of the power of the Egyptian civilisation was that if it would take 10,000 people to complete a task, 10,000 people could be mobilised to do it, and the task of mobilising such a labour force as well as the infrastructure to support it, maintain your building project, defend yourself and sustainably orchestrate a colossal building project is exhausting, even as a highly abstracted mechanics system. To contrast these lofty ambitions Pharaoh is rich in small cultural details for the player to enjoy. There’s an abundance of simple pleasures of watching your hunters shoot arrows at ostriches, watching the Nile flood and retreat every year, or even just watching your city hum with activity as a desperately needed moment of mono no aware in such a complicated game.
This shouldn’t be taken to mean all education can or should be fun, of course. That gross misconception is at the heart of what makes gamification so insidious after all, that “work” and “play” never have to be separate concepts thanks to the miracle of operant conditioning. Despite this, coming away from a game with a better grasp of abstract academic concepts is possible. Crusader Kings II and Pharaoh do not have the value of a comprehensive humanities education and certainly don’t aspire to. Rather, the goals of having to be a commercial piece of entertainment is not in competition with delivering ideas and concepts to the player and perhaps leaving them with an enriched view of the world around them just a little bit.