Video Game Review: Crusader Kings II

Following our in-depth article Can video games improve history education?, EuroClio will publish reviews of games that can be of use in the classroom. First up, Crusader Kings II!

Setting the Scene

It is August 7th, anno domini 936. You are Dirk of the House of Gerulfing, Duke of West Frisia. Despite your venerable age of 69 years, you remain sharp-witted and fit. You are doted on by your much younger second wife, the 21-year old Gerberga. Together you raise your 16-year old son (also named Dirk), who is growing into a well-mannered, if shy and overweight, young man. Your ruler, the ambitious Otto I, King of the Germans, gives little thought to your backwater lands. All the better, you think, as you are much more interested in promoting local trade instead of war. But dark clouds are on the horizon, as once again the kings of Europe prepare to fight over the legacy of Charlemagne’s empire.

The Game

The story of Dirk Gerulfing is just one of possible millions in the grand strategy game Crusader Kings II, developed by Stockholm-based developer Paradox Interactive. First released to modest sales and critical reception in 2012, it has since become one of the most successful historical strategy games of all time, selling one million copies by 2014, and continuing to perform strongly in the years since thanks to support from its developers.

The secret to Crusader Kings II’s success is likely the uniqueness of the game itself. There is no shortage of games set in the Medieval Ages, but whereas the overwhelming majority focus on putting the player in the role of a knight swinging swords or a general leading armies, Crusader Kings II instead takes a much more human approach. It has no written plot, no set objectives, and even the player character has no “chosen one” status. Crusader Kings II aims to be a holistic representation of medieval life, and its exactly this flexibility which can make the game valuable to educators.

How is it Played?

At its heart, Crusader Kings is a dynastic simulator – the player takes control of a single individual, usually a nobleman or noblewoman. and guides them through life. They do this by reacting to events, as well as the actions of other, computer-controlled individuals in the world around them. There is no way to “win” the game outside of a player’s own goals, and the player can only “lose” if their character lacks an heir or their last piece of land is taken.

Both the fun and the potential for learning come from how the player chooses to interact with the world around them. For example, a player in the position of Duke of Burgundy decides he wants to become the King of France. To do this, the player arranges a marriage between his son and the King’s daughter, only for the player’s son to declare that he is becoming a monk and breaking off the marriage. The player then is left with other options – does he fabricate a claim to the throne and have other nobles push for it to be recognized? Does he start a secret plot to arrange a rebellion? Or does he instead try to become good friends with the King, hoping the friendship is repaid later?

Historical Context

The gameplay of Crusader Kings II has been described with terms like “sandbox” or “emergent storytelling,” but both are ultimately grounded in the game’s representation of the medieval world. The standard game covers a time period stretching from 936 to 1453, while expansions can push the start date back to 769. Geographically, the map includes not only all of Europe, but also Northern and Eastern Africa, the Middle East, India, and Central Asia.

For this reason, students using the game in an educational context are not given a strictly Eurocentric perspective – a player can be part of the Islamic world, pagan Lithuania, or Buddhist Sri Lanka with almost as much detail as that given to Catholic Europe. Furthermore, the social and cultural elements driving the game also means the interactions with these cultures are not just warfare. For example, players and computers alike are rewarded if they follow Christian virtues if they are Catholic, or if they go on hajj as Muslims, among many other options. Through this, the game naturally weaves learning about cultures and religions into its gameplay, instead of simply presenting the information on the page of a textbook.

Nevertheless, the game does have its limitations in representation. It is impossible to play in the role of a peasant, or even lesser notables like a town merchant or baron. The game’s focus on the upper nobility limits playable characters to the ranks of “count” and above, with equivalents in other cultures. Players and educators should be aware of this bias as while the game provides a unique social-cultural angle unseen in other titles, it is largely limited to the elite.

In the Classroom

An obvious concern when it comes to using video games as an educational tool is the feasibility of running the game in the first place. Fortunately, Crusader Kings II, is neither technically demanding nor very expensive. Now being almost eight years old, the game should have little trouble running on almost any computer built in the past decade. Furthermore, the developers are aware of the game’s popularity among history educators and have implemented a policy through which it can be provided for free or very discounted to schools that contact them.

Another concern is the game’s suitability for students in terms of its content. Though Crusader Kings II has a PEGI rating of 12+, the game discusses mature subjects which may not be suitable for younger students. Though it does not feature graphic violence or sexual content, it is discussed indirectly through text. For this reason, Crusader Kings II is best fit for, at minimum, students in secondary school. Given similarities in subject matter, students who are expected to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth would likely have the maturity and skills to enjoy Crusader Kings II as a supplemental educational tool.

Crusader Kings II provides a unique experience not only among other video games, but also as an interactive tool with which to provide greater context for students about the medieval world. The word “context” is key – the game does not provide a retelling of exact historical events, but rather creates a system in which medieval life is shown to the player through the people, geography, faiths, and cultures of the medieval world. This is both a limitation and one of the game’s greatest strengths, as it provides a fun and intuitive way of teaching students about the underlying factors which influenced medieval history across the globe.

As for a practical example of how to implement a game like Crusader Kings II in a classroom, Paradox Interactive provides an example from one of their other titles. In 2010, the University of California began using the Second World War simulator Hearts of Iron II to help undergraduate students understand the geopolitics in an interactive manner. The program received good reviews from both students and teachers, crucially engaging even students who otherwise do not play video games.

Conclusion

As the modern classroom integrates more multimedia approaches to complement teaching, video games provide a clear avenue of expansion for enhancing student engagement and interest in the material being taught. Those interested in teaching medieval history will find a great tool in Crusader Kings II not only for its attention to historical detail and wide scope of covered topics, but also its easy accessibility both technically and financially through collaboration with its developers.

 

Adrian Piecyk is a graduate of the University of Toronto, holding a Masters degree in Eastern European and Russian Affairs and a Bachelors of History. Though his research interests primarily cover Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, his fascination with medieval life has made him a long-time fan of Crusader Kings II, and he hopes this review may inspire you to try the game for yourself. Adrian can be reached directly through email (adrian.piecyk@outlook.com), or over LinkedIn. 

GetBadNews: an online game on Fake News

Fani Partsafyllidou Reviews ,

GetBadNews is a small and fun online game in which you try to gain as many followers you can by spreading FakeNews on Twitter.

Developed by researchers at Cambridge University and DROG, a Netherlands-based platform against disinformation, GetBadNews has an important educational value. Not only does it raise awareness on the Fake News topic, it also demonstrates the most common practices.

The player dives into the basics of Fake news, one could say 'Fake News 101'. According to GetBadNews, these are: impersonation, emotion, polarization, conspiracy, discredit, and trolling.

It is an overall small game, as it takes approximately 20 mins to complete it. This means that it cannot be used as a main resource, but it is an excellent warm-up to open the discussion in the classroom. You can give it a try here.

Find more information on the concept and the methodology here 

Have you used GetBadNews in your lessons? Share your lesson plan with us.

Can video games improve history education?

Formal history education is mainly based on textbooks and teacher exposition; however, an increasing number of different resources are being used by educators to supplement their teaching. Among the various media employed, novels and films are certainly the most popular among teachers. The Historical Association, the main History Charity in Britain, provides a twenty pages list of historical fiction ranging from medieval sagas to modern day Afghanistan, “to help history teachers to inspire students of all ages in secondary school to read historical fiction for pleasure and also to get better at doing history”. Films too have long been utilised in history education since, according to recent research, movies were screened in classes already in the 1920s (R. Paxton and A. S. Marcus, 2018). Films are especially praised because visual information is more easily retainable than written information and, therefore, screenings can significantly improve students’ learning.

Introducing historical video games
Fiction and films remain the preferred media by history educators around the world, but another kind of resource is rapidly growing in popularity: historical video games. When we talk about historical video games, we refer to “those games that in some way represent the past or relate to discourses about it” (Chapman, 2016), games that start “at a clear point in real world history” and in which history has “a manifest effect on the nature of the game experience” (MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler, 2007). A large number of video games are set at different times and places in history, making them potentially valuable teaching tools. Players have almost unlimited possibilities: they can build the Colosseum in Minecraft, thus learning about Roman architecture as well as raw materials, or they can found, organise and defend a settlement in newly-discovered North America in Banished, or they can liberate Nazi occupied Europe by seemingly stepping in the shoes of an American frontline soldier in Call of Duty.

Although not (yet) as common in history classes as other tools, video games are attracting the attention of educators, particularly among the young generations, and academics too. Teachers who have experience using historical video games in class have started recommending them to their colleagues (see for example, the blog gamingthepast.net, or the youtube channel Histoire en Jeux), while researchers discuss how game playing influences students’ learning. Despite widespread interest and the availability of a wide range of historical games, ignorance and scepticism still characterise the attitude of many history educators towards video games. In this short article, we will address some of the main concerns about historical video games and suggest how they can benefit history learning with the help of Pieter van den Heede. Pieter, once a teacher in Belgian high schools, is now a lecturer at the History Department of Erasmus University Rotterdam, and his doctoral project focuses on the representation and simulation of war history in digital games.

Practical issues
First of all, let’s consider practical issues that may discourage teachers from using video games. Games have technological requirements that make their utilisation in class more complicated than that of, for example, movies. Schools may be unable to afford computers with sufficient hardware requirements (such as graphics cards, central processing unit, and memory) necessary to play modern video games. Although a service called Google Stadia has been developed specifically to allow users to stream games to any device, regardless of their technical specifications, it has not been very successful until now. Moreover, options of games can be limited to console/system compatibility, with some games exclusive to specific consoles. Managers are often reluctant to spend part of their limited school budget on the purchase of expensive equipment for game playing. Such reluctance may not only be due to financial constraints, but also to criticism towards the use of video games from the managers themselves, from teachers and parents and, surprisingly, from students, who are generally sceptical about the ability of games to improve their learning experience. Finally yet importantly, time constraint is also an issue. Teachers, who already struggle to keep pace with the strict timeline of curriculum implementation, find it challenging to allocate enough time for their students, who may be unfamiliar with the designated game, to learn how to play.

How video games can benefit history teaching
Regardless of the practical difficulties of their utilisation and their negative reputation, research shows that video games can significantly improve students’ learning experience. It is certainly easy to appreciate how they can teach a lot about material culture. Some games, which can be described as having a realist approach to the past, rigorously represent physical objects and environments, while also being consistent with broad historical narratives. Famous examples include the Assassin’s Creed series, featuring a variety of historical periods and situations such as, for example, Ancient Greece, feudal Japan, the Spanish Inquisition and the American Revolution, and allowing players to learn the functioning of a musket or to see the view from the trenches during World War I. This series centres on a fictional core narrative (about a clash between two secret societies, the Assassin’s and the Templars) that is set in accurately portrayed historical time periods. But according to Pieter van den Heede, the real added value of video games lies in the fact that they allow players to, for example, experience a sense of historical contingency and the path-dependency deriving from it. For example, in the Civilization series, the player will manage to build an empire only if he acquires and applies knowledge about, among other things, how geographic conditions affect the foundation and development of a city in ancient times. This approach can effectively convey the necessities, connections and general conditions that influenced past outcomes by creating an authentic “practice field” for solving problems and using real-world contexts and tools, thus helping students understand why historical figures made certain choices.

The shortcomings of video games and practical advice
Despite his passion for gaming, Pieter admits that, while historical video games have a considerable educational potential, they also have relevant shortcomings. For example, games are generally inadequate to teach social and cultural history. Since most players are interested in heroic roles and adventures, they prefer to play characters whose decisional power can significantly influence the game’s outcomes. Conscious of this, most companies produce games whose protagonists are kings, explorers and generals, rather than peasants or nuns. This inevitably leaves out of the picture the majority of members of past societies, preventing students from learning about their lives and role in history. For example, while it is possible to play female combatants in recent World War II games such as Battlefield V, it is not possible to learn about women’s experience of the conflict in more ordinary and common situations, such as replacing men in factories. It is possible that, as Pieter wishes, these experiences will be included in future games.

Another problem with video games is that they generally struggle to convey values alternative to those of modern western societies, and indiscriminately apply our mind-sets to different realities. This implies that players’ choices may influence the narrative of the game in ways that may be incompatible with historical evidence, and in the end, the outcome may differ significantly from real events. It is, therefore, important that students realise that they play a fictional character in a fictional role, and that they may make choices that the real protagonists of the events represented in the game did not or could not make. Moreover, Pieter recommends that students are given the opportunity to discuss their experiences during and after playing in order to compare their outcomes, debate the games’ historical accuracy and overall representational strategies as well as the intentions of its developers. In other words, the shortcomings of historical video games can be as valuable as their qualities for instruction, especially if students are made aware of how the games they play contribute to learning outcomes.

Ultimately, whatever the advantages and disadvantages of video games may be, teachers play a central role in unlocking their potential as educational tools, and it is thus essential to empower them. After all, teachers are those ultimately in charge of delivering instruction. They should be given the freedom, the time and, when the school budget allows it, the means to incorporate games in their lesson design if they so wish. But, as Pieter stresses, video games are just one of many tools available, and teachers should also feel free not to use them.

Written by Cecilia Biaggi, postdoctoral trainee at EuroClio and a Marie Sklodowska Curie Researcher in the LEaDing Fellows COFUND program at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Cecilia is particularly interested in minorities and nation-building, political history and education.