Video Game Review: Red Dead Redemption II

Anna Ivanova Reviews , ,

Setting the scene(-ry)

Red Dead Redemption II (Rockstar games – 2018) is a one of a kind western game where you can discover a variety of landscapes of America in the year 1899 on the back of a horse. Halfway through the story you can make one of the most wonderful rides possible in a game. Starting at the east coast of a fictional America, you ride inland on a horse with no name, heading home, crossing different kinds of landscapes. You cross little industrial towns and big empty plains, and ride on wooden paths through the swamps, along endless railroads and through the foothills of the mighty mountains in the north. This decor is one of the main characters in the story of Arthur Morgan, key figure in Red Dead Redemption II (RDR2). This moment in time symbolizes the closure of the era of the Wild West. There is no more frontier and every corner of this new continent is mapped. You can clearly feel the transformation from the age of the lawless into the incorporated industrial States. Arthur Morgan, as an outlaw and member of the Van der Linde gang, is one of the last in his profession. As a player, you have to deal with the disadvantages of being a gunslinger at the dawn of modern times.

The creators of RDR2 designed a landscape as a parallel universe of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, but implemented countless analogies with the real geography and history. There are, for example, references to the Philippine–American War, the ruins of the Civil War, the gold fever, the difficulties surrounding the Indian reservations and the German migration wave (the most famous family within this wave has to be the Trump family). Therefore, the game has two strong assets: a rich narrative and a gorgeous decor. The latter is certainly interesting for the use in the classroom.

 

An open world

The game has a relatively large map that is roughly comparable to different regions in the United States. The story of Morgan starts in the north, where the snowy mountain ranges lie and you can encounter a wandering pack of wolves or a grizzly bear. If you descend to the south later in the game, you end up on the large steppes where long railway lines cross and bison herds roam. Visit the south of the map that looks like Louisiana and go into the bayou for a crocodile hunt. In the east lies the large harbour city Saint-Denis which is comparable to a mixture of New Orleans and New York around the turn of the century. You can spot trams and visit barbers, factories, dinner shows, saloons, restaurants and Parisian flower gardens. You will also notice the French influence throughout the city. Saint-Denis is an interesting contrast to the wide-open plains and valleys where you can wander about.

RDR2 is an open world game (or sandbox game) in which you can step out of the main storyline of Morgan and his gang at all times and explore the area on your own. This aspect is an added value for using the game in the classroom. For example, you can give the students a comparison task in which they have to investigate different elements of daily life anno 1899. After all, a lot of European history curricula deal with subjects like modern imperialism, industrialisation and the associated social consequences, plantations, migrations, and so on. Just make sure that the students can move freely through the game and make decisions of their own. You can also use the game as a kick starter for a discussion about games as secondary sources.

 

A (hi-)story

The other aspect for which the game is praised, is the rich narrative of the main character gunslinger Arthur Morgan and his position in a gang of outlaws. Despite the lively storyline, this aspect is less suitable to play with your students. It is, after all, a story of violence and multiple confrontations with other gangs, bounty hunters and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency - none of which are resolved peacefully. The Pinkertons still exists as a private detective agency and were originally founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a response to the large number of gangs at the Midwest frontier. They had to track down these itinerant gangs that were guilty of train, postal and bank robberies in these widespread areas.

Occasional episodes based on historical facts occur during the story of Arthur Morgan. With a well-chosen selection of chapters, you should be able to play these episodes with your students and relate them to elements of American history or explore the game's historicity together. Examples of these historical facts during the game are the encounters with the Suffragettes, a group of women fighting for equal rights, and the chapter in which Morgan is part of a slave revolution on a Caribbean island. This refers to the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and is a nice intermezzo during the game that mostly takes place in The States.

Red Dead Redemption II is a game for PC, Playstation and Xbox and a wonderful window to the geography and history of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. As it is an open world game, I advise you to wonder around with your students and experience the last days of the Wild West and the dawn of the United States in modern times.

 

Written by Daan van Leeuwen

Daan van Leeuwen is a teacher educator at the InHolland University of Applied Sciences Rotterdam (The Netherlands), teacher, historian and editor at Kleio, the magazine of the Dutch association of history teachers. He has written several articles on the use of games in the classroom.

 

Title: Red Dead Redemption II
Author: Rockstar games
Year of publication: 2018
Language: English
System Requirements:  PC, Playstation, Xbox
Average Play Time: 6 hours
Cost: € 34.99

Video Game Review: Valiant Hearts, The Great War

Elias Stouraitis Reviews , , ,

The content of the game

“Valiant Hearts, The Great War” was constructed by Ubisoft in 2014 as a remembrance of 100 years since the beginning of the First World War. The game team received several data from that period, such as letters written by enlisted soldiers or first-hand accounts of the war to create a historically accurate game. The game designers narrate the story of four individuals through the First World War (1914 – 1918). It is a combination between an adventure and puzzle game through which participants solve problems and act in that period. You play as if you are the four different characters of the game and you follow their journey. Players enjoy playing each character for approximately 90 minutes. There is only one singular experience and you cannot replay it in order to win or collect more items. 

Even if the game has comic-style art and characters, Valiant Hearts deals with some serious subjects, such as soldiers’ reactions the surviving during the war. The game aims to provide different perspectives derived from the four game persons. Karl is a German farmer who lives with a French wife, Marie, and their young son. He gets deported from France to fight for Germany. Emile is Karl’s father-in-law and he takes care of his daughter and his grandson while Karl is at war, but he is drafted to fight for France. Freddie is an American who joins France in the fight against Germany as a revenge towards the death of his wife. Anna is a Belgian student who sets off to the frontlines of war to find her father and she becomes a war nurse. Additionally, there is another character, Walt, the obedient dog who joins each of the characters in the game and it helps the characters. The gameplay seems simple due to the fact that there are puzzles that help you to move or to get things. On the other hand, some part of the games contains battlefields where you have to react as if you were in the war. Each game scene involves narrators’ explanation, information about the historical period and various historical items laying around.

Cognitive dimension

“Valiant Heart” adopts the historical theme of World War I with a critical approach through the presentation of the different perspectives of four personalities. The most interesting thing in this game is that players come in touch not only with personalities on the battlefield but with the societies and they feel and survive during war. The game generates empathy with civilians and soldiers and at the same time emotions to players, such as cruelty and anguish. The game shows the position of all sides of World War I and contextualizes the historical dimension. The game shows as well professional soldiers and civilians who were forced to go to war. On the other hand, people stay at home and find solutions to survive or go to war to learn more about their relatives. There are stereotypes in the game such as the female nurses, but these are not at the stake. The cartoon aesthetic may create several questions about the people of that time and the environment because it seems like a comic rather than real people. The game creators decided to leverage 2D representations so as to be more friendly for gamers and there is no cruelty from that point. As such, the war is represented by a critical stance and there are not the well-known conflicts in this kind of games. Gamers understand the different parties during this war and portray civilian characters and victims.

Significance for history educators

The game can be used by history educators in secondary education due to the fact that the game presents the World War I from comic perspective and there are emotions that students have to handle with their teachers. The good thing is that there are no cruelty scenes that would create negative sentiments to students. The approach of the war is critical, and this helps teachers to discuss the different perspectives and parties of the war. The most important thing is that the game does not emphasize on the idea of the battlefields and this means that students will manage to play and feel like people who experience this war and around it. For sure, students will be able to enhance critical thinking (survival of victims, refugees, families and so on). The cartoon aesthetic portrays the horrors of war less crudely, but teachers should discuss this sort of representation at the beginning and at the end of the game. Students understand through their immersion to the game characters that war, and human suffering is not a game. It is a priority for teachers to have PCs in the schools because it would be easier to use it. Students will not find it difficult playing it as there is a guidance at the beginning of the game and during gameplay and additionally, they must answer specific challenges. Teachers may leverage it so as each student play each character and, in the end,, they will discuss their conclusions. Additionally, teacher may separate students to different teams and each one plays a different character and then they will discuss the different perspectives.

 

Written by Elias Stouraitis

Elias Stouraitis is currently a PhD Candidate in Digital History at the Faculty of Historical Survey, History Didactics and New Technologies, Department of History and Informatics, Ionian University in Greece. He completed his undergraduate studies in History and Archaeology at the University of Athens in Greece and undertook a master’s degree in modern Greek History at the University of Athens. He teaches History and Greek Language at private education in Greece. He has worked as a Research Project Manager regarding Digital Technology in Education, Social Inclusion, History and Culture. He has been awarded a grant from the Japanese Nippon Foundation SYLFF (Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund) for his innovative and strategic abilities in research leadership and an award by Common Ground Community ‘The Learner’ for his experienced skills in Education. His main research interests are Digital History, Historical Culture, Digital Games, Design of Educational Software. He is passionate about new Creative Projects and specialized in Digital Tools and Methods.

 

Title: Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Author: Ubisoft
Year of publication: 2014
Language: English
System Requirements:  PC
Average Play Time: 6 hours
Cost: € 14.99

One-day free offer: Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour

Fani Partsafyllidou Reviews

Can Assassin's Creed be used in History Education? Some of you might ask:

-Assassin's Creed? A game full of blood, weapons, and beheadings?

-What is Assassin's Creed?

An action-adventure game, Assassin's Creed, was released in 2007. Having gained remarkable popularity, as it now counts 95 million players and it is one of the most successful games of all time, it kept improving its virtual world making it more and more detailed and sophisticated. Ubisoft, the developer company, decided to recreate entire ancient cities, street by street, to offer a fascinating world to the players, and hired a team of historians to do so.

The final product was so captivating and informative that raised the question: How can this 3D, interactive depiction of ancient cities help education? Then, the discovery tour was created: a version of the game in which you can explore the cities, statues, and customs shown in the game without the gameplay.

Your character can walk, ride a horse, or fly on an eagle to see the city. Each time she reaches a station of the tour, you can listen to a short narration of a historical fact and you can view a relevant artefact. There is an abundance of information to unravel. The Ancient Egypt tour includes 75 tours, of various epochs, locations, and topics.

The methodology behind this massive effort deserves its own article. However, it could be summarised in the following way. The game is accurate in instances that we have historical knowledge over what happened. In instances where the historical accounts are incomplete or contrasting, the mythological or artistic element takes over. The tour acknowledges this fact, and explains which parts of the game are historical fiction, and which parts are accurate.

The good news is that just for today, until May 21st 2020, Ubisoft offers the Discovery Tours of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece for free! This is not a trial, so you will get to keep the game as long as you want. Just make sure that your PC can handle it, as it requires a lot of free space and a high vRAM. Give it a go, and if you use it in the classroom send us feedback with your experience at secretariat@euroclio.eu

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. 

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.