It’s no secret that video games have a bad rap as a hobby. The image of the stereotypical gamer is a teen or 20-something male (even though 47% of gamers are women) killing time with Call of Duty in the family basement.

It’s not always that way, though. Playing games can be a way to encourage intellectual curiosity, not just pass time. My passion is history, so today I’ll share a selection of games that, for the right teen, could kindle interest in the past.

Crusader Kings II

Paradox Interactive has a history of making complex games; Crusader Kings II was an attempt to make something more accessible, and the result is one of the best games of 2012.

Players take the role of a feudal lord during the Middle Ages, ranging in rank from count of a single province to emperor of a huge territory. They must expand their power and defend their family from rivals within and without. Later expansions add the ability to play as a Muslim ruler, a subject of the Byzantine Empire, a merchant family in a republic, or a pagan warlord.

Crusader Kings II

The Byzantine Empire, successor to the Roman Empire and one of the many playable states in the game. This image shows its starting position as of 1066.

The game does an excellent job of capturing the harsh politics and betrayal of the Middle Ages (with occasional forays into more current events). Feudalism is one thing when taught as an abstract notion on a blackboard. It’s something else entirely when you’re attempting a cunning plan to usurp land from your wife’s relatives, only to realize your own son has betrayed you and seized the throne himself.

Crusader Kings II

Sometimes, strange things can happen in a game of Crusader Kings.

The Total War Series

The Scotland-based team at The Creative Assembly has been making these games since 2000 with the release of Shogun: Total War (set in feudal Japan). Since then, the series has covered the Medieval, Classical, and Enlightenment periods of European history. The most recent game in the series is Total War: Rome II.

Total War: Shogun

In Total War: Shogun 2 (2011) Warrior Monks of the militant and egalitarian Buddhist Ikko-Ikki movement square off against the foot soldiers of the Takeda clan.

Though a campaign map focused on strategic management of clan territory is included, the focus of each game is the tactical warfare. Players command personally assembled armies in combat. This makes for a tense and intellectual game experience. Players learn about the nature of warfare in each period.

Playing Napoleon: Total War? Time to learn how to place and protect artillery to cover your troops.

Playing Shogun: Total War? Buy guns from the Portuguese and watch your peasants crush an army of expert samurai.

The battle system is so effective at explaining how combat worked in each time period that Rome: Total War’s engine was used in two TV shows describing famous ancient battles.

Napoleon: Total War

In Napoleon: Total War (2010) soldiers of the United Kingdom and the French Empire engage in close combat.

Expeditions: Conquistador

Expeditions: Conquistador was independently developed by the small Danish studio Logic Artists. The game is set in 1518, and posits an ahistorical scenario whereby the player’s expedition of Spaniards arrives in Mexico and opens relations with the various native peoples, pre-empting the expedition of Hernan Cortez. The goal of the game is for players to think about how they would behave in Cortez’s position. They can attempt to forge peace between the Spaniards and native Mexicans or be as ruthless as Cortez in their seizure of territory and people. The campaign is split into two parts; one on the Spanish base of Hispaniola and the other on the mainland of Mexico.

Expeditions: Conquistador

A closeup of a tactical battle between the player and a group of indigenous people.

The game does not shrink from a morally complex era of history. Though the narrative is (rightly) more sympathetic to the indigenous people, both sides are shown in a three-dimensional manner and neither is romanticized. The game is a bit rough in places (being independently developed) but it’s a gripping look at a dark time in our history.

Expedition: Conquistadors

A sample of the world map showing the player exploring the east coast of Mexico.

Why These Games?

These games are all about strategy and management. Each game shows the player the difficulties and opportunities of a specific time period, making it possible to identify with the real-life people who were in those situations. These games can be challenging, but they let players empathize with the people who lived through trying times in our history. An older game in this vein was what got me started studying international relations, and one of these could do the same for the teen in your life.

In part two I’ll talk about games which  use historical settings but go off the rails.

Click here to read part two!

Crusader Kings II © Paradox Interactive. Rated T for Alcohol References, Mild Language, Mild Violence, and Sexual Themes. Available for PC on Steam, GamersGate, and Single-player, up to 16 players via LAN/Internet.
The Total War Series is © Sega. All games in the Total War series are rated T. Available for PC on Steam. Single-player, multi-player functionality varies based on the individual title.
Expeditions: Conquistador is © bitComposer Entertainment AG. Not rated by the ESRB, Rated PEGI 16 by the Pan-European Game Information group. Available for PC on Steam and Good Old Games. Single-player, multiplayer skirmish via LAN/Internet.

This article was written by

Isaac Meyer is a PhD student in History at the University of Washington specializing in modern Japan and modern China. In his (very limited) spare time, he writes and produces the History of Japan Podcast, and still finds time for video games on top of everything else.