Click here if you missed part one.

Last time, I talked about complex, strategy-oriented video games based on actual history. This time, I’d like to talk about titles that use history as a jumping-off point for their own story.

The Assassin’s Creed Series

This is easily the most popular game series I’ll be talking about; Assassin’s Creed III sold 12 million copies in the first three months after release. The series follows the millennia-long war between a fictional group called The Assassins (based on the historical Hashishin) and a group descended from the Knights Templar.

Assassin's Creed

Assassin’s Creed I (2007) – The player, as the fictional 12th-century assassin Altair ibn-La’Ahad, exploring the city of Jerusalem.

Each game contains a modern-day science fiction subplot, but the heart of the experience is the exploration of historical locations; games have taken place in locations as varied as Jerusalem (during the 3rd Crusade), Florence (under the Medicis) and Philadelphia (during the American Revolution). The cities feel alive and vibrant, and the exploration of each drives home the idea that these were real, living places rather than just dots on a map. Each game also includes an in-game encyclopedia, meaning that when players meet a real person (say, Niccolo Machiavelli) they are provided with a description of who that person actually was. Of course, not every depiction is accurate; Rodrigo Borgia, while a bastard, did not have an alien mind-control staff.

Assassin's Creed II

Not a strictly accurate rendering of the medieval papacy, though more or less in keeping with other acts attributed to the Borgias. From Assassin’s Creed II (2009).

The Civilization Series

Civilization is one of the titans of the video game industry. A team led by game-design auteur Sid Meier released the first game in 1991; 2010 saw the release of the most recent entry, Civilization V. The series places players in charge of a historical civilization, in the persona of its famous ruler (for example, Catherine the Great as leader of Russia). The goal is to rise to world prominence by military, scientific, diplomatic, or cultural means.

Civilization V

The world map for Civilization V (2010), showing the coastline of a player-controlled empire.

The world is generated randomly each time, meaning that each play-through will be different. Newer games in the series support both online and “hotseat” play so that more than one person can participate in a game.

Civilization V

The diplomacy menu brings the player face to face with the leaders of other civilizations (in this case, Augustus of the Roman Empire). From Civilization V (2010).

Half the fun of the games are the wildly ahistoric scenarios they generate; one of my fondest memories of Civilization IV involved leading my army of Aztec Jews to military glory before colonizing Alpha Centauri. However, the games aren’t just fun sandboxes—a built-in encyclopedia is included with each game, providing background on the buildings, technologies, civilizations, leaders, and more (for those interested in why the English get such good fleets).

The Dynasty/Samurai Warriors Series

I’m probably going to catch some flak for saying this, but I like these games. They’re historical beat-em-ups set in some of the major conflicts of Asian History. Dynasty Warriors takes place during the Three Kingdoms Period of China, and Samurai Warriors during the Sengoku Period of Japan. The games themselves are wildly unrealistic—famous soldiers are capable of fighting hundreds of men at once, and great scholars are able to fire laser beams from their eyes. It’s goofy, it’s over the top, and it’s also multiplayer (meaning you can share the crazy with friends).

Dynasty Warriors 8

Above: Not a strictly accurate portrayal of ancient Chinese history, though somewhat in keeping with the stories attributed to the period. From Dynasty Warriors 8 (2013).


Why These Games?

So why am I recommending these games? The answer applies to all of the games above and to any game that takes license with history. This isn’t educational material designed to teach kids the facts. That kind of learning is best done with a teacher or a book. This is entertainment material serving a dual purpose. On the one hand, it’s fun. On the other, it demonstrates that history isn’t just memorizing dates and names; it’s a collection of fascinating people, events, and places made more compelling by the fact that they actually existed.

Samurai Warriord 3

Based (very loosely) on a true story. From Samurai Warriors 3 (2010).

All the Confucian eye-lasers in the world can’t change the fact that the  basic story of Dynasty Warriors really happened, and all the bizarre sci-fi plot points can’t change the fact that Assassin’s Creed’s depiction of 12th century Jerusalem felt so real that it gave me flashbacks to the time I spent living in that city.

One of my colleagues in Japanese history admitted to me once that the reason she started studying Japanese culture was because she’d so enjoyed Samurai Warriors that she went to her local bookstore and bought some books on the Sengoku Period. If that’s not a compelling argument for the power of games to create intellectual interest in a topic, I don’t know what is.

Assassin’s Creed is © Ubisoft. Games in the series are rated M for mature. Single- and multi-player functionality varies based on the title. Titles in the series are available for PC, Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii U.
Civilization is © Take-Two Interactive and its subsidiaries. Civilization V is rated E 10+. Single-player, online, LAN, and hotsteat multiplayer. Available for PC.
Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors are © Koei. Rating varies by title. Single- and multi-player functionality varies by title. Titles in the series are available for PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, 3DS, PSP, and PSVita.

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.