When Playing Video Games Becomes a History Lesson

On campuses across the country, professors are putting historically based games into the classroom

A scene from Assassins Creed
The “Assasin’s Creed” series, famous for using real historical events as a backdrop to the games, have gone through scenarios such as the Crusades, the American Revolution and the Golden Age of Piracy. Ubisoft

“Okay, class, for tonight’s history homework you’ll be playing ‘Assassin’s Creed.’” What might sound like a slacker’s dream assignment is finding new respect in academia, spurred on by a University of Kansas historian who says video games are crucial to the “creation of public knowledge of the past” and belong in the classroom.

Andrew Denning, an associate professor, notes that the increasing sophistication of history-based titles and the growing number of scholars who grew up on video games (Denning, 38, is one) are softening higher education’s distrust of the activity; a University of Tennessee course centers on the “Red Dead Redemption” series, wherein players explore turn-of-the-century America. The level of detail relayed by a game “far outstrips that of a historical monograph,” Denning argues in a recent paper published in the American Historical Review.

Some game companies are now striving for maximal accuracy, even hiring historian consultants. “The new edition of Oregon Trail has referred to scholars of Native America,” Denning tells me. Here are six other games that may find their way onto a syllabus.

Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft

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(Ubisoft)
This action-adventure series—set in various epochs, from Ancient Greece to 19th-century London—presents players with ahistorical scenarios and even science fiction but is almost unrivaled in its world-building. Players explore rich representations of architecture as though walking through real-world heritage sites; the discovery mode offers tours curated by historians and archaeologists.

Attentat 1942, Charles Games

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(Charles Games)
This explicitly educational game depicts Czech lands under Nazi occupation. Animations of the past and conversations with actors in the present enrich the narrative experience, as players ask elderly characters to recount memories of wartime. This style of storytelling reveals how personal and collective histories are intertwined in any historical conflict.

Crusader Kings, Paradox Development Studio

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(Paradox Development Studio)
In this complex grand strategy game, players rule a medieval dynasty through tactical choices—forging alliances by arranging marriages, say—and experiment with counterfactual history (What if Wales had colonized England rather than vice versa?). By imagining a different outcome, such scenarios can help us better understand what did happen in the past by considering what did not.

Battlefield, EA DICE

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(EA DICE)
In recent versions of this first-person shooter series, players can explore the two world wars from many perspectives, such as that of the Italian Arditi of World War I; other similar games generally focus only on American, British or Soviet operations. The latest versions also highlight the roles of women and people of color in the conflicts—roles often overlooked in histories of the wars.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday, iNK Stories

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(iNK Stories)
Using documentary techniques to explore the Iranian Revolution, this game offers players choices that evoke the moral ambiguities of this upheaval. Players encounter history through archival photographs and video footage, adding realism to the gaming experience. The game also acknowledges the British- and U.S.-sponsored 1953 coup, an episode often missing in Western accounts of the revolution.

Brothers in Arms, Gearbox Software

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(Gearbox Software)
A first- or third-person shooter game, often seen as a crass diversion, can also offer cinematic depictions of historical drama. This one presents players with tactical challenges from World War II, such as maneuvering infantry to flank and suppress enemy units. While the game’s lessons about period combat are relatively basic, they show the potential of immersive styles of learning through reenactment.

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This article is a selection from the October issue of Smithsonian magazine