You may have played those third-rate “edutainment” video games as a kid and developed a dislike for anything with the word educational in front of it. Educational video games for aspiring essay writers are often focused on reading comprehension (like Reader Rabbit) or simple math (like Number Munchers), and those games aren’t really that fun.
The fare for adults is much better. Video games focused on history tend to involve deep strategic gameplay, and are even more enjoyable when you already have a little prior knowledge of the past (which we suppose you do). Many of them strive for historical authenticity — and of course it doesn’t hurt that it’s also a great selling point.
If you’re going to spend time playing video games any way, you might as well play one of these and learn a thing or two about the rich blood spaghetti of drama and delusion that directly informed our present DNA, borders, and cultures. So here’s our guide to video games that will teach you history while keeping you hooked for weeks on end.
Crusader Kings II
Crusader Kings II is the kind of grand strategy game that will suck you in and take your life away from you. You take control of a medieval dynasty from 1066 to 1337 (or as early as 769 if you have the DLC), and the main goal is to grow your empire and ensure longevity by producing quality heirs (don’t inbreed…unless the payoff is big).
As expected from a game that takes place in the medieval period and tries to translate it as accurately as possible, you automatically pick up a lot of history just from playing it through. You will be amazed at the deep intricacies of CK II’s hundreds of medieval duchies, provinces, kingdoms, empires, and cultures. You learn about why marrying strategically was vitally important, which cultures preferred which succession law, the effects that inheritance and claims could exert on the political landscape, and why, sometimes, you just absolutely have to throw an innocent relative into your castle’s darkest dungeon and pray for an accident.
And since the game is essentially a giant interactive map of the medieval world, you learn a lot about geography as well. The game also includes hundreds of historical characters, including obscure figures that you would never learn about unless you study medieval history.
But there are some historical inaccuracies. A common complaint for hardcore history nerds is that some of the historical figures and places appear during the wrong time. Self-proclaimed medieval history nerd Erika Whelan notes a few glaring issues:
When I began my first regular campaign, as the HRE, I noticed a number of glaring errors. Since the Medieval German Empire is a particular area of interest for me, errors were easier to spot. Since I’m particularly interested in the Salian and Staufer periods, I chose to start in 1066. I was therefore able to spot the fact that the ruler of the Markgrafschaft Meissen was listed as a Duke (when he should have been a Markgraf), that there was a Duchy of Oberbayern (Bavaria wasn’t partitioned the first time until 1255), Austria was listed as a Duchy (it wasn’t elevated to a Duchy until 1156), and the Zähringer were listed as Dukes of Carinthia but there was no Duchy of Carinthia (while Berthold was never able to actually take possession of the Duchy after being granted the title in 1061, it nevertheless existed as a relatively unified polity, unlike Lotharingia).
Regardless, it’s fair to say that Crusader Kings II is one of the best interactive tools for learning medieval history, and it’s also endless fun. You’ll keep picking this up again for another grand historical experiment for the rest of your days (probably).
The Total War Series
The Total War series is a huge series of historical strategy games that are fused with turn based strategy and real time strategy elements.
The most recent game is Total War: Three Kingdoms, which focuses on the Three Kingdoms period of China, and the player game play one of twelve Chinese factions. In fact, each game focuses on specific time periods and geographic locations, which allows players to learn more in-depth historical knowledge. Instead of offering general historical knowledge, players can play Total War: Three Kingdoms to learn a lot about China or play Total War: Rome II to learn about Classical Europe.
High school teacher Paul Darvasi vouches for Total War‘s virtues as an educational tool:
When Keith Farrar, a high school history teacher, approached me about using a game in his ancient civilization class, I suggested Total War: Rome II.
As Farrar’s class had already surveyed Roman history, we decided to look at a specific event from a variety of perspectives, settling on Caesar’s battle with the Helvetii. It was his first major military victory and launched his conquest of Gaul (Western Europe).
We had students read Caesar’s own account of the battle in his Gallic Wars, view an episode of the documentary series The Conquerors called “Caesar: Conqueror of Gaul,” and tour a museum exhibit on ancient Rome. Then they played Total War: Rome II’s Caesar in Gaul, an add-on to the main game that begins with the confrontation with the Helvetii. We projected the game on the classroom screen, and student volunteers took turns playing, using their peers’ feedback. Rome II is largely turn-based, which allows time for thoughtful decision-making.
Throughout the unit, students took notes focused on identifying bias, and we encouraged them to think about how each source represented the battle differently.
Despite its hawkish title, the Total War series strives for historical authenticity, and players spend more time on statecraft, finances, and diplomacy than rallying troops on the field. While we played, the class used laptops to fact-check the accuracy of the various towns, government buildings, weapons, and politicians featured in the game.
But the fun lies in making choices, which often change the course of history. Video games can produce alternative histories—Caesar can lose to the Helvetii. Students can learn a lot from these “what if?” scenarios.
By making decisions and dealing with the consequences, students better understand the complex factors confronted by historical actors, and can exercise critical thinking and historical knowledge when asked to reflect on why their gameplay varied from the historical record.
Obviously, Total War is still a video game series and entertainment is prioritized before historical accuracy. Some of the uniforms don’t look exactly as they looked in history, and some units are stronger or weaker than they actually were. Regardless, the developers did a good job of presenting an authentic historical experience.
Mount & Blade
Mount & Blade is a action role-playing video game with a medieval theme. The base game doesn’t offer the most educational value, but it does have a DLC that specifically focuses on the Napoleonic Wars, and the developers boast of its “accurate early 19th century weapons, uniforms and environments.”
In Napoleonic Wars, you can play as Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Austria, or Prussia. This game could teach history beginners a lot about 19th century weapons, uniforms, and the different nations involved in the Napoleonic Wars.
But you can get even more educational value out of Mount & Blade by downloading mods. For example, the Anno Domini 1257 mod offers an accurate look at 13th century Europe, Middle east and North Africa during the Crusades and Mongol Invasions.
Another mod well-known in the Mount & Blade community is Gekokujo: Daimyo Edition, which is set in Japan’s Sengoku era.
Age of Empires III
If you’re a fan of strategy games, you’re probably familiar with the Age of Empires series. Age of Empires allows you to take control of a civilization and micromanage your troops to victory. Age of Empires III has eight civilizations: Spanish, British, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, German, and Ottoman.
The educational value comes with the unique units and leaders with each civilization. For example, the French Colonial Empire has Napoleon Bonaparte, Suleiman the Magnificent for Ottoman Empire, and Ivan the Terrible for the Russian Empire. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many variations between civilizations as history nerds would want, but this game still provides some educational value.
And of course, there are some historical inaccuracies that are necessary for the sake of gameplay. Most civilizations didn’t have the kind of linear progression portrayed in this game, and access to resources, technology, and weapons were often more scarce.
Cossacks III is a real time strategy game set in 17th and 18th century Europe, but unlike other strategy games set in this time period, the units in Cossacks III are a bit more historically accurate.
The battles in this game revolve around giant formations of units that collapse on the enemy, which is similar to the large formations troops used in battles during the time period. This strategy is also known as line infantry, which is described by Wikipedia as such:
Line infantry was the type of infantry that composed the basis of European land armies from the middle of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century. For both battle and parade drill, it consisted of two to four ranks of foot soldiers drawn up side by side in rigid alignment, and thereby maximizing the effect of their firepower.
The line infantry in Cossacks III is a nice touch, but the game also includes historical figures and civilizations that might boost your historical knowledge. The game includes playable nations that aren’t typically seen in other games — you can play as Bavaria, Hungary, Piedmont, Ukraine, and others.
Hearts of Iron IV
Hearts of Iron IV is a grand strategy game set during World War II. The game made from the same developers as Crusader Kings II, so you should expect much of the same — staring at a map for hours on end, learning in-depth gameplay mechanics, and building a historical nation.
Hearts of Iron IV is a great learning tool because you can play through World War II as almost any country involved in the conflict, including smaller nations like Costa Rica, Bolivia, Latvia, and several others. And much like real life, these nations have different ideologies, resources, and leaders. Beyond that, you can learn about each nation’s units, technology, and complex diplomatic relationships.
Hearts of Iron IV can be a great educational tool, but don’t just take my word for it. Researchers from Abdullah Gul University in Kayseri, Turkey studied the effects of a blended World History curriculum that used games like Hearts of Iron IV as educational tools.
The researchers concluded:
Based on our observations on the students’ experiences, having such a blended course in which historical video games are used as supportive tools greatly increases the students’ learning in the topics in question. By experimenting with the mechanics of each game, students internalize historical knowledge as active participants instead of passive readers. Although, it requires some effort to set up such a blended world history course, we observe the gains outweigh the challenges and allow for a more deep and immersive learning experience.
Detouring from grand strategy, the party-based RPG Expeditions: Viking puts you in the role of a chieftain of a Viking clan and lets you decide if you should raid or trade your way up in the world. The game has rave reviews all over the place for its historical authenticity and rich atmosphere. Says PC Gamer‘s T.J. Hafer:
I was impressed immediately by how apparent it was that the designers of Expeditions: Viking put stereotypes out of their mind and hit the books. As my primary historical interest area, I have a high standard for games about the Viking Age, and this one really has you doing a lot of the things a viking ruler would have actually found him or herself doing.
There are kinship-based blood feuds to manage. There is the emphasis on the necessity of presenting yourself as both a strong and a just ruler, not taking for granted that people will follow you based on your name. It even models the effects those notorious raids had on Scandinavia—bringing back captives and wealth that would help build infrastructure and birth three of the most influential kingdoms in European history.
I’d put Civilization VI on this list, but its predecessor, Civilization V, feels more like a complete game. Civilization V is a strategy game that’s not necessarily a “grand” strategy game like Hearts of Iron IV and Crusader Kings II, but it offers much of the same historical knowledge. It also has tons of DLC which includes a ton of different civilizations to chose from.
Civilization V may also teach you about historical figure because each civilization has a leader; for example, Germany has Otto Von Bismarck, and France has Napoleon Bonaparte. And before the start of each game, the narrator gives a brief historical summary of the civilization you’re playing as.
However, there are a fair amount of historical inaccuracies in Civilization V. Any civilization can build any of the “wonders,” which are one-of-a-kind buildings built throughout history, such as Stonehenge and the Great Wall. Additionally, the geography of Civilization V isn’t accurate — you’re able to play as China inside North America if you want.