Kids Are Learning History From Video Games Now

More students are being exposed to historical narratives through game play—but what exactly are they being taught?

Illustration of a statue wearing a virtual-reality headset.
The Atlantic; Bettmann / Getty

About the author: Luka Ivan Jukić is a freelance journalist and a postgraduate student at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London.

Last year, Nicholas Mulder, a history professor at Cornell University, asked his Twitter followers to help him understand a certain kind of student in his classes: players of the video game Europa Universalis. Students kept enrolling in his course on modern Europe because of the game, which he had only recently learned existed. Bret Devereaux, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, saw Mulder’s tweet as an opportunity to explain a new phenomenon.

Devereaux plays Europa Universalis and likes it. But the fact that video-game developers, rather than professional historians, were responsible for shaping so many young people’s understanding of history deserved greater examination, he thought. The games made by Paradox Interactive, the Swedish studio that produces Europa Universalis, are among the most popular strategy titles in the world. Millions of people own the games, which allow players to take control of a historical nation or individual and guide the course of history. The average Europa Universalis player spends hundreds of hours on it. Some spend thousands.

Spending that much time engaged with any sort of historically themed content will affect one’s understanding of history. And yet to many players, exactly what they’re learning from these games remains a mystery. Devereaux aimed to correct that problem. Academic historians, he wrote in a four-part post on his blog, must now grapple with a new breed of students “for whom Paradox is the historical mother tongue and actual history is only a second language.” Prompted by Mulder’s confusion, Devereaux hoped to illuminate the historical assumptions that underlie the games.

“Some time ago, we passed the line where historical video games are at the same level of influence and demand the same level of critical analysis” as historically themed movies or TV shows, Devereaux told me. But despite the fact that the PC-gaming industry is now twice the size of the movie industry, many games have evaded such analysis.

Analyzing video games is particularly difficult for two reasons. First, their influence is hard to track: Teachers may not even notice that the student asking why the Ottomans didn’t colonize America or what happened to Burgundy may have a view of history that was molded by Paradox games. “The student in your class that knows what Prussia is is the student that played Europa Universalis IV,” Devereaux said. And second, unlike other cultural mediums, “games are about systems; they’re about the mechanics,” Devereaux told me. Those systems and mechanics are how video games can “teach” people history. The presence of such mechanics, though, does not mean that players will necessarily understand them. “The major challenge is getting players to recognize and think explicitly about these systems,” Marion Kruse, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati and a dedicated gamer, told me.

In my experience, Europa Universalis is particularly effective at teaching users about its systems. Playing in Spain in Europa Universalis, you’ll learn the power of a good marriage when you see that Spain is actually the result of a personal union between the crowns of Castile and Aragon. If you’re unlucky enough to choose a country in the Balkans, you will quickly understand the full force of the Ottoman invasions of Europe. Invade the Soviet Union in Hearts of Iron, Paradox’s Second World War simulator, and you’ll be reminded why Napoleon and Hitler both failed to subdue Russia: “General Frost.” The processes the player engages with teach them claims about how the world works—what The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost has called “procedural rhetoric.”

Paradox’s titles don’t take a single view of history, but each game does provide a framework for understanding a particular historical period, buoyed by a number of procedural claims. Take Europa Universalis. The game essentially simulates the story of Europe’s rise from a relative backwater to a continent that dominated the world. That means that no matter what exact course the game takes, it usually results in the consolidation of large, powerful, centralized states in Europe and their rise to global primacy.

The game uses a mechanic of “institutions,” such as the printing press and the Enlightenment, which appear in a preset order at 50-year intervals, almost always in Europe, before slowly spreading around the world. Without these institutions, new technologies can be adopted only at much greater cost, meaning that over the centuries Europe slowly pulls ahead of the rest of the world technologically. The player is taught that what made Europe exceptional was the adoption of these institutions, which allowed technological growth to flourish and thereby gave European countries the advantage they used to dominate the world.

Want to play as a non-European and still succeed? You had better be willing to kill, conquer, and colonize—in other words, do what the Europeans did. Europa Universalis, like most Paradox games, rewards playing in a ruthless, expansionist way. I can’t count the number of times I have started a game for some light historical entertainment before finding myself intensely waging war against my unsuspecting neighbors. If Europa Universalis is like an interactive encyclopedia, it is one that transmits an insatiable urge to delete half of its contents.

Europa Universalis encourages the player to act according to an extreme realist view of international relations, where the security of the state is valued above all and the ultimate way to ensure the state’s security is by maximizing its power in an anarchic world order. Few non-state actors exist in Europa Universalis, and the player’s actions have no real human consequences. It’s difficult to come away from a completed game without the sense that the rise of the centralized nation-state in Europe was due to the cold, hard logic of state security and power politics. This state-centric view of history is shared by most Paradox games, and leaves a definite historical impression that states, rather than people, ideas, or societies, are the sole drivers of history.

This view of history is myopic, to say the least, and has led to some embarrassing shortcomings in the games. In previous editions of Europa Universalis, technological advancement was treated as inherently tied to a country’s inclusion in or exclusion from a “Western” technological group. Slavery, meanwhile, was relegated to the status of a minor historical footnote. In Hearts of Iron, the Holocaust and other atrocities are given a passing mention or left out entirely.

Paradox has tried, over years of development, to incorporate more historical complexity and nuance into its games. The company’s many expansion packs for Europa Universalis, for example, have corrected historical errors and deepened gameplay in non-European parts of the world. Devereaux, who has found fault with many game developers’ portrayals of history, says that among video-game developers he has criticized, only Paradox has responded thoughtfully. Often, of course, historical accuracy is impossible. Paradox’s games are, ultimately, games. And in many ways, what Paradox is doing is nothing new. The idea of learning from strategy games has its roots in 19th-century Prussia, when officers trained in battlefield tactics using specially designed board games. When the Prussians defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, these games were credited with their success, and quickly spread across Europe. Well into the 20th century, similar board games fulfilled the role that Paradox games do for the historically curious.

Jonas Srouji, a Europa Universalis player who works in the Danish embassy in Turkey, told me that he had to do a lot of “unlearning” after playing Paradox games. He found that the game’s state-centric and linear view of historical development wasn’t of much use in his professional life, which requires understanding the many nuances of Turkish history and culture. The games are a good starting point for learning about history, but given their current limitations, their history “needs to be supported by other sources,” he added.

But Devereaux, despite his many public criticisms of the games, thinks historians should be delighted by their popularity. Games, he argues, are still better than many alternative ways of learning about history. “Video games engage with their history in a more thoughtful and robust way than in TV or movies,” he said. Players “have their eyes focused on those historical processes which, as a historian, is where we would want them to be looking.”

With the caveat that “games are currently very limited in how well they can teach historical narratives,” Kruse agrees with Devereaux. Any adaptation of the past contains distortions. Popular histories are also full of errors and oversimplifications, and they remain a useful introduction to the subject. Games, in particular, “are antithetical to apathy,” Kruse said. If you play a game like Europa Universalis, “you’re going to start caring about the past, even if it’s in a relatively superficial way. Anything that can call attention to periods or histories that most people wouldn’t otherwise come across does a very real service.” Paradox games give their players an expansive, detailed, exciting—and, yes, controversial—way to dive into history. That’s more than you could say for most high-school textbooks.