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May 1, 2017

War and games have much in common: multiple contestants compete to win within a physically determined set of realities, each using strategies that are frequently buffeted by interventions of chance and chaos. It is no surprise, then, that war games have been used as predictive tools by military leaders since at least the early 19th century (see the recent collection Zones of Control [2016]). Less familiar is the idea of using games as reconstructive tools in academic military history, although the ancient historian Philip Sabin (Lost Battles [2009]; Simulating War [2014]) has done excellent work on this topic.

[pullquote]The promise of war gaming in the classroom lies in its potential to transform the learning environment so that students no longer passively listen to lectures, but are forced to enter the battlefield and engage actively with historical scenarios.[/pullquote] When I inherited a course on Classical War at the University of Nebraska, I supplemented lectures and exams with games—including video games—as an experiment in active learning. (A similar approach is suggested in Christesen and Machado’s paper “Video Games and Classical Antiquity” [CW 104.1, 107–110].) While ancient historians may be skeptical of introducing games into academia, I found that as a teaching tool they can be transformative. Students are put in charge of their own learning environment (they tend to know much more about games than their professors), and beginners experience the galvanizing feeling of making new discoveries about the ancient world.

In my course, we often used the video game Rome: Total War. The game invites a user to set up custom battles, choosing among variables like geographical location, two warring factions or states, the number and nature of troops fighting the battle, the leadership style, and the time of year and weather. In order to reconstruct historical battles inside the game, the class needed to devise an appropriate setup; this required students to cull data from our ancient source material. What was the location of the battle? How many combatants were there? What sorts of troops were deployed? In other words, students needed some sense of what the primary sources said about a battle so that they could create a realistic simulation. This introduced a carrot rather than a stick motivation which ensured they read texts, because they were allowed to play the simulated battle if they devised an appropriate scenario.

The many options presented to the user designing a custom battle in Total War.

The many options presented to the user designing a custom battle in Total War.

During the weeks that we were using the Total War engine, the assignment was to simulate the week’s battle, write a page-long summary of their experience, and come to class prepared to discuss the accuracy of the testimony offered by ancient sources, the factors that were important in determining the outcome of the battle, and whether the outcome seemed inevitable or could have been changed by different inputs. Based on the students’ weekly responses, it was clear that the engaged, gaming-based approach to ancient warfare did help them learn military history. Total War also helped them understand the extreme chaos of pitched battle and made the human cost of war very clear to them. They often commented on their horror at the bloody corpses littered across the battlefield; many felt extremely anxious when they played the game and were distressed when they led their troops to inevitable doom. This is the kind of understanding of the visceral human cost and overwhelming speed of ancient battles that is difficult to communicate in lectures.

The unfortunate aftermath of a battle with the Huns.

Screenshot of the unfortunate aftermath of a battle with the Huns in Rome: Total War.

For the final assignment of the semester, the students evaluated current scholarly understanding of the causality of the outcome of an ancient battle using Total War as a laboratory to test hypotheses. Once again, to simulate their battles correctly, they had to look carefully at the ancient descriptions. To assess consensuses on causality, they had to read what secondary authors thought about why the battle ended the way it did. In many cases students came to original conclusions about the factors determining the outcomes of their battles. A happy side effect of using games was that they engaged with the primary sources more closely than they might have otherwise, and they learned firsthand that the past as it happened is only one of innumerable contingent outcomes.

Another valuable side effect of using video games in the classroom is the reversal of the traditional power structure in the lecture hall. Video games are something that my students are familiar with and about which I know very little. So, when I teach with games, instead of inviting students into my classroom and demanding that they fall into line with the usual rules and regulations of academia, I meet them in their own world and ask them to help me discover the ways in which games can contribute to what we do as academics. In my experience, this transformed the tone of the classroom, generating a feeling of collaborative productivity rather than top-down knowledge transmission.

Despite our natural scholarly reservations about introducing potentially distracting frivolity into our pedagogy, I think there are clear advantages to using this kind of video gaming in the classroom, especially with students at the beginning of their college careers. Many students in their first year of college will struggle to internalize methods and theories of ancient history in a single semester. A game-based approach allows them to wear the hat of an ancient historian, and to see the importance of source criticism and primary texts in a context that is more familiar and comfortable to them. Perhaps this taste of the feeling of discovering something new about the ancient world will tantalize them to pursue a major, or give them the confidence to believe that they have something new and original to contribute to the world of human knowledge.

(Header Image: "27-366 Year4 There's A War Going On Upstairs". Photo by John Garghan via Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)


Sarah Murray is Assistant Professor of Classics and Faculty Fellow of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her book⏤The Collapse of the Mycenaean Economy: Trade, Imports, and Institutions, 1300–700 BCE⏤was published by Cambridge University Press in April 2017. She can be reached at