Age of Empires: Good game, bad history

Video games aren’t art, but it turns out they can be a damn good educational tool, if only to encourage curiosity. Among the pantheon of video games, the beloved Age of Empires series does more than any other to make people want to study history.

I want to be clear: video games are not – despite the assertions of a growing number of journalists – art. What they are is entertainment, usually neither profound nor complex. I will concede that some are beginning to show a bit of artistic merit. Storylines are being given more depth, and players are being allowed more involvement in the way they are told, thanks to developers keen to give their craft a little more cachet.

The sort of game I most enjoy playing has none of these pretensions. These days, I find joy from games that are effectively elaborate, interactive atlases like Crusader Kings 2 and Stellaris. These are games with obscenely long playing guides and a steep learning curve, although the former – which is surely one of the best games on the market right now – is equally fun when you have no idea what you’re doing. They are games with little more than a setting; the only narrative is the one you create yourself, by the strategies you employ and the way you react to those of your opponents.

They are, unfortunately, relatively niche games, despite their loyal, hardcore following. Once upon a time, however, strategy games like these were pretty central to the video game mainstream. They were led by franchises like WarcraftCommand and Conquer, and my all-time favourite, Age of Empires (1997). The latter earned particular praise for its setting, which allowed players to take control of an ancient civilisation from the Stone Age through to the Iron Age. This historical grounding lent it an authenticity that the fantasy and sci-fi settings of the other games lacked.

Age of Empires was a prototype. In many ways, its sequel – Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings (1999) is as close to perfection as it is possible for a real time strategy game to get. The setting was moved forward to the more accessible medieval period, the graphics and UI were made crisper and more pleasing, the civilisations were refined and given more to differentiate them, and the campaigns were given more depth, replayability, and terrible voice acting. It was met with universal acclaim, and is to this day regarded as a classic of the genre.

For me, Age of Empires was one of the ingredients (in addition to the inimitable Horrible Histories books) that cooked up my childhood love of history, that has since manifested itself as a degree. To a certain extent, one of the things that makes Age of Empires particularly interesting from a historiographical perspective is that it forces you to interact with the past as an idea. Rather than telegraphing the player through a specific historical event in the middle of a specific time and place, it makes you construct your own narrative. When you begin a game, you are not ‘in the twelfth century’ or ‘during the Hundred Years War’, you are in ‘the past’.

Age of Empires II is as close to perfection as it is possible for a real time strategy game to get.

The problem – one that it shares with Sid Meier’s Civilisation – is that it encourages a very linear view of the past, one in which technology is developed according to set path and there are clear breaks between historical ‘eras’. This is Whig History, the idea that history is a story of constant social and technological progression towards a kind of futuristic utopia. Of course, this ignores the regular collapses and declines that punctuate the past, such as the knowledge of concrete being lost for nearly a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Another issue with Whig History is that it imposes an artificial, Western ideal of the future upon the historical narrative. The idea that human society has been building towards one that prizes individual rights and freedoms rejects the validity of cultures in which the community is prized over the individual, or systems in which authoritarian rule is respected rather than derided. Furthermore, some historical societies were more egalitarian than many are today, such as the permissive attitude towards homosexuality in Ancient Greece. This is a considerable lapse in the Whig narrative.

This westernised view is at odds with the geographic spread of Age of Empires II‘s civilisations. Since the game’s high definition relaunch on Steam in 2013, new expansions (the latest released at the end of 2016, 17 years after the vanilla) have added African and southeast Asian factions to the game. For perhaps the first time ever, cultures like the Berbers and the Burmese are playable in a popular, mainstream video game. As a result, you might see a situation in which the Indians and the Vikings are forced to collaborate to take down the Ethiopians; players can therefore come to appreciate that these real-life civilisations did not exist within a vacuum.

Ultimately, nobody should be using games like Age of Empires or Sid Meier’s Civilisation as legitimate historical sources. Nonetheless, they open a unique window to the past, one that is not driven by the false sense of narrative that an MMO would bring. Every time these games are mentioned, somebody will chime in to say that ‘these were the reason I study history.’ And when you’re trying to condense hundreds of thousands of years of history into a fun, easily-digestible video game, if you can encourage even a single person to turn that into a historical education, you’ve done something right.

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