• smcmanus

Cameron, Age of Empires II

History and pop culture have always had a tenuous relationship. Historical content is often adapted and used within mass media for its entertainment value, but the historical content is sometimes lost, altered, or altogether changed for the sake of entertainment. Although history is often modified and altered within pop culture and mass media representations, I argue it is still beneficial for the discipline. There does not have to be a Dogmatic viewpoint of whether historical information in pop culture is right or wrong. Instead, even if there are historical inaccuracies, historians and students should recognize the ability of mass media to ignite a spark of interest in people through its ability to engage. I remember when I first played Age of Empires II and was blown away by not only how much fun the game was to play but how interesting the stories and information contained were. Historical content in popular culture and entertainment, such as Age of Empires II, is in my opinion a big reason why I have studied history at university. They were the reason I started looking into the Aztec civilization or William Wallace, to name a few examples, in my own time, through more accurate mediums.

Age of Empires II is a real time strategy game that was released in 1999. The games time-line is based within the “middle ages” and enables the player to build your chosen civilization up from its beginnings to its apex. The game utilized different “ages” that represent different advancement levels of the civilization chosen, with over ten different historical civilizations available to play as or play against. The game also included a couple single player campaign story lines, in which you complete missions based on historical battles. In the campaign mode the player can choose to play as William Wallace, Genghis Khan, and a couple other notable historical figures forces. I remember picking the game out with my father who in hindsight was just as excited to play it as I was. I remember learning how to play with him and arguing over which civilization we would play as, “Feudal Japan” or the “Vikings”. The game offered a useful tutorial mode and it was not very difficult to learn the game play mechanisms, even as a young boy. However, as I grew older and continued playing the game I was amazed by how deep the strategy went. Age of empires II was a historically based game that was easy to learn but still complex, offering both a young boy and a fully-grown man entertainment.

The success of Age of Empires, in my opinion, is largely based of the superior game mechanics (compared to other games released around that time) and interesting content. It is to this day one of the most popular real time strategy games ever released, with numerous different versions and editions released. The ability to build your own civilization from the ground up and pit it against other civilizations, ether played by AI or another person, was addicting. I think video games have a strong appeal for history buffs. As interesting as it is to read and learn about history, playing and controlling historical civilizations or individuals has a special appeal, with some even arguing history is the best academic field for digital technology. Microsoft was a big factor behind the creation of Age of Empires and it would be foolish to believe the game was released for any other reason then to make money. Even if it was not the main objective of the games creation, I wonder how many developed a love of history through this game.

Like most video games the intended audience would probably be children, teenagers, and young adults. Real time strategy games usually have an older demographic of players due to the complexity and strategic elements, yet Age of Empires was still a fun game for a younger audience. They might not have been the best players, but what young boy doesn’t want to see Samurai fighting Vikings? Or launch a demolition unit (a suicide bomber style individual) into an attacking army? Age of Empires was inherently violent but the violence was a bonus, not the sole attraction of the game. I remember being in high school, probably about ten years after the game was released, and seeing it on a buddies computer at his house. His dad loved playing the game due to the historical and strategic elements. Overall, Age of Empires II is a great video game for any age group, as long as they enjoyed the historical and strategic foundation.

Historical pop culture, and video games specifically, will usually take some leeway in the contents accuracy for the sake of entertainment and playability. Age of Empires II is no different. Although generally historically accurate, there are plentiful examples of “artistic license”. The most famous example is the priest unit. In the game the priest units “convert” apposing players units onto your team by chanting at them. This is obviously not accurate, as it would take much more then three lines of dialogue to convert opposing forces onto your side. However, this game mechanic enables a smoother gameplay and enables the incorporation or religion and conversion into the game. Further, the campaigns, although based on history, were not perfect. In the William Wallace campaign he is still the leader of the Scottish forces after the Battle of Falkirk. Historically Wallace resigned his leadership after losing this battle. In the Genghis Khan campaign his forces defeated the Song Dynasty. The Mongols did not defeat the Song Dynasty until after Genghis Khans death. The Chinese civilization also does not get any “gunpowder units”, even though gunpowder was invented in China. Further, a single archer unit in the game could destroy a castle if given enough time. Finally, I highly doubt the Aztecs ever fought the Japanese, or the Scottish ever fought the Chinese in the “Middle Ages”. Most of these inaccuracies are due to the desire for smoother gameplay and a better game engine.

There were however many things the game got correct. Overall, the campaigns were based on historical events and were generally accurate, minus a few notable examples (see above). Specific units to specific civilizations also represented what was unique about each group. Such as only the Viking civilization getting to build Viking long ships, or only Japanese castles could produce the samurai unit. In the game the Aztec civilization also did a great job in representing the specific warrior types, such as Eagle scouts and Jaguar warriors.

The creators wanted to represent real historical content and allow the player to enter the age, playing as specific civilizations. At the end of the day, Age of Empires II was still a strategic video game and the developers desire for an enjoyable and smooth gameplay outweighed the need perfect historical accuracy. Brian Moon, a developer of Age of Empires, stated “If strict historical accuracy and “fun” are at odds, the clever game designer will choose fun almost every time”. I think overall the developers did a great job balancing the historical context with playability.

What made this game work for me was its ability to be endlessly enjoyable while still sparking an interest to learn more about history. The game may not have explained what was so special about an Aztec Jaguar warrior compared to a normal Aztec fighter, but it was the reason I found my own answers to such questions. I remember playing games and then searching on Google for the historical context immediately after many times. History in popular culture worked in this context not because it was a perfect representation of historical accuracy but because it was simply enjoyable. As a young boy I highly doubt I would have developed a love for history at that age without a medium such as Age of Empires, or other historical video games, to be the catalyst of my self-learning. The game also provided a talking point with my dad, who himself is interested in history, and caused us to have many discussions about historical civilizations.

I think a major reason Age of Empires II worked so well in this context was because it did not pretend to be something it was not. The game never claimed to be fully accurate or based on academic materials. The developers never claimed to be history professors. The game simply claimed to be a real time strategy game based on historical content. It was a great bridge between the mass media entertainment factor of a video game and education, conveyed in an approachable manner.

Overall, Age of Empires II provides a great example of how historical information portrayed through mass media can both be entertaining and leave a desire to learn more about history. Altogether Age of Empires II may not have been perfect, but it was both good and enjoyable. Although many historians would probably not be pleased with the numerous historical inaccuracies, I would argue Age of Empires II did more good then harm to the field of history. Video games like Age of Empires “offers students the opportunity to travel across time and space in the effort to bring history to life”. Until I find a history textbook that a 12 year old could pick up and that would cause the same effect, I staunchly believe history in mass media does more benefit then harm to our field.

Bibliography

Fogu, Claudio. “Digitalizing Historical Consciousness.” History and Theory48, No. 2 (May 2009): 103-121. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25478839

Grande, Victor, Brian Moon and Nicholas Nicastro. “Games That teach History.” Archaeology 52, No. 2 (April 1999): 10-11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41771667

Young, F. Michael, Stephan Slota and Andrew B. Cutter. “Our Princess Is in Another Castle: A Review of Trends in Serious Gaming.” Education Review of Educational Research 82, No. 2 (March 2012): 61-89. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41408678

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Sheila McManus

Professor, Department of History

University of Lethbridge

(403) 329-2540