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Mykola, Age of Empires II

Age of Empires IIis the second installment of the well known and beloved history based real-time strategy gamefranchise. The Age of Empiresfranchise has a long history itself with more than a dozen titles released which include: main series games, expansions, spin-offs, board games, and mobile games. The first Age of Empires(released in 1997) is set in antiquity primarily around the Mediterranean and north Africa; Age of Empires III(released in 2005) is set in the early modern period in colonial North America; Age of Mythology (released in 2002) is set to the mythological stories of the Greek, Norse, and Egyptian cultures; and finally the recently announced Age of Empires IV(release date TBA) seeks to return the franchise back to its roots and explore a variety of historical locations and time-periods. Age of Empires IIalso received a digital high definition re-release in 2013 which included not only remastered graphical updates, but also new content and expansions.

Originally released in 1999, Age of Empires IIhas the player gather various resources - wood, food, gold, and stone – to build structures, research technology, and ultimately raise an army with the goal to defeat your opponents via conquest. The game is a real time strategy (RTS) game which means that the player must balance their resources, develop new technologies, and train units all in real time, while your opponents are doing the same. As such the game is as much about speed as it is about strategy. The game takes place within the middle ages and allows the player to take control of one of many civilizations from across the world that existed during that time-period. In addition to playing against AI and human opponents, there are also several single player campaigns based on historical events, typically revolving around key historical figures. These campaigns include: William Wallace, Joan of Arc, Frederick Barbarossa, Genghis Khan, Saladin, Atilla the Hun, El Cid, Montezuma, Tariq ibn Ziyad, Sundjata, Francisco de Almeida, Gajah Mada, Suryavarman I, Bayinnaung, Le Loi, as well as various other smaller scenarios.

Really? Video Games?

Video games as a form of media have become increasingly popular in recent decades. In fact, over the last few years, the video game industry has begun to rival, and even surpass the Hollywood film industry in sales. In the United States the video game industry made over $25 billion in 2010 compared to the Hollywood film industry making $10.8 billion in the same year. Video games have become such a popular form of entertainment that any discussion about pop culture would be lacking without at least a passing mention of video games. Given the popularity of video games and their impact on pop culture it is reasonable to look at the viability of educating people on historical events through the medium of video games.

Video games can be a powerful tool for education, giving people insight and empathy on the perspectives of others. In EPIC: a framework for using video games in ethics educationKaren Schrier states how video games can teach people to consider the perspective of others by taking on the roles of other people and practice behaviours without the risk of real life consequences. This can be especially helpful when studying history, as empathy for the groups of people examined in historical research is necessary to comprehensively analyze historical events. Furthermore, the interactive nature of video games engages the player in a fun and casual way. Not everyone is a historian, and not everyone will get excited about reading a thirty-page peer reviewed article on “Mass as a Social Institution, 1200 – 1700” or “Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213 – 1221”. Video games have the unique ability to make history feel fun, engaging, accessible and most importantly, alivefor its audience.

That isn’t to say that video games are perfect examples of historical practices. Video games are both a commercial product meant for mass audiences as well as a form of artistic expression. As such video games will often make revisions or alterations to historical facts to make the game more fun or to fit in a narrative. Although video game developers will often hire historians as consultants on their projects, it is often hard to distinguish fact from fiction in many video games. Furthermore, video games never cite any of their sources, which makes it more difficult to determine the historical facts that the developers are basing their game on.

Okay… so why Age of Empires II?

Age of Empires IItakes a historical setting from the start. It, in many ways, is a celebration of history and seems to want the player to engage in learning about the history and the cultures depicted. It is one of the only video games that I have ever played that has a “history” tab that the player can click on to learn more about the civilizations that are playable in the game. This “history” tab, accessible from the main menu allows the player to explore the various cultures in the game, giving a brief description of the political and military history of the civilization. It also contains brief descriptions and explanations on larger historical, military, and political concepts such as the Crusades, Feudalism, Castle Evolution, and more. The inclusion of this part of the game (which doesn’t contribute to the actual gameplay in any way, and could have been completely removed from the game) demonstrates how passionate the development team was for their project and for engaging in actual historical research and education

Secondly, Age of Empires IIallows the player to take on the role of commander in their chosen civilization and puts the success or failure of that civilization on the player. This gives the player an appreciation for the complexities and difficulties of managing a civilization at war. This is perhaps a unique aspect of gaming, according to the article The Benefits of Playing Video Games“Social skills are also manifested in forms of civic engagement: the ability to organize groups and lead like-minded people in social causes. A number of studies have focused on the link between civic engagement and gaming.” Although the game isn’t terribly concerned with all the nuances of governing, it gives the player an accessible simulation.

Lastly, Age of Empires IIis a fun and engaging game. It is one of the first games that I ever played, and I have many happy memories that stem from my experience of the game. I truly believe that Age of Empiresis what started my interest in history as well as in gaming. I very much doubt that I would have become a history major had it not been for this game.

A Matter of Perspective

As previously mentioned, video games can impart onto the player a sense of empathy for the played character and teach people how to view matters from another perspective. However, Age of Empires IItakes a macro approach to the game, as the player controls not just one individual player, but entire armies and large communities. As such, this presents unique challenges and opportunities for the development team. It can be rather difficult to be sympathetic towards individuals when you are sending dozens of them to their death. Eventually the player may begin to view their units as expendable resources rather than people. The way that Age of Empires IItackles this issue is by giving the player the ability to play a myriad of different civilizations in the game, ranging from South American, African, European, and Asian civilizations. The game also addresses this issue by setting certain campaigns in atypical settings. The best example of this is with the Saladin campaign. In this campaign, the player controls Saladin’s forces as he moves to consolidate his power and launch a counter-crusade. This gives the predominantly western audience of this game a unique perspective on the Crusades as most media shows the Crusades from the point of view of the European crusaders. This approach to the game design moves the focus away from individuals but still teaches the player that there are always multiple perspectives in military conflicts and that often, the other side isn’t as monstrous as what you may initially think.

Conclusion

Age of Empires IIis an engaging way to introduce someone to history. Although it was created as a product for mass consumption, and may at times get facts wrong, the development team’s passion for history and educating the public shines through. This game is an excellent example of how popular history can reach out to a large audience while still maintain many of the complexities that exist within the spirit of historical research.

Bibliography

Ensemble Studios, Hidden Path Entertainment, Skybox Labs, and Forgotten Empires. Age of Empires II HD Edition. Microsoft Studios, 2013. Originally published in 1997.

Granic, Isabela., Adam Lobel, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels, “The Benefits of Playing Video Games.” American Psychologist69, no. 1 (2014): 66-78.

Schrier, Karen. "EPIC: A Framework for using Video Games in Ethics Education."Journal of Moral Education44, no. 4 (2015): 393-424.

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