Better Historical Thinking Through Video Games

Why Fallout 4 is a better historical game than Civilization VI

I have been meaning to write about Fallout 4’s “historical” narrative for a few months the now somewhat distant release of Civilization 6 gives me the perfect opportunity to talk about history in games.  The title is, I hope, at least slightly provocative, given that the Civilization series has numerous game mechanics that are explicitly meant to be abstractions of historical processes – technological advancement, changes in forms of government, the development and spread of religions. Meanwhile, the Fallout series is a mildly dystopian, post-nuclear, apocalyptic setting, set in an alternative future in which nuclear power permeated society and has very little explicitly historical content.  So, what gives?

What makes Fallout 4 (and the Fallout series in general) an exceptional historical game can be boiled down to the way the game thinks about history. Such thinking exists along two axes. The first is the more straight-forward – the game’s setting has a history itself and that history is accessed not through a narrative that is simply told to the player, but through the discovery of “documents” through the game.   Second, Fallout 4 promotes a kind of historical thinking in the player that is strikingly similar to the way that historians think about history.

Neither Fallout 4 nor Civilization 6 is setting out to build a game that promotes historical thinking, and neither game needs to be judged as a game by how well it does that. None of what follows should be construed as a review of either of these games as games.  Nonetheless, given that Civilization is one of the most popular games with an ostensibly-historical setting, it is worth thinking about how the game’s approach to history differs from the way historians think about their field. On the other hand, Fallout 4 provides a convenient example of another big-budget, popular video game that manages to be (perhaps stumbles into being?) a more historically satisfying game.


Thinking Historically

What is historical thinking? The American Historical Association outlines Five Cs to help describe the process. They are: Change over Time, Context, Causality, Contingency, and Complexity. (If you aren’t sure what any of those mean when talking about history, I encourage you to click on the link at the beginning of this paragraph and quickly read it. It is short, effective, and will get you up to speed in short order.)

Perhaps the more important question is why is historical thinking important? I am distinguishing here between thinking about history and thinking historically. Above all, thinking historically means refusing to essentialize things – that is to say, refusing to assume that people, nations, events, or even ideas are static and unchanging. Thinking historically helps us avoid analytical mistakes that come from failing to understand how details influence the way things change over time. If you’ve ever said something like “that’s just how things work”,  you weren’t thinking historically in that moment!

Many people are familiar with the Appeal to Nature, a claim that because something is “natural” it is also “good”. While this claim is widely disregarded, rightly so, in moral philosophy, its historical variant is sometimes overlooked or misunderstood. Whenever a historian hears a claim that something is “natural”, he or she immediately feels a twinge. What does the claim mean, exactly? It is not always obvious what it means but, whatever the precise meaning, it is really not a “historical” claim at all.  This claim is a discussion ender, rather than a discussion starter. It implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) denies evidence as the basis for history.

Let’s consider two separate claims. First, the claim of American exceptionalism. This is a topic that seems to be getting as much discussion as ever now, in 2017. The exact parameters of the claim tend to be a bit amorphous, but claims of American exceptionalism almost always begin to trend towards ahistorical thinking. Perhaps it is some ill-defined attribute of Americans themselves or a property of the American “experiment” that makes the United States stand out from the rest of the world, meant to show, except in the most intentionally sarcastic deployments, that America and Americans are not merely different from, but better than, others.

Even when the claim is somehow grounded in history, for example the claim that American exceptionalism comes from the U.S. Constitution, it is a statement that essentializes Americans or America in a way that ignores the 240 years of Americans and American history as history and instead treats it as a kind of mythology.

Lest you think I am picking on a traditionally right-leaning example of ahistorical thinking, consider also the popular credo that “the arc of history bends towards justice.” Note that, first of all, this is not merely a claim about the past, but a claim about the future as well. It is not merely a description of the past that concludes with the finding that justice – however defined – has become more prominent throughout history. It is also a claim that this trend will continue in the future. This ideology is often accompanied by the idea that it is good to be “on the right side of history.” In short, if you hold up justice, you are counteracting a somehow intrinsic force that is moving things in the direction of justice.

Now, imagine you are a historian taking either of the above statements as a foundation for studying, researching, and writing history. If you assume Americans are exceptional, your research questions, the kind of evidence you will use and the answers for which you will ultimately argue will – must – stem from the orientation. Likewise, if you assume history is arcing towards justice, you will not help but analyze events from the perspective of how they fit into that overall arc. In both cases you are working from statements that assume a certain way the world is or works. You would be ripe for making mistakes!

The evidence would have to fit within your pre-established narrative, rather than the narrative arising from the historical evidence itself. To think historically, then, is to be beholden to the evidence, to acknowledge history’s contingencies, and to avoid attributing events to “natural” or essential qualities in favor of a careful reading that emphasizes the multitude of interacting and complex forces that, together, shape the world.

Whew! Thanks for sticking through that bit.


Civilization VI fails, perhaps most notably, in how it conceives of historical context and contingency. Each civilization (Russia, The United States, Kongo, Japan – 19 total at the game’s launch) comes with a set of special abilities and unique units (units in this context refer to special troops and the like) that define the way a player should play that civilization, what their starting conditions look like, which victory condition they should pursue (cultural, military, etc.). These gameplay differences are the differences between the civilizations from which the play can choose.

Of course, each of these special abilities is based on an abstraction of our actual history. In other words, the different civilizations in Civilization VI are in some sense destined to develop in specific ways regardless of the context of what is happening around them in the game. There is some context surrounding how a civilization develops within the game, but it is against the backdrop of an immutable set of the civilization’s predetermined characteristics.

This perpetuates a myth about the primordial nature of nationalities; the kind of thinking that supposes “Germans are like this” or “Chinese people are like that.” Historians have called this presumption into question for a long time now, with scholars like Eric Hobsbawmn1 tracing the genesis of the idea of modern nation-states and their connection to a discourse about nationalities and Benedict Anderson proposing that nations are based understood as Imagined Communities2created and maintained through a shared culture and discourse – rather than natural groupings of people that have made their way from the dawn of time into the modern world.

This is not an idea of mere academic interest, but one that is doing real work “out there” in the world by contributing to the way people think about the countries, nations, and peoples around them. That the Civilization series has helped to reinforce this idea, even if for game design reasons that are completely sensible, is a real problem for that game’s effectiveness as history.

In Civilization, history also follows a predictable path. The player has choices about which forks to take, or the order in which they learn particular technologies. The “Technology Tree” and “Civics Tree” each confine the player to a particular “path” through which they have to go to over time in the game. In this sense, the game does feature plenty of change over time, but it is predetermined with the player being confined to minor choices.

This is to say nothing of the fact that things like “education” become a simple step in the technology tree, without any real definition of what that means outside of its mechanical significance. The system can be defended from the perspective of of a game, but it is sorely lacking when it comes to teaching people how to think about history.

There is a tension in the Civilization series between the premise of the game – that you are guiding a country through history – and the ostensible “historical” gameplay. For the sake of making such a game, the actual history itself is necessarily confined to a path along which you travel.

Oh good, now my civilization can learn what education is…wait a second…

Fallout’s world, by comparison, has a relatively rich history that can be best understood by a player who is willing to investigate their surroundings. Rather than navigating through the game’s history, the player finds himself or herself awoken in a world that has experienced hundreds of years of history after a nuclear war that wiped out most of the existing society. In the intervening time, factions of humans have arisen, things have been build or rebuilt, etc. Being totally ignorant about the state of that world when you enter it, you are left to piece together that narrative yourself.

What happened here? Investigate!

For the player who wants to find out about what happened, the game world is littered with evidence. Computer logs, letters, wreckage, and so forth. The player is left to investigate the evidence and build a picture of what happened. In other words, in order to get a correct, not to mention functional, view of the world, the player is encouraged to think historically! The player coming along after all of these events allows the game play to encourage historical thinking in the player without it even being an explicit part of the game.

Maybe I can find some useful parts around here…

Of course, some players may choose to complete the more direct objectives and ignore the game world around them. Nonetheless, following the clues often help the player find items, solve puzzles, or unlock new areas, which have other game play benefits. Through those incentives, Fallout encourages its players to think historically and ask historical questions. What happened here? How did things get like this? Why did this thing end up over here, rather than over there? When combined with the purely “world building” clues that exist, you have a game world that is plausibly historic and requires historical thinking to navigate. It is somewhat simplistic, to be sure. Nonetheless, the game very deftly encourages its players to be curious and pays them off when they act on that curiosity.


Teleological Pitfalls

Civilization’s tech tree and civics tree also fall into the dreaded trap of assuming a kind of progressive history. That is to say, the advancement of society and technology is presumed to advance along a mostly-linear and predetermined path. One might contend that, looking backwards, we really can create a certain narrative about technological advancement and even social and political organization. Since Civilization is informed by our history, such an argument might contend that bronze weapons did predate iron weapons, for example. Combined with the fact that the “tech tree” has become a very commonplace mechanic in video games, this can seem like a sensible historical idea.

On the other hand, if one were to think historically about that system, we can also see contingencies there. It is not that one cannot come up with historical theories which account for the way things have actually developed over human history, but rather that reproducing that in a mostly-linear fashion the way Civilization  does (and to be fair, other games do too) is to think about that history in a rather uncritical fashion. History does not have an end point, as the conclusion of those “trees” suggests. It is a process. Historians create narratives and arguments about that process with the advantage of hindsight.

This is nonsense

Even if the “tech tree” can be forgiven in a game, it still promotes the idea that this is a sensible system for organizing or thinking about history. This is all the more apparent in Civilization VI, which also introduced the “Civics” tree, a very similar structure and game mechanic that allows less obviously “technological” forms of change over time to be represented in the game. This is precisely the worry I have about tech trees, borne out in the most recent release of the series. The “tech tree” becomes not just a way to track the change of technology over time, but a stand-in for all change over time. It is unidirectional and even has an end-point!  Thinking historically, however, must transcend the desire to fit events into such a just-so narrative.

The impulse to do just that in history is often called teleology. Generally, teleology refers to thinking about something with its goal or purpose in mind. In history, this translates into historical-thinking that focuses on an end-point. The trouble is, in any given historical moment, it is not clear where things are going. To impose upon your history a post-hoc analysis that presumes we “knew” things were headed in a certain direction all along leads to misrepresentation of history. How can things be misrepresented? This question just came up on Reddit’s AskHistorians community recently, part of my answer is appropriate here:

If you subscribe to a progressive notion of history and you are studying, for example, the history of 19th and 20th century Africa, and you presume that 20th and 21st century European society and culture is the “farthest along” (ignoring for a moment how you might define what that means exactly), then you are going to ask a certain set of questions: Why isn’t Africa more like Europe? What is “holding back” African progress when compared to European society? As historical questions, these would only make sense if you believed in historical “progress.” But, if you wanted to ask questions like “What was is like to live East Africa in the late 19th century” or “Why was social organization in such-and-such a community the way it was?” then progressive notions of history are of basically no use to you. Indeed, those questions that presume progressivism are largely considered to be barely historical at all. As historians have come to ask questions that seek to understand history as a complex interplay of factors, people, ideas, events, and so forth, it has become apparent that 1) history is contingent rather than teleological and 2) thinking of history in terms of “progress” does very little to help us understand the past at all.3

Conclusion – So what’s the big deal?

I must reiterate a final time that none of the above discussion has any intention of saying whether or not Civilization or Fallout are fun games. They are both fun, good games. I have played both of them quite a bit, and have gotten a lot of entertainment value from them. But to discuss entertainment in a critical fashion and to ask about the ways it encourages us to think about the world, even when it is not the intention of the developers or designers of that game. Looking at Civilization and Fallout here was not meant to call those games out in particular. A similar argument could have been made using other examples. Instead, I hope that I have brought your attention to the fact that the media you consume makes assumptions about the way you should be thinking about the world – and not just the world in the past.

As Sam Wineberg noted in his crucially important work on the this topic, Historical Thinking, “the role of history as a tool for changing how we think, for promoting a literacy not of names and dates but of discernment, judgment, and caution, does not receive prime billing in the public sphere.”[Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), ix.] I think this observation is precisely correct, and only the more true when it comes to popular culture and entertainment.

For a game like Civilization, “history” is a setting for a strategy game, not a way of seeing the world. In this sense, the game is hamstrung by the necessity of coming up with game mechanics to represent, ultimately crudely, history. It is in the need to streamline history for the sake of making a compelling game that leads the game toward encouraging players to think about history in a similarly streamlined, uncomplicated fashion.

Somewhat ironically, Fallout’s futuristic setting makes it better suited to encouraging historical thinking in its players. The fictional world in which the game is set has a history of its own, but the fact that that history is slightly removed from the main game mechanics allows for an approach that encourages a more historical approach from its player. That is to say, to employ the qualities of “discernment, judgement, and caution” Wineburg describes in his book.

In the end, game designers are going to continue to make the best games they can. This is going to mean the abstraction of things like history in ways that are not always going to be satisfying to the historian in me. This is not a call for Firaxis to change the way they develop the Civilization series, nor is it a call for developers in general to put aside game design considerations in favor of choosing mechanics that will convey a certain kind of thinking to their players and audience. This is not an appeal to developers and designers at all, but to players and consumers. It is up to us to think critically about the games we play and not to let them simply wash over us without considering the assumptions they are encouraging us to have. When we take what games are saying about the world seriously, we elevate their status. But more importantly, we’ll make ourselves better people, who are more able to deal with the world around us. So, take your games seriously and think about what they’re telling you.

1 See: Eric Hobsbawm: Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

2 See: Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. New Edition. Verso, 2006.

3 https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/5hqcd4/what_made_historians_dump_positivism_determinism/db2eecc/

Image Credits:

In-text screenshots from Civilization VI by Firaxis and Fallout 4 by Bethesda, screenshots by me.

Banner Image from Fallout 4 by Bethesda. Image reproduced from original here, in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://www.flickr.com/photos/21634085@N06/22543475249