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LONG BLOG

An Educational Game about Canadian History?!? A Review

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[Author's Note: This is an essay I wrote for an undergraduate course on Canadian Public History. So, it's long. But don't feel bad if you can't read through it, because it's essentially a copy/paste from my original paper]

The History Canada Game (also known as HistoriCanada) is a computer game, created primarily by Historica, and Canada’s National History Society. It is a strategy game, which allows the player(s) to take control of various cultures that interacted in Canada during the period from 1525-1763, and manipulate economic, political, cultural and military affairs in order to become the dominant civilization in the New World. The game is a modification (mod) of a commercial computer game, Civilization III, designed for adults, but HistoriCanada is targeted towards a secondary school audience, for education purposes. Therefore, a review of the game’s usefulness as a source of historical knowledge must take this audience into account, and determine whether the game fulfills its stated goal. Although the creators are respectful to the historical material within the game’s context, the weaknesses inside the game itself would probably prevent students from both enjoying and gaining meaningful insight on Canadian history.

The basic structure of the game’s mechanics is similar to the core material of Civilization III, but makes slight tweaks to incorporate the uniqueness of the post-Contact period. Users can choose to play as the English, French, or one of the major Aboriginal tribes (Abenaki, Algonquin, Huron, Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, Montagnais and Ojibwe). The key aspects of gameplay are to effectively manage the nation’s cities (e.g., provide food and resources, build buildings that encourage economic and cultural growth, etc.), expand into new territory, research new technologies (which allow the creation of new buildings and units) and engage in diplomatic relations with neighbouring nations (through peaceful trade, or competitive warfare).

The player uses individual units to interact with the game environment, and other nations: settlers/colonists are used to build/expand new cities, workers help build farms, mines and roads outside them, boats (such as caravels, carracks, or canoes) transport units across lakes and oceans, and military units can be used to defend or capture cities. Most of the units are specialized versions designed specifically for the game, such the French having “Arquebusiers”, the English with “Redcoats”, and the Aboriginals with “Braves”. The value of this is to show the disparity of military technology between the Old and New World, but the game is balanced by not making the colonial soldiers overwhelmingly powerful versus the Aboriginal warriors, which obviously takes into account the numerical advantage the latter forces usually had.

Finally, the game gives all sides the option to create “Wonders”: unique, and mostly historical, buildings that provide special benefits for the nations that build them. For example, the Hudson’s Bay Company will provide additional trade revenue, or “discovering” the Northwest Passage will enable the ships of the nation to move faster on the map. Of course, the Wonders, and their benefits, are abstractions of their historical uses, but serve as effective ways to emphasize their importance. Most of the nations, buildings, units and game concepts have relatively detailed historical descriptions within the game’s “Civilopedia”, which also helps to understand their uses within the game itself. In all, the game’s mechanics are detailed and refined enough to create a game with a wide variety of routes to “victory”.

Although the basic game structure is accessible for the primary audience, there are several weaknesses that make it difficult to obtain the historical knowledge imbedded within the game. Because the game is based on the game mechanics of Civilization III, the game lacks several key aspects which affected the development of the New World.



First, the game makes England and France abstract islands on the far east of the game map, and doesn’t include Europe (nor the rest of the world, for that matter). Ostensibly this was done to make the game focused on Canada, but it allows England and France to focus solely on colonial development and warfare, without taking into account the European and global factors which affected development (such as European wars, Caribbean colonies, etc.) As well, colonies are too easy to develop, since the game does not emphasize the difficulties of ocean travel: England and France are too close to Canada, and boats never suffer damage or sink because of weather (which even allows the old ship of John Cabot to map all of Hudson's Bay on its own).

This lack of context seriously limits the game’s historical accuracy. Assuming that a student goes straight into the game, the default options create a weaker game experience: there is no tutorial to understand game mechanics, the default difficulty is “Very Easy”, giving the player a tremendous (and unrealistic) advantage over the computer-controlled nations, there is limit for how many cities one nation can control (preventing any nation from gaining total control over Canada), cities can build units without player input (and they focus too much on military units), and the computer nations can easily work together against the player (e.g., during one game attempt, my France was attacked by all the Aboriginal tribes, and England, at once!) Also, the role of religion is almost totally ignored. Even though the French can build Jesuit units, they are portrayed, quite inaccurately, as military units that can “convert” the enemies they defeat. Finally, it must be noted that the game is built on a game engine first released in 2001, so this makes the game quite dated in the quickly changing world of computers, which many students are familiar with.

Altogether, The History Canada Game provides a weak, and less than enjoyable abstraction of the development of the New World, and although the game is not historically inaccurate in terms of information, it’s usefulness as a tool for teaching history to young people is quite limited. The game’s mechanics work against making it historically useful: it is too complex (compared to most other educational games), emphasizes military victories over trade and diplomacy, and ignores many global factors which affected Canada’s history. Although the original announcements for the game’s release stated plans to expand the timeframe to the 19th and early 20th centuries, no new information on expansions have been released as of the present, which means the current game is lacking a complete narrative of early Canadian history. It is quite apparent that the creators did not have a large budget for creating the game, and given the competition for attention it would have with commercial computer and video games, it is unlikely that students would play this game unless they already were interested and aware of Canadian history itself (meaning the game would provide little new material to them). Even though the creators of The History Canada Game put admirable work into creating one of the few video games with an emphasis on Canada (let alone its history), the game shows the essential weakness of “making history fun”: offering historical information in a format that is not very entertaining, nor accessible, to the audience.

(If you, for some reason, want the game, download it here.)
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About Guncannonone of us since 2:54 AM on 01.31.2009

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My expertise: Memorization, obsession and Star Fox 64 (Monthly Musing)
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An Essay/Review of a Canadian History video game
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Age: 23
Location: Ottawa, ON, Canada.

Profile: I'm a longtime gamer, and started playing video games during the transition from the NES to the SNES. Although I like retro games, I play mostly newer games on the 360. Still, my favourite gaming memories are from all-nighters filled with Goldeneye, Perfect Dark and Smash Bros. in the late 90s.

I'm looking for a career in public service, politics or other fields where research and writing are critical. Though, the closer it's related to games, the better.

I make videos, animated gifs, podcasts and all kinds of random stuff in my spare time. I'm also trying to develop my own gaming website (details coming eventually).

Systems: NES, Super NES, Gameboy, Gameboy Advance, Nintendo 64, Wii, Sega Genesis, Playstation 2, Xbox 360, PC, Colecovision (my dad's). Also, many other systems (including arcade) that I not emulate.

Some Favourite Games:
Retro (NES-SNES eta): Megaman 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario All-Stars, Sonic 3, Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Robotrek, Illusion of Gaia, Megaman X, Lufia 1 and 2, Strider, Metal Slug, Twilight Zone pinball.

Retro Limbo (N64 era): Ogre Battle 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, Mario Kart 64, Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, Mystical Ninja starring Goemon, Goemon's Great Adventure, Descent: Freespace.

Modern: Halo: Reach, Modern Warfare 2, Mass Effect 2, Bayonetta, Tales of Vesperia, Fallout 3, Bionic Commando Rearmed, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Metroid Prime 1-3, Mobile Suit Gundam: Gundam vs. Zeta Gundam, Hearts of Iron II, Europa Universalis III, Civilization IV.



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