Beyond the Oregon Trail: Your History Education and Gaming

A few months ago, I was watching a particular Jeopardy! rerun when one of the categories, “A Hanseatic League Of Their Own,” was introduced. While most of the viewership was either groaning over the pun or trying to remember if the Hanseatic League was either a European sports league or a failed comic series, I had an entirely different reaction.

Oh, those guys. 

It takes a specialized field of knowledge to know of the Hanseatic League, which was a large, trade-focused confederation of mostly German cities in the late medieval and early modern period. In high school, the League might warrant a passing mention on the AP European History exam, which barely cracked the top ten most-taken AP exams in 2012. Even in college, chances are high that your professors won’t mention the League; I majored in history and not once did the Hanseatic League come up.

Instead, I grew aware of the Hanseatic League through Europa Universalis IV. A grand strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive, the game allows you to take control of nearly any nation on Earth from 1444 to 1821. In Europa Universalis, the Hanseatic League is a thorn in anybody’s side who plays as a northern European country. They muscle their way into your trade economy, fight with questionably large mercenary armies, and have the backing of the powerful Holy Roman Emperor should you attack them directly. My incessant battles with the League taught me their fullest capabilities, which spurred my unique, annoyed reaction towards this nostalgically frustrating Jeopardy! category. 

Europa Universalis IV  screenshot by Zach Yost

Europa Universalis IV screenshot by Zach Yost

Europa Universalis IV, is one of many entertainment-focused games that compliments a student’s history knowledge.The indirect learning that mainstream historical games emphasize is fantastic, but while the educational gaming initiative is growing, history games lag behind their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) counterparts.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Institute of Play supports a wide variety of educational games, but its flagship program, Quest to Learn, focuses on math and science. The Electronic Software Association sponsors the National STEM Video Game Challenge, an annual game design competition for STEM. However, no similar sponsorship exists for history. Even the few history games, like Mission US, cover very narrow topics. While the push for STEM is vital in our national education program, it downplays the importance of history and why we learn history in the first place.

In American education, students study history for two reasons: remembering exactly what happened when, and, following the lead of the Common Core, analyzing primary and secondary sources. While a solid foundation, building an entire game utilizing only these two principles would make it pretty boring. A Europa Universalis player can gain a deeper understanding of national rivalries, how advances in technology can change countries’ focuses, and generally why certain groups act certain ways.

This sort of learning is not simply restricted to one period in time. Paradox’s other games deal with different time periods, adjusting what the player should focus on as is appropriate for that era of history. You can learn dynastic politics for your medieval family’s name in Crusader Kings. Maybe you want to capitalize your 19th century colonies during the Victoria series, or even span all of history through Firaxis’ Civilization series, and understand the macrohistorical perspectives of international culture, technology and warfare.  

Civilization V  screenshot from  Firaxis Games

You don't have to restrict yourself to the strategy genre if you want to expand your history knowledge. The Assassin’s Creed series takes place in a wide variety of historically significant settings, and is generally well-researched and historically accurate. Some games climb higher up Bloom's Taxonomy and make the player interact with history more according to the Common Core’s goals or on a level found in university courses, in which they really have to interact with and evaluate the validity of sources presented to them. BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins, for example, begins with a cinematic detailing the “textbook” explanation of how the game’s villainous faction, the darkspawn, came to be. However, at certain points, you come across contradictory information, suggesting the truth about some events might be far more complicated. In the end, using all of the information the game provides you, it is entirely your decision on what to believe, which is what real-life historians with PhDs struggle with every day.

Because of this, there will most likely never be an education-first history game that matches the scope of the entertainment-first games.

MissionUS  screenshot taken from

MissionUS screenshot taken from

I don’t mean to sound supportive of abolishing all education-focused games; they can serve as a great introduction or, better yet, elaboration to a particular unit in the curriculum. While games like Assassin’s Creed might be historically accurate, chances are slim you’ll find them in a fourth-grade classroom. Education-first games do not have to face this censorship hurdle, since they’re catered to the grade. If the twin goals of developing students’ interests in history and covering a wide range of historical topics are desired, then educational and entertainment-focused games complement each other very well. 

But I personally developed my lifelong interest in history after my epic video game experiences. This extended fascination ultimately turned me towards a history major in college, and nearly every game that contributed to my passion for history were entertainment-focused games, not education-focused. 

Because for every Oregon Trail, there is a Total War: Shogun 2. For every Carmen Sandiego, there is an Age of Empires. And for every Mission US, there is a Europa Universalis IV. Between all of the education-first and the entertainment-first offerings available, there should be more than enough games out there for students to sweep a history-themed category on Jeopardy! After all, that’s truly the important thing.


Zach Yost is an educator in the Washington, D.C. area who teaches high school students with a wide variety of backgrounds. He keeps telling himself all of his strategy gaming experience will be good practice for when he finally gets on “Survivor."