Author Niall Ferguson is a strange sort of historian. He’s interested in what didn’t happen in the past just as much as what did.
In 1999, he edited a book Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, which posed a series of historical thought experiments:What if Russia had won the Cold War? What if Hitler had invaded Britain? More than just playing around with history, Ferguson argued that it contributed to a deeper sense of the time—a more structural understanding of the underlying factors that caused events to unfold in a certain manner.
A decade later, Ferguson is working with game developer Muzzy Lane Software to develop a series of video games that seek to do just that. “I have felt for some years that authors need to be able to operate in multiple media,” he told Lounge over email. “We’re working on some serious history games aimed at both the commercial and educational markets.” The game, Making History: War of the World (also called Making History II), goes live in June and Ferguson is planning a series of expansions and content in games to “accompany my next project, a history of Western civilization”.
We spoke to Chris Parsons, product manager at Muzzy Lane Software, to find out more about Making History. Edited excerpts:
Could you tell us a little bit about the concept of ‘Making History’?
The very first version of Making History was developed as a teaching tool for students. The idea was to create a simulation of the pre-war era and let students play the leader of one of the major nations. Rather than have them replay an exact repeat of historical events, we simply placed them in the situation those leaders were in and asked them to see if they could do better! We found that students loved playing it, and one teacher’s evaluation showed using the game gave students a deeper understanding of both history and geography—and better motivation and interest in learning history.
War and peace: The game allows you to rewrite the past.
In what way was Niall Ferguson involved with the project?
Niall Ferguson has always been extremely interested in “counterfactual history”, the idea that if key events had unfolded differently, the war might have had an extremely different, yet equally plausible outcome. Our first game let him actually play out some of those questions for the first time, and the results changed some of his assumptions, so he was very interested in collaborating with us again.
When we began, Niall had just published his extraordinary book The War of the World. Our game takes its name from the book, and shares the concept that economic and ethnic instability play key roles in creating and sustaining major conflicts, and planning grand strategy should include those elements, not only military planning.
Also, Ferguson’s book redefines the second world war not as an isolated incident, but a part of a much longer struggle that began prior to the first world war and whose repercussions continued long after WW II. Our first scenario starts in 1933 and deals with the people and global economy of the entire era; not just the war itself. This offers the chance to create even more counterfactual history.
What sort of historical detail has gone into its development?
Although MHII (Making History II) is developed for entertainment first, it still required massive amounts of research to make the game truly credible. MHII adds the dimension of demographics: nationality, culture, ethnicity, and religion for over 1,500 regions in the game. India is an excellent example. Although controlled by the British in 1933, its nationality is Indian, and the nation contains many regional ethnicities: Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil, etc. In the game, anyone trying to conquer an area must look at these elements and decide what to do. They can do everything from offer(ing) full independence to creating a colony or puppet state, or complete annexation.
Do you see educational potential in the title?
We’ve created an asymmetrical multiplayer service that lets players come in, take a turn and leave—in contrast to games that take place in real time. Getting a group together consistently to play a strategy game can prove quite difficult due to the extreme length of play sessions. Ironically, that same service removes one of the logistical roadblocks teachers have to deal with. They could assign the game as homework and have the students log on and take their turns anytime prior to class, then when actually in the classroom, observe their actions and discuss the reasoning behind them. I’m sure creative teachers could come up with all sorts of effective uses that we haven’t even considered.