Games That Teach History – Learning History from Civilization

Historical video games, like many historical films, are full of inaccuracies, mainly to make the story fit better into the medium and to make it more entertaining. Emperor Commodus was actually killed by a wrestler/gladiator while taking a bath, but having an epic gladiator bout in the Colosseum made for far better entertainment. Video games are heavily interactive so many inaccuracies occur as the player changes the game. Despite the inaccuracies however, historical video games help people to get started learning while giving those who love history a chance to play a game about their favorite times.

Here are a few great historically set games that do just that.

The Total War series:

The Total War series of games started in 2000 with Shogun: Total War and has released a steady stream of games in eras such as Ancient Rome, Medieval period and the Age of Empires and Napoleon. Their games follow the same formula of giving a strategic map view where a player takes over a faction and grows their empire. When the time comes for a battle the camera changes to the battlefield to allow the player to be the general with tens of thousands of soldiers on the field at once and the terrain matching up to the site on the campaign map.

The games are among the best at showing the challenges of premodern generalship and the combat can be amazing just to watch. With options for custom battles and an array of time periods, players can recreate such battles as Trafalgar or the Battle of Shiroyama, the battle seen at the end of The Last Samurai.  The developers have gotten better with historical accuracy with each new game, and there are thousands of user made modifications specifically aimed towards accuracy.



Mythology is an important aspect of history as it was known by practically all the Greeks and framed how they lived their lives. The platformer (left to right 2D/Super Mario style) Apotheon is a beautiful game represented like the face of Greek pottery design, featuring black characters on clay backgrounds. The story has a Greek hero fighting through the ranks of the Greek gods. Each enemy god is a boss battle with challenges that directly relate to the god’s character; Artemis, goddess of the hunt turns your character into a dear while you try to avoid her arrows. Hades’ world is unbearably dark and gloomy.

Red Orchestra/Rising Storm:

Red Orchestra/Rising Storm
Red Orchestra/Rising Storm

The last big budget WWII shooter was Call of Duty: World at War several years ago, but several smaller companies have filled the void. One of the most realistic of them is the Red Orchestra series and its expansion Rising Storm. Every effort was made to make a realistic shooter with proper ballistics and damage modeling, so unlike other shooters, a single shot to the chest will likely be a kill. Weapons and vehicles are faithfully recreated, with painstaking detail going into the interiors of tanks. It is definitely worth a try and the developers have a Vietnam themed shooter due next year.

Civilization V:

Civilization V
Civilization V

Civilization V is a very lighthearted game that gives players a group of settlers in the Stone Age a randomly generated map to build a civilization on. From developing agriculture to mastering fusion and from constructing Stonehenge to building a fleet of battleships, a whole range of history is available. While Civilization gives no actually story of past history, the framework is there and is backed by an extensive “Civilopedia” that gives short historical info on everything technology, building, world wonder, social policy and resources you come across. It is a very light overview, but it’s always there. You could build the wonder Angkor Wat with every new game you play, and one of those times click on the Civilopedia link and learn something new.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance:

Kingdom Come: Deliverance game
Kingdom Come: Deliverance game

This is the only game on the list that isn’t officially released yet, but playable demos are available. If compared to the historical accuracies of films, Kingdom Come is far more like an epic documentary than any other big budget game ever. Set in medieval Europe, Kingdom Come’s tagline is “Dungeons and NO Dragons” and so far the game seems to be as authentic as possible. The game is similar in concept to open world games such as Skyrim or the Witcher 3 but rather than having a fictional world and fantasy storyline, Kingdom Come uses plausible locations and sensible questlines. The developers spent a great deal of time with creating genuine sword fighting techniques and the creator spent time learning how to actually wield a medieval longsword. Players will even spend time in the stocks if caught stealing in game.

World of Tanks:

World of Tanks

This multiplayer arena game pits teams of WWII tanks against each other in bouts of tactical maneuvering to get the perfect shot. A popular feature of the game is the wide variety of tanks available. Any student of WWII will see tanks in the game that never existed and note that the tiger tanks are not the juggernauts they were in real life. The game levels off many of the tank’s performance to make for more balanced gameplay and any tank that was even conceivable around WWII is in the game in an effort to give players a variety of choices. Like civilization V did with their Civilopedia, World of Tanks does by giving a snippet of historical reference when you pick out a tank.

This is a very short list of historical games that are well made and fun to play, but there are hundreds more historical games out there set in almost every time period imaginable. The History Channel even dabbled in a few Civil War video games, and though the history was very well represented, the actual gameplay was not nearly as fun as some other titles. If you have any suggestions for good games that engage history let me know in the comments.

By William McLaughlin for War History Online

William Mclaughlin

William Mclaughlin is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE