Games focused on history ask why, not what

Risto Marjomaa, university lecturer in history at the University of Helsinki, employs gamification to make events that have led to wars and crises more concrete.

At the time of conducting this interview, Risto Marjomaa, who has played board and role-playing games since adolescence, is translating a game from Finnish into English on his computer. The game, designed by Marjomaa, focuses on a miners’ strike that took place in Mexico in 1906.

“The game asks what is a just, well-functioning and productive way of distributing a mine’s resources, with all parties looking out for their own interests. The miners want to improve working conditions, while the owners are churning out profits. In real life, the strike ended in a massacre, but the game offers other options as well.”

History studies things no longer in existence, making games a tool well suited to giving form to such things.

Origins of crises demonstrated by a game

Games designed by Marjomaa, university lecturer in history, are decision-making games dealing with events that have led to war or other crises. Each player represents a party to the conflict in question, such as a historical person. As the game and the conflict progress, the players proceed by making decisions in the role of their character, taking into account the historical circumstances and the zeitgeist. Individual games may contain dozens of endings, only one of which is reached at a time.

Having players genuinely feel like they are making influential decisions requires a well-functioning game structure based on comprehensive research and the perception of alternative solutions. Since game design is a laborious process, Marjomaa thinks games should only be utilised in teaching if you feel like they are your thing.

“Games also have to be adapted to lecture timetables. At times, I reserve a lecture or two for playing, while at other times we play games in small bites in conjunction with lectures throughout the course. Usually, there’s also plenty of additional material,” Marjomaa explains.

Making decisions entails compromise

In spite of their laborious nature, Marjomaa believes games could be used more in teaching.

“They enable engaging groupwork, and students have usually given positive feedback on them. Games help them consider in a more in-depth manner the motives and chains of events people in the past have experienced. They have described how, through games, they have perceived in an entirely new way how difficult decision-making is in the middle of conflicting goals.”

Politics is about compromise.

Therefore, making good or correct decisions is not enough. To make their realisation possible, they also have to be reconciled with the decisions made by the other parties. This applies to real life as well: politics is about compromise.

Are there issues Marjomaa does not wish to examine through gamification?

“I try to avoid discussing violence on a personal level, such as having players make life-and-death decisions pertaining to the characters of other players. The use of violence must not be a goal, only a potential means to an end.”

War is a crisis, not a solution to one

According to Marjomaa, it is important to understand that wars and large crises are always disasters for those who end up swept up in them.

“Converting war into a popular game of tactical combat also obscures the nature of war. Genuine war is not a zero-sum game, but a negative-sum game. Usually, everyone loses in war, even the nominal winners. The real victory is succeeding in avoiding war while reaching your goals. In practice, this may be close to impossible, which is why parties in such conditions are so ready to take up arms. It would be good if people understood that such a result is a failure as such. War is not a solution to a crisis, but a crisis in its own right.”

Usually, everyone loses in war, even the nominal winners.

The narrative nature of historical research is fascinating, but Marjomaa thinks storification also has a flipside. Stories turn events into simplified chains, with people quick to think such narratives are true. However, we can never capture the lived past as it was. Instead, we can only try to explain it from a specific point of view.

“Historiography doesn’t so much try to tell what happened, but rather why it happened. People of the past made their decisions without knowing the consequences. The First World War is an extreme example: no one wanted it, but they were drawn to it in the end.”

Games make it possible to be absorbed in these moments and circumstances of decision-making, providing information on the grey areas of history and the fact that things could also have gone differently.

Historical research is part of our identity

“Every now and then, you get to hear that historical research has no room for ifs and buts, and that the only thing that matters is what actually happened. And yet, if you discount the possibility of having events occur in a different way, historical research is reduced to a meaningless chain of events where everything happens because it was ordained to happen that way. It makes us mere puppets of history,” Marjomaa notes.

In the end, the goals of historiography are rooted in today, not in the past, which is an important part of our identity. Without scientific writing on history, we would be reading the past solely on the basis of what we have personally seen or heard, without a wider perspective or different viewpoints.

“Without commonly accepted principles of historical research, we would have no means of discussing the actual reasons behind events that have led to the present day. Based on wartime memories, Russians could still appear to Finns as evil Russkies, while Finns could be perceived as fascists by Russians, and these two notions would be totally incompatible. With regard to the establishment of the currently prevailing power structure, it would be difficult to challenge the claim that white men are more intelligent than people representing other ethnic groups or genders without a model of explanation provided by historical research.”

With the help of historical research, we can strive to better understand one another and demonstrate who we are and how we have arrived at our current circumstances.

Read more about the Bachelor’s Programme in History (in Finnish only).