Your mileage may vary, but I remember history at school as long, boring lists of kings and queens. I had no interest in it. My sole motivation in showing up to any of the lessons or handing in any assignments was to not fail. All I actually remember is ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’.
Thirty-odd years later, one particular day found me googling feudal succession laws, and that night, dreaming about taxation and vassals. It was, of course, a game that made the difference; a PC game, Crusader Kings III. In it, you play the head of a dynasty, ruling a kingdom (or sometimes a smaller or larger holding). When you die, you play your heir, and theirs in turn until (if you’re successful) the end of the game’s time span (from either 867 AD or 1066 to 1453).
It grabbed my attention mainly by modelling complex systems incredibly well. At first glance it just appears to be a very complex game with lots of things going on; something similar to the more famous Civilisation series but with more detail and more focus on the people, including yourself. But look closer and the game is made of a number of interlocking systems that model medieval life.
By looking at how this commercial game does this so well, I’ve learned a lot that I think will help me in designing learning games.
The titles, succession and claims system
Modelled very closely on real life, the game presents the (‘old’) world as a jigsaw of empires and kingdoms, each broken down into duchies, baronetcies and holdings. Control of each of these is by title, and individuals can inherit or lay claim to titles. If you want to grow your kingdom, you need claims (even to wage war, you generally need a claim to justify it), and parts of this system model claimants joining your court, changing of succession law, disinheritance and many other associated factors.
All of which has often found me furiously searching for somebody in the game with a claim to the Duchy of Lancaster or the Kingdom of Aquitane – or else, manufacturing a claim. And the succession elements and the fact that you will play as your heir give you a real interest in your lineage and what your heir will inherit.
The lifestyle system
Different rulers in this time had different reputations; a good steward, a schemer, a pious scholar. The lifestyle system simulates this by giving you experience which you can spend towards ‘perks’ in one of five lifestyles: learning, stewardship, intrigue, diplomacy or martial. Choose a diplomacy lifestyle and you could persuade rulers to accept being your vassal without the need for war. Choose intrigue and you could murder your rivals without being exposed.
Once you’re invested in the perks for one of these lifestyles, it gets easier to gain more powerful perks in the same one, so the system channels you into specialising, but without it feeling like you’re being corralled. When my current character is a stewardly ruler, I delight in being able to build up to bonuses that allow me to build more castles and tax more efficiently.
The stress system
The modelling goes beyond laws, land realities and worldly concerns to human behaviour and emotions. Your character has traits (which also tend to dovetail with their chosen lifestyle). You may be greedy or generous, honest or deceitful, and a host of others. Throughout the game, events and developments give you choices: which way to take a conversation at a feast, how to educate your children, how to navigate encounters on pilgrimages and hunts.
These choices can have material gains and losses, but your choices are also constrained by your traits: if your character is greedy, giving away money causes you stress. If they’re honest, even a white lie may raise your stress levels. This is systems modelling of cognitive dissonance. And there are health and effectiveness impacts to stress. The result is that you find yourself playing the character rather than the numbers.
There are many more systems in the game. A faith system models the dynamics of the crusades, indulgences, the shame of adultery and heresy, witch hunts and religious leaders. A culture system models the way cultures intermingle and develop, including technological advances. There’s a system around money, taxation and vassals, and another around types of holding such as cities and bishoprics, and the castles and other buildings you can have. A system around wars, and another around intrigue and schemes.
In many ways, the drawing of lines around each of these systems is somewhat arbitrary, but that’s a little like real life systems modelling. The systems interlock, and what emerges is something lifelike; something imperfect, absolutely, but this is implicit in the definition of ‘model’; perhaps most importantly, something thoroughly engaging, with the capacity to make players think deeply about the system they’re engaging with, and learn about it.
Because of the focus on modelling rather than offering paths to a specific goal, the game is very open-ended. There are some achievements, but the only ultimate win state is your dynasty surviving to the end, and even failing in that feels not so big a thing, if you had some great moments along the way. The game has more of a sandbox feel than many games that might be categorised with it, because — like life — you have to set your own objectives, find your own meaning, and experiment. This puts the player at the very heart of things, which is one of the most important reasons for using games in learning. In a way, the player is recruited as a game designer to some degree, choosing the shape of the game. Choices become even more meaningful than usual and wider. The level of engagement to be gained is of the order that sets one off googling on your own time, or dreaming about it.
With this level of engagement, learning about the real-life system being modelled is guaranteed. In the senses in which the model is perfect or near-perfect, I’ve learned directly from the game (certainly more about medieval history than from my history classes). But also where it’s not, I’ve been inspired to ponder, investigate and discuss more. Did the way land was apportioned after a successful crusade really work like that? What was really happening with the competing Kings of León?
Simpler learning games
I’d have learned a lot more in my history lesson if my homework assignments had revolved around Crusader Kings III. Any history teachers reading this, take note. And it’s not limited to history. I could have written this article about social systems and The Sims, or manufacturing and any one of the current crazes for factory simulation games out there. But what if you don’t teach or train medieval history or something that’s been similarly modelled in a great commercial game?
Fortunately, I don’t think models need to be this complex to gain some of the benefits. Modelling can be of any system, and we can take lessons and inspiration from such well-done examples even if ours are simpler and cruder. I’ve built learning games around how talent development and management works, how manufacturing works, or how project management works.
Take the idea of a traditional game about talent management, based around a win state and a simple mechanism like roll and move, with quiz questions and simple encounters. I’m sure it could be fun. But now contrast that with the idea of modelling the systems inside your organisation that impact talent management; individual ambitions, career paths, mentoring schemes, salary structures and development options. Imagine building a model of each of the systems involved, and then thinking about how they interact.
If it seems like that would be difficult, you could recruit your players in modelling the system in the first place. Either way, imagine the richness of allowing them to play with the system and decide their own goals; to debate how closely the system modelled life, and what would make it more realistic.
Breathing life into models of systems, by making them into games, by opening them to our players makes us let go of some control and structure. But our potential return is something special. In Crusader Kings III discussions online, players trade stories about rising and falling dynasties as if it was a writer’s forum discussing novel plotlines and discussing the differences and similarities with real history. I think even a small portion of that engagement and learning is something to strive for with learning games.
In a way, it’s like when we read a fantastic book or watch a truly classic film. We love it because it says something to us about life, and it can only do that if it speaks to us in the language of the rich systems that make up life.