The History Game Canada: Our Past Need Not be a Foreign Country

The past is everywhere. But as historian David Lowenthal points out in making this observation, the past is also a foreign country. [1]  The History Game Canada aims to entice people in general, and students in particular, into making a trip to this foreign land. 

            The past is everywhere, because all around us is evidence of the generations which have preceded us: the built heritage of old structures, the antecedents of current problems and opportunities, the collective memories of peoples. As Lowenthal writes, “relics, histories, memories suffuse human experience. Each particular trace of the past ultimately perishes, but collectively they are immortal. Whether it is celebrated or rejected, attended to or ignored, the past is omnipresent”. [2]  For that reason, as George Orwell argues in his famous and terrifying novel, 1984, “he who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future”. [3]

            Yet we know, too, despite the admonitions of such towering figures as Orwell, or Winston Churchill (“study history, study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft”. Churchill told an aspiring graduate student. [4] ), that history has taught in the classroom is not an overwhelming favourite of students. Because of this, and a variety of other factors, historical literacy in Canada is shockingly deficient. [5]  Canada is not unique in this; Great Britain and the United States have a similar problem. How to reconcile the delights of history – cost-free excursions to learn how humans have adapted, triumphed or failed – with the reality of citizens’ knowledge of history – low, and not improving? 

            One response is to lament, as Jack Granatstein does in his bestseller, Who Killed Canadian History?. [6]  Another path is to start where people like to spend their lives and to see if history can become part of daily living. Professional historians, of course, are dedicated scholars and as with any great body of knowledge, history needs specialists who replenish the feedstock of knowledge itself. But I believe that there is an equally important role for popularizers of history, authors, like Peter Newman or Pierre Berton, who can write narrative and romance and through their literary skills, make history come alive. History is to citizenship what mathematics is to science – the essential master discipline – and therefore, the diffusion of historical insight, whether through novels like Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, sweeping narratives like Newman’s history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the CBC’s “Canada: A People’s History” series, or the sixty-second dramas of the Historica Minutes are as critical a contribution to citizenship as formal school curriculums or advanced historical scholarship. 

Believing in the worth of popular history, more than a decade ago, I became interested in the power and potential of gaming. As with so much else, I learned from my children: my son, David, at age six, was more at ease with a computer than I was (or will ever be). One reason for his easy facility with this new technology was that he enjoyed doing it. Computing was fun, especially gaming. The computer box could bring together multi-media wraparounds that let him decide on the course of the action, rather than passively receiving someone else’s plot on a TV screen. Multimedia interactivity seemed to me then, and even more powerfully today, as the wave of the future. 

As the then-Executive Director of the Historica Foundation, when I wanted to make exciting television, I reached out to Patrick Watson, the best in the business. When I became interested in interactive gaming, I reached out to Nathon Gunn of Bitcasters, also the best in the business. We began to dream of how history could be advanced by gaming. Each of us had a bottom line: I wanted scenarios to be realistic enough so that players would experience how real-life choices affected real-life chances. Nathon Gunn’s bottom line was that gaming must be lively, engaging, and fun if it was to attract a sophisticated younger audience. The mission defined itself – could Bitcasters create a Canadian History game that was fun to play? 

The results of this decade-long exploration are now ready to be played. Bitcasters secured the rights to the Civilization game engine, one of the most successful computer games ever invented. Civilization involves a player making decisions about resource allocation, strategy, and diplomatic tactics. The resources differ depending on whether one chooses to be the Romans, or the ancient Chinese. With this proven game technology in place, Bitcasters pulled together a team of game developers, media experts, teachers, and historians to create Canadian scenarios that would fit within the Civilization model. Then, Bitcasters attracted partners, like Historica (I had resigned from Historica by this time, but retained my involvement by being one of the historical advisors to the Bitcasters team) and Canada’s National History Society, to add their own special contributions to the project. Lastly, Bitcasters was able to attract funding from Telefilm Canada to create a prototype of the game. After beta-testing and substantial reworking, the Phase One scenario, 1535-1763 of The History Game Canada, “The New World” is now about to enter the Canadian market.

While completing Scenario One of the The History Game Canada project, Bitcasters has well-advanced in creating Scenario Two, 1763-1867: “The Nation Builders”, and Scenario Three 1867-1890: “Opening the West”. Plans are underway to create additional phases of the game, which would bring it up to the year 2000. The History Game Canada is already one of the most innovative new additions to Canada’s education and cultural infrastructure and additional content is currently in production! 

For too many Canadians, our past is a foreign country. The commitment and expertise of the Bitcasters team has created a Canadian experience powered by the famous Civilization platform, which opens this foreign land to all those willing to use their wits to guide the destiny of the Five Nation Iroquois Confederacy, the first French settlers, the great English merchants, or the large Huron nation. The game is certainly testing, but it is also great fun. Through The History Game Canada, players are invited to time-travel to an era when North America was inhabited by a complex network of aboriginal nations, who one day looked east and saw some strange sailing ships approaching their shores. 

Thomas S. Axworthy is Chair of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University and is a former Director of the Historica Foundation. He is a historical consultant to Bitcasters.