Opinion: Age Of Empires 4 Proves Medieval History Can Be Interesting
Age of Empires IV is shaping up to be quite the intriguing package. Whilst real-time strategy titles have always fascinated me, and the AoE series, in particular, has always been a favourite, none have taken me quite as much as this forthcoming iteration.
Now, I am traditionally a modern historian at heart; anything past 1900 has always been the most interesting, especially the two World Wars, the Cold War and so on. But, as for medieval history? Never been my cup of tea really, apart from one area - battles and military tactics. It's at this point where Age of Empires IV comes in. The game series itself has long been the hallmark of nerds worldwide, myself included, who like to build up their team and then wage war against the AI for hours - it's all rather good fun indeed. However, Age of Empires IV looks to have another, perhaps more worthwhile purpose.
Alongside the usual playing experience will come hours of documentary footage filmed and sorted by Lion TV, who've done documentary films for the BBC in the past. These will discuss all sorts of things from trebuchets (more on those in a moment) to castle building and other aspects of medieval life, including surgery. Age of Empires IV therefore becomes a marvellous tool in illustrating not only how medieval society worked, but all the various intricacies usually found on a day out to Warwick Castle.
If it's any indication of the level of detail, some time was taken out of their Gamescom presentation to discuss trebuchets and Microsoft got a doctor of mechanical engineering, namely Dr. Shini Somara, to explain how everything worked. These little sprinklings of educational resources amount to over three hours of in-game documentary footage, which shows that Microsoft have certainly done their research. What's more, it means the game won't be a dead-end resource for people. In case you're interested, I'll leave the video here:
On a basic level, this inclusion of oodles of real-world footage within AoE IV for educational purposes is a reflection of the way that the pandemic has given rise to alternative methods of understanding concepts and ideas. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that everything can be interesting and fun to learn about, as long as it's presented right. In this case, when you're discussing the structure of medieval society and the composition of land, it might be interesting at first, but what people want to know about are the fun pieces - war, battles, falconry and all. By putting such into a game, it'll hopefully get people interested in the supposedly more mundane side of the time period.
This isn't Microsoft's first rodeo with a more educational game, though. The current Flight Simulator got a lot of people talking about the way the entire world had been modelled and led to discussions on geography and so on, as well as plenty of folks looking to find their own house. It turned from a hardcore simulator about flying planes to a fun laugh about visiting famous landmarks. By the looks of things, Microsoft is using that and taking AoE IV down a similar path, which is fantastic. In doing such, it should transform both the game and the series and open it up to a wider audience. There's now no reason why schools can't use a game to explain concepts otherwise understood on a school trip or from a ten-year-old YouTube video.
The principle of homeschooling or learning in ways that don't rely on textbooks or comprehension has been laid bare over the last eighteen months or so, and it's high time such got championed. Learning through games is a brilliant way of getting started. For instance, titles such as the Democracy series could be an ideal way of getting people into politics without presenting them with a textbook or a massive lecture that discusses policy and ideology. After all, gaming has been a positive force during this crisis and some research done by HyperX, the peripherals brand, concluded that a large majority of parents felt that it had helped them, as well as their children. Now, it's time to build on those positive gains and put them to some good use.
For far too long, the education system has been stuck in a rut with the ways in which things are taught, and more integrally, the content of such courses. I've discussed my issues with the English curriculum before in another article about George Orwell, and it's high time that argument got revived. The education system now, even with seemingly endless Govian reform, seems more antiquated than it ever has been - after all, some teachers are just starting to utilise PowerPoints. It is only with radical change that anything gets done in the modern world, and perhaps putting games like Age of Empires onto the curriculum or swapping out literary classics for more modern up-to-date books in English Literature classes may end up being a force for good.
This may then have the knock-on effect of getting more children interested in school, or at the very least, one subject, giving them a passion for something which they could then pursue at a higher level if they wish to. When I was going through my GCSEs some years ago, I despised Frankenstein, and plenty of friends hated reading Jane Eyre, which were the books chosen for the GCSE English Lit 19th century novel component. The only inkling of a modern text was Alan Bennett's History Boys, which I still enjoy reading about today. It goes to prove that adding something relevant or exciting onto the syllabus can have positive gains, despite backwards-looking views on a golden age of literature, for instance.
Alright, maybe I have gone off-topic a little, but the point remains that whilst sometimes the old ways are the best, a policy rethink wouldn't be such a bad idea. From my memory, the only time an alternative method of history teaching has been utilised was to play clips from Horrible Histories because it was comedic and got people interested, or on a rarer occasion, employ clips from Blackadder. The release of such games invites the chance to change things for the better.
Age of Empires IV should, if used correctly, provide a brilliant foundation from which these new ideas and methods of teaching can take shape. Classrooms, lectures and all will still have their place - they are tried-and-tested methods. This would just add another angle from which to attack the subject and its intricacies. After all, if anything can make understanding medieval society interesting, it might as well be this.