Scottish historians turn their hands to game design in university crossover

It is a way of bringing history to life for new generations by using play to better understand what has gone before.

Dr Gianluca Raccagni is spearheading the fusion of historical study and gaming.
Dr Gianluca Raccagni is spearheading the fusion of historical study and gaming.

Historians at the University of Edinburgh are collaborating with videogame and board game designers, as well as players, to help recreate key events from the past.

The institution’s recently launched history and games lab is upending an area of study traditionally carried out using academic tomes and historic records.

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Instead, it believes both games can serve as ideal mediums for both teaching and research, and aims to embed gaming into the courses offered at the university’s school of history, classics and archaeology.

Already its staff have been collaborating with game designers with fruitful results.

The lab’s co-ordinator Dr Gianluca Raccagni, a lecturer in medieval history, said that games were an excellent way to increase public understanding of the past, and stressed the collaboration allowed products traditionally viewed as entertainment to be historically accurate.

“Historians have a lot to offer the creative process,” he explained. “Think of Tolkien – a medievalist at Oxford who based his fantasy world on his historical and literary knowledge.

“The games industry is a key component of the creative economy and one in which historians can make an unequivocal and very significant contribution.”

Dr Raccagni is working with the university’s commercialisation service, Edinburgh Innovations, to launch a spinout company that will serve as the lab’s publishing arm.

Its staff have already been involved in two game designs projects. The first, entitled ‘The Fall of the King’, is a tactical board game that recreates the Battle of Fossalta.

The 13th-century conflict pitted the Guelphs against the Ghibellines, and was a key flashpoint in the struggle for power between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

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The battle is faithfully recreated through a series of scenarios in the game, from the opening skirmish through to the capture of Enzo of Sardinia, the illegitimate son of Emperor Frederick II. All are designed to be played by two players aged nine or over.

It was launched via a Kickstarter campaign in collaboration with Italian companies, Top Hat Games and Cobblepot Games, and reached its funding goal in the space of just 24 hours.

The second game, ‘Lion Rampant: The Crusader States’, focuses on the conflicts which raged throughout the Middle East during the Crusades.

The historical gamebook allows players to assume the role of an array of diverse characters, ranging from the commander of a Templar patrol and an Italian pirate, to a Muslim emir and a Byzantine officer. It is one of the best selling titles in its genre.

The university lab has also hosted a series of seminars exploring the intersection between gaming and history.

One looked at how bestselling videogames such as Sid Meier's Pirates! and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag represented chapters of US history.

It has also launched a podcast series, featuring discussions with game creators, historians and people working in the heritage sector.

The history and games lab was launched with the support of the Knowledge Exchange and Impact office of the university’s college of arts, humanities and social sciences.

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