Gamers Take on the Civil War

Gamers Take on the Civil War

As historians and teachers, we are often keenly aware of how movies and television influence what students think about the Civil War and about history more broadly. In recent years, historians have weighed in on the virtues and distortions of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, and Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. Some productions have actively sought Civil War historians’ input into their depiction of the past, including Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones and PBS’s Mercy Street.[1] While academic commentary on Civil War era television and film has become commonplace, few historians have examined another venue in which students and the broader public encounter the Civil War: in video games.

Over the past thirty years, more than two dozen Civil War games have been made. With the exceptions of Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! (1997) and Antietam! (1999), most of these games have not been particularly successful. A new game, released in July 2017, looks like it will replace Meier’s work as the most popular Civil War game ever. Produced by a small Ukrainian design team, Ultimate General: Civil War has already received glowing reviews from the video game press and appears on the way to becoming a best seller. On Steam, a popular game purchase site, it had a 9/10 rating, with more than 1,500 reviews.[2]

Ultimate General: Civil War promotional image of a battlefield. Courtesy of Game Labs LLC.

Ultimate General: Civil War is, in gamer terminology, a real-time strategy (RTS) game, a popular genre that involves moving units around a map to defeat opponents and secure resources and locations. The use of “real-time” distinguishes the genre from turn-based strategy games like Civilization or (for luddites) chess. Some readers might object to the use of the term “strategy,” as UG:CW, like most RTS games, is devoted almost entirely to battlefield tactics rather than larger questions of military strategy. As is typical of the genre, UG:CW allows players to build different kinds of units (infantry, skirmishers, cavalry, artillery) and equip these units with a range of weapons. Players can choose either to fight individual battles or, in campaign mode, fight the entire war, building an army along the way.

There is much to recommend in this game. One can play more than three dozen battles, more than any of its predecessors. The maps are both fairly accurate and artfully rendered. The units behave in ways that seem accurate: they march in column and transition to line when in combat, green soldiers are more likely to panic and run than veterans, and overwhelmed soldiers flee or surrender rather than fight to the death. Compared to other RTS games, the pace is pretty slow, which reflects the actual movement of Civil War armies. Best results are obtained by building a large army, occupying fortified ground, and advancing cautiously. Patience rather than daring is rewarded. To this extent, the game provides a reasonable simulation of Civil War tactics. As an introduction to Civil War military history, students could do far worse than this game.

Ultimate General: Civil War screenshot of the 2nd Battle of Bull Run. Courtesy of Game Labs LLC.

While I found UG:CW both fun and addictive, several aspects of the game troubled me. The game largely neglects the Western Theater. Outside of Shiloh, Stones River, and Chickamauga, the entire campaign is fought in the east. There are significant military developments that the game omits, including Vicksburg and the Atlanta Campaign/March to the Sea, though these may be added in later updates. It overemphasizes the importance and differences between firearms: soldiers equipped with 1863 Springfields are noticeably superior to those with 1855 Harpers Ferry rifles. Guerrilla warfare, the home front, politics, and logistics are almost entirely absent. The most significant and disturbing omission from UG:CW is the almost complete invisibility of the African American experience. There are no black soldiers, even in battles where a significant number of African Americans fought. For instance, two brigades (seven regiments) of USCT soldiers participated in Cold Harbor, but their presence is entirely omitted from the game. Indeed, the only reference I found in the entire game to African Americans or slavery a very brief mention on the Union campaign victory screen which notes that “slavery shall cease to exist.” To a large degree, UG:CW articulates an antiquated view of the conflict, omitting politics, motivation, and race. Indeed, UG:CW can be read as a digital updating of the Civil War board games popular during the Centennial.[3]

Ultimate General: Civil War appears to have been made without input from historical consultants; none appear in the game’s credits or in the promotional material associated with the game. The video game industry as a whole has lagged behind television and film in engaging with historians, just as historians have largely neglected to critically engage with video games. As annual revenue from the gaming industry now far exceeds that of film, it may be time for historians to proffer a critical eye to games, just as we do with film and television.

 

[1] For a small sample of Civil War historians engaging with film and television, see Gary W. Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood & Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Bruce Chadwick, The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film (New York: Vintage Books, 2002); “Film Roundtable: Lincoln,” Civil War History 59, no. 3 (September 2013): 358-378.

[2] Ultimate General: Civil War can be purchased at http://store.steampowered.com/app/502520/Ultimate_General_Civil_War/. For early reviews of the game, see https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/11/29/ultimate-general-civil-war-review-early-access/ and http://kotaku.com/ultimate-general-is-a-very-good-strategy-game-1789352493

[3] Robert J. Cook, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), 265; Edward T. Linenthal, Sacred Ground: Americans and their Battlefields (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 98.

David Silkenat

David Silkenat is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Driven from Home: North Carolina’s Civil War Refugee Crisis (UGA Press, 2016) and Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina (UNC Press, 2011).

One Reply to “Gamers Take on the Civil War”

  1. Well, as you say: it’s made by a small indie team. There’s no money to pay for historical consultants. There are historical consultants for big AAA games like Assassins Creed or Total War, but for indie games developed on a shoe string budget? Forget about it.

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