Revolution: A Historical Simulation of Colonial America

Posted on Tuesday 13 November 2007

The decisions we make when we try to simulate an historical period – especially in a video game – are only part of the ‘rhetoric’ that playing the game embodies. If we are making the game from scratch, like our game set during the Montreal Plague of 1885, we can control that rhetoric from the word go. The other strategy is to employ an existing game and to modify its rules and behaviours. One of the most sophisticated examples of this latter strategy is Revolution. The full article is part of a series; some food for thought:

Our first decision was to forego coding Revolution from scratch and make it as a mod of an existing game. Using an existing engine enabled rapid prototyping and design. Using an existing engine also improved production quality – graphics and sound would already be at a level students would associate with professional games. Since many game companies offer modification tools to consumers for sharing new content, we wanted to explore the advantages of modding for developing serious games.

After much consideration, we settled on the Neverwinter Nights toolset. Neverwinter Nights is an RPG series for the PC that was specifically designed by its makers, Bioware Corp., to support modding projects. There was already a very robust culture of player-made NWN mods, which we could tap for inspiration and experience. We wanted to create a socially dynamic world where students would interact with both player-controlled and non-player-controlled characters, and NWN was built for character conversation, a feature we felt was crucial to the social world we wanted to model.

Camper and Weiss continue –

We wanted students to learn how a colonial society worked by interacting with a system, a system designed to embody the ideas we intended. Yet we didn’t want the conventions of the NWN toolset (shaped by the commercial role-playing game genre) to transform our historical content in undesired ways. It was not always easy to leverage NWN’s existing design limitations in ways that helped, not hurt, our pedagogical goals.

Accurate historical dress, for example, was challenging. In Colonial Williamsburg, men would remove their hats when entering a house. However, in the NWN toolset, hat models are not separate from head models. We could not effectively remove a hat without removing the character’s entire head. So we were stuck with characters that either wore hats or were perpetually hatless. We decided to have hats on at all times. This was not 100% historically accurate, but it was less inaccurate than the alternative.

We also had a great deal of difficulty managing violence in NWN. Leaving violence out of a revolutionary setting would not convey the proper historical content. On the other hand, we’d have a disaster if we let students fight whomever they wanted at any time. Our solution was to allow students to be violent, but to have consequences. If one character punches another, they will be briefly arrested and released. While the law in 1775 was not nearly this forgiving or swift, this solution at least kept the students in the simulation and engaged with the historical setting.

Given that there was so much of NWN we could not change, we wanted to at least ensure that the conversation system would enhance the fidelity of our historical simulation. Luckily, it turned out to work better than we ever imagined.

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