This is part two on a three part special, here on Room 633-K, where I write about how video games and the topic of “History” have had an effect on me over the years. If you would like to see part one of three you can do so here. Part three is also available and can be viewed here.
When I say “video games have taught me Oriental History” I should be a bit more specific. This knowledge I have on Oriental History is not encyclopedic in which I know everything about Asian History that ever occurred, though that would be nice, it would make me great at parties. The Oriental History I do know however as a result of video games are of two specific time periods during the history of two particular nations; the “Late Era of the Han Dynasty” (circa 184-220), the “Three Kingdoms” era of China (circa 220-265) and the “Sengoku Jidai” era of Japan from (circa 1556-1615). In particular what I have learned as a result of playing video games are; the chronological order of events in these time periods, the battles and military campaigns that occur during thes time periods and the people present during these events and the battles that occurred during this time period.
When trying to learn something, it always helps to be interested in the subject. If you’re not interested in the subject you tend to pay attention less to what you should be learn, or you can be like me where you struggle to stay awake whilst attempting to “learn” something. When you get to that point, it’s probably not worth trying to learn something, but I never had that problem when it came to Oriental History thanks to the video games released when I was growing up. While I could go into more detail about the Sengoku based games I played that made me interested in the genre, such as the wacky anime inspired “Sengoku Basara” franchise, or the more realistic “Samurai Warriors” series, I will instead be focusing on the games set in Ancient China. In particular the Koei made games based on Ancient China history such as the famous “Dynasty Warriors” franchise.
I know some of the more knowledgeable readers here will be aware that the “Dynasty Warriors” franchise is based on the historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” written by Luo Guanzhong, which features fictional scenes that did not happen in the real time period, whilst also glorifying the Shu-Han faction and the members of the faction, because they are arguable the “protagonists” of the novel, especially in comparison to the Cao-Wei faction who are portrayed primarily as the main “antagonists” of the novel. History however is often greyer when it comes to “protagonists” and “antagonists”, “History is written by the victors” after all. Qing Dynasty historian Zhang Xuecheng wrote the novel was “…seven-parts fact and three-parts fiction.” Despite that however, these games were the reason I wanted to learn the real nature of events because I became interested enough in the era and events, to pursue further research.
The first game I played set in Ancient China was a demo version of Dynasty Warriors 3 which featured a fully playable “Nanman Campaign” level, a level based on famed strategist Zhuge Liang’s military campaign to deal with the rebelling tribes in the southwestern area of China. When I first played the demo I had no idea of who any of the characters were, the locations the battles took place, I believed the game was completely fictional and not based on a historical novel, yet I found myself enthralled. Maybe it was the simple yet rewarding gameplay of the “hack ‘n’ slash” genre which at the time was new to me, the corny voice acting, the (at the time) great looking 3D character models, the battlefield which felt large and alive, but I felt I had to get the full version of the game. Looking back at it, I can see how Dynasty Warriors 3 had created an interesting environment in which I was invested and immersed in the events that occurred. I cared about the characters and the outcomes of the battles I fought. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, this game would mean a lot to me, when it came to Oriental History.
Maybe it was fate, or maybe it was the planning of the executive, financial and marketing departments from the creators of Dynasty Warriors; Koei, but Dynasty Warriors 3 would not be the only game set in ancient Chinese History that I would play. Apart from the main Dynasty Warriors series, Koei made other games set in the same time period of Ancient China; the “Dynasty Tactics” series and “Kessen 2”. I loved these games as they showed the events of Romance of the Three Kingdoms in a different light compared to Dynasty Warriors in their own unique way. Dynasty Tactics was much closer to the original novel compared to Dynasty Warriors and this was reflected in the mood and setting which felt very gritty, realistic and serious, compared to the sometimes over-the-top Dynasty Warriors. The strategic turn based gameplay of Dynasty Tactics was vastly different to fast paced yet simple hack ‘n’ slash gameplay that Dynasty Warriors was known for, as players chose one of the Three Kingdom factions circa 194 BC, often before they were “kingdoms” and sought to unite China through a series of individual scenarios featuring objectives such as conquering cities and towns that linked into a grand overarching story. What I in particular loved was the way objectives were utilized, in which players often had two ways to complete an objective for the scenario; one first option was often historical, i.e. how things actually occurred in real life, whilst the second was a fictional route similar to a “What-If? I was greatly interested in this gameplay mechanic as it often made me think “Why did they do this, when they could have done this?” I wanted to found out more information about the people and events of this time period; what actually happened, why these men made their decisions and the consequences of the actions they chose. I was beginning to become rather fascinated and interested in this time period, and that made me more enthusiastic in learning this era.
While Kessen 2 was similar to Dynasty Tactics in that, it was another strategy game made by Koei about Ancient China, in comparison to Dynasty Tactics which was heavily based on the source material, Kessen 2 was very loosely based on the source material and featured heavily fantasied elements, such as magic, personality changes to historical figures and drastic changes to the story-line, to the point the story was only vaguely similar to how events occurred historically. However I was introduced me to new figures who had never made an appearance in Dynasty Warriors or Dynasty Tactics such as “Cao Song”, father of the famous “Cao Cao”, who was one of the most influential and famous men of this time period. At the time I believed Cao Song to be fictional, because of Kessen 2’s willingness to disregard History, but I later learned Cao Song was a real person. After learning this I become intrigued wondering “Why I hadn’t seen him before? Was he an important man?” I wanted to know more about Cao Song and all the other historical figures I had not seen in Dynasty Warriors or Dynasty Tactics. I was even more curious about the time period.
Another method for learning is repetition. I know that repetition sounds doing the same thing over and over again, which is usually boring, but that helped me learn Oriental History. Allow me to explain using examples from the Samurai Warriors and Sengoku Basara franchises. I’m sure some gamers will complain that the hack ‘n’ slash nature of these games can be repetitive and the levels of each battle are usually very similar in every game, but that can be seen however as a blessing in disguise. The level designs of the battles in these games are usually very similar because they are designed to be similar to what actually happened, and that can help you learn. After years of playing the same battles every year you know what happens during the battle. It’s like a reflex. For example I always know the “4th Battle of Kawanakajima” (circa 1561) has the Takeda forces trying to launch a pincer attack on the Uesugi forces but legendary warlord Uesugi Kenshin, sees through the pincer and charges down the mountain he is camped on towards the Takeda camp. Similarly I know the “Incident at Honnoji” (circa 1582) always features Oda Nobunaga being betrayed by his vassal Akechi Mitsuhide. Also on these virtual battlefields you will see the same officers on both the allied and enemy sides in every incarnation of these battles. This is often a good way to learn who was present at the battle, and frequently certain officers who did something important at a battle, such as an officer who led a night attack on the enemy camp, are often given their moment to shine in game.
If you’re like me and you follow the objectives in these games such as “capture this base, then defeat this officer” you will quickly release that these objectives are often inspired by what happened in real life. The more recent games in the Warriors series such as “Samurai Warriors 4” and “Dynasty Warriors 8” which make you play with the historical winner, feature objectives you can not only give you bonus experience, but often detail how the battle actually occurred. You can play these games for fun, and learn!
I will however admit this way of learning isn’t perfect. The Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors series often feature people on the battlefield who were never there, for example Sanada Yukimura often serves the Takeda clan from the “4th Battle of Kawanakajima” (circa 1561) until the Takeda are destroyed circa 1582, yet he wasn’t even born when this particular battle of Kawanakajima takes place. Earlier incarnations of Dynasty Warriors often featured fictional stories where instead of following History, every character fought at the earliest chronological battle in the series “Yellow Turban Rebellion” circa 184, then fought a series of battles that often became increasingly fictional.
Yet the main way video games mostly taught me Oriental History was a lot simpler. Pretty much all the games I’ve mentioned have an encyclopedia/gallery mode where a vast depot of information can be found. Some of the better encyclopedia’s contain a timeline of events that happened during the respective time periods of Ancient China and Sengoku Japan; a glossary full of details on famous characters, battles, locations and more. This feature may not be used by everyone but to me they are literally a treasure trove of knowledge. But what really got me reading the encyclopedia’s were the music, the gentle, era-appropriate music was the perfect music to accompany reading. What better way to learn the history that these games were based on, than from a feature the games offered while listing to some soothing music?
What I find fascinating about this feature is how each game uses the idea of an encyclopedia differently. Turn-based grand strategy games series such as the “Nobunaga’s Ambition” and “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” have hundreds of short officer biographies of the people who appear in the game, the perfect way to wet your appetite about learning about these characters, it is a perfect summarized introduction to the feats and details of these men. The two Dynasty Tactics games had a neat feature during battles where you could view a short biography of the officers who were in the battle on both the allied side and enemy side. Neat! The Samurai Warriors’ franchise has a gallery feature that has information mostly on the playable characters and a small biography for the non-playable historical figures. It disappointed me how the non-playable biographies were too short, I had previously learned about “Ban Naoyuki” also known more famously as “Ban Dan’emon” one of the few men to serve all three of Japan’s “Great Unifiers”, yet this information was excluded from his biography. The details given about him are very vague as well.
I have personal preference to the encyclopedia featured in the Dynasty Warriors series, particularly “Dynasty Warriors 8” ; inside the encyclopedia is a section entitled “History” in which you can read how events happened chronologically in Ancient China in summarised book format and a child who loved reading and as a grown man, still loves reading, I often find myself reading this section every iteration of the game. Apart from the short, yet concise and informative nature of this mode, why I love about this mode in particular, is the ability to look up highlighted words; Often a phrase, battle or historical figure of importance without having to leave the page. A pop-up appears giving more detailed about the highlighted word which I can easily and quickly get rid of by pressing the triangle button. Also available in the Dynasty Warriors 8 encyclopaedia is a fully fledged glossary detailing various words and phrases used by the novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and uttered by historical figures at the time, effect for easy comprehension. Included as well is a “Battle” section in which battles are briefly summarised and a timeline which details births, deaths, battles and events of importance for over one hundred years and can be customised by choosing certain fields. I need to stress that this trove of learning is all available in-game, you don’t have to install anything or try to find a website online, it’s literally on a game disc, waiting for you!
I like to think I know my stuff when it comes to Ancient China (circa 184-280)and Sengoku Jidai period of Japan from (circa 1556-1615), especially the military histories of these eras. I have after all spent hours upon hours playing different variations of the same battles for over ten years. Some might say I’ve wasted my time, but I say I have become smarter because of it. In fact I know I am. I can name every battle that occurs in both eras, I can name the chronological order of events of these time periods and detail the milestones and achievements of both the great men and the lesser men of the times. While at the same time I have learned to dissect truth from fiction and, have learned ways to research because of the hours I spent enthralled in books and the Internet in my pursuit of knowledge. But I know I wouldn’t be here without video games. These works of art created an environment in which I wanted to learn, but also also gave me the ability to learn by having encyclopedias and galleries that were readily available and easy for the-then child me to read. Without video games I wouldn’t have found two eras of History, that I am not only knowledgeable about, but passionate about. Yet most importantly I had fun, not only playing these games for hours and hours, but in learning . “Knowledge is power” as the saying goes.
Stay tuned for the final installment for this three part special about video games and the subject of History. Next time: “How Video Games Taught Me Western History”.
If you haven’t read the first part of this series of three, I recommend you do so here: “How Video Games Made Me Fall In Love With History”
Do you agree that video games have taught me Oriental History or do you disagree? I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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