A chance to rewrite Canada's history

A new video game gives students the opportunity to explore Canadian history as they rewrite it. The History Canada Game ( www.historycanadagame.com ) is being developed by Bitcasters, a Toronto company, with financing from Telefilm Canada and with the support of strategic partnerships with Historica, Canada's National History Society, and 2K Games.

The idea of developing a video game about Canadian history was concocted by Nathon Gunn, CEO of Bitcasters, in 1996, during a lunch meeting with Thomas Axworthy. The Queen's University history professor was then the director of Charles Bronfman's CRB Foundation, which was the organization responsible for creating the historical Heritage Minutes on CBC Television.

Convincing historians and educators that a video game about Canadian history was a good idea was a bit of a challenge, though. "I gave my first presentation on this at a teachers' history conference in Edmonton two or three years ago, and there were eight people in the room shaking their heads skeptically," Gunn said in a telephone interview with the Straight. "Last October in Vancouver, it was a much bigger room and it was packed, and there was a lineup outside the room waiting to get copies of the game."

The History Canada Game was developed using the engine from the renowned strategy title Civilization III, developed by Firaxis and published by 2K Games. Bitcasters plans to give away 100,000 copies, and Gunn has discussed distribution with major financial institutions and media companies. For now, the game is available for free download to PC gamers who have either Civilization III or Civilization III: Conquests.

"There may have been other engines that could have been suitable," said Gunn, "but Civilization–Time magazine called it the greatest strategy game of all time–allowed free modding of the game. So before we even knew that we would have a licence to the engine, we were able to start building and prototyping and testing and creating."

In the game, players take on the role of one of nine civilizations in 1525, in the era of New France, when Europeans began populating what is now Eastern Canada. Gamers can play as one of seven Native cultures–Abenaki, Algonquin, Huron, Mi'kmaq, Mohawk, Montagnais, or Ojibwe–or as English or French settlers.

"I think that universally people enjoy playing as one of the original Canadian civilizations," Gunn said, "because it's exciting to try and turn the tables on the major European powers. In fact, the game is designed to be fairly realistic, so it's not easy to do, but it's within the realm of possibility to ally with the other original civilizations and resist the arrival of the explorers."

Players have a range of resources to exploit: cod, corn, tobacco, game, and animal hides. "There are different success criteria depending on who you play as," Gunn explained. "In some cases, success is defined simply as surviving and thriving, not necessarily taking over the whole continent. This is not a game of conquest. It's not 'Did you annihilate everyone?' It's 'Did you build a nation with people?'"

Gunn said there were two guiding principles when creating the game. The first was that it had to be fun. "This isn't a game unless kids get to write the story. Nongamers have trouble understanding that, until they play it and they see kids playing it and they see the kinds of questions kids ask."

The second principle was accuracy, not of historical events, but of representation of the various races and cultures that populated the country in that time. "Our goal is to be inclusive, to make sure there is a chance for you to play as any one of the civilizations, and to have a fairly realistic view of what Canada was like.

"The game obviously doesn't teach rote history. It teaches you the underlying variables, the dynamics of choice-making, and the consequences that arise out of choices. It's a 'What if?' game. What we have on the Web site is the 'What was.'" Included on the game's Web site are the Heritage Minutes videos, historical vignettes created to provide context for the game, and links to history sites such as the Canadian Encyclopedia and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Canadian history experts participate as forum advisers, monitoring and contributing to the dialogue about actual historical events, as well as the revised history written by gamers.

"I want a healthy discussion," Gunn said. "If it's an aboriginal, Francophone, or Anglophone point of view, we want to have our advisers in that area discuss it in the forums. The point isn't to give the ultimate answer to everything, it's to raise all sorts of interesting questions."