Gamers Take on the Civil War by David Silkenat

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 Jonesand 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.

The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.