Brief, Fun, Effective: The BBC History Website’s Battle of Waterloo Game

Choose Screen

Attempting to teach military history presents considerable conflicts and challenges which are only exacerbated by online resources. Wartime contests such as the Battle of Waterloo have determined the course of civilizations, so a thorough social studies curriculum cannot omit martial scenarios entirely. However, it is easy to get bogged down in minutiae useless to middle and high school classrooms. Digital teaching tools offer the benefit of interactivity, but PC games like Napoleon Total War lie behind a paywall and take far too much time to master to be any use to a teacher trying to supplement their social studies course. Simpler online offerings, such as the Battle of Waterloo’s page on the historyofwar.org website, provide useful data, but are aesthetically unappealing and, again, dive too deep. The BBC History website’s short, simple game on the battle succeeds in quickly communicating the basics of the battle in a way that is both aesthetically and pedagogically clear. One comes away with key points of the battle (Napoleon’s reliance on cavalry, the decline of 18th century tactics, the importance of timing and reserves, etc.) without a lot of irrelevant details. It is also fun, limited in size, and (unless I am much mistaken) structured as to be accessible for the deaf and visually-impaired. While not by any stretch an example of digital humanities, it is a pretty good piece of digital public history.

The game takes about five minutes to play. You begin by picking your side: Napoleon or Wellington. You are then shown a screen giving the military and political context for the battle and the personality of the general you are playing as. Note that the small, square screen demonstrates the elements of good design: the text is white on a black field, and the main font is sans-serif. A flag denotes the nationality of your ‘team’, but the screen is otherwise uncluttered with graphics. The text reads well, and is offered in an appropriate amount for middle and high school students.

Napoleon Title Screen

The game offers the player the opportunity to review their soldiers and weapons. Because this suggests a tactical advantage, students, as rational-choice actors, may feel more incentivized to actually read the text than if it had just been included in a longer context section.

Troops and Tactics

The game itself plays out at 3/4 bird’s eye view on a square green space. Although low-quality animations occur and key battlefield locations are marked, there is no attempt at photorealism or keeping the reenactment to scale, which means the webpage will not take forever to load a bunch of ‘hoggy’ images and students will not have to ‘fly-over’ a large space as in more accurate simulations. There is no mouse-skill required; the player simply chooses one of two or three tactical options given after being provided a short blurb of information that Napoleon or Wellington would have been presented with.

Option

After a very brief animation, the result of the player’s decision comes up, with an explanation. After between one and ten decisions (depending on how wisely one chooses or follows the historic battle), the game is over and the player learns why they succeeded or failed. The player can then choose to play again to see how different tactics play out or try their hand at the other general. The brevity of the game encourages repeat plays.

Alternate Ending

Because the game is text-based, with all the necessary information typed out, I can see no reason a visually-impaired player could not participate using a screen reader. There are some battlefield sound and some gunfire animations, but likely nothing so flashy or manic as to induce seizures. The quick pace suggests excitement, but there is no gore to prohibit use in primary grades (although one Wellington quote includes a four-letter word).

The main critique I would add is that, apart from a few quotes, the game features no primary documents. I would not want to slow down or complicate the experience any by increasing the in-game text, but I would think book-ending the experience with soldiers’ letters on the horrors of battle or maybe a map of Europe before and after the war would enrich the resource by connecting military history to social and political history. There should also be links on the final page to share the experience on social media and learn more about the Napoleonic war on a more source-based website.

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