Don't write video games off as pure escapist fantasy, they can be as effective a history lesson as any old school textbook that definitely isn’t collecting dust on your shelf right now. Through authentically recreating historical settings, and subliminally teaching the player about the time period through that most effective of learning devices – entertainment – we can often put down the controller having learnt something new about those who came before us.
Even the education institutions themselves are starting to pick up on this, using games to immerse their students in the annals of history, while having a little fun at the same time. There are literally hundreds of historical games out there to try, but we’ve picked the ones that we believe offer the healthiest mix of educational accuracy and moment-to-moment entertainment. Check them out below, and discover your next historical destination of choice to time travel back into right now.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins
This list could easily just be a run down of every Assassin’s Creed game to date, with Ubisoft’s historical fiction series priding itself on the authenticity of its settings, as the only title so far with a education-focused Discovery mode, Assassin’s Creed: Origins remains our chosen winner for now. Origins’ breathtaking rendition of Ancient Egypt at the end of the Ptolemaic period is a sight to behold, marked by a painstaking attention to detail even while taking the usual Assassin’s Creed creative liberties with its story, even then adopting Egyptian mythology to contextualise the more fantastical moments.
That aforementioned Discovery mode is literally a walking tour of Ancient Egypt, too, something that few other games or learning tools can offer in terms of historical immersion. The game was so authentic to its time period, in fact, that it accurately predicted the secret chamber hidden within the Giza Pyramid, discovered one month after it released.
Rome: Total War
Every game in the Total War series (aside from the Warhammer spin-offs) are pretty good at adapting their historical settings into appropriate forms of tactical gameplay, but - for many fans of the series - it's still Rome: Total War that stands out as the mightiest of the bunch.
Studying real battle tactics used by the greatest army of the ancient world, developer Creative Assembly managed to form an experience that unknowingly teaches players everything they could ever want to know about Roman warfare, including the historical context for many of their most famous battles via the game's expansive story mode. Rome: Total War was considered so well catered to authentic historical reenactment, in fact, that it got its own TV show in the form of Time Commanders, where the game was used to recreate and showcase some of the most famous battles in Roman history.
The Oregon Trail
Not just a fascinating study of a very specific phenomenon in America's early history, but one of the most iconic and influential games of all time, The Oregon Trail may be over 30 years old, but its legacy can still be felt today. Originally designed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium for use in history classrooms across America, The Oregon Trail sees players take part in the famous pilgrimage from East to West that many emigrants took throughout the 19th century, fending off hazards such as starvation, disease, or worse.
The game defined and kickstarted a new ear for the then nascent edutainment genre of its time, and is still revered as a cult classic even today, regularly showing up in charity livestreams and as an Easter egg in other, much larger titles. If you want to learn about the experience of an American traveller in the 1800's, then, you need look no further than The Oregon Trail.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance
Kingdom Come: Deliverance prides itself on being the most historically accurate RPG you'll probably ever play, set in the lesser known medieval setting of 1403 Bohemia, during the reign of the Holy Roman Empire. Everything in Kingdom Come, from the heavily researched setting to the granularity of its swordplay, is designed as an accurate reflection of its time and place, while still offering a compelling experience for the role-playing veteran.
Every now and again, you'll expect to turn a corner and be met by an armed skeleton, hooded mage, or - god forbid - full grown dragon, but developer Warhorse's commitment to its milieu only makes Kingdom Come more impressive as a piece of informative entertainment, dragons be damned.
Sid Meier's Civilization VI
It's no secret that the Civilization series has long been a favourite within academic circles, and not just because the game is addictive as hell, and a far more entertaining way to spend your evening than the latest Noam Chomsky manifesto. Sid Meier's strategy games have demonstrated a proven capacity to make geopolitics fun, gamifying the causes and explanations for some of the most important world events in history.
Civilization 6, the latest in the series, continues in that tradition of edification with some of the most refined gameplay seen to date, including its most recent Gathering Storm expansion that so starkly exposes how war, peace, and diplomacy have all contributed to global warming. All in all, you'd be hard pressed to find a game that draws such compelling entertainment out of some seriously complicated topics. So long as we're all on the same page about Gandhi, who was never that trigger happy with the nuclear option in real life.
Before the Battlefield or Call of Duty series returned to the frontlines of the two World Wars in 2016 and 2017 respectively, Verdun was leading the charge with its hyper realistic simulation of trench warfare in WW1. You can't just run and gun it in developer M2H's multiplayer shooter, but Verdun instead encourages squad-based strategies lifted directly from the rhythm of warfare that took place on the Western Front, with 15 historically inspired classes all bearing their own weapons, equipment, and roles on the battlefield.
Verdun's weapon handling is designed to be just as authentic too, and by that, we mean far less smooth and simplistic than you might be used to from a first-person shooter. All of this gels together to form a multiplayer experience that's messy, chaotic, and totally devalorised, which is far more authentic to the events of the Great War than any other shooter we know.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2’s collection of US states that make up its open world may be entirely fictional, but all of it has a firm basis in real world inspiration. If you know Rockstar’s attention to detail, then, you know that its latest open world western is the definitive package for immersing yourself in the life of a 19th century American frontiersmen.
Don't worry; you’re not going to be studying the history of the Civil War or memorising the US Bill of Rights, but you will learn the granular intricacies of the cowpoke lifestyle, whether its sharpening bullets with your hunting knife or cataloguing all 200 species of animals, birds, and fish that, realistically, would have been populating the rolling plains, great lakes, and snow-capped mountains of the west. That setting itself, of course, is almost photorealistic in its beauty and detail, only furthering the authenticity of the experience as the next best thing to actual time travel.
Europa Universalis IV
I'll be the first to admit that Europa Universalis IV sounds more like the name of a space vessel off of Battlestar Galactica than a piece of interactive entertainment, but Paradox Interactive's empire building strategy game has long been hailed as one of the best slices of historical entertainment this side of Gladiator since releasing in 2013. Through its meticulously designed framework of grand strategy role-playing, Europa Universalis IV is a great introduction course on how our system of nation states was born, and why the history of said statecraft has been so fraught with war, conquest, and political tension.
Of course, you won't actually know you're being taught any of this, as you'll be having far too much fun with the game's dopamine-inducing loop of command and conquering to notice. That replay value is mainly thanks to the breadth of freedom and agency cultivated by Europa Universalis IV at all times, which also allows players to really think about the kinds of zero-sum decisions that some of history's greatest leaders may have also had to grapple with in ages past. Okay, so Napoleon probably never had to worry about losing his game save after a hard PC crash, but you know what I mean.
For more educational entertainment, check out the best games set in schools for a virtual education like no other.