Niall Ferguson on Counterfactuals and Playing Games

An oldish article in Wired on Niall Ferguson:

What if the great events in history had turned out differently? How would the world today be changed?

Niall Ferguson wonders about this a lot. He’s a well-known economic historian at Harvard, and a champion of “counterfactual thinking,” or the re-imagining of major historical events, with the variables slightly tweaked. In a 1999 book Virtual Histories, Ferguson edited a collection of delightfully weird counterfactual hypotheses. One essay argued that if Mikhail Gorbachev had never existed, the USSR would still exist today. Another posited an alternative 18th century in which Britain allows its colonies to develop their own parliaments — so the Americans never revolt, and the USA never exists.

The essays were fun, but Ferguson really craved a more holodeck-like experience. He wanted to have a computer simulation that would let him set up historical counterfactuals — based on real-world facts — and then sit back to see what happens. “I was always thinking that one day the right technology would come into my life,” he told me.

Last year, it finally did. Ferguson was approached by Muzzy Lane, a game company that had created Making History — a game where players run World War II scenarios based on exhaustively researched economic realities of the period.

Ferguson’s own thoughts on the game were published in the New York Magazine:
To say that I’m interested in World War II would be an understatement. For the past few years, I have been toiling to write its history, skulking in my study and neglecting my children in the process. In theory, games like Medal of Honor ought to have helped our family to reconnect when I finally emerged from my books. But no. Unfortunately—and to the disappointment of my sons—I hate them. And that’s despite the fact that I sincerely believe computer games have a potentially revolutionary role to play in the teaching of history.
I’ll go further. There’s never been a more important time for people to play World War II games. For the last five years, politicians from the president down have been recycling the rhetoric of that conflict. September 11 was “a day of infamy.” Saddam/Ahmadinejad/Kim Jong Il is the new Hitler. And yet few of these politicians seem to have any real understanding of the strategic risks involved in global conflict

It’s not fashionable to claim to learn lessons from history, but….?
I think I’ve posted on this article before, but maybe not. With my upcoming talk, it seemed appropriate to post it again if I did.

2 thoughts on “Niall Ferguson on Counterfactuals and Playing Games

  1. I wrote about some of the ethical and moral dilemmas related with history-based role-playing games at While games certainly do create the potential to ask, “what if the great events in history had turned out differently?”, this question might have serious ramifications when used in certain circumstances.

  2. Hi Collette,
    Thanks for your note. I read your post, and I think that the response is, counterfactuals or ‘replaying’ history can’t be used willy-nilly; rather by carefully holding all other things being equal, you can begin to tease out the effect of decisions not made. Students when presented with the choices presented by games do not suddenly (in the case of Civ) start believing that Washington and Ghenghis Khan were contemporaries, but rather begin to appreciate the complexities and interdependencies of cause and effect… I’ve got several posts in this blog that discuss these thoughts much better (I apologise; I’m just out the door), but I wanted to respond and let you know I appreciated your note. Your blog looks v. interesting, and I’m glad to see that Path of the Elders is going strong!

Comments are closed.