Playing these videogames counts as studying for your Junior Cert. As part of a balanced diet of more traditional and boring types of study, they’ll help you to wrap your head around various parts of that daunting three-year course.
Call of Duty
Call of Duty and its expansion United Offensive; Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty: World at War
Topic: World War II
According to Call of Duty, the Allies won World War Two because Sergeant Reznov and Major Price were literally invincible. Meanwhile, the Nazis lost because they had a habit of standing too close to big red explodey barrels. It’s safe to say COD has never been a hardcore military simulation. But you don’t have to simulate history in order to say something about it; classrooms don’t replicate the experience of war, famine or slavery either (most of the time). Early on, believe it or not, the Call of Duty franchise did have something to say.
Many Junior Cert students today were not yet alive when the series began in 2004, but early on, COD was ground-breaking, and the early games hold up well today. The way it plunged you into the chaos of battle was (at the time, at least) so intense it was harrowing. When you died, you got a melancholy quote about war from Bertrand Russell or Albert Einstein (Which 14-year old me thought was a touch of class). The “best bits” were the Russian campaigns – a long shot from the relentless propaganda fever dreams of COD: Modern Warfare. The first game ends on a note of heart-warming internationalism.
You’ll notice that last year’s COD: WWII didn’t make my cut. This is not a judgement on the game, just on its value for the exams. It’s focused on a handful of American campaigns in Europe towards the end of the war; there’s not a lot of marks going there. On the other hand, a student who has played the first two COD games plus World At War will be able to describe most of the major battles on both the Western and Eastern fronts, North Africa and the Pacific. They will know plenty of key dates and some of the numbers. They will have a gut-level grasp of a very important fact: that the war on the Eastern Front was greater in scale and far more terrible than the campaigns in Western Europe.
World at War sets out to shock the player. It shows soldiers burning to death, hanging from lamp-posts and lying in heaps in bloody pools. A character voiced by Gary Oldman urges the player to shoot prisoners. All that stuff – and far, far worse – really happened, and in some ways, it’s good that Treyarch chose to depict the war as a blood-soaked apocalypse rather than a cheesy adventure, but the way it’s done has a whiff of cheap sadism to me. However, if I was legally allowed to recommend an 18s game to junior cycle students I’d recommend World At War for the cutscenes alone. Every mission is introduced by breathless map-infographics that sweep across the globe, telling a story of the war in arrows, diagrams, colours, and a gravelly voiceover.
Even the visual style is authentic and evocative. These early COD games have a pro-American bias, too – nothing on the scale of Modern Warfare or Black Ops (In which mission one is literally to assassinate Castro!). The Russians are depicted as “noble savages”, at best, while the western Allies are infallible paragons of virtue (something Wolfenstein manages to challenge, while also skewering Nazism; Battlefield V looks like it might have something to say too, with its focus on the racism faced by North African soldiers in the French army). But I’m not recommending these COD games because they’re accurate. I’m recommending them because they’ll teach you a few things.
Assassin’s Creed II, AC Revelations, AC Unity, AC Syndicate
Topics: The Renaissance, the American and French revolutions, the Industrial Revolution
I have only dipped into AC here and there. I’m no expert. I know that the story is a load of silly nonsense about time-travelling through your genes and foiling a conspiracy that spans millennia. But I also know that second-year students who have played AC get this glow of recognition in their eyes every so often. They have explored Renaissance Florence and rappelled from Brunelleschi’s dome. They have spoken with Leonardo Da Vinci and Karl Marx. They have thrown enemies from the rooftops of revolutionary Paris and crossed the Thames swinging from the masts of Victorian steamboats.
As a result, dotted throughout vital parts of this enormous course, they have vivid points of reference. This is a great place to begin and to work outwards from, and that’s worth a lot. The biggest pitfall I can think of is if a student sits down in their exam and writes an essay about how Napoleon was a member of the Knights Templar or something. But in my experience kids are well able to tell the difference between the historical backdrop and the improbable story unfolding in the foreground.
I’d imagine that the next step after recent AC games set in ancient Egypt and Greece would be a game set in Rome; this would be good news for first years heading into their Junior Cert in a few years.
Historical Strategy Games
Total War, Age of Empires, Rise of Nations, Civilisation
Topics: Ancient Rome, The Middle Ages
Sad to say, historical strategy games are not as useful for Junior Cert students as you might think at first glance. Sadder still, at times it’s their very strengths that get in the way; the player has more freedom – meaning that you won’t learn the names and dates of historical events because you’ll be making your own. Saddest of all, while they’ll teach you a lot of valuable things about history, a lot of that knowledge won’t help with the exams.
They are nonetheless useful study tools. You might learn all about the Roman military and the different ways to attack and defend castles. A lot of the vocab is useful: knights, battering rams, monasteries, keeps, trebuchets, onagers. You’ll know some key characters from history pretty well – though overall, strategy games are less grounded in characters than, say, action-adventure games. Overall, in a similar way to Assassin’s Creed but even more so, your mind will be seeded with a hundred useful footholds and points of reference that will save time and effort when you’re sitting in the classroom.
These reference points help to hold up the entire heavy structure of the Junior Cycle course; it’s a hundred times easier to understand and to remember something new if you can slot it in neatly beside something you already get, or at least something you have a clear picture of in your mind.
If you love history, you won’t need the enticement of marks or the reassurance that “it’s on the course.” But play these games with a critical mind, and it’ll net you at least a few percent for sure during your Junior Cert.