High Seas Trader: Games and Maritime History

Using video or computer games as pedagogical tools has always been a concept that I’ve harbored deep skepticism about. Perhaps it’s the old fogey in me that wants to say, “If it’s not hard work, it’s not learning!”

History is also more complicated than one person’s ability to control it. Thus, old games like Oregon Trail, though highly enjoyable for indoor recess, teach that when you’re faced with dysentery, for instance, your only two options are to (a) rest or (b) keep going. There’s no mention of the fact that you may be traveling in a wagon train with, say, a doctor, even if you’re not one yourself. But in real life, pioneers usually had other resources besides what was in their own wagons.

Historical video games on a larger scale, such as Age of Empires or Rise of Nations, though excellent fun, also teach a skewed view of history, most especially that war is always the way alliances and enmities are created. Don’t get me wrong–a game that involved long drawn-out diplomatic negotiations wouldn’t be that fun. But they don’t really teach an accurate view of how world politics and wars work.

So I’ve always been a little skeptical of the history people learn through computer games. But this past week as I sat in America and the Sea, I realized that much of the subject we were discussing–early exploration on the oceans–I had learned through a game.

High Seas Trader came out in the mid-1990s, I think. It’s a game in which you, the captain of a trading vessel, trade commodities across the known world, fight enemy nations and pirate ships, collect gold, and work toward promotion within the guild. It starts in 1650; you’ll die before the American colonies get their independence. You get to pick a nationality from several seafaring European nations: England, France, Holland, Spain, or Portugal.

There are certainly historical inaccuracies, and you definitely don’t learn anything about how to actually handle a ship. One major inaccuracy is that as a merchant vessel captain, you never have any contact with the navy of any nation, yours or another. (Especially if you’re British, this is a fiction. You definitely would have had contact with the navy, and not always a positive contact.) The ships you fight are always other merchant vessels or pirates.

But what you do learn is where commodities were cheapest (and most expensive), the historical names of a large number of ports, and how political alliances and territories changed throughout the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Here’s the intro to the game, compliments of YouTube.

I think this game is a worthy candidate for some updating and improving. It’s a great example of how gaming can enhance pedagogy digitally. Too bad in order to play it right now you have to play it in a DOS emulator. 🙂

One thought on “High Seas Trader: Games and Maritime History

  1. This was (and is) a really excellent game. I would love for someone to update it. It’s impressive how much the original developers got into a very small program (by today’s gaming standards). It would be really cool to update it to fit with the improved PC abilities in the last 20 years.

    I agree that the game was great for teaching basic trading economics and some maritime history. The inaccuracies are real, but I don’t think they detracted from the game, and possibly not from the relatively minimal educational content. The inclusion of crew complaints for lack of food, wages, and charts was a nice touch to complement the fairly plausible relative prices for various goods around the globe (e.g., sugar was cheap in the Caribbean, cotton in Charleston, ivory in Lagos, etc.). Since the prices at ports also depended somewhat on your activity, building a long-term, small-scale trading route wasn’t all that effective, which seems right to me. You have to take risks in order to be successful.

    As I mentioned above, I think the massive improvements in computing power and game design would allow an update of the game to be much more realistic. It would be awesome to get a team together to do it, and it would be even better (IMO) if one of the team members were a naval historian that could give advice about the sailing models, trade routes, weather, fighting, etc. I can think of ways that I would improve the UI to make fighting easier to control, but more realistic about damage and losses. Here are some ideas for making the game better:
    – More ports, with historically accurate (or plausible) renders, and with more realistic cargo capacities (i.e., really busy ports might take a while to get ships unloaded and such). Also, taverns and other buildings could be pretty thoroughly redesigned to make people look better and interiors look different while remaining easy to explore.
    – Better weather, both in the large and small scale, with appropriate effects.
    – Better maps with more detail (and perhaps inaccuracies) that would actually affect your ability to get places. There are a lot of ideas I might have on this point, so I won’t go on.
    – Better fighting model that includes dealing with wind (or lack thereof), more realistic weapons, tactical realism (crossing the T?), and some effect of location if possible (Battle of the Nile?). It would also be nice to have some controls redesigned to make it somewhat easier to actually do the fighting, perhaps involving various degrees of automatic firing, sailing, etc.
    – Easier UI for getting to various settings and so forth (I think this would be a pretty easy upgrade with a boost in graphics quality: VGA just doesn’t have enough pixels for some of this.)
    – Improved AI for everything, though this would be tricky to work out. One of the virtues (IMO) of the original game is that it isn’t obviously competitive. But it might be cool to have a quasi-multiplayer system by which you could compete or cooperate online with other players. I wouldn’t favor a MMORPG-style format, though something like that might work. Perhaps something more like a console game where you and a few friends can play together or against each other, even if you rarely come into contact. (Actually, I just think it would be sweet to ally with a friend and go on pirate raids in the Caribbean.)

    It might also be nice to create an option by which you could play a historically realistic timeline, complete with the various wars and diplomatic relationships that actually occurred during the time period. I wouldn’t want to be forced to do it this way–it would make some things pretty predictable–but it would be cool to have the option. It might also help some of the pedagogical value too, much in the same way that films like Master and Commander are “historically accurate” as a microhistory. Except in this case, you’d be controlling the character in a “historical fiction.”

    I have no idea how someone might improve the pedagogical value of the game. Ironically, if the game were really fun, it would probably lose some of its teaching power. Perhaps one of the real keys would be ensuring that it could remain fun and rewarding while using different strategies and still allowing the possibility of sheer chance to drastically affect the outcomes, just as it did during the Age of Sail.

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