Why a Famous Counterfactual Historian Loves Making History With Games

Though Ferguson couldn’t figure out how to make his 1938 scenario work, there was a better expert who could: His 13-year-old son, who was a whiz at strategy games. Rather than rush out to attack Germany, his son carefully set up robust trade agreements with France first to make sure the country felt diplomatically obligated to go along with the fight. Presto: France fought, and Germany fell.

Ferguson became so delighted with Making History that he has joined forces with Muzzy Lane to design a new game. Due out in 2008, this one will model modern, real-world conflicts such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the nuclear confrontation with Iran.

It’ll undoubtedly be controversial. But it will also, he expects, be humbling. The power of counterfactual thinking is that forces us to step outside of our comfort zones. When we think about historical events, we have 20/20 hindsight — so we forget how confusing and uncertain they were at the time. In 1943, nobody really knew how strong Germany was, or what Stalin was thinking. In modern conflicts, we often have a similarly false sense of surety — too much confidence in our ability to predict the outcome of major events.

When we play with sims, they knock us off our pedestals — because crazy things usually happen we don’t predict. Yet the chaos is useful, because we can run the same situation again and again, changing one little thing each time, until we’ve war-gamed it deeply and understand it better than ever. —Clive ThompsonWhy a Famous Counterfactual Historian Loves Making History With Games (Wired)