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Rome: Total War titleWe’ve been a bit Rome crazy around here for the last few weeks, due to watching entire second season of Rome, the HBO series, in four days.

We’re not wearing togas or anything (as Andrew-who’s-been-swallowed-by-Facebook suggested), but I am marching across Northern Italy trouncing Gauls whenever they have the nerve to face me.

Not satisfied with spending four days watching the entire TV series on dvd, I’ve gone out and bought the classic real time strategy game Rome: Total War. As the title suggests, it’s a pretty bloody game and as a result, many, many men (and horses) have died. But, you know, I’ve got to let off stress somehow.

RTS games have been around for ages, but this is the first time I’ve played one and I’m really enjoying it. Normally, I go for the console button mashers or rpg types, but I was in the mood for a change. I’m especially liking this one because it’s combining history with the strategy of a good chess game and the bloodshed of a decent session of Dungeon Runners or any of the many of other mmos out there.

troops on the move

Although the game has some historical inaccuracies, there is much to be learned here. And I’m not just talking about history. There are many areas for literacy learning from Rome: Total War and games like it. As educators like James Paul Gee and others have suggested, to succeed in many RTS games, players must read and comprehend a large volume of information.

You won’t get far in the game, if you don’t read the nearly 100 pages of the manual, or study the detailed on-screen descriptions explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each military unit you send into battle. You’ve also got to study the advantages and disadvantages the many buildings you construct for your settlements. There’s a lot of knowledge transfer going on here and it’s all part of a “game”.

For instance, in the week I’ve been playing, I learned about the roles of Roman fighting units like the Hastati, the military reforms of Gaius Marius and much, much more (like it’s ironic that a Celt like me should get a kick out of crushing Gaulish barbarians. But that’s whole other story.)

Learning to read the map is very importantAnd it’s not just straight ahead textual literacy these games promote. For players to succeed, they must also learn to read maps, understand terrain markers like snow-capped mountains, fast flowing rivers and more.

They also have to learn to plan ahead. This game is all about strategic thinking. Do you spend your treasury building sewers in your city to please the citizens and stop them from revolting? Perhaps the money is better spent training new units to fight against the hordes of barbarians assaulting your forts on the front lines? Decisions. Decisions. And reading. Lots of it.

As you can probably tell, the literacy value of video games is something that fascinates me. I’ve written about it before in magazines and education journals, but it’s always fun to experience it again first hand. If you’re looking to learn more about what games can teach learners, pick up a copy of James Paul Gee’s book: What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

I could go on for hours, but I’ve got to quell an uprising on my northern border. Probably those impudent Gauls again. When will they learn that resistance is futile? Sigh.

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