The First World War (or the Great War, as those who lived it called it) was the greatest conflict the world had ever seen prior to the Second World War. Tens of millions of men were mobilized and millions perished in four years of industrialized conflict the likes of which the world had previously only glimpsed. The First World War was a watershed moment in European and world history in the 20th century. It led to the fall of four empires: the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and shortly thereafter the long-standing Ottoman Empire. This clash of empires led to the rise of Communist Russia, played a role in the shaping of the Middle East and the Balkans, and assisted in Japan’s rising status as a major power in the Far East. Depending upon one’s point of view, the resulting Treaty of Versailles and relatively weak League of Nations paved the road towards the rise of dictators in Europe and the Second World War.
If these reasons are not enough to consider the importance of the First World War, then perhaps personal stories of individuals reacting to and shaping events around them during this disastrous period in human history represent a significant draw. Commemoration efforts are already well underway, and teachers are probably looking for ways to get students involved in this effort to understand the war’s importance. I’m sure that teachers are looking for ways to keep the 21st century student engaged in learning history. Perhaps one tool that may be useful in this effort is a video game recently published by Ubisoft entitled “Valiant Hearts: The Great War.”
Now you might be thinking, “wait a second, this may rot my kids’ brains.” But I assure you there is a useful amount of educational content. The game has a partnership with Mission Centenaire 14-18, a commemorative and educational resource sponsored by the French government. Throughout the game, the player collects historical items which are then placed in their historical context by a non-intrusive database. As the player moves forward in the game he or she is prompted to read historical fact boxes that explain the historical context behind the game’s story. These boxes are optional, but one gets far more out of the experience by paying attention to the historical context.
The game is described as an animated comic book adventure which adopts a mix of exploration, action, and puzzles for gameplay. It is rated T for Teen in Canada by the Entertainment Software Rating Board. It can be purchased for most gaming platforms, including PC, for $14.99 (Canadian Dollars).
According to the game website:
“This is the story of crossed destinies and a broken love in a world torn apart. All of them will try to survive the horror of the trenches following their faithful canine companion. In Valiant Hearts: The Great War™, the lives of all of these characters are inextricably drawn together over the course of the game. Friendship, love, sacrifice, and tragedy befall each one as they help each other to retain their humanity against the horrors of war.”
Although the plot is fictional, the developers did use authentic letters from First World War participants as inspiration for their work. They also made use of some of the Western Front’s seminal events as settings for the game’s various levels. For instance, the Battle of Second Ypres in April 1915, the scene of the war’s first gas attack, is present as is the April 1917 Battle for Vimy Ridge – clearly some of the level designers were Canadian. But one of the things that impressed me the most about the game is how the level designers used the war’s evolution of tactics and equipment to their advantage. For instance, one of the first “combatant” levels involves Frenchmen in their bright blue and red uniforms charging across open fields against German machine gunners in 1914, before the quagmire of trench warfare took hold. In subsequent levels, tanks and airplanes are seen on the battlefield in increasing numbers and, in the Vimy Ridge level, counter-battery fire, by now a well-developed science, becomes crucial. Perhaps more importantly, there are a plethora of non-combatant levels throughout the game which do an excellent job in illustrating the strength and weakness individuals behind the lines exhibited as they did their bit for their cause or for one another.
I believe that this game can serve as an excellent introduction to the First World War for anyone interested in learning about this massive conflict. Perhaps then, some of the touching stories found within the game will spark curiosity among students of the war of all ages and expertise. A next step could be getting involved and making use of the Lest We Forget Project, an excellent Canadian teaching resource that combines student-driven genealogical and historical research to uncover hidden personal histories of the war. Perhaps the historical fiction of Valiant Hearts will result in some great historical non-fiction work that offers students ownership in their own studies of the Great War.
Mission Centenaire 14-18 website: http://centenaire.org/en
The Entertainment Software Association of Canada, Ratings: http://theesa.ca/facts-research-ratings/
Valiant Hearts website: http://valianthearts.ubi.com/game/en-CA/home/index.aspx
Library and Archives Canada, Collections Canada, The Lest We Forget Project: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/cenotaph/index-e.html