When Drill Manuals Fail, Turn to Video Games

As a history major with a focus on warfare, knowing how armies fought is kind of a prerequisite. In the social consciousness it’s easy to say of 19th century battles, “They lined up shoulder to shoulder and fired massive volleys until one side ran away” and that would not be totally inaccurate. Where a statement like that misses the mark, however, is how organized armies were, and how specific drill manuals for individual units were.

With each army and each individual unit fighting in large lines, it was vital that each unit march exactly right, form-up exactly right, and maintain their distances exactly right; without the precise dimensions, the whole thing fell apart. To assist in this, there were a number of drill manuals that an officer or soldier could study—and while they were useful to the soldiers of the 1800s, today the things are more useful as sedatives than they are research tools.

Take for example, Silas Casey’s Infantry Tactics (abbreviated: the actual title, in  good 19th century form, goes on for about seven more lines), published in 1862 for Union soldiers during the American Civil War. Casey’s manual is excruciating in its detail— for example, here is Casey on how to “To ploy the battalion into close column,” which, in essence, means to move a unit of soldiers into a series of short lines. “At the second command, all the chiefs of division will place themselves before the centres of their divisions; the chief of the first will caution it to stand fast; the chiefs of the three others will remind them that they will have to face to the right, and the covering sergeant of the right company of each division will replace his captain in the front rank, as soon as the latter steps out.” If even this first instruction was confusing, Casey goes on for another twelve such lines until, at the end, the reader is left exasperated and trying to figure out if Casey was even speaking the same language.

This is so much better....
This is so much better….
Silas Casey
Silas Casey. Credit: Library of Congress



And here is where video games come in. To be specific, the 2010-released Scourge of War: Gettysburg. Falling into the genre of real-time tactical/strategy games, Scourge of War places the player into a number of commands, ranging from just a couple of hundred soldiers to an army of 90,000 (represented by sprites, each sprite standing in usually for 4-5 soldiers).

Just like the historical armies fought, Scourge of War relies on linear warfare, with each unit moving according to drill manuals like Casey’s. And here a player can use the video game as a teaching tool in its own right. If we use the same example of deploying into close columns, rather than having to decipher an obtuse manual, a player can utilize a series of commands and see the same formation deployed in 3-D Models, allowing for an understanding of warfare without the hassle of Casey et al.

By utilizing drill manuals and implementing them into the game, the developers of Scourge of War understood a basic concept of video game analysis, and that is the role of the audience (see Fernádez-Vara, 77-78). Most people are playing a game like Scourge of War because they have an interest in the time period, and an interest in understanding how wars were fought in a linear fashion. Having the game stick so close to historical reality allows the audience to interact in the game world while also gaining an understanding of warfare that would not be possible looking at the thick text and relatively unhelpful diagrams.

A Column of Divisions, as described by Casey, and depicted by "Scourge of War."
A Column of Divisions, as described by Casey, and depicted by “Scourge of War.”

[1] Fernádez-Vara, Clara. Introduction to Game Analysis. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

  3 comments for “When Drill Manuals Fail, Turn to Video Games

  1. Julia Michels
    January 30, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    I became curious, as I was reading your analysis (and knowing very little about war tactics and strategies of any time period), whether these games would be useful today in any form outside of simply entertaining, and in particular entertaining for those who are interested in old war tactics. Obviously, those who most needed knowledge of these tactics had no access to these games, and now, to the best of my knowledge, I imagine war strategies and drills have changed drastically from those around which these games are formatted. Given this, would you say that these games are most useful for historians, or for those who want to better understand old drills and tactics? Not, of course, that this isn’t interesting in itself, considering that plenty of games exist mostly for entertainment.

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