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.

  2. jdesteph
    February 13, 2015 at 11:16 am

    This is an interesting article but it made me wonder? Are there other games out there that have done this? If so, what are they and if not, why do you think they don’t? The topic of the article can also be brought back to the present with how the Army actually released a game a few years ago that put the player in a training camp and was used to try boosting recruitment for gamers that like FPS gameplay. It can also be brought back to the present with games like Call of Duty putting players in real locations and using modern day battle tactics in games. It comes to show how the analysis is used across all types of military based games.

  3. Ryan Quint
    February 27, 2015 at 12:40 am

    To answer both comments above, I’ll put my response in one

    I think a game like Scourge of War is definitely more useful to historians and history aficionados who want to understand how 19th century battles unfolded. As for present use, I don’t think a game like this would be very useful for a contemporary army only because, as mentioned, war has changed so much that I’m not sure how useful say, a scenario on Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg would be for cadets at West Point in 2015.

    As for other games, there are other games that do try to relate earlier tactics like the Total War franchise– however, those games are different because they do not show the true size of a war like the Civil War. In Empire Total War, for example, the standard infantry unit is about 180 sprites, while in a game like Scourge of War it’s possible to have a unit at about 500 sprites, getting much closer to the actual unit strengths at a battle like Gettysburg.

    As for games like Call of Duty, I’m not sure that game actually uses real tactics– it’s much more of a run and gun type setting where a player can literally run through a level without much thought. However, there are games set closer to the present that do rely on tactics– the Brothers in Arms franchise has squad-based fighting in World War Two within a FPS setting while even more close to the present are games like Rainbow Six.

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