Playing History: How Ars Magica Players Develop Historical Literacy

Jessica Hammer and Kaitlin Heller


The issue of academic content in games is a tricky one. Filling a game with facts and figures is no guarantee the game will help students learn - and generally makes for a bad game to boot. On the other hand, players have an immense capacity to engage with the content of games, often learning about the material on their own time and with far more depth of engagement than they demonstrate in school. The role-playing game Ars Magica contains factual and literal historical material - yet rather than turn the game into academic work, as many explicitly educational games do, it turns history into part of the game. How does Ars Magica achieve this? How does it avoid the "problem of content?" And how do specific groups using the game negotiate that historical content and incorporate it into play? Through analysis of game observations and in-depth, semi-structured interviews, this paper examines the texts, practices and technologies of an Ars Magica group in which players have successfully developed and deployed historical literacies. Players voluntarily engage in historical thinking, reading and research, including both online and offline activities. Additionally, the group has developed an idiosyncratic but historically grounded approach to thirteenth century thinking and behavior, which they attempt to simulate in play.