Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Simulating the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution changed our world forever.  I was reminded of that yesterday when in the span of two hours I went from a museum exhibit on Antebellum cabinetmaking to an IMAX film on the Hubble Space Telescope.  Only 150 years separates a cabinet shop, in which every tool was hand-powered, from a Space Shuttle mission to repair an earth-orbiting  telescope.  Sometimes we lose track of just how far we have come and how fast we have gotten here.

But, not to worry.  If you want to relive some of that past, the gaming community makes it possible for us to go back and try our hand at building a facsimile of the business empires that drove the Industrial Revolution.  Three games which let us satisfy our closet fantasy of being a business mogol are SimCity, Railroad Tycoon, and Victoria II.

SimCity and Railroad Tycoon have been around for awhile but are still popular.  Originally introduced in 1989, SimCity continues to be the granddaddy of simulation games.  You can set the time frame of the city you want to build and then construct your city with industries, utilities, and services appropriate to those times.  SimCity continues to enjoy a strong following and has seen multiple updates over the years. 

Railroad Tycoon (the latest version being Railroad Tycoon 3) is another game that dates back to 1990.  In this simulation game, you get to build your railroad empire - complete with industries, old steam engines, and financial disasters.  Railroad Tycoon 2 introduced the concept of hiring Virtual General Managers - simulations of historical railroading figures.  Here is Wikipedia’s description:

It is interesting to notice that the variations introduced in the gameplay by each manager are somewhat based on the given managers' real-life personae, history and impact on exploitation and management methods. For example, hiring Eugene V. Debs as a General Manager will procure your exploitation with spectacular benefits that somehow fit well with Debs' personal involvement in the world of early 20th Century labor. As Debs' view of labor was socially oriented and aimed at the Common Good, so will hiring Debs as a Manager increase your railroad's popularity in the communities you serve. As Debs strove to procure a safest workplace for Train Crews during his early involvement as a Railway Union Representative, so will your railroad become safest and less prone to derailments and breakdowns. However, in order to make things harder on you, the game developers have decided that you can't hire Mr. Debs as manager until your railroad becomes very prosperous (it needs to be, since hiring Debs comes at a cost of $95,000 a year).

It looks like a new version of Railroad Tycoon is slated to come out this October.

The newest kid on the block is a game called Victoria II which is scheduled to be released this month.  Victoria II lets you pick a European country and guide it through the Industrial Revolution.  The games allow you to control natural resources, political parties, reform movements, colonization, and military conquest. What could be more satisfying than to build a thousand coal smoke-spewing factories and employ an army of itinerant and child laborers? Here's a small trailer for the game:

The Industrial Revolution was the result of a complex set of interactions between political, technological, and philosophical influences.  Academics are still pondering what really caused the Industrial Revolution to happen where it did, when it did.  While this game is no substitute for real scholarship, it can teach us a lot about a very dynamic time in our history.  The sense of being able to control at least some events in an omnipotent fashion is a very seductive way to learn.  Don’t get me wrong; I still favor good scholarship. I am jealous that of the three games, only SimCity is available to us Mac owners. I need to buy the PC simulator that runs on my Mac to play a simulation of the past world.  I am sure I would learn something.

[Pictures are all from Wikipedia]
[Victoria II Trailer from YouTube]

Additional Reading:

The Industrial Revolution, by Charles Beard, pub. 1919, on Google Books.

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