Niall Ferguson: Why a Famous Counterfactual Historian Loves Making History With Games

Historians in the News

What if the great events in history had turned out differently? How would the world today be changed?

Niall Ferguson wonders about this a lot. He's a well-known economic historian at New York University, and a champion of "counterfactual thinking," or the re-imagining of major historical events, with the variables slightly tweaked. In a 1999 book Virtual Histories, Ferguson edited a collection of delightfully weird counterfactual hypotheses. One essay argued that if Mikhail Gorbachev had never existed, the USSR would still exist today. Another posited an alternative 18th century in which Britain allows its colonies to develop their own parliaments -- so the Americans never revolt, and the USA never exists.

The essays were fun, but Ferguson really craved a more holodeck-like experience. He wanted to have a computer simulation that would let him set up historical counterfactuals -- based on real-world facts -- and then sit back to see what happens. "I was always thinking that one day the right technology would come into my life," he told me.

Last year, it finally did. Ferguson was approached by Muzzy Lane, a game company that had created Making History -- a game where players run World War II scenarios based on exhaustively researched economic realities of the period.

As he played it, he realized the game was good -- so good, in fact, that it forced him to rethink some of his long-cherished theories. For example, he'd often argued that World War II could have been prevented if Britain had confronted Germany over its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. France would have joined with Britain, he figured, pinching Germany between their combined might and that of the Russian army. "Germany wasn't ready for war, and they would have been defeated," he figured. "War in 1938 would have been better than war in 1942."

But when he ran the simulation in Making History, everything fell to pieces. The French defected, leaving Britain's expeditionary force to fly solo -- and get crushed by Germany. His theory, as it turns out, didn't hold water. He hadn't realized that a 1938 attack would not leave Britain enough time to build the diplomatic case with France. ...

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