Taking Credit for History: Why the University of Arizona Wants Students to Play Age of Empires IV During Class Leave a comment


  • Current and future University of Arizona and Arizona Online students can earn credit toward their college degrees by playing Age of Empires IV.
  • We talked with those involved in the creation of this unique opportunity for Universe of Arizona students.
  • Age of Empires IV is available to play today with PC Game Pass and for purchase on the Windows Store and Steam.

Earning college credit for playing video games sounds like the stuff dreams are made of. Luckily for students attending the Universe of Arizona, this dream is turning into a reality thanks to a unique partnership between the university and Age of Empires IV.

Starting this semester, current and future University of Arizona and Arizona Online students can earn credit toward their college degrees when they interact with special educational content while playing Age of Empires IV.

Age of Empires IV

To learn more about this partnership, we had a chance to talk with Associate Professor of Medieval History Paul Milliman, Executive Director of Corporate Initiatives and Business Development Kara Aquilano Forney, Associate Professor of Roman History and Department Head Alison Futrell, and Franchise Narrative Director for Age of Empires at World’s Edge Studio (Xbox) Noble Smith about this unique opportunity for Universe of Arizona students, what inspired them to create this program, and how Age of Empires IV can help affirm the accurate portrayal of history.

What inspired you to create this program at the University of Arizona?

Paul Milliman – When Kara asked me whether I would like to help create this program, I was teaching the History Department’s senior capstone course. One of the best students in the class was someone I had never worked with before, so I asked him how he had learned so much about medieval history. He said he was inspired to learn more about medieval history by playing games like Age of Empires II.

In recent years, so many of the best students I’ve worked with are gamers. They are researching historical events while they are playing these historical events in games, so I wanted to meet these gamer-historians where they are meeting history and show them some of the wonderful places they can go online to do their own historical research. As Age of Empires IV says, I wanted to teach them how to make history their story.

Alison Futrell – I was very excited when Kara approached us about this opportunity. My teaching and research for years has turned to how the past has been interpreted in film and television; students have also been alerting me to intriguing innovations in video games. One of them focused on a couple of examples for his final project and I was captivated by the narrative twists and layers of meaning that he explored. These were very distinctive, very creative approaches to the past! I’m enthusiastic about bringing in additional historical resources to enrich this kind of exploration.

Age of Empires IV - October 28 – Xbox Game Pass for PC

Can you share some history (no pun intended) on how this partnership between Microsoft/Xbox, Age of Empires IV, and the University of Arizona came about?

Kara Aquilano Forney – The idea for the partnership came about more than two years ago when I connected with Will McCahill, business lead at Microsoft’s World’s Edge game studio. Will reached out to brainstorm about expanding the learning opportunities in Age of Empires IV and we talked about providing players a place to go once they finished their AoE experience. We had many “What if?” conversations — What if we enhanced the user experience with added learning content? What if we extended that learning beyond the game, what does that look like? The UArizona powerhouse history department quickly jumped on board, and the rest (pun intended) is History.

Were there other examples (games for college credit, etc.) you drew from to create this program at your university?

Paul Milliman – I am not aware of anything like this anywhere else. I teach history with games. I teach courses about historical games. I even have students create games in my courses as a more engaging way of presenting their historical research. I think this playful way of approaching historical research was very useful for this project.

Alison Futrell – I teach spectacle and performance (and film) and encourage students to move away from their desks, bring their other skills into the expanded classroom. This builds on those habits, certainly. A colleague across campus built a course around creating history tabletop games, focusing on how ancient economic decisions shape other experiences and choices, which I thought was very exciting.

What was it about Age of Empires IV specifically that drew you to the idea of creating college credit for playing through the game’s campaign?

Paul Milliman – I was intrigued by the script, especially the “Hands on History” videos. My teaching style is very hands-on. I’m a guide by your side, not a sage on a stage. I’m designing a special course just for gamer-historians who want to continue learning by building on their experiences in the game. They are going to learn more about the campaigns they fought by doing their own historical research and creating their own “Hands on History” videos.

Alison Futrell – The short documentaries alongside the enriched game play were fantastic! Yay archaeology! As a former archaeologist, I really appreciated the depth and tangibility those presentations brought to the dynamic ‘you are there’ quality of AoE IV. Many ways to understand what’s going on! With the special course, we’re adding different kinds of challenges to enhance what gamers have already experienced.

Are there any campaigns or levels that you’re excited for students to experience as part of this program at your university?

Paul Milliman – I think all four campaigns are great. They make me think about which campaigns you could present for the other civs in the game. Also, I really liked the promo video that came out last April in which Indian elephants were rampaging through the streets of medieval London and Chinese junks were sailing up the Thames. In the Middle Ages, Europe was not the center of the world, so placing later colonialism in its proper historical context through counterfactual history like this is a really engaging way to get students thinking about Europe’s historical relations with the larger world.

Alison Futrell – I think the four campaigns address important turning points in a really broad context, which is great. As Paul noted, the creativity in the promo, the collision of world cultures, was very entertaining, but also prods us to think broadly and comparatively, and to consider what tools can add substance to this kind of speculation.

Noble Smith – We’re thrilled that University of Arizona students will be able to dive into the rich history of Age of Empires IV’s campaigns. Diverse historical personages like the French heroine Jeanne d’Arc and the Mongol Emperor Genghis are brought to life through beautifully modeled 3D characters that speak in their respective native languages. Because this is a real-time strategy game, the player is in control of all their units — from the above-mentioned Heroes (with their unique special abilities) all the way down to the basic Man-at-Arms. Key battles, viewed from a 3/4 aerial view, are experienced in a visceral and exciting way that makes them feel as relevant as the day they were fought centuries ago.

Age of Empires IV

Do you feel that this course helps to affirm the accurate portrayal of history, celebrating the High Medieval period to the Late Renaissance age, that Age of Empires IV strives to achieve?

Paul Milliman – I believe so.  When I wrote the Illuminated Histories and the assessment, I really tried to tie everything back to the game.  I want to take the excitement people have playing the game and channel that excitement into doing historical research about topics that excite them.  I want them to experience the thrill of discovery, which can be just as thrilling as a campaign victory.

Alison Futrell – Absolutely! Authenticity and rich/deep exploration is what we’re after. History is complicated, with many layers of experience to probe. The course we’ve designed offers a range of pathways to get started doing just that.

Noble Smith – Beginning with the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and ending with the Siege of Kazan in 1552, the four campaigns in AoE IV most definitely span the sweeping era of the High Medieval period to the Late Renaissance. The evolution of armor, weapons, architecture, language, and accompanying music were all thoroughly researched and guided by subject matter experts from around the world.

So, for example, in the grand arc of the four campaigns the player gets to witness military units advancing from mail armor and swords (the Normans campaign) to sophisticated plate armor and gunpowder weapons (the Hundred Years War campaign). Even the languages spoken by the units in AoE IV evolve from their High Medieval versions to the Late Renaissance forms.

What future programs at your university, or others, you’d like to see to help recognize gaming as a source of education (when applicable)?

Paul Milliman – This is already happening in the history profession.  There are many publications and conferences on this topic and many people who teach with games.  Also, last year The American Historical Review, the leading academic history journal in the US, began reviewing historical computer games as a recognition of how important gaming is in informing people’s views of history.

Alison Futrell – This is a hot topic in History right now, with many people working on different pedagogical approaches that engage a range of student experiences and skill-building and, importantly, creativity. Games as a topic and as an inspiration are having an impact and are popping up in scholarly conferences as well.

Age of Empires IV

Do you hope this experience will give your students a greater appreciation of cultures other than their own? What else do you hope they take away from this experience?

Paul Milliman – I do.  As a historian of the global Middle Ages rather than just medieval Europe, I appreciate that half of the campaigns are not in western Europe. I hope this experience inspires these gamer-historians to learn more about the medieval world by visiting (virtually or in person) both the museums and libraries that contain the primary sources with which medieval history is written and the places which are depicted in the game. I also hope people will try their own “Hands on History.”  Because of Age of Empires IV, I’ve broadened by own experiential learning. I started learning archery a few months ago, and soon I will take lessons on falconry and historical fencing. So, Age of Empires IV can inspire people of all ages and historical skill levels!

Alison Futrell – Of course! History offers people the chance to appreciate new outlooks through exploring the old, as it were, to see the human experience through the eyes of those who’ve gone before, to gain new insights, to broaden their understanding. I always hope that students will have the chance to dive a bit deeper into something that speaks specifically to them. I think that’s a particular strength in the way this class is structured.

Noble Smith – We hope that students who play AoE IV will develop a profound love of history. Maybe they will be inspired to tour a famous site represented in one of the missions (like the Hastings Battlefield in the United Kingdom) or visit the Guédelon castle project in France (shown in one of the game’s accompanying “Hands on History” films — Building a Castle) or perhaps study a new language. Maybe we’ll motivate someone to write a book about the Mongolian Yam messenger system or learn how to craft plate armor using traditional tools. We might even get some people who want to join our Age of Empires team… and keep on making history come to life for years to come!

Thanks to Paul, Kara, Alison, and Noble for taking the time today to share with us this amazing opportunity for University of Arizona students. You can learn more about this program here on AgeofEmpires.com. Age of Empires IV is available to play today with PC Game Pass and for purchase on Windows Store and Steam. Keep it tuned here to Xbox Wire for all the latest news about your favorite Xbox and Windows PC games.

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Age of Empires IV

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One of the most beloved real-time strategy games returns to glory with Age of Empires IV, putting you at the center of epic historical battles that shaped the world. Featuring both familiar and innovative new ways to expand your empire in vast landscapes with stunning 4K visual fidelity, Age of Empires IV brings an evolved real-time strategy game to a new generation.

Return to History – The past is prologue as you are immersed in a rich historical setting of 8 diverse civilizations across the world from the English to the Chinese to the Delhi Sultanate in your quest for victory. Build cities, manage resources, and lead your troops to battle on land and at sea in 4 distinct campaigns with 35 missions that span across 500 years of history from the Dark Ages up to the Renaissance.

Choose Your Path to Greatness with Historical Figures – Live the adventures of Joan of Arc in her quest to defeat the English, or command mighty Mongol troops as Genghis Khan in his conquest across Asia. The choice is yours – and every decision you make will determine the outcome of history.

Customize Your Game with Mods – Available in Early 2022, play how you want with user generated content tools for custom games.

Challenge the World- Jump online to compete, cooperate or spectate with up to 7 of your friends in PVP and PVE multiplayer modes.

An Age for All Players – Age of Empires IV is an inviting experience for new players with a tutorial system that teaches the essence of real-time strategy and a Campaign Story Mode designed for first time players to help achieve easy setup and success, yet is challenging enough for veteran players with new game mechanics, evolved strategies, and combat techniques.

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