A while ago I wrote something about the potential for games to be "non-fiction", and lately I'm finding myself driven to find such games. It's less that I find games unfulfilling as is and more that it'd be nice to have a medium that will keep me engaged with the things I'm learning. A medium diametrically opposed to, say, books. Modern hyperactive culture short attention span etc. just let me enjoy my life okay?!
The lame thing about non-fiction games is the narrow selection. There are plenty out there; I'm sure if I only ever played historical games I could be occupied for the rest of my life. Unfortunately that would mean I'd only be playing strategy, first-person shooting, and flight games, and that my history-learning time would be devoted 80% to the European theater of World War II, and 20% to the war in the Pacific. Want to learn about the English Civil War? How about the Russian Revolution or Nebuchadnezzar? Try a book. As far as video games are concerned, civilization started with the Roman Empire, which fell just in time for the first medieval castle to go up kicking off what we know as "The Middle Ages", so called because they are the period between Rome and World War II. I'm really only barely exaggerating. I guess ancient Egypt, Greece, and Edo Japan show up too, though usually with fantastical trappings that dilute the historical impact. And the occasional Wild West game, even the sorta-realistic Red Dead Redemption, is set in the Hollywood West, not the boring one that actually happened. Your best bet for covering all the bases is playing an Evolution of Society game like Rise of Nations or Civilization, and those are pretty much as non-non-fiction as it gets (last I checked Otto von Bismarck wasn't defeated by Genghis Khan's army of missile tanks).
Some good games that have taught me about history are Romance of the Three Kingdoms VII, Age of Empires II, and Assassin's Creed II. It's nice that the Assy Creed series actually breaks from the genre constraints of historical games, and I've kept with them mostly because I like the wealth of information (despite the tepid gameplay and the extremely dumbass portrayal of historical figures as contemporary film stock characters). Romance of the Three Kingdoms VII presents the political history of China from the late Han to the early Jin period, something you probably didn't learn about in American schools. Of course, the other twelve or so games in the series (not to mention the Dynasty Warriors games) tell pretty much the same story, so that gets kinda old kinda fast. Age of Empires II, though set in those much belabored Middle Ages, gave me a better impression of the more significant medieval powers, how the Crusades went, etc. It didn't feel super accurate but hey I learned about the existence of figures like Saladin whom otherwise I wouldn't have known.
Most recently I've been playing Birds of Steel, a WWII flight sim on 360 that summarizes the major aerial battles of the Pacific front. While the WWII thing was definitely a turn-off at first, I quickly learned that I had a lot to learn about 1.) just how many different kinds of planes there were (a fucking lot!) and 2.) how aircraft carrier and naval battles played out with the introduction of planes. If you think about it, boats that carry planes instead of guns is kinda a weird idea. Did you know aircraft carriers arose partially due to international treaties restricting the size and armaments of battleships? I do now! Since the main challenge of the game is just getting your plane to fly where you want, the variation in aircraft doubles up as interesting gameplay AND education (e.g. bombers were super lame to fly).
Anyway there's not really anything to take away here. Just me saying that one day, it would be nice if more of history was covered by more kinds of games, since the Middle Ages weren't really that big a deal (I think they're considered pretty culturally blank and basically a holding period until history got going again). Considering the smashing success of Assassin's Creed, I'm somewhere between surprised and disappointed that semi-fiction gaming isn't exploding as we speak. I mean, they have to hire writers for big-budget games anyway, it's not like it would be harder to get a history major than a creative writing major who has failed to get any of his Heinlein-derivative short stories published. So if you have a new creative idea for a game about an unusual period of history (e.g. Scandinavia), contact me right away!