School of History professor brings historical accuracy to World War II video game

The game producers sought expert historical advice from University of Leeds’ Professor Simon Ball for their project alongside the latest release of Company of Heroes 3.

SEGA Europe Limited launched an interactive history hub for fans to explore the real-life history of the battles that inspired Company of Heroes 3.

The Briefing Room explores the Italian and North African campaigns of World War Two.

The stories available for players to delve into include the Battle of El Alamein, fought by the Allied forces against German and Italian soldiers of the Panzer Army Africa.

Professor Simon Ball published the book Alamein (Oxford: OUP, 2016, reprinted The Folio Society, 2022) about the battle and its legacy, and as such, was able to offer his expertise to SEGA Europe to create their accurate and inspiring story.

The website describes the background of the North African campaigns – particularly the dynamic between Egypt and Italian-held Libya – as well as the key figures involved and the timeline of the events.

They also list FAQs, which create a thorough understanding of the complexities of the battles, the backgrounds and the main actors.

“I’m keen to bridge the gap between virtual entertainment and good history; having in the distant past worked as a game designer, I know that play based in fact can be even more immersive than fantasy,” says Professor Ball.

Many more people will play this game than read a book on El Alamein, and they deserve to get the best picture current scholarship can provide.

Some of the other histories were supported by contributions from Matthew Parker, William Beigal and Dr Robert Lyman.

Entertain, educate and inspire curiosity

The game that these stories inspired, Company of Heroes 3, is a popular real-time strategy game. The latest version offers its players an “unprecedented command over the war effort”, aiming to be more immersive than ever.

Offering the details about the true history of the events has helped to make this a reality.

David Littman, Vice President of Production at Relic, says “For the launch of Company of Heroes 3 (COH3) we wanted to do something special.

“We worked closely with some incredible experts to make The Briefing Room a treasure trove that offers even more depth around the real history tied to COH3, particularly the human stories that people may not know about.”

Professor Simon Ball hopes that some players will be inspired to explore history beyond the game world. He said, “the power of video games like Company of Heroes 3 lies not only in their ability to entertain but also in their potential to educate and inspire curiosity.”

Creating across disciplines

Professor Ball’s experience in game design makes his contribution unique.

In 1983, he was involved with adapting the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks by Puffin Books: ‘Forest of Doom’ and ‘Citadel of Chaos’. Although these weren’t directly related to history, Professor Ball explains that “historical imagination infused the whole UK games design scene in the 1980s”.

Having experience in game design and coding shaped the professor’s response to the Company of Heroes project. He understood that the history would have to work with the needs of the game and not dictate it.

He says: “The challenge is to get good history into games rather than relying on tired old tropes. That's why I'm always delighted to help out.”