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Can Videogames Provide Meaningful Learning Experiences? | Inside Higher Ed

Risk, the board game, “made Cold War kids masters of an unruly globe.”  It taught my generation that alliances have limits, that odds don’t predict the future, and that Prince Metternich was right: That skilled diplomacy and even deceit were essential to ensuring national interests and international stability.

Somewhat similarly, a recent PBS documentary, Ruthless: The Secret History of Monopoly, show how a game that originally “meant to critique capitalism came to embody it.”  It taught children how “unbridled, American capitalism” supposedly works through “the naked pursuit of wealth.”  As the New Yorker’s Simon Parkin observes, the game’s “politics are transparent; each player starts with the same amount of cash and opportunities, even though, in real life, race, class, gender, and a range of other factors inflect a person’s chance of success. The game disguises luck as skill, misrepresents the American Dream, and promises wealth and power at the expense of others.”

Games, in other words, aren’t innocent diversions.  They are educators that convey lessons that generations of game players have internalized.   The earliest modern board games, like lithographer Milton Bradley’s 1860 “The Checkered Game of Life,” were deeply moralistic, emphasizing the importance of integrity and proper living to attainment of a happy old age.  Today, many board games purport to be educational:  introducing children to rules and competition and the importance of luck and chance and tactical maneuvering.  They also seek to enhance memory and “increase and maintain cerebral agility, the speed of information processing, concentration, creativity, and sense of strategy.”

Ditto for videogames. Engaging, immersive, and highly interactive, video games are a $97 billion dollar industry in the United States, making up over 6 percent of all spending on entertainment and media. According to MarketWatch, “Videogames are a bigger industry than movies and North American sports combined.”

For a growing number of students, videogames, like Age of EmpireAssassin’s CreedCall of Duty, and Civilization, are not just fun, they shape their ideas and images of the past.  

In the second edition of Gaming the Past, Jeremiah McCall, a high school history teacher at Cincinnati Country Day School, a historian of the ancient world, and a historical game studies scholar, argues that history games, when accompanied by appropriate scaffolding by a knowledgeable instructor, offer an effective way for students to:

  • Think about human agency, decision-making, strategizing, and even diplomacy and wartime dynamics within complex systems and real-world contexts.
  • Develop a healthy skepticism about how popular culture depicts the past while learning how to assess the games’ accuracies and inaccuracies.
  • Understand the techniques that new media use to increase user engagement: interactivity, engaging challenges, eye-catching graphics and sound, tactile, kinesthetic controls, abstract symbols, icons, and stylized artwork, and compelling gameplay.

McCall asks history instructors to embrace videogames because they provide an opportunity to discuss and debate the game version of history.  As he puts this: “The Unexamined Game is Not Worth Playing.”  Even a highly inaccurate videogame, he argues, can be educationally useful if encourages students to engage in research-based critique and if it instills awareness about agents, systems, strategies.

To be sure, alongside historical games that tackle serious issues – like Through the Darkest of Times, about resistance to the Nazis, or When Rivers Were Trails, about the displacement of the Anishinaabe from their Minnesota homelands, or The Political Machine, about a presidential campaign’s dynamics – are others that fall squarely in the realm of fantasy, featuring supra-human abilities to maneuver or utterly unrealistic counterfactuals (like Wolfenstein: The New Order, about a 1960s United States ruled by Nazis). 

As McCall notes, treating a videogame as a source is no different from analyzing other cultural artifacts, like a historical painting, with its rich symbolism and focus on a single moment in time, or a feature film, with its constrained historical context, invented dialogue, condensations, melodramatic plotline, and cinematic flourishes.

Of course, the historical videogame is a genre with its own conventions:  A designated goal, a competitive quest, various avatars, a specific range of actions and choices, a gameworld (a representation of a particular time and place and also a problem space), and various resources, tools, and obstacles.

Implicit in many historical videogames is a particular vision of history, a history of power struggles and fights for domination.  But others adopt a more complex and nuanced approach.  Thus, Through the Darkest of Times examines how Nazi resistance leaders recruit followers, raise funds, and resist in a wide range of ways or Attentat 1942 and Svoboda 1945 with their portraits of Czech life under Nazi domination.

One of McCall’s suggestions is to compare a videogame’s definition of a historical problem with the actual historical record.  Even a game that is largely fictional or fantasy-riven can nonetheless provide students with a chance to discuss what makes the game misleading and historically mistaken and the difference between historical authenticity and artful and deceitful reconstructions.  An interesting example is Ubisoft’s Discovery Tours, in which the maker of the violence-laced Assassin’s Creed games instead offers a glimpse into an era and society’s physical geography and architecture.  McCall also notes that many games that are unrealistic in many ways sometimes illustrate realities (for example, about farming or resource extraction and exploitation) that are revealing.

Topics that many videogames address include the development of trading networks, military and geo-political diplomatic maneuvering, and the influence of geography and technology.  Implicit within games are themes involving trade-offs, opportunity costs, path dependence, agency, motivation, resource allocation, executive decision-making, and negotiations.

Videogames take different forms and fall into distinct genres.  There are turn-based and real-time games, strategy, diplomacy, politics, city or state-building, action, and adventure games, first- and third-person games, games that involve quests or role-playing or puzzle or mystery-solving, as well as many that emphasize colonial expansion and empire building or inter-state warfare. 

McCall’s basic advice is to treat historical videogames as inherently and inevitably problematic.  Your job as an instructor is to supplement videogames with primary and secondary sources and subject the game to interrogation. With Through the Darkest of Times, examine the kinds of Germans who resisted the Nazis, the forms their resistance took, the Nazi response, and the resistors effectiveness or ineffectiveness.

Or with Rome: Total War, examine the weapons and equipment that Roman soldiers used, their fighting style and infantry unit’s organization, a general’s role, and the role of casualties and morale in military defeat.

McCall has interesting and important things to say about handling insensitive portrayals of historical issues in videogames, such as a failure to consider the agency and perspectives of indigenous peoples.  His book also provides valuable suggestions about how to connect to students’ personal gameplaying experiences, how to illustrate a particular game in the classroom, and how to speak with parents and administrators who doubt the value of serious gaming.  

Especially striking is his discussion of how to integrate reflection and debriefing into a class.  He suggests specific prompts or essay questions that an instructor might pose (for example, whether certain forms of government appear to be more effective in meeting certain objectives) and active learning assignments (such as having students diagram or map the systems or processes embedded within a specific videogame or annotating and analyzing a screenshot).  He also encourages instructors to ask their students to imagine how underrepresented or marginalized individuals might have thought and acted.

In 2014, A. Martin Wainwright, a historian of modern Britain and India, offered another way to use video games in the classroom: As a lens onto historical theory.  He examines what the Civilization series of games (and a number of other games) have to say about definitions of civilization, about the role of economics and environment as determinates of civilizational success, about culture bias in game design and historical thinking, and the creation of world systems, nature, and impact of these systems (for instance, about labor, trade, and health).  

Of special interest to Professor Wainwright is what videogames teach about contingency and the value of counterfactual speculation.  He makes a strong case that videogames represent an effective way to teach complex historical concepts to undergraduates.

Whether you like or loathe video games, the fact is that they have become one of the primary ways that many students engage with the past.  Therefore, it makes sense for instructors to treat these games as complex texts that deserve rigorous analysis and critique.  However, a knowledgeable instructor who can provide essential context and expose historical inaccuracies is absolutely indispensable if these games are to be treated with the rigor they require.

I couldn’t agree more strongly with a key point that McCall makes:  If you think that history is largely about names, dates, events, and facts, then videogames have no place in the curriculum.  But if you believe, as I do, that history is about posing meaningful questions, gathering and interrogating evidence, drawing connections between past and present, analyzing competing possibilities and counterfactuals, and constructing defensible explanations and interpretations of past events and their causes and effects, then, yes, videogames – like Hollywood’s cinematic histories or Longfellow’s historical poems – can offer meaningful learning experiences. But without an expert teacher as guide, videogame’s errors and misinformation and misrepresentations will surely distort, deceive, and delude.

To a surprising degree, historical video games, despite numerous factual inaccuracies and historical improbabilities often accomplish something that traditional textbooks fail to do: immersing students in past environments, the complex historical systems, and the social forces that shape history and constrain historical actors’ options. Even if the most pedagogically useful thing that a video game can offer is an opportunity for critique, that’s not nothing.  Remember:  The first step toward wisdom is critique: expert, informed interpretation and analysis.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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