Patricia Seed: Looking Back: A Decade of Using Games to Teach History, 1996-2006

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When incorporating computer games into a course on the history of European expansion in 1996, the process seemed straightforward: game reviews, historical simulations, and electronic texts. Over the course of the next decade, however, changes in computing eliminated the possibility of continuing to use the same techniques. Topics and genres of computer games that functioned well from 1996 to 1999 were virtually inoperable by 2000. To continue to use games to teach history meant confronting both significant innovations in operating systems and machines compelling a re-examination of the topics and techniques used. This presentation traces the changes and evolving tactics for one teacher for using games in the undergraduate history classroom.

During the second half of the 1990s I began to incorporate historical games as part of a course on the history of European overseas expansion. The confluence of four unrelated developments in the electronic world made this introduction possible.

At the time, U.S. computer game designers were producing a slew of historically interesting accounts of Europes overseas expansion. Among the designers Sid Meiers Pirates! Gold (1993), Colonization (1994), Civilization II (1996), and Talon Softs Age of Sail (1996) stood out. The 500th anniversary of Columbus voyage to the New World in 1992 may have inspired game designers to address this topic. But the game market also figured in their appearance.

During the 1990s designers and educational groups could afford to devote themselves to creating intellectually interesting historical games which could be created without enormous capital outlay, and whose profits, if any, would remain modest. Characters appeared in two dimensions, and their movements were constrained.

Secondly, to supplement these CD games, new electronic resources also became available from overseas. In 1998 several European publishers produced a number of well designed CD-ROMs containing narratives and reference material on overseas expansion. Each provided a story that students could follow as they would in a printed book. For the first time students had access to European points of view and knowledge, formerly only available to scholars reading the original language. Oda ditions Navegar (Portugal, 1998) and Uitgeverij Verlorens The Ships of Abel Tasman (Netherlands, 1998) stood out among these newly available resources, rich in graphic detail and resources.

Third, alongside these interesting educational games and reference sources emerged an unrelated group of software programs targeting an equally small, specialized audience. Europeans capacity to sail around the world depended upon finding precise new data on the motions of the heavens. Astronomy has long reigned as the most popular of sciences with the general public, and n the early 1990s several useful astronomy programs appeared.

Finally, the timing was right for the students as well. By 1996, educational games had already been introduced in elementary and secondary schools, and many undergraduates then enrolled had already been exposed in school to the Carmen San Diego franchise (1985-1998) and Oregon Trail (1985, 1991).

Introducing these materials into the undergraduate classroom proved easy. I first employed the games as texts, having students read the game, and then used astronomy software as a virtual time machine that allowed students to see what the first South Atlantic explorers would have seen more than five hundred years ago.

In the part of the course that treated the games as texts, I assigned books and games on alternate weeksone week a conventional reading and book review, the next week a game. For two of the game weeks students read the European CDs. For these electronic sources I had students write up an assessment much as they would a book review, commenting on the argument, sources, and the method of presenting historical information.

In addition, I employed other programs for historical simulation. In order to successfully sail around the world, Europeans had to develop an extensive knowledge of the position and apparent movement of the stars.

At two degrees south, fifteenth-century Portuguese maps noted that the Pole Star vanished beneath the horizon and could no longer be used to guide ships. For several previous millennia, Mediterranean sailors had used this star, and suddenly were confronted with its loss, seeing instead Portuguese scholar Pedro Nunes would later identify as a new sky and new stars.

Starry Night served as a virtual time machine allowing students to return to the place and moment in time when this event first occurred, and Europeans were seeing unfamiliar stars in unfamiliar places and having to identify new patterns to sail by. Scholarly controversies have yet to resolve the date of the map or the exact moment when the stars fading was first noted, although it probably occurred sometime in the late 1460s. In order for students to re-experience this moment virtually, I had them set the program to latitude two degrees south a longitude off the west coast of Africa, and a day in the 1460s. Using the program, students would virtually travel back in time and space and see skies as unfamiliar to them as they had been to sailors first navigating these waters.

Like these long-ago sailors, students were forced to decide which group of celestial objects would help in navigating southward and eastward along the coast of Africa. Several would inevitably forget to consider the possibility of a nearby West African coast and, like some of the earliest explorers, would come to grief on land somewhere along the coast of Gabon. Fortunately only egos were destroyed in these accidents, not ships.

To fix the location of the stars to sail by, sailors in the 1460s were experimenting with a number of different devices, by the turn of the century settling upon what would become the first standard instrument of oceanic navigation, the nautical astrolabe, a device unfamiliar to most mariners. The Electric Astrolabe showed how the instrument measured the height of stars (including the sun) above the horizon. By experimenting with the virtual astrolabe students learned something of the techniques that Vasco da Gama and occasionally Christopher Columbus employed to navigate.

Students responded enthusiastically to the simulations, book reviews, and European CD narratives, but what worked between 1997 and 1999 ceased to function by 2001. Changes in machines and operating systems meant having to rewrite these programs. But that same shift altered the construction and marketing of games, soon rendering much of the material used in this course inoperable.

The first challenge to these games came from changes in the Microsoft operating systems. In fairly rapid succession between 1995 and 2001 Microsoft moved from Windows 95 to Windows 98, Windows Me/NT and finally XP. The European electronic reference sources became unusable on the newer operating systems, and their publishers decided not to modify the programs for further use. To this date, Navegar only operates on Windows 95/98, and the CD of The Ships of Tasman has become a print source only.

In addition to halting the use of European CD-Rom reference material many of the historical games could no longer be played on the new operating systems. Pirates! Gold and Colonization ceased functioning. Thus in short order half of the activities in the course on European expansion disappeared.

A second obstacle contributing to the cessation of these publications evolved from a major hardware innovation. Computer chips that could render three dimensional graphics on PCs appeared in 1996, and by the end of the 1990s had become inexpensive and widely accessible. Consequently designers started to craft games with three dimensional characters. Creating three dimensional characters, however, made production far more labor intensive and hence more expensive than ever before since each character or landscape required drawing multiple shapes.

To transform these European colonization games into more detailed three dimensional games would have required large infusions of capital that could not be justified for a small niche market. As a result, the small, artisanally-crafted European and American historical games ceased being produced. The only program to successfully make the transition was Age of Sail which was redesigned to cover a topic with national appeal, early U.S. and British naval history.

To reach the larger market, game creators shifted to expansive historical epics covering the story of human history from the Stone Age to modern times. Integrating material from many different time periods and subjects, designers correctly anticipated that they could attract large numbers of players. Fireaxis transformed Civilization II into a barely recognizable successor called Civilization III, and Microsoft likewise a converted a small Age of Empires into massive three dimensional production covering scores of historical epochs and with half a dozen expansion units.

The length and scale of the games had unintended consequences for their use in the classroom. While the earlier games and historical re-enactments could be carried out during a single class period, the play time of these enlarged programs meant that they would require multiple class sessions and evaluations. To see if these mass market productions could be used in the undergraduate classroom, in 1999 I began to teach a world history course employing these games.

However, the long dure approach of the Age of Empires and Civilization had many disadvantages for teaching history. In order to have the structure of the game remain constant, game designers reduced or eliminated historical specificity. The large-scale programs relied upon structural causes to develop the history of civilization: technological change, warfare, and diplomacy. And the micro-level the distinguishing quirks and differences of history, available earlier vanished under an homogenizing software engine.

With the CD ROMs disappearing and the internet not yet the searchable powerhouse it has become, alternate sources of games with greater historical accuracy. A chance meeting with a board game collector led into another world that was reversing the trend in computer gaming, by increasing the number of games with historical content. While traditionally board games developed socially competitive interactions, the medium underwent a change at the end of the nineties

In the late 1990s, several designers including Germanys legendary Reiner Kniza began to develop historical board games that explored particular moments of history sometimes in considerable detail. Historical board games proved popular and successful, garnering the top international prizes for design and sales in the tens of thousands--a trend that continues to this day.

While useful in introducing the specificity of history these games were similarly designed for a larger market, and hence tended to cover the best-known and most popular historical periods: ancient civilizations, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, and occasionally the New World. Popular titles on ancient civilizations included Ra [Egypt], Tigris and Euphrates [Mesopotamia], the ever popular Roman Empire (Cesar, Circus Maximus)the Renaissance (Serenissima Renaissance Veniceand the self-explanatory titles Princes of Florence, Medici, and Traders of Genoa), and the New World (Puerto Rico).

However, in many of the historical board games, historical accuracy was sacrificed in the interest of making game play more exciting. Merchants of Amsterdam (a game on the citys rich seventeenth-century overseas trade) contained an extremely good map of the canals of the citys commercial core, but the bidding mechanism of the game bore little resemblance to the practices of Amsterdam merchants.

In the first year teaching the combination of large-scale, multi-century computer-based historical epics and more narrowly focused board games, revealed several weaknesses. Civilization and Age of Empires provided a superficial overview of a large amount of historical informationthe way in which history is taught in high schools. Both games seem far more suited to secondary schools than universities.

Another category of board game, which I did not use, also seemed appropriate for secondary education in geography. Designer Alan Moons 10 Days in Africa and 10 Days in Europe replicate an Amazing Race competition, but do a better job of teaching actual geography. His related Ticket to Ride series introduces the cities of Europe and their relative locations and his Clippers likewise is most useful as an introduction to Pacific geography

Both the board and computer games had the additional negative consequence of once again turning students into passive observers. Neither the new historical board games nor the epic computer games provided the experience of immersion into the past such as that provided by Starry Night or The Electric Astrolabe. One of the primary goals of teachers and professors in employing games to teach has been to transform the learning experience into a more interactive one and take students into more a more active role in thinking about problems rather than memorizing outcomes.

However, overcoming the passivity of students in traditional introductory undergraduate courses seemed to present more of a challenge. I wanted students to see history as something other than a collection of canonical facts and determined outcomesas in the repetitive --listen, note replicateand the repeat. I wanted to allow them to experience what writing history is truly aboutresearchingcollecting evidenceand deciding how to interpret it. I wanted to have undergraduatesmost of whom had never taken a college level history courseand would probably have little future exposure to historyexperience the subject the way historians dopicking facts, grouping them, sequencing, and then trying to present the facts in a single package. In that way, I hoped that students would understand how history was cobbled together and have a degree of skepticism when presented with authoritarian narratives.

If I were to have students play a design that I had created this active dimension of learning would be lost. While playing a game would no doubt be more enjoyable than listening to me lecture, it would also provide the students with a learning structure similar to that of the conventional classroom, in which they would remain passive spectators.

In order to re-engage the students as more active learners, in the next time teaching, I turned to having students design historical games based upon the events of a particular period, which they had to research, and come up with a game instead of a research paper.

In order to teach students to design games, I had to teach them how to think about contingency, likely alternative outcomes of events. In this way, the students themselves were coming up with alternative paths that history might have taken had a particular path been followed.

I found two useful means of teaching students to think about alternatives. The first employed reading historical What If series, 1which provided students a way to think about alternatives such as the U.S. losing the First or Second World War (a popular game topic). Students devising military historical games were introduced to what if seriesStudents were also introduced to two other methods of thinking about historical alternativesone through the ingenious game Chrononautswhich involved complicated changes which could be undone in multiple ways.

Several of the student-produced designs introduced major alternative historical trajectories by changing disease vectors in the Middle Ages or introducing rigid quarantine measures with the 1918 flu pandemic (two separate games).

Not all the games produced by students explored the alternate history possibilities, some produced art history trivia games or games designed to show why the Vikings may have begun by raiding monasteries instead of farms or towns in England and Ireland. (Vikings worshipped different gods, and encountered more valuable booty in monasteries.)

But as they created their own games, the students thought about historical alternatives and contingency, and even when they did not incorporate it in their own games; they saw how their fellow students introduced this type of thinking into their own games.

The aim of employing games in teaching world history was not to displace traditional approaches but to provide an alternative way of engage students who otherwise might not take a course in history, especially those in the sciences and engineering.

Students in engineering and the traditional sciences are accustomed to learning rule-based worlds; hence presenting the past as comprehensible within a rule-based system made the subject initially comprehensible and familiar. Scientists and engineers that I knew often indicated that they found the presentation of competing explanation and interpretations in history courses indicative of a subject that lacked both discipline and standards and which was governed not by rules but untaught, unarticulated and unexplained assumptions.

One student created a version of Chinese checkers to replicate the mercantile and commercial competition in seventeenth-century Atlantic trade. Another student took the structure of the Japanese game Go to reconstruct the nuclear brinksmanship of the Cold War. In other words, the most interesting projects took rules from other arenas and showed how they could explain the development of particular historical events.

However, I did discover another audience for the class, namely individuals who were interested a career in teaching, and who wanted to learn how they could create games for classrooms in which they would teach.

While the student-designed game approach has continued to be successful, some things remain lost. The rapid growth of information available on the web, alongside the rapid expansion of the first truly useful search engine (Google, founded in 1998), have been hugely positive developments. However, neither the information nor perspectives of the European CD reference sources ever transferred to the Internet. The predominant language of the Web was English, placing U.S. and British perspectives of historical events in a highly visible position and the perspectives of even other European powers receded into the background.

Having students design games does create more active and engaged students of history. But changes as yet unanticipated may bring about still further changes in the techniques of integrating games into the undergraduate classroom.


1 Robert Cowley, What ifs? of American history : eminent historians imagine what might have been New York : G.P. Putnams, c2003; What if? : the worlds foremost military historians imagine what might have been New York : G.P. Putnams Sons, c1999. A more recent book is Philip Tetlock, Richard Ned Lebow, & Geoffrey Parker, eds. Unmaking the West : "what-if?" scenarios that rewrite world history Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 2006.