How to make history appeal to the gaming generation

Today’s Heritage Key bloggers challenge asks how we can utilize gaming technology as a learning tool for children without indulging in the sex and violence that characterize some of the more popular videogames. Is it possible to craft online virtual education which appeals to kids raised in the era of Grand Theft Auto while at the same time teaching them about history?

Short answer: yes. Long answer as follows. First I think it’s important that we unpack the assumption that sex and violence don’t belong in history teaching tools. History is replete with violence, sex and all manner of depraved intrigue, after all, so when we take it as a given that virtual education should be free of these elements, I think we do students a disservice. When we sanitize history, not only do we engage in willful deception, but we also drain it of much of its relatable humanity.

Granted, schools are notoriously twitchy about getting into the muck of things not least because parents can raise five kinds of hell about it, and no website that aspires to be educational wants to be blocked by content filters, so I wouldn’t suggest a child’s history game feature explicit sex or huge torrents of gore.

However, even Grand Theft Auto, which has become the unwitting poster child for over-the-top violence and sexually suggestive videogames, is fundamentally a mapping game with recent historical backdrops. It’s a sandbox game, so unlike linear formats that force you follow a trajectory pre-determined by the game designer, you can wander around without engaging any of the violent elements. Just pick a non-assassin, non-prostitute role and explore to your heart’s content.

I think GTA makes a better positive role model than cautionary tale for anyone seeking to create virtual historical worlds that appeal to people raised in the gamer era. Dig, if you will, the picture of an open world game set in Victorian London where you can be anyone from a chimney sweep to Jack the Ripper. Children would have every city landmark, every alley of coal-besmogged Whitechapel committed to memory within a week. How about the Tudor court? Or late Republican Rome? Or the Spanish Inquisition? Actual history is way, way juicier than Grand Theft Auto.

Rote memorization of dates and geography bores students to tears, but set up an historically accurate virtual world and give players a mission to fulfill and they’ll quaff the most arcane detail like sweetest ambrosia. That almost preternatural ability to absorb the properties of a gameworld has the potential to be an invaluable teaching tool.

Game designer Jane McGonical in this excellent TED speech about using MMORPGs to change the world points out that the average young person in game playing culture will have spent 10,000 hours gaming by age 21. With perfect attendance, a student will spend 10,080 hours from 5th grade to graduation.

That means what we’re talking about when we refer to the GTA generation is a group of people who voluntarily dedicate as much time to games as they are forced by law and/or parents to spend in school, and all those hours they are fully immersed in the game environment learning and retaining every possible nuance. So setting aside any value judgments about the quality of the learned material, which set of 10,000 hours is more productive? It’s not even a close call.

The question then becomes how do would-be educators tap into this parallel world of learning. Virtual online environments are a great way to explore cultural and historical landmarks that you can’t see in person, or which you couldn’t possibly explore in the kind of detail the virtual replica provides. They are not, however, gameworlds. There’s no complex puzzle to solve, no epic mission, no social fabric knit via collaboration, none of the elements that most engender what McGonical calls “blissful productivity,” the willingness to work hard at something deeply satisfying.

I R WINNARThis is where many of the games you encounter on history-themed sites fail. They tend to be afterthoughts, gadgets tacked on to content rather than fully realized gameplay environments. For example, the BBC website offers a companion game to their excellent A History of the World in 100 Objects radio series. It’s called Relic: Guardians of the Museum and the aim is to answer a multiple choice question about one of the objects in the series. If you get it right, you “unlock” the relic and return it the museum. Once you’ve unlocked them all you get (dramatic drumroll) a certificate. Please turn to your right to see my hard-won Guardian of the Museum certification.

This is not really a game so much as an open-book quiz you don’t even get graded on. I’m in no way knocking the BBC here. The series is great and the companion website marshals its readers to submit historical artifacts of their own to create a huge complex timeline of objects mundane and fantastical from all over the world. The object database is a fresh, interactive approach custom-coded to the BBC’s particular needs, but to me that only underscores the failure of game imagination that has given us Relic.

Starting with content and tacking on the shadow of something that can be mistaken for a game in the right light is backwards. To get the full advantage of the gamerbrain’s capacity to absorb knowledge, you have to do the opposite: craft a complex environment that is fleshed out with content.

Games like Making History, a World War II strategy game, are already used in classrooms. It’s not a first-person shooter like the hugely popular Call of Duty series (shooting at people in school, even fake people = not a good idea), but rather a kind of realistic CGI World War II version of Risk. Students play a country and cope with real life diplomatic and economic issues as well as military strategy.

It doesn’t sell as much as the first-person shooters — it’s a tad on the dry side — but they’ve created a legitimate gameworld that can be and is used as a teaching tool. Not that games which prominently feature historical backdrops don’t sell. Just to name a few, there’s the City Building Series, where you micromanage yourself an empire based on ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and China, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which embedded the map of the Caribbean in young men’s brains for 20 years, the Total War series, the Rome title of which even has a modification pack called Rome: Total Realism which corrects historical inaccuracies in the retail game, and Sid Meier’s apotheosis, the Civilization series.

Any educators seeking to entice the vast audience playing these games must realize that they are dealing with highly sophisticated gaming palates. There are no shortcuts to designing a quality game packed with challenge as well as content. This is a major challenge for any regular folk trying to create an appealing and instructive virtual history, I know. I certainly couldn’t do it, but there are people who can, and not necessarily people who cost huge gobs of cash either.

The companies that produce games with strong historical backdrops could convert them into teaching tools with a relatively small investment. All the hard and expensive development work — the creation of photorealistic historical environments like the Renaissance Florence of Assassin’s Creed II, for instance — has already been done, so add a few enthusiastic history and computer science graduate student interns to the research and development team and you could pack the existing game with historically accurate content and diverse missions at comparatively little cost. The smaller audience for educational games wouldn’t be an issue then, because the company is already making its money back from the retail game.

From a non-profit perspective, if Villanova’s Computer Science department can spend two years scanning the entire Sistine Chapel so we can explore every inch of it in extreme close-up on the Vatican website, then perhaps similar institutions and research organizations could be enlisted to design real games that enlist the full immersion capabilities of a richly detailed gameworld to educate as well as they stimulate.

20 thoughts on “How to make history appeal to the gaming generation

  1. Quite a fine article you have here livius drusus.

    I am a history student, an aspiring educator, and I also grew up when games were just getting underway. I grew up with the gaming machines, and kids now a days have cell phones at an early age – they really do demand instant feedback and constant stimulation. I think education is really going to need reform to fit the changes that the students are going through. I am not sure if gaming is the answer, but I do think it can contribute.

    Last but not least, I love the total war series! I do have to say that I don’t often follow history when I play those games. I actually try to turn the tables. For example in the Empire Total War game, I was able to take a Revolutionary America and expand and conquer Canada. Its still fun though.

    1. I’m way too much of a book, museum and travel lover to suggest that gaming and virtual environments are the entirety of the answer to the question of how to stimulate an interest in history in students.

      If money were no object, I’d be dragging those kids to all the museums and sites my parents dragged me when I was their age. I’d ignore their protests just as effectively as my parents ignored mine, too. 😉

      Even taking the game in a counterfactual direction has educational potential. You can follow the ripple effect when you drop a “what if” into a historical scenario.

      Thank you for the kind words on the entry. :thanks:

    2. Even the counterfactual stuff involves an element of real world learning. I’m with you, the first thing I do in any historical simulation is try to break it, but that means I have to understand the dynamics of what really happened in order to throw a monkeywrench into them.

      Nice article, liv.

  2. Well first of all thk you very much for taking the time to participate in this great blogger challenge I am very happy at the end result of this discussion and seeing all the great advices and thoughts I believe we still got a long way to get the balance right. I see my two boys growing up with a different mentality and logic when it comes to learning and it makes me wander against all the negative sides these games make our kids rather creative and forward thinkers Thanks a lot once more

    1. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, I don’t think, so why not turn your children’s affinity for gaming into an educational advantage?

      Thank you kindly for commenting. :thanks:

  3. This is of particular interest to me, as I am a history buff, a casual gamer, and I have a 4 year old.

    My son cannot yet write his name without help, but he can use the Wii controllers to play Lego Star Wars. He is just learning to read and do basic math, but he can collect the Lego World money and purchase in-game extras. He hasn’t been taught geography formally yet, but has memorized the layout of the levels and knows which way to go to get what. He can tell you the basic storyline of each level, name all of the dozens of characters he has earned or purchased and describe their attributes, and sets personal goals for each session.

    Remember, this kid is 4. We limit him to 30 minutes or so of game play and he has done all of this learning, yes learning, within a few months.

    I hope someone who knows how to design games reads this post, livius, and takes on the challenge…for all of us. I want to play “Tudors!” LOL

    1. Me too! Thank you for all your input during the making of this entry.

      Even though I’ve just written about it, I’m amazed at the depth of learning your very young son is capable in a game environment. It’s never too early to pack little brains with information, especially via game play.

  4. I LOVE your blog and pretty much hated history until I stumbled upon you.

    I make games and movies for a living. Even if the makers of Assassin’s Creed reused their environments and such, it would cost at least $1 million just to create an engaging storyline and convert the elements, little lone put on a platform for universal educational gaming (not everyone owns a PS3 or XBOX or even a PC that can run a highly graphic game like that). It would also take a very long time. Assuming each person gets paid a meager wage of 45K (a medium to low wage in the industry), it would take at least 30-100 people to do what you speak of (digital artists, programmers, producers, testers – just to name a few).

    I can’t see any company reasonably doing this. They’d have to be contracted through a state or government. As a young adult who spends about 10+ hours a week gaming, as well as I teach part time and work full time, I can see the benefits of engaging students with this concept but I can also tell you that the video game knowledge is fleeting. Within 6 months you’ve moved on and forgotten all about the era.

    1. Thank you so much for the wonderful compliment. I’m thrilled to have played a part in your nascent appreciation for history.

      Thank you also for the insider perspective on game design about which I know basically nothing. How about engaging the hacker community? They make mods for free all the time, as I understand, and some companies actively encourage that sort of development.

      1. Well maybe not the “hacker” community but maybe making an open source type 3D city creation could be pretty cool. And of course, getting schools to have students learn to model, light and shade using these open source historical communities could be an option. The only draw back is inconsistent quality. At that point, you run the risk of losing the higher-end/more talented artists who just get annoyed by all the newbies running amuck.

  5. RCam, don’t you think an excellent game, that also just happens to be historically accurate in setting and overall storyline, might have enough appeal to be a commercial success?

    I played Sid Meier’s Pirates on PS2, years after the original version, and learned a ton! As far as I know the game was successful in all its versions.

    The game liv imagined,-Grand Theft Auto style immersion and open world play in Victorian London- would have a broad appeal I should think…steampunks, Ripperologists, history nerds, and hardcore gamers that like sandboxes are a few of the subcultures I can see buying that.

    Wouldn’t that level of marketability appeal to developers?

    1. LadyShea,
      I look at Assassin’s Creed and I know it could be a success, but I grew up in Houston Texas were so much of the human side of history is censored. I think you’re missing the appeal of GTA- which is to drive around and steal, do missions and make money. I think you’re seriously underestimating the intelligence of your audience if you think running around in an immersive environment with nothing to do is going to engage them for more than a few hours. Hardcore gamers will finish games in 10hrs or less. You have to have an objective for them and then as they move through the scene they see something new and amazing everytime. And I think that is the hard part – finding a way to really keep their attention long enough. Maybe puzzle based goals would work, but you might still miss out on the action oriented gamers you’re trying to reach.

      1. My apologies, I thought through the discussion it was obvious that liv, and I in my comments, were discussing actual games with objectives. Depending on the setting, there could be any number of missions; mysteries to solve and even people to kill (sword fights, sinking ships ala Pirates), wars to wage, money to make via intrigue or commerce etc.

        Anything you find in a good sandbox game, only in an accurate historical setting.

  6. Very interesting post. I agree that games can certainly be used as history teaching supplements–and will be, when the old generation of teachers (like, um, me) dies out. My husband, who’s about 10 years younger than I (no Mrs Robinson jokes, please) is a history nerd who loves those global strategy games. I guess my only caveat is that gaming can be such a solitary, solipsistic activity. If there were a way to make them genuinely dialogical–i.e., pedagogical, they could be a real asset to teachers and students of history. Otherwise, it’s just entertainment, which is fine…but it’s not really any different from watching The Tudors on TV. Thanks for the provocative post, Livius.

    1. One of the things Jane McGonical notes in her TED address is that MMORPGs actually encourage cooperation and the knitting of an intricate social fabric. Console games are still more individually experienced, but even there platforms are increasingly creating online elements that allow players to interact with each other.

      I’m just spitballing here because I’m far from a gaming pro, but it seems to me that a game setting could create not only dialogical opportunities, but extremely diverse ones. Imagine an international pen pal program but instead of sending each other lists of pets and “what’s your money like over there”, students and teachers would all be working together to complete a history-based mission.

      I love having a teacher’s perspective, so thank you for commenting. :thanks:

  7. I grew up playing the Total War series and it is largely owing to that series that I gained an interest in history. Medieval 2 Total War, in particular, is set in Medieval Europe but also includes the Pope, jihads, the Mongols and Aztecs. I found all the Total War games fascinating and they did wonders for both my geographical and rough historical knowledge.

    Empire Total War introduced the colonial era so players gain access to the Americas, India and various trade desinations such as the Ivory Coast. I must admit I was woefully ignorant of the scope and might of the British Empire until this game caused me to sit down one day with Wikipedia (and other sources!).

    That being said, after a while one does tend to realise that the AI of the Total War games tends to consistently let them down. Nevertheless, the Total War games are THE way to convert history into entertainment.

  8. I might suggest, rather than Sid Meier games (they are good,) one should check out Paradox Interactive games! Particularly a title called “Europa Universalis.”

    Mind you, Paradox games have a VERY STEEP learning curve. Something that appeals greatly to pro gamers, particularly strategy gamers. But they put Total War and Civilization completely to shame. Especially the AI that you have to engage.

    As for game design, RCam is right: You have to have all sorts of manners of artists and tech gurus in order to pull off an immerse game. But I would like to further expand upon that. There are many different genres of games. Strategy gamers, for instance, will be much more likely to pick up historical simulation games, such as EU. Historical games naturally lend themselves to strategy games. RCam’s concern about an in-depth world like Assassin’s Creed as a first-person game is a legitimate concern. Gamers who like that sort of environment, are going to want to be engaged, and typically will be shooters. Sure, you can replace shooting with various puzzles and such, a la “Riven.” But FPS (First Person Shooter) fans won’t much appreciate that.

    The FPS community would be a VERY tough nut to crack. And quite frankly, I don’t think it would be practically possible. (The “Call of Duty” series has helped to draw some interest in historical, 20th century, warfare. But don’t really learn a whole lot in the way of history. Maybe a little bit about weaponry, and that’s it.)

    The strategy and puzzle-gaming genres are a hell of a lot easier to target with this sort of idea in promoting history education through gaming.

    And finally, not everyone is going to be interested or employed in history-related fields anyway. I would be extremely skeptical about the cost-benefit of creating an extremely immersive historical FPS-type 3D environment in order to attempt to reach FPS fans. It would be far more efficient to just focus on strategy and puzzle games. Those who are into those sorts of games, would tend to more likely be interested in history anyway.

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