Clio Wired: Week 14 Reflection

What I thought of the readings:

This week’s readings introduced a new tool to the historical teaching/learning arsenal: games.  The topic of historical games ties in well with the readings from last week which dealt with teaching history in the classroom or elsewhere.  As a way to critically engage with historical learning, rather than simply memorizing and regurgitating names and dates, gaming offers a novel way for teachers/developers to get students/users to engage in critical thinking.  Of course, (although this wasn’t really addressed in the readings) the idea of video games as a teaching tool might rub some scholars and teachers the wrong way.  The stereotype associated with video games is that they involve hours of mindless droning in front of a computer or TV screen, during which valuable time exercising, reading, or interacting with IRL human beings is sacrificed.  While I can’t say I’ve been totally disabused of this stereotype through my own interactions with games, gamers, and this week’s readings, I will say that I can appreciate gaming as teaching/learning tool.

I really enjoyed the article about the game Pox and the City which was the recipient of an NEH grant.  The authors describe how they worked through various ideas for teaching players about medical history–specifically the disease smallpox.  It was useful to read about the authors’ debate between creating a game which recreates a real historical event (the discovery of the smallpox vaccine) or a fictional scenario based on historical research.  The game creators came to the conclusion that games work best when are they open ended; a game about a specific historical event would have a predetermined outcome and not many choices to make.  Instead, an immersive world in which users could act out various roles (doctor, ordinary citizen, and even disease) turned out to be be a much richer venue in which to experience the medical culture of the 19th century.

Although at first glance it would seem that students/players would only be able to learn a precise set of facts or concepts pre-loaded into the game, the fact that students have agency in experiencing the game-world could, according to the authors, lead students to novel ideas or theories about the past.  They would then be able to use primary sources provided by the game to support those ideas.  I think this seems like a great learning tool, though I also wonder how much guidance the game would offer in terms of learning to read primary sources carefully, a la Historical Thinking Matters.

Lastly, I liked how the article goes into the art and graphics for the game and how that would influence its message and teaching efficacy.  For example, they decided that a 3rd person perspective and stylized or cartoony graphics would allow for maximum immersion in the game environment and concepts.  This reminds me of our discussion in other weeks about how the design of a digital tool should actively contribute to its thesis.

James Paul Gee’s “Good Video Games and Good Learning” does not necessarily advocate using games as a teaching tool, but rather as a model for teaching in the classroom.  He points to a long list of factors that characterize video games, such as players’ sense of agency, customization of difficulty, and problems being ordered in a progressively more difficult way, that could improve teaching and learning.  I bought many of the parallels and the efficacy of implementing many of the concepts into teaching.  However, (and I realize this wasn’t in the scope of a short article) Gee did not really offer ways in which this could actually be accomplished.  I am wondering if any of you who have been teachers in former lives have any comments on this.

While most of the readings focused on video gaming, am I much more of a tabletop gamer myself (think Small World, Bohnanza, or Dominion, not Monopoly), so I was really looking for some insight into board games and learning.  I liked that that Jeremy Antley gave a shout-out to board gaming in Going Beyond the Textual in History and how he differentiated the modes of learning that take place in the two types of gaming.  Essentially, he says that while in video games the player constantly goes through periods of discovery about how the game works and how to proceed, in a board game, the rules and mechanics are all laid out and should be understood ahead of time.  Then, players can move “straight to analysis and interpretation.”

Because I was interested in reading more about tabletop games for teaching history, I searched Play the Past for articles about board games.  To my delight I found an article by Trevor Owens about a game called “The New Science.”  Owens interviews the game creator, Dirk Kneymeyer about the goals and mechanics of the game.  The game is about the scientific revolution, and players get to take on roles of various scientists from that era.  Each scientist has unique “powers,” which emphasize the differing personalities, skills, and beliefs of the historical figures.  Throughout the game you research, experiment, and either publish on a discovery or hoard your knowledge.  The player has to balance gaining “prestige” points for publishing or getting ahead by hoarding knowledge.  Players also have to deal with societal forces such as the the Church or the king.  Knemeyer is not a historian, but he has clearly put a lot of thought into creating an immersive theme which communicates interesting and educational information about the time period in question.  Knemeyer was able to get his game off the ground through donations from Kickstarter (yay crowdsourcing!), and it should be on sale to the public next month.  Sign me up!

Trying it out myself:

Browsing through Playing History to find a game to play, I was mostly looking for a time period that I would be interested in.  I finally decided upon the BBC game “Muck and Brass” which is about English towns during the Industrial Revolution.  The game isn’t really immersive in style; it doesn’t have many moving graphics or a world that you can explore.  Rather you click though a series of screens that ask you to make various decisions, such as whether to replace the sewage system in your town or try to improve the air quality.  The decisions you make either deplete or increase your town’s funds, represented by coins.  The decisions you make may also improve or fail to improve the lives of your townspeople, whose misfortune is represented in coffins (ew?).  The game is quite short, but I still think I got a bit of knowledge out of it.  For example, my attempts to clean up the sewage system improved the people’s lives, but when I tried to clean up the air the game told me that my progressive policies were before my time.  Improving the air met too much resistance from factory owners, so I spend tons of money, but the coffins piled up anyway. It would’ve been great if this game were a full-length, fully immersive game like Pox and City.  That way the player could truly experience the poor living conditions the townspeople faced during the Industrial Revolution.

Muck and Brass

The bodies pile up if you don’t improve the sewage system in “Muck and Brass.”

If I were to plan a historical learning game, I would create a multi-player scenario around the art market in the 17th century Netherlands.  Players could choose the roles of various historical painters, such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, or Jan Steen, and dealers such as Gerrit or Hendrick van Uylenburgh.  Each role would have different strengths and weaknesses.  For example, Vermeer works extremely slowly, but his paintings sell for a high price.  Steen works quickly, but is sometimes out of commission because he’s a drunk.  The points scheme would largely be money-based, with painters having to buy materials and sell their works to dealers, and dealers having to buy and sell paintings.  Both painters and dealers would have to contend with fluctuating costs of painting materials, the whims of the buying public, and disasters such as plague, harsh winters, or wars which tamp down commerce.  There would be an auction component to the game as well, using both Dutch and English auctioning structures, as historically appropriate.  The game would be year-based, so every so often, the end of the year would come and whoever couldn’t pay their debts or rent would be penalized.  There would be a finite amount of years in the whole game to limit the length of each game.

Pigments similar to those used in the 17th century.

Pigments similar to those used in the 17th century.

The game would have the benefit of teaching students about 17th century Dutch life in general, and about the unique open art market which existed in the Netherlands at that time (in countries like Italy, art was mostly commissioned by wealthy patrons or the Church).  They would learn about painting materials (all the pigments were hand ground and some colors were made of wildly expensive materials), the historical figures themselves, and about events and natural disasters that occurred at the time.  They would also learn about how to navigate different auction systems and how to balance their character’s budget.  It would also be nice to populate the game with really great images of the artist’s paintings, adding to the player’s art historical knowledge.


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