Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Misplaced Hope of History Gaming

History gaming is a topic I have always found very interesting and I must admit that before I started reading "Computerized History Games: Narrative Options" by Kevin Kee I was all for using video games to help students learn and engage with history. This is because history video games are one of the ways I engaged with history when I was young and they helped spark my interest. One of my favorites is CivCity: Rome (2006). This City building game places you at the very beginnings of Roman history and tasks you with building cities for the budding population while defending it from hostiles.

The game allowed me to learn about Roman daily life and customs, social hierarchy, myths, religion, military, architecture, agriculture, and geography while keeping me engaged for hours on end. One of my favorite features is the ability to zoom in on the people in the game and see what they are up to and to follow them around while they get on with their day. This game also gave me some context and visuals to refer back to when I was learning about the Romans in school. Of course, it is riddled with historical inaccuracies, which are now plain to me as a classist, but none of those problems detracted from the immersive experience, even when I went back recently to play the game through again.



However, since reading the article by Kee, I question whether historical games are a good idea at all. To be clear, I question if the type of game Kee is describing, which is one that puts the student in the place of the historian to examine a certain event or product of history with the goal of teaching them how to think like a historian, is a good idea. I still strongly believe that historical games are awesome.

In his article, Kee describes a game that is designed to teach high school students how to engage with history. He intends to accomplish this by presenting them with scenarios that require them to question historical events and sources and to collaborate with a global and/or the local community of the classroom. He is operating on the principle that history learning should not be so concerned with presenting the "correct" version of history but should allow the student to question history's interpretation.

This is where my first bone of contention lies. I agree that there is objectively no correct version of history and that we should not push established convention as truth onto students but instead encourage them to think critically. However, this is not how history is presently being taught in the classroom before university. Teachers, in general, still teach students about dates and events more then they teach them to engage with sources. This leads to problems in university when students don't know how to think, but it is a wider problem in education that we must address and it cannot be solved by good educational video games. Once we as a society have tackled this problem, we can begin to develop games to help support the classroom teaching. I fear that if we neglect to establish proper history education standards in the classroom and use video games as the way to teach these skills, it will be a lesson lost once the course material moves onto other more traditional ways of engaging with history. Furthermore, it should be the responsibility of the teacher to teach these skills in an engaging way, not that of a video game.

My next issue is that I am skeptical that scholars can produce a game designed to teach students to engage with history while still ensuring that it is fun. Can they compete with the game companies in attracting attention to their games? Where are they getting their money and is it enough to produce a good game? I don't think this type of game will have a large appeal outside of the classroom especially to teenagers who have games like Assasin's Creed and Halo at their fingertips.

I think the purpose of history games should be to help people imagine what the past might have felt like. It is also useful for teaching universals, such as what elements a civilization needs to develop, or how ancient economies worked. It is not as good for particulars because it can never be entirely faithful and can never accurately depict the world as it was. A video game is akin to a historical novel. It is immersive and incorporates many historical elements but somewhere along the line, creative liberties will be taken. This is not a bad thing, but we have to keep it in mind. And this in itself can be an important lesson that students have to learn. Educational historical games are fun, but they should definitely not replace classroom learning and I feel that Kee's article is going to far in trying to understand and create the perfect video game to teach history. Let us not forget that we have to keep the fun in the history game, and perhaps making it too realistic will detract from that fun.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to find out you are interesting in gaming Nicole ;).
    I definitely agree with you on this subject. I feel like people often want to put too much pressure on historical games, novels and films to educate and thus be historically accurate. But they do not take the format into consideration. First and foremost these three things have to be games, novels and films in order to be successful. The game Kee describes just sounds like a digitized version of an interesting history seminar. And I think that stretches both the format of a a game and of a seminar just too much.
    In my opinion, these games, novels and films have a responsibility to be as historically correct as possible in the general image they convey of the past, but other than that they should dramatize and personalize the history and, indeed, serve as a way to spark people's interest rather than fully responding to it.