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Games and History: A Fork in the Road

The title of this roundtable inquires whether Serious Games are relevant or more "educational fluff." To be blunt, the only way a critic could come to that conclusion would be from complete illiteracy with games as a form of media. There are writers far more persuasive than this author to cover the value of learning games: I suggest James Paul Gee's classic What Videogames Have to Teach About Learning and Literacy. (Editor's Note: James Gee also contributes to this roundtable.)

I hope the reader will forgive the author for treating the "fluff" accusation casually.

When designing a game for learning, the origins of design decisions are the stated learning objectives. But history-based learning objectives often suffer from an identity crisis—some objectives are about reporting the facts of what happened in the past, and some are about performing historical practices (research, source evaluation, synthesis, applying historical models to current events, etc.). A design dichotomy emerges: should the player be embedded in a historical moment in time, or be embedded as a historian? Let's explore both types of games.

Historical Experience Games
. . . history-based learning objectives often suffer from an identity crisis—some objectives are about reporting the facts of what happened in the past, and some are about performing historical practices. . .

Historical Experience Games are games that ask the player to step into an identity plucked directly out of the history books. Oregon Trail would be the premiere example of the genre, placing the player directly into the shoes of a pioneer heading down the historical Oregon Trail.

Historical Experience Games leverage several of the strengths of games as learning tools. Space only affords this answer time for one:

  • Advantage: Identity
    Games often ask the player to enter the role of a hero—someone who has a set of abilities and goals in a world. In a game like Nobunaga's Ambition, for example, the player is placed in feudal Japan as a warlord, determined to unify the country under one banner: theirs. This role can be ripped right out of history books, and lets players see the world from whatever place and time that is chosen.
  • Disadvantage: Agency versus Accuracy
    Placing the player in a role with a set of abilities empowers them to think and act as a different person than their day-to-day identity. But those choices are in direct tension with the idea of historical accuracy. A game like Civilization, for example, offers the player the ability to march through time as an entire culture and people, but that level of agency can lead to the Incas destroying the world in 1980 with nuclear weapons, or America never existing.
Historical Practice Games

Historical Practice Games are games that take a different tack than Historical Experience Games. These games attempt to place the player in the role of a historian, asking the player to take on the abilities (and limitations) of historical practice itself. This is a much less commonly explored path for historical learning games, but examples do exist.

One contemporary example is the in-development Operation Lapis, which asks the player to (in the words of its project page) "discover and subsequently translate the Lapis Saeculōrum (The Stone of the Ages)."

This game has directly embedded its own reference resource for the player to research and derive information from, which is an interesting starting point for historical practices in games.

  • Advantage: Complicated Verbs
    Designers and subject matter experts can work together to create play-based actions in a digital space that embody historical practices. For example, the iCivics game Argument Wars can be used to connect evidence with points of legal argumentation, with a judge providing feedback for each connection the player makes.
  • Disadvantage: Abstraction
    Games based on embodying historical practices will likely employ a visual metaphor to express their goals—the cards played in Argument Wars represent arguments and evidence, for example. The model in the game requires the player to be able to think about the practice in an abstract way and transfer that experience into the real-world activity.

There is much more to be said about the design decisions behind historical learning games. However, the fundamental compass to steer design and development choices remains the same: the learning objectives that must be identified before any other design decisions can be made. What the designer intends the player to learn will readily sort out which core direction a historical game should take.