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History Games: Where the Learning Potential Lies

As interactive media, digital history games have the potential to capture students' interest and imagination and engage them in historical thinking in ways that few other "non-participatory" media offer. Broadly defined, games are packaged problem spaces that can require players to apply strategy and disciplined responses to overcome obstacles and achieve goals. Historical dilemmas as posed in games are still ill-defined and subject to the interpretive challenges of a humanistic discipline. But game systems are dynamic in ways that document-based questions and narratives of the past, either in film or print, cannot be. Games can enable students to imaginatively enter a constructed historical world, interact with research-based social and political archetypes, and contemplate the consequences of their actions.

Games can enable students to imaginatively enter a constructed historical world, interact with research-based social and political archetypes, and contemplate the consequences of their actions.

The potentialities we see in digital history games are only partially realized in existing history games. But these possibilities can be seen in sources as disparate as The Sims, the iPad-based Operation Ajax, the classroom social studies simulations of the 1970s, and roleplaying games such as the Fable and Assassin's Creed series of console video games. These are simulation and roleplaying games in which social and behavioral rules and characters' motives are embedded, not obvious, and must be discerned over time.


Historical fiction and primary and secondary documents do not change based on students' readings, nor can they alert students to possible misreadings. That sort of feedback is ordinarily the domain of teachers and peers. But history simulations can become practice spaces in which students work on elements of historical understanding. Much like a well-crafted classroom unit that allows for discovery and meaningful application of skills in context, well-designed history games can call upon students to engage in historical perspective-taking, to consider cause and effect and contingency, and to draw upon warranted evidence to support conclusions—all as means by which to overcome problems. Based on failure (in the best formative sense) and feedback, students can refine their understanding as they play to win, or even play to explore narrative outcomes in an historical account.

However, the devil is in the details of a specific game's design. Like any other instructional medium, digital history games will only be as effective as the quality of design—instructional AND game—underlying them. Further, games are efficacious tools for formal instruction only insofar as their utility is considered in the context of broader curricular activity systems, including students' social and cognitive development, teachers' practices and beliefs about what and how students should learn, and competing curriculum and assessment priorities.

Points to Consider

Based on our classroom research around several middle school history games being created by CPB's American History and Civics Initiative, we suggest four broad areas for consideration when contemplating how best to design and use history games for education:

  1. Instructional design
    A history game needs an instructional design that links specific features and affordances of the particular game genre (e.g., roleplaying or simulation) to history-specific learning goals. For example, we have found that a historical roleplaying game can foster students' understanding of different historical perspectives on the American Revolution when 1) players interact with characters who represent contrasting positions in the social/political order; and 2) success in the game depends on a player's growing sensitivity to those characters' perspectives (i.e., player loses ground in the game by not attending to those differences).
  2. Teacher supports
    Teachers need clear and explicit classroom materials and activities to help them "mine" students' game experience and link their implicit and emergent understandings to more formal history knowledge and skills. Games by themselves don’t teach, but they can create rich conditions for history learning. Effective classroom games will segment game play, allowing pauses for students to discuss their decisions, read primary documents, work with vocabulary, use maps and timelines to generalize from the specifics of the game, and speculate about causes, motives, and outcomes. These activities might all be IN games, but students still need to actively construct historical understandings based on their game experiences. This posits game play as "preparation for future learning."
  3. The limits of games
    The limitations of games for history learning need to be kept in mind by designers, teachers, and students. History games generally strive to re-present and re-create historical worlds in ways that are compelling and have immediacy for players. Even though at their best they can put students in an active stance toward historical knowledge, they are themselves constructions and interpretations of history. At some point during a learning experience, critical thinking needs to be turned toward the game itself as an interpretation of the past and students need to ask what its take on the historical events is, what it emphasizes, and what it leaves out.
  4. Research needed
    We clearly need research into history games as environments for disciplinary learning. The complex cluster of abilities required to frame problems, attempt solutions, attend to (and filter out) feedback, and modify practices are aspects of metacognition whose presence cannot simply be assumed. To what extent do students connect feedback to practice? Can they reflect on failure in a history game as a means to reconsider their problem solving strategies? How does students' prior knowledge about an historical era, or even literacy strategies, influence their learning with a game? What skills do teachers need to help students mine their game experiences for history learning?