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Jeremiah McCall on Historical Problem Spaces

Jun 4 2012 Photography, DECplate Flow Chart Template, 9 Feb 2009, Bill Bradford, Flickr CC

Years of working with simulation games have prompted me to re-examine and re-evaluate the content, methods, and skills of studying the past. Since last May, I have been slowly developing a new framework for using simulations games and simulation game thinking in the study of the past that I’d like to share in this last installment. This is still very much in the initial conceptual stages, but already proving successful in my own classes.

Spending time with simulation games suggests that countless human situations past and present can be studied as problem spaces. In this context, the term “problem space” borrows elements from the field of problem solving and game theory. A problem space in the historical or current political, economic, social, etc. sense can be likened to a simulation game. There are players with roles, though we would more likely term these players agents or actors. These players have motives and goals, though they may not always seek them or know them—the goals may not be rational or achievable. Player/agents have choices and strategies, though not all choices or strategies are always readily perceived, and those that observers outside the space identify may not have been choices at all at the time. Finally, the environment itself—the physical space, objects, and resources—offers affordances (aids to carrying out decisions and strategies) and constraints (limits to carrying out decisions and strategies). Additional affordances and constraints are posed by psychological and cultural factors.

That simulation games represent the world in these terms is self-evident, but it never hurts to have some specific examples:


Energyville
Player/Agent & Roles:

  • A conflation of city manager, city planner, city council with (unrealistically) extensive power to make choices about fuel sources

Goals and Motives:

  • To power the city for the future
  • To minimize and balance the security, environmental, and economic impact of fuel sources (insofar as this earns higher scores in the game)

Choices and Strategies:

  • Types of fuels to employ
  • Balance of fuel types to employ

Affordances:

  • Variety of fuel types available
  • Complete authority over the fuel types to use
  • Information on the impact of each fuel type

Constraints:

  • Petroleum is required in some amount for vehicles
  • Unpredictable future events can make certain fuel choice liabilities
  • More advanced fuel possibilities cannot be used immediately

This only scratches the surface of ways one could fill in a chart like this. The point is that simulation games, as an interactive, goal-oriented, problem-solving medium, lend themselves to this type of structure.

The study of the past becomes more a matter of problem-solving rather than simply learning information.

Why use this problem space as a means for analyzing simulation games and historical settings? Beyond the value any effective strategy provides by presenting cognitive hooks to which students can attach new learning, problem space offers several particular advantages. First, this concept aids in moving beyond identification in history education to comprehension and analysis because it requires students to move beyond terms and information to look at the relationships between agents and their goals, choices, and environment. It also provides a flexible yet clearly applicable guideline for the usefulness of historical evidence and information. If an item helps fill out the elements of the problem space it is useful; otherwise, less so. When one cannot teach, learn, or study everything, and meaning has to be made, criteria for the most useful information can benefit students.

There is also the potential for greater engagement. The study of the past becomes more a matter of problem-solving rather than simply learning information. Addressing the perennial student question of “what's the point?” a problem space analysis sets up a world with independent actors with problems that must be solved. Emphasis shifts to choices and outcomes, actual and potential. Engagement is also generated by the potential to game with the content more—in other words, to think more about the agents and their choices, including why they decided against or never considered alternative choices.

Engagement is also generated by the potential to game with the content more. . . .

Finally, I suggest that exploring the past as so many problem spaces fosters the kind of intellectual flexibility and creativity that 21st-century history education should promote. The ability to view the world in terms of the physical and intellectual interactions of agents with their own goals and choices carried out within affordances and constraints can only help students become the problem solvers of tomorrow.

How can this conceptual framework be put into practice? History educators can use simulation games to lead the way.

Play simulation games and analyze their problem spaces: Studying problem spaces in simulation games helps students gain familiarity with the concept and more readily apply it to situations beyond those in the game. Discussion of games becomes a discussion of choices, affordances, and constraints. To this end, teachers discussing simulation games should focus on the choices the players have and the obstacles and resources.

Assess the problem spaces in games in light of historical evidence: In critique, focus on how the game represents a historical problem space. When all is said and done, how reasonably, in the light of historical evidence, does the simulation game cast the player’s role and the choices available?

Start to analyze historical scenarios in terms of problem spaces: This is where simulation games, beyond being important tools for studying the past in their own right, can start to shape the way history is taught. In between readings, discussions, and lectures, have students diagram problem spaces. There are many ways one might do so. Click here to see a diagram representing one possibility. Players and roles are listed at the top, then goals, followed by choices. At the bottom left are affordances and motivations and at the bottom right are constraints and prohibitions.

Once students have sifted through the evidence and plotted out the problem space, they should be presented with some historical or hypothetical scenarios and consider how they think historical players could have and did respond given their situations. Here, the lessons of simulation gaming about the importance of choice and systems-thinking come full circle and students begin to game the past in another meaningful way.

For more information 

McCall shares tips on choosing, evaluating, forming lesson plans around, and assessing and critiquing history-based games for classroom use in his earlier blog entries. Check out Tech for Teachers for his introductions to games including Mission US and Do I Have a Right?.

What do you think about digital games in the classroom? Read the opinions of six teachers, designers, professors, and more in "Games and History: A New Way to Learn or Educational Fluff?"—and then share your thoughts!

Read more by McCall on what historical games do best in his article at Play the Past, "Historical Simulations as Problem Spaces": "Some Guidelines for Criticism" and "The History Class".

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