How Games Teach

I had a thought the other day about video games and their use as a teaching tool. Specifically I was thinking about how they can be used as a tool to teach history. My thought was this, “history is a much harder subject to express through video games than, let’s say, engineering, biology, or computer science (obviously, but maybe less so that we would like to think).” My reasoning is that where these disciplines can impart some relatively concrete ideas through video games and still have them be entertaining, historical games will always be plagued by a battle between content and form.

Let’s look at Minecraft. Why Minecraft? Well because besides being a spectacularly fun and ingenious game, it also has an enormous amount of potential as a teaching tool. Before I go further let me quickly summarize the game. Minecraft is a first-person adventure-survival-sandbox game originally for the PC but now found on a multitude of platforms. Imagine playing LEGO, but where the LEGO is life-sized, you are also LEGO, and this world has computer-generated environments, wildlife, and enemies. The basic premise of the game is to survive and build. The lack of objective is what makes this game so open for educational exploitation! (I will note that there was a goal added later on, but one can easily play without completing it: i.e. hunting down and slaying the End Dragon).

As an example of the usefulness of this game as a teaching tool, pretend we want to teach someone about currents, or networking, or circuits. The vanilla game comes with redstone, which is essentially wiring. With enough time and effort you can create complex systems of buttons and switches that power machines and gizmos. A friend of mine (an engineer to no surprise) created a functioning calculator using redstone and dirt. Additional mods allow for even more complex creations.

This may sound tedious, especially when the time it takes to create some of these contraptions is not measured in hours or minutes but days and weeks, but think of the results. I’ve definitely sunk several days into a creation, using trial and error, learning from my mistakes to create multi-floor elevators. Not even a primary component to a project, just an aside. In doing so I had to think about how circuits work, logic gates, power consumption (the mod I was using required this) and a bevy of other ideas with which I had never been formally trained and heck, ever really dealt with in the real world. This is coming form someone who stopped taking math and physics classes seven years ago because the basic level confused me to no end.

Minecraft is an exceptional tool for teaching content-based ideas. Does A + B = C? yes? no!? Trial and error to find out, fail if you do, that is half of the process. History is not a simple expression of content. there ideas, themes, conceptual frameworks that are difficult to present in such a straightforward method. If history were easy to put into video games Call of Duty would be acclaimed by historians.

The problem here, I think, is with the form rather than the content. How can we create games which allow for the exploration of historical concepts the way Minecraft allows the exploration of the natural world, physics, and science? Perhaps the issue is quantity of content?

Minecraft and its peers have their entire game designed with the manipulation of the world and of experimenting with things as the core concept. It is much harder to do this with history. The player would not simply be interacting with the environment, but also people who have free will. Creating an exploratory world inhabited by large numbers of free agents is complicated and beyond the realistic capabilities of today’s consumer hardware. Some games allow for detailed user-interaction but these instances are often limited. Mass Effect, for example, allowed for a massive number of story options but ultimately drove the plot to the same batch of endings. This is true for most first-person games. Even with a degree of choice the constraints of the game as a piece of software and programming require the narrative to be restricted to a handful of endings. This, to me, is simply a more complex version of the on-a-rail style of game, where players can chose their own story for the in-between moments but are required to always experience the key events in the same way. Not to say that this style of gaming is bad or even that it lacks creativity, far from it. My favorite game, Half Life, is exactly this style of play and through a creative story and interesting plot development it presents the player with an immersive experience, but one that is still formulated like a book: progression of ideas/events towards a singular conclusion.

What about history though? I would argue that the content is irrelevant for an historical game. The setting is not as important and the framework of the game. As I said previously, a game where the player could interact with numerous agents, and whose interactions would carry through to other entities within the game, would be wildly beneficial to the process of historical game creation. This would counteract the premise that most games hold, an idea which is contrary to the telling of good history I think, that the player is somehow uniquely different or better than the other agents that inhabit the world. The player is always stronger, tougher, faster, and more intelligent. These traits are usually countered by the multitude of enemies/obstacles rather than with quality of problems. History is not like this. Arguably one could say that many key historical figures had wealth or power at their disposal that allowed them to achieve greater things, or that certain people were able to rise to predominance due to inherent skills or traits, but this ultimately leads to an old-school telling of history as the story of “old white men.” If we want to engage with history at a closer level we need to deal with the average person and look at the interactions that regular folk had.

This is where storytelling through games because very problematic. How can you tell the story of a french peasant farmer during the 15th century without adequate historical source material? You don’t. Don’t try. Stop trying. Make it up. Allow the player to weave their own fiction story. The individual story is not important. Arguably what is important is the way it is created. Provide the framework for what we know is possible. As an example I present the game Europe 1400: the Guild. The historical accuracy of this game is not important. What is interesting is the way the player interacts. You play as a peasant who has just moved into the city in [insert country here], Europe. You become skilled in a trade and through successive generations lead your familial dynasty to greatness or ruin. The game allowed the player to create a fictional history of great families over the course of several hundred years. You could start as a banker and become emperor of you country through successful deals and the acquisition of wealth and lands. Conversely you could have one generation of poor health and the family could end in ruins, as was the case of many peoples in this era. While the emperor-route was the desired goal it was not the only way to end the game: lack of an heir was another.

The interactions you had in Europa did not really impact other entities within the game. These were largely generated by the computer to influence the difficulty and to ensure that your experience was fun, but it was an interesting concept. The technology to create an in-game agent society is emerging as you read this. Games like Middle Earth: Shadow over Mordor are using the kind of quasi-societal programming that would be useful in creating historical games. Shadows is limited to the use of the dynamic game element as a key enemy system, but in the future we could see it employed on a scale that encompassed every character in the game. Such a universe would mean that (hearkening back to the 15th century peasant theme) a dirty deal with an individual in one town may come back to haunt the player three towns over, the acceptance of one faith over another would shape the player’s position in the world as a whole.

So what the heck am I saying here?

Well, the basic gist of my thought is that our current level of technical development in relation to game production is still in an infantile stage for the creation of good and immersive historical games en-mass. Until then we will need to rely on clever historians and developers working together to exploit the existing frameworks we have. By manipulating the player’s understanding of the standard game’s framework there is opportunity to engage people in historical content through games. this being said the current construction and programming of games is not as conducive to the expression of historical ideas as it is for other disciplines, but with interesting developments popping up every day it will not be too long before we can start to see games which not only engage the public but also engage history effectively.

TLDR: We need some innovative thinkers to overcome the limits of today’s game constraints if we want to be able to use games to teach history in anything more than a cursory and novel manner.

– Alex



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