Tonight, on a very special Digital History

– Intro –

Act 1: The Introduction

As may be apparent from the bevy of blog-posts I have spent rambling on about games and the use of games in teaching, this very special episode of Constructed History will be a reflection on games and digital history.

Now, when I say “games” I am being fairly open about my interpretation of games for the purpose of this discussion. “Games” here could be video games, board games, interactive exhibitions, and books. What I am interested here is anything that requires problem solving or abstract thinking. I believe that games offer us a wonderful teaching tool, one that has the potential to enrich the teaching process.

– commercial break –

Act 2: Games!

Games offer us an interesting means of presenting a problem, a way of engaging with students and the public. Specifically games allow for the abstraction of ideas in ways unobtainable though conventional practices. Computer games, for example, allow human players to engage in simulation and experimentation through the manipulation of a computer-regulated environment. This environment could be as complex as a sandbox-style virtual landscape, to as simple as an image. The importance is that, given enough programming input, the player has an almost limitless avenue of options to explore. These kinds of games are particularly good at presenting grander concepts rather than “facts” and straightforward information. A game which offers limited interactivity in exchange for flaunting text or dates is failing to utilize the medium to its potential. This is not isolated to video games. Board games, card games, and any sort of game that is built around a series of rule-sets can produce abstract thinking, it all depends on the complexity of the rules and the way in which they are organized. Interactive exhibitions and geocashing-history are other examples of non-computer games which also function to derive abstract thinking and puzzle-solving from the player.

– Commercial Break –

Act 3: Why?

Why have I bothered to reexplain my position on games today? It is nearing the end of our time in HIST 5702X, a time to reflect on what we have covered and ask, “what did we miss?” …. “What I personally would have enjoyed seeing more of?”

I change the question here because I personally thought we covered a pretty wide array of topics in this semester’s class. We tackled everything from 3d models to big data. I think that, as a sampling of the Digital History gambit, our class had a good selection. I change the question to reflect my own interest. I would have loved to see more emphasis on games and gaming. Arguably this comes from my own interest in games (it does), but I also think that games should appear more in university lessons and should be an integral part of every historian’s teaching toolkit. I will give an example of why I think this.

I am a teaching assistant for an introductory European history class. The week our class was supposed to be discussing the causes of the First World War there was an error and we were not assigned any readings. Rather than present my students with a video or some dry lecture on the causes of the war I thought it would be much more interesting to have them discover the intricacies of the topic for themselves. Students were not informed before hand what was going to happen. When they arrived they were placed in groups, assigned countries, given the parameters of the game (disguised as a international conference) and told to secure the best possible deal for their nation, with the understanding that on the eve of the war they had existing obligations and goals. For the students it was a chance to put into action the information they had been learning about in a fun way. The games lasted roughly an hour, the end of which required each nation to declare its position in the world and whether or not it would go to war. Every simulation ended with war.

I could have easily have sat in front of my class and explained to them how difficult international politics are, have showed statistics on the war or the letters of the diplomats and rulers of the time, but this would never be as effective in giving the students the feeling of being caught in a diplomatic nightmare that experiencing the struggle could. The events never turned out quite as history did, but that was not the point. Students left with a better understanding of the complexities of the history, the grander ideas behind the topic, and a satisfactory feeling of having participated in something. This, above all else, is important for inspiring new generations of historians.

– commercial break –

Act 4: Conclusion

Games are definitely a major part of digital history, and perhaps this post has not really addressed the question of what is missing. Instead I would like to reaffirm my belief in the validity of games and the usefulness of games as a teaching tool, be they computer games or interactive exhibits, choose-your-own adventure books, or card games. Play games, think about them, abstract and ask big questions. These are some of the small ways we can help to improve and expand history as a field.

– roll credits –

– Alex


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