Can Video Games Teach? | Higher Ed Gamma

You may have seen an article in The Atlantic entitled “Kids Are Learning History From Video Games Now.”  Its subtitle, “More students are being exposed to historical narratives through game play—but what exactly are they being taught?” raises questions that academics need to ask as we teach a generation that has grown up with videogames.  Can videogames teach? and, if so, what can we, as instructors, learn from them.

I suspect most parents already know that their youngish children’s most intense exposure to history is taking place not in K-12 social studies classrooms, but through videogames.  Civilization was a mainstay in our household for quite a number of years, and I can attest to that game’s ability to engage users and familiarize them with various peoples from the past, even if its historical accuracy is suspect.

Nothing, in my view, better illustrates Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s concept of flow better than videogame playing. The level of engagement, immersion, and concentration that game players exhibit is extraordinary, well beyond what I have witnessed in most classrooms.

How, then, can we bottle that magic?

The Atlantic article, written by Luka Ivan Jukić, a postgraduate student in Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, focuses on Europa Universalis, which, like Civilization, is an empire-building, grand strategy game.  First introduced in 1993, Europa Universalis simulates European expansion from the mid-15th century until the beginning of the 19th century as European nations, the Ottoman Empire, and other peoples struggle for power, dominance, and colonial conquest.

In contrast to CivilizationEuropa Universalis strives to remain within the realm of historical plausibility. The styles of warfare and the diplomatic maneuvering are grounded in recognizable historical realities, as are the forms of commerce, the technological innovations, the wealth acquired through colonial slavery, and the impact of disease, demography, and geography.

Why, we might ask, has Europa Universalis been so successful?  Here’s my answer:  The game is as much about the journey than about winning or losing, as much about mastering complexity as it is about competition.

The game’s intricacy is mind blowing.  Playing the game successfully requires users to take into account not just military might or alliances, but trade and tax policies, inflation and national debt, diplomatic negotiations, and a host of other factors, much as historical leaders must. 

The game also capitalizes on the perennial appeal of “What If?” questions.  Undergirding Europa Universalis is the idea of counterfactual history:  What might have happened had certain historical variables – decisions, battle outcomes, leadership —  been different. Disease, civil wars, and insurrections hold out the prospect of altering history’s course.  The game’s utter unpredictability is a big part of its attraction.

In the wrong hands, alternate histories offer little more than feral fantasies or wild speculation.  But done right, these imaginative simulations can serve valuable functions, revealing that few events are inevitable, but are, rather, contingent.  Counterfactual histories also lay bare the alternatives, possibilities, and options that were available and remind us that different choices in the past might have led to a very different future.

Instead of describing Europa Universalis as competitive, more apt words include participatory and interactive. Games take place in a highly dynamic environment in which societies, each with its own complex internal mixture of classes, interest groups, religious denominations, and regional divisions, pursue their distinct ambitions.  Alongside geo-political rivalries, there are opportunities to forge short- and long-term alliances.

The game’s popularity lies primarily in its emphasis strategic thinking and tactical decision-making.  No element – not trade nor diplomacy nor fiscal policy – can be ignored.  Certainly, the game’s leadership focus makes it easy to minimize the human costs of war and colonialism.  But, then, wasn’t warfare the true game of kings, and don’t leaders today ignore the human implications of their actions?

The game also says little about the power of ideas and ideologies, despite some attempts to incorporate some intellectual currents into the user experience.

So what messages do Europa Universalis players take away about history and how the world works?

  • That nation states and empires are components of a much larger and intricate interacting international system.
  • That events are products of multiple causation, and that while some variables are under a country’s control, many aren’t.
  • That a variety of pressures, incentives, and forces encouraged national consolidation and the quest for overseas colonies, and that those who failed to play the great game were doomed to lose out.
  • That history is contingent.

All valuable lessons.

Jukić is certainly correct in concluding that the game presents an extreme state-centric and “realist view of international relations, where the security of the state is valued above all and the ultimate way to ensure the state’s security is by maximizing its power in an anarchic world order.”

History games have come a long way since Don Rawitsch, a Carleton College senior, introduced The Oregon Trail in 1971 to a group of Minnesota 8th graders.  Drawing upon incidents described in pioneer diaries and memoirs, that game inspired a host of emulators, including The Amazon TrailThe Yukon Trail, and Westward Ho!  Today, the videogame industry is twice the size of Hollywood.

Game-playing as a way to learn is not a new idea.  As Jukić notes, “When the Prussians defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870,” strategy games were given the credit.  Sure, even serious games tend to be “full of errors and oversimplifications,” but as the classicist Marion Kruse quite rightly argues, games “are antithetical to apathy.

When proponents speak of gamifying learning, they typically refer to gaming’s mechanics: 

  • The emphasis on active engagement.
  • The points and levels that allow game players to track their trajectory on a dashboard.
  • The micro-celebrations that mark off a gamer’s progress.
  • The game’s immersive environment that presents information through rich graphics and a variety of media: visual, auditory, and textual.
  • The timely feedback game players receive.
  • The opportunities games provide for collaboration but also for competition.

Certainly, we’d do well to consider ways of integrating these mechanisms into our own courses.

But some of videogames’ biggest contributions to pedagogy and course design lie elsewhere.  Serious games, like Europa Universalis

  • Situate users in complex and dynamic environments where the game players face the same kinds of dilemmas and choices that past leaders confronted.
  • Require players to role play, think strategically, and act tactically in settings that are not static. 
  • Demand that successful users master complexity and develop skills just-in-time.

Aren’t inquiry-, case-, problem-based learning, role-playing exercises, and mastery learning based on just these principles?

In 2011, Arizona State astrobiologist Ariel Anbar introduced one of the few truly gamified courses. Habitable Worlds, an introductory course in biology, chemistry, and physics for non-science majors, uses a game-like interface to give students the chance to determine the number of planets in a particular star field that might support intelligent life.  

By most accounts, the course has offered a highly engaging way to introduce non-science majors to the scientific method.  And yet, I’d be hard pressed to point you to similar courses.

Must we leave the development of serious gaming to videogaming technologists?  Shouldn’t our best resourced private and public universities launch experiments in this area?  Those richly endowed institutions have a duty to give back, and this is but one of many ways that these schools could share their resources.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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