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Game-based Learning, History, and Authenticity

At Filament, we believe that game-based learning has the power to change the future for the better. We also are delighted to be in the present, to see all of the new and emerging ways that game-based learning is making a meaningful impact on the lives of students, workplaces, and learners across the globe. While being present is important, and looking forward to the future is exciting, we are also enthusiastic as to what game-based learning can teach us about the past. 

The importance of the past – and how video games can place us there

Learning about history is unequivocally important. Why? We can’t put it better than the UW-Madison history department: “…history gives us the tools to analyze and explain problems in the past, it positions us to see patterns that might otherwise be invisible in the present – thus providing a crucial perspective for understanding (and solving!) current and future problems.” To know the best way to move forward, we have to know the past. What’s a particularly immersive way to learn about history? Video games, of course!

In his article titled “Historical Video Games Have Promise—but Only If They’re Honest” for Wired, freelance journalist Geoffrey Bunting writes “When I asked game developer Becky Reeve about her experience learning history in school, she told a familiar story. Textbooks remain the primary vehicle for education, which left her struggling ‘to interact with the work,’ she says. Instead, she preferred the history she found in video games because it placed her ‘directly into the world.’” Bunting goes on to note that video games are a way to actively learn, which “leads to significant increases in retention and understanding, compared with the passive methods of teaching most of us have been exposed to in school.” Games have a unique leg-up on traditional teaching methods when it comes to history because they put the student in an active role. Instead of passively reading a textbook or watching a documentary, students can learn history firsthand through choice and consequence.

In “Exploring Ancient History With Video Games,” Paul Darvasi writes that this way of learning allows students to explore different outcomes and consider multiple perspectives – ultimately helping students to think like historians. Video games that teach history, which Darvasi calls “imperfect windows into the past,” help students build 21st-century skills, especially the ability to separate fact from fiction and recognize bias.

Challenges in teaching history, with and without games

While video games can be an engaging vehicle for learning history, this does not mean that all video games taking place in the past are useful in the classroom. We’ve noted before that game-based learning for the humanities comes with a set of unique challenges. A primary challenge is that the learning objectives for these games are less concrete than those of STEM games, introducing a level of subjectivity. When talking about history specifically, learners and teachers alike must note that history tends to be preserved and then told (sometimes conveniently edited) by dominant demographics and cultures, as Bunting also notes in his article. History taught solely through one specific lens is less useful, and can be dangerous – history is more like a prism, where there is not one single side, not two sides, but many. Sometimes that prism has gaps where details have been chipped away, unrecoverable. As one can imagine, that makes history education a challenge, with or without games.

Moreover, designing video games for history education is an entirely different endeavor than designing games set in the past. For example, Call of Duty games set in WWI can boast meticulously accurate weaponry while the events and characters in the game are far from historical accuracy. Accurate features are cherry-picked from history while others are completely ignored or even reconstructed altogether in order to boost commercial appeal. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, some research has shown that a lot of players actually prefer realism to the generous reimaginings of history one can observe in many popular titles.

On the other hand, games designed to teach history can have their own pitfalls. In his article “How student-designed video games made me rethink how I teach history” University of Texas at Austin Associate Professor of History Adam Clulow describes a repeating issue that he’s noticed in games meant to depict Japanese history: “Part of the problem is that the historical content contained within games is often, with some exceptions, repetitive and superficial. While there are many games focused on Japanese history, for example, the majority reinforce the same tired image of the heroic warrior bound by the rigid code of ‘bushidō,’ a code that scholars have shown had very little to do with the daily life or conduct of most samurai.” If not created carefully, games can oversimplify events and narratives, or overstate one event/narrative over others.

Navigating authenticity and gameplay

With those challenges established, how does one create both an authentic and engaging history learning experience through games? Of course, game mechanics and learning objectives should complement one another the best that they can, but how might a studio navigate and compromise between authenticity and gameplay? 

Maybe aiming for 100% historical accuracy shouldn’t be the main goal for these learning games, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the game loses authenticity. Historians William Hepburn and Jackson Armstrong, who are creating a game called “Strange Sickness” based on medieval records, propose that “History is not a window into the past, but something made by people looking at the past through whatever evidence survives. Rather than hiding this process behind a distracting—and potentially harmful—veneer of claims to historical accuracy, we wanted historical sources and the historian’s research process to be front and center in Strange Sickness. We aimed for the game, as a form of history, to be perceived as our creation as historians.” For Hepburn and Armstrong, it is important that their game be a game – players should know that complete and total historical accuracy is impossible, for a variety of reasons. Research and sources are to be at the forefront of their game, informing players along the way not only of facts but of the gaps within the game, lost to history. Check out gameplay footage from “Strange Sickness” below!

Strange Sickness 2021-12-13 13-38-41 from Common Profyt Games on Vimeo.

Andrew Denning, professor of history at the University of Kansas, studied his students’ perception of history through video games and noted that teachers shouldn’t be afraid of historical inaccuracies in games. Immersion is important for garnering motivation to learn more, especially for a generation of students that encounters and interacts with history most often in video games.

In his journal article titled “Deep Play? Video Games and the Historical Imaginary” Denning states that “Historical video games connect the past to present, shaping historical memory and contemporary political debates simultaneously. Video games are a form of ‘deep play’ that build knowledge of the past and present, but that knowledge must be broadened through historians’ attention to structural forces and disadvantaged groups.” Video games that aren’t completely accurate, but spark deep interest, can be bridges to learning more about history, and are most useful for students alongside a teacher there to serve as a guide and an anchor into accuracy, calling out any harmful stereotypes or erasure that may occur during gameplay. Denning proposes that video games can address gaps in history and cultural memory – and that is more important than everything about these games being perfect or accurate. As long as critical thinking is involved, many games can make for useful learning tools. Check out a presentation by Professor Denning on deep play and history education below:

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Thinking like historians

Just how history is prismatic, there is not just one way to design video games to teach history or implement them in the classroom – however, it is important that students and teachers alike know that no game is a time machine, and each game will contain only bits of the past, pieced together from narratives, research, and sources. Simultaneously, game designers should carefully consider which perspective they are focusing on within their games, and be mindful not to erase or sanitize important events or details in order to prop up a more palatable story. By creating and thinking like historians, students and game designers alike can use video games to consider multiple perspectives and outcomes to explore and critically think about the past – and use this knowledge to find the best way forward. 

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