Playing in History

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A review by Robert Berge, written for HIST 5V71 in Fall 2011

[edit] Playing and Gaming (in the study and pedagogy of Humanities)

The question of the place of playing and gaming in the Humanities and in particular History is one that has begun to generate a lot of debate. Most digitial humanists are all for it, although many see it being most useful under certain parameters, while there are some that challenge the idea, even referring to the notion of “Gamifying” as “bulls@it” [1]. In short, the debate rages on.

In tackling Playing and Gaming as a Featured DH project, I set about looking for websites that dealt with the issue or sites that actually had “serious games” to try out. What I found is that there is no single “project” in the sense that “The Old Bailey” or “Rome Reborn” is a singular project. What I did find was a number of websites that had articles and discussions dealing with the topic. Two that I found the most useful were: and is quite unlike most of the other sites I visited in that it has a sleek, visually appealing design, and runs the full gamut of discussing not only digital games but “analog” games as well. It is especially insightful in that it deals with games that are more well-known, and for want of a better term, “fun” (e.g. Assassin’s Creed[2] and Fallout 3[3]). In this respect it completely delivers on its mission to discuss “the intersection between cultural heritage and games/meaningful play.” With respect to this, it demonstrates its relevancy over other sites that deal more with more boring and strictly educational games.

Additionally, it has 11 regular contributors from various fields in the humanities but also encourages others to post comments and articles that may contribute to the debate. Further, by addressing both the theoretical (“philosophical”) side of the debate as well as the practical/applied side of serious gaming, it creates an ideal opportunity for others to enter the debate in a way they are most familiar or comfortable with. One of the regular contributors, Trevor Owens, along with Jim Safley (Digital Archivist), set up is a very simple website that acts as a directory for educators and students to access (via links) the many educational historical games that are available on the web. While not completely comprehensive, it is impressive. From games involving the Battle of Hastings to debating Supreme Court issues, this really is a one-stop site for teachers and students to find games that could augment their curriculum or learning respectively. The site also allows users to rate and review games.

The only drawback of is one that might not be its own fault. Most of the games that it links to are either overly simplistic, like the “Warriors” game (a Mortal Kombat type of game where you fight as one of history’s great warrior classes – e.g. Spartan, Viking, etc.), or too educational in a Peter’s Mavis Beacon teaches typing sort of way. Good examples of the latter type are found in “Do I have a right?” (where the user explores the Bill of Rights while trying to develop a Constitutional Law firm) or “Pier 21: Canadian Immigration Process” (where you choose a country of origin, fill out a questionnaire and choose a ship to come to Canada on. The game then tells you if you get in or not). Virtually all of them are designed for younger students or students with little foreknowledge of the subject matter.

Other games, like “Safe Harbor Treacherous Waters” and “Viking Quest” are rather informative in that they present a scenario and the user much make decisions regarding crew, cargo, navigation choices, etc. to successfully complete their mission. Along the way information is provided that helps the user make the best choices. The former game even allows the user to navigate a ship along the coast of Vancouver Island in the face of storms and winds.

Unfortunately, whether or not they are effective in teaching anything, I really can’t see these games being played by too many students outside of class. One is only too well aware that one is playing a game to learn something and not for the fun of play. This can have a nasty tendency to interrupt “flow”. Is it possible to stay completely immersed in these games so that you lose all track of time? When compared with first-person shooters (ugh!) or fully immersive sandbox rpgs, MMORPG’s, action or strategy games, these games cannot compare. Still, they are a worthy attempt and may sugar-coat learning for a lot of students who are afraid of texts. And that brings us back to the value of with its emphasis on more popular games. One key concept that keeps coming up in many of the articles on the site is that while many popular games might not teach history explicitly, they are extremely useful in developing historical and critical thinking tools.

Finally, how might gaming and/or sites like these inform our MRP’s? At the very least we may conceive of games that would be fun an interesting to be made as a result of our MRP’s. In my case, who could deny the sheer awesomeness of a game involving Vikings vs. Draugr (Zombies). Like “Assassin’s Creed”, the player could be fully immersed in a Medieval Norse world while unraveling the mystery of the draugr and fighting them off at the same time!!! In another sense, if we were to design games based on the subjects of our MRP’s it could perhaps compel us to look at them in new ways and ask questions that may not have otherwise asked. Furthermore, if these games were actually made, sites like these would allow us to gain feedback that would generate even more questions and avenues of approach.

In the end it all comes down to play. These two websites easily demonstrate that play can have a place in historical pedagogy either directly or indirectly. By corollary, fun is an important aspect of this. If it’s not fun then what’s the point? Why not just read the encyclopedia? Without the fun element, all we are doing is simply changing mediums.

[edit] Notes and References

  1. Graham, Shawn. “Gamification, Bulls@it, and Teaching History” Aug. 18th 2011.
  2. Meyers, Katy. “Lessons from Assassin’s Creed for Constructing Educational Games” Oct. 25th, 2011.
  3. Owens, Trevor. “The Presence of the Past in Fallout 3” Dec. 13th, 2010.
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