Are historians gamers? How about librarians, museum programmers, archivists, and social studies teachers? Do they have anything to offer game designers? I would normally guess “no” but after a week long Historical Thinking Summer Institute sponsored by Canada’s History Society at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) where I had the opportunity to engage with these professionals, consulting with domain specialists will be part of my game design process from now on.
Even aside from the conversations, just being surrounded by this community of historians while focusing on new, active strategies to teach history with games creates an environment where ideas emerge. One such emerging idea may lead to improved teacher confidence in using games by making the learning outcomes more recognizable, their application less mysterious, and ultimately encourage them see the value of learning games (also known as serious games).
The conference focused on the “Big Six” historical thinking concepts: historical significance, evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, historical perspective, and the ethical dimension, developed by Peter Seixas at the University of British Columbia (the guiding approach in new provincial curricula for teaching history in Canadian schools). We discussed pedagogy, explored MOV, visited the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, went on a historical walking tour of the Athletes Village area with John Atkin, and listened to a presentation by UBC history professor Tara Mayer. We also mashed ideas, suggested priorities, argued approaches and talked about possibilities. In the process, I gained a clearer understanding of participant’s reservations towards including games in their practices on one hand, and their optimism that games could provide some value to history education on the other.
There are good reasons for historians and game designers to be cautious of each other. Historians have seen feature films and TV shows reinvent and spin historical accounts in the name of entertainment. They justifiably assume that games have an even higher capacity to do so. Games are designed to evoke emotional responses and encourage the taking-on of character’s identities. Historical thinking deliberately takes emotions out of the mix. It emphasizes understanding the historical perspectives of people in the past by making evidenced-based inferences about them, rather than “identifying” with them.
My big revelation this past week was to recognize the complementary potential of games and any domain subject. Games commonly generate player interests in the characters, events, and stories that extends beyond the games themselves. The game world is replete with online forums, Youtube channels, conferences, and other places where players discuss and theorize on the settings and storylines. League of Legends, Civilization and World of Warcraft are prime examples. Researcher James Paul Gee refers to this as the the “Affinity Group Principle” where people are bonded through common interests, endeavours and practices.
Unpacking this behaviour has lead me to recognize that it is based on wonder, “what if’s” – or phrased in educational terms – inquiry. Games by their very nature do this. They make us want to know more about the problem placed before us. Initially this may be to progress through the game, but we are far too hard-wired for curiosity not to wonder more about the settings, characters, and situations games depict. Learning games could potentially emphasize the generation of questions, and then connect to activities that deal with domain specific outcomes that have been collaboratively designed by teams that include history professionals.
The appeal of this approach to game design is that the game and the learning activities are separated. The exploration, discovery, and identity-making that generates an emotional response and ultimately stimulates questions from players are not interrupted by the need to “edu-fy.” The formal learning activities can be presented as just that - companion activities - rather than embedding them into the game. When students claim that educational games fail when they “feel like school,” this is no doubt what they mean.
The attraction of this approach, from my perspective as a classroom teacher who is, so far, uninitiated into more formal design strategies, is that the game and the learning activities are related but also distinct. Serious Games begin with learning outcomes and require specialized approaches like the Design, Play, and Experience (DPE) Framework to combine theory, content and design. I will take this deeper dive over time. Until then, separating game play from learning activities while designing for the integration of both feels like good way to go. From the perspective of history educators, this distinction potentially make using games for learning more attractive and practical. I am hoping that my colleagues in the historical community agree.