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Analyzing Game Principles Can Teach as Much as Game Content

Note: This essay focuses on simulation games, defined as those that represent the real world in some defensible ways. Most serious digital games can be considered simulation games.

Without question historical simulation games offer effective tools to learn the skills of a historian and the content of history. Simulation games offer dynamic and manipulable models of the world, interactive interpretations of how and why things have happened in the past.

To offer just a few examples:

  • The hypothesis that geography dictates the success of civilizations is    embodied in the Civilization series of games.
  • Political Machine 2008 suggests that a presidential candidate can win an    election by saying what the voters in each state want to hear.
  • The SimCity series includes the core mechanic that raising taxes increases    the unhappiness of residents.
  • Most nation- and city-building simulations advance    materialist/functionalist interpretations of the past where even features    like religion and happiness are measured primarily by their effects on the    productivity and growth of populations.
  • These are defensible—though certainly debatable—interpretations of the world of the type that can be found in modern historians' writings. They are certainly the sorts of proposals students should learn to evaluate.

    ...simulations offer great opportunities for students to test out assumptions and dissect interpretations of reality, engaging them in ways that are difficult with other media.

    Unlike the text versions of these and other theses, the power of the historical interpretations in simulation games comes from their interactivity. A lecture or reading, for example, can present the problems of scarcity all societies face, but the presentation is fixed and cannot be manipulated.

    In an effective simulation game, however, the player can face virtual conditions of scarcity, make decisions, and see the effects of those decisions over time. Better still, a simulation game can be played many times, and players can test how different decisions lead to different outcomes. Because simulation games are fundamentally sets of related variables, the player can set some variables (say, the tax rate), and see their effects on others (say, the job growth rate). This means simulations offer great opportunities for students to test out assumptions and dissect interpretations of reality, engaging them in ways that are difficult with other media.

    Games Can Impart Historians' Skills

    Playing and analyzing simulation games as dynamic interpretations can help develop important skills of the historian, including the skills necessary to:

    1. Pose meaningful questions: The variety of interactive experiences posed     by a simulation game can inspire varied, deep questions from students.
    2. Evaluate and analyze sources of evidence: Simulations are    interpretations and models, often made by commercial entertainers. They    must be criticized and evaluated, not taken at face value. Doing so in the    historian's sense requires testing simulations against other sources of    evidence.
    3. Analyze dynamic systems: Simulations are dynamic systems that model    real-world dynamic systems. Therefore they are closer analogies to the    world they represent than static (fixed and/or non-interactive) media    forms. This can help learners conceptualize the "moving parts" of real-   world systems more fully.
    4. Visualize the social, cultural, and material constraints faced by those in    the past: The prime function of a simulation game is to put players into    the virtual roles of past peoples and societies, and challenge them to solve    problems within constraints.
    5. Form and critique arguments about causes and effects in human    societies: Whenever a player feels that something in a simulation game is    flawed or unfair, they are commenting on the models of cause and effect    in the game and, by extrapolation, making a comment about their senses    of cause and effect in the world.

    Simulations have a promising future in the teaching of history as a more investigative, arguable, immersive, evidence-based discipline, rather than simply as a subject consisting of established facts.

    The Caveats

    There are two critical requirements, however, for using simulation games as serious tools for studying the past. First, simulations must be checked against other sources of evidence, not passively accepted at face-value. In such a critique, both the strengths and flaws of the game's models are useful. Students can learn just as much by researching and exposing a flawed model as by supporting a valid proposition.

    Second, the teacher must play the critical role as the expert guide to using historical skills in the class. The teacher is the conductor and facilitator, ensuring that students formally observe the games they play, ask questions about the games and the world, and form criticisms based on historical evidence. The teacher reminds students what it means to think as historians and guides them in forming their own evidence-based conclusions.

    Employed effectively, simulation games can train students to be sophisticated systems-thinkers and analysts of evidence, open to many possibilities for causes and effects, but knowing the difference between valid and invalid arguments. They can play a powerful role training students how to use the skills of professional historians to be effective and positive agents in the 21st century.