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Jeremiah McCall on Using Simulation Games in the History Classroom

Oct 3 2011 photography, kereru game, 22 jan 2009, Flicker CC

(Note: This blog entry is the first part of a six-part series. Read more on using games in the classroom in parts two, three, four, five, and six.)

Using simulation games effectively in the classroom poses challenges. The power of such games to offer compelling and unique learning opportunities is very real, however, and well worth the effort. I invite readers to use the guidelines in this series to harness the power of simulation games. I encourage teachers to engage in their own play, experimenting with simulations thoughtfully, taking calculated risks in the classroom, wading into the chaos, and guiding students towards a more meaningful and relevant study of the past.

What is a Simulation Game?

Before jumping into the thick of it, let’s deal with two preliminary points: what is a simulation game, and what are the strengths of simulation games for history education? A simulation game is a game—computer game for the purposes of this series—that dynamically represents one or more real-world processes or systems in the past. This is a broad definition that essentially includes most—but not all—history-themed games, games that place the player in historical roles, ranging from traders and subsistence farmers, to rulers and generals.

A simulation game is a game—computer game for the purposes of this series—that dynamically represents one or more real-world processes or systems in the past.

Historical simulation games have the power to immerse students in a world of conflicting goals and choices where they have the power to make decisions and experience (virtually) the consequences of those decisions. When playing a simulation, as opposed to reading a text, listening to a lecture, engaging in a discussion, or watching a film, the learner can, ideally, confront firsthand the constraints human actors in the past faced. They can learn about the scarcity of resources, importance of systems, ties of relationships, and a host of other things. Simulations can encourage learners to consider the historical and physical contexts people in the past faced and, best of all, to view the past as a the result of myriad human choices that were not preordained in any sense.

In addition, simulation games are interpretations of the past that facilitate student questioning and criticism. Players naturally have questions and criticisms about gameplay—even history-themed gameplay. When these are fostered by the teacher and classroom environment, powerful historical inquiries can result. Simulation games can be very effective tools, therefore, for teaching the fundamentals of analyzing and critiquing historical interpretations.

General Hardware Considerations

So much for the preliminaries. The first step in actually designing a lesson or unit around a historical simulation game is to select an appropriate game. It helps when doing so to understand at least in brief the computer hardware and software required to run these games.

The first step in actually designing a lesson or unit around a historical simulation game is to select an appropriate game.

There are two main types of simulation games. The first are browser-based. These games reside on the Internet. They are almost all programmed using Adobe Flash and can be played on any Web browser that uses the Flash plugin. In practice every computer of the past decade, PC or Mac, with high-speed Internet access can play these games. Android devices that have Flash enabled and a sufficiently large screen can also play these games. IPads—lacking the functionality to play interactive Flash content—cannot. Browser-based games are free, tend to be relatively simple to play, and tend to focus on contemporary issues. Since they are often playable in 20 minutes to one hour, they are excellent choices for those new to simulation game lessons and those interested in shorter game-based lessons.

The second category of games are desktop games. These are installed on computers, mainly PCs, though some can run on Macs, particularly those with Intel CPUs. They tend to be commercial, though there are free-to-play exceptions. They tend to be designed primarily for entertainment purposes, though some are intended to make social and political statements. These games are usually more sophisticated than their browser-based counterparts. They cover a range of historical periods largely untouched by the browser games; by the same token they tend not to deal with contemporary events.

Finding Potential Games

Knowing the hardware basics is all very good, but where can one find appropriate games for classroom use? One can find all sorts of options with a bit of time and a search engine, but here are a few suggestions for starting points.

  • Gaming the Past has a comprehensive index, listing most of the viable simulation games available as of this year. The Gaming the Past website lists a portion of those games and is updated several times a year. In my opinion, these are the best places to go for desktop online simulation games (full disclosure: I wrote the book and designed the website).
  • Games for Change maintains the most comprehensive lists of games, mostly browser based, designed to tackle serious contemporary issues. The site links directly to the browser-based games to allow easy play.
  • Playing History is a comprehensive listing of online history games, many of which are simulation games. Care is needed to separate more from less useful games.
  • Special mention should be made of the BBC’s Interactive History page. It contains a number of simple but effective simulations from various parts of British history and more general European history.

One can also hunt through video game review websites looking for reviews of historical games. PC Gamer, both the website and the magazine, is my favorite of these resources when it comes to browsing for appropriate desktop games with historical themes.

In the next installment, I’ll look at what makes a simulation game effective for classroom use.

For more information 

In Tech for Teachers, McCall looks at free online games that could earn a place in your history classroom, including Do I Have a Right? and Mission US.

Read more by McCall on what historical games do best in his article at Play the Past, "Historical Simulations as Problem Spaces": "Some Guidelines for Criticism" and "The History Class".

Video games as primary sources? Read about the Library of Congress's video game collection.

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