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Jeremiah McCall on Structuring Lesson Plans Using Simulation Games

Feb 13 2012 Photography, Gaming, 29 Nov 2008, sean dreilinger, Flickr CC

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

At the heart of any lesson or unit involving a simulation game is a three-step structure. First, students must learn to play the game; once they have learned to play they should observe and analyze the game; finally they must discuss and evaluate the game. Throughout these steps, the teacher serves as the critical learning expert and facilitator. This installment in my series of blog entries on games (see Part One and Part Two) explores the first two steps in detail, leaving issues of discussion, evaluation, and assessment for the next entry in the series. Before beginning, however, it is important to note these steps assume students will play the game individually or in small groups on a set of computers. This is not the only way to use simulations effectively in the classroom, however, and other configurations will be discussed in the next installment.

Graphic Organizer

Step 1: Learning to Play

The misconception persists that those born in the past 20 years are naturally gifted with the ability to play all video games. The reality is far more complicated. While it is probably the case that most students are more familiar with computers than prior generations, that level of familiarity is uneven and often of little help when playing computer strategy games. Texting on a smartphone, navigating a webpage, and connecting through Facebook are not the same as playing a historical strategy game. To press the point a bit further, students who do identify themselves as skilled gamers are often skilled at console games like Halo that emphasize hand-eye coordination and swift tactical executions rather than the slower, often more complicated strategic planning and analysis required by historical simulation games. In short, while some students take to simulation games swiftly, many more do not.

The misconception persists that those born in the past 20 years are naturally gifted with the ability to play all video games. The reality is far more complicated.

Accordingly, teachers must apply their pedagogical skills to teaching students how to play the games they will use in class. The amount of formal instruction required to learn a game will vary: short browser-based games take the least amount of time to learn (+/- 10 to 20 minutes) and complicated desktop games take the most (20 minutes to two hours). The basic steps for teaching students to play remain the same:

  1. Introduce the game: Explain to students what the game simulates and why they are playing the game. This is a good time to talk about the advantages of simulations and the idea that they are interpretations of the past, not absolute truths.
  2. Provide direct instruction on gameplay: Though it may seem counterintiuitive to lecture about a game, providing an overview of gameplay is an important first step in training students to play. Ideally, the instructor can project the game for the class to see and show students how to begin the game, execute basic decisions, and achieve goals. The teacher can provide this instruction or ask a qualified student—i.e. one who knows how to play—to do so. During this instruction students should be encouraged to take notes and ask questions.
  3. Practice: Once students have received an overview of gameplay they should shift to learning by playing the game directly. It is very important at this point not to rush students to form conclusions about the game’s representations of the past. Students can get lost and demoralized when asked to comment on the game before they have truly learned the basics. Again, the amount of time needed will vary greatly with the difficulty of the game. Whatever the amount, however, save the important analysis and evaluation questions for later. Failing to do so is an easy mistake for a teacher to make, and can undermine the entire exercise.
  4. Provide introductory gameplay goals that promote comprehension: This is most relevant for sophisticated games like Civilization that take time to play and comprehend. Rather than focus on the big picture of the game, provide students with some simple goals in-game that they cannot achieve without learning the basics of gameplay: playing to a certain year, building a specific number of things, making a certain amount of money, etc. The point is to provide students with a smaller, more manageable goal than that provided by the actual victory conditions of the game.
Step 2: Play, Observe, Reflect, and Analyze

After an initial period of learning, students should shift to observing and analyzing the workings of the simulation purposefully as they play. Since the whole point of working with simulations is to learn, not be entertained, this shift is critical. Some students can manage taking notes as they play. Many will find themselves too engrossed to do so, however, and it is a good idea to pause play for the class every 20 or 30 minutes and instruct students to spend five minutes making notes.

Providing guidelines helps foster the most effective observations. For example, students can be asked to note:

  • The role of the player in the game world and the challenges the game world presents;
  • The actions the player takes to overcome the challenges;
  • The decisions players must make between competing choices and the ways that finite resources limit the number and kinds of actions they can take in the game;
  • The strategies and actions that lead to success or failure and the measurement of success and failure in the game.

The more sophisticated the game, the more a general set of guidelines for observations will help. Many short web-based games, however, are simple enough that players can record every major choice they make, their reasons for doing so, and the impact of those choices on the game. Either way the goal of note-taking is not only to accustom students to the practice of observation and recording so critical for gathering evidence, but to encourage them to become familiar with the workings of the game—the better to reflect upon it, engage with it, and learn from the experience.

In addition to note-taking, providing students with comprehension and analysis questions helps students explore the details of the game. These are questions about basic gameplay that require an understanding of gameplay fundamentals. Screenshots from the game are helpful illustrations for these sorts of questions. So, for example, given the following screenshot from Energyville, students can identify and explain the functions of the:

Energyville screenshot

  • White buttons listed at the bottom
  • The exclamation points over buildings
  • The graph in the upper right column
  • The meter in the lower right column
  • The information provided for the petroleum option selected

These kinds of comprehension questions serve multiple purposes. First, a student must understand the basics of gameplay to answer these questions, so they reinforce what has been learned and point out what still needs to be learned. Second, they help illuminate specific components of the game—the supporting details for its interpretation of the world. The answers to these questions provide observational evidence that students can use to unearth and critique the interpretations offered by the game.

The Role of the Teacher
The teacher is the critical conductor of this whole process.

If it is not yet apparent, the teacher is the critical conductor of this whole process. Simulation games cannot replace expert history teachers. Indeed, no resource can, for the teacher provides the critical expertise in historical thinking, as well as learning strategies to guide students in their analysis of the game. Effective teachers in classes playing simulation games are constantly on the move. Here they see students struggling with the game and offer suggestions and guidance; there they overhear a historical question raised by the game and have a mini-discussion with those students. They warn of the dangers of passively accepting a computer game, raise provocative questions about the nature of the past and the games, and serve as the leader when it comes to phrasing questions, researching, evaluating evidence, and forming reasonable conclusions. True, teachers are not the dispensers of all worth knowing in this model, but they are the essential experts, the project managers without which these exercises become unreflective gameplay or passive acceptance of an entertainment company’s presentation of the past.

For more information 

McCall shares tips on choosing and evaluating history-based games for classroom use in his earlier blog entries, and introduces games including Mission US and Do I Have a Right? in Tech for Teachers.

What do you think about digital games in the classroom? Read the opinions of six teachers, designers, professors, and more in "Games and History: A New Way to Learn or Educational Fluff?"—and then share your thoughts!

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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