About the Author

Jeremiah McCall

Jeremiah McCall, PhD, teaches high school history at Cincinnati Country Day School. He is the author of Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History. He also maintains the site gamingthepast.net.

Jeremiah McCall on Activities and Assessments for Simulation Games

photography, Darian Computer/Game Room, 9 Dec 2007, Tammra McCauley, Flickr CC
Sun 25 2012

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

The goal of lessons involving simulation games is twofold: to explore systems in the past by making choices and experiencing the resulting consequences and to critique simulation games as interpretations of the past in order to develop historical criticism skills and appreciate the role of modern media in shaping our views of the past. Accordingly, after students have had sufficient time to play and observe a game, they should be provided with learning activities and assessments that facilitate these two goals.

Activities and assessments can be divided into two types. The first consists of those that focus on analyzing, understanding, and extrapolating on the models posed by a simulation game. It concerns the content of the game, the questions raised by the game about how and why people in the past acted as they did. The second type of activity focuses on evaluating and critiquing the models in a game, determining the validity of the game as an interpretation. This blog entry will deal with the former.

Before beginning it is worth remembering that recent position statements from the National Council for the Social Studies and National Council of Teachers of English emphasize training students to interpret, critique, and create new media. Though not all of the activities and assessments that follow meet this goal, many do by design.

Strategy 1: Creating a Journal or Game Blog

Gaining familiarity with how a game functions and models the past depends upon regular opportunities for play and reflection. Keeping a regular journal of gameplay is an excellent way to give students writing exercises and encourage them to consider and engage with the models involved in gameplay. As an added benefit, teachers can use the information in these journals to monitor students’ progress and understanding, and adapt lessons accordingly.

The game journal can be used to take observation notes along the lines of those explored in the previous segment. Providing opportunities for reflective writing is also a good idea. Consider variations on prompts that ask students how the game presents the past as a way to introduce them to critiquing the game. For example:

  • What does Mission US suggest the key divisions in colonial Boston were?
  • How important is money in winning a presidential election, according to Political Machine?
  • Does Energyville suggest it is possible for U.S. cities to shift to renewable fuels in the near future?

Reflections like this should be accompanied with observations from the game that support the students' conclusions.

Where the resources are available, students can also log their ideas and observations in the 21st-century analog of the journal, the blog. There are many sites dedicated to providing free blogging capabilities to individuals and groups, most notably Wordpress and Blogger.

Strategy 2: Annotating Screenshots

An excellent quick assignment that allows students to consider how a game functions is an annotated screenshot. Capturing a screenshot from a browser-based game is a straightforward affair. Both Windows and Mac OS machines have a printscreen function that will capture a picture of the browser window. The picture can subsequently be inserted into a program like Word. Students can print the image out and make annotations on the paper, or make annotations in Word or a graphics program. A general prompt for a screen annotation exercise is to explain the different features on the screen. This is a good way to develop and demonstrate an understanding of core gameplay. Another effective prompt is to take a screenshot and explain the current situation of the player.

Strategy 3: Composing Analytical Essays

Students can develop their skills of critical observation, analysis, and writing by studying a game just as they can a film, text, image, or other representation. The key to such essays is to teach and require students to provide detailed specific observations from the game to support their interpretation of it. Strictly speaking, essays on games can be divided into two types: those that focus on analyzing how the game represents the past, and those that evaluate the validity of those representations. Both are useful learning exercises. My next blog entry will consider how to locate and draw upon historical sources of evidence in order to craft an essay evaluating a game. Before engaging in a full-scale evaluation, however, it is necessary to understand what exactly the game is suggesting, hence the usefulness of analytical essays on core game models. The prompts for such essays generally use phrasing like: “What does [name of game] suggest about [historical topic]?” and the evidence comes from detailed observations about gameplay and feedback.

Strategy 4: Creative Writing Exercises

The following are just a few examples of written and illustrated work that can be based off of a game’s presentation of the past:

  • A historical narrative of events in the game from the perspective of a character within the game.
  • A speech for an in-game character justifying some action, drawing on historical sources.
  • A letter or diary entry from characters who are underrepresented or missing from the game.

For more information

McCall shares tips on choosing, evaluating, and forming lesson plans around history-based games for classroom use in his earlier blog entries. Check out Tech for Teachers for his introductions to games including Mission US and Do I Have a Right?.

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!

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