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Part Four dealt with activities and assessments focused on analyzing and understanding the models presented by a simulation game. Now it is time to consider exercises evaluating and critiquing the models in a game, determining the overall validity of the game as an interpretation. After a sample of activities we will consider the core principles that should guide all efforts to evaluate historical simulations as interpretations of the past.
Annotated screenshot assignments provide an excellent opportunity for students to demonstrate their understanding of game mechanics. The same is true of screenshots annotated with an eye to evaluating the game. The distinction in this case is that notes made on the screenshots should address the strengths and weaknesses of the game's historical interpretation.
For a quick research and evaluation exercise, students can find (or be provided with) a valid source that deals with an element of the game. In some cases an accessible primary source can be used. The students read the source and use it to corroborate or challenge the game. This can be done in a brief oral presentation, an annotated screenshot, a reflective write-up, or a more formal essay.
- Read a primary source written by a Boston Loyalist and compare it to the Loyalist reasoning expressed in Mission US: For Crown or Colony.
- Study a map of major army placements in the U.S. at any point in the American Civil War and compare it to the setup for that same year in a Civil War simulation.
These smaller-scale evaluations can pave the way for an excellent full-class discussion where each student presents his or her findings. As a summative exercise after all the presentations, each student can write a reflection or formal paper on the overall accuracy of the game.
A formal researched essay on the ways a game does and does not reasonably present the past is an excellent high-level summative assignment. It requires a real familiarity with the game and its models, knowledge of a set of historical evidence, and an ability to compare the two and consider what can and cannot be said about the past from the evidence available. The core prompt for such essays is straightforward: In what ways does the game effectively represent the past? In what ways does the game misrepresent the past? Any formal essays on these questions must be grounded in valid historical evidence and detailed descriptions of gameplay.
Formal discussions, where students are assessed on discussing and debating the merits of a historical simulation directly with their peers, is a fantastic form of authentic assessment. When students are placed into small groups—say three to five students—and the teacher is removed from a discussion, students must engage each other in true dialogue, not just search for the magic words they think the teacher wants to hear. Such formal discussions can result in spectacular displays of engagement, curiosity, and intellectual achievement on students’ parts.
Some time prior to the discussion, students should be given a set of one to four provocative questions about how the game presents the past and the accuracy of that presentation. They develop responses to the questions based on gameplay and study of relevant evidence discussed in class and assigned as homework. During the actual discussion they may bring notes and sources with them and they must work effectively as a group to explore the questions.
Though the exact specifications for research and evaluation assignments can vary widely there are several guidelines that should inform all serious efforts to critique simulation games.
- Whenever it is feasible, students should craft their own research questions. Doing so leverages the ability of simulations to inspire questioning and provides students a far greater sense of investment in the discussions they pursue. Even when the task is to argue the main strengths and weaknesses of a game's historical interpretation, let students decide what they think those main strengths and weaknesses are.
- Criticisms must be based on valid evidence. Refer to valid historical sources and, ideally, both primary and secondary sources. Reference to primary sources and high-quality secondary sources, especially historians' works, is the critical foundation of any exercise in historical criticism.
- Criticism should focus on the core aspects of gameplay. One could spend an eternity listing the details that a game represents well or misrepresents —articles of clothing, names, types of weapons, exact figures. Such an exercise misses the whole for its parts. The real questions should be about the core gameplay, the strongest statements a game makes about the past.
- Students should consider historical elements the game represents well in addition to those it does not. Indeed when teaching students how to handle historical interpretations it is a very good idea to reinforce for them that, generally speaking, no historical interpretation is completely valid or invalid. Accordingly, students should not fall into complacent patterns of entirely accepting or rejecting a game. Instead they should push themselves to support and critique. In doing so they can develop their ability to see more than one viewpoint.
- Remember that a simulation game is a human creation. Consider and discuss why the designers made the game the way they did. Understanding how this form of media portrays the past demands considering the goals and constraints of game designers. It is vitally important to be clear that, in many if not most cases, designers intend their games to be entertaining and commercially viable. The goal then should not be to criticize designers for failing to achieve some objective standard of historical accuracy. Rather the goal is simply to understand what shaped their particular game, their particular representation of the past.
For more information
McCall shares tips on choosing, evaluating, forming lesson plans around, and assessing 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.