How Should History Be Studied?
With civil unrest in several countries and historic levels of political engagement, it would seem like quality civics education is more necessary than ever. I had a person recently question me about whether games or graphic novels can really convey the depth necessary for a real understanding of history? He also questioned whether it was worthwhile to even bother teaching students a little of history when they couldn’t fully understand the depth of a historical event. For example, they thought a graphic novel like Maus couldn’t provide the appropriate conduit for learning about the Holocaust.
While my first reaction was what can any of us understand who wasn’t there. How can anyone alive in comfortable 20th century America know the smell of decay and level of suffering in Camp Sumpter (Andersonville)? On second thought though, it is a valid question. Can a game, movie, or book really convey really convey what it was like to walk the Edmund Pettis Bridge or provide a true understanding of enduring the Warsaw ghettos? Obviously historical sites, museums, and first-hand accounts provide some of the best learning experiences which I’ve discussed in the past.
The problem I had with his question was that it obligated us to only teach subjects if students could fully dig in. But then we would never start. Yes, in elementary school they may only get the highlights. In high school, they may find a greater depth of understanding, but secondary education may be the place to delve into further in-depth research. We have to start somewhere though, right? There has to be a base of knowledge and some of history’s most atrocious events should get attention early on.
Maybe Ken Burns’ portrayal of Sullivan Ballou or the Spielberg’s girl in the red coat don’t show us the whole story, but they give us insight into real moments and real people in ways that text is not always successful in conveying (at least to 12 year-olds). So games can play a pivotal role in making history both accessible and interactive for students. Should we stop there? Of course not. Should we necessarily start there? Clearly just jumping in as a slave or Native American in a Mission U.S. game without context can lead to hurt for BIPOC players and not the empathy you would want from those whose lineage reflects the colonists. But research studies clearly illustrate the powerful ways games can impact learning. So why shouldn’t we use them to improve the historical and civic knowledge of our students, especially if participation knowledgeable participation in our civic institutions is our goal? I recommend reading Gaming the Past by Jeremiah B. McCall for greater insight.
There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.
Harry S Truman
Some of the best digital learning games in modern history are based on social studies. Of course, my mind first goes to Oregon Trail. I generally preferred the banker and eventually succeeded without dying of dysentery. I had some 8-bit skill with the rifle picking up bison like there was no tomorrow. I credit that game with me still remembering about them North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company and how it started in Independence, Missouri. I can still remember the names of several of the forts and how easily cholera spread near the Platte river. I doubt a discussion or a plaque would have been so memorable.
Immediately after that one of my favorite games was Carmen Sandiego which had a and then immediately afterward to one of my favorites growing up, Carmen Sandiego. That one had a number of iterations and tv shows. I still can’t get the theme song out of my head. I credit it with helping me memorize a number of world capitals and notable sites.
Now there are modern apps for both Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego. The latter is a nicely done, more advanced version of the original. You can even have fun with Carmen on Google Earth. If you’re looking to get nostalgic though, you can play the classic games digital Breakout I created. Check out more info on BreakoutEDU if you’re interested. There are many other great new games to teach history content though.
These are some of my favorite choose-your-own-adventure style games. The games and materials are deep and thorough enough that teachers could build a solid U.S History curriculum based solely on them. The games and characters were created to represent real people and events, and the developers, working hand-in-hand with historians and relevant communities and organizations (northern Cheyenne tribe, the Tenement Museum, etc.). They were built referencing primary source documents. Does that mean that you should just dive in? Some would argue it could be insensitive. Any game or activity in a class without appropriate context, especially when it comes to history is doomed to fail. But their other materials and some meaningful discussions should be able to you garner the appropriate empathy and gravitas for the situation. But eaqch teacher knows their students best.
The Mission U.S. games, created by PBS, give students a firsthand view of what it is like to experience important moments in American history. There are currently five games that each cover a different period and,
while they cover famous figures, they focus more on the role of everyday people living through the situations. I think that makes it much more accessible for students.
- For Crown or Colony? – You are Nat Wheeler, a printer’s apprentice in colonial Boston who interacts with Patriots striving to forge a new nation and Loyalists to the crown. Your siblings each have their roles and opinions. Who will you follow in the wake of the Boston Massacre?
- Flight to Freedom – You are Lucy, a 14-year-old slave who must seek to escape via the underground railroad on a treacherous journey from Kentucky to Ohio. Will freedom in the North be all you hope or is it fraught with its own challenges? What happens when the Fugitive Slave Act is passed? Will you speak out and fight, hide, or run?
- A Cheyenne Odyssey – Settlers are beginning to settle in Northern Cheyenne territory, and as Little Fox, you must find your way. The settlers bring the military and new technologies with them while the buffalo on the plains are disappearing. Can you and your people persist?
- City of Immigrants – Lena is a young Jewish immigrant from Russia who has traveled to Ellis Island, New York. Will she be able to get in? Will she find her distant family? Can she save up to bring her parents too? The factory jobs are difficult and don’t always pay well, but what options does she have?
- Up from the Dust – The latest game tells the story of twins whose family suffer through the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. Survival isn’t a given in a hardtack world.
The games also allow for great replay since every choice the player makes changes the story so there may be paths you have yet to explore. For a more thorough understanding venture to the educator area where you can get full educator guides, additional activities, and related videos. If you have internet issues, there are downloadable versions as well.
In addition to adding two new missions in the coming year(s), the staff is working on revamping the original games to make them as compatible an awesome as the newest ones. The new missions will include mission 6 on Japanese internment and mission 7 freedom summer and the civil rights movement. You can learn more on their Facebook page.
So these are not history games and more about American government. The site was part of an effort by former justice Sandra Day O’Connor to help educate young people about the government and their rights. iCivics currently has 19 games that cover topics across the three branches of government.
You can dig into classic legal cases with Argument Wars (my favorite) or focus on the Bill of Rights by matching the right lawyers and statutes to cases covering those rights with Do I Have A Right. Get into legislation with Lawcraft and Represent Me or just decide how to spend the government’s money better with People’s Pie (easy, informative, & fun). Maybe you want to take control by trying to Win the White House and take Executive Command or just be part of the process to Activate your community and Cast Your Vote. You can take on tough challenges in Crisis of Nations or learn about citizenship in Immigration Nation.
You can also access the educator materials which include lesson plans and curriculum units.
- Sortify – This is a game in which students categorize and sort information from BrainPOP movies into bins representing key concepts. Students earn more points when sorting tiles into bins labeled with more complex concepts. Social studies related topics include the American Revolution, the U.S Constitution, continents, and world-changing women. Check out the trailer or see how to play.
- The Meaning of Beep – This is a game of context clues and synonyms. You attempt to guess the correct word given related information. For social studies try periods like the agricultural revolution or famous people like Eleanor Roosevelt. You can even cover topics like civil rights and pirates. See more on how to play.
- Time Zone X – This is a game where you try to restore order to the timeline across a number of themes. Get enough right and you can unlock other themes. Get them all in a category and receive a historical artifact. The list of topics available is immense and covers everything from Abraham Lincoln to the Zika virus. See how to play or even create your own time cards.
Civilization and Minecraft EDU
Many of the problems with educational games are that they aren’t innately fun, so many have looked to the educational value of some consumer games. Games like Skyrim Elder Scrolls V can provide some understanding of medieval Europe through the many non-player characters. Many games in the Assasins Creed franchise fairly accurately recreate various historical periods. Assassins Creed III allows for an exploration of revolutionary America. It can, like historical movies, lead to discussions of where the narrative strays from factual accounts.
Some consumer games have taken the next step though to rebrand themselves as fully functional educational tools. Minecraft: Education Edition was released last school year and has since received several updates making it an incredible learning tool across the curriculum. If you’re not familiar, you can think of it as a digital LEGO sandbox where creative opportunities abound. While it is easily suited to STEM activities, its openness makes it worthwhile for geography, history, and government as well. There are worlds and lessons already created on a variety of topics including the American Revolution, the Pyramids of Giza, or Medieval Britain. They have even remade The Oregon Trail In Minecraft.
As for Civilization, it has long been one of my favorite strategy games. Think of it like advanced digital Risk if Risk wasn’t just battle but also included political intrigue, religious implications, cultural implications, tourism, and scientific discovery that spanned time. You can see what would happen if the ancient Babylonians continued to thrive or if Alexander the Great continued to push through India or if the Mongols maintained swept Europe completely. Could Cleopatra succeed in building modern wonders or would Teddy Roosevelt be a rough rider even against ancient Rome? The characters, units, technology, buildings, and cities are all taken from real historical context, so it is easy to see the educational possibilities. In fact, Sid Meier himself said in 2016 that an education edition of Civilization is in the works. I really hope they do it justice. Similarly, you can check out Sim City Edu where students play the role of a mayor trying to balance environmental needs against community initiatives and the happiness of the community.
There are many more games and apps that are worth mentioning, but that I don’t have the time or energy to give as much info about. Perhaps in a follow-up post, I will give greater insight into the following games.
- NatGeo Kids-Videos, quizzes, and a few action games fill their list
- BBC History Games – These include games with Vikings, mummies, archaeological digs, the rise of Elizabethan England, and World Wars.
- Syrian Journey – Experience fleeing from the Syrian conflict in a desperate attempt to find safety in Europe.
- Stack the States & Stack the Countries – These simple concept games ask kids questions and allow them to balance the geographic location of their answer if they’re correct.
- Flat Stanley App – Take the beloved book character on a U.S. journey
- Hush – This game was inspired by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
- 1979 Revolution: Black Friday – You are a photojournalist and a revolution erupts around you.
- Darfur is Dying – You are displaced in Darfur and have to survive collecting water and food while avoiding Janjaweed militias. The goal is to keep your refugee camp functioning. This is a flash-based game so it may not last much longer.
- 3rd World Farmer – Agriculture in 3rd world nations comes with particular hardships like a lack of resources, wars, disease, and drought. Can you succeed in spite of these?
- Annenberg Classroom – This has a lot of civics resources similar to iCivics.
- Ayiti: The Cost of Life – Sim City Edu – You can help the Guinard family make ends meet in poverty-stricken Haiti.’
- Giant Tank – This is a game created using scratch and, despite its title, is an anti-war game. You are part of a battle between a soldier with a rifle and a tank where you are not the tank.