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Achievement Unlocked? – Problematising Games in History Education – Part One

Playing with Pedagogies

Studying history in games often involves moving between diverse academic fields, regularly finding oneself amongst scholars from literary studies, film studies, media studies, educational sciences, psychology, and of course those from the more conventional sections of archaeology and history. Many of these scholars will be encountering the field of historical (or vanilla) game studies for the first time. Some will even be unfamiliar with the idea of history in games at all.

When travelling in such circles, or when doing outreach work beyond academia, it is common to encounter natural curiosity about what it must be like to study this relatively unusual topic and exactly what positions someone who does so is likely to hold or advocate. This curiosity often results in questions such as “isn’t it great to play games all day?!” and “don’t students love all your classes?!” (both statements that historical game studies scholars know to be sadly untrue). But one of the most interesting assumptions I have encountered is that to study historical games is to automatically be an advocate for their inclusion in education.

The thinking runs that if you are arguing that history in games is something to be taken seriously then it is not so much of a step to seek their inclusion in formal environments of learning. This is not an unreasonable conclusion to reach but there are some steps that are perhaps skipped along the way.

Firstly, we do not have to argue that historical games are necessarily good for learning in order to value them as an object of study. The very fact that they are a presence in popular culture and therefore, like all popular media, a site where ideas and values concerning our world (both past and present) are discussed and shared, makes them a socio-cultural phenomenon worth considering. The further fact that they can be all this without ever actually representing the past ‘accurately’ (whatever we may mean by this) is also significant. Of course, some games do offer representations that have value according to such criteria. Yet, even those games that offer history that some of us may consider to be ‘bad’ (by which we may simply mean ‘not in alignment with the aims of formal history education’) are still a presence in our societies worthy of scholarly attention. After all, they are playing some kind of cultural role that has at least some kind of stakes.

Secondly, it may well be the case that some historical games have features that may be useful in terms of learning or in terms of engaging with history in new or previously rare ways (indeed, my own work has argued the latter point rather extensively). However, the broad question whenever we consider formal education is not whether it is possible to learn through the use of a particular tool or method, but whether this is more effective than the existing tools or methods it replaces. I will return to this point later. But, put simply, it is not enough for games to be good for learning, they also have to be better than whatever they take the place of.

Both of these issues point to a third; when we talk about including games in history curricula, what exactly are we talking about? As I see it, there are generally three types of inclusion. Firstly, one can use games to teach students how to approach secondary sources that emerge from ‘non-official’ (i.e. non-institutionalised), and frequently popular, domains – investigating issues such as bias, power, engagement, and political economy. Secondly, we can use historical games more precisely to teach students about the ways in which games as a specific historical form make meaning about the past. This involves exploring how historical games function as composites of both unique formal elements (such as playful interactivity) and existing forms of narrative (dialogue, narration, video, environmental storytelling etc.), alongside issues such as the particular formal pressures that representing things through play can place on the contents they attempt to represent. In both these cases we are interested in changing what students learn but not necessarily how they do so.

Thirdly, there is the way that games as a potential element of formal education are most commonly talked about; historical games as a means to deliver historical content itself, i.e. as some kind of interactive historical textbook. By comparison, the aim in such cases is not to necessarily change what students learn but instead how they do so. This is perhaps the most difficult case to answer and where the wider discourse has often become the ‘murkiest’ in the past. (There is perhaps also an argument for another category: the use of games to teach particular skills. However, due to the way this notion has been used to promote the learning of vague ‘skills’ that cannot be easily pinned down; the contention surrounding discussions regarding situated vs. transferable skills/knowledge; and the fact that within formal history curricula these skills often are the content, I have folded this into the above category).

To advocate for the inclusion of games in this latter manner is to make fairly substantial claims about their learning capabilities, because, after all, if they are to be used to actually deliver content itself then we must require them to reach a particular level of effectiveness in regards to a formal learning structure already long in place. And, as we all know, the demands of subject curricula can often be, quite rightfully, fairly strict.

Games and Learning – Taking A Broader Look

Part of the problem here is not really found in historical game studies itself (or even history didactics) so much as the broader discourse on games and learning. Whilst there is good work out there that takes a nuanced approach to such issues, the field has also often suffered from overblown claims based on shaky science. In part, this is understandable because there are a series of overlapping biases at play here.

Firstly, those of us that play games live in a capitalist society that has spent much time over the past few decades telling us not to value forms of activity that do not optimise us in ways that have a clearly defined outcome in the very base terms of capital. That we should leave such ‘childish’ activities behind and stop wasting our time. (The irony here is of course that ‘wasting’ time is precisely what simultaneously defines play and gives it much of its inherent cultural value). Of course, now that games are one of the world’s largest entertainment industries and playing them is entirely commonplace, the discourse has changed. Yet, to those of us who grew up passionate about an art form that has often been culturally maligned as a worthless distraction, arguments that present the idea that actually we have been doing something useful the whole time, simply by playing, have an inherent seductiveness.

Of course, we shouldn’t need our hobbies to be validated in such ways. Nonetheless, there is a potentially attractive component to any argument that placates that conditioned nagging doubt that the hours we’ve spent playing should have been spent doing something else. Particularly those arguments that vindicate us by telling us we have actually been learning some kind of (often poorly defined and rather ephemeral) skill the whole time.

This is not to say that games cannot teach us anything. Clearly, they are very good at teaching us some things. At the very least, they are excellent at teaching us how to play games – which are themselves often complex systems. The point I am trying to make is that these feelings of vindication from the sneering that has often faced games culture make hyperbolic claims about games being a superior form for learning all the more alluring. There is an understandable draw to studies that promise us that games will save the world and we may be sometimes less rigorous in our assessment of their validity, simply because these studies tell us something we all want to hear. That we were right all along and this activity and media form is indeed valuable in the rather cynical terms through which our late capitalist societies tend to assign worth.

For those of us that work with games as scholars, this has been further compounded by the uphill battle to be taken seriously that has faced our fields over the past twenty years or so. It has taken an enormous amount of work to convince other academics, disciplines, funding bodies and institutions to dedicate to games the very real resources of open-mindedness, time and attention – even before allocating the palpable material lifeblood of academia, such as funding and institutional support. This has required games to, in a sense, be ‘sold’ as serious cultural artefacts, rhetoric for which the games and learning discourse has often been only too happy to provide. And what better way to sell games to educators than the notion that we might all just have been learning when playing them? This of course also makes games a form of learning that in turn sells itself to users – after all, it’s generally easier to encourage people to play games for hundreds of hours than it is to convince them to spend that time reading textbooks. In this way we perhaps sometimes fall into a different though interrelated bias to the one it is possible to experience as players. Lump in the technological fetishism that is a consistent thread in contemporary cultures and this can be a heady mix indeed.

Constructivism and Political Economy

Let me be clear that I in no way exclude myself from such biases. In fact, during my master’s degree and the beginning of my PhD, I was a fully paid up member of the ‘games are going to supersede everything that came before them and are going to save the world’ crew. I was readily convinced by pretty much every academic study I saw that promised wholeheartedly that games were not just another media form with their own strengths and weaknesses but instead could do everything for everyone, if only we believed in them enough and implemented them everywhere.

However, this perspective was to become completely unsustainable once I had the opportunity to study (and eventually work) at the educational sciences department of Gothenburg University in Sweden. Here I was surrounded by people working in cutting-edge research concerning the blurring of various forms of technology and learning. Seeing the incredibly fastidious empirical work many of the researchers there carried out before making even relatively minor claims, it did not take me long to realise that this did not match much of the kind of work and conclusions I had seen in the games and learning discourse. It was also during my eventual four years as post-doc and senior lecturer in this department that I developed a better grasp of how to read and critically evaluate empirical work (I am, after all, a historian by trade!). This led me to see that grand claims were often based on very shaky methodologies when it came to games and learning.

This experience initially started from the privilege of being taught by Jonas Linderoth during his excellent games and learning course for PhD students. This was the first time that I had seen someone display appropriate skepticism towards the claims being made about games and learning in the various TED talks we have all seen, whilst simultaneously never denying that games are still worthy of study. (In his own academic work, which is absolutely worth reading, Jonas has been one of the leading figures in game studies questioning some of the claims made about games and learning). Perhaps most importantly, Jonas also differed because he grounded our thinking on this research by making clear the various traditions on the psychology of learning that exist and from which this research emerges.

For the first time, I realised that many of the most cited texts in games and learning research were developed from the assumption that constructivist theories of learning were the exclusive facts of human learning. Whilst this is not the place to go into the detail of learning theories, it is fair to make the argument that work that emerges from initial assumptions that one perspective on learning is the perspective on learning provides a somewhat skewed view that can be problematic. Particularly when, in wider learning discourses beyond games, the battle between these perspectives is far from over.

This position becomes even less sustainable once one realises the reason that constructivist ideas about learning have been so heavily leant upon (whilst remaining unacknowledged): the emphasis on self-led learning in such theories has an obvious resonance with games and often has a prime position in the politics of educational discourses. That is to say, it neatly supports the position of policy makers seeking to constrain or streamline education (particularly with regards to the costs of staffing) and of course also tech interests that see both informal learning and education as merely unclaimed domains ripe for profit making. (For those who can read Swedish, I highly recommend Jonas Linderoth’s book on the subject Lärarens Återkomst, i.e. The Return of the Teacher.)

This is not to say that all research that uses such theories as its basis is useless, far from it. But it is also important to acknowledge issues of political economy when trying to evaluate why particular theories become sacrosanct and are used to support highly contentious claims. Such is often the case, at least in my opinion, when it comes to issues surrounding games and learning.

The idea that games should be a part of every aspect of our daily existence (which we also often see in discourses regarding concepts such as ‘gamification’), is an echo of neoliberal capitalism which similarly convinces us that the machinations of capital should dominate every aspect of our personal and public life. In fact, these discourses are one and the same, because of course a lot of the surrounding impetus for these conclusions and their dissemination, particularly concerning learning, is driven by tech companies that want to make money from them.

These factors do not mean that games cannot be good for learning. Certainly, there are great researchers out there doing careful empirical research on games that shows they may well be good at doing some things that may prove to be useful in this regard. However, I do believe that the above issues also indicate that we should be extremely suspicious of these discourses and treat them carefully, because they are tangled with all sorts of biases, interests and power structures. It is for this very reason that I stop short (to many people’s surprise, given my research focus) of blanket advocation for the use of historical games in schools, at least as a tool for the delivery of content.

That is all the space we have for this post. In part two, I will continue to explore these issues by looking at some of the practical and ethical concerns surrounding the implementation of games in education, as well as considering ways in which games could still play an immediate role.

As always, thank you for joining us at the HGN!

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