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

Practical and Ethical Concerns

In my last post, I explained why I hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend the use of historical games for the delivery of content in formal education. In particular, I considered the potential for overlapping biases, which can influence the research discourse surrounding games and learning. I also explored the potentially troubling dominance of constructivist learning theories in such discourses and the benefits this holds for policy makers and ed-tech industries within the political economy that surrounds education.

However, there are also a series of practical and ethical concerns that, in my opinion, complicate the inclusion of games for the purpose of delivering content in historical curricula. Firstly, we are still in the relatively early years of considering such questions, at least with contemporary historical game design patterns. Whilst research is developing at pace, it is still somewhat in its infancy, particularly in comparison to our knowledge about the methods that these games might replace. And this is in fact always a question of replacement, because formal education is a finite resource – there are generally only so many timetabled hours in the limited years we spend being taught a subject. To add something is therefore to take something else away. This can be a particular disadvantage to children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds that may have fewer opportunities to experience this kind of learning outside of formal contexts.

This brings us to the second point, one of ethics. If we are to take something away from a person’s education then we have an ethical duty to ensure that whatever we replace it with is of at least equal worth and effectiveness (and, of course, preferably greater). The only way we can ensure this is with rigorous and comparative empirical testing of pedagogical methods and tools. Otherwise, we are simply gambling with someone’s right to formal education of an established quality. For this reason, we must be sure of the evidence concerning historical games before making any large changes to a curriculum.

Even this required experimentation introduces its own ethical entanglements. However, these can be overcome by arranging short periods of testing that are unlikely to significantly disrupt students’ experience and outcomes over longer terms, or by testing outside of regular school hours (though in such cases we must also remain aware of the possible effects of moving a learning experience to different or more novel contexts). These issues are less pressing when working with adult learners in further or higher education, who can of course give their personal consent to participating in courses they understand to be experimental in some way.

Thirdly, there are a number of practical concerns to consider when introducing games beyond whether they are good for learning or not. After all, this is not simply a case of ensuring that games have greater relative effectiveness than existing tools, but that the increase in effectiveness is substantial enough to warrant the relative ‘costs’ of implementation (see Björn Berg Marklund’s 2015 PhD thesis for more in-depth discussion of these issues). Most obviously, there are the time constraints that are naturally a part of all formal educational settings. It is not enough for a historical game to be proven to be effective at communicating particular historical content if it also proves to take far longer than the method it replaces. Therefore, even if we can prove that a game is more effective at communicating an idea but takes three sessions to do so, we might still decide it is not efficient by comparison to a single session of, for example, lecturing. The concept of efficiency introduces a number of obvious logistical concerns beyond simple effectiveness. These include, unfortunately but realistically, the budgetary cost of implementing games and issues of equity in student access to technology (though using board games can help with both these issues).

It is also frequently overlooked that positive results from experiments that show games to be effective for learning are often somewhat attributable to the fact that students’ engagement is overseen and structured by experts in these games. That is to say (contrary to more extreme interpretations of constructivist theories) the instructional context of play can be hugely important. It is therefore unfair to expect already overstretched teachers, who may not be familiar with games, to reproduce these results without sufficient institutional support and training. This of course introduces another question of logistics and efficiency.

Games and Learning?

Do I believe that it is possible for historical games to be used for learning? Yes, absolutely. Games, as well as being systems of play, are also media forms (at least those games that have a thematic component anyway – which, by definition, all historical games must). All media must be adept at the passing of information in at least some ways in order to function. It would also seem, for example, that combining this capability with games’ systemic qualities might hold potential in terms of explanation of structural historical theories and encouraging systems thinking regarding these topics. So, there is certainly hope for historical games in terms of learning.

Furthermore, in considering historical games in popular culture, as I tend to do in my own work, these issues become far less pressing because in this context learning is a bonus rather than the primary purpose of these entertainment media. However, even in these domains it would seem the issue is more complex than previously thought, with historical games often seeming to offer engagement that might spur further learning from external sources rather than internal experiences that are deeply pedagogical (Beavers 2020). And, of course, exactly which games and which player/learners we are talking about are hugely important variables.

However, in formal education, questions about historical games become somewhat thornier for the reasons I have discussed. Namely, that there is a tangled political economy that exerts pressure on the discourse; an ethical need to ensure effectiveness through empirical testing before wide-ranging implementation and replacement; and, of course, a raft of logistical concerns to do so practically and efficiently.

We can add to these existing concerns what we already know as humanities scholars: that it is simply not possible for all media forms to do all things. In fact, they all also necessarily constrain meaning in particular ways, twisting it to fit the template of the form because, truly, the medium is always at least partly the message. As such, games may well have strengths that are useful for education, but inevitably they will also introduce weaknesses and new pressures upon content.  

Critique vs. Content

This all said, there is one way that I wholeheartedly believe that games should be part of history education. This is the aforementioned usage of games to teach students to critique the representations that they find in them. This should be taught comparatively alongside other forms of popular history, such as film/TV, documentaries and novels. The aim would be to give students a sense of how each form of history works differently, the pressures and possibilities each introduces in regards to representing the past, and to give them an opportunity to develop critical analytical skills and frameworks in regards to these historical media. This is vital because most people will receive most of their information about history from popular sources for most of the rest of their lives once their formal education is complete (which for many students will be relatively early on).

Despite this pressing fact, many, if not most, history curricula have been slow to include the consideration of popular culture as a real and continuing presence in the ongoing historical lives of students. It may seem woefully idealistic to advocate for the inclusion of games in this way when the historical education of many students will contain little, if any, consideration of even historical film or TV drama, which of course have a much longer history of their own. Nonetheless, I think there is a strong argument for including games and other media in this way, even if only briefly, to ensure that students have some tools they can apply to the playing and viewing of historical representations they are likely to engage with throughout the rest of their lives.

This is not only an issue for earlier education. Disciplinary conservatism and suspicion of theory in this regard also extends to higher education. After all, how many history departments have positions for scholars whose main focus is on historiography (particularly in popular culture) rather than positions centred only on content knowledge of a particular historical period or theme?

…Its Complicated

Though in recent years more promising research has emerged, in my opinion, we are still some distance from being able to unreservedly affirm that games are better than existing forms of pedagogy for the delivery of historical content – at least when the ethical and practical stakes are so high. And, of course, this will be an ongoing discussion. Even after careful implementation, future problems may still emerge (such as novelty effects wearing off, or students’ general experience of technology changing). Nonetheless, consideration of historical games alongside other forms of popular culture, in order to give students some skills to critique them, would seem to have at least some role.

But, beyond this, if we are to truly serve both educators and pupils, as well as our own field of historical game studies, we can only do so through a healthy and cautious scepticism. I realise here that I am probably ‘preaching to the converted’. Still, I also believe it is healthy to regularly take note of the pattern that has already been seen in wider games and learning fields. Namely, that assumptions and overblown claims help in the short-term to attract attention to, and funding for, games research. But to build discourses upon these shaky foundations only means that the inevitable collapse – when games fail to reach the impossible heights for which they have been claimed – will produce an even greater fallout. Such moments shake outsider confidence in our field far more than the admittedly slow and painstaking movements of careful, moderate and gradual science. It is for that reason, when people ask if I think historical games should be introduced in schools, my answer is that most annoyingly academic one: “Well… its complicated”. 

References

Beavers, Sian. 2020. The Informal Learning of History with Digital Games. PhD thesis. The Open University: Milton Keynes.

Berg Marklund, Björn. 2015. Unpacking Digital Game-Based Learning: The complexities of developing and using educational games. PhD thesis. Skövde Universitet. Skövde, Sweden.

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