Education, History, Games: Reading, Playing & Other Resources

Apologies for the long delay! It seems like an age since we posted and somehow it’s now March!

At HGN we initially paused content in solidarity with the strike action taken by University staff across the UK. HGN decided not to post new content and cross the digital picket. This strike action continues and we will continue to support our colleagues and this may disrupt future content posts but this week we are back… and currently anticipate weekly or bi-weekly content until our next panel event!

This is a long overdue post for another reason! We have always wanted to highlight the excellent resources and other organisations working in Historical Games Studies but it is also very easy to get sidetracked as the field continues to expand. We did a reading (and playing list) for Ethics, History, Games last July and with our current theme being Education, this is an opportunity for us to point towards the excellent work being undertaken elsewhere. Our intention is to cover both past and ongoing work and this post is a brief summary. We knew there was a lot going on and we can only apologise for what what we’ve had to leave out. We’d welcome contributions from anyone who would like to dive into more detail or on resources that we’ve missed!

The following curatorial post includes a selection of games studies books that have been dealing with issues around “education” in history, games, and links to work written about them and a brief introduction to some other fantastic organisations building historical games studies. Stay tuned for more Eduction discussion posts from our guest contributors on the blog in the next few weeks, and look out for the the upcoming panel event on Wednesday 13th April at 4pm UTC.

Background Reading

First up, we’d recommend the excellent Historia Ludens: The Playing Historian (2020) which has chapters dedicated to Gaming in History Education by Juan Hiriart, Katherine J. Lewis, Alex Moseley, and Pat Cullum. Juan Hiriart in his chapter “Designing and Using Digital Games as Historical Learning Contexts for Primary School Classrooms” considers the key issues regarding historical games’ representational appropriateness, educational effectiveness, and practical implementation. The chapter explores what the main benefits of video games as historical learning contexts might be and how video games can be successfully integrated and used as an educational resource in a primary (elementary) school environment. Katherine J. Lewis in her chapter “Grand Theft Longboat: Using Videogames and Medievalism to Teach Medieval History” discusses the development of a Higher Education module entitled: ‘History and Myth: Writing and Rewriting the Middle Ages’. The module entails analysis of medieval narratives created during the Middle Ages and modern medieval narratives, especially those in the form of video games, films and television. Alex Moseley describes his experience of adopting a games-based approach to History teaching and gives a detailed account of developing a game for first-year undergraduates to improve community, engagement and skill development in “The Great History Conundrum: Could Immersive Games Enhance an Undergraduate “Skills” Course?”. Pat Cullum’s “Play as a Technique for History in Higher Education” explores the use of play and playful techniques, and especially the use of Lego, to address a variety of issues in the teaching of History in Higher Education. Cullum regards play and playful approaches as not just having a beneficial effect on engagement, community formation, and support, but on how they can help anxious and isolated students participate. They also help students to develop as conceptual thinkers and to consider abstract approaches to History.

We’d also recommend Return to the Interactive Past: The Interplay of Video Games and Histories. The second output from the VALUE team and the result of the fantastic The Interactive Pasts Conference series. Part Three of the book focuses on Historical Research and Learning through Video Games and includes contributions from Robert Houghton, Juan Hiriart, Jeffery Lawlor & Sean Smith, and George L. Vlachos. Return to the Interactive Past offers further insights and builds on the themes explored in the previous book The Interactive Past to demonstrate the different processes developers go through when they design historical games, and considers the complexity with which players interact with them. In regards to the education strand Robert Houghton in “Scholarly History through Digital Games: Pedagogical Practice as Research Method” addresses recent pedagogical developments regarding the use of digital games in history education and argues that these discussions can be applied constructively to develop games for academic historical research. In the following chapter “Life Was Really Hard! Designing and Using Digital Games to Explore Medieval Life in Primary Schools” Juan Hiriart discusses his practice-based research and experience as a game designer to examine the advantages of using games to teach history and to consider how they can be designed and integrated into the (primary school) classroom. Jeffrey Lawlor & Sean Smith discuss their work in integrating games into teaching history in college. Including case studies of games made in the course, Playing the Past: Games as Historical Narrative, Public Memory and Cultural Representation, they reflect on how to effectively combine history, games studies and computational skills into the history curriculum. The case studies on experimenting with Twine are a great insight into game-making for non-games students. George L. Vlachos in “Of Ecosystems and Landscapes: An Essay on Grasping Themes of Environmental History in Video Games” discusses the dichotomy that exists between the notions of landscape and ecosystem, and whether games can be used to exemplify key concepts and terms that feature in environmental history.

Lastly, the Learning, Education and Games series by Karen Schrier is a great resource for discovering games that align with a wide range of fields and curriculum needs – including STEM, literacy learning, history education, music, and computational, ethical, and critical thinking. Volume 1 explores specific design issues, such as aligning goals, designing for an audience, playtesting, and assessment. Each chapter provides an overview of the relevant frameworks and research findings, as well as practical case studies and useful resources. Volume 2, Bringing Games into Educational Contexts, examines the challenges of creating games and implementing them in educational settings. It covers relevant issues such as gamification, curriculum development, using games to support ASD (autism spectrum disorder) students, choosing games for the classroom and library, games for different educational environments, working with parents and policymakers, and choosing tools for educational game development. Volume 3 explores 100 different games and how educators have used the games to teach – what worked and didn’t work, tips and techniques. The games include both commercial games (Stardew Valley, Fortnite, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare) and specific games designed for educational purposes, and those that bridge the both. It also considers a broad range of platforms: PC, console, mobile, VR, AR, board, and card games. The series is useful for educators (or designers/developers) seeking an introduction to research-driven best practices for designing games for learning.

(Education) Games

What to call this section – Educational Games, EduGames, maybe time to bring back an old favourite with Edutainment? Way back when we announced the themes stated that increasingly, people are learning much more about the past from games than they are from “older” forms of popular history. One of the challenges of teaching history today is the managing, morphing, merging, and manipulating of multiple channels to “tell’ stories that then get taken as historical fact. The success of historical novels, television shows, films, and games continues to distort and disrupt popular perceptions of historical periods. Despite the success and popularity of historical games, developers have only recently started embracing the opportunities for delivering modes of play that allow a stronger educational context. Any educator that’s attempted to demonstrate a playthrough of a specific level or mission to highlight an insightful feature (or horrendous error) only to be undone by having to maintain a myriad of save game states and backups (all to be used on institutional infrastructures that don’t like having games platforms installed on them) will attest to the complexity and often admit defeat to then using a Let’s Play or other recordings. Games and game developers have increasingly considered providing more tools and more educational hooks to access content. In considering games relevant to our theme and the panel we’re going to look at The Oregon Trail, Minecraft and Assassin’s Creed.

There is an inherent challenge in how games can be redeveloped and repurposed to be allegedly brought up to date. When Games and Education are discussed, The Oregon Trail (1971; 1974) is often used as a touchpoint. Rather than seen as a single entity The Oregon Trail is more of a series of educational computer games. The first game was originally developed by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger in 1971 and produced by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium in 1974. A revised version of the original, entitled Oregon Trail II, was released in 1995 and since 2010 mobile versions have been developed and published by Gameloft. The latest incarnation of the game was released on the Apple Arcade in 2021. There are excellent resources available to help understand the development of the game such as the post-mortem by Don Rawitsch presented at GDC in 2010 and History Respawned covered the new version on mobile devices, by Gameloft, here. There is also a wealth of academic literature on the game, it’s impact on education and continued effects. Two recent examples are:

  • Elizabeth LaPensée (2021) When Rivers Were Trails: cultural expression in an indigenous video game, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 27:3, 281-295, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2020.1746919
  • Sam Pietsch (2022) The Oregon Trail is a Loop: Video Games and the Rebuilding of Racist Structures in Education, Race and Pedagogy Journal: Teaching and Learning for Justice: Vol. 5 : No. 3 , Article 1.

Minecraft, although not strictly a historical game it is fantastic game-based learning platform that promotes creativity, collaboration and problem-solving in an immersive digital environment. Educators can engage classes through pre-made content or work with them to create new content. The flexibility of the system has seen it evolve considerably over the past decade. There are several versions of Minecraft but for Educators there is a specific version (Minecraft: Education Edition). The benefits of the Education version over the commercial versions are that is is robust, secure and includes specific features and tutorials to support educators. Players can personalise their game, are provided with a wealth of accessibility features and the game allows for cross-platform play (it is available for Windows, Mac, Chromebook and iPad). Educators can use pre-made worlds and associated curriculum guides across a range of subjects or work with students to create a new ‘world’. If interested in using it for teaching history Microsoft provide a History and Culture subject kit. These ‘worlds’ allow students and staff to collaborate on projects with classmates in a multiplayer environment. Phygital Labs have lesson kits for teachers for Ancient Egypt and World War One. Other examples are the Minecraft world, Manito Ahbee Aki that explores Anishinaabe culture, community and teachings before European contact in North America. Designed as an interactive educational experience for 8 to 13-year-olds, the program was developed by the Indigenous Education team of Winnipeg’s Louis Riel School Division in association with Microsoft Canada and Minecraft: Education Edition. In our forthcoming panel we’ll be welcoming speakers to discuss and reflect on the use of Minecraft in the classroom with the Millport CARS project and the creation of Cumraecraft. You can view the trailer here:

In recent years, one of the most notable advancements of commercial developers expanding their games to have a more direct educational remit is the creation and expansion of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Discovery Tour is a dedicated educational, interactive, and combat-free experience that let players discover the history and life of the Ancient Greeks, Ancient Egyptians, and Vikings. Students, teachers, non-gamers, and players can explore the rich virtual worlds and time periods at their own pace, or embark on original stories and guided tours. The freely explorable re-creations of Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and the Viking Age enable students to visualise the landscape, architecture, and cultures. Ubisioft provide resources for teachers and learners alike to use the game as an entry point into traditional history education.

Other Resources

There are a myriad of other resources out there for students, teachers, academics. Rather than provide a non-exhaustive list we’d like to point to some of the other individuals and organisations doing great work in Historical Games Studies. Each of these provide a space for discussion, interpretation and analysis of historical games.

We’ve referred to Play the Past as a great resource for writing on History and Games. Collaboratively edited and authored, Play the Past is dedicated to thoughtfully exploring and discussing the intersection of cultural heritage (very broadly defined) and games/meaningful play (equally broadly defined). Play the Past contributors come from a wide variety of backgrounds, domains, perspectives, and motivations (for being interested in both games and cultural heritage). It has some excellent articles on education:

A frequent contributor to Play the Past, Jerimiah McCall, publishes links to all his work on his own website Gaming the Past. McCall considers the theory, design, research, and use of historical games in and beyond history education. Gaming the Past has put together an extensive reading list on using historical games in the classroom. There are a wealth of articles, presentations on reflections on using historical games in the classroom for educators to engage with.

We’re all huge fans of History Respawned – it is one of the leading video and podcast series for historical games where historians, Bob Whitaker and John Harney consider a wide range of historical video games. The series is a great place to keep up on current historical games (we have nothing but respect for how they manage to keep up to date!) but also includes occasionally classic history games. You can listen to HGN founders Adam and Esther talk with Bob on their own research:

There are over 95 episodes now of History Respawned so there is a wealth of games, academic and developer insights to engage with. In preparation for the next panel the following is worth listening to:

The VALUE Foundation was founded in March 2017 to consolidate and expand the work of the VALUE project. The latter was an unaffiliated, volunteer initiative of several individuals with a passion for gaming and academic knowledge of heritage and archaeology. As their careers have taken them into different institutions and organisations, they have renamed the VALUE project to Interactive Pasts, and continued to build on that passion. Not only do they host the fantastic Interactive Past Conference series and publish the outputs in The Interactive Pasts and Return to the Interactive Pasts but they regularly stream (historical) videogames, discussing their content and exploring the opportunities of Twitch as a platform for science communication.

There are several individuals worth highlighting as they attempt to bridge the gap between games studies, game design practice, and cultural heritage organisations:

  • John Sear is a Game Designer with a focus on Museum Games. He applies his previous games industry experience, design principles and technology background to build games that take place in the real world. Utilising public spaces & historical content have led John into working with a range of Galleries, Libraries, Archives & Museums. He has also created series of free tutorials to help museums with less resources create digital-things themselves.
  • Holly Gramazio is a game designer, curator and writer. Holly is interested in games that invite people to make something creative while they play, or that get players looking at their environment in new ways. Holly founded Now Play This, a festival of experimental game design based at Somerset House in London and running annually as part of the London Games Festival. More recent projects include writing the script for videogame Dicey Dungeons (winner of the 2019 Indiecade Grand Jury Award); putting together New Rules, a collection of essays about play during the pandemic

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