PC Games and the Teaching of History

IT IS ABOUT 9:30 AT NIGHT and dozens of students sit in the library at Western Kentucky University. Some study, others chat, and many students perch in front of the library’s computers checking e-mail, typing papers, or instant messaging friends across campus, the country, and the world. A few students hover in a corner, clustered around one of the computers comparing notes about something happening on the screen. A closer look shows them playing Civilization III, a popular turn-based simulation game for the personal computer.[1] Students on other computers play Age of Empires, while still another group tries to master Europa Universalis II. At first glance these students would seem to be in violation of the University’s policies regarding the use of library computers. Nonetheless, these students are researching a paper for “History of Western Civilizations to 1648″—a required General Education course. While other parts of the course teach them various events, movements, and connections between the past and the present, their instructor hopes that computer games will help them understand how western culture packages, “uses,” and “consumes” its history.

Although the use of PC games in the history classroom might be relatively new, the ideas for these assignments and the theory behind their use borrows heavily from a number of areas and combines different pedagogical techniques. Using computer games allows teachers to recombine disparate teaching threads into something novel that will serve history education in a number of ways. First, it can help make students more engaged in the learning process and make learning more relevant to them without descending to the level of “classroom-as-entertainment.” Second, the use of PC games can help students see the relevance of multiple facets of history to their own lives, by showing that history PC games are about more than using history as a vehicle for entertainment and profit. PC games can also present a view of history that has the potential to become ingrained in our culture. Finally the use of PC games in the classroom can teach students to think critically about how history is used in our society and to understand the ways in which commodification of history through vehicles such as the History Channel and multimedia affects our understanding of past events.

Many teachers have noted that, despite efforts to bring some sense of thematic order to their subjects, students can finish the semester without having understood the coherence of the historical narrative. The problem is whether simple lecturing, class discussion, and other activities succeed in enabling students to understand the relationship between such events as the rise of Greece, the fall of Rome, the rise and spread of Islam, women in the Renaissance, African exploration, and the Scientific Revolution. Can students be taught, by these means alone, to think about the holistic narrative of history? Faced with this concern, history instructors have in the past used film as a supplement to lecturing and class discussions, in the hope of transforming “boring” old text into living history. One popular classroom supplement of this sort that led me to the idea of using PC games was James Burke’s “Connections,” a British Broadcasting Corporation show from the 1970s. In it Burke would connect a seemingly-unrelated series of events in order to describe an arc of history that was both informative and entertaining. For example, in one episode he makes a connection between the standardization of coinage in Ancient Greece and the development of the Library of Alexandria which, in turn, helped usher in the Age of Exploration. In another episode Burke links the change in climate in the 13th century to the invention of the gasoline engine in the early 20th century. The series is clever and the connections make history entertaining.

What students mainly can learn from this series—and from other classroom films when placed in context—is that within something as broad as the first half of Western Civilization, students can be taught to think of history as a chain of events. However, Burke’s “Connections” can tend toward the fanciful as is evident in episodes in which he draws a connection between the use of undergarments and the spread of the printing press or links between 9th-century Islamic astrology, immigration at Ellis Island, and the development of punch-card-operated computers (something that seems to makes sense as he tells it). The result is that, though instructive, “Connections” spans such a broad period of time that its episodes quickly move outside of the time period specified by my Western Civ course. Faced with this and other problems with the use of film, I began to wonder about using PC games in the classroom to make connections between various themes.

Then an article in the August 15, 2003 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education focused my interest on using games.[2] It discussed how James Gee, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, used the game Grand Theft Auto in a course on ethics. Originally designed as a console game, the recent PC incarnation of Grand Theft Auto, subtitled San Andreas, has the player taking the role of a recently-released convict who must complete a series of progressively violent tasks in order to win the game. Gee argued that the amorality forced upon the gameplayer in the Grand Theft Auto series, where the player wins money by mugging people, engaging in prostitution and then killing the prostitute, and gains status by dealing drugs and killing, can help students learn about moral choices in the real world. I began to wonder whether other PC games could be adapted to the history classroom, and if so, how.

I discovered that a growing body of experience and literature suggested that in fact video games can be used as an effective teaching tool, depending on how teachers employ the games.[3] Part of Gee’s argument was that video games could help people learn problem-solving skills, and that games could even be used to train people toward a certain worldview. He had pointed out, for example, that the United States Army’s America’s Army, a game initially used to train soldiers, had been found to be useful as a recruiting tool.[4] At the other extreme is the game Ethnic Cleansing, developed by a neo-Nazi organization called the National Alliance, which prompts players to run through an inner city, gaining points by killing minorities. However, Kurt Squire, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin and one of the leading researchers on the use of history games in education, acknowledges that while students might not transfer lessons from video games to the real world, they can nonetheless learn to frame historical arguments and explore factual and counterfactual themes through computer simulation.[5]

Though few scholars have undertaken empirical studies to explore the actual ways in which history games can foster the learning of history, some research was conducted in the 1970s into learning outcomes using a variety of non-digital games suggests that the games themselves are less important than the ways in which teachers use the games. Other studies have shown that the use of video games fosters novel learning outcomes.[6] Squire and Sasha Barab, for example, found that when teachers used Civilization III in an inner-city school’s world history course, students tended to become more engaged in the learning process, and that students “learn[ed] not just how to use [Civ III] but why—in effect making the tool their own.”[7] While their students had initially balked at using the game, when they realized that they could use Civ III to recreate, replay, and attempt to reverse historical situations they began to learn. For example, an attempt to play the game from the perspective of Native Americans by having them sailing to “Europe” and trying to dominate that continent led to success in some instances, failure in others. Finding this, students then explored the “how and why” of the game versus what happened in reality. Counterfactuals such as these can lead to productive discussion of why things happened in the ways they did. The study completed by Squire and Barab thus suggests that “games can be powerful tools for engaging learners” but also warns that teaching through games is a complex process that takes students some time to learn to accept.[8]

Intrigued by my reading of the research, my next step involved choosing the appropriate games to assign in my classes. History PC games litter the market, but those that have potential educational use proved difficult to find. Having played video games avidly since the mid 1970s, I was familiar with a large number of software titles. I had played Sid Meier’s Civilization series from the time of its first release, so I placed Civ III at the top of my list of possible titles. I then posed a question to the college teaching-oriented mailing list H-TEACH in the fall of 2003 asking what, if any, games other instructors used in their classrooms.[9] Because at the time very few instructors used PC games in the classroom, I received only a couple of replies, but they were quite helpful in learning how to structure assignments. Next I turned again to the educational literature to see what professionals recommended, only to learn that very few historians seemed to be using PC games, much less writing about them. Out of all of them, Kurt Squire’s influential work helped to shape how I assign games.

The best approach to choosing PC games is to treat the problem in much the same way one would decide on a book to assign for class—get a bunch of them, play for a while, and then decide what to assign. The software distributor Strategy First publishes a long list of history-oriented software titles that span the period from the Roman Empire to World War II. Because they are noted for their realism as well as their efforts to follow the historical narrative, Strategy First’s games seemed like the logical place to begin. Two weeks after a phone call to their publicity department and a brief discussion of what I needed, a box containing seven “examination copies” of PC games arrived in my office. After a few weeks of intensive game playing I settled on four titles that I would assign in various combinations over the space of a few semesters.

Civilization III, then the most recent version of the Civilization series, was my first choice. Civ III, as it is commonly known, is a game of the long duree. It begins in 2500 BCE and runs up to the present. Playing the game requires the participant to take control of the leader of a historically-based group of people, and then build that leader’s domain from a single city into a multi-city, world-spanning empire. A number of variables allow players to have different game experiences depending on how they organize the initial setup. Players can control not only which group they choose, but also whether the game arranges the landmasses of the world as a series of islands, as large continents, or as something in between. Players can preset the temperature and climate in order to vary the kinds of terrain they encounter, making game play easier or more difficult. These variables all affect the ease or difficulty of encountering the other civilizations “played” by the computer, governing such things as how well crops grow, and the presence of precious metals that can drive technological and economic development.

For example, a player might choose to play the part of the Inca and set the world variables to a wet climate and a rugged terrain spread over small islands. Another iteration might see the Russians trying to dominate a flat, arid world of large landmasses. Gameplay involves successfully taking the empire through many stages of technological, social, economic, and military development. A great deal of historical research went into creating this game, and in discussions with software developers at different companies I found that while their research programmers have Master’s degrees in computer programming, many also hold Bachelor’s degrees in history. In terms of the overall development of civilization, Civ III tends to follow a somewhat accurate line, that is, a player’s civilization must develop writing before it can build libraries or create philosophy or literature, must create feudalism before chivalry, and is required to master physics before the theory of gravity. Likewise, a player must control strategic resources such as gold, iron, fisheries, and uranium in order enable cities and civilizations grow.

For the player, control of these game is on the “macro” level because growing cities involves managing large-scale farming but not individual types of crops, sending out armies to battle but not controlling the battle itself, and managing city development but not trying to control elected officials. I settled on using Civ III as one of the two assigned games because many students would already be familiar with it and because its long timespan meant that they could play through all the years covered in class and so compare the game with other class materials. Students could play this game beginning in the first week of the semester and continue playing to the end of the course. Additionally, its “meta” view of the world contrasted nicely with the micromanagement involved in the other games I selected. Finally, I chose it because there are a number of modifications, or “mods,” available at the game’s website, one of which mirrored the Ancient World and only allowed Ancient World technology.[10] Thus, students could be constrained by the realities of the time period under consideration.

I next turned to games that focus on micro-management. In the first of these, Patrician II, students control the European trade microcosm of the fourteenth-century Hanseatic League. Here the object is to rise from the status of a humble trader to become the head of the Hanseatic League using diplomacy, city-building, piracy, and control of trade routes. As in Civ III, the physical construction of cities is important. However, Patrician II requires the management of specific kinds of buildings such as brick works, breweries, salt works, potter’s shops, and other manufactures. A player must manage trade between cities carefully because an imbalance can lead to low profits and declining trade. Arms dealing, spies, and warfare also play a part in this game. Another game, Europa Universalis II, plays in a similar fashion, though it spans a period from 1419 through 1820. As with the other games, the purpose is domination, and as with Patrician II the game is played on a “micro” level as compared with Civ III. The game divides Europe into provinces and the player must navigate the economic, diplomatic, and military tensions between various areas of Europe. A particularly instructive component to this game is the role of religion, as players must take into account the post-Reformation religious affiliation of various provinces in their diplomatic efforts. Another problem students must overcome is the role of peasant rebellions, which players must either prevent or suppress.

Finally, I looked at Microsoft’s Age of Empires II and some of the expansion units that came with it. Set in the period after the fall of the Roman Empire, it requires players to create a civilization and move it through successive phases in order to dominate the world. That world is not based on any kind of geographic reality, and despite the game’s beginnings in the “Dark Age,” the subsequent periods bear no resemblance to historical periodization. As with other games that focus on micromanagement, this one requires the player to work on individual food plots, to train armies in specific skills such as archery, and to train masons to build ever more complex walls. Over the course of several semesters, I have chosen some combination of Civ III and either Patrician II, Europa Universalis II, or Age of Empires II. In my choices, I have tried to balance the assignment of the macro-level Civilization III with the others in order to give students a comparative framework not just for game playing but also for understanding historical events and imperatives.

With the software chosen, I nonetheless encountered several problems with the ordering and pricing of the games. While software developer Strategy First was willing to give a volume discount on their titles that included Europa Universalis II and Patrician II, Civilization III was not one of them, and PC games could be quite expensive. I had decided early on that the price of PC games would mean that I could not ask students to purchase anything aside from the textbook and the games for the class—supplementary reading would have to be primary sources or articles I would photocopy and distribute. Happily, the Western Kentucky University bookstore arranged for a discount on Civ III, while other students purchased used software from Amazon.com, Ebay.com, or at a large retailer—generally for under ten dollars. One completely unanticipated problem arose when many scholarship and financial aid students found that their grants would not allow them to purchase video games at the bookstore. This was a serious issue that I have not completely resolved, and in the meantime I have been lending out my own copies or encouraging students to play on each others’ machines whenever possible. Another problem arose when students not in the course began buying the discounted PC games, requiring the bookstore to place the games behind a counter and for my students to make a special request and show proof of enrollment.

In the Fall of 2004, I announced that I would assign PC games in “Western Civilizations Through 1648,” and soon found that I had a waiting list for students to get into the class. Some students had heard of the assignment over the summer, some had seen the online syllabus I posted, but others had come into the class not knowing anything about the assignment. On the first day I brought copies of Civ III and Europa Universalis II, to class, explained the course requirements and discussed with students how the PC games would be used in class. We then talked about whether or not we could learn anything from these games. The consensus was a skeptical “maybe.” I cautioned students that they should approach playing these games in much the same way they should approach studying—play Civ III weekly, in the same way that they should read the chapters in the text. In addition, I asked them only to play from the perspective of civilizations that we would cover in the course of the semester, but to play as many different ones as possible, with as many different climate and terrain variables as possible. I stressed that this was homework — homework that could be fun, but that it was work nonetheless.

The class was off and running, but a few practical problems surfaced in that first semester. Although I had been a Macintosh user from the time of the Apple II/E up through my current iMac, I somehow neglected to anticipate that the software I had assigned was not necessarily portable to that system without the purchase of additional software that many of the Mac-friendly students did not own. Other students’ computers ran older versions of Windows that struggled with the requirements of the newer games. It also turned out that I had overestimated my students’ general abilities with a computer. Some could not load the software correctly and either required help from me or from fellow students. The Instructional Technology folks at the university solved these problems not only by allowing students to load the PC games on a few designated computers in labs on campus but also by leaving the software running on a few machines.

Classroom Activities and Learning Exercises

There are a number of pedagogical techniques for using PC games to teach history, but not all of them are practical in every school. At one extreme is an institution with so-called “smart classrooms” that contain a computer station for each student, and where the instructor can link into and watch the progress of a game as the student plays. Here games might find use as in-class tools. However, even many colleges and universities, to say nothing about K-12 schools, do not possess these kinds of resources. This means that instructors must craft assignments that students can complete outside of the classroom, as homework, and that a PC game assignment would have to take the place of another assignment such as a book or a portion of a readings packet. Given that students would play the games outside of the classroom, the main methods of evaluating student learning through PC games would seem to be class discussion and essays. In-class discussion and group work could focus on a number of topics including the difficulty of game play and the ways in which the historical narrative of a PC game differed from what students encountered in lectures, primary source documents, and textbook and other readings.

Of course, all assignments had to adhere to course objectives, which in a General Education course such as mine must be agreed upon by the department. Two of the course objectives I hoped to explore were to give students “a historical perspective and an understanding of connections between past and present” and “an understanding of society and human behavior.” The former would be more heavily emphasized, because students would be asked to analyze the way in which the present is connected to the past through the public discourse of the marketplace of video games. I expected students to synthesize the text, documents, lectures, and class discussion, using all this to analyze how the video games connected the present with the past. I postulated that the gameplay involved in Civ III would require students to make connections between scientific, religious, educational, and other components of society to advance their civilization’s development. Moreover, I was sure that PC games took for granted and promoted certain historical perspectives—perspectives that might be at odds with themes developed by lectures and class discussions. For example, students might explore Greek influence on the development of Renaissance Europe by comparing what they learned in class with how the game presents history.

Prior to assigning PC games, the take-home essay questions I have assigned have required a great deal of structure and guidance. Assigning PC games in Western Civilizations created new tasks for me. The first was to decide what I wanted students to take away from the experience. What kinds of learning outcomes was I hoping for, and how would I structure questions to push students toward those outcomes? I settled on several interrelated questions, all of which would ask them to analyze, in one way or another, how history is presented academically versus how it is presented for public consumption and why the two might differ. In each of my Western Civ classes we traditionally spend some time at the beginning discussing what makes something a civilization, and this dovetails with the first chapter of the Western Civ textbook I use. It outlines several markers for a civilization including such things as urban centers, religion, governmental and religious structures, writing, and arts. Through in-class discussion we first compared how the book definition of civilization matches our preconceptions and how these in turn compare to the ways in which the construction of the video games, intentionally or otherwise, is biased toward certain ideas of what makes something a civilization.

In one early-semester essay I asked students to focus specifically on the idea of “development” and “progress” over the course of history. Specifically, the essay question asked, “Using documents, the text, and class discussion as a starting point, analyze the ways in which civilizations develop, progress, and prosper, and then analyze the ways in which Civ III presents a different kind of progress.” Here I wanted them to look at the presentation of historical narrative within the structures we had already established for labeling something a civilization. I expected their essays to focus on how a game moves from one event to the next, how it presents various historical themes and characters, and how those presentations differed from the narrative presented in lectures, the textbook, primary source documents, and the other “presentations” they were experiencing in class.

To answer this, many students chose to reflect on a theme we pursued in the early part of the course—the role of geography or geographical determinism in the development of a civilization. In class we discuss this in relation to the growth of Ancient Greece versus Ancient Babylon, noting the ways in which poor or rich soil, terrain, and other geographic features can either help or hinder development. Students noted that in Civ III many of the same restrictions apply, and spent some time comparing the ways in which geography in the ancient world and in the game could lead to regional or, in the case of the game, world dominance. Other students focused on the development of government during the Neolithic Revolution, while still others focused on war and conquest. One problem I have found in student responses is their difficulty in achieving higher-level thinking. Specifically, many students seem accustomed to history classes where they simply repeat facts, names, and dates, perhaps stringing these into some kind of simple narrative. Consequently, many student answers tended toward a narrative of the gameplay rather than a comparative analysis of its meaning.

In another pair of short essays, I asked students to take different structures and examine how Civilization III presents these themes and then to compare them to how the other components of the course present those themes. This assignment had multiple purposes. Many of my Western Civilization students cannot argue a thesis using evidence in a structured manner. So for that assignment—and to get them thinking about the games as history—I wanted them to assess accuracy and to make an argument using evidence. I also wanted them to gain an understanding of human society, one of the course objectives. Before attempting to answer these questions, they would have begun playing a number of different civilizations to have a basis for comparing the roles of either women, the military, or outside groups in the development of the civilization as portrayed in class, versus what they found in the games. I asked them in the paper to prove the thesis “The video game Civilization III is accurate in its portrayal of gender roles across different civilizations.” Then in a follow-up short essay I asked them to disprove the proposition with regard to military combat as well as the role of religion. As part of these exercises, we cover a number of different writing strategies which students can use to make their arguments.

Students find that because of the wide-ranging characters and kinds of play in Civ III, they can easily prove and disprove most anything in answer to these questions. In focusing on women, for example, many students argued that inaccuracies included both a wider and narrower range of occupations for women in the PC games versus reality. Some women appear in PC games as government officials in societies where they would not normally be seen—for example in Greece and Rome—yet they do not appear as farmers. Many students took the disparate situations they encountered in the game and compared them to differing gender roles in Republican Rome, Athens, and Sparta. Other students noted more simplistic things related to timelines of technological, military or political development—”Rome did not develop feudalism,” “Greece did not develop war elephants.” The point of the exercise was, of course, also to teach them to construct an argument using evidence in order to prepare them for upcoming and more complex essay questions.

By the middle of the semester my students had begun playing one of the other games in addition to Civ III, and so had a “micro” game to compare to the meta-orientation of Civ III. In an assignment involving the two games, I asked students to analyze what the game designers saw as the major motivation for historical change, as evidenced by the workings of the games. They were to compare this with what had been seen and discussed in class, and also to relate this to what they had seen on television shows like those on a PBS station, the History Channel, or one of the Discovery stations. In several essays students made the case that change in PC games tended to be automatic and fairly regular, depending only on steady play. Indeed, one game designer I spoke with stated that turn-based video games operated on what he called the “slot machine principle,” offering rewards intermittently in order to keep players hooked. In making the case for historical change over time, my students tended to discuss things like war and major trauma such as the Black Plague, although they recognized at times that change could be spontaneous.

My last type of essay combined elements of some of the others, but allowed students to range over the entire time period of the course and to use a wide variety of sources to analyze the larger question of the ways in which PC games do or do not reflect historical reality accurately. Though it builds on students’ work on earlier questions, this type of question required them to delve further into the question of “why” games and television shows include or leave out certain themes. It asked them to discuss how this bias affects the public packaging of history and thus influences modern perceptions of the connections between past and present. Students could also discuss not only why but how “history as commodity” had to balance accuracy versus entertainment and to discuss the role of historical inaccuracy in our culture. Concerning the History Channel, which many of my students claim to watch, students were quick to discern that it tended to focus on war and the military, and in class discussion, they decided that the reason for this was that military history brings in viewers and therefore sells advertising time.

When asked to compare Civ III with Patrician II and Age of Empires, students, in one telling group of essay responses, claimed that Patrician II—with its in-depth of attention to historical detail, the need to manage trade on a micro level, and its attention to international diplomacy—was highly educational but not a very fun game to play. There was also a kind of hierarchy in students’ minds regarding how accurate different presentations of history had to be. History in the classroom had to be the most accurate, while still allowing for teachers’ and authors’ biases, which we analyzed and discussed in class. Next came media such as public television, followed closely by the cable channels such as Discovery or the History Channel, which my students viewed as a kind of surrogate classroom, though not quite bound by the same rules as a teacher. Last in their hierarchy came movies and video games, which only had to be accurate enough, in their minds, to be recognizable and not to be so historically bizarre as to affect playing the game.

We discussed what minimum of accuracy PC game history had to display and the class decided that PC games had to follow a correct sequence, and that characters and events taken from history reasonably had to follow true historical events. However, given the latitude allowed the player in determining the outcome and the need to sell games, students were willing to allow for a wide range of accuracy in a PC game. One concession to unreality virtually all students agreed upon dealt with certain modern sensibilities regarding race and gender. For example, students noted that in very few history PC games does one see slavery of any kind, much less racialized slavery, despite its centrality to New World history. Other students noted that, in portraying people, PC games and television shows tended to sanitize history so as not to offend, whereas they believed that history in textbooks, primary sources, and in our classroom tended not to do so. While critical of the way that the need for PC games and television shows to be profitable made creators favor combat and warfare, students recognized that this imbalance had the benefit that it got people more interested in history.

The quality of essays that students turned in varied as much for PC game-based assignments as they did for any other kind of assignment. However, I found both my students and I enjoyed the intellectual latitude afforded us by the PCs in relating the first half of Western Civilization to larger issues regarding the relevance of history in our lives. Students seemed to have become more able to analyze questions relating to specific subjects—the role of women in Rome as portrayed in the game versus what we learned elsewhere in class, for example—and did so with a great deal more freedom. Many students reported that they were more comfortable analyzing the PC game in the context of primary sources than they were simply looking at documents alone, and that discussing the games in relation to the other course documents gave them a familiar intellectual foothold for the materials.

It is interesting to note that students perceived several predominant themes regardless of which game they played. One related to the role of military power. Although a player could in a sense win the game (achieve power and dominance) in Civ III simply by developing various technologies and using diplomacy and treaties to avoid armed conflict, a player’s final score was much higher if she/he waged war, conquered adversaries, and generally tried to wipe everyone else off the map. Moreover, the civilization that first developed, manufactured, and employed space-based and atomic weapons will score much higher and win much easier than any other. Observing this led to an in-class discussion of the role of the military as an agent for change. Some students observed that the games highlight the western sense of linear time, of moving toward a set end, and the idea that progress is inevitable. Others found the games illustrated geographical determinism, a theme that we explore when discussing the rise of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, and Greece. It also was obvious that the location at which a player begins his or her first city has a great deal of impact on whether or not he/she would dominate in the game; begin in a place that is too arid or mountainous and the population will suffer from poor crops, while starting near an ocean allows fishing or settling a town near mountains brings the possibility of ore. Finally, playing the games encouraged fruitful discussions about what drove change in a society—political upheaval, epidemic disease, religious expansion and turmoil, economic development, warfare?

Steps to Take If You Want to Try Using PCs

My experience leads me to make the following observations. I found that the ways in which students approach PC assignments speak volumes about the culture of education in the United States. Basically, it turns out that any kind of assigned work is painful, and herein may lie the students’ discontent. Many of my students complained about having to play PC games as coursework in much the same way that they had complained about “regular” reading assignments. This was an interesting and totally unexpected phenomenon, given that more than half of my students self-identify as regular PC game players at the beginning of each semester. A large subset of those who claim to play historically-based PC games of one kind or another nonetheless seemed to change their perception of games when they became assignments that must be worked through instead of being played at leisure. It became work instead of play. So, instructors using PC games as a learning tool should not automatically assume that every student will find the work any more fun than some other kind of assignment.

Another issue to consider with PC game assignments is that students who tend to complete essays at the last minute will not be able to do so when history PC games are involved. Most games take hours to complete even for one iteration, let alone the several repetitions necessary to become familiar with the variables of a game and therefore to become at least somewhat adept at gameplay. Of course students will hear your warnings, as they heard mine, not to leave assignments until the last minute. Students have their own tensions—other courses, forty-hour-per-week jobs, and family issues—that factor into their abilities to work on assignments ahead of time. Nonetheless, studying history through PC games takes advanced planning and students must be forewarned. One technique I used involved having students from one semester write anonymous letters to students in the next semester giving them advice on how to deal with the class, including my quirks and the work involved in playing PC games.

A final concern you must consider is gender and PC games. In my own classes, I noticed that after the first semester of assigning video games my class population began to skew very slightly toward males. Whether this was because of the use of video games, the nature of the games I used, or because of some other factor, I do not know. I have not used PC games for enough semesters to compile any good data on the phenomenon. After three semesters, while still using the video games, the ratio became more balanced. However, instructors should take care in this area, at least until more research can be performed on the subject. While a few studies have indicated that women do not perform as well as men in spatially-oriented video games, those same studies show equal improvement during repeated playing.[11] Nevertheless, it remains true that video games tend to target males specifically as consumers and therefore video games tend to contain elements of gameplay designed to draw male consumers.[12]

After all this, what is the potential of video games in the Western Civilizations classroom? Despite some initial growing pains—which I hope this article will help teachers avoid—my students learned a great deal from the games. Teaching evaluations reflected a positive attitude toward this style of assignment, and in written feedback students commented that they liked the challenge of the games, enjoyed thinking about the subject in different ways, and despite being assigned to play, they had fun “researching” the assignments. Using PC games allows a teacher to introduce a novel element into the classroom increasing cognitive skills by bringing together an increased variety of dissimilar sources for arguments that draw on elements common to each piece. Many students take a history course because their university requires it. They expect an instructor to stand in front of the class lecturing at them about some boring materials that they feel have no relevance to their lives. Students become pleasantly surprised and challenged when instructors bring primary sources, video, and so-called “new media” such as the internet to help supplement the regular classroom lecture and discussion. Video games add another dimension to the learning experience, one that connects with elements of the outside-the-classroom-world that students experience on a regular basis.

I believe that as more teachers assign video games of one kind of another in the classroom, software developers will respond, though slowly. While mainstream commercial developers remain tied to a commercial model that turns a blind eye to the classroom applications of their products, a few specialized publishers are beginning to develop gaming software designed specifically for classroom use. A leader in this area is Muzzy Lane Software, headquartered in Massachusetts. After several years of development, Muzzy Lane released The Calm and the Storm, a turn-based simulation game set in the years 1936–1945. The game is broken down into six scenarios: “The Limits of Peace,” which spans 1936–1939; “Munich: The Politics of Appeasement,” 1938–1939; “The End of Diplomacy,” 1939–1940; “Steps to a Global War,” 1940–1942; “The World at War,” 1942–1944; and “Conclusion of the War,” 1944–1945.

This is a game that melds historical reality with teachable learning units, allowing players to compete against each other as nations, all governed by historical imperatives and economic realities. Each scenario is accompanied by key questions and themes that students and teachers can explore as they analyze the factors that led the world into war. As part of the gameplay, students and teachers can try to follow or avoid the mistakes of various leaders, and the discussion points ask students to consider economic, political, social, and cultural problems that figured in decision-making. One component of the game with great potential that makes it a valuable teaching tool allows teachers to go into the game’s programming and adjust different kinds of historical “reality.” For instance, teachers can set the game so that Japan possessed oil resources inside its borders, replay the game, and then use counterfactuals to have students analyze the ways in which natural resources play a factor in geo-politics. An instructor can make one or several nations more aggressive and then have students examine the ways in which diplomacy might break down. The teaching possibilities are endless and The Calm and the Storm is an excellent teaching resource that provides a multitude of ways for K-12 and college teachers to address themes important in their courses and for high school teachers to address curriculum standards.

For the most part, Muzzy Lane is alone in the wilderness of video games designed specifically for secondary or college level education. Most software developers see little potential for profit in classroom uses for mainstream games and tend to draw a sharp distinction between games oriented for the commercial market and games designed for teaching. However, game design is not a zero-sum game. Many games already on the market, including those outlined in this article, can be adapted for classroom use. Additionally, with very little modification in front-end design, game developers could produce games that have both classroom application and broad commercial appeal. This will take some effort on the part of software developers. But it will also require teachers to recognize the roles that video games can play in teaching. Equally important, teachers should get more involved in the game-creation dialogue with industry through responding to industry-oriented mailing lists, letter-writing, and feedback to game designers and software publishers.

There are, in fact, many resources available for teachers interested in using games in the classroom. Aside from the well-used H-TEACH, a number of mailing lists, websites, and organizations exist to discuss the ways in which teachers can use games in an educational setting. The Serious Games Initiative, headquartered in Washington D.C., seeks to “forge productive links between the electronic game industry and projects involving the use of games in education,” while the Digital Games Research Association focuses on “academics and professionals who research digital games.”[13] The International Games Developers Association maintains both a website and a mailing list that includes the use of games in education and specifically tries to build “bridges with the academic and student communities through discussion lists and forums, conferences, and scholarships.”[14]

Many students play history PC games but do not think of them as “history” in the same way as they see coursework as “history.” Yet students will likely have already encountered a history PC game—even if only through watching advertisements on television—prior to coming to a history class. Likewise students will continue to encounter this kind of history after they graduate and the classroom is an excellent place for them to begin thinking critically about this particular use of history. The use of PC games in the history classroom can help students think about the relevance of history to their everyday lives, it can help them see the ways in which history gets exploited and sold to them in public, and it can assist them in realizing how history can have an impact on their lives long after they have left formal schoolwork. An educational experience using PC games can sharpen their analytical skills, something useful to them long after leaving the classroom. All of this can be accomplished while bringing an element of play into the work of studying. Teachers should not view PC games as a replacement for any of the already-existing large array of teaching tools, but simply as the latest addition to an ongoing effort to present history in ways that enhance connections between what our students learn in the classroom and the ways in which they engage that learning in the outside world.


1. Terminology relating to video games varies with delivery. Games played on a home computer are generally referred to as PC games or computer games, while games played on machines such as a Sony PlayStation or an Xbox are called “console games,” and electronic games played in an arcade are generally called “video games.” I have used the terms “PC game” and “computer game” to refer to games played on a home computer. The name for the game Civilization III is commonly abbreviated as Civ III and I have used that convention here.

2. Scott Carlson, “Can Grand Theft Auto Inspire Professors?” Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 August 2003, A31.

3. See, for example, James Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Marc Prensky, Digital Game-Based Learning (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004).

4. See .

5. Kurt Squire, “Cultural Framing of Computer/Video Games,” Games Studies 2 no. 1 (June 2002), .

6. Ibid.

7. Kurt Squire and Sasha Barab, “Replaying History: Engaging Urban Underserved Students in Learning World History Through Computer Simulation Games,” paper presented at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Santa Monica, 2004.

8. Ibid.

9. For information on this mailing list, including how to join, see . High school teachers should see .

10. See .

11. See, for example, Michael Brown, et. al., “Gender and Video Game Performance,” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 36 (1997): 793–812.

12. Gitte Jantzen and Jans F. Jensen, “Powerplay—Power, Violence and Gender in Video Games,” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 7 (1993): 368–385.

13. See and .

14. See and .