The Value of Game Play in the History Classroom

James Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy prompted me to think about the value of game play in learning. For Gee, one value of video games is that they allow students to create an avatar in which they are able to immerse themselves in the game world. Also, Gee notes that avatars, or assumed characters, allow students to feel less threatened by risk taking, as any perceived failure is attributed to the avatar and not the player themselves. Therefore, video games serve dual benefits in allowing players to think and act as someone else, and also allow players to have less anxiety about experimentation and learning.

Clearly video games have a wealth of potential as a teaching tool. Video games could serve as a venue for the students to immerse themselves in any given historical period. Students could learn to act and think as someone else. This could ultimately serve to foster their sense of historical thinking, and ability to understand historical difference and contingency. Last week I read the work of T. Mills Kelly, and started to think about the endless possibilities new digital technologies have for teaching students, and facilitate a more active learning experience. I find arguments for the use of digital technologies, that are always increasingly becoming central to the lives, skills, and work of students, incredibly convincing, I wondered about the potential that some of these learning experiences could be recreated with less digital technology.

Could the valuable learning opportunities that video game provide be created with less digital technology? One way that this could be achieved is through live action role playing (LARP). While LARPers are often connoted with medieval battles, and other more traditional topics of nerd fascination, LARP has some serious potential to created engaged learning in the classroom. A group called “Reacting to the Past,” currently publishes how to guides for students and teachers on how to assume character roles in order to recreate and understand prominent moments in intellectual history. Whether that be the emergence of Darwinism, or the trial of Socrates, students are encouraged in this learning model to assume historical roles.

When given a topic, and character, students must read key primary documents and do research on their characters in order to construct convincing arguments. Their main task is to convince their fellow classmates/game opponents of their assigned viewpoint. This also includes researching opposing views in order to be ready to rebut opposing arguments. While students are given primary sources to read, they would greatly benefit from reading secondary research on their viewpoint in order to strengthen the argument. Successful arguments will come from thorough research. Students are also required to turn in written assignments, so that their written skills are being developed at the same time. Instructors serve a dual role, as evaluators who grade students written work and class participation, and as game master as well who serves to regulate rules and game play.

This approach to learning encourages students to think like a historical figure. This immersive experience is conducive to historical thinking. And although the outcomes of these exercises can differ from the outcomes of the past, this still teaches students why these outcomes happen. Awareness about how history could diverge, and could have turned out differently is an effective way to communicate cause in history’s important event.

However, most of the topics this group offers are centered around intellectual history, and does not challenge mainstream narratives about western linear ascendency. I think this model would be even more successful and valuable if it focused on incorporating some of history’s silenced experiences. Students could truly benefit from assuming the role of marginalized populations in order to understand how power plays a role in much of history. Although this learning model is imperfect in its emphasis on history’s big events and big characters, this model can still be built upon. With work from the instructors and research from students, more narratives and perspectives can be incorporated and experienced in the classroom. This learning model would allow students to think, speak, and write, in a manner that communicates their competence in historical thinking.

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