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Gaming in the History Classroom: Lessons Learned Playing Civilizations

Posted by Scott Pollock
8 Avril 2015 - 2:08pm

Teachers have been making use of historically themed computer games in their classrooms for decades, however there continues to be debate over this. Those who take issue with the use of computer games for history education draw attention to the historical inaccuracies found within these games, question how much is actually learned from gaming, and criticize the use of games as yet another example of “edutainment”. These are all legitimate concerns. However, the emerging research on the use of computer games in the history classroom seems to indicate that when games are chosen and used carefully they can have a positive impact on students understanding of history and ability to think historically (e.g., Schut, 2007; Squire, 2004).  In particular, the emerging research (e.g., Kee and Graham, 2014), as well as my own personal experience, highlights the importance of viewing computer games as a “text”, whose narrative should be analyzed, much as with any traditional piece of historical scholarship.


My Own Use of Computer Simulations:

I have been using Sid Meyer’s Civilization series of computer games in various classes for the past thirteen years. The game, for readers who are unfamiliar with the Civilization franchise, is turn-based and strategic. Players take on the role of a civilization during the stone-age period and are responsible for its development into the near future. Players choose when and where to build cities, designate functions for citizens within these cities (e.g., researcher, entertainer), create military units, and much more. There are several ways to “win”, including conquering all of the other civilizations in your game or developing the technological ability to colonize another planet.

My initial motivation for using the game was to introduce students to several of the themes that would be discussed in our history course (e.g., How has geography shaped the development of past civilizations? What role has technology played in the rise and fall of civilizations?). With this in mind I asked my students at the start of the year to play the game in small groups, to make notes on the decisions they made during each gaming session, and finally to write a short paper in which they explained how factors- such as geography, technological development, and luck- had influenced the success of their civilization.

The results of using Civilizations in this way were mixed. Student engagement tended to be high, once students got past the initial learning curve involved with a complex game. My students also seemed to learn a great deal from their gaming experience. In particular the papers they produced after playing Civilizations demonstrated a clear understanding that external factors (e.g., geography) can have a powerful influence over the development of a civilization.

However, while my students were able to discuss the impact of factors like geography on the development of their civilization they did not seem to transfer this learning to their study of actual historical civilizations. What to do about this problem has been something of a mystery to me for many years. Thankfully, my recent reading of Pastplay (one of the books in the THEN/HiER series) has inspired me to make two important changes to my original assignment.

Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology

The book Pastplay consists of a collection of articles, produced by leading scholars, and edited by Kevin Kee. The collection covers a wide range of topics, but I was particularly influenced by arguments made in two of the papers. First, in their piece “The Case for Games in the High School and Undergraduate Classroom” Kee and Graham argue that we should cease to think of games as a teaching “tool” and should instead look to deconstruct these artefacts, much as we would in a historiographic seminar. A similar point is made by Jeremiah McCall (2014) who argues that historic simulation games are all based upon a simplification of systems that existed in the past (e.g., economic systems, political systems). These simplifications can, and should, be scrutinized by asking students to consider if they offer “defensible explanations of historical causes and systems” (p. 233).

The Revised Assignment

The idea of assessing the adequacy of the historical simulation, instead of just using it to draw attention to particular variables was very interesting to me as it suggested an avenue I could pursue to encourage my students to transfer the insights they developed playing the game into their study of actual history. With this in mind I delayed playing the simulation until much later this school year, when students had already covered a great deal of course content. I also changed the assignment so that students not only had to describe what variables had shaped their success in the game, but also had to criticize the assumptions made by the game using events from actual history as examples.

While not all students were as successful as others in completing this task, this small addition to the assignment created space for many interesting and thoughtful discussions. For example, many students criticized Civilization for offering a Whiggish version of history (my phrase not theirs), where technological progress is inherently good. Many others highlighted the limited impact of “the masses” on the progress of the game, arguing (and providing historical examples) of instances where the course of history has been driven by those on the bottom. In other words, by asking students to think about the game as a text they were empowered to engage in a more philosophic exercise, which allowed them to discuss larger historical issues such as agency, causation, and progress and decline.  While we should not rush to generalize from this single classroom example, it is indicative of the potential for carefully planned gaming in the history classroom.

Who else has been making use of historically themed games? What challenges have you faced? What have you done about them?


Kee, K., & Graham, S. (2014). Teaching history in an age of pervasive computing: the case for games in the high school and undergraduate classroom. In Kevin Kee (ed.) Pastplay: teaching and learning history with technology (pp. 270-291) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

McCall, J. (2004). Simulation games and the study of the past: classroom guidelines. In Kevin Kee (ed.) Pastplay: teaching and learning history with technology (pp. 228-255) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Schut, K. (2007). Strategic simulations and our past. Games and Culture 2(3), 213-235.

Squire, K. (2004). Replaying history: learning world history through playing Civilization III. Ph.D Dissertation, Indiana University.


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