Why do we teach history? How do people learn best? These fundamental, multifaceted, controversial questions must be answered to understand the potential role and relationship between education and games. Over the past several weeks working on an essay regarding the colonial imagination and tropical medicine, I often caught myself drifting in and out of nineteenth century medical records wondering what it would be like to suffer from some of these diseases. What if I could play a video game where my character refused to eat tropical fruits for fear of parasites, and therefore had to move throughout the entire game sluggishly? What if I could undergo physical tests and interact with doctors, rather than just read their reports? Evidently, this digital history course has infiltrated my outlook! Reflecting on my own experiences with games and the course readings, this blog seeks to address where we go from here. How will we learn best in a digital world?
In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that my own experiences with video games are quite limited. Like my classmate Annique, I was a big fan of Brain Quest games. (For those who are unfamiliar with the idea, Brain Quest packages are like question and answer trivia flash cards for kids). I loved to play board games with my family; my favourite was Clue! My older sister saved her allowance and bought, what is now considered an old-school Nintendo Gameboy. I remember watching over her shoulder as she made Mario jump through pipes and pick up coins. Nowadays, video games are still a spectator sport for me. My younger brother loves his PlayStation, but he is often unwilling to let me play for fear that I will ruin his stats. Despite my lack of experience, I can clearly recall my favourite movie about a game. Jumanji follows the adventure of two kids that discover in their attic a board game that brings wild animals, natural disasters, and other such threats to life, and can only be stopped by winning the game. An educational game with these kinds of motivations surely would inspire learning!
Beyond digital history, the readings by Kevin Gee, James Paul Gee, and my professor Dr. MacDougall and Tim Compeau, delve into the realm psychology. Gee’s book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy introduces thirty-six principles of learning that video games do best. Arguably, one of his most compelling arguments for video games is that unlike in traditional education, “hard is not bad and easy is not good.” Rather than teaching children to follow instructions, video games force learners to “probe, hypothesize, reprobe, rethink.” As Gee explains, and most psychologists would agree, active learning requires new experiences and new connections in preparation for future growth and understanding. Thus, in the educational debate between telling students what to do and immersing students in knowledge, video games find a middle-ground by just doing. Indeed, part of the reason some students find history boring is because of the monotony of memorizing names and dates. At the same time, simply immersing students with documents and photographs from World War One might overwhelm individuals and obscure larger patterns and generalizations. In “Tecumseh Lies Here: Goals and Challenges for a Pervasive History Game in Progress,” MacDougall and Compeau argue that “the best way to immerse someone in history is not to surround them with replicas and recreations, but to arm them with historical methods and have them discover the history that is all around them.” Essentially, this means transforming the player into a historian, physicist, or whatever the case may be, rather than leaving the player to merely practice history or physics. This argument relates to Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, where he suggests that an advantage of technology is that it reduces the cost of failure. For example, a budding physicist could mix chemicals and cause explosions in the virtual world without costing money in the real world. Despite the innovative games the authors have suggested, they all seem to appreciate the challenges of time and technological requirements. Gee sidestepped issues of violence and gender stereotypes in video games. He argues that shooting games are the easiest to program, but as technology advances, more sophisticated communication will take the place of violence. Similarly, he suggests that as more women play video games, the greater their identities will develop beyond stereotypes. Although I find Gee’s arguments compelling, I am left wondering at what age to introduce video games. Certainly for young children, television and technology run the risk of overstimulation.
So what? Questions about engaging, entertaining, teaching, and learning are pervasive in all aspects of history, technology, and education. Indeed, there is still work to be done before we will see the true impact of games on learning, but at the very least, I think my spectator days are over. PLAY the game — you never know what you might learn!
P. S. Any suggestions for history games I can explore over the holiday break would be greatly appreciated!