Week 6: A Proposal for Video Games as Educational Tools

I thought I was excited about the GIS unit, but when I saw this unit I realized this was going to be my favorite week of the semester for sure. I have loved gaming my entire life and have played plenty of historical games. I have rarely considered how those games have taught me about history though. As I reflect on that thought, I realize what a useful tool videogames could be. My first exposure to video games in an academic sense was during my masters program, when an American cultural studies student gave a presentation about the way that the Vietnam war was portrayed in media, which included gameplay from Call of Duty: Black Ops. He talked about how the game portrays historical memory and PTSD; topics that had always been underlying in the story but that I had never considered. I began considering how historical memory can shape narratives of the past after this presentation, not the least in which game developers manipulate historical narratives to create plotlines for games. An interesting example I had considered lightly before this was Assassin’s Creed. The second through fourth Assassin’s Creed games follow a man named Ezio Auditore, a real historical figure whose family was executed for treason, but when the rest of his family was killed, he disappeared from the historical record. This allows for the developers to create an entirely new story around this character, utilizing existing historical records and creating an alternate history that he can be placed into. While many of the historical locations, events, and people are realistic and factually based, it is obviously not a true historical account. This became a theme that the series has made a cornerstone of its development: utilizing true historical events to create a fantastical plotline of shadowy, metanarrative conflict in the vein of conspiracy theory. I fleshed out my hope for a more accurate history in a slack post with Terence, where I describe that I believe history games can become a tool for learning, rather than educational sources in and of themselves. As the Bloom et. al article points out, the video game industry has surpassed Hollywood for revenue, and over half of US households have hardware to play video games and use them daily.[1] Video games have a direct line into people’s lives, and a thriving community that can shape cultural memory. John Lanchester provides a powerful example in a recent article in the London Review of Books, in which he mentions that there is a play from an esports match of League of Legends that anyone who watches the play remembers, giving people a sense of shared memory and community surrounding the game.[2] Similarly, in my own experience, I have made friends and bonded over the Overwatch League, an esports league for a team-based first person shooter. Yet another example occurs in Terence and I’s conversation, as we both recollect our experience with the traumatic mission “No Russian” in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.[3] The mission was so shocking that everyone who played the game remembers their experience playing it over 10 years later. If educators and game developers can find a way to manufacture moments of collective memory such as these, extraordinary moments in video games can become learning tools that redefine how players approach specific historical topics.   A useful example could be The Oregon Trail, which we played this week. I noticed some of my peers pointing out that the way Native Americans are portrayed in the game is extremely reductive and slightly racist. As a fairly simple game, and one that many people who grew up in that era would have played, it could be a great tool to utilize in class. Teachers could ask students to consider how the characters of the game are portrayed compared to reality, or use it as an example of representation, or teach revisionism by prompting students to consider how they would change the way that Native Americans were portrayed based on evidence they found outside of the game. While a very minor tool, the game has the potential for multiple different lessons not just about the content of history, but the way that history is conducted professionally. To conclude, I don’t think that video games are inherently educational in regards to history. Sure you can learn some historical facts and gain some basic historical knowledge, but that is not the core of history. Historical analysis requires taking a step back and critically questioning the content and how it is presented. But is that not what we do with primary and secondary sources anyway? We don’t claim that primary sources are inherently history, and it is the practice of historians to critically analyze prior historians’ work. Video games are merely a new source of information and narratives that deserve to be used as learning tools, not disregarded.


[1] Krijn H.J. Boom, et. al, “Teaching through Play: Using Video Games as a Platform to Teach about the Past,” in Communicating the Past in the Digital Age: Proceedings of the International Conference on Digital Methods in Teaching and Learning Archaeology, ed. Sebastian Hageneuer (London: Ubiquity Press, 2020), 29. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv11cvx4t.8

[2] John Lanchester, “Getting into Esports,” London Review of Books 42 no. 16 (August 2020): 5-6.

[3] Robert Carlock and Terence Viernes, #module-05, Clio Wired Slack discussion board, October 2, 2020.

5 Replies to “Week 6: A Proposal for Video Games as Educational Tools”

  1. Thanks for your insights, Robert! As a non-gamer, it is really helpful to hear from you (both in your blog and on slack) about how you experience gaming from a historian’s perspective. I think your perspective would be well appreciated by gaming companies, maybe as a consultant! I think the two divergent disciplines could really work together! I also agree with you about Oregon Trail—the one game I actually know from elementary school. I really like the idea of having teachers contextualize the games, and have students think critically about how the game is presented. From my experience, teachers would just sit us down in the computer lab and that was about it! I wonder if anyone has created a game from the vantage point of Native Americans who experienced the westward expansion? Like a reverse Oregon Trail? That would be complicated, but it could re-tell or re-frame a story we seem to have all learned in the digital realms of our youth.

  2. In the article by Boom et al. they mention how video games should be used in addition to traditional learning and not as the main source. I definitely think this is in agreement with your statement on how video games are not mainly educational and require a historical analysis, and you’re right this is something we already have to do with other sources, so why not video games?

    I never really played video games, growing up or now, but I do see their importance of telling a story, creating a narrative through collective memory, and connecting players in a way that makes them consider the past and how the game portrays it. As you pointed out, this is even something that was done over slack about The Oregon Trail and the way the Native Americans were portrayed.

  3. Hi Robert, I cannot tell you how many times I came home from work to find my spouse playing Gladiator! He loved gaming! As a child I certainly played Pac-Man and other early Atari games but the games of the past 20 years have exceeded those.

    I echo your concern about the plausibility of using video games to teach history. The historically based games can certainly capture the attention of many students who would otherwise forget what they learned in the classroom. As Boom hints, the players forge an emotional attachment with their characters and the time period of play. What would happen if a gaming company hired historians to develop programming? ( Honestly, I would love to work in that capacity for a video company – help someone develop a game and research history? That sounds like fun to me!) The Oregon Trail game, albeit, it is very different from “Assassin’s Creed,” provides a very effective format to teach history. Yes, the game needs to be updated, as pointed out earlier by my fellow classmates, but instructors can textualize this and make this into a learning experience for their students. When I was in college, one of my instructors liked to play “Congress of Vienna.” We were divided into separate countries, vying to establish peace in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. Another professor encouraged us to play “Axis and Allies” ( yes- the board game) to better understand the decisions countries had to make in regards to supply lines, currency, etc. during World War II. I still have the game – the board game- not the digital version.

    Oh, I love Assassin’s Creed, the movie.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I don’t think I realized that some video games like Call of Duty pull so much from true or historical events. I have friends that are gamers and have always wondered more about the storyline of the games, seeing the connections to historical timelines. You mention how you recollect your experience from playing videos gaming and I know people who have said similar things about the games they’ve played. I believe you make an interest point if game developers and educators could figure out how create these moments of collective memory. I think it would be an interesting educational tool.

    You make a good point about Oregon Trail. It is a good educational tool as it is a simple game to learn about basic history and a historical event. I think as you said, it would be useful for students to understand how these things are being portrayed and how we might to rethink these presentations.

  5. I was *definitely* thinking of the Assassin’s Creed series while reading this week (having made it through about 100 hours of Odyssey over the summer, up til the semester started…), and I think you’ve hit on why it’s so compelling. Intellectually: of course we realize that it’s not presenting anything like “real history.” (Reality? Yes, of course this half-goddess woman wrecked half the Greek world with her eagle friend, and I won’t hear anything to the contrary.) The depth and breadth of the historic framing feels so crucial to the series’ success!

    Then again, I was thinking about this question of “reality” after reading Boom et al. , and one of my disagreements/points of contention with the article. Boom opens by describing the size and market share of games and their increasing use of “the past” as material, and how this is problematic because 1) these creators aren’t concerned with TEACHING about the past, and 2) more players are connecting through the past through games, versus other sources. While I don’t necessarily doubt the latter point, it’s not really supported by any kind of data they reference, but also: is this putting an expectation onto games that isn’t put on other media? I understand why the argument is framed this way, and educators should certainly be thinking about how students are engaging with this materials. (This is also not to say that creators should uncritically plumb history for good game fodder, or be exempt from criticism for their treatments). But what are the assumptions this tends to make about games, and why people make or play them?

    (Boom may have touched on a bit of a sore point for me, because one of my areas of research — comics — has had a fair bit of this same treatment. In libraries, there’s been such effort to rescue comics from the gutters [hah] and proclaim their goodness for literacy and learning that work falling outside of this paradigm can easily be ignored in collection efforts.)

    So: 100% agree with your conclusion of how we need to engage with these as sources!

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