Using Games to Teach History

This week’s readings about history’s place in gaming brought up issues such as form over content, games as instructional aids, and whether or not games can be a worthy outlet for historical scholarship.  I have long believed that games can be a useful tool in the teaching and learning of a subject, but have been cautious in believing that historical games are historically accurate. Most games are created with the sole intent of entertaining and making profits, which can leave the educational component lacking. As a kid, I remember playing computer games in school, such as Oregon Trail. At the time, I didn’t consider that game to be educational since I loved playing it so much, but looking at it from my perspective now, I can see how it used an episode of American history to teach school kids about the strife of traveling West by covered wagon in 1848 (and also what dysentery was!). So even though I didn’t realized I was learning something, I actually was.

Looking at The Lost Museum or Pox and the City, I can relate to my childhood experience with Oregon Trail. By creating an interactive and 3-D mystery game, I can envision school children using this website to discover P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and its subsequent fire in 1865. However, whenever I find myself visiting the Lost Museum, I seem to navigate to the Search the Archive page, where I can find primary sources that relate to the museum itself, rather than playing the actual game.

With Pox and the City, the player is placed inside the world of Edinburgh circa 1800 amid an outbreak of smallpox. Taking a real-life event, such as Edward Jenner’s experimentation with inoculating smallpox victims with cowpox material, and turning that into a game that builds on narrative interaction with other players, helps the player learn about the social history of that real-life event. This game reminded me of another childhood favorite computer game that I played obsessively in 1995 called Dust: A Tale of the Wired West. Dust, while loosely based on an historical time period (American West, 1880s), made no claims of being an historical game, especially since it took place in the fictional town of Diamondback, New Mexico. However, thematic elements such as silver mining, Chinese immigrants, and Native Americans captured my interest and led me to do my own research on these topics outside of the game. The role of interactive narrative is also similar to Pox in the City, in that certain dialogue responses would yield different outcomes.

Based on my own experience and the articles this week about Pox in the City that highlight its historical accuracy and user interaction, the ability to educate through gaming seems undeniable. I also believe that historical games can be their own form of historical scholarship, as Trevor Owens ponders in his Play the Past entry. By changing the format of scholarship, historians are able to break out of the traditional mold of papers, articles and books, and engage audiences more interactively.

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