Experimenting with Playful Historical Thinking in the Classroom

[This is a guest article from Andrew D. Devenney.  Andrew is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of World History at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. A life-long and avid gamer of both video and role-playing games, he is currently spending far too much time playing through the various incarnations of the Assassin’s Creed series and participating in a throwback table-top campaign of White Wolf’s MAGE: THE ASCENSION game.]

This semester, I am conducting an experiment in the use of games/meaningful play in my classrooms. I approach this as a historian with an abiding interest in playing games (and more addictively playing history-based games) and a willingness to experiment in my courses, not as someone fully immersed in the theoretical back and forth amusingly and expertly navigated by the various contributors to Play the Past. In other words, I am a newbie to this, offering a viewpoint I believe could be instructive and useful for the Play the Past community. Please be gentle.

In deciding how I wanted to go about integrating games/meaningful play into my classrooms, I first had to make some choices about how far I wanted to take my experiment. There has been lately a lot of hubbub over the whole notion of gamification and whether or not scholars who embrace this are jumping on a faddish bandwagon (see Shawn Graham’s recent post on “Gamification, Bullshit, and Teaching History” for perspective on this). In thinking on this for the last few months, it became clear that I was not ready to go the whole hog into the use of badges and achievements, immersive CCGs, ARGs, and the like. Instead, I have chosen to ease myself into it by using Rob MacDougall’s notion of playful historical thinking to build a course that encourages my students to play around with the history we will be studying in more meaningful ways. What remained then was to decide which course I would inflict this upon, ultimately choosing my 100-level Introduction to European Civilizations survey course this fall as the guinea pigs.

So exactly how am I attempting to stimulate playful historical thinking in my European civilizations course this semester? At the core, there are three distinct elements. First, I have designed the course around a limited number of topical modules to increase the depth of coverage (at the expense of breadth) and allow students time to play around with the materials. There are six modules in total, focusing on what I consider key nodal points of recent European history (entitled The Ancien Régime; Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; Ode to the Industrial Revolution; European Imperialism; The Age of Catastrophe, 1914-1945; and The Cold War). This design is an attempt to play around with the “playset” metaphor mentioned in “What Do Action Figures Have to Teach Us?” by Rob MacDougall. Each module is a specific “playset” made up of a series of unrefined source building blocks (e.g., the main textbook, supplemental course books, online primary source collections, lecturecasts and YouTube videos, and other web-based sources). With guidance from me, students have to construct a historical analysis of the topic period using the building block materials, identifying and developing the key historical questions to ask; locating, aggregating, and interpreting the source evidence; and crafting their own historical narratives to present to the class. The students work in collaborative groups that change for every module to complete their work, and all the materials created are housed on a dedicated course wiki (located here, for those interested: http://hst102.pbworks.com). The goal here is not to mold students into the use of traditional academic vernacular and structures, but rather to encourage them to make something interesting, different, and personal with these materials, while still achieving an academic purpose.

Second, in an attempt to spark more meaningful interaction with the material, I have included some different assessment tools in the course. The inspiration behind this came partly from Trevor Owens’ piece “Meanification and Crowdscafolding: Forget Badges”, which included a link to an insightful Google Tech Talk on meaningful play by Sebastian Deterding. One of the key insights I took away from these two pieces was the need to connect better not only the course materials but also student assignments and activities with the student’s own personal goals and passions (without of course sacrificing academic rigor). To that end, I am having students research and write what I label personal interest essays. In the beginning of the course, student must post a short biography statement to the course wiki that includes a description of their personal interests and favorite activities in and out of school. Students then have to use what is referenced in that biography to shape essay topics that connect in some way to the various course modules (for example, if a student indicates an interest in tennis, they could write an essay about how the Cold War manifested on the tennis court during the heyday of Ivan Lendl or something).

Along with including more meaningful personal engagement, I also want to attempt to foster a larger sense of shared purpose for my students. To that end, the course includes an unusual final exam format I am borrowing from Brad King, an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Ball State University, called a Collective Wisdom Exam. Here is King’s short primer on this idea:

Using open Google Docs and a computer lab, students will be divided into a number of groups and tasked with collaboratively answering in real time a series of questions related to the six course modules and the course overall. Beyond the aid of their fellow group members, students can also only use the exhibits and essays they produced for the course themselves (and housed on the wiki) to finish the exam. Thus, the individual modules materials that they produced become another textbook for them to use and learn from.

Finally, there is a small competitive grading dynamic included in the course. This largely manifests in the form of a small grade bump for the best personal interest essays in each module, determined by polling the class (or perhaps all the students in my classes this semester) using the form feature of Google Docs. The polling is not by secret ballot (i.e., I will be able to see who voted for what) and will include the prohibition that students cannot vote for their own essays. I am toying around with the idea of making the grades on the final collective wisdom exams competitive in some form (e.g. only one group will receive an A grade), but I am not entirely sure I want to take that step. I also have in mind an idea for a competitive map bingo style game that would involve a number of matches (ala the English Premier League), but decided to hold off on including this until the Winter semester.

The whole concept of what I am attempting in this course both excites me and terrifies me. It is a fairly radical change to my classroom environment, although not one without some precedent in my other courses over the last few years (some of which I described in a “nerd talk” I gave to my department faculty colloquium last spring, “Cake or Death?: A Personal Look at Embracing the Academic Digital Life”). Whether it will work or not in achieving my goals for the course remains to be seen, but failure has never stopped me before, so why should it now? I look forward to keeping the Play the Past community updated on the progress of my experiment in playful historical thinking.


  1. Andrew –
    I’m intrigued by the King process of writing a final essay on the learning in a class having everyone simultaneously using Google docs. The questions one asks would be a key factor in the success and the interactivity would be fascinating. I have my students do a visual representation of their learning as their final because I have two very large and many smaller projects in SST 309 at GVSU, so a further exam would be “piling on,” but I think that a written process like this one would be beneficial and engaging as well. I think students would even find it fun! I’m not entirely familiar with using Google docs, but am thinking I may explore this for Winter semester. Thanks for sharing this! When you do this written task, would it be distracting to have an observer?

  2. Hi Susan,

    Yes, I think the questions asked on the CW exam is key to making it work, but I also like the flexibility inherent in being able to mix and match content, analysis, opinion, and assessment type questions into the exercise.

    By all means, feel free to piggy back away. The docs will all be open for observation (students will have editing rights), and observers are free to see what the students are doing while they’re taking their exam.

  3. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for this great post. I’ve been following Play the Past for about a year and have been contemplating how I might incorporate games into my classes. It’s immensely helpful to see how someone else is walking through the process as a first timer!

    I especially like this:

    “The goal here is not to mold students into the use of traditional academic vernacular and structures, but rather to encourage them to make something interesting, different, and personal with these materials, while still achieving an academic purpose.”

    I often teach lower level ancient civ courses, that fulfill gen ed recs as I assume your course does, and have found that over the years I have slowly been tossing out bits of the “vernacular and structure” of my field. Instead, I am always trying to find new ways to get students to involve themselves in the material and to break it down into forms that they understand, so that they can then build it up again in a paper or presentation.

    I hope you’ll do a follow up post after your course is finished to let us all know how things went.

    Best of luck!

  4. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks so much for this great post and the links to my stuff. I’m a bit too stretched to give this the proper thoughtful comment it deserves, but I’m thrilled somebody else is using the playful historical thinking / “playset” idea in the classroom. I too look forward to a follow-up post letting us know how it all went.


    1. Crap, I’m so lax. Apologies, Rob (and Alexis), I meant to acknowledge your comments ages ago, but anyway, thanks for the kind comments. Right now, the plan is to publish a follow-up post on how the experiment finishes out at the end of the semester (not sure if it will be before or after the holiday hiatus yet).

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