No More Chocolate-covered Broccoli: Collaboration between Game Designers and Historians is Key

The following post is a short paper I wrote for a panel discussion on creating game experiences at Civil War historic sites. Our moderator suggested that we share our papers for further discussion and comment before the panel. Please join in the discussion, all comments and concerns are greatly appreciated! My postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent the New-York Historical Society’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

I used to be surprised that there weren’t more well-done games (both analog and digital) at museums and historical sites. Then I started working in museums and with game designers. Now I realize how much time and energy is required to create a game that is both fun and educational and how little time most museums have to manage or contribute to game development projects. That said, creating games that make history a more engaging and thoughtful experience is worth becoming a priority for museums and historical sites and well within their missions of preserving artifacts and educating the public. I speak from my experience as a game player, an Educator at the New-York Historical Society, and a contributor to the collaborative blog Play the Past, when I say that it’s imperative that we (as historians and educators) make efforts to collaborate with game designers to provide our audiences with meaningful, playful experiences.

While I’ve always been interested in playing games that use history as context (like many other young boys and girls I played the Civilization series and Pharaoh), professionally I’m interested in games that are designed to make players question what they know about their history and cultural heritage and that provide an opportunity to discuss sensitive issues. A few recently developed games that I believe do this successfully include Mission US’s Flight to Freedom, the Wellcome Collection’s High Tea, Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog, Sortasoft’s in-progress Meriwether: An American Epic, and the Newsies game at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum in the New-York Historical Society (come visit us!). These games are not chocolate-covered broccoli; they don’t try to trick people into learnings things. Instead, they are built in a way that learning about the game world (and its history – our history) is required and compels players to keep playing and learning more.

Playing and learning about these games has led me to the conclusion that historians can contribute to the process of designing a gaming experience by offering their expertise as they collaborate with game designers. The designers are, by virtue of the technological requirements in video game creation, collaborative, and they know how to work with other designers (but not necessarily historians). Historians will know the most crucial things to talk about, the most relevant (and interesting!) documents and artifacts to include, and hopefully the way to be responsible and respectful when representing other cultures or historically marginalized groups (unless the point of the game is to highlight the injustice of marginalization, as in Dog Eat Dog). But many game designers aren’t used to working with historians, so both parties should be prepared to learn a little about each other first! Josh DeBonis, Founder of SortaSoft LLC in Brooklyn (currently developing Meriwether, a fascinating game about the Lewis and Clark expedition) describes this in an interview I did for Play the Past:

Since we come from two different worlds, there was a bit of an adjustment period, in which we had to learn to think like an historian, and Barb had to learn to think like a game developer. We made sure to give each other feedback on our process to help facilitate this. As a game designer (and producer), much of my job is making snap decisions based on gut instinct, but that’s quite the opposite of Barb’s process, which relies on turning to primary documents for the answers.

So it’s not just the game designers that have to adjust to historians, we also have to adjust to game designers. Part of that is learning what makes games, as a medium, so special. In ethnographic interviews I’ve done with NYC-based game developers, all designers referenced the player’s ability to make meaningful choices as the thing that makes games unique. This can be challenging for historians because this means players must have the opportunity to fail or make choices that “alter” history – but at the same time, done well, this can be a boon to historical thinking. As I often teach at the N-YHS and while doing outreach in public schools, history isn’t what happened long ago, it’s the stories we tell about the past that are based on evidence. Games give the opportunity to teach those stories and how they’re interpreted, to explore possible eventualities, and to live out alternate histories. They’re a safe space to explore, to fail, to ask difficult questions. So as historians we shouldn’t be fearful of games offering alternate histories or being “completely” accurate, but instead we should make sure the game represents what that point in time would have been like, the complexity of humans and their interactions, and that it is culturally respectful and responsible. The way Flight to Freedom does this is by centering the game around one fictional slave girl’s life while using real experiences and stories to inform the choices that the player could make during the game. Flight to Freedom isn’t about a slave girl’s life story, it’s about the history of the Underground Railroad and the consequences of taking power over one’s future after being powerless for so long.

In addition to giving the opportunity to teach history in a fun, compelling way that encourages people to think more deeply about themselves and their cultural heritage, games also offer the opportunity to win new audiences. For example, according to research done by Eva Sandler for her M.S.Ed in Museum Education at Bank Street College, the majority of children she interviewed expressed a preference for touch-screen games over other exhibit types at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum in the New-York Historical Society (in fact, more than double for hands-on interactives!). For museums, games can also be a great way to teach people about artifacts and documents in your collection. In Flight to Freedom, the main character, Lucy, is illiterate and learns to read over time. Documents that she tries to read include advertisements in old fashion manuals and runaway slave announcements, which introduce players to primary source documents that historians use to interpret the past. In one of the Alexander Hamilton games at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum, students must collect coins in a short video game to melt and turn into U.S. coins. This is right next to a display case with real coins, which visitors do notice and comment on after playing the game. One boy mentioned that he enjoyed, “viewing the coins on display, and learning about how the United States system of currency changed” (Sandler 60). I would personally love to play a game about the Civil War that has players look through photos (or determine which photos have been edited pre-photoshop!), or that penalizes players for carrying too many things as a soldier (since weight was integral in keeping up with formation), or has the player discover objects that were discarded along a march. Including these documents and material culture as more than just a “backdrop” can both establish historical context into the gaming experience and inform people of the way that historians do history.*

Two main challenges in incorporating gaming experience into programs and classrooms are technological and time constraints. If you want to center a program or lesson plan around a game, you have to make sure that you have enough time to prepare people to play the game, play the game, and then reflect on their experience together. Trevor Owens and Marjee Chmiel wrote that the mantra “Less is More” is true concerning games used in classrooms. You also have to make sure that all the players can play the game on whatever devices they have or you’re giving them. If you want games to be used by teachers in public or private schools, it’s crucial to involve teachers in a discussion along the way, asking them how the game could meet learning standards and possible lesson plans that the museum or historical site could distribute to teachers along with copies of the game. For an on-site game experience, 3-5 minutes is a good amount of time for players to  spend in one area without becoming fatigued or creating overly long lines. Now that the Museum of Modern Art is collecting video games, they are grappling with this issue of displaying games that take a long time to complete. At the DiMenna Children’s History Museum (DCHM), I notice that most visitors (or groups of visitors) play for about 3-5 minutes and then move onto other interactives or displays. This is perfect for the space we have and the age range the DCHM targets (8-14 year olds). For a longer gaming experience, visitors would have to be given a place to sit, or more touch screens would need to be available.

Another challenge in creating games for museum or historic sites is creating an experience that would work intergenerationally. Much of Eva Sandler’s research on the games in the DCHM revealed that children learned more (and enjoyed learning more) when playing games with their parents and grandparents:

Grandmother: I think that if you have curiosity as an adult you can enjoy anything that kids can enjoy.
Grandson: When we were at the Hamilton game…
Grandmother: Yeah when we were involved in that I thought it was great, because that was two generations involved in the same thing.
Grandson: We each knew something and we worked together. It made me want to come back (Sandler 63).

That isn’t to say that everyone enjoyed the fact that video games are featured in the museum. One mother that Eva Sandler interviewed mentioned:

The games are too distracting. There needs to be a stopping point for each game, otherwise you’ll be there all day. It’s very frustrating. To me, it’s not an experience to be had a history museum—they play games all the time at home. I want them to learn something (Sandler 65).

So yet another challenge for this list is to make sure that families or visitors have a choice to opt in or out of digital game playing, and to make sure that the games facilitate experiences that make it clear that people can learn from them and are not just a distraction. At this point, I think it’s important to remember that you cannot please everyone all of the time.

In order to create programs that are more interactive, narrative-driven, and grounded in the contingencies of history, Civil War sites (and other museums and historical sites) must start working with creative, professional game designers instead of asking programmers or digital media developers to create games. Professionals also need to make sure they build in enough funds and time for the game to be a truly collaborative effort – historians, game designers, programmers, digital media developers, and educators need to all work together and be on the same “page,” so to speak. Make sure that these are your priorities and the priorities of the game developers, too. Take a look at Sortasoft’s explicitly expressed goals in creating Meriwether:

  1. To teach players about the Lewis and Clark expedition’s cultural and historical significance.
  2. To demonstrate that a historical role-playing game can be a fun, immersive, and compelling learning experience.
  3. To trailblaze the methods that will best allow players to learn by playing historical role-playing games. The research into these methods will contribute to the field of computer-assisted learning by establishing a format upon which other games can be designed.

These are the types of goals that game designers and historians should talk about and aim to accomplish when creating games about historical events or sites. That isn’t to say that all historical games have to be role playing games or long experiences. Games like the Wellcome Collection’s High Tea demonstrate how well the history of trade and smuggling can be turned into a fun and (forgive me) addictive learning experience. Game designers and historians have to decide the best way to deliver different information together. For example, Meriwether seeks to teach players about the significance of an expedition, so players must manage resources and travel. High Tea aims to teach players about the opium trade and the British obsession with tea, so players must buy low and sell high to trade successfully. The Newsies game at the DCHM is meant to teach visitors the difficulties young children faced before labor laws were introduced, so players must carefully choose their papers, location, and manage their resources each day.  If historians and game developers work closely together to determine what they want to teach their players and match that to a congenial gaming experience, then they can create games that compel players to keep playing and learning more.

*On that note, I believe it’s important to stress that games and virtual experiences do not diminish the importance of the site or artifacts represented. If anything, they make people more connected to the real place and more likely to visit in the future. Additionally, not everyone in the world will have the opportunity to visit every museum or site, so games and virtual experiences can help spread awareness of specific organizations to more people. I hope that our discussion does not get too caught up in the issue of Benjamin’s “aura,” because people must already believe that the original objects and sites cannot be diminished by virtual experiences in order to want to create digital gaming experiences. That is to say, there are many other challenges in creating historical games, so we must move past the obsession with originals and auras if we’re to make any progress.

[Image Source: “General Grant at City Point,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA]


  1. Great post! I’m excited about exploring what historians and game designers have to offer eachother for thinking about their crafts and for collaborating. A few quick thoughts;
    This is a critical point “history isn’t what happened long ago, it’s the stories we tell about the past that are based on evidence. “With that said, it goes another step further. I had a adviser at one point who liked to suggest that history was at least four things, what happened in the past, what people say happened in the past, what people do with the past and how we understand why things happened the way they did in the past. To me, the last one is the most interesting, and it is all about contingency. How might things have happened differently? What were the most important factors that made this happen this way? All of that is system based thinking, it’s (at it’s core) about using and marshaling different kinds of evidence to theorize how things could have been different and that is all perfect for games. Games are about giving players interesting decisions to play out models and as far as I’m concerned the most interesting part of history is the models of the forces at play that create a particular result. Now I’m getting ahead of myself, I’m going to talk about some of this stuff in my position paper.

    Back to your piece, I would be curious to hear what you think are the biggest conceptual problems history folk face when they need to start thinking like/communicating with game designers? Based on your post I have a few ideas for what your response would be (counterfactuals for one) but I would be curious to hear what you think the biggest things historians need to unlearn to be able to get what games can do for presenting a historical interpretation or argument.

    1. Author

      Trevor, I’m really excited to read and comment on your paper, especially knowing that it’s about player choice (I feel like that’s a spectre that haunts a lot of designers and theorists).

      I’m going to alter my lessons in public schools a bit thanks to your adviser (re: history is four things) – you’ll get no argument from me there!

      I’m going to have to think about what historians should “unlearn,” “relearn,” or “learn,” when working with game designers on projects. I’ll probably draw inspiration from the talented Nina Simon, who started looking into game design principles when working at the Spy Museum in DC long ago and still continues to encourage museum professionals to “think like game designers” ( . Two things off the top of my head would be learning to be OK with counterfactuals (just like you guessed) and being OK with being blasphemous toward the “aura” of the original artifacts. It’s my belief that stories are more important objects to a certain extent, because those stories give meaning and importance to the objects…but then, without the objects how do we remember to tell the stories? (I’m admittedly back peddling here because my training as a material culture/museum person makes blaspheming against the aura Benjamin writes about difficult). So perhaps a more comfortable way to think about this issue (for historians/museum professionals) is to think that in certain cases, the story is more important (like in games) and in others the object is more important (like when researching).

  2. Thank you for this great post, Rebecca!
    I agree completely. Just now, I am sitting in front of my class of undergrads who I let play Civilization III today. Their task is to play the game and discuss how and what they can learn about history from the game.
    Of course this is quite a difficult task as the game is so far from any reality and in fact conveys rather questionable concepts of history that it is difficult to see it as anything else than pure entertainment. However, most of them express their curiosity that civ III and other games have raised in them about real History. As a rather mature audience they are very aware of the fact that most aspects of the game are there to be entertaining and not meant to represent History in any way. Instead they say that they feel more familiar with certain historical names or concepts when they encounter them in an educational context. I think this positive aspect of recognition of familiar concepts should not be underestimated even when we are talking about completely non-educational games such as Civ III.
    Nevertheless, I think that closer cooperation between Historians and the Game industry is mandatory. Some days ago, I was discussing the problems of historical concepts in Civilization III with a game designer who works at a major game publishing house in Germany and it was in this short discussion quite impossible to explain to him why the assumption of nationalism and hermetic ethnic homogeneity does not fit into 3000 BC from a Historian’s perspective.
    So maybe the main reason for cooperation with the industry should not only be our Historian’s interest to raise the educational value of games but also to infuse the industry with some knowledge they quite desperately are in need of to create new original game concepts. Just imagine a Civilization that simulates ethnic spread by merging with other ethnicities into new ethnicities or the development and improvement of technologies by using them (in RPG’s, a similar change in the perception of how experience works made “the elder scroll’s” one of the most successfull game series in History). Games are a part of our culture today wether we like it or not. As Historians its is our duty to bring ourselves into the public discourse and this massively involves games these days.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Boris! First, it’s great that you’re having undergrads analyze Civ III and I’m glad they’re responding well to the task. In doing research on the game Civilization IV: Colonization I noticed that fans freely admitted that games like the ones in the Civilization series taught them what they know about history, see:

      Apart from all of the reasons why historians should be concerned/excited about games that represent history, you hit the nail on the head in talking about how better knowledge of history can give rise to better game mechanics and new ideas! Cultural hybridization, syncretism, and messiness just aren’t hallmarks of the Civ series (see:, but I think Civ IV: Colonization did well in designing the gun and horse trade between European nations and Native American cultures. Native American cultures openly ask for horses and guns, but once you trade these items with them, they can start using them against their enemies. The designers explain this fairly well in this podcast: So the player has to be careful about trading these items with different tribes (just like the British happily supplied the Tlingit with guns, much to the Russians’ dismay, hah!). These kinds of design decisions actually make the game more fun, compelling, and make connections to historical events and encounters.

      I’m going to try and think of ways to connect this idea with Civil War history and material culture for the panel. Thanks for pushing my thoughts in that direction, Boris!

  3. I’d like to see more of the games designed for these settings using the constraints of being in a museum/historical site as an opportunity. I know some of the games you have at N-YHS take advantage of the fact that they don’t need to be replayable, and should be short. I think it’s also an opportunity for games that can be played by a small group of people (I assume museums are usually visited by parties of about 2-5 people), games that blend digital and physical spaces, and also games that can only be played in that particular space.

    Also of course I agree with your statement that museums must start working with professional designers. But much more than that, they need to learn that good game design is a (long) process. A game designer can’t simply think of a new game out of thin air. It takes work, time, money, and a lot of prototyping just to get to the point where you can begin developing.

  4. The point about groups is a good one Josh, as not many visitors come alone. I’ve seen plenty of visitors leave games part-way through because the group is moving on. I’m not sure what the solutions are there, really.

    Quoting a line from a review (of Hobsbawn’s The Age of Empire) that has stayed with me: “It takes far greater gifts- and far greater nerve- to simplify and scintillate than to criticise and complicate.” My reaction to most historical subjects, I must confess, is the latter reaction, but for interactives I think aiming for the first is imperative lest it slips into the didactic.

    This interactive is in a gallery I help at, and now online (, and I think it works for a variety of reasons: it uses specific people and objects, keeps the choices light but pretty meaningful, and is rather short.

    My other thought is audio. It’s a major part of video game design but is pretty hard to do in a display space without either needing headphones (and cutting off the visitor during the playing time) or risk annoying the bejeezus out of everyone else.

  5. Matt, good point about audio. Maybe those two ideas can be combined? A game that is played collectively by everyone in the room could play a single audio track to everyone in the room.

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