Lies & Gamification

Gamification – love it or hate it, any time you use some sort of game mechanic, you’ve done it. Which makes ‘being a student’ the ultimate game of all. Write an essay, do a mid term, ace the final, level up to the next course, forget the previous course’s content…

I’ve written before about ‘gamifying my historian’s craft‘, about why I gamified the course website, what my ‘achievements’ were, and how they tied to the course content, and my larger paedegogical goals. I’ve noted that, to some, gamification is bullshit. But gosh darn it, sometimes, it works. I’m just finishing up a second round of my gamified HIST2809, ‘The Historian’s Craft’ course.  I made a few changes, a few tweaks – see the Prezi below at the end of this post. While there’s still time left in the course, it looks like I’ve had a fairly similar participation rate – 35 – 36% (changes, tweaks are detailed in the Prezi – scroll over to the thing that looks like an iPad).

But I wanted more.

Perhaps what I needed, in addition to gamification of the practical hands-on practice part of being an historian, was some game based learning.

This course involves a one hour tutorial a week. In the winter 2011 term, I assigned a group project as a culminating activity for the students. I sent them to Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History with the instructions to work through the primary materials for a given mystery, writing their own interpretation (using of course the concepts, tools, ideas, and so on, from our lectures and readings). History students – or at least the ones I know – are loathe to work in groups. Perhaps all students are. (After all, it messes with the central mechanics of the game of being a student, which is, ‘my work, my reward’).  I had a lot of pushback in that regard. I also had a number of students who felt the Mysteries website was somehow beneath them (since its target audience is high school history students). Who knew that pride could be an obstable in writing history?

This term, I still wanted the students to engage with the problems of historical evidence, of what constitutes ‘good’ evidence, and of how to use it in an argument. Enter Trevor Owen’s The Forgery Game (thank you Trevor!). Create a forgery? Pull the wool over someone’s eyes? This was perhaps the most engaging exercise we’ve done all term. We followed the steps suggested by Trevor in this game. One pair created a rune-covered wooden artefact, conclusive evidence for a Norse landing in Montreal. Others provided the paper trail on a U-boat’s mission to Argentina. Conspiracies abounded. As the students examined each other’s forgeries, the discussion about truth, standards of evidence, the handling of evidence, was perhaps the most in-depth and thoughtful we’d had all term. I’m still waiting to hear back from the other tutorial sections, but so far, the indications are good.

Forgeries crafted in HIST2809
Some forgeries crafted in HIST2809

One of my TAs, Gillian Gibson, writes,

[some students] suggested that the forgery game be made the first assignment. I would agree with this for several reasons.

First, it really demonstrates the tools and ideas that we want to come through on the [formative] assignments- most even provided foreign language documents with transcriptions.

Second, it really works well as an icebreaker for the tutorials (perhaps this is also a result of having been in the same room for the semester, but I think that this would be a great way to get comfortable with one another as the students are forced to work in pairs).

Third, most reflected that it revealed much about how conspiracy theories are formed and perpetuated, and would perhaps have an interesting link to the logic lecture.

Finally, I found that most students found it “fun” which leads me to think that it would be a great way to get them involved and interested.

[The Forgery Game] worked in that it allowed students an extent of creativity- they had to physically create something but it had to be legitimate. They were able to find a topic that really interested them and become familiar of debates surrounding it. By creating what they thought would be the smoking gun of evidence they were forced to enter into the debate and engage with it, even if in a “fake” or indirect way. It forced them to think about primary sources of evidence and how important it is that we be objective in our search of evidence.

It also worked to create a sense of urgency or validity in doing history. Students cited that by engaging with the forgery game that they understood that various sources can be interpreted in a variety of ways and that new evidence is constantly being found that changes the way that we view the past.

It was by chance that in one tutorial that I had three groups of students create forgeries pertaining to the JFK assassination. One group created documents “incriminating” the FBI and another the KGB, while the third “proved” that Oswald was in fact the one. This opened an interesting discussion into the approaches and why each group implicated two various spy agencies while the other maintained the “historically accurate” account.

Most students threw themselves into this project headlong and the majority, if not all that actually completed the assignment, cites really enjoying the project.

I am grateful for Gillian’s feedback, as it agrees neatly with what Master Forger Mills Kelly writes in the syllabus for his class, ‘Lying About the Past’:

[…] by learning about historical fakery, lying, and hoaxes, we’ll all become much better consumers of historical information. In short, we’ll be much less likely to be tricked by what we find in our own personal research about the past.

Mills & co. is the class behind the ‘Edward Owens, the Last American Pirate Hoax‘ (be warned, Mills is doing this again) Playing the Forgery Game in your class lets you get a taste of this for yourself.  We can’t all go all-in for game-based learning, but a bit of gamification, and a playful approach to the past, should raise the tenor & results in any class. I’m willing to bet that the combo in this semester’s edition will produce higher overall grades than last – one more week to go. Time to level up, kids!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.