Troubleshooting a History Through Gaming Course

It’s summertime, and while that doesn’t automatically mean I have nothing to do but lounge around all the time in workout gear watching Food Network cooking shows and tweeting about it, it usually means I have a bit more time and headspace to mull over new ideas than I do during the hectic academic year. This summer is no different, but what’s been lately rolling through my head is pertinent to wider conversations Play the Past has been having for the past several months. I’ve been thinking about developing a History through Gaming course.

This has become somewhat well-trodden ground around here, with Shawn Graham’s practical piece on his “Ideal History/Gaming Syllabus” and Jeremy Antley’s broader post on “Interpreting History Through Games” being two of the more recent entries. This post is my modest contribution to the conversation. However, I want to approach the topic from a slightly different angle than either Graham or Antley. While plotting this course idea out, I have been stumbling into a number of conceptual and practical problems with the whole notion of a History through Gaming course that has made my design process a bit difficult. I thought I would highlight a few of these and see what the broader Play the Past community might have to say.

First, my general course idea: I’ve envisioned the course as a non-survey topical exploration of the intersection of history and gaming. In several distinct and self-contained course modules, students would examine both various historical materials related to a particular topic (primary and secondary sources, material culture, basic chronology, etc.) and either a tabletop or video game connected to that topic. Modules would be broad-based thematically but interchangeable and largely dependent upon what specific games I want students to explore from semester to semester (module topics could range from Ancient Mesopotamia to Medieval Europe to the modern Global War on Terror and all points in between). The overall goals for student learning include, among others: 1) exploring and understanding the idea of games as texts that impart a narrative one can read historically (e.g., the rule set, game mechanics, and themes used to build an entertaining simulation of history); and 2) being able to examine critically the game’s narrative simulation and distinguish it from and integrate it with the narratives of other historical sources (e.g., how does the game present the period versus how historians present the period versus how primary sources seem to reflect the period?). Ultimately, I want to use games as a means to introduce students to the broader historiographic contours of studying history, as well as playing around with a different way to learn that history.

The problems I’m having with this are conceptual, organizational, and practical. Conceptually, I view the games in the course largely as secondary sources to be picked apart and compared against other primary and secondary sources for a given historical period. In this, I follow on from what Jeremy Antley argued in his above mentioned “Interpreting History Through Games” post. However, I’m somewhat receptive to the argument made by Russian historian Peter Blitstein (referenced in Antley’s post) that questions the value of a game as an historical source. Why bother using a game as a simulationist source when there are other more direct sources that can illuminate the actual historical period better? Am I falling victim to a gamification fad because I want to play Dungeons and Dragons in a history class or am I actually trying to make a broader point with this? These are the sorts of questions that start chipping away at my resolve to design this course.

Organizationally, I’ve been second-guessing the non-narrative module-based structure to the course. This is ironic to me, considering how on board I’ve been with the idea in past courses (for instance, see my write up about my Fall 2011 experiment with playful historical thinking in the classroom). Nonetheless, I worry that the absence of a historical narrative frame to organize the course will mean students will have little to no sense of how the various historical module themes fit together. By not developing the course as a 100 level introductory survey, I can somewhat get around this (students would have learned broader narrative chronology in a previous class). However, too much modularity can mean students might find it more difficult to develop and build upon their knowledge from module to module. Perhaps I need to pick a more refined time period or historical theme (e.g., imperialism) to frame the course.

On a practical level, I’ve been struggling with how to put the various games I want to use in the course into the hands of the students. Personally purchasing multiple copies of several board and video games to keep in a giant game kitty isn’t financially feasible for me (and where the hell do I keep them all?). University support for such a purchase might be the answer, but is currently not open to me right now. Using mainly video games only mitigates this somewhat while also reducing the tactile experience I want students to have in investigating the game as a material artifact. I’ve thought about requiring that students purchase a game as their main text for the course, but there would be a lot of logistical headaches surrounding that (e.g., how to make sure enough copies of Carcassonne were procured).

Ultimately, I’m still trying to crack this, but I don’t have to run this in the fall or anything, so I have time yet. Thoughts, suggestions, advice?

(Flickr image from user Alexandre Duret-Lutz, used by Creative Commons license)

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