Friday, December 5, 2014

Play Time: Video Games in the High School History Curriculum

As I've mentioned before, in my day job I am a high school history teacher (the commentaries on this blog about pro wrestling, guitar playing, rock music, movies and ridiculous letters to the editor are merely hobbies). I teach American history to students grades 10-PG at an independent school in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Throughout my two decades in the profession I've worked to find constructive uses of technology in and out of the classroom, and in the past year or so I have found that my students have derived a lot of "edutainment" from playing video games during class. I've used games in a year-long survey class on U.S. History as well as in an advanced elective on the Constitution and Supreme Court. The following is a brief summary of the games we played and how they were received by the students. 

In my U.S. History class I have had great success with the games from a company called Mission-US. These games are like super high-tech versions of the "choose-your-own-adventure" books I used to read in elementary school in the 1980s. Mission-US is a joint effort from New York City's public television channel, game designers and academic experts. As I write this in December 2014 they have produced three games so far:
  • Mission One: For Crown or Colony?: in which you play a young boy who is an apprentice in 1770 Massachusetts, who observes the Boston Massacre and has to choose between the Patriots and the Loyalists. 
  • Mission Two: Flight to Freedom: in which you play a young girl who is a slave in Kentucky in 1848. During your attempt to escape to the north you encounter fearsome slave catchers and seek out the mysterious Underground Railroad.
  • Mission Three: A Cheyenne Odyssey: in which you play a Cheyenne warrior who grows to manhood and leadership of his band. You have to help your group survive through the years and based on your choices will play different roles in the Battle of Little Bighorn. 
They will be releasing a new game early in 2014 called Mission 4: City of Immigrants  in which you would play a young Russian immigrant living on the Lower East Side of New York a century ago who gets caught up in the labor movement. I have been very impressed with the scope of these games and the effort they make to be inclusive of race, gender and economic statuses.

The games are a wonderful mix of action and information.  While I think it helps to have some background in the material, the games do a good job of getting the player up to speed. The students in my classes are quite varied, ranging in age from 15-19 and coming from many different backgrounds (our school has students from over 22 countries) but none of them have ever felt that the game was too hard to figure out, and no one complained that it pandered to them either. 

The way I like to use the games is as a supplement to our standard sequence of reading and discussion.  For Mission One, the students play the game after we've finished reading about the turbulent 1760's and 1770's.  After they play I ask them to compare the game experience to what they read in their textbooks.  The consensus seems to be that playing the role of a person around their own age was a good way of absorbing the key concepts. For Mission Two the students play the game after we finish reading "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass"; in the book he is disdainful of the boastfulness of the "underground railroad" (which he fears is becoming an "upperground railroad") and the game gives students a better point of view with which to judge this assessment. Last year I did Mission Three as part of a three-week long module between Thanksgiving and Christmas that covered the Indian Removal Act, the Indian Wars of the 1860s and 1870s and the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, culminating in a debate over whether sports teams should have nicknames derived from Native Americans. 

I am fortunate to work at a school where I can reserve an individual laptop computer for each of my students (and where most of them have their own, anyway), so I typically play these games over the course of a 50 minute long class period. If I had shorter periods, or if computers weren't as available I could see the game being played as a homework assignment.  The teachers' guides are very good at listing the estimated time required to play each game, and they also have very useful worksheets and downloadable handouts to share with students. I can't recommend these games enough, and I hope that they continue to develop new ones. 

In addition to my survey class I also teach trimester length elective classes covering the time period between 1945 and the present. One of the most popular is called "Constitutional Issues", in which students learn through the study of major Supreme Court cases of the period. Instead of a textbook, students read the unabridged opinions of the Court.  It is a very challenging, but rewarding experience for the students, who are essentially doing graduate school level work as high school juniors and seniors. To buttress the readings, and also to provide a fun way of assessing their knowledge of the Constitution and important cases, I have them play several video games from  iCivics was founded by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and they have a wide variety of games that fit under the "civics" umbrella, all of which feature entertaining graphics and several of which are quite challenging. In my class, we play the following games:
  • Argument Wars: in which you represent one of the sides in an actual Supreme Court case. Your task is to recognize the difference between strong and weak Constitutional arguments. 
  • Do I Have A Right?: a turn based game in which you create a law firm and earn points by taking and winning cases based on your knowledge of the Bill of Rights. The more cases you win the more money you have to hire associated, decorate the office, purchase advertisements and reinvest in the business. 
  • We The Jury: a turn based game in which you have to persuade the other members of a jury to agree with you in a variety of civil cases. 
The games feature clever animations and are fast moving and engrossing.  One of my students this year absolutely LOVED "Do I Have A Right" and has played it over and over trying to raise her score.  While this may be slightly aberrant behavior, the games do reward replaying. As I mentioned above, the games fit it perfectly during a class period for me, but they could also be done for homework. When the term was over the students ranked the games very highly, praising them as a fun alternative to quizzes as ways of making sure that they learned about the key Constitutional issues in these cases. 

While I doubt that I would ever be able to completely replace reading with edutaining game-play, I am glad to be able to use games as supplements to my regular routine.  When kids see on the weekly syllabus that there will be "video games" they get very excited.  While the games described in this post are not as visually stunning as, say, Assassin's Creed, they are probably more historically accurate and I have found that my students find them to be sufficiently engaging to be very focused for the entire class period. The games also stick in their memories as well as (or better) than a textbook; I can remind them months later of the games and they often have very vivid recall of scenarios from the games. I am so glad that I have these resources for my classroom and I can't wait to see what new games will continue to be developed.  Thanks for reading, and please leave a comment below with your thoughts about video games in the classroom. 

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