Digital History

October 2, 2020 – Module 5: Digital Storytelling and Games

TLDR: I believe digital storytelling, video games, and other digital content can be very useful for teaching, and that this will actually be ubiquitous eventually, but there are some downsides to discuss. As aways.

Twine Project: A Culinary Tour of the 1893 Chicago World Fair.

The thought of using video games as an educational tool, especially for teaching history, intrigues me. Though I have never considered myself a ‘gamer,’ I will admit to losing hours this week playing the Oregon Trail and decidedly DID NOT spend my time reading or writing at the same rate. I thought hard with each choice I made, laboring over when to leave, if I should trade, how much to hunt, if I should cut rations, or rest any longer, and still died most of the time. So, I definitely gamed this week. I currently live with someone who loves to play video games, and my younger brother has always been glued to his Xbox, but between my phone in my hand and Rory’s Switch that I love to steal, I think I’m a gamer too. I feel like a lot of us are, even if we don’t realize.

“Okay, Caroline that’s great. What is your point? Don’t you, like, do history?”

My point stems from a chapter in the book Communicating the Past in the Digital Age entitled “Teaching Through Play: Using Video Games as a Platform to Teach about the Past.” After spending a couple of rounds dying on the Oregon Trail, and truly being upset when Rory won but I died as part of his entourage, I was primed to understand some of the points in this chapter. I have always (read: since I started graduate school in 2018) been convinced that one of the best ways to teach involves more visual content and interactive lessons. My teaching experiences are limited to one semester, but during that semester I worked with a professor who championed videos, documentaries, short readings, debates, and polls, and decidedly DID NOT champion textbooks are standard lecturing. I followed suit, spending time picking out short videos and other visual content, even if it was just illustrations and pictures, to use during lectures. Surely students would watch videos, especially since I am boring (note: a student who filled out a survey said I should try to be funnier, including telling more jokes. Please blame this anonymous person for my attempts to be funny at all times).

My mind hasn’t changed, though I do wonder if it would if I got back in the classroom, but unless I leave DH I doubt it will. BUT WHAT IF THERE’S AN EVEN BETTER WAY TO IMMERSE STUDENTS INTO HISTORY AND ENGAGE THEM IN LEARNING!?

Enter video games, a core method to “provide a unique informal learning environment in which their interactive nature allows for an immersive experience with which a deeper level of personal and historical learning can potentially be reached than in more formal settings” (28). I have always been drawn to the ideas of interactive learning, immersive lessons, and a more personal connection with history. There are plenty of ways to garner this, whether it’s skits, debates, writing stories, and more, but I find myself really drawn to the idea of video games in education. I think with the prevalence of video games and with its visual and immersive power, it could be a great thing.

There are, of course, downsides to this idea. Video games are in the entertainment industry and meant to generate revenue, and often those creating and playing these games think little about how these games shape people’s understanding of history for that reason. But, so many people play video games, I don’t believe this is a lost cause, and neither does the VALUE Foundation, which aims to help with the intersection of academia and gaming. As written about in the book chapter, VALUE helped with the four case studies used in the chapter to research the use of video games in teaching.

Using video games and the like to teach lessons, while understanding that “students need guidance in these gameplay experiences” and many games relied on violence as the central play mechanic, the VALUE Foundation has a good argument for the use of video games in the classroom (31).

One good tool was Twine, which allowed educators and scholars to create non-linear stories, forcing the creators to consider multiple endings, alternative storylines, and cause and effect, something not in traditional academic writing. Because of its open-source availability and the relatively-easy-to-use function, I believe this would be the easiest way for a teacher to use video games and digital storytelling in their classrooms. Another doable method would be game analogies in the classroom, which would especially be apt for learning about archeology and ancient history, as visualizing is hard for such subjects.

The two other case studies showed promise for engagement but proved both time and money costly. Video content and live streaming with a platform such as Twitch are difficult to break into, and “to gain truly large numbers of viewers, daily streams of upwards of four hours are essential” (39). Plus, all the technology to have good production value would be out of the realm of possibility for most. RoMeincraft, an offshoot of Minecraft, which gathered people to recreate the Limes, a Roman border in the Netherlands, ca. 200 CE. Collaboration and virtual reality pinned this project together, but again, hard to execute.

Though I started out this post with my belief that we’re all gamers (note: I see you playing Animal Crossing), and how that ubiquity of game playing means that video games could be useful in the classroom, there’s another point I believe is just as important. Teaching is hard. Making new content of any kind, but especially interactive and digital content is hard and time-consuming. Of course, if it does work better, which I believe it could, it would be harder and more time consuming, because it’s better teaching. That does not mean it is feasible for all, but just as I believe DH is where we’re ALL headed, maybe all educators should ponder this. It would require work, but it would also require guidance for true learning to come from this format.

I created a Twine project this week with two people I’ve been working with on a larger project. The non-linear storytelling and the addition of pictures were relatively easy to work with, though it would be more difficult to use if one had less experience with other digital content platforms. I enjoyed using it immensely, thanks to my partners as well, but it only reiterated my firm belief that this educational tool and teaching method is more work.

Boom, K. H. J., Ariese, C. E., van den Hout, B., Mol, A. A. A. and Politopoulos, A. 2020. “Teaching through Play: Using Video Games as a Platform to Teach about the Past.” In: Hageneuer, S. (ed.) Communicating the Past in the Digital Age: Proceedings of the International Conference on Digital Methods in Teaching and Learning in Archaeology (12–13 October 2018). Pp. 27–44. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: License: CC-BY 4.0.

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