Teaching through Play: Using Video Games as a Platform to Teach about the Past
Chapter from the book: Hageneuer, S. 2020. Communicating the Past in the Digital Age: Proceedings of the International Conference on Digital Methods in Teaching and Learning in Archaeology (12th-13th October 2018).
The video game market is a big part of the current popular media landscape and is growing rapidly. Developers of video games are keen to make use of a variety of historical pasts as this provides them with recognisable themes, settings or narrative frameworks. Video games can be seen as the manifestation of experiential learning theory: they 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. However, pasts incorporated in video games are mostly utilised to provide a fun experience in order to generate revenue. As more and more people depend on video games to teach them about the past, they often take the history presented in them for granted, relying on developers to tell an accurate story. Unmediated, players are prone to miss opportunities for critical engagement with the presented past, and can fall into the trap of presentism.
It is important for those teaching about the past to understand how video games work, and what their potential and impact are. Data-driven approaches allow us to explore what types of games are considered to be ‘historical’. Our research shows that 206 million copies of games have been sold through Steam that were tagged as historical, and can be classified as strategy/top-down games, action-adventure narrative-driven games, or first-person action games. These types all have a reliance on some form of violence as central game mechanic, which needs to be taken into account when using video games as an education platform.
Through four case studies, we show that video games can function as a platform to teach about the past in a critical, yet fun way. Firstly, Twine can be used to stimulate critical and multi-linear thinking as it allows the user to create a narrative based on a branching structure instead of a linear one. Secondly, video games can be incorporated into formal classroom settings in order to illustrate certain complex theoretical concepts. Streaming, or creating videos about games that incorporate the past, can be a major avenue for content-focused teaching, as well as a way to reflect on video game pasts – the third case study. Lastly, our RoMeincraft case study shows that participants are not only taught something about Roman heritage but also able to increase their skills in communication and digital media. The goal of this chapter is to provide researchers with practical examples set within a solid theoretical framework of how video games can be implemented as a teaching tool.