Gaming the System: ISTE Standard 6 and Fun and Games

Image result for axis and allies game 1984

I may have a problem.  My current board game collection runs slightly over 200 games – and excluding all the expansion, upgrades, and other fiddly bits I’ve acquired along the way.  It’s getting to the point where storage is becoming an issue.  I have a game group I game with once a week and I’ve spent countless hours painting miniature figures of soldiers or superheroes or spaceships to make my games look that much cooler.  Some may say I have an addiction.  Possibly.  I wouldn’t say they’re wrong, but it’s not to the point where it’s impacting my life in a negative way (storage issues notwithstanding), so maybe it’s not exactly an addiction.  After all, I can quit any time I want.  But the reason I bring up my gaming “hobby” is that I have found it, on occasion, to be helpful to my profession (teaching).  I have, on occasion, incorporated historical simulations into my classroom, with varying success.  My goal in this post is to examine how technology can be utilized to facilitate historical simulations in the classroom.  ISTE standard 6, indicator 6c states, “Students communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively by creating or using a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models or simulations.” “Simulations” are further defined as “Representation or imitation of systems or situations that are not easily subject to experimentation or not readily accessible” (ISTE 2016).  Perfect!  This is incredibly applicable to teaching history and my question for this week centered on how, exactly, can one use digital visualizations, models, and simulations to teach history and how are these visualizations, models, and simulations better than their non-digital counterparts.

Gaming can teach us quite a bit about history.  My own interest in board gaming stretches back to my teen years and from this early stage it has almost always combined my love of history with my love of strategic thinking.  My first “serious” game (though not by today’s standards) was Axis & Allies – the game pictured at the top of this post (Any gamer with a more-than-passing interest in gaming could easily identify the game from the photo – and more than likely the edition as well.  Anyone who’s played it more than a few times could also tell you that unless something has gone horribly wrong, this is a picture of the initial setup).  It combined WWII and strategic thinking – it was wonderful!  Playing it, it was like I could go back in history and make all of the crucial decisions that the world leaders of that time made (of course the game is careful to purge Nazism and its sins from the game).  Playing the game teaches you how bloody the war on the Eastern Front was between the USSR and Germany.  You struggle as the UK tries to defend its expansive empire.  As Japan, you are relatively resource-poor, but possess a powerful navy and air force. You see the US, the economic colossus of the game, start out militarily fairly weak, but over time it will generate the men and material necessary to win the war if left unchecked.  The decisions, the stress, the empathy, that’s what historical gaming can provide.  It can draw you in and make you invested in something in a way few forms of media can.

Gaming as story-telling

Image result for time stories endurance

Image result for time stories endurance(T.I.M.E. Stories’ Endurance game vs. the real thing)

In a way, historical gaming or simulations are essentially telling, or maybe more accurately, writing stories set in a historical era.  It’s the reverse of what we as historians do when we analyze historic documents or artifacts.  In those instances we often have the story and seek to fit in in the era – to see how it fits in the larger story.  With gaming we have the trappings of the era, but WE write the story.  It’s putting us in the shoes of the historical protagonist; writing their story.  The importance of storytelling in education and its facilitation by digital education can be seen in B. R. Robin’s article on digital storytelling.  In it, he unwittingly supports the cause of historical gaming and ISTE standard 6 when he writes, “At its core, digital storytelling allows computer users to become creative storytellers through the traditional processes of selecting a topic, conducting some research, writing a script, and developing an interesting story. This material is then combined with various types of multimedia, including computer-based graphics, recorded audio, computer-generated text, video clips, and music so that it can be played on a computer, uploaded on a web site, or burned on a DVD” (Robin p. 222).  Robin goes on to further elaborate on the essential elements of effective digital storytelling.  All of these factors apply to good historical gaming as well.

1. Point of view:  What is the main point of the story and what is the perspective of the author?
2. A dramatic question: A key question that keeps the viewer’s attention and will be answered by the end of the story.
3. Emotional content: Serious issues that come alive in a personal and powerful way and connects the story to the audience.
4. The gift of your voice: A way to personalize the story to help the audience understand the context.
5. The power of the soundtrack:  Music or other sounds that support and embellish the storyline.
6. Economy: Using just enough content to tell the story without overloading the viewer.
7. Pacing: The rhythm of the story and how slowly or quickly it progresses (Robin p. 223).
I could easily write 7 more blog posts outlining how each of these applies to digital and board gaming.  Suffice to say for now, that they all do – in droves.  Much like good books and movies, good games, be they digital or board games, historical or not, share these common features.  The connection between historical gaming and storytelling is solid. My question then revolves around how this can be applied digitally in my classroom and the benefits of doing so versus non-digital means.  So to demonstrate some “economy” of words myself, let me move on to my source for this week’s topic.

“Gaming the past”

(Volko Ruhnke’s Vietnam simulation, Fire in the Lake)

Jeremiah McCall is a high school history teacher and author of the book, Gaming the Past. His blog of the same name (https://gamingthepast.net/) covers the theory and practice of digital gaming in the classroom. He posts notes on presentations he’s given on the subject of digital historical simulations, posts essays on how to create historical simulations (using “Twine”), he includes lesson plans and rubrics for assignments he’s given – including assignments where students write their own historical simulations, provides an extensive bibliography, provides numerous links to outside articles on the topic of historical simulations, and includes links to many historical-based games and simulations (several of these don’t work and many of the simulations must be purchased, but it’s still helpful). He even has some content on old-fashioned table-top games and simulations. It is a veritable cornucopia of information and resources for the digitally inclined history teacher.  His historical project using Twine is particularly relevant for ISTE 6.  ISTE 6 is all about being a “creative communicator.”  With his Twine project, McCall challenges his students to create their own historical digital game.  Twine is an open source, non-linear, story-telling game generator (https://twinery.org/).  But McCall isn’t just having his students re-tell an existing story, he wants them to make “meaningful choices” as well.  He explains,

“Making meaningful choices is the single most difficult and most important part of creating an interactive historical text whether with Twine or some other design tool. A meaningful choice in this context (and I have forgotten who phrased it this way, though I suspect it was Salen and Zimmerman in their excellent Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals) means, among other things

  • A clear choice between clear alternatives (that can be evaluated to some extent) must be presented
  • The choice must have a noticeable and ideally logical effect on the game world.” (McCall, 2016)