Tags: Beach Invaders, Howard Zinn’s Civilization, Canadian wise men discover the secret of blogging!
Jonathan Dresner is right: in my earlier post about history and play, I was a bit too flip in dismissing as “teacher logic” the instinct to leverage activities like computer games into historical learning. In this post, I’ll reconsider computer games—or, as the kids today call them, “games”—as teaching tools, and offer my take on two questions:
- Why computer games are not effective tools for teaching history.
- How they could be.
In a couple of recent articles, Niall Ferguson championed the use of certain games to teach history, in particular the strategic history of World War II. Ferguson dismissed Medal of Honor, a popular first-person Nazi-shooter, as little more than “Space Invaders—make that Beach Invaders—with fancy graphics.” But he gave a gold star for realism and sophistication to a simulation game called Making History: The Calm and the Storm. Indeed, Ferguson has now teamed up with Making History’s creators to develop a new game modeling present-day conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Here, Ferguson is recapitulating something simulation gamers have done for years. “That game is superficial and simplistic,” they say, “but in this one, all the variables have been accounted for and all the models have been tweaked just right.” Until the inadequacies of that simulation are revealed, and the next advance in realism and sophistication is demanded. The truth is, any modeling of history into computer code is going to be reductive. And the assumptions programmers make in creating a simulation will always determine the lessons players can get out.
This is not, however, my objection to teaching history with computer simulations. My objection—and I speak here as an inveterate gamer, who loves these sorts of games and has logged more hours on them than I care to contemplate—is that while simulation games may appear to be about historical events and forces, repeated play will almost always preclude and replace the sort of historical thought that teachers aim to foster.
How so? Ted Friedman offers a vivid description of playing a complex simulation game: (The next two quotations are from his book, Electric Dreams: Computers in American Culture, but Friedman has a similar essay on Civilization you can read online.)
The way computer games teach structures of thought … is by getting you to internalize the logic of the program. To win, you can’t just do whatever you want. You have to figure out what will work within the rules of the game. You must learn to predict the consequences of each move, and anticipate the computer’s response. Eventually, your decisions become intuitive, as smooth and rapid-fire as the computer’s own machinations.
If you’ve poured much time into games like Civilization or the various Sims, I’m sure you’ll recognize the time-dissolving state Friedman is describing:
The pleasure of [these games] is in entering into a computerlike mental state: in responding as automatically as the computer, processing information as effortlessly, replacing sentient cognition with the blank hum of computation. When a game of Civilization really gets rolling, the decisions are effortless, instantaneous, chosen without self-conscious thought. The end result is an almost-meditative state, in which you aren’t just interacting with the computer, but melding with it.
You really do lose yourself in these games—Tim Burke called Civilization IV, the latest entry in the series, “pure silicon crack.” That may not sound like fun, but it is. Back when I had the time to devote to Civilization (I won’t date myself by mentioning which Roman numeral followed the title then) my housemates and I would routinely play for seven or eight hours at a stretch without noticing where the time had gone. Twenty-four hour jags were by no means unheard of.
Ferguson dismisses Civilization as a WW2 sim, as well he might: Civ (as it’s known to its friends) models thousands of years of human history, from the development of agriculture to the colonization of space. It no more models World War II than Monopoly models the running of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. But many others have embraced Civilization as a teaching game. Esther MacCallum-Stewart has some articles and comments here; there’s another bibliography of articles on Civilization here. A number of historians, documentary filmmakers, and educators, including some of my colleagues at the University of Western Ontario, recently collaborated on the History Canada Game, an elaborate mod for Civilization III that recreates the interactions of Europeans and Natives in 16th century New France.
Debates over Civilization’s suitability for the classroom have generally centered on the ideologies it appears to endorse. Simply put, it’s a game about conquering the world. It rewards militarism and imperialist expansion. Science is valuable insofar as it produces new technologies of conquest and destruction; art and culture are worthwhile only as a means of pacifying one’s own population. (It’s interesting in this regard that the History Canada team features several Native Canadian artists and experts. I imagine they went to some lengths to mute the game’s inherent celebration of imperialism.)
But ultimately, I would argue, such debates are beside the point. The more Civilization you play, the less it matters what the game superficially seems to be about. When an expert Civ player is in the meditative zone that Friedman describes, she doesn’t see the Romans as Romans or a cathedral as a cathedral. She sees them as the computer does, as pieces of neutral data in an intricate mathematical machine. Alexander Galloway makes this point in his chewy little book, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture:
The more one begins to think that Civilization is about a certain ideological interpretation of history (neoconservative, reactionary, or what have you) … the more one realizes that it is about the absence of history altogether, or rather, the transcoding of history into specific mathematical models. … So “history” in Civilization is precisely the opposite of history, not because the game fetishizes the imperial perspective, but because the diachronic details of lived life are replaced by the synchronic homogeneity of code pure and simple.
In simpler language, Civilization’s game play erases its own historical content. Learning to play means learning to ignore all the stuff that makes it a game about history and not about, say, fighting aliens. One could easily program a different game with a different set of ideological assumptions—Galloway imagines a “People’s Civilization” game by Howard Zinn—and see precisely the same de-historicizing effect. Mastering the simulation game necessarily involves a journey away from reality towards abstraction, away from history towards code.
(I don’t play them much, but my suspicion is that this also holds true for more action-oriented games. Parents looking over their children’s shoulders may be horrified by the violence in the latest video shooter. I expect the kids playing only really engage that violence the first few times they play. After that, they are interacting more directly with the software, focused on keeping up their half of the feedback loop from eye to hand to controller. The gouts of blood on the screen, important as they may be to marketing the game, are more like abstract signals when the game is played. You are welcome to find this comforting or disturbing as you prefer.)
And this is why, though I’m interested in, and pleased to see, projects like the History Canada Game, I don’t think I would use a packaged commercial game like Civilization or Ferguson’s Making History in the classroom, no matter how many historians were consulted in their construction. I’m not saying it can’t be done—I see that Mark Grimsley has used Civilization in the classroom, and the very end of his post suggests exactly where I’m going with this one. But there is a profound way in which the more you play a game, the less you think about its construction.
There is, however, a way for teachers to reverse the direction of this journey from history to abstraction. It seems to me that an innovative teacher might take everything I’ve just said against games as teaching tools and turn it all into a plus. Have you guessed it? I wouldn’t get my students to play a simulation of history—I would get them to design one.
(Cross-posted to Cliopatria. Comments welcome either place.)