History Invaders!

One of the challenges in designing games or activities for education is the interface between a game’s subject and its mechanics. Picture if you will the classic computer game John Kerry Tax Invaders, released by the GOP during the 2004 election. The gameplay is identical to Space Invaders, but instead of a ship you control George Bush’s head, which shoots lasers at blocks inscribed with tax increases. The subject of this game was, I intuit, John Kerry’s perfidious plan to raise taxes. (If you play the game in 2010, I guess it represents an alternate history.) But the game play, the mechanics, is just moving from side to side and shooting descending blocks.

Jesper Juul calls the two layers of a game the rules and the fiction. The indie RPG community uses system and color in similar ways. Ian Bogost writes about procedures and contexts.* There are a hundred things to say about how these layers interact, but one of the most basic is this: When you begin to play a game, what you encounter first is its superficial subject matter–the fiction, the color. But the more you play, the more you interact with the mechanics beneath the surface. Ultimately, games become about whatever their mechanics or procedures are about.

(* I think Bogost, who is extremely smart and useful on these subjects, would actually argue that the two layers are much more interdependent than I’ve made them out to be here.)

Designing educational mechanics or procedures is a lot harder than shoehorning desired material into a game. It is almost never enough to slap an educational skin on an existing game or rule set, easy and tempting as that may be. Because the more you play, the more you play through the surface content of a game. If a game is going to teach anything long lasting, its lessons have to be embedded in its very mechanics and procedures, the stuff players manipulate and the actions they perform.

This is my critique of Civilization and similar games, much as I love them, as history-teaching tools. The more you play, the less you think about history, as you learn to interact directly with the game’s algorithms. (One solution to this is to have students design their own mods or simulations, so they can be the ones debating the procedural logics of history.)

The board game Monopoly was once a political critique of landlords and capitalists, designed by a Quaker woman named Lizzie Magie to illustrate the ideas of Henry George. But the game’s procedures contain no real critique of capitalism, and when the original context is forgotten, it is the procedures that remain.

Several tabletop roleplaying games in the 1990s tried to get away from the combat-heavy kill-all-monsters gameplay of their 1970s and 80s forebears. “This game is not just about combat,” their boosters promised. “You can use it to play out epic stories of intrigue, tragedy, and romance.” But the two hundred pages of rules they provided for simulating combat said otherwise. And even though tabletop gamers have a grand tradition of hacking, tweaking, and ignoring the rules, those two-hundred-page combat systems exerted a powerful gravitational pull.

Urgent Evoke is the massive multiplayer “save the world” game from the World Bank Institute and “too cool to be real she must be the escaped protagonist of a William Gibson novel” game designer Jane McGonigal. I signed up to play last week in a fit of enthusiasm about serious games and denial about time management. At one level, Evoke is about fostering social and entrepreneurial innovation in and for the developing world, and it is awesome and inspiring and energizing. But at the procedural, mechanical level, Evoke is also a Frankenstein’s mashup of Twitter, Facebook, and the whole social networking popularity contest that’s invaded every other corner of our lives. Play is, or at it least it felt this way to me, a frantic scramble for eyeballs. I feel old and codgery, but I had to quit after 48 hours.

The things I’m saying here have been around for some time, but “History Invaders” games (Scot Osterweil calls them “Grand Theft Calculus” games) keep coming down the pike. If public historians and history educators want to be serious about teaching with games and play, we have to inject ourselves deep into the game development process. We have to articulate what we think history and historical thinking are good for in the first place. And then we have to build outwards from the kinds of historical thinking we want to inculcate, creating games and activities whose fiddly bits are historical sources, whose moving parts are historical ideas themselves.


  1. Neat post, Rob! I would argue that playing Civ is an example of how ideology works, in an almost-Althusserian sense. If you play enough, you’ll see that trading and technology development are the best ways to maximize your scores. The ritual of Civ-playing inculcates a kind of technocratic neoliberalism, in short, at least if you take the scoring algorithm seriously in a fairly literalistic way.

    Another argument for designing our own games!

  2. Good post. I think the issues about designing for education is, at heart, why most of these endeavors fail. This overlaps to why gaming is risk management is usually a futile and annoying affair.

    Out of curiousity, where would you place Buckmister Fuller’s World Game concept?

  3. I have been arguing the same thing for a while. A successful educational game will make the decisions the player makes actually be decisions about the subject matter. Instead of moving Bush’s head around to shoot at blocks (making decisions about moving and shooting), you could have a game where you decide to vote or not vote for tax increases and then see the results of those choices. That would make the players think about taxes and how they affect things. (And by controlling the rules the GOP or whoever made the game could skew things toward their political ideology, of course; if voting in favor of tax hikes is always bad, then the player may carry that idea into the real world.)

    So if you want to teach college kids about being a historian, you make a game about reconstructing what happened based on historical documents, or about finding common themes in history or whatever aspect of a historian’s job you’re trying to illustrate. When trying to teach historians to think playfully, then the decisions you must force on them are different, so they need a different rules set.

  4. Pingback: 12. Playing with the Past | History 9808

  5. Pingback: Seeing Like SimCity | Play The Past

  6. Pingback: Tecumseh’s Curse (Chapter 1) | Play The Past

Comments are closed.