Simulating History

I’m writing this post as a distraction from trying to modify Omeka code for my design/final project. Also since the beginning of this course, I have wanted to write a post about video games and history, so here is my chance. Specifically, my inspiration has been an audio book to which I’ve been listening the last week or so. It is Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. One of the books I read last semester mentioned his book, so I grabbed my father’s audio version to check it out.

Incidentally, Guns, Germs, and Steel is interesting, but I feel like it is more a reflection of Diamond’s personal thoughts about the history of civilization than a thorough study. His explanation, for instance, of the history of invention is, I’m guessing, only about ten or fifteen pages, which is far too short for me.

Regardless of its drawbacks, Diamond’s book reminds me of my favorite genre of video games, simulations. The simulation that keeps coming to mind, when I hear lists of plants and animals in Diamond’s book, is SimEarth, which by now is probably too obscure for anyone to remember. The premise of the game is the player controls the earth (Mars and Venus in alternative scenarios) and can direct the evolution of life and civilization. Lest you think spending time playing a simulation of earth history is a waste of time, my oldest friend once told me that he would have never passed high school biology without SimEarth. He spent hours playing that game, and thereby learned about different species of plants and animals. Certainly, that is an easier way to learn than staring at lists of plants and animals in a textbook.

Hypothetically speaking, what if Guns, Germs, and Steel would be made into a fun videogame? Think of how much players would absorb without much conscious effort. Think about making more traditional historical subjects, like the history of the French Revolution, into a fun video game. My bet is that players would absorb more than if their teachers forced them to memorize details from textbooks.

After rereading the last paragraph, I realize that what I wrote is nothing new. I think we all agree that making learning fun is a good thing. Maybe what is new for me is connecting games from my childhood with what we are studying now.

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2 Comments on “Simulating History”

  1. John Cote Says:

    One of the problems I’m reading on the subject of learning history through simulation is that any interaction on the part of the player would in effect rewrite history. ie: Simearth has multiple outcomes.

    Unless you want to go down that “What if the South had won..Kennedy wasn’t shot, Columbus actually found his way to India” route. Is that teaching History?-John Cote

    • Laszlo Says:

      I think it’s possible to teach history by looking at different outcomes. Even if player interaction reinterprets things, the player at least gets a sense of how things in the simulation differed from the actual outcome. Imagine a game that allows players to rewrite US History without slavery. Then, I imagine the teacher can use the non-slavery outcome to prompt students to think about the affect (or is that effect?) of slavery. Hypotheticals in history seem useful to me.

      I’m wondering, though, about the limits of simulations for learning. I remember a terrible game I bought ages ago. It allowed the player to be Alexander the Great and control his armies. What motivated me to buy it was its accuracy. All of the generals’ names were accurate and, I assume, the battlefields and equipment reflected historical scholarship. When I started to play it, though, the terrible gameplay ruined my interest. I never went far enough into the game to absorb any names or places.

      With a little time, I’m sure I can think of a few good games that help players absorb history. Any suggestions?


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