This paper explores the learning and logistical outcomes of a history professor’s incorporation of a computer game into his curriculum; specifically, the introduction of the historically-themed game series Civilization IV in a university survey course on the History of the Ancient World. The author, who had no experience working with gaming technology in the classroom, discusses the preparation for this project, its implementation, and its outcomes. Through students’ verbal feedback, written reports, and survey responses, the author assesses his attempt to capture his students’ historical imaginations with computer gaming technology and to enhance their critical, historical thinking about broad civilizational trends. It further analyzes both the anticipated and unanticipated learning outcomes, including the surprise responses from some students about the game’s educational disutility, which prompted a swift recalibration of the project’s final phases.
This project studied the learning and logistical outcomes of incorporating a computer game into a university course; specifically, using the historically-themed game series Civilization in a lower-division survey course on the History of the Ancient World. This paper aims to convey the preparation for, implementation of, and outcomes that followed my decision to incorporate this computer game into my Ancient World History curriculum. Oft-studied for their utility as teaching aides, Civilization and other computer games have garnered a great deal of attention by scholars who research teaching and learning outcomes (see the Selected Works, below). Foremost among them is professor Kurt D. Squire, whose research career has focused upon Civilization and similar games used by educators. Although professor Squire’s research inspired this project, it is important to underline that I am a Japan scholar and my doctorate is in History, rather than in Education. As a result, my chief aim is to share the outcomes of my classroom experiment with fellow educators who may wish to incorporate historically-themed computer games into their own curricula.
Since 1991, when the first edition of Civilization debuted, its designers have worked to combine the principal elements of civilizational growth and development with strategic game play. The game, produced by designer Sid Meier and his software firm, Firaxis Games, permits single players the opportunity to found, develop, and manage a major world civilization in a chronological, turn-based format. I am not a gamer, per se, but as an undergraduate student and history major in 1991, I found the game’s enablement of users to found, cultivate, and defend a major world empire to be captivating. Civilization left a deep impression, and though its graphics were rather simple at that time, its comprehensive approaches to land, agriculture, defenses, philosophy, faith, finance, taxes, and war more than compensated for the simple user interface. Much has changed since that time, and I have played very few computer games since, but Firaxis is still releasing more comprehensive versions of its game, including Civilization V in 2010.
This paper recounts and assesses my attempt to capture my students’ historical imaginations with computer gaming technology, and it shares an array of student responses to the project. Rather than attempt to situate this classroom project within the already rich, very expert literature on gaming and learning theory, I chose instead to conduct a solo gaming experiment and to share an array of student feedback on how the project unfolded. This paper recounts what it was like for me, someone who has never incorporated a computer game into my teaching before, to introduce, manage, and assess the value of a computer-gaming assignment that was woven into my course curriculum. My approach, albeit open-ended and improvisational at times, generated a host of valuable and candid responses from my students, who gradually took the reins and taught me a great deal – both about using games in the classroom and about teaching World History in general. I must stress the independent, experimental nature of my effort, and I welcome debate from scholars and educators about my goals, methods, and interpretations. I hope that readers will find this frank, candid approach and my students’ responses as informative as I have.
Pedagogical Inspiration for this Project and its Hypotheses
Over the last several years, my teaching has increasingly become a two-way dialogue with students, a format that has helped me to convey my course material more clearly. As an historian, however, there are often extraordinarily large concepts embedded in the lecture and reading material with which my students must engage. For example, in my World History course spanning ancient times through 1450 CE, students are faced with the significant challenge of identifying and understanding the reasons for civilizational growth, expansion, transformation, decline, and legacy. In the classroom, the challenge lies in finding effective ways to convey and to assess students’ understanding of vast concepts like imperialism, decolonization, and civilizational progress. This was the impetus for this project, which aimed to assess the effectiveness of employing the computer game Civilization in my Ancient World History course as a tool for teaching students the fundamental principles of human historical development. My experiment hypothesized that my students would demonstrate and be able to articulate a clearer grasp of the broad principles of civilizational growth, development, and decline due to their scenario-based game play. I further hypothesized that the game would enable some of the students to better visualize and understand the lecture material and assigned readings. While I had no control group, I intended to assess the above hypotheses both directly and indirectly. In both respects, I ended up with more than I bargained for.
(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal's not-for-profit educational open-access policy.