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Video games as historical content

Think about it for a minute.

Using video games not just as an instructional tool but as pieces of historical content that students analyze like they would a photograph or primary source. Incorporating sections of games or game trailers or perhaps even an entire game into the learning process with the expectation that kids will learn social studies / historical foundational content from that experience.

Yeah. It’s a little weird.

Even today, with lots of research suggesting a positive impact on learning, many educators have a hard time seeing video games as a legitimate teaching tool. I’ve been pushing the idea of both the use of games as an instructional tool and basic game theory as a way to re-work lesson plan and unit designs for a while now. But the negative view of video games and those who play them dies hard. To think about video games as a valid part of teaching and learning is still a bit uncomfortable.

And so even for me, to think about the idea of using games as actual pieces of evidence that students can pull apart as part of the historical thinking process is something I’m trying to wrap my head around.

But why not? Current video games, and even some older ones, contain huge amounts of historical, geographical, and economic data that we need to find ways to use. I’m flashing back to a conversation I had almost ten years ago with an AP US history teacher from outside Kansas City. He was using the game Medal of Honor to help his students understand the events surrounding D-Day and the impact they had on post-war relationships.

He shared how his students laughed while they watched the first 20 minutes of the movie Saving Private Ryan. He knew he needed to find way to create an emotional connection to the historical events. The next year, he decided to have his kids play the first level in the third version of the Medal of Honor video game. Following the game play, during which students began to realize the incredible difficulty of storming Omaha Beach, he brought in two D-Day veterans. It was during these conversations – with the veterans describing realistic events, using similar phrases used by game characters and students during game play, and discussing emotions that they felt during and after the actual event – that students began to grasp the enormity of D-Day. Later during the viewing of Saving Private Ryan, the class was silent . . . except for sniffles from kids.

The teacher had found the emotional connection he was looking for. Both the video game (released in 2002) and Saving Private Ryan (released in 1998) were created by Stephen Spielberg. Both were created with intentional similarities. Both used historically accurate data and materials. It makes sense that when students were immersed in the sterilized version of D-Day by playing the game that they would began to understand the actual, much more brutal, event experienced by those who actually participated in the event.

You can get a bit of that feel through some screenshots and video clips:

omaha beach not real

omaha beach real

I think this sort of activity can be very powerful. But I’m beginning to see ways that we can use the games for more than just as a tool for engaging, emotion-grabbing, and first person perspective-creating. I think we need to start to see games as historical artifacts. As evidence that our kids should be using to solve problems.

Sam Wineburg has been preaching for years about the need for teaching historical thinking skills. And we’re moving in that direction. He, and others, suggest that we should be training our kids to look at evidence in three different ways:

  • Sourcing asks students to consider who wrote a document as well as the circumstances of its creation. Who authored a given document? When? For what purpose?
  • Contextualization asks students to locate a document in time and place, and to understand how these factors shape its content.
  • Corroboration asks students to consider details across multiple sources to determine points of agreement and disagreement.

Can we do that sort of thinking with video games? I believe that we can. Games have become much more sophisticated since Medal of Honor came out 12 years ago. And not just in the look and feel of the game but the content and story as well. And to be honest, depending on the game, more violent. But I believe that there are ways to avoid the negatives while taking advantage of the positives.

For example, a teacher shared his use of the recent game, Assassins Creed III. Like many games, Assassins Creed III combines actual historical events and characters with fictional ones. And as the title implies, there are assassinations and violence. But the story also recreates an historically accurate version of the Boston Massacre and allows for free-play explorations of 18th-century Boston, New York, and the American frontier. It’s possible to use just pieces of the game to encourage kids to find the facts and fiction embedded in the game. And Wineburg’s three questions can help you frame the conversations around historical thinking skills while also supporting the collection of historical facts.

Many games also lend themselves to economic or geographic conversations. Newer games such as Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim have been used by students to take population statistics and analyze whether the towns are producing enough food to feed the population. One instructor said that “it’s an interesting way for an AP Human Geography teacher to get kids to think about how field work works and how to use statistics to try to change things.” Others have used older games such as Civilization with their students to encourage critical thinking, problem solving, and the building of foundational knowledge.

I want to look more into games such as the very sweet Mission US series and online games at Stop Disasters. Both are clearly aimed at teachers and so are intentionally “educational.” There seems to be ways to also use these less “commercial” games as historical artifacts.

I’m curious. Can we use historical thinking processes and questions to look more intentionally at video games?

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great article, I really liked the comparison of images for D-Day from the movie, game, and real life.

    I probably won’t have time to do it this year, but I really like the idea of using Assassin’s Creed to intro the Boston Massacre.

    February 1, 2014
    • glennw #


      Thanks for your quick comment. I also like the idea of using the Boston Massacre scene from Assassin’s Creed. It introduces the possibility of an agent provocateur who fires the first shot in an attempt to draw the British into firing.

      Interesting conversations! Good luck!


      February 2, 2014
  2. Great article. I am inspired. I wonder if the teacher having students play Medal of Honor did the game play during class? If so I think about parental permission, administration, technology issues (like getting a gaming console to school). What a great way of thinking outside of the box. I am a D-day nut and have created lessons using the Band of Brothers episode in which the paratroopers jump into Normandy. I show clips of the movie, then with help from the PBS website on D-day I explain to students what it must have felt like to jump into enemy territory. I have them put on the jump bag that paratroopers jumped with to see how heavy it was. I go over with them what each item in the bag was, it’s weight and then place something similar in weight into the classroom bag. Sadly I have only student taught and have yet to do this lesson in a classroom. Keep up the useful information.

    February 4, 2014
    • glennw #

      You ask all the good questions! Going outside the box creates all sorts of cool things but we can’t forget the practical, classroom management stuff either. From our conversation, kids played the game in groups on game consoles that students brought from home. Don’t remember any discussion about parental permission for game, just the R-rated Saving Private Ryan movie. It certainly does change the dynamics in the classroom!

      And I love the Band of Brothers! Your unit sounds sweet. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to try the lesson soon!


      February 4, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. D-day via video game
  2. Using Video Games to Effectively Teach Social Studies Revisited – Democracy and Me

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