Teaching Historical Theory through Video Games

Teaching Historical Theory through Video Games

By A. Martin Wainwright

The History Teacher, Vol. 47:4 (2014)

Sid Meier's Civilization IV

Introduction: The potential of video games for teaching history is receiving increasing recognition. However, the greatest emphasis is on their use as tools in secondary education. The few studies focusing on undergraduate education demonstrate the use of games to create an immersive historical experience with counterfactual options. While exploring these issues, my undergraduate course, History in Video Games, also introduces students to concepts and literature normally explored at the undergraduate honors and graduate levels. History professors often base their undergraduate content on theoretical frameworks, which they reserve for discussion in graduate seminars, because they assume that undergraduate students will be unable or unwilling to comprehend and appreciate such complex ideas. By requiring students to analyze historical video games in the context of both gaming critique and recent historical scholarship, my course not only increases student appreciation of the potential and limitations of historically themed video games, it also enables them to tackle—often enthusiastically—material that is frequently difficult for most students to comprehend in more conventional classroom and seminar settings.

I have offered History in Video Games three times so far, in Spring 2011 at the junior level, in Summer 2012 at the hybrid senior and graduate level, and again during the regular semester in Spring 2014. I am applying to make the course permanent at the higher level and offer it biennially. The accompanying syllabus is from the course’s first offering, since at the time of writing, the Spring 2011 class was the only completed course that adhered to the regular fifteen-week semester schedule rather than the concentrated five-week summer session.

Since my course focuses on the use of historical theory to inform our understanding of video games, and vice versa, this article devotes considerable space to a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the games themselves. This discussion forms much of the content of the course. It is through the process of discovering the games that students learn historiography.

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