A new way to teach history

As the nation’s education system continues to falter, many are looking for a new way to teach students. The games like those created as part of Mission U.S. could help revitalize the classroom when schools need it the most.

“Less than one-quarter of students perform[ed] at or above the Proficient level in 2010.”

That’s according to findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress for U.S. history administered just a few years ago. In other words, only one in every four students in grades 4-12 passed a basic test of how much they knew about the country’s less than three century existence.

In the same year as the above assessment, the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a different study that attempted to measure children’s exposure to media and digital technology. The 2010 survey found that children spend just under four and a half hours watching television per day, and a combined two and a half hours on the computer and playing console videogames.

In fact, what appeared decades ago to be a fringe hobby reserved for a small sub-group of misfit teens, has since ballooned into a multi-billion dollar a year industry in which 183 million Americans now take part daily.

Only 2% of 12th grade students know that Brown v. Board of Education is the 1954 landmark ruling that put an end to segregation with the declaration that “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

But over 95% of those same students play videogames, which has led some to look for solutions to the country’s problematic educational system in America’s new favorite pastime. By the time many students enter middle school they are already extremely adept at using digital technology and interacting with one another through multimedia: everything from texts, to emails, blogs, photos, and all of the naïve complexity that accompanies today’s online social networks like Facebook.

So why not take the forms of mass media children are already good at using and turn them toward educational goals? According to the Kaiser survey mentioned above, American’s youth spend less than 40 minutes a day reading. Why not try to meet them on their own terms? It’s clear the current curriculum isn’t achieving even moderate success. And when less than 25% of the nation’s students are proficient in U.S. history, what could the possible harm be in trying?

Indeed, in the 21st century marketplace, where business managers and company recruiters prize both the ability to think critically and have a robust knowledge of basic information technologies, a digital humanities hybrid curriculum could be one way to fix the nation’s troubled education system.

Take for instance Mission U.S., a multimedia project to help immerse students in U.S. history through interactive, flash-based browser games. Produced by WNET Thirteen with funding in part from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mission U.S. games use point-and-click adventure mechanics to try and model different parts of the country’s history.

So far the project has completed two titles: “For Crown or Colony” and “Flight to Freedom.” The first puts students behind the eyes of a young printer’s apprentice in Boston during the lead-up to the Revolutionary War while the second shows them what life was like for a young African slave working on a Kentucky plantation in 1848. And though the possible experiences in each game are extremely different, both promote a sense of player agency that separates them from many other interactive educational tools.

For example, West Virginia’s Department of Education recently invested in an initiative called Learn21 with the goal of helping teachers utilize digital games as part of their daily lessons. But many of the offerings include knowledge-based games which ask students simply to recall information rather than take on a more active role. “Help Lincoln Get to the White House” and “Jamestown Challenge” are two such examples. In both games, players succeed based on how well they can “answer questions,” painting the learning tools more as tests in disguise than unique educational experiences.

The Mission U.S. games on the other hand, are much more than digital, guided tours. They actually require that students mindfully participate and take part in shaping the experience. “For Crown or Colony” might explain that a “jack knife” is “a blade that folds into its handle.” But small facts like these are the extent of game’s taxonomic aspirations. Instead, the information that the game presents to students provides a context in which to better understand the choices they are making. The game’s aim is not to quiz players on who the Sons of Liberty were, or what the Boston Massacre was; its aim is to teach students something about what it meant to deal with these things as part of one’s ordinary daily existence.

Rather than simply hide facts behind clickable objects on the screen and then reward players for remembering them later on, Mission U.S. achieves much more through the complex set of choices it affords students while playing. In “Flight to Freedom,” 14 year old Lucy King has several options in front of her when a fire starts on the plantation, but only students can decide which she will finally choose. The act of doing so helps to keep students interested by directly engaging them in what’s happening. Equally important, if not more so, the level of player choice the game affords gives students a window into life as a slave in the 1800s.

And this possibility is why interactive digital games, browser based or otherwise, can be uniquely useful in the classroom.

As Dr. William Tally, a senior research scientist at the Center for Children and Technology who worked on the project explained to me, “[These games] can be effective ways to model, in an experiential way, some aspects of a historical milieu, for the purposes of problem solving and reflection.”

Once the animations and voice acting help students buy into the game’s digital representation, it’s the conversation mechanics and player agency that can then inspire empathy and deeper understanding. The Mission U.S. games are thus an invitation for further conversation about moments in U.S. history rather than the beginning and end of the lesson.

According to Dr. Tally, “[T]he learning only happens with the reflection and interaction with others around the game experience, and historians’ questions: How was this conflict experienced by people living then? What really caused this to happen, what really was the consequence? How do we know—what evidence is good evidence, and what not?  Why does this matter to us today?”

So while digital games can be a useful way to engage younger students, they must be part of a balanced, holistic educational approach. As a supplementary “Teacher’s Guide” notes, “Your students will gain the most from “Flight to Freedom” if their gameplay experiences are supported by classroom activities, discussions, and writing exercises guided by your teaching expertise.”

In other words, neither “Flight to Freedom” nor “For Crown or Colony” is meant as a substitute for the rest of the classroom experience. Instead, both games are aimed at enhancing it in ways traditional textbooks and lectures are necessarily capable of doing. Class presentations, vocabulary tests, and book reports can all help teach students critical historical information.

But it’s not clear that any of those have the same potential to help students simulate experiences and empathize with those who lived history as it unfolded. And with more and more students spending their time with increasingly interactive forms of mass media, interactive narratives like those being created by Mission U.S. might be better positioned to engage young adults in a subject matter that desperately requires it.

One Comment

  1. LK Fitz

    Really interesting subject. I absolutely agree that games are a supremely underutilized tool for learning history.