Patricia Seed is obviously _the_ history professor at Rice University. You know the kind. Her name is whispered among students registering for classes. She's often referred to as "the cool teacher." She's smart, she's energetic, she despises the AP test and, oh yeah, she teaches history using video games, and has been for the last ten years.
While teaching the history of the European expansion eight years ago, Seed noticed that while students knew the solid details of the events, they couldn't quite comprehend just how difficult, say, sailing the South Atlantic and reaching India was back in those times.
"I wanted to have students have the opportunity to make decisions, and to think about what was happening in history," she says, adjusting her glasses even as she wrestles with PowerPoint and a cranky old Dell laptop.
It might look like any old lecture hall, but Seed is actually speaking before a large and very enthusiastic audience of teachers, students, and other interested parties at the Education Arcade, a series of panels held at the Los Angeles Convention Center to coincide with E3.
Education Arcade is subtitled as "the Games In Education Conference", and the three-day conference is held by MIT Comparative Media Studies, the MIT Teacher Education Program, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in association with the Entertainment Software Association and various sponsors. The conference's website indicates that the meeting is intended to "foster substantive discussion and collaboration among academics, designers, and educators interested in how videogames - commercial games and others - can enhance learning, culture, and education."
Patricia Seed, the "cool teacher."
After starting with a "sparks session" on Sunday night that encouraged participants to bring demos and materials to informally present to other attendees, the Education Arcade proper commenced on Monday with opening remarks from Henry Jenkins, before breaking out into a series of sessions that included discussions on gender and diversity, informal education, students making games, and further case studies, as well as a Tuesday keynote address from Peter Molyneux of Lionhead Studios.
This particular Monday afternoon panel, moderated by Kurt Squire of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is discussing the use of Sid Meier's Civilization series in the classroom, an obvious marriage that is thankfully starting to be realized among Seed and her peers.
Civilization provides "stealth education," says fellow Education Arcade panelist Deborah Briggs of Firaxis Games, the firm founded by Civilization creator Sid Meier after he created the original game while at Microprose. "We never attempted to design a teaching game." But with Civilization 's careful attention to detail, it's no wonder that a handful of astute teachers saw its educational potential. In practically no time at all, the original Civilization obliterated the predicted sales of just 30,000 from Microprose's marketing department, with a final tally of over one million copies being circulated throughout the world.
The series continued to thrive, with 2001's Civilization III being the current staple among educators. And it is at least partly because of this that the four-year-old game continues to be a successful seller. Despite a rapidly approaching release date for its sequel, Firaxis plans to continue selling the game, on the basis that not all school computers might have the necessary horsepower to run Civilization IV.
The upcoming sequel, which should be playable on E3's show floor, has a design philosophy that Briggs describes as "one-third proven, one-third improved, and one-third new." Almost all of the previous game's design staff had their hand in the latest incarnation; in fact, according to Briggs, the company is so tight-knit that only four or five employees have left Firaxis in their entire history.
Also speaking at the panel was Jeremiah B. McCall, a high school history teacher from Cincinnati County Day School . "Sim games are wonderful for building empathy," he said, reinforcing Seed's earlier words. "I don't have much use for textbooks at all."
This is not to say that Civilization and its ilk have completely eliminated traditional educational resources from McCall's classroom. In fact, McCall insists on providing as many historical resources as possible for his students. He insists that no historical work, by the very nature of history itself, can ever be completely accurate, and feels that the best education is derived by cross-examining and questioning every source. He calls this "comparative education."
"History for historians is looking at primary sources and constructing meaning out of those sources. It's a very active dialogue with the past. It requires a lot of thought, it requires a lot of discussion, and it's never ever ever accurate. It's always revised," he says, with the air of someone who has given his share of opening class remarks in the past.
"I'm very interested with them understanding that sources disagree, that bias is a real thing in forming the past, and I'm interested with them coming up with their own meanings," he says, before noticing the ensuing chaos on the projector as Seed tries diligently to pull up his syllabus. Error windows are spawning and reproducing like the plague. Power Point has ceased responding. It's gotten so bad that even mouse movements are starting to lag.
"Wow, that's amazing," he says, to a chuckling audience.
"What simulation games represent in the classroom," McCall continued, "is a representation of reality. And it is usually a critically researched representation of reality, as much as any paper or book can be."
"What's important for me, then, is to have my kids look at simulation games through a very critical perspective."
"I'm most interested in my kids taking the gripping environment of the game and then saying, 'Is that valid?' At what point did the designer make decisions that were for gameplay for simplicity's sake?"
McCall comments in conclusion: "I think one of the best results I've seen from using Civilization is my students actively questioning which aspects were included for the sake of the game, and which are truly accurate."
Civilization III, the game of choice for teaching history.
Whatever their specific teaching methods, both professors agree that Civilization - and, in Seed's case, games such as the Age of Empires series - is an entirely valid and useful tool for helping piece together a critical view of the past. While Civilization may not be entirely authoritative in presenting hard facts about the times, its unique level of immersion and immediacy offers a personal view that is arguably impossible with tools of other mediums. A person may read about the difficulties in establishing a town, with all of the farmland and irrigation difficulties it entails, but until he has to actually become an active part of balancing these issues and making a civilization thrive, he's missing a vital piece of the puzzle.
Deborah Briggs continues to act as Director of Marketing and Business Development at Firaxis Games. She admits to not being a "gamer" herself, but she insists that being married to Firaxis CEO and founder Jeffery Briggs is more than enough to keep her in the loop.
Patricia Seed is heading west, with a new position as a history professor at the University of California Irvine this fall. She's looking forward to Civilization IV, hopefully with enough zeal to buy a new laptop.
Jeremiah McCall continues to teach both history and sim-building classes at the Cincinnati County Day School. His name does not appear anywhere in the Education Arcade "Speaker Biographies" packet, it seems to have been replaced by someone named Peter Molyneux.