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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.