Home > Practical advice, Uncategorized > A Brief Intro Letter to US History Teachers

A Brief Intro Letter to US History Teachers

Taking a page from Emily Short and Chris Klimas’ blog playbooks, I was recently responding to a request from a teacher for suggestions using games for the first time in a college introductory-level US History survey courses\. I get requests like this every so often, and I’m delighted when new people find my work. I realized, though, I should probably post my suggestions on Gaming the Past for others to, hopefully, benefit from. So I polished it just a little bit, and here it is.

If you have more questions or want to dig deeper, I’m always willing to help out: jmc.hst@gmail.com



Thanks for your email. It’s always a pleasure to talk shop about these things and find that someone has interest in the work I do. I’m assuming from your email this is first-year US History? … I’m just going to get started there …
So first off, let me stress that, I think, the goal is to get students learning about historical systems and actors’ choices within systems (Historical problem spaces), but I also think the goal is to get them to use their historical knowledge by actively critiquing any game they play using the evidence of class notes and readings. So, having a historically accurate game (a problematic concept anyway because we are constantly revising and shifting and challenging historical interpretations in the field) is not the goal per se. Rather the sweet spot is a game that presents some reasonable propositions about the past (past systems and past problem spaces) but also is problematic in some more and less subtle ways. That way students engage and exercise their ability to critique, not just passively learn from a source of authority: textbook, article, lecture etc.

Honestly, if I were teaching US history, even at the first-year college level, I’d probably start with the Mission US games. A bit of explanation is in order. These historical adventure games were made by WGBH and are geared toward middle school US History students. They are high quality and are accompanied by lesson plans and historical document but, like all histories, subject to considerable critique. If I were teaching freshmen, I would appeal to their self-images of their own maturity / advanced education (note I mean their self-image; I know that the avg college first-year student is not even close to a trained historian) and set it up like this:
“You are college students and you have studied ___________ now in detail with me in this course. Play this game and discuss/research/write/present a critique of whether it is a legitimate tool for teaching middle school students.”
Consider aspects of the past the game communicates well. How effectively does it illustrate the problem space for this person / these people and places? Where is it less accurate or misleading in its portrayal of the problem space for this person / these people and places? “
I’d start with these because the Mission US games are free and playable in a browser. That means these are going to be the absolutely least logistically difficult games to use and everyone can play them.
When you start to get into commercial games, things get a little more complicated and we can talk about that if it’s of interest. As far as commercial games, off the top of my head:

(note to readers: don’t forget to look at the GTP US History Games List to get started)

If I were using commercial historical games in a typical bring-your-own-device college classroom, I would probably ask them to select one of these and do a research project, or find games that work with computer labs (are there still computer labs at colleges?) or run the game in class on your projector and have everyone watch and discuss.
There are many wargames too and we can talk about those too.
This is just a few starting thoughts. I’d love to have a conversation.
P.S. You may find it helpful to read some of my work.   I’d recommend the problem space articles available here and here

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