Home > Uncategorized > 18 Years in Historical Game Studies: A Biographical/Bibliographical Musing Part 1 (2005 – 2012)

18 Years in Historical Game Studies: A Biographical/Bibliographical Musing Part 1 (2005 – 2012)

Gaming the Past, Second Edition, is out today with Routledge! I am so very grateful and excited to have had the chance to revise significantly and add to the first edition work that came out over a decade ago. I thought perhaps it is a good time to reflect a little on my time and work in Historical Game Studies and in teaching history using video games as tools. Here’s a first post to see if it’s of interest to anyone else.

— Jeremiah McCall

Though I experimented a little with interactive learning in history in my graduate years finishing my PhD on Greco-Roman History with Nate Rosenstein at the Ohio State University (2000), I did not work with making and integrating actual physical games until my first history teaching position in a secondary school. Hoping very much to add life to my ancient history courses (high school) I made a couple of physical game prototypes: One a simulation of Roman politics in the Republic and the other a simulation game of ancient warfare. For students, the interest these games brought to the areas we studied was palpable, and I knew I wanted to do more with games in history education. This process continued when I came to Cincinnati Country Day School and had access to laptop computers. I experimented with some board games like Diplomacy and continued to work on designs for tabletop prototypes–many never reaching a truly playable state. I was struck along the way with the amount of research I had to do to make a historical game. Inspiration–get students to design games as a way to encourage them to study a historical topic in depth. This led to my first “Historical Simulations” senior elective at CCDS, in the winter and spring of the 2004-05 school year. While the course was focused on having students design their own historical tabletop games I was also struck by Civilization III as a potential model to play and study. So, in addition to the design part of the class, I had students play Civ III and compare it to the first chapter or so of Patricia Crone’s Pre-Industrial Societies. This experiment with Civilization (III) caught the attention of friend and colleague Kurt Squire (now UC Irvine) who invited me to speak at the Education Arcade in May of 2005. I was part of a panel discussing the use of Civilization III in the classroom. There’s still a video of the whole panel to be found on Youtube (and me considerably younger with a great deal more hair.)

Even in that first panel, my central claim was that historical video games are secondary sources that are pedagogically best played and critiqued by comparison to more traditional historical sources (primary source documents; direct instruction; documentaries etc). I met all sorts of people, including Scot Osterweil, now at MIT and, of course, Kurt, and formed some lifelong collaborative-friendships. Most importantly, it was clear to me from that first talk, that I had an important perspective as an educated educator who could speak to the practical issues of implementing game-based learning in classrooms and advocate for the classroom teacher, a voice not always fully represented. Happily, Kurt kept hosting me at GLS conferences for years and I managed to speak there on topics like Inform 7 (a talk which in 2008 formed the basis of my first essay in historical game studies, a self-published work still on Gaming the Past, Student-designed text-based simulation games for learning history: A practical approach to using Inform 7 in the history classroom.), CivCity Rome etc. for several years between 2005 and 2012. I also conceived of a website on historical simulation games, what would be the brief pre-cursor to Gaming the Past. It had the uninventive name of Historical Simulations in the Classroom but quickly shifted to Gaming the Past when the book came out.

The colleagues, support, and enthusiasm for my work I gained at GLS were critical to my growth and naturally channeled me increasingly into the games and history education strand of the not-yet-really-conceived field of Historical Game Studies. As the first decade of 2000 closed, I decided to write a book for teachers who wanted support using history games in history classes. I began the manuscript as an act of faith without submitting a proposal first or having a publisher. It was also in 2009 that I began my longstanding writing relationship with Pen and Sword History and started my trek to write ever-more-accessible works (I hoped — it’s something I still work on) on Roman and ancient history.

Probably worth spending a few moments on the origins of Gaming the Past. As I noted above, I was (I must say in a rare mood of confidence so early in my history and games career) confident that a practical how-to book to help teachers effectively use historical games in their classes would be well received. So I wrote the manuscript. Once complete, I made contact with Routledge because they had published my first book, The Cavalry of the Roman Republic, so it seems like a reasonable place to start. I will be forever grateful to my commissioning editor, Kimberly Guinta (I believe at Rutgers Press now). She found reviewers in, according to an email I still have, February-ish 2010. The several peer reviews were not supportive of the manuscript or topic at all. At most one suggested that maybe one chapter in the GTP manuscript could make a helpful article but the book itself was not needed. But Kimberly and I shared a vision, I’m grateful to say. We found reviewers who were more familiar with games and learning (not that many were around and most were academics in Ed tech, Instructional Design, etc, rather than history teachers). The new reviewers were positive and Gaming the Past was a go!

It published late in 2011 and received — very, very little notice. Some early reviews were positive though like Katy Swalwell’s at The History Teacher Vol. 45, No. 3 (May 2012), pp. 472-473 (2 pages).

Stepping back about six months from the publications of GTP 1.0, at a couple of the GLS conferences I became friends with Kevin Kee (currently Dean at University of Ottawa). Kevin kindly invited me to a workshop of folks looking at video games and history in education — Playing with History. An old email I dug up suggests we met the very last weel of April in 2010. We had an unconference at Niagara on the Lake that was, hands-down, the most amazing HGS conference of my career. There I met many lifelong colleague friends, including Shawn Graham, Rob MacDougall, Sean Gouglas, . The book we created, Pastplay (Umich Press Free online) wasn’t published until 2014, but for me it represents my 1st peer-reviewed work on historical game studies, prior to Gaming the Past 1st edition. My contribution, “Simulation Games and the Study of the Past: Classroom Guidelines.” talked about “simulation games” and some experiences in my own classes, used to generate some principles of teaching and learning with games in history education. I used “simulation games” as a special term for games that had defensible historical models in the history class at the time, a term I used heavily in the first edition of Gaming the Past too. I stopped using the term at least a few years ago. While it may be revivable (as I still think historical games that claim to focus on referentially specific place and people are distinct from games that make less contextualized references), the field has certainly persuaded me that historical games come in all sorts and shapes and sizes. Plus the historical problem space framework works for all kinds of historical games so it no longer feels helpful to make this “simulation game” distinction.

The colleague-friends I met at the Playing with the Past workshop invited me to be part of a new blog to be launched in the fall of 2010: Play the Past. This was a terrific place to work out my thoughts about games and history education. It also is the place where I tried out ideas like that of Historical Problem Spaces that would play a role in my work about the medium of historical video games. I started out in September of 2010 with my first essay, The Happiness Metric in CivCity: Rome and the Critique of Simulation Games (September 27th). I introduced a concept that I had already set out in GTP 1.0: that a simulation game (as I called them then) could be assessed for pedagogical purposes on whether “its core gameplay offers defensible explanations of historical causes and systems“. Both defensible and indefensible explanations of historical causes and symptons could be leveraged for classroom effect. Then I proceeded to assess how defensible the core models of CivCity: Rome are for Roman urban life, focusing particularly on the happiness metric for the population. Looking back it seems pretty clear that close-readings of game systems were going to be an important part of my approach to games. A second essay (November 24, 2010) set out what is for me a critical principle when using the critique of historical games as a tool for learning historical thinking. Called “The Unexamined Game is Not Worth Playing?” I suggested more deeply that even a game with wild inaccuracies (accuracy as a potentially problematic phrase had never appeared on my radar at this point) served good pedagogical purpose of it fostered a student to engage in serious evidence-based critique of the game models. So much great work from so many great thinkers was done from 2010- on for Playthepast.org

Most important for me is the essay where I first presented the concept of historical games as historical problem spaces. (March 21, 2012) “”Historical Simulations as Problem Spaces: Some Guidelines for Criticism” and the soon-to-follow (March 27, 2012) “Problem Spaces, Part 2: The History Class” set out my initial ideas on what would become the Historical Problem Space framework. As I recall, there had been some excellent essays talking about the depiction of indigenous people and the complete lack of depiction of enslaved Africans in 2008’s Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization. Some elements that stand out to me

  • Player agents with roles and goals
  • Choices that player agents make in order to achieve those goals
  • affordances and constraints inspired from reading Jonas Linderoth. Over time I moved away from the language of affordance largely because, if I understand correctly, strict affordance in an ecological approach suggests that the world is not filled with constraints and obstacles outright but by affordances unidentified or unable to be capitalized upon by the player. That makes more sense in a sandbox 3D world than a strategy game, for example.
  • The idea of games as closed systems — to function video games must be completely operational in precise ways with only a human player supplied to close the circle.
  • The idea that “simulation games are, as games, teleological in their focus. The quantifiable gameplay elements and mechanics all, in a tightly designed game any way, factor directly into whether the player achieves their goals.”
  • The idea that part of the “why” in terms of why a particular historical feature of a game takes the shape it does is at least in part because of the functional requirements of the whole systemic problem space the developers have designed.

There’s more that persisted but please read the original essays. Better still, read the combined article. The short-lived Journal of Digital Humanities asked me to polish and submit both original essays as a single work, “Historical Simulations as Problem Spaces: Criticism and Classroom Use” (JDH 1.2 2012). I confess I am still super proud that the JDH folks asked to publish this. It was the beginning of the Historical Problem Space framework, but also in some ways the beginning of my branching out into academic criticism and analysis of historical games, not just how to harness them pedagogically for class.

Next (part 2). 2012 Continued Navigating the Past: The Medium of Simulation Games in the Teaching of History

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