Here I continue to describe and elaborate on our discussion about Concepts of the Past in Computer and Video Games, which Jan Wieners and I organised for our class in archaeogaming. Let’s discuss now: Are games great knowledge communicators?

We had a lovely discussion on Concepts of the Past in Computer and Video Games with Csilla Ariese (University of Amsterdam), Angus Mol (University of Leiden), Jonas Zimmer (Cologne Game Lab) and Felix Zimmermann (University of Cologne) on 9th January 2019.

After discussing the merits of historical authenticity vs. accuracy, games creation as art and the sliding scale between historical authenticity and fantasy with an engaged audience as a reaction on the thesis “It is important that historical Computer-and Video games show the past as authentically as possible” described here, the second thesis was the following:

Computer and Video Games are great knowledge communicators for historical contexts.

Are games great for learning?

The audience poll using coloured card (green for “I agree” and red for “I don’t agree”) showed about 70 % of the audience to agree with that statement. Angus was quick to point out, that there are, at the moment, not enough studies which could show whether games are great at teaching history or not. That’s true, I fear. Him, Csilla and Aries Politopoulos comment on the picture of the past Civilisations is painting and how many people are being influenced by it here and there’s been a small study done by Björn Hennig on whether games make students interested in history classes (he blogged about it in German). Then there is Robert Houghton on, who collected a small data set through a survey conducted at the University of Winchester and I know there is a fascinating dissertation thesis underway by Juan Hiriart, who is on the one hand developing a game meant to teach school children about Anglo-Saxon England and on the other hand evaluating the influence it has on their perception of this period. But at the moment, we still need to wait for bigger studies to tell us something conclusive.

Especially Felix felt a bit sceptical about whether or not history games are good teachers. In this blog post he elaborates that games need to be critically evaluated and cannot stand by themselves. This is echoed by others, e.g. Björn Hennig. Because games always include elements that are not historically accurate and it is usually not possible for the player to distinguish these elements from well founded reconstructions (at least not without prior knowledge), it is important that the games are put into context by history teachers.

Learning immersed in games

Nonetheless the discussion showed that a lot of people believe there to be a huge impact games can have on players. Players may be more interested in researching and learning about a certain topic after they played a game in which this topic featured. Also, because games are such a wide spread medium with so many players, even if the game “infects” only a small percentage of its players with an interest in history or teaches them something authentic, this may be quite an influential number of people.

Because players are immersed in the game and the game story reacts to their action, knowledge is gained in a very different way than from reading a book or listening to a lecture. This experiential learning is much better at teaching knowledge than teaching information (thanks to Stephen Stead for this differentiation!), meaning facts won’t be transferred as accurately, but causal relationships (as Jeremiah McCall says as well), certain skills and a feeling of knowing this space, knowing which behaviour would have been appropriate in this historical context. Not just in multi-player games, empathy and social behaviour are trained as well, as Csilla pointed out. But even if game developers or the game community offer factual information (as though in-game text scrolls, in wikis, on loading screens…), whether you as a player choose to engage with this depends on how you play the game.

Learning by seeing the game world

A point that really stood out to me when we had our #ComPDA conference last year was one Xavier Rubio-Castillo made in explaining his game Ancestors: Stories of Altapuerca: By seeing e. g. character and landscape design in an historical game we soak in a certain kind of picture of the past. Whether this is a stereotypical (and maybe shallow?) picture we may already know from other media (e. g. films or books) or one which breaks with our assumption and teaches us something new, is decided by the game developers. But game developers may have completely different goals than teaching history accurately, as Jonas reminded us (the only game developer in our discussion). Also, others were quick to point out: Game developers usually want their games to sell well and breaking with stereotypes may lead to an unhappy community as the shit storm around #notmybattlefield demonstrated. (But this is a topic we’ll discuss with the third thesis…)

A beautiful little example for which kind of knowledge games communicate well, was told by Csilla: She knew of a 10year old Assassin’s Creed player who, on a family trip to Florence, was able to guide his family through the city. He couldn’t tell them much about the exact dating of the historical buildings or who lived there when, but he had an accurate understanding of the whole city space, distances, crossroads etcetera and did not get lost. Because Ubisoft had decided to be authentic to the city plan of Florence, he learned how to do this. But the historical information which the game offers the player, he didn’t pick up well.

There’s potential…

So to wrap up, I think while it’s easy to say that there is a lot of potential in games teaching history and engaging players to learn more about the past, it is much harder to qualify how they learn and quantify what they learn in a game. Developers have the choice to try to create authentic experiences, but just as much players have a choice in how they engage with the game. Nonetheless, while it is not the game developers responsibility to teach their audience, they do set the perimeters which decide whether there is the possibility of a player learning something authentic.

Aaaaaand as a funny little follow-up, I want to point out what a long way the discussion around computer and video games has come: In the 1980s there was a actually a lot of anti-video game propaganda around. In the 2000s there was the killer game debate, linking aggression in computer games to shooting sprees. And now there are serious debates on how to include computer games into school classes (not just for history courses). What a development!

Sophie Schmidt

Founder & Editor

About the Author

My name is Sophie, I am a prehistoric and computational archaeologist and have been research associate at the Universities of Bonn and Cologne, as well as for the NFDI4Objects project at the German Archaeological Institute. I teach statistics for archaeologists, work on new methods in settlement archaeology (GIS, geostatistics in R and stuff) and am interested in archaeogaming. Now I started my PhD-project on the 5th mill. BC in Brandenburg (that's North-East Germany).

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