Playing the Past Debrief

Around this time last year, I developed a syllabus for a fall quarter class at Louisiana Tech University called “Playing the Past: Presenting History Through Games.” The goal of the course was to introduce students to historical video games, and to encourage them to think about using games as a teaching tool or as a means of presenting their own research. I’d been wanting to try this class ever since I began History Respawned in 2013, but despite the hours of thought that I had put into the concept and the syllabus, I worried that the whole thing would wind up being a disaster. Thankfully, the course went well, and I am now working on an updated version of the syllabus for next year. In my preparation for this updated syllabus, I thought I would share my reflections on what went right and what went wrong with the first iteration of the course. I also wanted to use this as an opportunity to share the resulting Twine games from the students in the first course. All the student games below are available thanks to a signed student research license and FERPA waiver agreement.

Playing the Past Syllabus

One of the biggest questions I had going into this course was whether it would be a course that used games to study actual history or a course that studied how games present history. I decided to go with the latter because it goes without saying that games are very bad with presenting accurate historical detail that one would expect in a college course. Similarly, I wanted to avoid getting bogged down in any one particular historical time period or jumping from one historical time period to another without a rigorous engagement with any one topic. The decision to focus on presentation rather than content turned out to be a good one because the class very quickly developed a common framework to judge historical games without having to spend class time on the historical background involved with each game. This allowed us to quickly move between different games and game genres as well as different historical time periods. This set up also benefited several of the student in the course training to be secondary school teachers. They were less interested in the specific historical content of each game, and more focused on how the game’s presentation of the past could be incorporated into a daily lesson plan. Our focus on presentation helped them see the games as part of a wider collection of pedagogy techniques (lecture, books, videos, etc.) rather than as a standalone educational device.

Another worry that I had going into this course involved scheduling. The syllabus for this Tuesday/Thursday class had students reading a set of articles and selections from books for discussion on Tuesday, and then playing a historical game and writing a response to that game for class on Thursday. The question I had going into the course was whether to have the students play the games first and then read the literature around that game, or to have the students read the surrounding literature before playing the game in question. I decided to go with the second option because I thought it would be useful for students to understand some of the prevailing questions and criticisms of the game for that week to give them things to look for during their own playthrough as well as a basis for writing their own response papers. My students, however, felt that the schedule should have been reversed with the playthrough coming before the readings. They argued that they needed the weekend to spend with the game before participating in discussion the following week. They understood the usefulness of the assigned readings, but felt that they could have used more time with each game to develop their responses more thoroughly. I think what I’ll do in the future is push back the due date for response papers to the following week, and incorporate a shorter response format (i.e. a short, “work in progress” blog post) for Thursday’s class.

On the whole, class discussions went as well as I could have hoped. The students were keen to critique the games as well as the reading material for the course. We had some excellent discussions related to representation in games like Oregon Trail and Mafia III, and the students were very critical of games writers for giving historical games a pass with regard to historical accuracy. The course games were widely available on multiple platforms, including mobile, which meant that students only rarely had difficulty accessing the games. The availability and portability of the games in this course also allowed us to discuss individual student playthroughs in detail (this was especially useful for Oregon Trail and 80 Days). Given that fact, it’s very difficult for me to imagine taking any of the games off the syllabus, thought I would certainly be willing to add more games to the list if they met my requirements regarding availability and affordability. Many of my students had iPads and PCs, but few had the same ability (some would say curse) I have to play games on consoles.

Playing the Past Final Prompt

The most exciting part of the course for me was watching the steady development of the student Twine games. As you can see from the final project prompt above, students had a number of milestones spread throughout the quarter in order to prepare them for the final showing of their games at the History Game Fest (an event I ended up calling “The Playing the Past Game Expo”). Each student in the course completed each of the milestones involved, including presenting their game at the Expo. In all of my years of experience with seminar courses, this is the first time that every student hit each milestone from prospectus to final presentation. I see this as a testament to the quality of the students as well as the basis of the assignment: making a game – even a text-based Twine game – is a lot more engaging than writing a traditional research paper. The resulting games are rough, but they are a product of ten weeks of work that involved learning new software as well as conducting primary and secondary source research. Given that fact, I was left greatly impressed with the results. Because the course lacked a specific time period focus, students were free to pick a topic and time period that interested them. This led to a diverse collection of games that presented several different time periods, regions, and themes.

Looking back on the setup of the assignment, the only thing I would change would be to move up the date of our course week on “historians in the gaming industry.” This week gave us an opportunity to consider games developed by historians, and it included a skype conversation with Lisa Rosner of Stockton University, who is in the midst of developing The Pox Hunter with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The students really appreciated this week of class because it gave them a better sense of the motivations that led other historians to pursue games and also showed them some of the methods used by those scholars to make games. This class week, however, came after the due date for the final project prospectus, which meant students were not able to incorporate their knowledge from our discussions on “historians in the gaming industry” to the original conception of their Twine games. With regard to the game expo, students remarked that they should have been kept separate from their games in order to give the players more space to provide honest feedback. Originally, I thought it would be best for creators to be standing next to their games in order to guide players through the experience and to answer any historical questions that arose. For the next expo, I’ll have students provide their contact information along with their game booth to facilitate contact between player and developer.

Play the Past Expo Flyer

To conclude, this course was a worthwhile experience that I hope to improve upon in the future. In addition to the improvements and changes mentioned above, I want to work to incorporate different development tools into the course. The possibility for this change, however, is reliant on the skills of the students in the course, particularly given the abbreviated nature of Louisiana Tech’s quarter system. With regard to Twine, however, there is still a lot of room for improving student games, especially with regard to audio and visual accompaniment for the text. This sort of improvement could have been included in the first iteration of the course, but I was so busy worrying about games, readings, and the schedule that I didn’t fully explore resources available from the Twine community. Every time you try a new course, you hope that 70% of the things you attempt end up working. I feel like my percentage in this course was somewhere around 85%, which gives me a lot of confidence to expand the course going forward. Until this course comes up in my rotation again, I’ll be on the lookout for new ideas and games to include. I invite comment and criticism on this post and the course documents above, and I hope you enjoy my student’s games as much as I did.

Labor Pains, by Darby Burt, set during the Colorado Labor Wars of the early 20th century

The Colfax Massacre, by Matthew Franszczak, set in Louisiana in 1873

Decisive Decisions: Ia Drang Valley, by Victor Gutierrez, set in Vietnam in 1965

Russia: My Fatherland, by Wesley Johns, set in Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union

A Flea’s Tale, by Victoria Johnson, set at the outbreak of the medieval bubonic plague

The Forgotten Plague of Justinian, by Jonathan King, set in the Byzantine Empire during the seventh century C.E.

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