Video Games in the Classroom and the Non-Western World

Since starting my teaching career, I have increasingly integrated video games where I can into classroom activities, going so far as to design a “Gaming and History” course at Central Connecticut State University in the campus’ eSports Center. In this short post, I wanted to share with everyone some of my experiences – both positive and negative – with the implementation of video games in history classrooms, particularly for the purpose of presenting non-Western narratives.

A Firm Foundation

Before delving into my specific experiences and suggestions, I would recommend that anyone thinking of incorporating video games into their classes read Jeremiah McCall’s Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary Education, Second Ed., (New York: Routledge, 2023). While McCall focuses his discussion on secondary instead of post-secondary education, his work provides a foundation on which instructors can build a familiarity with key concepts in teaching games that present the past and digital historical worlds. This is incredibly important when introducing video games to students, who often take what the game is presenting to them in a wholly uncritical manner. The instructor’s goal should be to help students critically unpack game design decisions and choices about how it represents the past. In many ways, it is a similar process to having students unpack a primary source or a film. As students often have grown up with digital historical worlds they explored years before entering your classroom, they have done that with no practice in breaking down the historical picture the game paints for them. Prior to utilizing a game in class, it is important to equip students with the mindset, questions, and critical eye necessary to prepare them to be active players rather than passive participants in the game’s mechanics and design. This is not necessarily always easy, and I am still working on ways to do this well in my classes. But works by McCall and other game scholars can help both the instructor and their students to successfully incorporate video games depicting the past in their classrooms.

The Game Plays You

There is a notion in game design that “you don’t play the game, the game plays you.” (I first heard this used in a talk by the game studies scholar Angus Mol of the VALUE Foundation and Leiden University.) This refers to the ways in which game mechanics crafted by the game designer shape the boundaries of the player’s experience. Even in games in which choice and gameplay freedom seem endless, the player is still bound by the structures, tools, and mechanics designed by the makers of the game. For games depicting an imagined historical past this can be seen in the way in which items or visual aesthetics are presented to the player. For instance, if a marketplace in a medieval town only sells apples for health and swords for combat, this implicitly tells the player that these are things that mattered in society – i.e., types of food, the music one hears, the social structures the player encounters, or the way in which violence defines the historical landscape. All of these decisions shape the player’s passive imagination of this time and space. It is important for us as teachers and scholars to know that for most of the broader public and our students, these digital experiences shape much of their imaginations of the past before they ever walk into a classroom. We must teach our students both to learn from it but also to unpack the biases and misconceptions embedded in these digital historical worlds. 

The Non-Western World in Digital Spaces

Image 1: Title Image for 1979 Revolution: Black Friday

As a historian of the Middle East, I have a much smaller pool of games that depict the Ottoman world or even the modern Middle East to pull games from compared to a scholar of medieval Europe or the United States. However, I have found some useful game titles engaging for students in my classes. For my Modern Middle East classes, I have used the 2016 game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday developed by iNK Stories on a team led by Navid Khonsari, who was a child at the time of the 1979 Revolution in Iran. The narrative is fairly linear but puts students in the shoes of an Iranian during the times of the protests against the Shah. It incorporates choice-based narrative elements, a unique photography mechanic as a way to embed historical photographs with the experience of the protest movement, and a darker scene depicting interrogation inside Ervin Prison in the years just after the 1979 Revolution. Students can complete the whole story in about 3 hours, though even in shorter 1-hour playthroughs, the students still get a lot from the experience. The game’s story depicts all the different factions united against the Shah, and the friction between those groups presents the player with a nuanced view of the revolution. While the game itself is not perfect, it provides an immersive experience for a student to connect what they have discussed in class with a visual and interactive learning experience they are often more familiar with. I have used 1979 Revolution: Black Friday in two formats, once where each student had a copy to play themselves loaded onto our campus computers and once where we had five Nintendo Switch copies and students in groups played on projectors in different rooms, which provided a more communal experience of the story. Both of these methods worked well and I thought it provided a nice change of pace from lecture and discussion in the class and often was a highlight of the semester for students in the course. 

Image 2: Photograph comparison between in-game photo and historical source as shown in 1979 Revolution: Black Friday

Another title I utilized in my classes was Paradox Interactive’s 2020 game Crusader Kings III. This game is largely a political and social simulator of Medieval Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. For the class, I used this in a two-week unit where each student was given a Taifa or Kingdom in Medieval Spain in which they had to write a historical background paper based on selected primary sources on their assigned Muslim Taifa or Crusader Kingdom’s history. This prepped the students for the two-week multiplayer session where each student played their Taifa or Kingdom in an online session of Crusader Kings III. This roleplay activity went exceptionally well, as students interacted both in the classroom, on a class discord server, and in the game itself. Their reflections papers after the experience saw them both highlighting game mechanics and elements which reflected their historical research prior to the playthrough, but they were also easily able to identify the pitfalls and misconceptions presented by the design of this digital historical world. 

Image 3: Country Map in Crusader Kings III where students had their starting states for multiplayer

While Crusader Kings III proved to be a successful activity, Paradox Interactive’s 2022 title Victoria 3 [Link|https://store.steampowered.com/app/529340/Victoria_3/], an economic simulator of the nineteenth-century world, proved much too overcomplicated for students to get a handle on it. PIt presented further issues, like along with persistent crashing during the multiplayer session due to the bugs still present in the game diminished the experience further. 

As with incorporating any game into the classroom, a fine line exists between a useful exercise and unproductive class time – as demonstrated by my opposing experiences using Crusader Kings 3 and Victoria 3 in my class this past semester. Some games require hours of familiarity before the player is comfortable with the mechanics or understands the choices in front of them. Others, like Crusader Kings 3, allowed students to get a basic handle on things quickly. I would suggest that if you are thinking of incorporating a game title into your class, choosing something that is largely story driven and narrative. It is easier to implement these than a sandbox style or open world simulation. For instance, the Assassin’s Creed series’ educational Discovery Tour mode has become increasingly story driven. This responds to critiques of their original Discovery Tour mode in Assassin’s Creed: Origins as being too mundane and boring to engage students. There is hope that Assassin’s Creed: Mirage, coming out this summer and depicting an imagined Medieval Baghdad, will also eventually include an educational Discovery Tour mode that will exist within their open world but have a linear narrative for students to follow and engage with. They did this with their previous Discovery Tour mode for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla in which students experience medieval England as a Viking merchant. 

Conclusion

While the choice of games useful in classrooms of teachers of non-western historical spaces is limited, there are an increasing number. It is vital that instructors understand that these digital depictions of the past shape student perspectives. We cannot ignore their usefulness as teaching tools, nor their power to create historical misconceptions for our students. It is up to us to equip our students to unpack and work through these digital landscapes of the past.

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