Games and the History Classroom

Published on 18 Nov 2019

By Benjamin Hoy
Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of Saskatchewan

I come to the historic profession from a bit of an unusual angle. To my parent’s undying shame, I never liked reading. While I had the privilege of taking classes with many excellent teachers, I became interested in studying history a decade before I met any of the scholars who would later shape my development. At least initially, board, card, and computer games motivated my interest in history not professional historians.

The unusual way I came to love studying the past has shaped the ways I have approached teaching it. I love history and I love games. Wherever possible I try to bring those two interests together.

As I soon found out, I was not alone in the endeavor. The historical profession is rife with teachers who integrate games and simulations into their classrooms. Looking across the myriad of approaches, I think historians commonly use games in the classroom in three major ways: as a primary source, an interactive activity, and a customizable experience.

As a Primary Source

One of the most common ways historians incorporate games into their classroom is to treat them like they would any other kind of primary sources. Online pictures of historic board games and their components are available through archives like the Strong Museum of Play as well as through popular websites like boardgamegeek.

Historians have ample experience using visual sources like political cartoons, lithographs, and photographs in their teaching. Games provide a similar kind of experience but expand it by allowing students to analyze how the game’s artwork, components, and rulebook portray the same basic messages in different ways.

Logistically, including a game in a course like this requires the instructor to make no major adjustments. The game simply becomes part of the handful of visual and textual sources considered that show how everyday life in the settler colonial past was predicated upon assumptions about racial and gender hierarchies. The particularities of the boardgame presents an opportunity to make stark how different present-day views on race, class, and gender may be from those in the past. In my classes, I have used this kind of approach to talk about cultural expectations and the marketability of Indigenous stereotypes and how they change over time.

As an Interactive Activity

While the “game as a primary source” approach has a low barrier of entry, it removes the interactivity of the game, which is one of the defining reasons to use historic games in the first place.  Games operate as systems. Many of a game’s embedded assumptions and arguments emerge when players play them. The designer’s understanding of the world becomes visible only as players attempt to win and find their path restricted and encouraged in particular ways. 

Playing historic and contemporary games in the classroom can be a transformative experience. It also creates significant challenges. Using computer games like Civilization to talk about contingency, models of development, and counterfactual histories can make the material accessible in ways that readings do not. The approach can also eat up large amounts of time and introduces many opportunities for the technology to fail.

Even short board and card games create logistical challenges. The first game I used in the classroom was Pit, a stock market game, that I incorporated in a course on how Americans conceptualized economic and social failure over time.

Images du 2 décembreImages du 2 décembre 2
The box image of the 1964 version of Pit showcasing a Bull and Wheat card (Strong Museum of Play, 112.3865)

Pit had a lot of advantages as a teaching tool. Eight players could play simultaneously with a single deck of cards. Students could complete the entire activity in 15 minutes leaving plenty of time for a discussion. Even in a small classroom, however, some students would have to watch or multiple games would have to go on simultaneously.

Scaling the experience up in a larger classroom setting became more of a problem. I’d need a dozen copies of the game to play in a normal first or second year course. Worse, the noise created by so many simultaneous games would make for an unenjoyable experience for everyone.

As a Customizable Experience

These experiences led me to start experimenting with building games myself that were made from the very beginning for the kind of classroom environments I frequently found myself teaching in. I needed games that could play 50+ players in 15-20 min and which could be explained in 5-8 minutes. From set up to take down, I needed a game that we could play and discuss in a 50-minute segment.

The first two games I decided to build focused on topics I already struggled to convey (archival blindness, thesis statements, and Chicago style citations) through traditional formats. I figured, at worst, if the game falls flat I’m exactly where I would have been if I had tried to lecture on the topic.

See my discussion of the results of my efforts in: Benjamin Hoy, “Teaching History with Custom-Built Board Games,” Simulation & Gaming 49, no. 2 (2018): 115–33.

While a game-based learning approach offered a means to address some of my own shortcomings as a teacher, building customs games is time intensive. Fabricating components, play-testing the game before it hits the classroom, and revising the game to address ongoing problems all present time investments well beyond what is required for a normal lecture or seminar discussion. 

Whatever the approach taken, incorporating games into the classroom can provide students with a unique way to interact with and understand the past.

Prof. Hoy can be reached at benjamin.hoy@usask.ca


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