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Understanding history through video games

Published July 18, 2019

Imagine life as a member of the Timucua tribe, caught between French and Spanish forces in colonial Florida. Or, perhaps picture yourself as a young woman trying to decide what to do in the midst of the Salem Witch Trials.

Another scenario: Go back in time to 1787 and join the debates in Philadelphia that shaped U.S. government during the Constitutional Convention.

Cal State Long Beach students envisioned these and other scenarios in history classes with lecturers Jeffrey Lawler and Sean Smith, who incorporate video game-style interactivity into their teaching. By assigning students to produce their own games with Twine, software that enables users to write text-based games like the electronic “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of the 1980s.

In those “Adventure” books, readers would read a page or two, and then be asked to make a decision for the character in a historical setting, and then proceed to the coordinating chapter to continue with the chosen storyline.

Lawler and Smith want to challenge their students to understand history as something more complex than a straight line of events, while inviting them to empathize with people who actually experienced the past.

“They really got into the details of using the choice and variable mechanisms,” Lawler said. “It’s infused with history, and they use historical documents, and they took the time to create a challenging narrative.”

Developing a game also tends to be more involved than a typical research paper.

“I think we’re on to something here, in the creation of these games. They’re spending more time in the source material,” Smith said.

Lawler and Smith presented their views on using games within humanities lessons to other academics in early June at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, which took place at University of Victoria, British Colombia. At Cal State Long Beach, they have used Twine as a teaching tool for three semesters in American history courses, as well an upper-division California history course and another titled “Playing the Past.”

“Playing the Past,” along with courses on digital and oral history methods, are among the History Department’s applied history courses. These classes are well-suited for students interested in careers working in museums, libraries or other venues where understanding and presenting historical knowledge is important. Students in the digital history class, for example, learn how to develop multimedia presentations for audiences who encounter history via technological devices.

There’s a wealth of material available to scholars and enthusiasts who are interested how games present history. Those include the “Assassin’s Creed,” “Red Dead Redemption” and “Call of Duty” franchises for games depicting such varied settings as the Crusades, the Old West or modern combat zones.

Outside of class, Lawler and Smith have established the Center for the History of Video Games and Critical Play as a place to play and think about video games – sometimes inviting faculty to stream their reactions to historical games -- as well as tabletop games based on historical scenarios. The center is a playable archive of video games from the early years of console gaming to the modern era and has also hosted game nights for players to come together to talk about and play tabletop games inspired by history.

History movies are not known to be 100 percent accurate, but academics have nonetheless accepted the notion that film is an artistic medium worthy of study, Smith said. He and Lawler view gaming as another facet of mass culture that deserves a critical look.

“Play in the environment, but don’t buy the environment wholesale,” Smith said.