Abstract Details

Designing And Using Digital Games As Historical Learning Contexts

Traditionally, history has been conceptualised as the most plausible account of the past that is possible to construct from the pieces of evidence found in the present. The work of the historian, therefore, has been regarded as basically uncovering what essentially happened and presenting the meanings of the past in the form of linear narratives. This notion of history, however, has been challenged in the last decades by new ideas introduced into the discipline and the recognition of the multiple and dissimilar means by which people connect with the past. For most people, “[t]he past is not only present”, as Rosenzweig and Thelen (1999) noted, “it is part of the present” (p. 178). History does not just exist in historiographies, but plays an important part in people’s lives through books of historical fiction, films, video games, and in the re-enactment of past battles and ways of living. History, thus, encompasses a myriad of dissimilar activities and cultural engagements with a far larger scope and complexity than what has traditionally been believed.

In this cultural context, undoubtedly digital games have become one of the most important forms of historical encounters, specially for the new generations of digital natives. Through the agency of their game controller or mouse and keyboard, players can decide to play a decisive role in a historical battle, control an entire civilisation, or simply walk through an ancient city reconstructed with an impressive level of detail. These forms of engagements, as several scholars noted, extend beyond pure entertainment. With their ever-growing ability to immerse players in highly realistic environments, the representational, procedural, and motivational powers of the new medium can be productively used in the heritage and educational sectors. To be used effectively, however, its defining properties and affordances require to be fully understood. Through analysing commercial game titles as forms of historical representation, scholars have criticised the medium for being inherently unhistorical (Ferguson, 2006; Galloway, 2006), or for depicting too narrowly defined and biased versions of past (Fogu, 2009; Schut, 2007). Moreover, despite the evidence-based research showing the educational potential of educational games (Gee, 2004; Squire & Barab, 2004; Ritterfield & Weber, 2006), several scholars have expressed their concerns on bringing these technologies to formal and informal educational settings without a clear understanding of their effects and methods of implementation (Champion, 2006; Van Eck, 2006).

Deriving from the aforementioned problems, the research was set to answer three main questions:

  1. Can digital games be considered a suitable medium for historical representation?
  2. Which defining characteristics of digital games are relevant and advantageous for producing a historical representation?
  3. How can historical digital games be designed to foster the meaningful understanding of history in formal educational settings?

Succinctly, this research project was designed to explore, reflect and evaluate, through the establishment of an ongoing dialogue between practice and theory, the effectiveness of video games as educational instruments for learning and teaching history. In a first phase, the research followed a practice-based methodology, relying on the iterative development and critical analysis of a series of game prototypes designed to explore everyday life in early Anglo-Saxon Britain. In a second phase, the project moved to the real context of a primary school classroom (Key stage 2), where the game prototype was implemented as part of the school’s history curriculum. In this phase, qualitative and quantitative data was collected following a pre-post test methodology. In the first session, children were asked to communicate their previous ideas about the studied historical period through drawings, and, while they were drawing, semi-structured interviews were conducted with them. In the sessions that followed, the historical game prototype was played by children in a free-form play- testing fashion (Eladhari & Ollila, 2012), and their performance was recorded through the game’s inbuilt tracking systems. Finally, the activities and data collection methods used during the pre-playtest session were repeated in a final session, with the aim of analysing the effect of the game in children’s historical understanding.

The qualitative and quantitative analysis of the obtained data revealed that the majority of the children set into march similar processes of personal identification while drawing an imaginary Anglo-Saxon world and when interacting with the game. In both instances, children did not just create or interact with representations of the past as external observers, but situated themselves as active agents within their imagined worlds. In both forms of narrative engagements, their spontaneous exercises of re-enactment revealed as much about their personal identities, lives and world views in the present as about their conceptions about the past.

By inhabiting a historical game-world and experiencing the world through the eyes of an historical avatar, the game became a powerful way to explore the deepest levels of meaning at play when children imagine the past. Through their drawings and comments, children gave evidence of assumptions about the hardships of everyday life (“life was very hard”), violence (“they used to fight a lot and people got hurt a lot”) and social life (“sometimes they met on campfires to sing songs and tell stories”) in Anglo-Saxon time.

This study demonstrated that digital games can be a valid, and in some respect advantageous form of historical engagement, with specific affordances not available by other media. This conclusion stems from a conceptualisation of historical understanding not solely as the mere recalling of factual information about the past, but on the capacity of thinking historically, understanding the components, relationships, and underlying operations that characterise historical processes. Under these terms, this research demonstrated the capacity of the medium to generate meaningful historical experiences, challenging historical preconceptions and driving players to understand key albeit subtle aspects of living in the past,


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