EdTech Roundup: Video Games in the Classroom

The world of education is ever changing, especially in the wake of a global pandemic that called for high tech solutions to disrupted classroom instruction. In this first installment of what we suspect will turn into a long running series here on Concerning History, Bryan and Francis discuss their initial reactions to a recent edtech development: a company advertising custom-made video games for use in educating students on historical topics.

FB: I am currently completing a Master’s degree in American History through a program administered by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Recently, we received an email requesting teachers in the program to pilot a new historical education video game designed by the company ImmersionEd. The premise is that this tech start-up wanted to recruit teachers to beta-test their educational video games and see how effective and fun they were. Rather than creating historically themed content for entertainment, ImmersionEd wants to create educational gaming content teachers can use in the classroom. As someone who enjoys real time historical strategy games, just like Bryan, I immediately fired off a text to Bryan about the program (I did not sign up). Admittedly, as Luka Ivan Jukic has written for The Atlantic, there is a growing population of individuals who learn about history through video games such as the Total War franchise, Europa Universalis, or Assassin’s Creed. Bryan and I decided to check out ImmersionEd and discuss our reactions to a company taking this to a whole new level with a lesson focused on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. 

BC: Before I even watched the demo trailer for ImmersionEd’s Martin Luther module, I confess that my first thought upon seeing this was “This is going to be lame.” Adapting anything to the screen–whether silver or small–is always a balance between accuracy and entertainment, with entertainment understandably given priority for what is supposed to be an entertaining product. One of my high school English teachers expressed a similar sentiment regarding translations of literature: “The good ones are never faithful, and the faithful ones are never good,” and so I believed it would be here. Any video game engaging enough to be played as a game by students would likely not pay enough attention to historical instruction to be of much use in the classroom, and any game that was focused on imparting a quality education would be too boring for students to take much notice of.

And how right I was! While we can’t speak for any other ideas or projects ImmersionEd might have in development, this Martin Luther module looks, well, terrible. The graphics are outdated by at least a decade, there are no engaging mechanics, and gameplay is apparently limited to listening to lectures, reading books, and then being assessed by authority figures and justifying your positions in writing (yes, literally typing into text boxes in-game). How is this different from classroom education again?

FB: I concur with Bryan on all the points above, and also further that as a classroom teacher myself. So much of the professional development I have endured tells K-12 educators they have to be engaging. I was literally told to read a book entitled Teach Like a P.I.R.A.T.E. to build more engaging and entertaining lessons. Here’s the rub, though: entertaining or engaging lessons require students to have fundamental skills first. I am not employed to entertain, or provide entertainment, in the hopes that students receive an education. Converting my classroom into one where students play video games to learn history so they can “have fun in school” misses the fundamental point of what teachers are supposed to do (especially in K-8 education): help students develop fundamental skills to be effective communicators, writers, and thinkers. 

BC: And to be clear, I’m not saying that I don’t believe video games are completely useless for teaching some things–quite the contrary. I think real, entertainment-focused games can be fantastically useful for teaching some topics. The catch, though, is that those topics are not the most essential to classroom learning and cannot be absorbed to the greatest effect on any kind of timetable that works with teachers’ curricula. I credit much of my detailed knowledge of historical geography to the thousands of hours I’ve spent playing strategy games, both video and tabletop. Large historical themes like cultural syncretism or societal tensions, too, can be taught well through immersive worlds like the Assassin’s Creed games that show, rather than simply tell, their history. Yet all these require a long span of time playing the games, not to mention an attentive student, all to gain background knowledge or satisfy a single bullet point in a state’s collection of learning standards. 

FB: Sure! I don’t think there’s a problem with historical video games. They are just not fit for the classroom. ImmersionEd’s Martin Luther simulation is also essentially a textbook a priestly avatar runs through with NPCs taking the place of chapter sections. Unlike many textual resources I have as a teacher, I could not differentiate the text of the game to make it accessible to my students. Half (and I mean half) of my students would struggle to complete this activity because it is so text-heavy. Furthermore, notwithstanding the text in this game, and assuming we could somehow develop a game that seriously teaches all we need it to, how long until students are illiterate and we’re okay with it? The business-response to “this is too text heavy” would be to revise the product to meet consumer needs. This feels like abandoning something just because students find it hard, not because there’s a good reason to change. I’d rather provide scaffolded texts the entire year so that students, by June, can comprehend reading passages than throw a screen at them and say, “Look, it’s a game! Now try and figure out sixteenth century German Catholicism on your own!” 

BC: Exactly! In a perfect world, I could see a video game module like this serving as a valuable supplement to instruction, assigned for homework one week to reinforce a tricky subject in a different way, but only after students have already completed assigned readings and listened in class to receive the context vital for them to really absorb the topic properly. My fear, however, especially given the state and tendencies of education in America, is that such a game would be used in place of, rather than in supplement to, instruction, corroding the quality of history education still further.

FB: And all this only targets the impact on content knowledge. That’s not the most difficult or important part of our learning goals–the skills are. When I teach history, the content I teach serves as a vehicle for certain skills, either ones based in developing literacy and basic logical thinking skills (like summarizing or identifying claims and the evidence that supports them) or in explicit historical analysis (comparison, causality, contingency, change, continuity, or context). Students never just need to know who Martin Luther was or what he did. They need to acquire that knowledge and then use it. This video game, and other video game formats, only address knowledge acquisition, but do not actually have students practice skills. A much more worthwhile activity would present students small excerpts from primary documents from figures such as Jan Hus, John Wycliffe, Girolamo Savonarola, Martin Luther, and John Calvin and ask students to use those sources to explain the causes of the Protestant Reformation or analyze how Western Christendom’s intellectual history changed over time as dissident intellectuals and theologians developed more sophisticated political and theological critiques of the Catholic Church throughout the Renaissance. This video game provides a depth of content, but also does not serve the development of functional cognitive skills that historical education in K-12 classrooms is meant to serve. How could I really justify using this if I can’t tie it to a historical thinking or literacy standard and only a single content standard, just like you mentioned before Bryan?  

BC: And this just reinforces the second thought I had while looking through ImmersionEd’s website: who’s going to pay for this? This company is, ultimately, a tech start up, and they wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t think they’d identified some kind of market opportunity to profit from. Yet I have a hard time imagining any public school district finding room in their budget to pay for such a product, especially if it’s so similar to the kinds of instruction their teachers already offer as a matter of course. As with so many “cutting edge” advances in education technology, would video games in the classroom end up being just another fancy feature attracting wealthy students to those private schools possessed of budgets well-funded by their elite patrons? Only time will tell if this or any of our theorizing here will have any merit, but I think we both can’t help feeling that this is one “innovation” that is more of a dead end than a breakthrough.

FB: While I would love it if one of my students actually asked me a question based on a video game they played (as I think the prevalence of the video-game history learner is exaggerated in Jukic’s article or at least only present among 11th or 12th grade students and undergraduates), I do not think that transforming education through a video game will solve the fundamental struggles students have, especially after Covid-19 reversed decades of literacy and mathematical competency among students. The best way I, as a history teacher, can help my students is to teach them how to think like a historian and hope that if they work for a software company one day they’ll use some of those skills to make a faithful and fun historical video game. It is not to transform my own classroom into a Silicon Valley test-lab to make my job easier and students’ happier at expense of their real educational needs.

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