September 19th, 2007
Firaxis Games, the makers of one of the greats of computer gaming Civilisation, discuss on their website the growing trend for computer games to be used in the educational arena. It is encouraging that educators are starting to understand the potential of technology to educate, though I suspect that the use of commercial games as educational tools is an transitional step before bespoke educational games begin to be produced with production values that begin to approach those of commercial games.
One of Firaxis’ contributors Kurt Squire proposes Civilisation as a good model for learning about World History. There is an interesting tension here. On the one hand, a game like Civilisation engages students in such a way that they build a sophisticated model of the game in order to succeed at it. That is good educationally to the extent to which the game models genuine historical processes. It is not clear that the ‘history’ that Civilisation presents is particularly convincing.
While Kurt Squire argues that Civilisation “represents world history not as a story of colonial domination or western expansion, but as an emergent process arising from overlapping, interrelated factors”, it does still give an essentially American – or at least New World – view of history. Land is virgin territory until moved into by the great civilisations; pre-colonial Afrians, native Americans, native Australian Aborigones do not have a story. Intellectual and technological progress happens linearly; the Middle ages and the loss of Roman and Greek learning cannot happen. There is no potential for a European type of historio-political scenario; states are the size of continents.
On the other hand, if one ignores the problems with the historical model, it does offer a ‘big picture view’ of history. Could such a grand model of historical processes be so readily expressed without the means of technology? Certainly the answer is yes, though it would take an extremely talented teacher, and those are notoriously thin on the ground.
The pipedream is for someone to create a game with production values on a par with Civilisation, but which takes as its starting point an historical model that aims at accuracy. This of course, is rather like desiring an historically accurate documentary that looks and sounds like a Hollywood movie, but there will surely be moves towards higher production values in educational software in the future.