University of South Carolina

Playing with history

By Liz McCarthy, lizmccarthy@sc.edu, 803-777-2848

There are plenty of books on the Renaissance. Students can read all about Niccolò Machiavelliand the history of Florence, Italy.  

But there aren’t many ways to really experience 16th century Florence and interact with its historical figures. That’s where video games come in.

Students in history professor Joseph November’s Computer Games and History course can, walk around the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, investigate social conflicts, learn about Florentine politics and meet notables in the city during that time by playing Assassin’s Creed II.   

“You can read about it. You can visit Florence today, but through the game you can be immersed in the Florence of the Renaissance,” November says.

November, a longtime fan of video games himself, realized that many students who play games – like Civilization, Assassins Creed and Railroad Tycoon -- were coming to his classes with an understanding of advanced historical ideas. While having fun these students had also been learning some important historical concepts, November says.

“They hadn’t done any professional reading on these topics, on the one hand. On the other hand, they knew about the advanced ideas of history,” he says.  “I’m hoping a course like this could harness that.”

In academia, video games haven’t gained much ground as a way to study history, but November believes these games—which are now mainstream and played by millions—can be a gateway to getting more students into the study of history.

“Young people have been thinking about the ideas that the games speak to, and now they are looking for an outlet,” he says.

These games, to November, should be treated like film and literature. Their history may not be 100 percent accurate but they can be taken seriously in a scholarly environment.

“It goes beyond just reading about or watching history. You’re interacting with the past actively,” he says.

These games aren’t like Pac Man. They aren’t even Oregon Trail, an early trailblazer of educational, historical gaming.

Take an entertainment series like Fallout, for example. These games reimagine what Americans in the 1950s thought about the future by setting the game in a ‘50s-era vision of future centuries.   In CivilizationV, gamers play with what ifs and develop entire civilizations – cities, armies, technologies – to learn how and why certain historical events may have happened.   

“What can Fallout tell us about postwar decision making? Why didn’t we achieve that 1950s vision of the future?” he says. “These games have serious historical content.”

So far, it’s paying off. The class, which reached capacity, often talks about the games and the history before November arrives, he says. It’s the only class he’s ever had to ask students not to get ahead in the homework.  

“The class is teaching us how to do history as opposed to just learning facts,” says Travis Byrd, a junior history major. “Video games are just another way of preserving how we think about events or how we process the past or the future.”

For November, it’s more telling that the students know more about the material than he does.

“It is great to see them doing the teaching and sharing information,” he says. “I’m just the facilitator.” 

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Posted: 02/26/13 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 03/11/13 @ 8:25 AM | Permalink