Researching Early Modern History

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Research blog entry 8 – T.D. Jacobs

This blog is not just about my research for my doctorate, but the research required for improving my teaching toolkit. “Bill Nye Saves the World” introduced me to a new concept a few months ago: ‘gamification,’ or the application of basic game elements to activities not generally part of a gaming context. That particular episode featured a video game that was designed to teach medical students the coordination skills necessary for performing laparoscopic surgery. The advantage of doing so using a video game was that students actually practiced. To be clear: I do not mean games that teach basic historical facts, such as the dates of certain events. There are untold numbers of free history quizzes online, and they can be entertaining to play. But I’m less interested in training professional Trivial Pursuit players, and more interested in teaching skill sets necessary for students to eventually function as professional historians.

It turns out that there is research into the use of games – game based learning, as opposed to ‘gamification’ – in teaching history. A. Martin Wainwright teaches a class at the University of Akron, Ohio, called “History in Video Games.” Wainwright uses it as a way to encourage undergraduate students to handle more theoretical material. One game was required, Civilization IV, a strategy game that places you in charge of societal evolution via a framework of historical processes. I’ve played earlier versions of Sid Meier’s game, and I think it is a good choice for such a class. The running requirements are minimal, it is easily accessible in terms of player skills, it is not expensive, and it can be run on several platforms. Following an introductory class on game mechanics in order to make students aware of how games are produced, and what their limitations are as teaching tools, the game is played throughout the course as a way in which to explore various themes. Other games are examined as well. In combination with class discussion, readings, and independent study, students come to see where game models fall short – and what historical processes were actually at work. Wainwright thinks that the counterfactual element in such games are perhaps their greatest strengths in teaching students a key lesson: everything is contingent. Student evaluations were generally positive.

It appears that the use of a grand strategy game is good for sharpening critical thinking skills and examining certain historical themes and processes. However, this does not address the more basic skills sets students also need to acquire: palaeography, advanced writing techniques, and referencing. I already know from experience that very simple electronic quizzes designed to teach reference formatting, for example, do not interest pupils. Yet that is not really the application of gamification because elements such as competition and ‘achievement’ in the form of awards and recognition are lacking in the simplest designs. However, in terms of cost-benefit, I’m not convinced that spending more time on game development would be entirely worth it. There are electronic referencing programs that can be used to auto format several common referencing systems, and which can be finessed to cover variants as well. Palaeography is far too variable to cover all forms students may come across without a serious amount of investment. Meanwhile, there are real world transcription projects that students can take part in that can help hone their palaeographical skills. Finally, advanced writing techniques (not grammar or spelling, games already exist for those) are perhaps too complex. I find it difficult to imagine a game scenario that could teach students how to write in an engaging fashion, and yet make a good argument.

I am extremely excited by the possibility of adapting Wainwright’s course for a class at my own university – although I would be certain to meet with resistance from some of my more conservative colleagues. However, I am reluctantly forced to conclude that ‘gamification’ as such may have very limited applications in teaching basic yet essential skills to history students.


Martin Wainwright. “Teaching Historical Theory through Video Games.” The History Teacher 47, No. 4 (2014). At:

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