Researching Early Modern History

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Research blog entry 11 – T.D. Jacobs

I have not posted in a while as I have been preoccupied with our ‘second sit’ exam season, prepping for my classes, and recovering from surgery. However, now that that is over, I thought I would write a follow up to my earlier post on gamification. I was inspired to do so by a friend of mine, who reminded me of the existence of Oregon Trail. Having not much to do except lay flat on my back for a week, I wound up spending significant amounts – scary amounts – of time playing it on a simulator site and feeling nostalgic. While doing so, I wondered what I had actually learned from the game when I was forced to play it as an elementary school student, and – more importantly, given what I now know – was it accurate?

Oregon Trail began life in 1971 as a board game designed by Bill Heinemann, Paul Dillenberger and Don Rawitsch. It was later turned into a computerized text adventure, and eventually graphics and sound were added. It is this version that I get sentimental over, and with good reason. I did learn some things playing it as a kid, such as the names of some landmarks and rivers, that death was a risk, that some people may start out on the trail with more money than others but that doesn’t mean that they will win because some skills are useful, that there were women travelling the trail alone or with their children, that everyone talked about the possibility of Native Americans attacking you but it never actually happened….

Obviously, the game is a vast simplification. I am now very aware that you would need more than a supply of bullets and wagon wheels to make it out west.  Moreover, Native Americans were more likely to be killed by emigrants than vice versa. However, I think that the game was put together really well for the audience that it was pitched at. And that makes me wonder about whether similar, very simplified strategy games could be designed to bring the results of university research into elementary level classes. I’ve noticed that while filling out grant proposals, my colleagues sometimes mention their intent to try to incorporate their research results into grade school curricula. Somehow. I am frankly not entirely sure how that happens, apart from hoping that the information is passed to younger students via those of our graduates who actually become history teachers.

Now, I do not think that this level of game would be useful at all at a university level. It seems that much of what I do in the classroom consists of telling people that things are more complicated than what they thought. And I think that is how it should be. And research seems to indicate that this is a design feature, rather than a flaw (Shelton and Scoresby, 2011). Younger students can learn about some topics that they may otherwise not be getting a great deal of information about via such a game, and university researchers – in designing such games – could reach a wider audience. Obviously, narrative is something that would have be considered in producing such a game, and not all topics would be suited to that. Or appropriate. But I could see myself as a kid playing a simple adventure style game about the English Civil War, or even the Tudor court.


Brett E. Shelton and Jon Scoresby. “Aligning game activity with educational goals: following a constrained design approach to instructional computer games.” Educational Technology Research and Development 59, no. 1 (2011): 113-38.

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