Not Just Child's Play

“90 AD: A recently built Zulu city fell to my forces today. It was burned to the ground. Pity, it had quite a nice view of the ocean.”

That’s a journal entry from the emperor of Japan. The virtual emperor of Japan, anyway.

“130 AD: Persia contacted me today. Apparently, he finally convinced Cleo to introduce us. He seemed annoyed. In exchange for his World Map, I taught him Polytheism.”

November 28, 2005

“90 AD: A recently built Zulu city fell to my forces today. It was burned to the ground. Pity, it had quite a nice view of the ocean.”

That’s a journal entry from the emperor of Japan. The virtual emperor of Japan, anyway.

“130 AD: Persia contacted me today. Apparently, he finally convinced Cleo to introduce us. He seemed annoyed. In exchange for his World Map, I taught him Polytheism.”

These excerpts from the log of a college student playing the Civilization III video game -- in which players control a society as it progresses through time -- show a few of the reasons that professors are both excited about using “Civ3” in class, and why they might have some reservations.

“You have to balance war and diplomacy, and resources,” says Kimberly Weir, an assistant professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University who had several students keep logs -- including the one quoted above -- while playing Civ3. In the game, students have to make decisions about such issues as whether to quit tilling the fields and so that they can ambush Alexander the Great. “Students felt they better understood what it takes to balance a country,” Weir adds. She used Civ3 in an upper level diplomacy course, and found it gave students a more visceral sense of the inputs that determine the fate of a nation. At the same time, contrary to the log, there were no Zulu cities to be felled in 90 A.D., and “Cleo” wasn’t available to broker a deal with the Persians.

As much as joystick critics wish it weren’t so, video games, historical inaccuracies and all, are here to stay, and they aren’t just for kids. One survey of 650 freshmen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that 75 percent of them played video games at least once a month. While commercial video games have flourished, those designed specifically for education, largely because of their low production value compared to consumer games, have had a rough 20 years – beginning with Donkey Kong Jr. Math, the worst selling of the 15 original titles released with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Recent research has suggested that gamers develop better rapid problem solving skills than non-gamers. The United States military has certainly noticed, creating simulation trainers for everything from ground combat to rebuilding an Iraqi city.

But are the Mario Brothers ready to go to college? Probably not, but rather than fighting the tide of game culture, some professors are embracing another type of commercial blockbuster: the historical simulation, and Civilization III is leading the charge. Nobody is quite sure how many college courses use Civilization III, but professors who use the game guessed that there are at least dozens, aside from game studies and technology courses. As the video game generation enters the academy, that number could go way up.

Firaxis Games, the company that has sold millions of copies of Civilization games now has a section on its Web site where teachers are invited to share their classroom experiences with Civ games. That section mentions Kurt D. Squire, an associate professor of educational communications and technology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the Educational Communications and Technology Division. Squire has studied middle school kids who played Civ3. He found that some students who were able to spend the hours needed to learn the game began to identify “rules” by which history progressed; rules that apply to such issues as resource allocation, the tradeoff between aggressive military expansion and diplomacy, and technological exchange among societies. Weir, who had college juniors and seniors playing every day for three weeks in a summer course, says some of the game scenarios helped her discuss current events. “I emphasized things like the fact that environmental problems don’t respect national borders,” she says.

Many of the professors who use Civ games in class have faced the argument, however, that simply recognizing that there’s a tradeoff between war and diplomacy does not warrant the hours of game play it takes to get deep into a Civilization game. This spring, Weir will teach Intro to International Politics. Next fall, she will teach the course again, this time using Civ3. The students registering in the fall will not be told beforehand that they will use the game. Weir plans to use exams, perhaps a mix of multiple choice and essays, to compare the classes. That will be the first study of a Civ game in the college classroom with a good control group. For now, evidence of Civ’s effectiveness, or lack there of, is anecdotal.

Some professors, rather than using an approach like Weir’s to teach historical concepts directly, are finding Civ3 useful in other ways. Andrew McMichael, an assistant professor of history at Western Kentucky University thinks that Civ3’s historical inaccuracies can be learning tools, and uses the game to teach freshmen. He pointed out that a player who chooses to control America would never see black slaves working in the fields during the antebellum period. “You can’t [put that in the game] and hope to make money,” McMichael says. He uses such concessions to modern sensibilities to discuss how history is “packaged and sold to the public.” McMichael also notes the four ways to win Civ3: send a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri; be elected secretary general of the United Nations by other countries; dominate culturally; or kick everybody’s tail in combat. “It’s nearly impossible to win diplomatically,” McMichael says. “You’re more inclined toward conquest and utter destruction.”

All of the professors interviewed agreed that the Civ3 gods created a universe in which war goes a long way. The gods, of course, are the game designers who determine the algorithms by which history, in the game, will progress. So in order for the game to accurately portray the inputs that spit out world history, the game designers had “better create a damn complex algorithm,” says Alexander Galloway, an assistant professor of culture and communication at New York University who used Civ3 in a media studies graduate seminar. “The game doesn’t progress the same way [as human history],” Galloway says, noting that a player controlling Russia would essentially have to pick one form of government and stick with it. “I’m sure there are lower level history textbooks that are reductive too.”

Patricia Seed, a history professor at the University of California at Irvine, has used several video games, including Civilization games. Seed says that “the narrative of history is embedded in the game,” and says that Civilization has made her “World History Through Games” course more attractive for science and engineering students. Seed previously taught the course at Rice University, and says she encountered some opposition from colleagues who felt knowledge needs to be painfully acquired, but she says teaching the course has been her “most rewarding experience teaching. There are people who get excited about a topic in history who’ve never been excited about history before.”

She adds that some historical simulations, while excellent for discussing military conflict and considering various possible outcomes, are often not much help “with bigger questions,” like the pros and cons of alliances. Several professors said that Civilization I and II were too warfare-oriented to be useful in class, but that the diplomacy options have been ramped up in the third edition. Seed said that several women told her that they were specifically attracted to Civ3, as opposed to Age of Empires -- a more militaristic game -- because of the diplomacy options. She said that no clear trend emerged among men who preferred Civ3. The one thing that Civ3 will not teach, Seed said, is chronology. “The Aztecs might end up with the HangingGardens of Babylon, Abraham Lincoln can fight Xerxes,” she said. “If you have students who can't figure out historical chronology this might not help.”

But with the complex diplomacy of Civ3 are so compelling to gamers that a new university, of sorts, has been born. Apolyton University is an international, online community of Civ3 players dedicated to teaching Civ3 enthusiasts how to improve their skills. Community members create scenarios, a popular feature of the game, that recreate history, and offer them as “courses” to other players. Players can browse the bulletin to find “AU 210: U.N. Peacekeepers,” a scenario that prods players to keep all nations alive; or “AU 102: All we’re sayin’ is give peace a chance,” in which players must control Hippie Sam of the Americans are forbidden from building a military. Squire thinks that, as gen-X and Y’ers graduate, and some head for faculty jobs, a crop of professors who are as adept at creating accurate historical Civ scenarios as are the Apolyton profs could emerge.

For now, Seed agrees with Carl Creasman, a history professor at Valencia Community College, that more and more, students are already digesting history through simulation games, so professors ought to keep abreast of those games. Creasman doesn’t use Civlization, but he uses another historical video game called Europa Universalis II. That game focuses on the European empires from 1492 to 1792, and, Creasman said, has more historical details in that era than any other game. Creasman says that the games absolutely should be supplemented by an instructor, but says he has seen the game engage students in the kind of critical thinking that “monarchs had to do.” He recalls one student who was prompted to choose whether England should become Protestant or not. When Creasman circled the class and came back 15 minutes later, the student was still weighing the pros and cons. “I can’t decide, man,” Creasman says the student told him.

Beyond figuring out what the young’uns are up to these days, professors might actually have something to learn from historical simulations. “I learned that I’m a very conservative player,” says Weir, who has not won Civ3. “I don’t like to see my cities destroyed and taken over.”

Several of the professors who used video games reported waiting lists for their courses, and McMichael says that more men than women began flocking to his class once he began using Civ3. Creasman says that, if professors can find useful ways to incorporate some other wildly popular games into the classroom, like the first person adventure game Halo, which has a lot of shooting and no history, “you’d be the coolest professor in town.” McMichael wasn’t so sure. “I found that for students, homework is homework,” he says. “They bitched about [Civ3] as much as they do about reading.”


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