Now many might think it silly that I would come to such an obvious conclusion. However, in my defense, I was not aware of the diversity of thinking, especially among academic circles, that surrounded analysis of games against a larger historical-cultural backdrop. I hadn't read a single issue of Simulation and Gaming, nor did I know about excellent blogs like PaxSims or Play the Past (although, to be fair, Play the Past did not yet exist when I wrote my essay). Needless to say, through my writing on a subject thought to be quite novel, I reinvented the wheel several times over in a rough manner that ill suited the smoothness in inquiry pursued by others in the field. Being a developing Humanities scholar I am not adverse to such endeavors, but it was, in equal measure, both refreshing and discouraging to see the trail already blazed.
Yet I took comfort in the fact that most scholarship or academic writing focused on video games, leaving the table-top variety largely unexamined. This makes sense, given the fact that video games are much more rich and diverse objects of study. However, this should not be taken as a sign that board games possess any less diversity as an object worthy of serious analysis or study- quite the opposite. As Ana Salter recognized in her four part ProfHacker series on 'Using Games in the Classroom' (selection from part III):
Board and card games can be a great first project, particularly for students. Digital games are flashy, but board and card games offer the advantages for structured play with a lower barrier to entry. They can also be good practice for learning the mechanics and structure of games without getting bogged down in programming and logic. We've all played some version of classroom jeopardy before, and it remains an example of taking game-like mechanics and applying then to any content- but when content guides the way, board games can transcend these roots.
The last line of Salter's quote above is the key to why I want to analyze history through games. So now I have a topic and suitable motivation- but how, exactly, do I design a course that accomplishes this task?
To answer this question I've drawn on two sources, the first from Mark Sample's two-part discussion about Course Design on ProfHacker (Part I and Part II) and the second from Chad Black's Teaching Philosophy post on his blog Parezco Y Digo. Sample states that, in course design, we should embrace a 'backwards-design' perspective (a process he borrows from the Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe book 'Understanding by Design') that utilizes a three-step process: Identify desired results, determine acceptable evidence and plan learning experiences. In this way, course design promotes uncoverage, as opposed to simply coverage, in order to plumb both the depth & breadth of the material we as instructors want our students to explore. Chad Black's 'Teaching Philosophy' takes the ideas promoted by Sample and provides the linkage to my subject matter- History. Here is a quote from Black's post on linking desired skill development (reading comprehension, primary/secondary source evaluation, identify/build casual explanations for events/structures/movements and communicate explanations in written form) to his course design goals:
I structured my courses to provide practical experience in each of these areas, mixing primary and secondary source material on the various topics under consideration and emphasizing in lecture and discussion the connection between explanatory narratives of the past with evidence. I increasingly sought to include a wide variety of media as part of the source-based building blocks of my courses (texts, film, photographs, artifacts, etc.) My hope for each of my courses has been that students will leave with a keen sense of the problematic relationship between the present and the past and of the problematic nature of the relationship between information and knowledge.
Black goes on to state that he looks to bring the process of collateral learning to his students, fostering the development of skills and attitudes through exposure to not just various cultures but also technical skills that will produce information literacy. Students in Black's class are prompted to create their own content on their own sites in an attempt to 'demystify the web a bit for a generation that has grown up with the internet as a given in their lives and cultivate a capacity for DIY that is collateral to the specific content of (Blacks) courses…"
Under these guidelines, I've begun to establish the following parameters for my 'History through Gaming' course:
What results do I wish to achieve? I want students to be able to critically evaluate a board game, or any game derivative, looking at not only its outward theme and graphics/material pieces but also the mechanics and designer motivations/inspirations that went into the overall play-mechanic design. They should be able to situate the game amongst the larger historical narrative, demonstrating knowledge of what the game excels at modeling and what it fails to accurately portray. In a real sense, I want students to be able to use games as one of many 'documents' in evaluating what Black identified as the 'problematic relationship between the present and the past' in addition to the 'relationship between information and knowledge'.
What do I consider acceptable evidence? To begin, students will need to analyze the game itself and then branch out to the designer behind the game, as well as examine the source materials used in its construction. Students should also cross-check their initial analysis of game materials and design construction using other critically evaluated primary or secondary sources of the period or theme depicted in the game.
What are the learning experiences I wish to utilize? Beyond reading and evaluating source material (the bread and butter of historical practice), I want students to actually engage with the games we study through the act of play. Many modern day board games strive to create a narrative through play and I want students to become observers of this process, yet go a step further, analyzing the structure and limitations of this narrative generative experience. Because many games rely upon the experiences, both past and present, a player brings to the table, I want to use a coordinated approach of tweets to create a real-time experience backchannel, allowing others to view and comment, in addition to having students produce longer explanatory essays, once reserved for the instructors eyes alone, on blogs of their own creation that will be shared with the entire class. I also want students to produce 'modifications' of the games we study, based on research they have conducted throughout the course, linking the play-design mechanics they propose on reasoned approaches to historical phenomena.
With these guidelines, the next step in designing the course is to determine a theme upon which to base the semester. Because I am acutely aware that Russian historians are increasingly asked to teach courses outside the constraints of that particular geographic boundary, I decided that it might be best to pick a topic and era both suited to the wealth of available games and interests of mid-level undergraduates, the target audience of this course- American History. Immediately, Twilight Struggle comes to mind- but this is a rather complex game that might serve better as the keystone, given its survey of Cold War history. There is also the recently released Hero of Weehawken, which covers the Aaron Burr conspiracy of the early 19th century. And, of course, there is a plethora of World War II games that cover every conceivable aspect of the American involvement in that conflict. One constraint of the course is that I don't want to pick too many games to analyze, as learning how to play these games and then asking students to have at least one go at a complete session- in addition to reading relevant documents/analyses of the period in question- would prove too much to cover in one semester/trimester/quarter. I also want to avoid focusing too much on 'war-games', which is why I'm considering games that tackle social issues like 'The Battle for Seattle'.
Then there is the larger question of how to address the concept of approaching a board game (and games in general) as applicable historical artifacts worthy of study. Here the task is much simpler, due mainly to the recent surge of academic interest by those in diverse fields of study. A few exemplars immediately surface: Brenda Braithwaite's incredible GDC presentation on her approach to designing Train, a documentary 'People are Knowledge' created by editors of Wikipedia seeking to have oral citations included in the encyclopedia based (in part) on the evolving rules of traditional games, and a recently released collection of essays (edited by Gred Costikyan and Drew Davidson) found in Tabletop: Analog Game Design, just to name a few. Then, of course, there are the excellent blog posts on both PaxSims and Play the Past, not to mention the deeper levels of analysis found in the works of past luminary Johan Huizinga and contemporary luminaries Alexander Galloway & Ian Bogost. What I once thought was a desert turned out to be an ocean of thought based solely around games of all forms.
Herein lies the promise and peril of studying games- how do I decide which texts best suit the guidelines I elaborated above? Should I select the games I wish to study first or should I pick texts that suit my quest of elaborating the game as a historical artifact? This is the next hurdle I face in my course design- not to mention the selection of appropriate texts suited to historical analyses of the games I select. However, thanks to my articulation of the three questions above, I have a much better idea of what I want to pursue in fulfilling my goals for the course. I would love to hear from others in the comments section, or on twitter (@jsantley) on either game ideas, course approaches, or texts to use.