Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Course Design Process: History Through Games

As part of the ongoing process that is assembling my 'Graduate Portfolio', I've decided to design a course that addresses one of my growing interests- the intersection of historical inquiry and gaming.  About a year ago, I wrote a draft essay analyzing the Cold War themed board game Twilight Struggle as a 'complex cultural artifact' using, primarily, the methodology behind material culture analysis in order to dissect the deeper narrative generative process one encounters through play.  The essay was a labor of love, not provoked by assignment, and I found the process of looking deeper into the issues related to the play-design mechanics inherent in the game to be a satisfying intellectual exercise.  What I realized through the writing of my draft was that Twilight Struggle could be read, in part, as a historical artifact- albeit one with caveats and peculiarities that needed to be addressed if one desired to utilize analysis of such an artifact to the fullest.

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.


  1. For details of my own long-standing use of board games in military history teaching, and of my imminent book on the subject, Google 'Sabin KCL'.

  2. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I see a disconnect between your stated goals and the subtext of the title ("history through games"). Critically approaching a game is a fine goal, but it doesn't have much to do with history. Using a game as a "document" (rather than as a "representation") seems to me to run into the serious methodological and epidemiological problems. And if indeed games are representations, or narratives, of history, there still lies the question: why bother focus on these obscure boardgames of ours rather than the better known computer games that students might be able to relate to. Why a course on one kind of representation (games) rather than something that covers the gamut, if indeed representation and narrative is the focus?

    I don't know. I've thought a fair amount about integrating games into my teaching and have come up empty. Maybe you'll have better luck.

  3. Oops-- I meant "epistemological problems".

  4. Philip- Your website on the KCL page is a great example of getting students to analyze the models of combat upon which war-games provide and operate through. Although I do want to try and avoid centering the course on war-games exclusively, having so many student created examples available would definitely serve as proof that the board game medium is well suited to student 'modeling' attempts.

  5. Peter- Excellent questions. While a board game is certainly not as immediately useful as, say, an action report, journal entry or other direct primary source document, I've found that many games do utilize some measure (ranging from a little to a lot) of primary/secondary source analysis/synthesis in creating their play-mechanic design. I view board games (and most games actually) as complex cultural artifacts that encode several layers of both the milieu they seek to recreate and the cultural/historical period of the games creation. I believe one can use the very same 'documentary' analysis techniques used in picking apart primary sources in evaluating the overall artifact. The rules, for example, are more than just directions- they create the metaverse that governs the operation of a players potential actions by stipulating what is allowed and what is not. This might seem a trivial point, yet many primary sources need to be analyzed in the very same way in order to detect what is said and what is not and what governs the belief behind the creation of the words. Many modern board games contain entire sections devoted to the designers thought process and sources used in the games construction- yet these influences and assumptions must be and can be evaluated by their implementation in the rules.

    This takes me to the next point- the real life of a game comes through the play element. Looking at 'Twilight Struggle', for example, the game design is predicated on very central, yet some would say misleading, interpretations of the Cold War experience. The placement of influence is linked to 'domino theory' and embraces a clear bi-polar hegemonic viewpoint. The use of a Defcon meter and the 'I go, you go' card play mechanic not only embraces the logic of Game Theory but also ties that logic to a sort of min/max solution calculation in an attempt to promote/forestall nuclear war. You could gather this from reading the rules, but the 'experience' only comes out through play. So, in a real sense, a board game is both a document and a representation. I firmly believe you can look at the materials used in construction (pieces, rules, media/images) through a 'document' focused analysis, but the real genius of the source is how it brings a sense or feeling of the era or subject documented through the act of play and that this experience, the representation, is a crucial part of looking at the board game as a historical artifact.

  6. Part II of Response to Peter

    I also chose board games from a simply economical point of view- it would be difficult to ask students to analyze a game when they might need to buy a system and the game itself. Board Games not only can be set up quickly and in the classroom, but also allow far more 'hands on' interaction. I also want students to have the chance to 'modify' the games analyzed using historical knowledge they have gained during the course, a potential that would simply not be possible with video or computer games.

    As far as the question of 'gamut' is concerned, I want to specify that while the course uses board games specifically, the same techniques and analyses can be used on other game mediums. Obviously some adjustment would be needed, but giving students the foundational skills to conceive of the analysis quest, I feel, is a great springboard.

    The questions you raise are certainly very pressing in my mind, and I will seek to address these concerns more coherently when I finish putting the syllabus together. I've seen good examples of classroom use of games- Philip Sabin, mentioned above, has an excellent page devoted to how his students engaged with recreating military history through games. Rex Brynen has also written in the most recent C3i magazine on using 'Labyrinth' in the classroom based on his experiences. Figuring out a good way to integrate board games into a learning environment is certainly a challenge, but one that many others have tried and found some measure of success in implementing. Part of the reason I wanted to create this syllabus was to provoke exactly the sort of conversation occurring here in the comments field.

  7. Seems to me that there are a few different ways a game like Twilight Struggle (let's stick with that as the example) could be used in a classroom:

    First, in the most limited and coarsest sense, use the game as a way of imparting basic information to students. Don't have them read about Kennedy and Kruschev, have them play the game and assimilate the names and dates that way. The worth of this approach depends on how much stock one places in the educational literature about learning through play.

    Second--and this seems to me the crux of what Phil Sabin and Rex Brynen do--dissect the data and assumptions that underlie the game's model, and talk about them as an interpretation of the historical record, what Ian Bogost would call procedural rhetoric. This strikes me as the hardest but most rewarding approach.

    Third, we can talk about the game itself as an artifact of material culture. In the case of TS, it's not an artifact of the Cold War but rather of post-millennial nostalgia for the Cold War.

  8. This is an interesting discussion, and I apologize for dropping in with a fairly blunt comment and then disappearing.

    A lot of my thinking on this naturally follows from what my goals are in the classroom; I would treat a game as any other source I assign (document, monograph, film, painting, song, etc.). And the issue of significance always comes up there. I don't assign "secondary sources"/representations without considering (for example) the position of the author in the larger discourse, the validity of their research, the argument they seek to make, etc. On this basis, Twilight Struggle mostly fails: it's not part of a larger discourse or debate historically; I wouldn't trust its "facts" per se; it does, as Jeremy points out, provide us with an important perspective (the view that the Cold War was a bipolar contest; a valorization of the domino theory; etc.). Now, I think this view of the Cold War is wrongheaded and probably would not assign a secondary source with that p.o.v. Instead, I would like to primary sources to make that point.

    If we think of Twilight Struggle as a document, as a kind of primary source, then of what? It might illustrate the mentality of the two actors well. But as a historian, I would prefer to assign actual primary documents which give us entry into the mentalites of the participants at the time.

    This leaves us with the notion that Twilight Struggle is a source for something else: gaming culture, post-Cold War nostalgia, possibly many other things. OK. But that isn't quite "history through games".

    I think that what Rex does (based on what I've read in his blog) is different, in large part because he is not a historian teaching history. Likewise, Phil Sabin's interests are particularly focused on military history and the lessons one can learn from that. In this respect, their experiences may be distinctive. The idea of a game as an interpretation of the historical record makes sense. But in the absence of a specific reason to be interested in games per se, I don't quite see the added value for teaching history.

  9. Peter- Thanks again for some very insightful comments. No need to apologize- I'm glad to have you bring your point of view as a practicing, professional historian to the topic.

    I agree with your stance on the use of secondary sources- critically evaluating their meaning in utilizing primary materials, and the conjectures or opinions those utilizations create, is one of the best things historians can bring to the topic of scholarly evaluation.

    I agree that Twilight Struggle does not present a necessarily 'truthful' interpretation of the Cold War experience, and that primary sources can, in a far more accurate manner, present the actual (or believed) experience felt by those in the moment. Twilight Struggle does, against a backdrop of a larger and more informed evaluation of the topic, inordinately emphasize the bipolar or domino nature of the Cold War experience and is a false route to travail for deeper examination of the topic.

    However, one of the reasons I decided to attempt to design this course (and this was not explained in the original post above) stemmed from a pedagogical viewpoint- from my experience in teaching and leading discussions on mid-level undergraduate courses, I found it very difficult to get student engaged in readings that numbered over 30 pages a week or tackled the subject with any sort of appropriate depth. Part of this stemmed, somewhat, from student apathy or desire to only learn that material which would be tested on the final exam or relevant to a final essay. Another reason, I found, that students did not fully engage in the material was a lack of greater chronological sense of the events involved, or comprehensive understanding of how a fairly expansive historical occurrence, like the Cold War, fit into the overall narrative of American or Russian history. Of course, I would always have that one student (occasionally more) who were very engaged- but I found it rare to have a topic that grabbed the entire classes attention. Part of this could definitely be attributed to my methods as a teacher to be sure- but some of it stemmed from the nature of materials presented. Not everyone enjoyed reading policy memos or newspaper accounts or other sources professional historians utilize daily in their formulation of opinion about a historical occurrence. Lectures, while appealing to me, did not appeal with such zeal to others.

  10. Response to Peter, part II (edited and re-posted for minor grammar issues):

    Yet a board game is, for lack of a better term, a disarming trap to lure students into actually engaging with an abstract topic. (At least the novelty of its use can be appealing) One thing I realized from reading entries on Board Game Geek, most definitely a popular source of information on games in general, was that average people really connected with the themes Twilight Struggle presented. You are correct to label this 'post-Cold War nostalgia'. But in a real sense, especially for those gamers under 30 whose lifetime experience included only tidbits of the Cold War experience, this nostalgia was one of the only sources of information they encountered, in a succinct manner, that gave the Cold War a general narrative and shape that could be understood. We as historians are well aware that the narrative presented in this nostalgic recollection does not accurately represent the period- but do casual players know this fact? From my perspective many might question what the game presents but have no basis, in training or source material, to back-up this inquisitive drive. That was the ultimate reason I wanted to present this course, not simply as a session in which students play games and then analyze the themes but also as a deeper engagement that uses primary sources (and acceptable/validated secondary analysis) to pick apart the model presented so as to give students the analytical tools to be used in future encounters with other abstractions, which games embrace but other forms utilize as well, that they will encounter in real-life. This is obviously an ambitious statement, but I do believe that it is one of the best uses of historical inquiry we can provide to students who, in all likelihood, will not become professional historians themselves.

    Your last point has made me re-evaluate the title I gave above. Instead of 'History through Games' it would be more appropriate to label the course 'Interpretations of History through Games'. I don't want to give the impression that I would abandon the use of primary sources altogether- I see them as a driving, valuable contribution to the larger understanding I want students to take away, as well as a key component and validation of the role historians play as interpreters of the past. Board games, to me, present the best sort of 'sucker punch' in that I can get students to play the game and begin thinking of the topic in order to, I hope, give them added impetus towards actually engaging with the materials that will give them a more accurate interpretation of the event discussed. There is, no doubt, other pedagogical methods which accomplish the same task- yet if Board Games can do this as well, then we should at least investigate their potential use in our presentation of applicable materials.

    Sorry for the long response, but your questions have only sharpened my thinking and understanding of the deeper issues related to the course design objectives. I would appreciate any additional commentary you might have.