Using Civilization IV in a University Class

It has been my intention for some time to use Civ IV as part of the formative assessment in one of my classes. I posted a question on one of the main Civ IV fora asking members of that community what they might be interested in, on that front – to date, I’ve had nearly 600 views of that thread, and a number of interesting comments on the project. I invited you to read that thread if you’re interested. Below I’ve copied some of my thoughts on how such a class might work out, given the response from the other members of the CivFanatics‘ community:

Thanks to everyone who has responded so far! Some good stuff is coming through. Here’s what I’m thinking at the moment about how this might work:

I’m reading Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games, where he makes the case that the rules of the games, the processes, are a kind of rhetoric for advancing arguments about how the world works. William Urrichio makes a similar argument in a paper in The Handbook of Computer Game Studies, saying that the way these games are structured corresponds to different kinds of historical methodology. Finally, there’s an edited book by Niall Ferguson, Virtual History, that explores the use of the ‘counterfactual’ for understanding and exploring history.

So those’d be my main texts for the course, and then I’d use these great scenarios people have been suggesting to explore those ideas, and finally wrap it up with a final scenario-building project where the point would be to advance a particular view of history (or a historical period) through the scenario and convince the other members of the class through tournament style play. No exam. Just building, play, and maybe a bit of forum posting/wiki writing.

Wrote ‘ewu.7waker’ “What scenarios did you choose?” I responded:

Well, it’s by no means the best scenario out there, but I’ve got to use my own scenario, Year of the Four Emperors because I built it, after all, and it was my first… (a second one I built, Romulus King of Rome, might be fun too!)

I want to use scenarios that are extremely ‘tight’ – focussed on particular problems of history, or explaining very constrained ‘what if scenarios’. For instance, there was a BBC radio show a while back called ‘What if Alexander had Gone West?‘. So a scenario framed around that question would be one I’d like to use, to use game play to reinforce/contest the ideas in the show.

And speaking of Alexander, Ranbir makes the good point that India is often overlooked in narratives of Western Ancient History, even though Alexander’s eastern conquests created a syncretism of indo-greek culture – an interesting question to explore here would revolve around that Indian-Greek meeting of cultures.

QuantumF8 has a scenario built around the early modern period that is more global in its reach – but this was a time of early globalism. It might be interesting to explore this scenario with reference to modern globalism (students in today’s west are for the most part cultural amnesiacs: things happening today for them are happening FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER!). And you know, the American Revolution scenario that comes with the game is not that bad to play/explore. For students who are completely new to the game, that might be one of my first stops.

So, I can’t include every possible scenario to play as a class, but I can assign some (I might just get a long list and give students the choice – so keep those ideas coming!)… but what I’ll be excited to do, and to see what results, is to identify with students an historical question, and use the creation of a scenario to explore that question as a way of writing history. In universities, we privilege the written word as the only way to ‘write’ history and we look down our noses at other ways of doing it. Historical reenactment societies, living history museums, and Civ scenarios to my mind are also valid ways of exploring and creating historical understanding.

James Gee (I had to quote him sometime!) writes that ‘the content of video games, when they are played actively and critically, is something like this: They situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design of imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined social relationships and identities in the modern world’. There, in a nutshell, is the rationale for what I’m doing: embodied learning.

Here’s a question though: are the rules of Civilization applicable for every time and every place? Is it enough to simply have a different map to play (a scenario) or should we be changing the rules too (a different mod)? Ian Bogost might argue that we need to change the rules too, or at least be aware of how the rules shape what we play…

So that’s how it’s shaping up. The course will be delivered through the Moodle system that Robert Welch University uses.

By the way folks, my regular ‘intro to Roman culture’ course with RWU starts this Thursday, online. If you’re interested, there’s still space. Say you saw this post, and the Dean tells me she’ll give you a 15% discount on tuition – (we’re big about online promotions)! The next cycle begins in about six weeks. Because it’s all online, overheads are low, so we’ll run a course for even one student. If you want to learn, who are we to tell you ‘no, there’s not enough students’?