Why computer games matter for history education

For an illustration of the power of a computer game to teach – or reveal deficiencies in – historical knowledge, check out a recent posting over at the Escapist Magazine, concerning Sid Meier’s Colonization.

The recently announced Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization has raised some eyebrows at Variety’s Cut Scene blog, where writer Ben Fritz calls the game mind-boggling and “morally disturbing.”

“Goddammit, am I the only one who thinks it’s morally disturbing to make a game that celebrates COLONIZATION?” Fritz said in the article. Describing information he was given about the original Sid Meier’s Colonization, released in 1994, Fritz says at first he took it for a joke. “But sure enough, it was real,” he said. “However, I dismissed it as a relic from a time when neither developers nor players took videogames seriously as media with moral implications.”

“But the idea that 2K and Firaxis and Sid Meier himself would make and release a game in the year 2008 that is not only about colonization, but celebrates it by having the player control the people doing the colonizing is truly mind boggling,” he continued.

Fritz compared the situation to the uproar surrounding a Resident Evil 5 promotional trailer which showed African zombies being cut down by the game’s white protagonist. Quoting Newsweek journalist N’Gai Croal, who said the imagery in the trailer was “messed up,” Fritz said a game about colonization is 100 times more messed up. “Throughout history, colonization regularly involved stealing, killing, abuse, deceit, and the exploitation or decimation of native people,” he added. “Anybody with a shred of moral conscience who studies the history will be appalled. Whether it was British rule in India or slavery in Africa or Aboriginal children kidnapped and taken to Christian schools in Australia or the dislocation of Native Americans in the U.S., there were no positive colonization experiences.”

By this reckoning, one would not be allowed to make a movie or write a book about the colonial period, either. Moreover, this fellow seemingly hasn’t played the game, or he’d know that the mechanics of the game – its procedural rhetorics – penalize for destroying native settlements: so clearly, racism isn’t being celebrated.

Moreover, he assumes that players play blindly, lapping up whatever is fed to them. But as the discussion on the Escapist forum demonstrates, it is possible to play the game precisely to challenge the assumptions of the game.

This is why computer games matter for history education. By embodying their rhetorics, their arguments, about the past in code, it becomes possible for players to see the practical outcomes of those arguments through play. Being a critical thinker consists of two parts: understanding the arguments made to you, and responding appropriately. Playing a game is not a one-way flow of information: the player’s actions matter. Players are not empty vessels, nor are they stupid: playing a game focuses the attention on the rules of play, and players respond to those rules and challenge them through metagaming, mod making, community forums, story writing, and so on.

If your average everyday undergraduate responded to a set text the way the player communities respond to a witless post like the one from Cut Scene, we as educators would be in heaven…

2 thoughts on “Why computer games matter for history education

  1. Can you elaborate? Why don’t they matter? When you say ‘those things’, do you mean games, or education?

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