Rolling your own: early draft

I thought I’d try something different. I’m giving a paper at a conference before too long, and I thought I’d solicit feedback on it *before* I give it: I’ll write the thing in public. I am always such crap when it comes to properly formatting citations etc, and I have a mental block when it comes to words that sound alike… so please be gentle. Feedback in the comments, please.

This terrifies me, to some extent, but I watched a similar experiment unfold on Grand Text Auto a while back, which had excellent results. And so, I offer:

Rolling your Own: On Modding Commercial Games for Educational Goals

Shawn Graham – University of Manitoba, Grand Canyon University

Making modifications to existing commercial games is a strong and vibrant sub-culture in modern video gaming. Strictly speaking, ‘modding’ refers to actually changing the rules by which a game operates, but a less rigorous definition includes scenario building, or the set up of the pieces on the game board. Many publishers now provide tools to make this easier, as part of their marketing strategy. Talented individuals who make and release mods or scenarios for popular games such as the Civilization franchise have been been plucked from the fan communities to employment with the publishers (Jon Shafer, lead designer of the upcoming Civilization V, is one notable example).  Most scholars who have focused on Civilization have addressed its narrative of technological progress and American exceptionalism (REFS); others have concentrated on how the game can be employed in classroom settings, its anachronisms and theoretical outlook on history (Sid Meier famously stating that he did not set out to create a work of history, he wanted to create a game). In this piece, I wish to focus attention on the fansites as the locus for learning.

I too wanted to use Civilization for paedegogical ends in my online classroom. With the help of participants on, I created a scenario (with one rule change; thus a mod) to address a problem I was having in my Introduction to Roman History class. I carefully crafted a scenario to reflect the events of AD 69, the Year of the Four Emperors, devised an assignment to go with it, and launched it on my students. It was a flop. Its lack of success I suspect is due to the ‘creepy treehouse’ phenomenon (Stein, 2008), referring to the urban legends surrounding treehouses built with no other purpose but to lure children. In online learning, the ‘creepy treehouse’ plays out as a use of some aspect of social media that does not emerge naturally from the class dynamic, but rather is imposed from on top and thus feels artificial to the participants – an instructor who requires every student to post 3 times a week to the class blog, for instance.

In this paper I explore just how my experiment with modding and scenario building ended with a ‘creepy treehouse’. That experience refocused my attention to the fansites themselves and the participants who helped me build my scenario. This points us as educators to an under appreciated value of game-based learning using commercial video games. When we ‘roll our own’, it is the aspect of creating it in public that might have the greatest educational impact. The nature of the fansites promotes the kind of learning we labor to facilitate in our online classrooms, spontaneously and from the bottom up: teaching without teachers.

The Year of the Four Emperors

The death of Nero launched the Empire into a period of turmoil and civil war, with four Emperors being declared in various parts of the Empire, in quick succession. My introduction to Roman history class were struggling with the period. Vespasian was the last of the four contenders to be declared Emperor by his troops. In looking at the period, my students were explaining Vespasian’s success in pacifying the Empire and consolidating his hold on Rome in terms of his later role as Emperor: “Of course Vespasian would win the civil war because Vespasian was the Emperor.” This is to put the cart before the horse. As I discussed the period with them, I realized that part of the problem, aside from confusion of cause and effect, was a poor understanding of the realities of Mediterranean geography and of the difficulties of communications in a pre-industrial world (factoring in the time it took for news to travel and how that influenced the political dynamic).

I wanted my students to understand the contingency of history, that Vespasian’s eventual triumph was not fore-ordained, and that physical and political geography played a role. Thus I embarked on the creation of a scenario, using Civilization IV. Civ IV comes with a piece of software for setting up scenarios, the ‘world builder’. I quickly became frustrated with using it. It is meant to allow the player to place all of the different pieces on the map, to set up the starting positions for the game. Many of its features are disabled, and cannot be unlocked until the player adds a line of code to the Civilization initialization file. This information is not provided by the game’s documentation, but rather comes from the fan sites. Trying to unlock the worldbuilder led me to the modding community (indeed my post relating what the unlock code is, is consistently the most visited post on my research blog).

As I became more and more excited about the possibilities of scenario building, I came to rely more and more on the fan sites for help (principally, Civilization IV was built using XML to describe nearly every object in the game. By adjusting the information in the XML, one can change the names of leaders or cultures (or add more); one can adjust the game calendar so that each turn represents a single day, week, or month. One can add ancillary information to set the scene for the scenario when it opens, or prevent certain kinds of technology from ever being ‘discovered’ (a world without gunpowder, for instance). How to find this information, how to change it, was all courtesy of the fans.

Eventually, with the help of ‘Carloquillo’, I had a working scenario of the Roman world in AD69. The aim was to outmanouevre the other claimants to the throne, whether politically or militarily (the ‘Senate’ would examine the balance of power in Italy periodically, and declare one or the other of the rivals to be the ‘Emperor’ – thus simulating the ineffectualness of the Senate at this period). The scenario was not perfect of course – Vespasian kept converting to Judaism if the artificial intelligence was allowed to play as him. I devised an assessment exercise for my online students. Instead of writing the final paper, I would instead have the students play the scenario through. At set intervals, they would take a screenshot of the world map, and record a narrative of what was going on in their counterfactual history (they would be its historians). Then, to conclude they would identify and address the similarities and differences between the game’s version of ‘history’ with what had in fact happened in the past (which would make a virtue of Vespasian’s conversion to Judaism, for instance). My hope was that in playing the scenario the students would begin to appreciate the difficulty of Vespasian’s position, initially; how difficult it was to act; what an accomplishment it was in fact to manage and control such an enormous hetergeneous territory; and by identifying anachronisms better understand the important concepts of the period.

This is the point where the scenario failed. A number of my online students did indeed have copies of Civilization IV. I offered the scenario to these students as an alternative to the final assignment, confirmed that some of them were playing it, and waited to see what would happen. While feedback on the scenario was positive – “this was a fun scenario, sir” – to a person, none took up the offer to play the game for credit, turning in standard essays instead. I asked why, and every response was evasive. I initially put it down to the conservatism of students: everyone understands how essays work as far as grading goes, but maybe a game-for-credit was a step to far. I have not tried this scenario again in a classroom setting because I now realize that the major error I made was that I sprung it on my students without any kind of preparation. There was no buy-in, because it was a ‘creepy treehouse’. I selected the period to model; I had made it; it was my representation. Of course there could be no buy-in.

But there was one mitigating factor. The thread I started on Civfanatics asking for help attracted the attention of 14 other players (very nearly the same size as my class). They helped me to build it, they asked questions about the period, and they suggested ways of accomplishing what I wished to model using the game. The scenario that I uploaded to that thread was play-tested by them, and has since been downloaded nearly 1000 times. On the Civfanatics site, my role as a university instructor did not put me in any privileged position vis-a-vis the other participants; I was just one of many people who enjoyed the game.

Learning did happen as a result of my experiment in scenario building. It just didn’t happen in my classroom.

Assessing the educational value of online discussion forums

The major learning management systems used by colleges and universities rely on a twenty year old metaphor: the bulletin board, or discussion forum. Students make posts, leaving messages commenting on some topic. Posts are organized into threads (thus mixing metaphors). Similarly, Civfanatics relies on posts and threads. Significantly, online courses rely on the instructor to keep the discussion flowing, to push it into the interesting areas, and to assess the students’ learning in the forums. While Civfanatics has ‘moderators’ who monitor the discussions, their role is solely to make sure that topics are in the right place – don’t post your wish list of features for Civilization IV in the area marked for scenario swapping, for instance. There is therefore no authority ‘in charge’ of any discussion on Civfanatics. What order there is is in a given thread is largely self-organized. The literature of formal online learning can usefully be explored to assess what kind of learning is taking place in these self-organized forums. In the thread that I started, I clearly learned about how to simulate using the game. But what of history?

In the classes that I teach, when I assess a discussion forum, I am looking for posts that demonstrate an understanding of the material; that engage with others’ thoughts and comments; and which push the conversation forward. In truth, my rubric is not overly elaborate. A more rigorous rubric and approach is proposed by Uzuner (2007). Uzuner makes a distinction between ‘educationally valuable talk’ (EVT) and ‘educationally less valuable talk’ (ELVT). He situates this distinction in the traditions of Vygotsky’s 1934 insights concerning language and how “knowledge building is created between/among people in their collaborative meaning-making through dialogue.” Uzuner’s approach therefore is firmly rooted in a constructivist approach to education. Uzuner suggests that EVT, in the context of discussion threads, is

a particular interactional pattern in online discussion threads characterized as dialogic exchanges whereby participants collaboratively display constructive, and at times, critical engagement with the ideas or key concepts that make up the topic of an online discussion, and build knowledge through reasoning, articulation, creativity, and reflection. (2007)

On the other hand, ELVT is talk “that lacks substance in regards to critical and meaningful engagement with the formal content or ideas that are discussed in the posts of others in an online discussion” (2007).  Uzuner then provides examples of different kinds of EVT and ELVT, with 11 different kinds of EVT, and 5 kinds of ELVT. I reproduce Uzuner’s two tables below:

Table 1. Online Conversations and Educationally Valuable Talk (EVT) Indicators

Indicator Acronym Defined Examples Source
Exploratory EPL Recognition of some confusion/curiosity or perplexity as a result of a problem/issue arising out of an experience/course readings; posing a problem and enticing others to take a step deeper into it. “I wonder…….”

“I am not sure if what the author suggests…….”

“In the article X, the author said …. This brought up a few questions in my mind ….”

Mercer (1994);

Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2001)

Invitational INVT Inviting others to think together, to ponder, to engage by asking questions, requiring information, opinion or approval. “Jane says …….. What do you think?”

“Do you think ……?”

“The authors suggest …., no?

Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Argumentational ARG Expressing reasoning (with analogies, causal, inductive and/or deductive reasoning etc) to trigger discussion “If teachers ……., then ……..”

“Teaching is like …………..”

“X is important because …….”

Kumpulainen (1996)
Critical CRT Challenging or counter-challenging statements/ideas proposed by others OR playing devil’s advocate “I agree that …. However, …….” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Heuristic HE Expressing discovery (similar to “A ha!” moments or expressions like “I find it!”); directing others’ attention to a newly discovered idea. “I did not know that there is a name for XXX. I think XXX is …..Has anyone experienced that too?” Kumpulainen (1996)
Reflective REF Examination of past events, practices (why/how they happened) or understandings in relation to formal content “I’ve noticed that I had a tendency to ….. After reading X’s article, I’ve learned not to ……” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Interpretive INTP Interpretation of formal content through opinions that are supported by relevant examples, facts, or evidence. “In my opinion X is …… Y is a good example of why …….” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Analytical ANL Interpretation of content through the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of others’ understanding “The original question was … Joe said … Mary said … As for me ….” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Informative INF Providing information from literature and relating it to course content/topic of discussion “I read an article about X once and the author said …. You can find more information about this in …” Kumpulainen (1996)
Explanatory EXPL Chain of connected messages intended to explain/make clear OR statements serving to elaborate on the ideas suggested in previous posts “I want to build on your comment that ……..” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Implicative IMP Assertions that call for action OR statements whereby participants formulate a proposal/decision about how to achieve a certain end based on the insights they gained from the course readings/discussions “Teachers should / should not ….”

“X must not be forced ….”

Uzuner & Mehta (2007)

Table 2. Online Conversations and Educationally Less Valuable Talk (ELVT) Indicators

Indicator Acronym Defined Examples Source
Affective AF



Short posts that ONLY contain a statement of personal feelings (likes & dislikes)

Short posts that ONLY contain appraisal (praising & thanking someone)

Questions or comments that add social presence to the discussion but do not contribute new information.

“I never liked Math either”

“Thank you for offering your insights into ….”

“I have been to your country once and I visited X, Y, Z when I was there”

Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2000)
Judgmental JA


Short posts that ONLY contain brief statements of agreement without elaboration

Short posts that ONLY contain brief statements of disagreement without elaboration.

“Yes, I agree with you ….”

“I do not think so”

Kumpulainen (1996)
Experiential EXP Posts that only contain personal experiences, narratives, descriptions that are not followed by reflection “I did the same thing when I was teaching X. “I did A, B, C. It was fun” Kumpulainen (1996)
Reproductional REP Repeating/reproducing the ideas mentioned/proposed in the previous posts without elaboration “You are right, X is …… “ (followed by a sentence) Kumpulainen (1996)
Miscellaneous MIS Opinions that seem to be off topic OR statements regarding technical problems/course logistics “I am unable to open Jay’s file…” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)

Uzuner’s schema thus provides a route for understanding the educational potential of the discussion forums on Civfanatics. I therefore assessed the posts in the most-viewed scenario in the Civilization IV – Scenarios forum, John Shafer’s WWI Scenario.[1] This scenario was first posted on May 6th, 2006. To date, it has been viewed over 94 000 times; the most recent post was on January 19th, 2009. There are 311 posts in this thread. I read each post, and tallied the kinds of educationally valuable or less valuable talk that was occurring.

Table 3. Educationally Valuable Talk in Shafer’s WWI Scenario thread

Kinds of Valuable Talk # of instances
EPL 10
ARG 28
CRT 22
HE 3
REF 13
INF 18

Table 4. Educationally LessValuable Talk in Shafer’s WWI Scenario thread

Kinds of Less Valuable Talk # of instances
AF 2
AA 0
ASP 79
JA 11
JDA 11
EXP 14
REP 14
MIS 184

A straight tally would suggest that the ‘less educationally valuable talk’ carries the day, with 315 posts to ‘educationally valuable talk’s 137. But this misses some important dynamics. The ‘miscellaneous’ category captures two distinct kinds of posts – ‘how do I install this scenario / it didn’t work’ queries, and more complex play-throughs of the scenario, reporting what exactly took place. These latter posts are actually quite valuable, in that since the scenario is a kind of simulation, each play-through records a different kind of trajectory through all of the possible outcomes of the scenario. It’s a kind of sweeping of the scenario-as-simulation’s ‘behavior space’ (cf Graham 2009) and so provides important fodder for other kinds of educationally valuable talk.

The development of the forum follows a distinct trajectory. Shafer introduces the forum on May 6th. A flurry of appreciative posts and ‘how do I…’ technical queries ensues for about 50 posts, followed by a second phase of play-testing and reporting of bugs. Educationally valuable talk picks up in this second phase as various individuals pick up on items in the play-throughs. By post 79, the conversation has turned to how to best represent the carnage, social, and strategic impact of trench warfare given the procedural rhetorics (though not framed in those terms) of the game. This phase continues for around another 100 posts, and includes discussions on the real world impact of the Russian Revolution on the War, and how this should best be simulated. There is a strong concern throughout these posts for verisimilitude and ‘authenticity’ – but what constitutes authenticity is debated. A flame war erupts in post 92 on this very question, and is eventually quelled by Shafer who notes that this is just a game and is meant to be engaging. In post 103, another individual suggests modifications to the scenario, and actually begins another thread elsewhere on Civfanatics to improve and expand on Shafer’s work. In posts 171, the author uses the scenario to leap into counterfactual history, and propose quite a complex counterfactual based on his play throughs of the scenario. By September of 2006 most of the heat has gone out of the thread, and most subsequent posts are again of the ‘how do I make this work’ or the play-through variety. This continues until the thread goes dormant in January of 2009.

The other aspect that needs to be considered, to give fullness to Uzuner’s approach and Vygotsky’s insight, is the social aspect. Who is talking to whom? I mapped out the pattern of social interactions in the forum as a kind of network. If ‘DoctorG’ addressed ‘JLocke’, then I connected the two individuals. If ‘KobatheDread’ posted a note recounting a play-through, I mapped that as a response to Shafer’s original post (since everything posted is public, in a sense, every individual is connected to every other individual, and so for the sake of analysis and simplicity, can be disregarded from the network). If Shafer responded to Koba quoting JLocke, I connected all three together. The resulting network is more-or-less star shaped, with Shafer in the middle and everyone else radiating off as spokes. However, there are clumps of highly interconnected individuals representing sub-conversations and discussions that developed in the forum.

Figure 1: Conversation in the WWI Scenario Thread as a Social Network. Shafer is in the exact center. There are 59 individuals.

[network diagram of pattern of social interaction in the threads; mostly starshaped, but interesting cluster of connections spins out of it]

Using the Keyplayer program from Analytech (Borgatti, 2008), I assessed the most central individuals in this network; that is, the individuals whose removal from the forum would result in a disrupted graph, or would ‘break’ the conversation. Keyplayer reported that the removal of Shafer, Jlocke, Dom Pedro, Kitten of Chaos, and Koba the Dread would cause this network to fragment almost completely. These individuals between them account for a majority of the educationally valuable posts made in the forum. This is quite interesting from the standpoint of an online educator, in that it suggests that we can determine from structure alone the individuals who are making the greatest contribution to the learning going on in a forum.

This was a forum without an official leader, or any one acting in the role of ‘teacher’. The contrast with my own Year of the Four Emperors thread is striking.[2] My thread began on May 16 2006, and went stagnant by September. Fourteen individuals contributed, and noticeably, aside from my own initial post, there is a large absence of EVT, unless you count the technical ‘how-to’ posts I made, and the play-through reports. As a social network, the graph is entirely centered around me, in a star shape. Why the difference? I think I once again created a ‘creepy treehouse’. It was all about me. I was also very upfront about my identity and the use I wished to put the scenario, which made it more of a curiosity than a scenario that got people excited.

Rolling your Own: Lessons Learned?

If we are going to ‘roll our own’ scenarios or otherwise use commercial video games like Civilization in our teaching, we need to approach it more from the point of view of a fan, than as a teaching professional. Otherwise, we create artifacts that do not create the kind of response that we wish. Learning is obviously going on in the fan forums, and using tools like Uzuner’s typology is one way of assessing what kind of learning is happening. The pattern of social interaction, and the evolution of those discussions are also extremely important it would seem. One would need to study a much greater number of the threads to see the fuller picture – this is an area where text mining could be usefully employed. Perhaps we can emulate the way these discussions tend to evolve, and foster game-based learning in our classrooms that way. As an example to the online educational field, the idea that structure might be correlated with educational impact (and thus could be measured automatically) is intriguing, and needs to be explored further.

Borgatti, Steve (2008) Keyplayer

Garrison, R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical Inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2-3), 87-105.

Graham, Shawn (2007) ‘Vespasian, Civ IV, and Intro to Roman Culture’.

Graham, Shawn (2007) “Re-Playing History: The Year of the Four Emperors and Civilization IV” Case Study, Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology, United Kingdom.

Graham, Shawn (2009) Behaviour Space: Simulating Roman Social Life and Civil Violence. Digital Studies / Le Champ NuméRique, 1(2). Retrieved January 25, 2010, from

Kumpulainen, K. (1996). The nature of peer interaction in the social context created by the use of word processors. Learning and Instruction, 6(3), 243-261.

Mercer, N. (1994). The quality of talk in children’s joint activity at the computer. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 10, 24-32.

Stein, Jared (2008) ‘Defining the Creepy Treehouse’

Uzuner, S. (2007) Educationally Valuable Talk: A New Concept for Determining the
Quality of Online Conversations
Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 3.4

Uzuner, S. & Mehta, R. (2007, August) Aiming for educationally talk in online discussions. Paper presented at the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching – MERLOT Seventh International Conference, Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in 1934).



Civilization on the iPod – chronicle of inclass use

Just came across what seems to be an experiment in a classroom using Civ Revolution on the iPod for history teaching… will be interesting to see what happens.

If I’ve divined the twitter feeds that led me to this, it would seem to be a project of Lucas Gillespie on whose website there appears to be an interesting World of Warcraft experiment going on…

The primary focus of this project is to develop a curriculum for an after school program or “club” for at-risk students at the middle and/or high school level.  This program would use the game, World of Warcraft, as a focal point for exploring Writing/Literacy, Mathematics, Digital Citizenship, Online Safety, and would have numerous projects/lessons intended to develop 21st-Century skills.

Bravo, and well done! One that I will follow with interest…

The Ancient History Encyclopedia

Jan van der Crabben is a name you might be familiar with if you’ve played any of the mods or other community-built content for Civilization IV. Jan has a new project under way, called ‘The Ancient History Encyclopedia‘, and he’s looking for content and editors. And, in a lovely twist not often seen, he’s willing to pay contributors. His note is below:

The goal is to become the number one source of information on ancient history — for students, academics, enthusiasts, and the general public alike.

I believe that this is achievable due to our unique way of presenting information: The website is centered around tags (which are essentially the entries in a printed encyclopedia), with each tag having a definition, articles, a timeline, illustrations, and external links / book references displayed. Like this, one finds several different kinds of information at the same time, in a modern format. When you visit the website, you will be able to see this organization best on the “Babylon” page, simply because it is the page with the most content at the moment.

The website address is and I would be happy if you could visit it and have a look. Please be aware that it’s far from complete! There isn’t very much content yet, we clearly need a lot more content to make this website a success. Also, you are among the first people to be using this website, so there might still be bugs. If something doesn’t work, or doesn’t work as you would expect, please email me what you were doing, what happened, and why it’s not what you expected.

Please register at the website (the “Register” link is at the top), and start adding content wherever you can! Content is submitted through the website, using the existing online forms. You can add/edit a definition, an article, or an illustration. You can also contribute timeline entries. Look for the “Add”, “Edit”, and “Upload” buttons in the relevant sections of the site (generally on the right of the section headline).

You can choose what you want to write about… We need definitions, articles, and illustrations. Please be careful not to infringe on any copyright, so only submit your own work. Of course you are allowed to submit work that you’ve already written, as long as you hold the copyright to it (this might be a grey area if it’s published in an academic publication, for example). You can also submit work that falls under a Creative Commons or GFDL license (such as images from Wikipedia), as long as it is attributed and licensed correctly. Please do not copy & paste any text from Wikipedia or other websites, only images are fine to copy under a CC or GFDL license.

All content that you submit is reviewed and possibly edited. Before the review process is complete and your content has been approved it will not show up on the website. So if you don’t see something you’ve written, be patient. If it doesn’t show up within a few days, please contact me. There will be a more formal system that allows the contributors and editors to communicate through the website in the future.

The website makes money through book sales (via Amazon, we get a commission), as well as advertisements (which aren’t online yet). As I’ve mentioned before, the 100 first contributions will be paid at a rate of US $10 per article and US $5 per definition. For definitions, only new definitions are paid, edits do not count. You will be paid when the initial paid submission period is over and we’ve got 100 contributions. Payment will be conducted via PayPal. After the initial paid phase, you will be able to earn advertising revenue on your content using Google AdSense and possibly other revenue sources.

There are no deadlines: You can submit work at any time, on any subject you choose (subject to review). The more you submit, the more money will you receive. :-)

I did ask him how he feels this will differ from Wikipedia, which is pretty solid on many things ancient. He responds that it is in the backend, and in how the information is served up with the ancillary materials. I’ve explored a bit, and I like that for any given article you can see who authored it; a little difference there with the big W; perhaps some sort of reputation-tracking mechanism would be useful. One thing I noticed is the feed from Amazon will serve up ‘pyramidiot’ and other nonsense they classify as ‘ancient history’ – 2012 anyone?  I don’t know how well those materials can be filtered before they’re displayed.

Check it out. I’m always ready to applaud new initiatives that make our subject better known to the wider world – good on you, Jan!

Don’t Knock the Aztecs: Civ for History, WoW for German

Still have folks in your department who dismiss games as…, well, games? Then you need to check out this article in the latest edition of the Escapist.  Todd Bryant has been experimenting with using games like Civ IV in history classes. This is no unthinking use of the game, though. For Bryant, the value lies in exploiting the gap between ‘real’ history, and the way that history is modelled (or argued, as it were: see Bogost) in the game:

A student came to my office last week and asked for help setting up a LAN game of Civ IV in one of the college’s computer labs. He was going to play my Age of Conquest mod scenario with some friends that afternoon. While I showed him in the menu how to set up a multiplayer game, he shared his strategy to play Spain and attack the Aztecs. It’s a bad idea.


For the class, students had to play the game in addition to their readings and discuss whether the scenario accurately represented the period. One of the key concepts students should have learned about was the role of belief systems as described in the book The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other.” In essence, the book and the game make the same argument: Had the Aztecs viewed the world differently, their clash with the Spanish conquistadors would have been radically different.

He goes on to describe exploration of language teaching through immersing students in a German server for World of Warcraft. Mein Gott! Das ist wunderbar! (all that I remember from a freshman German class; that and a song set to the Blue Danube… perhaps if I’d been gaming language, things would be different…)

There are people doing similar things with Latin, as it happens (I had experimented with old school text adventures for Latin teaching, but this might be a bit more *sigh* exciting) … sign the petition now!

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…

Civilization & Education

In the course of doing some writing on why making games and modifications for existing games is a much better educational endeavour than simply playing historically-themed games (it seemed much more clever when expressed in 7000 words than 20), I came across the following post on Rob MacDougall’s blog which covers some of what I’m thinking:

In simpler language, Civilization’s game play erases its own historical content. Learning to play means learning to ignore all the stuff that makes it a game about history and not about, say, fighting aliens. One could easily program a different game with a different set of ideological assumptions—Galloway imagines a “People’s Civilization” game by Howard Zinn—and see precisely the same de-historicizing effect. Mastering the simulation game necessarily involves a journey away from reality towards abstraction, away from history towards code.

However, I don’t know whether there’s anything particularly unique to computer games about that idea – isn’t any game, when you really get down to it, about mastering the mechanics of the game, the rules? (whether or not those rules are expressed mathematically or in a rule-book is immaterial I should think).

Anyway, there’s a lot more on his blog worth a longer look! Ultimately, MacDougall concludes that what one should do is get the students to design their own game. We’ve been doing just that at the Simulating History project at Brock for some time; we’ve got a workable beta up and running, but man! there’s a lot of work involved. My role in that project (making the game) is more of a background reviewer-type guy; I’m not at the coalface.


The Year of the Four Emperors mod for Civ IV

This little video records some of the game play in ‘The Year of the Four Emperors’ mod for Civ IV that I’ve used from time to time in my teaching. Things to watch for – the opening shows how to load the mod and get it running; ‘research’ can’t be turned off in the game, but you can make it impossible to carry out (‘gunpowder’ for some reason is on the list- but it’ll take ca 2600 turns to do it, by which time the game has ended); the senate takes a vote on declaring one of the contenders Emperor; towns and military units are more or less in their correct historic positions.

Civilization Revolution

It seems that the Civilization franchise is coming to the console market. This can only be a good thing, since I believe that Civilization is one of the greatest gifts the games industry ever gave us historian-folk. Civilization: Revolution is not a straightforward port though of the PC version to the console. There are numerous differences, one of which is that it would seem that new content, scenarios etc will only be available for people with the Xbox Live service. On the plus side, presumably the interesting errors and glitches that exist in the player-created content won’t be there (in my mod, if you look carefully, the Roman Senate looks an awful lot like the modern United Nations building… :) ). Anyway, an in-depth review is available here.

What I find also quite exciting, is that a port is planned for the Nintendo DS (the dual-screen; you’ve seen them, they look like little PDAs). The Nintendo DS allows multiplayer play when players are sitting together, over a tiny wi-fi link. This port will allow head-to-head competition over that link. From an educational point of view, this is the most valuable part of any commercial game used educationally: the ability for players/students to discuss and think about the playing – the metagame. Hopefully, new content will become available periodically for the DS version too.

Official site:

Civilization IV World Builder Manual & other needful things

So perhaps you now have a copy of Civilization IV, and you want to begin scenario building or even a larger scale modification to the game’s mechanics. What do you do?Roman ruins from Veii, photo from Bryn Mawr Lantern Slides of Classical Antiquity

Before you begin, you need to understand how the Worldbuilder works in Civ IV – here’s the manual and a discussion of what’s what – note that you have to add the code ‘chipotle’ to “cheatcode = ” in the Civ IV ini file, to get the full worldbuilder experience.

Now. What do you want to model using this game? A particular war? a battle? a long period of cultural interchange between two peaceful peoples? Answer this question well, and be very clear what it is you hope to accomplish. Let’s say, for interest’s sake, you want to make a scenario focussed on Veii, and you want your student – the player – to understand the urban dynamics of central Italy during the protohistoric period (you’ll want to describe it much more snappily to your students, when the time comes). You’ll need a map then for the playing board. Here’s a google map centred on Veii. (Maybe you’ll want to zoom out a bit). Open it up in your graphics program, clean it up, and save it as a bmp. It doesn’t have to look like a Civ IV map yet; we use another program to do that.

To turn that map into a playing board for the game, use this bmp-to-wbs utility. This will allow you to make the map exactly as you want it, the placing of resources, etc etc. It comes with an excellent tutorial on mapmaking and scenario design. Alternatively, you can try this tool instead.

That’s all you need to get a good scenario up and running; other interesting tools and utilities are available here.

Things you should think about: Civ IV uses XML files to store lots of the information. To really get rolling, you need to delve into the XML and associate these files with your map – you might try this program here. For instance, in our hypothetical Veii scenario, you might alter the XML files so that you have some Etruscan named leaders, some Roman ones, some Sabine onces, etc. You can change the calendar, so that game turns go in days, or weeks, or months. You can limit how long the game will be played. You can add ancillary information to the opening screen or other pop-ups.

Say you don’t like the way the game imagines the progress of technology. You can use this tool here to tweak it to your heart’s content. You might want to make it so that certain technologies are never available to the player. You do this by altering the ‘cost’ of them in time (so that it becomes impossible for a player to get to, say, feudalism, within the confines of your scenario). You can use this tool for that.

The key things to remember always are ‘why am I building this? what teaching goal do I hope to achieve? how does playing this game – even with my neat-o scenario – make that possible?’ Remember, you can’t just leave your students to play the game and expect them to learn something. You have to be there while they play it, you have to talk it out with them. You make the anachronisms and emergence of the game work for you.

In fact, the best way you can make this game a part of your teaching is to get the students to design the scenarios/mods themselves. These tools I’ve collected here will help you enormously (and thanks again to Civfanatics and the great people there!)

ps, I’ll do a similar post for Caesar IV once I figure out how to make the game editor do what I want. One final note: lots of the graphics in both games come as dds files. You need a converter to put your artwork into the game if for instance you want to create an etruscan augur unit – try this program; you can also get similar programs from nVidia’s website

UPDATE Feb 28 2010: This continues to be the most popular post on this blog. Click around – there’s an awful lot more here than this! :)  If you’re really interested in the nuts-and-bolts of modding all of the various games in the Civilization franchise, please see the Civilization Modding Wiki and this tutorial.

What does Civilization Stand For? Modding Contest from Firaxis!

One last post before the holidays (thanks Jan for bringing this to my attention!), and one which might be of interest to any academic/educational modders out there; nb it’s only for US residents, so my ‘Year of the Four Emperors‘ won’t be in the mix:

What Does Your Civilization Stand For?
Official Rules
Entry Form

The holidays are upon us and we’re certain many of you are wondering what to do while sitting in the comfort of your homes, staying as far away from the nasty weather and shopping crowds as possible. Sure, you could spend time with family, play with the kids, or figure out how to turn on your shiny new iPod. But, we have a better idea. Why not show the world what you can do to customize the greatest strategy game ever made?

And to give you an even bigger incentive Dell has sent us some brand new XPS machines (four desktops and a laptop to be more specific) and we will give them to the winners of this contest. What we are looking for is simple: we want to see your best work, in any of the following four categories:

  • Best In-Game Asset (art, including units, buildings and/or wonders)
  • Best World-Builder Scenario (just a single .wbs file)
  • Best Map Script (just a single .py file)
  • Best Educational Mod (only educators and schools can submit entries for this one)

The creator of the winning entry in each category will receive a Dell XPS desktop computer to show off to your friends. In addition, the best over-all mod from the submissions above will receive the grand prize of a Dell XPS laptop. Can you say Happy Holidays?

Here are some things to remember. The prizes are awarded to individuals only, so if your mod is a team effort, the prizes will only be awarded to the designated team leader. You can use existing mods that you’ve already created, or you can create something from scratch using Civ IV or any of its expansions. Finally, please do not submit mods that are not yours. This not only makes our job harder, but also makes children cry.

The contest begins December 23, 2007, and will run through February 18, 2008, so crack your knuckles and crank out something fabulous. As an aside, this contest is U.S. only, and our lawyers have drafted up a lovely set of rules for you to follow, so be sure to check them out before starting. If you have any further questions, send them in, we’re all ears!


By the way, The Ancient Mediterranean Mod version 2.01 FINAL has been released for the ‘vanilla’ version of Civilization IV. I know what I’m going to be doing over the holiday!

Vespasian, Civ IV, and Intro to Roman Culture

An article of mine has just been published over on Planet Civilization:

“Vespasian has converted to Judaism!”

The cheery message came as something of a shock. After all, Vespasian and his son Titus together were responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple – hardly likely converts to Judaism. But I was play-testing a scenario I had been building in Civilization IV, and so this ‘counter-factual’ brought up an interesting conundrum. I wanted to use the scenario in my teaching for my ‘Intro to Roman Culture Class’ at my university. Did the unlikeliness of the event undermine the utility of my scenario? If I used it, was I going to get papers like the one in this comic?”


By the way, in the next session of my Intro to Roman culture course at Robert Welch University (which lasts for six weeks), I have permission from the Dean to offer Civ-related exercises and assessment. If you’re interested, contact RWU, and we’ll come to an arrangement. That’s one of the nice things about RWU – it’s small, so we can be very flexible.