“Great game, but NOT a study guide”

Truer words were never spoken:

…that’s why people like me are around! More Civ-related comics & wisdom


Civilized Education

An article and two sites:

Jan van der Crabben: ‘Civilized Education

From Firaxis: ‘Educators’ Exchange

and from Kurt Squire, doyen of Civ-for-education: CivWorld

“This is a site for people interested in using Sid Meier’s Civilization for learning academic content, including history, geography, or even game design. We have custom-designed game scenarios, curricula, case studies, and experts on using Civ for learning. Our goal is to help players, students, parents, and even teachers use the game at home, in after school centers and maybe even classrooms.”

I’m in the process of writing up my latest thoughts on using Civ IV in the classroom (and especially, for distance education!). My biggest mistake in my initial foray (link on my publications’ list) was in not thinking carefully enough about assessment and what exactly I was trying to assess. Who knew that university students would balk at playing a game for marks? Watch this space…

History Canada Game: Mod for Civ III

“The History Canada Game is a game based on Canadian history that lets anyone play the past. Based on the award-winning, best-seller Sid Meier’s Civilization III, The History Canada Game is the “What If” game of Canada… and you’re the author. Will you replay our history or rewrite it? The year is 1534… Play the New World


To Iroquois chief Donnacona, whose 500 followers live just down the St. Lawrence, Cartier’s intentions couldn’t be clearer. But these settlers bring with them powerful weapons, advanced technologies, and promises of great partnership to come. All they want is to take Donnacona’s two sons back to France with him.

What would you do? Welcome the French as your newest allies? Or defend your homeland with extreme prejudice, and probably your life?

What’s next? You decide.

The History Canada Game lets you relive, replay and even rewrite Canada’s history. Play as the English to expand your empire. Play as the Huron to defend your homeland. Wage wars, make peace and explore new lands…the future of Canadian history is in your hand.”

Rubric for assessing historical scenario-building for Civilization

One of the things that always amazes me about playing Civilization IV (or indeed, just about any game you’d care to name) is what might be called the ‘metagame’ – the discussions on the forums, the fansites, the user-created mods. It seems to me that this is one of the most important aspects of the educational use of commercial games. On Civfanatics, there is a discussion entitled ‘the Rise and Fall of Rome‘ which I find absolutely fascinating. These folks are not historians, they are not classics students, but in the course of trying to make an historically ‘authentic’ simulation of Roman culture they embrace such difficult concepts as the conditions behind the emergence of the Social War – and then they devise a way to allow for the possibility of a Social War emerging in the game play! (other historical scenarios in Civ IV available here)

That is the kind of discussion I would want to emerge in my classroom, were I to formally assign the creation of a Civ mod or scenario as part of the assessment of the course. The problem that I’m addressing in this post though is how would I assess the scenario, and the metagame? I’ve addressed the problem of assessment when students play a scenario (in my ‘Year of the Four Emperors’ scenario for Civ IV I assigned a ‘game diary’ that asked pointed questions of the students at particular points in the game) but I’ve only started to grapple with the problem of assessing construction recently. How can you be fair and assess two individual students, one who has a good technical grasp of python, xml, and scenario building but is hazy on the history, and one who knows the history but freezes at the sight of the worldbuilder? How do you mark the mass of material that will be produced as a byproduct? How do you manage the paper trail?

I had a similar problem during my dark old days as a high school teacher of technical drawing. The solution there was a rubric, and I think the solution here might also be a rubric. Rubrics have the advantage of boiling everything down to a checklist of various criteria. Your students can see at a glance what you are looking for, and they can see what they have to do to achieve a good grade. As the prof, you save yourself time, energy, and headaches. Below is my proposed rubric for marking the creation of a scenario for Civilization IV:

Rubric for assessing historical scenario-building for Civilization

The first criterion addresses the question: has the student selected a good problem to try to render in a scenario? Civilization has built in assumptions about how history unfolds. Does the proposed scenario play to those assumptions, or does it challenge them?

The second criterion assesses whether the student has assembled the appropriate secondary or primary literature to ensure the ‘authenticity’ of the scenario (and a very good student will explore just what makes for an authentic scenario).

The next two criteria are asking the student to plan out the scenario on paper first. Where will the issues be? What kind of a map? What scale is appropriate both geographically and chronologically? Clear writing = clear thinking = an easier time of building the scenario. My own scenarios at first suffered from woolly design…

The ‘demonstrates understanding’ criterion might be the place to assess whether the student realizes the problems of simulating history…?

The ‘uses forum/wiki’ criterion – I envision having a group forum or wiki for students to talk out their design problems, and to offer help, hints, and suggestions to each other as they design their scenarios. I’m envisioning each student designs their own scenario, but I want the experience to be a social one. This is especially important for my distance education students…

‘Identify design issues’ – I’m not sure whether to keep this or to discard it. It really should be moved up to the ‘design’ part of this rubric. I do want the students to be demonstrate that they are aware of the constraints the Civilization environment imposes.

The last two are performance related. A student who is otherwise a poor historian (and would get low grades in an essay-based course) would here have a chance to pick up some points – and demonstrate their historical knowledge through making.

So, that’s all off the top of my head this morning. I would be interested to know how others have approached (or if they’ve approached) the problem of assessing the use of games in an educational context in this manner. Should the rubric be expanded? Contracted? Is it hitting the right targets?

Civ IV, some high school students, and some statistics – measuring game based learning

Came across a paper today on the educational potential of Civilization IV. I’ve written on this topic before, but my report was anecdotal; Andrew Moshirnia tried it rather more rigorously with some high school students… read his paper here.

From the report:

“…Students in the experimental group showed significant growth after being exposed to the modified video game. This growth was not significantly altered by a pretest effect. Students in the experimental group felt that they had learned more than their test results indicated. Test items were knowledge-level items and students in the game group felt that they could attempt higher-order thinking questions. The growth for all groups was significant, but students who received information from lecture showed a significantly lower rate of knowledge retention than students who learned from the mod. This suggests that modified video games could not only improve comprehension, but also retention of knowledge-level items. Students learned more from information that was delivered through sprites. However, the small sample size of this study prevents generalization of results…”

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’?

Teaching with Civilization IV in Distance Education

My case study regarding the use of Civilization IV in my distance education class at the University of Manitoba has been published by the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for History, Classics, and Archaeology.

By the way, in a recent article in ‘The Weekly Standard‘, Victorino Matus calls “[…]Civilization, the thinking man’s Grand Theft Auto, the video game version of a classical education”

The Trouble with Civilization

A lot of the things you’ll read about Civilization concern its conception of history, progress, its meta-narrative and so on. I just came across a nice piece by Dianne Carr at the University of London that is rather refreshing in its approach, and reminds us that what players get out of a game is not necessarily what its creators put into it…. the piece is called ‘The Trouble with Civilization‘ and I’ve taken the liberty of copying its opening below… you should read it!

“What follows is an exploration of meaning, information and pleasure in Sid Meier’s Civilization III. Various theorists, including Poblocki (2002) and Douglas (2002) have argued that games within the Civilization series perpetrate a reductive folk-history that positions Western-style technologically orientated progress as ‘the only logical development’ for humanity (Poblocki 2002: 168). Such critiques are warranted, but they share a tendency to focus on the game’s rules and pseudo-historical guise, at the expense of its more playful, less quantifiable aspects. The intention here is not to redeem Civilization or save it from its critics. The point is, rather, to examine aspects of the criticism that has calcified around the series to date, and question some of the conclusions that have been drawn.

Given the complexity and volume of information in this game, and the fact that games are played, and re-played, it would be quixotic to pursue a single, definitive account of the meaning of Civ III….”