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…


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?

Serious Games Canada Summit, Montreal

I’ll be speaking in one of the sessions at the Serious Games Canada Summit in Montreal on November 27 & 28th. The focus of my contribution will be on modding in the classroom – that is to say, exploring some of the potentials, perils, and philosophical underpinnings of using in-game world- or scenario-builders. My perspective is drawn from my experience in distance and online education.

A fantastic example of what can be accomplished by adapting commercial, off-the-shelf games is discussed on Henry Jenkins blogRevolution, a game set in one pivotal day during the American Revolution. Why mod rather than build?

“Our first decision was to forego coding Revolution from scratch and make it as a mod of an existing game. Using an existing engine enabled rapid prototyping and design. Using an existing engine also improved production quality – graphics and sound would already be at a level students would associate with professional games. Since many game companies offer modification tools to consumers for sharing new content, we wanted to explore the advantages of modding for developing serious games.

After much consideration, we settled on the Neverwinter Nights toolset. Neverwinter Nights is an RPG series for the PC that was specifically designed by its makers, Bioware Corp., to support modding projects. There was already a very robust culture of player-made NWN mods, which we could tap for inspiration and experience. We wanted to create a socially dynamic world where students would interact with both player-controlled and non-player-controlled characters, and NWN was built for character conversation, a feature we felt was crucial to the social world we wanted to model.”

The other two panelists in the session are Kevin Kee and Richard Levy (participants list).

“Kevin is Canada Research Chair of Digital Humanities, Associate Professor, Brock University, and Adjunct Professor, McGill University. He was a Director and Project Director at the National Film Board of Canada from 1999-2002, where he lead various productions, one of which received Honor able Mention at the 2002 International New Media Awards. As a university-based researcher and developer, he has lead numerous productions, including: A Journey to the Past: A Quebec Village in 1890.

Richard Levy is a Professor of Planning and Urban Design at The University of Calgary, where he serves as the Planning Director (Chairman) for the Planning Program. Since 1996, Dr. Levy has also served as Director of Computing for the Faculty of EVDS. Dr. Levy is a founding member of the Virtual Reality Lab. Dr. Levy speaks at international and national conferences in the fields of virtual reality, 3D imaging, education, archaeology and planning. His published work appears in journals such as Internet Archaeology, IEEE MultiMedia, Journal of Visual Studies, and Plan Canada. “

Myths about Serious Games & Improving Public Policy through Game-Based Learning

Two articles of note: Ben Sawyer debunks ten myths about serious games over at The Escapist Magazine:

“The serious games field is rife with misconceptions because it encompasses so much. To help spread the truth about serious games, let’s debunk 10 of the biggest myths about the genre […]

Serious Games are for Learning and Training
The most notorious myth is the notion that serious games are edutainment repackaged under a different moniker. Nothing could be further from the truth. A rich set of games based on goals other than education, including health-related therapies, exercise, public opinion research and economic studies, have enjoyed success. In fact, making a game that teaches a specific lesson is one of the hardest design goals to accomplish. Serious games that act more like utilities and exist beyond education offer a lot of promise for the field’s future.” [more!]

And on a related note, the folks at DigitalMill have published a white paper called

Serious Games: Improving Public Policy through Game-Based
Learning and Simulation

 In today’s public policy environment, computer simulations have become important modern-age tools used to affect the policy debate and implementation process in a variety of areas. Whether they run on supercomputers in the national labs or use off-the-shelf statistical packages and spreadsheets, complex models and simulations are critical in helping scientists, policymakers, and others forecast, examine, and educate people concerning the potential outcomes and effects of public policy.

Given the importance of these models and simulations, it is critical to examine if they are being built as accurately and effectively as possible and whether the models are reaching the widest possible audience. This paper, written by a leading web-technology firm, examines the promise of game-based simulation as applied to public policy.

Towards a Theory of Good-History-through-Good-Gaming for Historians and Educators

What do you get when you bring together educators, historians, and new media specialists to discuss what constitutes best practice for history simulations & gaming?

Well, everything from turtles, termites and traffic jams to life, the universe, and everything! Kevin Kee (of Brock University’s Centre for Digital Humanities) and I have recently put that conversation up on the ‘Simulating History‘ project website for your consideration. Enjoy!

<snippet below>

Games that have been designed by academics, with little grounding in theories of good gaming, are typically of the boring drill-and-response type. As academics, we run the risk of ruining what makes a good game, if we do not consult with professional game designers. At the same time, gamers are good at figuring out what makes a game ‘fun’, but will not make games that are paedagogically sound if we do not engage with each other. “The answer is not to privilege one arena over the other but to find the synergy between pedagogy and engagement” (Van Eck 2006:18). Commercial game designers do not set out to be historians. But interestingly, many students trained in history or the humanities have ended up becoming game designers (Don Daglow, Keynote address Future Play 2006 conference)

We can detect therefore some areas of overlap between ‘good history’ and ‘good gaming’ in our survey of literature we believe to be the foundation for developing a theory of good-history-through-gaming. Recently, we brought together historians, educators, and gamers to try to find Van Eck’s ‘synergies’, and to discuss the literature that each considered to be seminal for their own work in games and history. We wanted to join together our previously separate lines of inquiry, to understand one another’s disciplinary perspectives for research into simulations and games, and to explore the intersections between these perspectives. The resulting (free-wheeling and free-associating) conversation took place over two days. Here, we have collated the different contributions to gather our thoughts under (more-or-less) coherent headings, but have left the editing to a minimum to allow individual voices to retain their idiosyncrasies and individual approaches to teaching, gaming, and the past….<more>

Why Grand Theft Auto Should be Taught in Schools

Came across this today, an interview with my colleague at Brock University, David Hutchinson, whose book Playing to Learn: Video Games in the Classroom has recently come out…

“I recently had a chance to interview Hutchinson about his goals for this project and wanted to share his responses with you. In explaining the value of games for schools, I often say that “nobody is advocating bringing Grand Theft Auto into the classroom” and go on to point to a broader range of other titles which do seem more appropriate for school use. But Hutchinson makes a fairly compelling argument for why schools should be addressing Grand Theft Auto in the comments which follow. His arguments here is consistent with his perspective that just as traditional media literacy involves learning to think critically about mass media, games literacy has to include asking hard questions of this still emerging medium, questions concerning representations, ideology, and of course, commercial motives….” more

“the employment of leisure”

The title of this post comes from an article by Richard Urban in an article for the Bulletin of ASIS&T: The Information Society for the Information Age, where he reminds us that one of the original greek meanings of ‘school’ was derived from ‘the employment of leisure’. Imagine that: schooling a pleasurable activity.

Second Life, Serious Leisure and LIS


… What immediately captured my attention as I [Urban] began to explore Second Life was the number and diversity of museums, galleries and cultural sites that had already been created. Over the course of the next two years, as we studied Second Life’s development, the number of these simulations continued to increase. Existing sites grew from small simple displays into full-scale organizations that are creating changing exhibitions, public programming and sponsoring ongoing activities.

Even more interesting was that much of this activity was not being driven by real-life institutions, but rather had developed through the efforts of Second Life residents who shared common interests. Here was an example of how Second Life was serving as a “third place” where people gathered to share these interests and build community…

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’?

Persuasive Games

If you’re in doubt over the power of games, you may want to consider ‘FatWorld‘. You may have seen something in the press recently about this game

[…] about the politics of nutrition. It explores the relationships between obesity, nutrition, and socioeconomics in the contemporary U.S. Coming Fall 2007.

We naturally equate ‘games’ with ‘fun’, but, as has been pointed out before, we don’t necessarily use ‘fun’ as a yardstick to measure novels, paintings, or other creative works. The creator of this game, Ian Bogost, has recently come out with a book that should add some ammunition for those of use who want to explore games for our teaching and research. The book is entitled Persuasive Games and it comes from the MIT Press:


Videogames are both an expressive medium and a persuasive medium; they represent how real and imagined systems work, and they invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them. In this innovative analysis, Ian Bogost examines the way videogames mount arguments and influence players. Drawing on the 2,500-year history of rhetoric, the study of persuasive expression, Bogost analyzes rhetoric’s unique function in software in general and videogames in particular. The field of media studies already analyzes visual rhetoric, the art of using imagery and visual representation persuasively. Bogost argues that videogames, thanks to their basic representational mode of procedurality (rule-based representations and interactions), open a new domain for persuasion; they realize a new form of rhetoric.

Bogost calls this new form “procedural rhetoric,” a type of rhetoric tied to the core affordances of computers: running processes and executing rule-based symbolic manipulation. He argues further that videogames have a unique persuasive power that goes beyond other forms of computational persuasion. Not only can videogames support existing social and cultural positions, but they can also disrupt and change those positions, leading to potentially significant long-term social change. Bogost looks at three areas in which videogame persuasion has already taken form and shows considerable potential: politics, advertising, and education. Bogost is both an academic researcher and a videogame designer, and Persuasive Games reflects both theoretical and game-design goals.

I have yet to read it – but I will as soon as I have some denaro to spend – but the people over at Grand Text Auto have some good things to say about it.

History Channel – Roman Battle Game

This post in Variety was recently brought to my attention (thanks!):

History builds Roman empire
Channel launches vidgame

History Channel
Tapping into the current epic battle craze, The History Channel is launching a “Great Battles of Rome” videogame, its first international console game, which will hit European outlets in May.

Comprising more than 100 battles — including the Punic and Samnite Wars, and Julius Caesar’s conquest of Britain — “Great Battles” is produced in collaboration with the U.K.’s Slitherine and Italy’s Black Bean.

Vidgame, which allows players to control massive armies of legionaries, archers and cavalry, while carving out the Roman Empire in a series of campaigns against Barbarian hordes, will be out Stateside in the fall.

“This is our first videogame to integrate programming into game play,” said A&E Television Networks licensing topper Carrie Trimmer, who unveiled “Great Battles” in Rome’s Richard Meier designed Ara Pacis museum, which houses a peace altar commissioned by Emperor Augustus.

Thirty clips from The History Channel archives have been spliced in with narration to give the Roman war game added educational gravitas.

“Battles,” being released for PlayStation2 and PC, will be marketed via Web sites tied in with the airing of The History Channel’s “Rome: Engineering an Empire,” and other Rome-themed programming.

“Battles” is the second History Channel branded console game after “Civil War: A Nation Divided,” which has sold more than 250,000 units since its 2006 release.