This weeks readings focused on historical gaming–that is the use of games to aid in historical understanding. One might ask in the vein of Carl Smith, can you do serious history in a video game? This would probably be the wrong question. The goal of the historians and programmers producing the games is not to produce new historical insights that interact with the historiography, but as an educational tool. As the creators of Pox in the City state, their goal is to “support a key facet of history pedagogy, teaching student to make inferences about the past based on historical evidence.” I wonder, however, how successful this is. The question being what are the students taking away from the game. How can we know if students are indeed “making inferences about the past?”

Without actually doing research in what students take away from historical games, the best we can do is place the issue within pedagogical knowledge we have of how students learn about history. Games present the possibility of posing questions to the player and forcing the player to use historical evidence to figure answer them.  This is a clear goal in the creator of Pox in the City, and it is also demonstrated in The Lost Museum, in which the player tries to evaluate who burnt down P.T. Barnum’s museum based off of evidence that demonstrates the complex relationship between Barnum and various groups in anti-bellum  New York. Such a question-based investigation allows the student to actively participate in a discovery process.

Having said this, I still wonder how players are approaching and understanding the material in the game. As Sam Wineburg has demonstrated professional historians approach the past and especially historical texts much differently than our students do.[1] Why should we expect that students are getting out of the video game what we want them to? The game is inherently indirect in its presentation of material. It is completely contingent on the decisions the player makes in the game itself.


[1] Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Act: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

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