Jeremiah McCall is a history teacher at Cincinnati Country Day School and the author of Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary School. He talked to Distillations about what it’s like to use video games in his history classes, the criteria he uses in choosing games, and why he likes his students to question the media they are consuming.
Lisa Berry Drago: Hi, and welcome to Distillations. I’m Lisa Berry Drago. In a previous episode, we talked about how the pandemic made a gamer out of our producer Rigoberto Hernandez. We talked about how video games can create a space to have informal encounters with history that are surprisingly educational. But what about video games in an actual education setting? The classroom? We talk with Jeremiah McCall, the author of Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History. McCall is also a grade school teacher who uses video games in his history classroom. In this interview, he talks to us about the criteria he uses for choosing games, what games make the best teaching tools, and how his thinking about video games has evolved over the years.
Rigoberto Hernandez: So thanks for doing this, Jeremiah. I just want to start by introducing yourself, how you would like to be known?
Jeremiah McCall: My name’s Jeremiah McCall. I have a PhD in ancient history and I’ve been a history teacher for 22 years for most of my career at Cincinnati Country Day School in Cincinnati.
Rigoberto Hernandez: You and others have said that video games are good at helping students think like historians. How do video games do that?
Jeremiah McCall: So I think the most important thing, um, um, to remember is this is part of my pedagogy as a, as a history teacher. So I’m of the mind that when we’re teaching kids history, what we really wanna be doing is teaching them habits of mind. So how to gather evidence and how to support assertions, and then part of that too, how to critique other people’s assertions. So if… you gotta come at it from the framework of, I’m not looking for, uh, a book or a textbook or a game or a film or whatever, to tell students what to think about the past. I’m looking for students to engage with different sources and think about the past.
Games can be really powerful that way, um, for several reasons. As far as historical criticism, when they’re used like historical interpretations, it can be a really good way of getting kids to learn to, to, to analytically nitpick, to pick out an interpretation. Um, our studies are pretty clear that students accept texts most of the time, uh, at face value. And it’s really difficult sometimes to critique, like for example, a historian or a textbook or something like that. A video game is a nice kind of training ground for doing that. So, so that’s, that’s what I mean, as far as historical critique.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. Oh, well, let’s talk about your criteria that you use for picking these games. One word that keeps coming up is that the game seems to have at its core in its game play, they need to be defensible explanatory models of history systems. And I keep hearing that word defensible, defensible in your textbook. And it sounds like you almost have to lawyer up your argument, or justify, why, why it’s worth doing. What is defensible mean in this context?
Jeremiah McCall: Sure. And, and it is interesting. I wrote that book 10 years ago, I believe it’s May, May of this year will be its 10th anniversary. Um, and, and when I wrote it, nobody was really talking about games and history very much or maybe one or two people. So I think you definitely can read that in the approach, is I was making, trying to make sure I covered my bases and, and made a good case.
So defensible, this comes from, from my training in ancient history. When you train in ancient history, you realize that we know very little about the past, and we’re always kind of limited by our evidence and we’re not gonna kind of have sort of big T truth. And I think that’s true in modern history too, but we’re going to be able to make sound arguments on evidence. And so by defensible, I mean, does the game suggest something about the past that if you wanted to, you could read some books, look at some historical sources and make a case that yeah, it was like that. So for example, if you take the Civilization game series.
Civilization advertisement: For 25 years, cities have been the engines of your progress in Sid Meier, Civilization. Civilization VI brings an innovative new way of managing cities by allowing you to build out from your home tile and across the world map. Each city will still consist of one home tile, but there are now districts surrounding the city. Districts are specialized for different tasks, such as research.
Jeremiah McCall: Each one in that series suggests that geography is really critical to how societies develop. And then I call that a defensible claim. If one looks at examples of the past, you can see lots of places where geography did shape, how a state or a society developed. So that’s what I mean by, by defensible interpretations. One could reasonably say, yeah, it did kind of work that way. Games that don’t have anything to do with sort of defensible models of the past, they’re fine. Some people call them historical. I just don’t find them as useful for kids in a classroom.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Something you pointed out in your book is that simulations are already used in other fields like science and math. I know that in chemistry the- that’s heavily used. And what is your definition of a simulation in this context and are all video games simulations?
Jeremiah McCall: So that’s a really good question. My thinking on that has changed over time. I do play a fair number of video games, but I wasn’t really thinking that from a, from a game players perspective, a simulation tends to be something, uh, a bit different. So for example, a game where a plane is being modeled or a car or something like that. And so they’re really working on the physical processes, um, being modeled. I was thinking more in terms of simulation in a more qualitative sense, if you will, in a more, [laughs] in a more humanities sense, this idea that when games about the past are made, that are trying to represent the past, then they’re going to try and sort of simulate things. So Crusader Kings is a good example of a simulation as I would turn it.
IGN review: Crusader Kings has always been a series about how individual characters and their interactions shape history. And this third installment finds new and intriguing ways to portray that. Like its predecessors, Crusader Kings three, lets court drama, dynastic feuds, and marriage alliances underpin the more familiar grand strategy game tasks of constructing castles, researching technology and waging war. A personal slight between two neighboring rulers can plunge the entire region to bloodshed in chaos worthy of a great historical fiction novel. While a well-planned betrothal can forge a mighty alliance and eventually unite kingdoms under one crown, fundamentally, it’s a game more about people than things.
Jeremiah McCall: Because in that game you can play as a Lord or a Lady. I think I, I believe there are non-binary characters now too. I’m not quite sure on that, but you’re, you’re a character in the middle ages and you are building sort of political and personal alliances with different rulers. And they set this game up so that when you start you’re in a historical Europe or Asia, where they’ve tried to do a reasonably good job depicting who the different states are, rulers in those territories and what people may have been there and, and so on and so forth. That’s what I mean by simulation.
I mean, sort of a representation of the past, not a, a technical point by point system building of like a car or, or a plane or something like that, but more a general representation that’s reasonably faithful. Although again, reasonably faithful is, uh, it’s a little dangerous.
Rigoberto Hernandez: In fact, you interview, uh, Henrika, am I gonna say his name wrong, Henrik Fahraeus, Henrik Fahraeus. He designed Crusader Kings II and III. And I was intrigued by that interview because he used the word, he said he was in the business of edutainment. That’s not something I think about when I think about video game designers, that I think of them as being fun first, education later. Like how do video game developers see themselves in this space?
Jeremiah McCall: My sense from, from the, the, the game designers that I’ve talked to and from the interviews I’ve read, which I tried to read them whenever they’re, whenever they’re there to sort of gain some insight is they, they very much are interested in making a game first. And I think that’s one of the important things about studying and using these, is recognizing that they weren’t made to educate. So most designers that I’ve talked to have some aspect of the past that really, um, captures them, captivates them. And they want to sort of bring it to life in an interactive game experience.
But at a certain point, there’s going to be tensions between what your historical evidence might say and what would make for a good game. The historical evidence could be too complicated. It could have things in it that just aren’t fun to play. And most designers will say, uh, I think historical game designers that when the two are in conflict funds the thing that has to take the lead, which I think it makes sense. I would like my game designers to actually work on making fun games.
Paradox is a little different because I would say so much of their appeal to their core audience is based around trying to do a lot of historical research. So when you play a Paradox game, they’ve got their World War II game and they’ve got Crusader Kings and they’ve got Europa Universalis, you start with a map and a certain date in history. And what they do then is they, to the best of their abilities, they try to actually research who the historical characters were that were in charge of these places. So they really have kind of this higher level of historical detail that they’re adding in. So I’m not surprised that he, that he thinks of it as education. I think it is too, really, in some ways.
Rigoberto Hernandez: In Crusader Kings, I ju- I, my first play through was game over within an hour. The reason why I was game over is because I lost like land titles. And that made me really angry. [laughs]. I think that’s good. And it’s a good kind of angry because it’s like saying, well, do you only need to own land to be important? And yeah, [laughs] actually, yeah.
Jeremiah McCall: Right. Yeah. I think, you know, from the perspective of learning history, a historical game is at its best when it puts you in the position of some kind of historical actor with enough sort of accuracy and enough decision-making that you can try and get some historical empathy for the characters and, you know, that situation you were in where land was all important, you can hopefully gain some empathy, like the next time you’re thinking about medieval rulers or medieval Lords. That, that so much of their status stems from land.
So a game that can put you in that historical problem space where you’re making decisions that again are arguable, that you might go, well, it might not be as accurate in all these details, but it’s pretty accurate overall. And it tells me something about how people lived and acted. I mean, that’s, that’s the sweet spot when you have a game that can do that.
Rigoberto Hernandez: I played it, uh, last night for about two hours. And that was just the, uh, tutorial because it was extremely overwhelming. How do your students feel about a tutorial like th- [laughs] that’s-
Jeremiah McCall: Yeah. I, I mean, to be fair, Crusader Kings is something that I encounter a lot as a, as a researcher in historical game studies. I have not used that in a classroom with my kids. It would be an interesting question. I’m not sure that there are many who have, it is such a complicated game that you really, as a teacher would have to think about, okay, A, what would it take to train students to use this game? And B, is that time well spent when there’s lots of other things you could be doing?
I tend to focus on games that are more simple. For my ninth grade ancient world history class, we’ve used Civilization a lot. Um, but next year we’re going to use, um, there’s a new city builder called Nebuchadnezzar, sorry, the Babylonian king, whose name I always mess up. And the kids are gonna use that beca- my students are going to use that because it’s simple enough to learn, but has some interesting historical things in it. With my seniors in my interactive history course, we might look at a Sid Meier’s, Colonization, the old and highly problematic game about European colonization of the Americas.
We might use, well, any number, any number of games, but, but Paradox is, it’s so meaty. There’s so much going on that I don’t think at this point, I really know how I would use it in a class.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. I mean, half the fun of doing that was the fact that I could just hover over the map and look at… So for example, I, I went immediately to what is now modern day Spain, because I’m interested in that history because that’s our colonizer history. So I wanted to know what, what that was all about. And I was blown away by like something as simple as like the, sigils like the little flags of individual provinces and how like, those flags resembled soccer team flags of the region. So like, uh, and I was like, this is really cool. Like I’m making all these cool connections based on my own knowledge and experience. And I’m wondering if that’s, that’s something that game developers rely on.
Jeremiah McCall: My sense is that one of the reasons you might go for a historical game ’cause, right… I mean, game designers make all sorts of things that aren’t historical games. So why make a historical one? And, and usually it comes down to a couple of things, mostly passion for it. That the designers themselves are really excited by the history, but also that it gives a framework. So, right? Like you said, those, those flags with their symbolism and stuff like that, you can, you can kind of connect people. You have some ideas about Spain, you have thoughts about it and you know, and you have your own understanding and the game tries to kind of leverage that.
Um, um, so it’s not like an alien world so much as one that’s maybe a little more familiar. Um, but yeah, there’s a lot of detail involved, um, in those games. Absolutely. It’s, it’s, I mean, what I would say there is that that’s one of the reasons that we should appreciate that historical games are still games. These are talented people that are designing these things, right? I mean, they, they’ve got tremendous programming jobs, so we probably shouldn’t be looking at them and saying, why aren’t they like a textbook history or, you know, something like that. They’re not ’cause they’re games. And it’s great that they’re games. I’m glad that, you know, I’m glad they exist.
Rigoberto Hernandez: And looking at the, the map, like immediately one that I also thought of was like, is this accurate? How accurate is this? And I think that’s already a success of the game, right? Was Poland a country back then? Even… because Poland has a really difficult history, like just the fact that I’m drawing those questions, do you consider that as success of the game?
Jeremiah McCall: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that that right there, what you’re talking about, that’s the spark that led me to try and start using video games and still use video games in the classroom. It’s that thought of, if you’re engaged in a historical game that, you know, if you understand it and, and, and, and it’s in front of you, then you’re gonna be thinking about how realistic is this? Is this how the world works?
I mean, Crusader Kings has a whole, you know, model of human behavior, this sort of trade system about, you know, uh, different sort of mental and physical characteristics that, that drive us and how we relate to each other, you know, is that reasonable? And, and that fundamental question, hey, this is in the game that I’m playing is that reasonable is that, you know, historical, that’s sort of the spark that I really try to keep, you know, cultivating in the classroom.
Rigoberto Hernandez: You mentioned that game Civilization, which keeps popping up, how has it been used in the classroom? I know that you interviewed two people who worked on designing the game. There are certainly, I’ve read some criticisms of it, but I’m wondering how you use it, and what’s been your approach when teaching a game like this?
Jeremiah McCall: My approach is first that, that my students have to learn to play the game. They don’t have to be good at it. They don’t have to win it, win the game, but they need to be able to understand how the systems work in the game. So we spend some time working through that process of learning to play. Um, I give them some tutorial videos to help, and I try to have them do a fair amount of reflective writing during that process. You’re going to have to invest time in students learning to play the game. You can’t just jump into, hey, let’s analyze it. Not everybody’s gonna understand it. Not everybody’s gonna be comfortable with looking at a game that way, so you need to on-ramp them. So we do that.
And as I said, I, I try to have a fair amount of reflective writing in there so that their brains are working and they’re sharing with me what, what they’re learning. Then we start to look at different parts of the game. Um, so through screenshots and, uh, and based on their prior knowledge, we analyze the variables in the game. So every civilization game has food and productive resources like hammers. They’re usually represented as, and gold and culture as sort of core metrics, core resources in the game.
So we talk about those. And then what is it suggesting about history? I’ve had them, uh, look at a map made of Greece in Civilization and say, “If you were playing in this map, what would you expect the game to run like?” Um, and, and kids are able to say like, “Well, I would expect in a map like this of Greece, that states would be divided. There would be a fair amount of trade and interaction, but there also would be competition for land.”
And that’s, that’s a defensible argument for, for geography in ancient Greece. Um, so we try to do things like that. And then we start moving into some of the bigger topics, geography, but then also for me, as I’ve, as I’ve sort of come along, hopefully, I think I’ve evolved as a teacher. I mean, we really also want to kind of take to task the pro imperialist sorta model that’s in, in Civilization, right?
Civilization, I didn’t make this up, many people have noticed this, tends to encourage a play style that is, I mean, for lack of a better phrase, to be reductive, following the course of, of a, of a Britain or a United States in conquering and trying colonies, um, trying to get more territory, trying to technologically advance maybe without guard for the consequences. And these are all really problematic things in a class where we hope to be globally focused. So I, I bring that in too trying to talk about the sort of mindsets underlying the game play.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. Well, I appreciate your book in that you actually make like lessons plans and like [inaudible 00:19:06] grading rubrics that they can use and what is the goal to get them to become good writers. And you say that, like, that was really interesting to see how you’ve kind of given them, this is really a tool for teachers. Have they taken you up on it?
Jeremiah McCall: Some have. I still continue to be amazed, um, on Twitter, uh, you know, somebody will reach out to me and say, hey, I just saw your book and I never even thought about this, or, hey, I just sought your website. My game in the past website has been out for teachers for a decade also. So it’s still new to a lot of people, but then there are, there certainly are more and more people that are adopting this, it seems. Certainly at the high school, in the middle school level, it really has taken off in some history curriculums in colleges. College instructors have for better or worse, a lot more time they can work with.
They can take their adult students and say, okay, you need to go figure out this game and spend the hours that you need to do to figure it out. And then we’re gonna talk about it, um, in class, um, in ways that, you know, doesn’t quite work with, with younger students. But it’s definitely taking off there, more people are writing about it, um, and talking about it. But to go back to that observation you made about writing.
Yeah, for me, the games are an instructional technique. They’re a model that you can pick at. They allow you to think about systems, but I still want my students to be able to read effectively, write effectively and persuasively. So there’s actually quite a bit of what you would call traditional assessment, writing assessment in my classes, even when we’re using the video games, because yeah, I very much want to be educated and capable in those ways too.
Rigoberto Hernandez: One of the things that I didn’t anticipate, or I didn’t think about when I was reading your book was the fact that the games are not accurate is actually a good reason to use them. Can you talk about that? It sounds counter-intuitive.
Jeremiah McCall: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So I wrote an essay on this at one point and, and I was remembering, I had a student, this was years ago. And we were playing a board game. I think it was a Versailles board game. It was a Louis, the 14th board game. And the student’s paper was a critique of whether it was historically useful, uh, for education or not. And this student wrote this really insightful, well argued paper that the game was not historically accurate and therefore wasn’t so good for education.
And I went and I found them and I gave him big smiles. I gave them back their paper with an A and said, “You know, everything you said just demonstrated that in fact the game was useful for history education.” It’s that act of looking at a model and saying, is this defensible. I like defensible better than an accurate, because accurate is, can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Um, you know, it is this game defensible and how would I know? What evidence can I bring together to suggest that?
So it’s actually harder to critique a game like Crusader Kings than it is a game like Civilization or Total War or any of the city builders, because they’ve put that extra level of detail in there. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’re, you know, perfect models of history, what, whatever that even means, but it’s harder for a student at the high school level to criticize that. And probably a college student, whereas a game that has more flaws, those are opportunities for a person to really kind of sink their teeth in and say, okay, this is not how it was. Let me show you this evidence and this evidence and this evidence.
And they all demonstrate that this model in the game isn’t really very accurate. I think that’s a fantastically good skill for our students to, have the ability to critique, um, and the ability to draw on evidence to do it.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And like the alternative to an inaccurate, but fun and interesting and engaging game is that you have like what you call a black box that could just spit out like an exact replica of what happened. And that’s just not really, it’s not a game, but it’s also not very instructive. It’s just a replica. It’s like a textbook would be.
Jeremiah McCall: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. And you get back to that situation. I mean, if I can, if I can do it, I don’t want my students to take anybody as an authority figure that you just follow their account. I don’t want them to take me that way. They probably do a lot of the time, but, you know, I don’t want them to take me that way. I don’t want them to take the readings that way. And I definitely am not interested in a game where you just sort of sit there and go, okay. You know, I mean, it’s, it’s that model, thousands of years, right? People talked about how education is about lighting fires, not about pouring stuff into people’s brains. And it all kind of goes back to that.
Rigoberto Hernandez: It broke my heart, when I was reading of your book and then you talk about Assassin’s Creed, where does it fit in, in the spectrum of video games used in a classroom? Is it good or bad? Or I know it’s in between there, but like where does it fit in the spectrum?
IGN review: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a resounding achievement in world building, environment and engaging gameplay with occasional problems throughout. Its incredible recreation of ancient Greece, is something I’ll want to go back to long after I finished its main story. And it’s excellent systems meshed together in a way that’s hard to beat. While there are definite rough edges, Odyssey sets a new bar for Assassin’s Creed games and holds its own in the eternal debate over the best open world role playing games ever.
Jeremiah McCall: So here’s the thing with Assassin’s Creed. First of all, we should note that I don’t know of anybody who’s in a high school that could actually use that game to teach because it’s too violent unless they just went for like cut scenes or something like that. Let’s leave that aside for a second, because that wasn’t what I was saying in the book. So in Assassin’s Creed, you’ve got a game series where they’re trying to realistically portray a three-dimensional environment around the character, the player avatar, and they pride themselves. Uh, Ubisoft has prided themselves on the research they do in their buildings, in their architecture and stuff. Did you catch when, uh, Notre-Dame burned, they had the videos, um, for the game of Notre-Dame and they were able to give them to the restores because it was the most accurate 3D modeling that anybody had of, of the cathedral.
Uh, it’s pretty amazing. [laughs]. So they’re really good at that. They’re really good at creating these 3D environments. And that’s great. You can learn from that too. The reason I think it’s not as useful to use as a classroom game is because of who the player character is. You are an assassin, right from a long dynasty of assassins fighting Templars, and there’s this whole story behind it. And it’s not the farfetchedness of the story, it’s this, when you are playing as the player, the actions you’re taking don’t really match any historical actions anybody’s taking.
So like let me give you a sa- a side example. Also couldn’t be using Call of Duty World War II, uh, in a high school classroom because of the violence, but you certainly could at the college level. But Call of Duty World War II, they’ve gone for a realistic environment, but they’ve created a character that is an anonymous or a general or an every person in the U.S. military.
That’s a historical role that people did fill. And so that doesn’t mean the game itself is being, you know, particularly even handed in its treatment of the pastor or really accurate. But it does mean when you’re thinking about the game and the game player, you’re thinking about a historical person that did exist. So it lends to that thing you and I were talking about, right, where you were going, is this real? Is this, is this what, uh, an infantry soldier experienced landing at Normandy, for example, to take a, you know, a stock example.
With Assassin’s Creed, you don’t have that. At the end of the day. No, [laughs] there was no super athletic park war assassin that was, you know, going through these lands. And so you’re left basically with two things, one, the environment, which is neat. It’s neat for like an immersive environment. But then the other thing you’re left with is cut scenes from characters. So different figures that they put in, um, that, that you can talk to. The actual game play itself isn’t very historical. So that’s why I prefer one of the reasons I prefer not to use it as, as a game in a, in a classroom.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Let’s talk about how students react to video games in a classroom and who might do well. And who might struggle a little bit. You mentioned that there is a certain student who traditionally does well in school that might struggle a little bit with video games.
Jeremiah McCall: Yeah. So one of the things I’ve found over the years is that video games really shake up the sort of traditional educational model that we have. All I meant, by traditional, I just meant students that are very good at sitting in a lecture and taking notes and asking questions and then writing an essay on those things, all of which are legitimate, you know, skills, but not the only skills that one might have. And so while I might’ve thought, I certainly don’t at this point, you might think about the games being really appealing for everybody. But oftentimes if you’re really good at learning in this traditional paradigm, it’s scary. It’s a little unsettling to suddenly say, okay, well now we’re gonna learn a video game and we’re gonna talk about the models within it.
And, you know, we talked earlier about how I have a lot of, uh, writing assessments in, in my classes. There’s lots of places for kids who are excellent at traditional history education to shine those ways, but the game itself where it’s no longer, okay, here’s the information. I got it, I’m in control of it. But rather, here’s the system and it’s complicated and I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing. That can be uncomfortable, but uncomfortable in a good way. You, you hope that it promotes flexibility. You, you hope that it promotes, um, empowerment too, as you go, wow, this was a little scary at the pa- at the start, but I actually am figuring this out. And I do have something to say about how the game works and whether it’s, uh, historically reasonable or not.
Rigoberto Hernandez: You do mention it, but you don’t spend a lot of time talking about, uh, debates of accuracy in a video game. But you point out that the distinction between accuracy versus the merits of systems and the merits of defensible systems of accuracy and stuff like that, that mirrors a, a debate that happens within history education, correct?
Jeremiah McCall: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we have it, right, the word itself in our languages, like multi-formed, right? History can be used to be, to be talking about like anything that happened in the past or history can be used to refer to a specific count of the past and it’s kind of overloaded. Um, so yeah, in education, I have run into an unfortunate number of people who, when they find out that I’m a history teacher go, “Oh.” [laughs]. ‘Cause, ’cause they didn’t have that great experience in history. And I think if you’re of my generation, although my teachers didn’t I’ll, I’ll do this, but if you are coming from a certain type of history education, you’re, you experienced it as here are the facts. Here are the dates. This is the order they need to be learned in. This is what caused them. And this is what the effects were of them.
Learn this and be able to reproduce this to me in writing or orally or things like that. It probably is more of a debate than it should be now. I would’ve, I would’ve hoped we’ve gotten beyond it, but I, I, I’m sure it lurks its head anywhere, um, where people are saying, okay, I wanna teach chronology, but I’m not gonna tell you why the dates are important. I’m just gonna give you a list and, and a name next to it.
I think history education should be about thinking about models, thinking about evidence and making your own understandings as best you can. I would rather, for example, I would rather have a student write an analysis that was simplistic based on primary sources, but authentic to them, like something that they came up with, looking at the evidence, than just say, here’s the way it all was, listen to me and then give it back to me. So yeah, I, I very much see games as part of my pedagogy of trying to turn the history classroom into one, a bit more of inquiry. I mean, we, we do have to learn some dates and we do have to learn some events, but as much as possible, I try to make it about inquiry of the sources, the video game, whatever it is we’re looking at.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. I noticed that in your podcast, you asked a lot of your guests about sourcing, sourcing of their stuff. And they often come back with like Wikipedia or just a very, should we say shallow, or like just Roman Empire podcast, as you pointed out, that’s totally acceptable because they’re not teachers, they’re not academics. Does it matter that these developers are not entrenched in this subject matter?
Jeremiah McCall: You might say what really needs to happen with video games or movies or historical movies, historical video games is you need to have historians make them. And that’s fine if a historian wants to make one, but I don’t think that what we really need is the world to be colonized by a historian so that every medium is made by, by a historian where it talks about the past. So that’s what I’m kind of getting at with it being okay for designers to not necessarily use deep sources, and some do. Some go very deep in their research.
But as far as for, it, it’s still history, it’s still doing what it’s supposed to be doing, which is a game. And I think maybe I am so, so, so emphasizing and in support of the teacher as a guide, the teacher is a guide that, you know, that gently provokes kids to do the criticism and the learning and things like that. So they need to be a tour guide along the way and help them out with these things. So again, I wouldn’t throw a game at a kid and just say, okay, go learn from it. I would say, let’s look at it and, and, and kind of talk through and the role of the teacher there is really important.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. Let’s talk about that. ‘Cause actually you, you pointed that out in your book a few times about how it might be a completely lost exercise if it isn’t for the teacher, should it be thought of, as a video games in the classroom should be thought of as like a, like a hammer kind of thing and you’re the, still the carpenter?
Jeremiah McCall: Yeah. Um, or maybe, or maybe can I be the sculptor instead? So there’s not like, you know, like cutting and hammering. Like ma- right. I, I think what, okay. So I think what I’m doing is I think, and this, and I’m glad you asked that because, um, when I think there is a misconception that if you are gonna use video games in the classroom, um, then the teacher has no role. And, and as you pointed out, I think it’s quite the opposite.
I think that what the teacher is doing is helping the kids engage the game. And so, yeah, and, and, and the game becomes a tool. It’s a tool that helps you think about, um, relationships games are about systemic spaces. So, um, so they are about relationships. So you’re playing, the students playing this, and hopefully they’re thinking about the systemic relationships and you, as the teacher are sort of guiding them along.
At one point, it sort of came to me. There’s probably something all teachers know. Uh, it came to me that teaching is really [laughs] about having students slow down and look at things that they’d rather not slow down and look at, right? And like, you know, English literature and history, like let’s slow down, or science with labs, let’s slow down and look at this. So you’re not gonna do that if you don’t have a good teacher there or, or, well, I mean, you can’t control that you’re gonna do that if you don’t have a good teacher there that knows to ask questions, that knows to kind of raise some concerns.
For example, teaching with civilization, it wouldn’t occur to me at this point to teach with civilization, um, and not talk about sort of like imperialism as a model. And, and, and that being there. Um, the teachers, yeah, the teacher is the mentor, I guess, is the thing, right? The mentor, as, as the student is kind of learning and developing their, their chops, their chops of historical criticism.
Rigoberto Hernandez: I’m curious about, one of the games you talked about and several of the games actually you talk about are games like, uh, Political Machine, which strikes me as a more of a lesson plan that has been gamified. Some of those games, I feel like they’re like PowerPoints or lesson plans that have been, that have been gamified, as opposed to a game that was built for the purpose of gaming that then become like used in the classroom. I think purpose and the, where it started is important.
Jeremiah McCall: For a long time, I don’t know, it’s probably still going on. I just haven’t seen it as much, you know, on the internet, there was this idea of edutainment, right? This, this mixing together of education and entertainment to form this thing that it wasn’t really as educational it could be. And it definitely wasn’t as entertaining as it could be. Um, and so, you know, the, the classic one is like math blasters where you’re piloting your ship wherever, I can’t remember.
I, I played one of them years ago and, and you, you’re piloting your ship. And so you’re using the game controller and then you get stopped by some kind of like octopus like alien, and suddenly you have to do, uh, multiplication problems. And the multiplication problems have nothing to do with the game world. I think it’s gonna be more compelling when you play a game where the game world mechanics themselves are what you’re critiquing and thinking about. Um, so integrated in there.
Um, Political Machine, I, I actually, um, I wouldn’t count that as more of a, of a sort of gamified because political machine lets you kind of go from place to place and create your campaign proposals. And maybe, I mean, it’s, it’s kind of sad what it does [inaudible 00:37:22] illustrated. The game does suggest that if you go to different states and you figure out what the most important issues are there and you speak the way that you think the people want you to, to speak, then you’re more likely to get elected, which is horrifying, but, but one could make a case for that.
So yeah, games that are just dressed up or gamified, examples of content, if you’re working with those and they’re effective more power to you, um, it just doesn’t seem to have the hook that I’m hoping for, for my kids of authentic models.
Rigoberto Hernandez: Yeah. And in fact, what are your criterias for what to use in the classroom is, or the merits of a game being fun or not, does the game need to be fun to be used in a classroom?
Jeremiah McCall: So fun is subjective, right? And so I wanted to kind of pass on to teachers what I had learned through all my work with these games and sort of trying things out. And what I found is that there was a fair amount of apprehension for some kids about playing video games. We generalize way too much. It doesn’t happen as, as much now maybe, but we generalize way too much that kids are, you know, digital natives. That word was thrown around a lot.
So, you know, they can use any technology expertly easily, which is not true and automatically gamers. So they will love it anytime you put a game in front of them, which is also definitely not true. I mean, students are people. They, they, you know, they’re, they’re all sorts of different people, so they’re not gonna feel the same way. So for me, it was okay if my primary reason to use these games in the class is so there’ll be fun.
That’s a real problem because basically I’m not focusing on any educational goal there, I’m focusing on fun for its own sake. And that subjective one, as I suggested, lots of students won’t think that’s fun, relative to what, right? I mean, fun like maybe you like movies. Maybe you want to go on a date with your significant other. There’s lots of fun things in the world and the game may not be fun in those contexts. Um, but then the third thing is, that’s not leading to any kind of increased understandings or improved skills or th- or things like that.
So I really come from the standpoint that if you wanna use a game, you should use a game because A, um, it is an engaging way to think about the past and it has built in systems. And, and I think if you want kids to think about systems and think about choices and systems, a game can be a really effective tool for doing that, but it should be able to be effective for anyone doing the exercise, regardless of whether they personally enjoy the game or not. You can kind of imagine if we started having a war, maybe we should. I don’t know, but I, I can’t tell you the last time I said to my students, you know, what would be fun, a paper, why don’t you do a research paper for me? ‘Cause this will be fun. But we do assign those things because they’re useful. They’re educationally valuable.
Rigoberto Hernandez: One of the things that some of your, uh, interview subjects, or actually I think just one of them, I forget the name. He mentioned that he puts you in the player and the kind of like a God mode. That struck me as important because it’s like, that’s almost kind of what you need in order to kind of like understand systems, right? Because if you’re a God like.
Jeremiah McCall: Right. No. Yeah, I absolutely agree. So the games that I use, so, so I would guess, uh, who knows, but I would guess that most people, um, if you’re asking them about a video game, they would be thinking of something that we might call a first person shooter, right? You, you take the perspective of the person carrying the gun or whatever it is, and you’re going through a 3D environment. Um, that’s not a game that we’re talking about here. The games that I’m talking… although people learn history from them. So I don’t, you know, don’t like ignore them.
Um, I, I like games that are more God mode games, your Civilizations, your Crusader Kings, things like that. But I agree. I think you need that perspective where your, I call it experimenting deities. You are basically tweaking the, the rules of the system and seeing what your results are, what happens if I build these things or what happens if I explore this area or things like that. And yeah, it is, it’s, it’s a whole sort of historical lens for saying, okay, I wanna think about systems and people and, and, and, um, and how they interact. Um, yeah, I think it helps a lot to have that kind of perspective.
Rigoberto Hernandez: It comes across in reading your books and listen to your podcast, that you are a very intellectually curious person. And that’s, that’s, that’s awesome because I don’t remember a lot of teachers thinking of him that way. And the ones that I do were that way. So that’s really cool.
Jeremiah McCall: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. I think, yeah. I mean that, that’s one of the things that excites me the most about being a history teacher in high school, as opposed to a college academic is I really get to be this, you know, I, I get to study all sorts of stuff that I wouldn’t get to anyways for my teaching. So I get to, like I’m designing a co- course on the history of race and I’m reading all these books that I wouldn’t have read when I was a Roman historian, or looking at colonialism and video games or things like that. Yeah. So I do, I do very much, still really love investigating the world myself. So I, I, I kind of try to pass that onto my students.
Lisa Berry Drago: Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations.
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Lisa Berry Drago: This episode was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez.
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Alexis Pedrick: For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
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