Civ III as a geographical Simulation for world history education



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Civ III as a geographical Simulation for world history education

Kurt D. Squire

Assistant Professor, Educational Communications and Technology

University of Wisconsin-Madison.

kdsquire@education.wisc.edu
Please cite as:
Squire, K.D. (in press). Civilization III as a world history sandbox. To appear in Civilization and its discontents. Virtual history. Real fantasies. Milan, Italy. Ludilogica Press. (.doc)

Civ III as a geographical Simulation for world history education


As the essays in this volume would suggest, there is a reciprocal relationship between many Civilization players love of history and love of game play. Which came first is not the important question; what is more important is the way that playing the game and studying history mutually reinforce one another. The game invites us to consider hypothetical histories, to consider under what conditions history might have played out differently. The technology tree offers one interpretation of the history of technologies, while also inviting critique. Just as often as fans might embrace this framework, they critique it as overly teleological (who says that a theory of gravity had to develop, or ahistorical in that there were particular reasons why technologies developed in any particular time in place. What is clear to me as a lifelong fan of Civilization is that the game is not only an interactive text, but interactive as an activity as well. Civilization players reciprocally play the game, pick up the game’s terminology and embedded theories of history, ask questions about history, make historical interpretations, and engage in other activities (reading books, watching documentaries, and so on).

Although largely ignored by academics and mainstream educators over the past fifteen years, the historical depth and richness of Civilization III has not been completely lost. In a field where Oregon Trail is the deepest simulation software for learning history, a number of social studies educators have argued for using Civilization III to teach history (e.g. Berson, 1996; Hope, 1996; Kolson, 1996; Lee, 1994; Prensky, 2001; Teague & Teague, 1995). Unfortunately, most have operated with relatively simplistic views of history, lauding Civilization’s value in helping students master facts or familiarity with historical concepts. In The Seductions of Sim, a notable exception to this trend, Ted Friedman argues that one of the pleasures of Civilization III is in learning to think by the game’s rules, to intellectually enter the rule set of Civilization III and internalize the logic of its rules. In this paper, I argue that a primary value of using Civilization III in classrooms may be in its ability to situate players within what ** calls an epistemic frame. Underlying Civilization III, is a materialist reading of history, a geographic argument for explaining how civilizations rise and fall. Thankfully, despite all its depth, Civilization is far from comprehensive, short-shrifting the role that culture, individuals, historical particularities, or religion plays in history. I argue that it is just this ideological focus that gives Civilization III its deepest pedagogical value, allowing students to understand the positionality and theoretical assumptions behind any representation of history.


Civilization III as an Historical Simulation Tool.

Although Civilization was designed as an entertainment game, its historical, geographic, and political simulation make it an intriguing educational resource. On one level, success in the game demands that players "master" geography, focusing food production in agriculturally advantageous areas, using physical boundaries as natural borders, and securing natural resources. Players confront political dilemmas, such as whether to pursue isolationist politics, enter complex alliances for protection, or gain precious resources through military force (which may also mean waging war to protect an ally). Finally, players can view how their history grows and evolves over time, leveraging the visualization tools included in the game to view how their civilization grows culturally, geographically, scientifically, and politically through maps, charts, and graphs. The specific pedagogical opportunities of using Civilization III as a tool for studying social studies is summarized in Table 1.

Importantly, there is no “one” way to win Civilization III, which makes game play an open-ended task that leads to divergent outcomes. One player may attempt to win through military domination, building a strong economy and military, whereas another may be peaceful and attempt to win through political ends. From an educational standpoint, this open-endedness dissuades players from competing against one another for high scores or to see who is the “best” player, allowing multiple paths for students to become seduced by the game. Different players with different tastes will set different constraints for themselves and use the game to explore different ideas (i.e. trying to win the game without waging war). That people play Civilization III differently creates opportunities for educators to use gaming experiences as the basis for critical reflections and debriefing, enabling players to analyze what strategies work in the game and why. Imagine a student playing as Egypt comparing the role of the Nile and Middle East trade networks (and military conquests) with life as a Native American tribe in the sparsely populated Americas.

The critical reader may question the notion of using a simulation to study world history, when very few historians engage in this kind of enterprise.1 In the sciences, models and simulations have long been used as a part of inquiry. The idea of observing phenomena, building mathematical models to represent reality, and then testing one’s ideas about reality are centuries old in the sciences; physicists and astronomers have been building mathematic representations of systems at least as long ago as Copernicus and Newton.2 More recently, Wolfram (2002) has argued that the digital affordances of computers are revolutionizing science so that scientific inquiry can be thought of as a process of observing phenomena, defining rules, and building and testing models rather than one of defining and testing hypotheses through controlled experiments. Charles Sanders Peirce (1878/1986) refers to this recursive process of observation, model-generating, and evaluating the predictive capacity of the model as abductive inquiry. Such abductive inquiry, uncommon in history, is more commonly employed in political science, economics, and increasingly, anthropology (Edmonds & Hale, n.d.; Wolfram, 2002).

Using Civilization III as a simulation tool changes the method of studying history from one of memorizing facts and mastering sanctioned narratives to one of defining terms and rules and exploring the significance of the underlying rule sets and the emergent properties of a system. As opposed to textbooks, which contain one state-sanctioned narrative, Civilization III is an open-ended sandbox, a possibility space wherein players can explore and actualize any one of several different narrative outcomes. To be sure, Civilization III is a rule-bounded space which represents physical, social and cultural systems in very specific, very materially oriented ways. Flood plains produce 150% more food than grasslands; grasslands produce 200% more food than hills. Democracies have less corruption and produce more efficient workers than monarchies.

Listing the number of rules and relationships encoded into Civilization III is beyond the scope of this chapter, but the important thing here is that the underlying basis for all the rules in Civilization III is geography and materialist structures, which produces the three main variables (food, production, and trade)3. All of the game phenomena (science rates, happiness, population growth, and so on) can be traced back to these variables. New to Civilization III, geography also provides luxury resources such as furs, dies and gems, or strategic resources, such as horses, iron and uranium. Again, geography plays a key role in determining the relative happiness or strategic happiness of a civilization. This new feature allows Civilization III to represent a number of important phenomena, such as the historical importance of horses (or lack thereof) in North America.

These three main variables are amplified through other materialist civic structures and Wonders (which are usually also represented through physical structures). It is worth noting that these structures (i.e. granaries, banks, factories), are tied to production and represented through physical, material structures (as opposed to say, abstracted technologies), thus reinstantiating the materialist orientation of the game. In Civilization, it is these physical structures that matter; destroy the physical “bank” and the economy is is hurt. One can contrast this organization with the politics of the neo-Marxist inspired Hidden Agenda, where time, power, and politics are the major currencies. While “leaders” and politics play a role in Civilization III, they are ultimately tied to the geographically derived, materially instantiated practices.
Problemitizing Civilization II as an Educational Tool

Because Civilization III is intended to be an entertainment product, it is designed to support good gameplay rather than historical simulation. For example, if a player builds the Pyramids, she receives a free granary in every city which has no real historical analogy. Native populations (called “Barbarians” in the game) are dealt with questionably as well; they are generally warring tribes who exhibit no real culture or capacity to form civilizations. This is not to say that indigenous populations are not considered “civilization worthy”; several indigenous cultures (e.g. Aztecs, Iroquois, or Zulus) are regarded as civilizations. Notably, Civilization III also attempts to operationalize cultural influence as a game mechanic, giving players’ points for creating institutions that add to a culture’s influence. Barkin (2002) argues that this notion of culture is theoretically problematic as it combines French definitions of culture (as in “to become cultured”) with traditionally German definitions of culture (culture as collective ways of being). Treating culture as cultural influence and modeling the role of culture in the long term growth of civilizations as serving as an attractor of people, is an interesting intellectual idea, but outside the grounds of most accepted definitions of culture.

Characterizing and operationalizing each civilization is problematic as well. Distinguishing elements between civilizations are distilled down to relatively simple game mechanics (e.g. Americans receive industrial and expansion bonuses, as well as special fighter jets), and each civilization begins with roughly the same resources at roughly the same time -- 6000 BC. Of course, “America” as a concept, was meaningless until at least the late 16th century. However, less obviously to some, it was also well into the 17th or 18th centuries before a notion of a “France” or “Germany” developed. In response to these conditions, when I use Civilization III in classrooms, I modify the starting civilizations so that they are the Incas, the Iroquois, the Aztecs, the Egyptians, the Mali, the Persians, the Carthaginians, Oceanic peoples, the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians, the Japanese, the Babylonians, the Celts, the Saxons, and the Goths. I have intentionally included civilizations such as the Celts and the Goths that have been historically thought of as Barbarians to raise the question “What does it mean to be civilized and what is Barbaric?” In the urban American classrooms where I examined this curricula, most students already thought of European tribes as barbaric and had little investment in historical debates around barbarian and civilized, since they saw “civilized” countries, particularly the United States, as among the most barbaric peoples to have inhabited the Earth.

Indeed, at the heart of both the notion of civilization as a concept and Civilization III as a game is the notion of city. One can easily skirt rhetorical arguments about the term civilization by emphasizing the root word civic, which comes from the Latin, civicus, meaning citizen. Framing the game as largely the story of cities is particularly useful, as the game is organized largely by cities; all production decisions are made through city interfaces. This civic-centric approach to history is problematic from a gameplay standpoint, as the game begins in 4000 BC, although most texts agree that agriculture emerged at between 10,000 BC and 13,000 BC. To compensate for the “headstart” of civilizations such as the Egyptians or the Phoenicians, I manipulated the starting conditions for those civilizations, giving them bonus cities, workers and settlers. In addition, I awarded the river valleys where agriculture originated with extra crop bonuses.

One of the more interesting intellectual problems of Civilization III is that because the game includes an historically accurate model of how civilization advances occurred, every game is tied to the same set of technological advancements. Restated, technological advancements are linear and predetermined. Although no two games are alike, particular discoveries, such as the wheel, monarchy, or horseback riding are present in every game, and are the rails that guide the evolution of the simulation over time. On the one hand, some, like Diamond, argue that the affordances of some inventions, particularly the wheel are apparent enough and sufficiently reproduced across time that might be treated as if not inevitable than highly probable. Other improvements, such as communism or atomic theory may seem less inevitable. Others have argued (e.g. Barkin, 2002) that there may have been other hypothetical paths not taken; imagine that if Native American civilizations were still the dominant culture occupying North America there might be different technological forms characterizing global society. Rather than treating these questions as problems, I believe that they are valued historical questions and suggest the very reasons that Civilization III is an intriguing historical resource. Playing Civilization III tends to recruit deep, intellectually-valuable thinking in world history and produce social structures which nurture and sustain this discourse.

Embedded in civilization are also theories about what resources and technologies have been central to the formation of civilizations in history. From an educator’s perspective, what may be the most fascinating about civilization is that it is a coherent thought experiment into the history of technologies and natural resources. Critics will also note that the standard game maps ship with some geographical inaccuracies, but most these have been rectified through fan-based maps at communities such as Apolyton.net. In the maps I have adapted and used, horses (a strategic resource) are removed from North America. Cotton is added as a natural resource. Other critics have noted that sheep, an historically important livestock, are not included in the game, nor is tin, an historically important metal. As an educator, I am especially intrigued with how game players (many of whom may or may not orient positively toward school), engage in intense, lively discussions about the historical accuracy of the game as a simulation. Fans routinely question and modify the existing game structure to reflect their own wishes and ideologies. Thus, it is critical to distinguish between learning from the game and learning with the game, recognizing that critical inquiry, research, and argumentation are frequently a part of game play.

Not every Civilization III player creates custom game modifications, but most detect and argue about the basic simulation biases in the game, such as the relative strength of musketmen. Long-standing debates surround the theoretical possibility for primitive battle units to defeat technologically advanced ones. For example, it is inevitable that at some point in a game an ancient war unit, such as a group of axe-wielding warriors defeats a modern military unit, such as a battleship. While critics will chastise such moments as inherent limitations in the historical simulation, Meier and others argue that such improbable events do in fact occur (as in Afghanistan, where rebels thwarted the USSR), through superior execution of strategy, equipment malfunction, or sometimes, just luck.

To reiterate, Civilization III, as any representation of history, is incomplete, biased, perspectival, and a simplification of reality. Oddly, many media scholars have voiced concern that Civilization III distorts and twists reality, supposing perhaps that text-based narrative representations of history are free from authorship and perspectivity, or that the causal arguments that historians (or politicians, civic leaders, activists, or curators, for that matter) make capture “Truth”. Likewise, the frame of the photograph or film documentary has boundaries, and what lies beyond that boundary is lost in any historical representation. As most any historian would argue, the best we can do are ask questions which are socially and temporally situated, and then gather evidence toward building a representation of history. It is only through viewing and gathering multiple visions of history that we gain any sort of picture of history. Indeed, what makes Civilization III such an intriguing resource for educators is precisely its positionality, its coherent focus as a geographical / materialist representation of history that makes it a valuable educational resource.


Civilization III as a geographic materialist simulation

Wheras most United Sates textbooks frame world history around narratives of western progress, enlightenment, or triumph of the rational (over the presumably less rational, enlightened indigenous), Civilization III frames the issues of civilizations growing and declining as largely the result of geographic / materialist conditions. As a geographic – materialist simulation of history, Civilization III presents a very particular version of history, one not far from Jared Diamond’s (1999) Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. As a simulation, Civilization III does very little to illuminate evolutions in civilizations evolve over short time periods, or how cultures operate. It can, however, show pretty persuasively how geographical conditions affect population growth, make resources available to civilizations, shape trade routes, and produce natural boarders. As such, Civilization III provides an alternative to traditional narrative-based accounts of world history, which in the United States, at least, have tended to emphasize the grand narrative of western expansion. Learning world history through playing Civilization III allows students who do not identify with this grand narrative of western expansion opportunities for studying world history outside of the narrative frames that are typically provided in school-based histories.4

One student (Dan) who I studied illustrates the potential for a game such as Civilization III to recruit the identities of students not uninterested in history and struggling in school. Dan was a 15 year old student who had failed school the previous year and expressed a particular distaste for history. When I introduced Civilization III to his class, Dan had little interest in playing. It wasn’t until the fourth day, when I explained how Dan could play a Native American civilization and reverse history by holding off the Europeans, or perhaps even settle Europe or Africa that he found the game engaging. For Dan, the game became a hypothetical colonial simulation of sorts, whereby we examined under what conditions might have colonization played out differently. Dan made treaties with other tribes, built up large settlements, and even tried to “reverse engineer” the voyages of the explorer Eric the Red from Scandinavia to Nova Scotia. We discussed how and why the Europeans explored and conquered the Americas so that Dan could better predict what civilizations would be contacting him.

Again, it is important to stress the difference between learning from the game and learning with the game. A key point we discussed was how Native American tribes obviously had no idea how history would play out, and how he could use knowledge of geography or history as a “cheat” for winning the game. We used a globe to find potential routes to Europe. We consulted timelines to investigate what civilizations were in South America, and maps to identify resources in South America. When 1492 rolled around, and Columbus was no where in site, we looked at maps to see where exactly Columbus landed. Finally, when the Celts (who occupied France) settled in Nova Scotia in the 1600s, we compared Dan’s game to history, using colonial history as a broad way to predict what might happened next. Importantly, we discussed limitations in how the game handled disease, and I described how if the game had smallpox, Dan might expect up to see up to 90% of his population wiped out. I told the story of Cortez’s conquest of the Aztecs and explained how Dan might expect Europeans to come with horses and guns. Despite Dan’s best attempts at defeating the Europeans, he found that his dispersed settlements, lack of access to global trade networks, and lack of horses made it difficult to keep up with the pan European – Asian trade networks.

The experiences of another student (Kenny) I studied playing Civilization III in an after-school center highlights how Civilization III might operate as a geographic simulation. Kenny was a low-achieving student in school, a self-described gamer who often read game manuals (Age of Empires, Diablo and Grand Theft Auto were his favorites) in class rather than his textbooks. Perhaps from playing Age of Empires, Kenny had developed an interest in Chinese civilizations and decided to play as China. The first few centuries of Kenny’s game went smoothly, as he explored the Yellow River valley and established cities near Beijing, Shanghai, and Zhengzhao. Kenny built colonies to gather horses and dies, and began trading with explorers coming from civilizations in the Indus river valley. Soon, the boarders of his civilization were nearly exactly those of traditional China, as crossing or settling the Himalayans was impractical, if not impossible (and the swamplands of Southeast Asia were of little interest. By 1 AD, Kenny realized that his civilization was rich in dies and silks, and he began building a trade route up the Yellow River valley so that he could trade in Europe. In short, although Kenny knew nothing of the Silk Road (I asked) he was replicating the creation of the silk road, one of the most important trade routes in history. These efforts were thwarted however, as the hordes of barbarians who inhabited present-day Mongolia attacked his cities, very nearly replicating the attacks of the Mongolian horde. Eventually, Kenny unified China and began exploring Europe, although he found that centuries of geographic isolation had badly hurt his civilization. In debriefing, Kenny spoke passionately about the role of the silk, barbarians, and the Himalayan mountains in the evolution of China.

These cases show how playing Civilization III gives students a good look at how geography and material conditions affect the growth and spread of civilizations on a broad scale. Still, even within this framework, the game glosses over some important distinctions that an historian such as Diamond would emphasize. For example, food is treated as a single variable (which might encompass fish, meat, or agriculture), where as Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999) persuasively argues for the importance of considering food in terms of food packages. Diamond analyzes how agriculture emerged through the careful cultivation of crops that are suitable for domestication, the nutritional value of various crop packages, the native animals available for domestication, challenges and opportunities in the climate for supporting agriculture, and the comparative advantage or disadvantage of other hunting options. To aggregate these many factors into one variable, the “food production of land” glosses over many important local conditions and technological discoveries that gave rise to agriculture. By beginning the game at the onset of agriculture, Civilization III avoids some of these problems (one can reasonably assume that each civilization created a food package that meets its nutritional needs and Civilization III accounts for other relative advantages and disadvantages through providing especially fertile areas food production bonuses). Therefore, while there is nothing inherently inaccurate in the way that agriculture is depicted in Civilization III, the black-boxing of all of these developments into simply the notion of “agriculture” or geographical bonuses is potentially misleading to students.

For the purposes of this study, I argue that such simulation errors still present fruitful learning opportunities for students as they provide a tangible context for discussing otherwise abstract concepts. As I described in the mini-case studies above, teachers can leverage students’ interest in critiquing and deconstructing of the game which typically occurs as a natural part of game practice (see the discussions at Apolyton.net). Treating the game not as a perfectly representational text, but rather as an imperfect model also opens teaching opportunities for students to critically reflect on how more traditional historical texts are written, recorded, and modeled (i.e. what biases do my textbooks show, particularly as texts written from a post-colonial perspective). As such, I argue that educators need to look for the pedagogical affordances of learning through gameplay defined broadly. The next section provides one framework for thinking about these affordances more deeply.
A Framework for Civilization III as an Educational Tool.

Most educators have advocated using Civilization III for its engaging properties or its “content” (e.g. the Civilopedia). Certainly, the idea of engaging students in studying history, which in the United States is generally considered students’ least favorite subject (e.g. Loewen, 1995) has merits. In particular, as I described earlier, Civilization III has unique properties for engaging students resistant to narratives of Western expansion and dominance. Civilization III engaged the identities of learners such as Dan and Kenny in powerful ways, producing and recruiting new identities as gamers capable of participating in historical discourses (see Squire and Barab, 2004). Whereas many educators and policy makers focus on games ability (or inability) to provide “good” content, I argue that this content fetish (e.g. Gee, 2003) misses the most powerful attributes of Civilization III as a learning tool, which are explored in this section.

An Introduction to Background Information

Civilization III makes robust use of historical concepts. For example, the “technology advances” tree, a map of the history of world technologies and contains 76 different terms ranging from monotheism to nuclear power; there are 6 types of governments (anarchy, despotism, monarchy, communism, republic and democracy). All told, there are at least 233 different game concepts and terms the player is exposed to. Each of these concepts is described in The Civilopedia, an encyclopedia of game concepts written at about the 8th grade level. A sample entry for Monotheism is listed below:

Rule by monarchy developed as a logical extension of the absolute rule of tribal chieftains. Many of the earliest monarchs, such as those in ancient Egypt, claimed that they ruled by divine right. In the spread of European monarchy during the Middle Ages, however, rulership was generally conveyed upon a leader who could most effectively raise and command an army. Monarchies are dynastic, with rule of the country passing to the eldest son when the king dies or retires. Monarchs had absolute rule over their subjects, severely limiting the personal and economic freedom of all citizens except for nobility and the rich upper class. Although monarchies ruled most of Europe for centuries, the unhappiness of lower-class citizens eventually grew intolerable, causing several major revolutions. By the mid-18th century, the power of the European monarchs had been severely limited, paving the way for participatory systems of government.
All told, the Civilopedia would be about 250 double-spaced pages. Of course, it is impossible to expect that students would read, let alone master every concept in the Civilopedia. How students make use of this resource and how text-based resources (both in game and out) relate to game play is an open question. Minimally, however, students gain an introduction to these concepts.

Most every student I interviewed who played Civilization III developed a basic familiarity with at least a few dozen concepts. Most students had no where approaching an in depth understanding of concepts such as Monarchy, which is not surprising, given the way that a concept such as Monarchy is introduced. Students are given a broad framework for situating a technology such as Monarchy within the overall flow of discoveries, making links between requisite technology and government types and technologies to have flowed from Monarchy, as well as a general sense of what era Monarchy arose in. And, students are given these generalized, text-based descriptions of Monarchy (as well as whatever just-in-time lectures I provided). However, they do not experience life in a Monarchy, or representations (i.e. narratives, images, artifacts) from specific societies where Monarchies thrived.



Geography as Inter-related Processes

Whereas most classrooms present geography as a set of facts to be learned, Civilization III presents geography as inter-related processes. Civilization III players interact with presents geographical phenomena leading to opportunities to see interrelationships between physical, cultural, and political geography. As players consider access to natural resources such as food, minerals, or spices, natural defense barriers such mountains, and strategic factors such as trade routes or access to waterways. These same factors come into play as players plan out the expansion of their civilization. Perhaps most importantly natural and physical geography are inter-related in Civilization III; it is not merely the existence of horses or iron that make an area valuable; the player must have also discovered the requisite technologies to make use of these resources.

As the game unfolds, players see how physical geography shapes the growth and spread of civilizations. Strategic regions such as the Panama Canal or Sinai Peninsula are frequently contested. Oceans and mountain ranges such as the Alps or Himalayans shape civilizations’ borders. Finally, islands such as Hawaii become important naval outposts. Human impact on geography, chopping down forests, building roads and railroads, clearing jungles, irrigating land, and mining mountains. Overfarmed grasslands become desert. In the later stages of the game, pollution becomes an issue for most civilizations as well. Regardless, what is critical here is that cultural, political, and physical geography co-evolve. Physical geography affects political (and cultural) structures, which then reshape the physical environment. As one student commented, it’s one thing to memorize lists of physical features and natural resources (i.e. diamonds are an important resource for South Africa), but it is another to actually experience how these factors shape a civilization’s history.

No geographical labels are included in the game, and questions persist about how students map the iconography of the game to history, and how students build (or do not build) connections between game events and history. For example, does playing Civilization III as Egypt where there might be struggles over the Sinai or Arabian Peninsula produce deeper understandings of these phenomena? Does a student playing as China, who builds a trade route across the country to trade silk with central Asia realize that he or she just built the silk road? Do these students begin to interpret patterns across history, or do these observations go unnoticed? How students interpret game play and map the semiotics of the game interface to geography and history is an unstudied question.


Historical Phenomena as Systems

In Civilization III social phenomena unfold through the complex relationships among variables rather than simple causal statements. Most secondary students perceive history as the memorization of facts and mastering the “one true story” (Loewen, 1995; Wineburg, 2001). In Civilization III, history unfolds as the complex interaction among several variables. While the game has a geographic / materialist underpinning, it is still open to choice. Players need to discover technologies to harness these resources, trade to leverage their resources, and build an infrastructure for accessing, protecting, and exploiting these resources. As players reflect on the success and failure of their civilizations, they examine the economic, political, and geographical decisions they made resulted in events such as economic booms, war, famine, or cultural “golden eras.” Players have opportunities to see how political, economic, and geographical systems, which are frequently presented in isolation from one another in schools, interact in producing historical narratives.

Understanding the relationships between these systems in Civilization becomes important as students win and lose their games. A novice player might be overthrown by a more powerful country, and initially attribute failure to not having a strong military. In reality, the civilization’s failure might be because a lack of trade, technology, or failure to use natural resources. How the “game” qualities of Civilization III, namely, contests over space and winning and losing push students understandings of different systems is worth investigating. Do students make connections between how geography constrains the development of civilizations or do students play the game blindly, not drawing connections between game events and history?

My studies of Civilization III players suggest that if nothing else, one needs to learn quite a bit about Civilization III as a system to even last a few hundred years in the game. As students play Civilization III (if they are to be any good), they must construct causal theories as to why their civilization succeeded or failed and adjust their game play accordingly. It turns out that for the high school students I have observed playing Civilization III, understanding events across geographic, political, and economic systems (among others) is very complex, and quite possibly a fruitful preparatory experience for analyzing world history. Learning through game play is a complex process of identifying important causal variables, interpreting and analyzing game play, and devising strategies based on emergent understandings. Learning from game play can be called abductive, in that players learn through recursive cycles of observation, analysis, and reflection. Games are particularly interesting learning environments because they allow players opportunities to devise hypotheses and explore ideas’ consequences (Games-to-Teach Team, 2003).

Crucial to this approach to learning is the replayability of Civilization III, its open-endedness as a game system and flexibility for multiple forms of play. In the classes I have observed, the emergent, non-linear, open-ended nature of gameplay in Civilization III results in several different gameplay strategies and encourages players to “replay” the game from different vantage points to test hypotheses. The way that Civilization players to play for a few hours, come to a crucial decision point save the game, try the strategy, see the consequences of the strategy, and then return to the critical point in the game to try alternate strategies resulted in interesting learning results. Some students began testing the differences between playing as the Iroquois with the Egyptians, or exploring pacifist vs. military active approaches to playing. The replayability of Civilization resulted in multiple theories and hypotheses about how and why civilizations grow and evolve. Indeed, such opportunities are a large part of the allure of Civilization III, as evinced in the marketing slogin from the Firaxis website for Civ3.com (Firaxis, 2002): “Rewrite history with the greatest game of all time. Witness an epic adventure unfold before you as you wield the ultimate power and reinvent the history of Civilization.”

Perspectivity in History

Civilization III situates players in scenarios where they might approach political scenarios from different perspectives. A common complaint of contemporary social studies education is that it does not prepare students to examine situations from other peoples’ perspectives (Seixas, 2000; Wineburg, 2001). For American students, this viewing geopolitical issues from the perspective of a “third world” country or an oil-rich nation may be particularly difficult. In Civilization III, players have opportunities to examine geo-political scenarios from different perspectives. Players might be placed in a country where there are limited natural resources, and they become dependent on foreign resources for economic and military survival. Or, players might lead a civilization that is hopelessly outpowered by another civilization, and choose to fight that country through espionage or terrorism. Students are able to not only identify broad trends in history, but examine them from others’ perspectives.

Among the students I studied, there was a proclivity to play as indigenous or under-represented peoples in order to challenge traditional state-sanctioned narratives and “replay” history. Players were frequently surprised by the trade connections across Asia, Northern Africa, and Southern Europe. Traditional divisions (i.e. Africa, Europe, Middle East) seem to have over-emphasized the importance of continental boundaries for these students, and most were surprised to learn of Greek settlements in Egypt (Naucratis), or in present day Libya (Cyrene). These same students also gained a deeper appreciation for the robust trade networks that centered around the Mediterranean, and surprised to see how the rise of European nation states was not simply the story of “the rise of Western Civilization”. Playing Civilization opened paths for students whose identities were contrary to these predominant myths to construct productive identities as historians. Playing Civilization III not only spoke to their range of experiences but recruited new identities, as students resistant to school took up the values and perspectives of the game.

One of the ways that Civilization III provides new perspectivity is through its map-based interface. Significantly, the entire game takes place on a relatively accurate, interactive global map, which is itself a visualization of sorts of world history. The teachers I talk to are most excited about their students spending 30-40 hours staring (even if it were blankly) at a map of the world. Because political entities are not labeled, students frequently consult political maps to see how political boundaries have developed in space. Because the game is a world map, students accustomed to divvying up the world by country or continent are encouraged now to look at the world as a single unit with overlapping and interacting forces.

The data embedded in Civilization III and tracked throughout the game play (such as cultural boundaries, population size, birth rates, literacy rates) are interesting tools that can also be used for visualization exercises. At the end of the game, players can “replay” the game in high speed as an animation, and see how these borders shift over time. Similarly, the game tracks the relatively strength of each civilization in a “powergraph” (calculated by adding a number of factors), and players can view the growth and evolution of each civilization in the game over time. Like the quantitative data that the game tracks, the game replay and powergraphs are fun tools for players to experiment with and suggest opportunities for supporting learning through reflection as to why specific trends (such as politically contested areas) emerge.



Understanding Broad Timescales

Civilization III allows to direct a Civilization over the course of 6000 years, serving as potential narrative framework for understanding historical timescales, and the broad course of Civilization. Study after study (i.e. Ravitch, 1987) bemoan students’ inabilities to place important historical phenomena within tens, hundreds, or even thousands of years. The experience of playing Civilization III has the potential for giving students a basic framework for understanding the course of study. As players decide which technologies to pursue (i.e. which technological course will allow me to discover gunpowder the quickest?) and discover new technologies, they have opportunities to see connections between technological discoveries, how technological discoveries build on one another, and an ordinal understanding of the order in which discoveries occurred. Further, players should gain a general sense of the eras in which discoveries, inventions, and important cultural events occurred. For example, early in the game (after the discovery of construction), players can choose to build The Pyramids, which is one of the Great Wonders of the World and produces bonuses to agricultural production (under the guise that a society that built the Pyramids inspires greater awe and productivity in its peoples). Games such as Railroad Tycoon II, Patrician II, Caesar, Capitalism, or Europa Universalis, all model historical phenomena in greater specificity and fidelity than Civiliation III; however, the broad timeframe that Civilization III covers provides unique opportunities for students to construct broad narratives that cross historical eras.

The process of playing Civilization III, creating goals, devising strategies to meet those goals, acting in the game, and evaluating outcomes and then adjusting goals plans accordingly, serves as a context for producing continuous reflection. As players struggle with decisions and examine the consequences of their decisions, they build an implicit narrative of events. Early in the game, a player might establish a goal of building a settlement next to a herd of wild horses. The player then might allocate more food production in her home base to build settlers who can colonize that area. Another player might build a settlement next to the horses, spawning a war over securing access to the resource. The player might realize that she is losing more on the war than she is gaining and risking becoming weakened to the point where a third civilization could conquer her. So, she pulls out of the war, and increases her emphasis on scientific research, so that she might discover iron working that she could trade for horses.

This chain of events illustrates how playing Civilization produces a narrative that can be a framework for understanding global phenomena and leave players with a more robust framework for understanding analogous events. I maintain that this process of narrative construction is not one of passive absorption of the timelines in the game, but rather one of active construction, where the narrative of gameplay is the resultant of players’ struggles with gaming decisions. Even the most “reflectionless” of all players is likely to remember that the Pyramids were built aeons before the Eiffel tower. Because Civilization allows players to experience historical trajectories as connected chain of events, they might develop a better framework for understanding historical phenomena. Note, however, that I am not suggesting that this reflection will necessarily yield richer understandings of particular historical phenomena; I believe that purposeful analysis of historical events and reflection is also useful. However, the experience of having experienced a war over natural resources might leave students with a better framework for understanding other similar events, such as the Persian Gulf War. Consistent with Bransford and Schwartz (1999), I am proposing that the primary benefit of an experience such as playing Civilization III may be in how it prepares players to participate in future social studies practices.
Conclusion

The idea of using Civilization III in classroom settings may seem foreign, if not insane to some. The game is notoriously long and difficult to learn. While Civilization III does have a number of “concepts” embedded in it, it functions as a geographically-based simulation rather than a traditional narrative. I argue that the experience of game play opens students to seeing the world through the lens of a geographic / materialist historian. As they interact with the rules and properties of the game, they come to understand the assumptions and values of this perspective, or epistemic frame. I have argued here that this approach is valuable for several reasons: (1) It provides an organizing theoretical framework for understanding history; (2) It presents history as inter-related global systems and processes; (3) It exposes students to the idea that all history is perspectival and rooted in a particular set of assumptions about the world; (4) It allows students to put knowledge “to work” as they construct theories, do outside research, and learn historical concepts to improve their gameplay; and (5) It avoids traditional approaches to Western Civilization III that are built on myth rather than history and marginalize many peoples from the study of history. More important than the facts that it contains, Civilization III allows students to try on this “epistemic frame” of reading history through a materialist-geographical lens.

The long-term affects of learning history through playing Civilization III will probably be more subtle and more profound. For many people, playing Civilization III and studying history are inter-related, mutually reinforcing activities. For myself, it is hard to say where my gameplay and knowledge of history (and love of history) begin and end. Playing the game leads to new insights and new questions. For the beginning student, this might be questions about the decline of indigenous populations due to smallpox. For a more advanced player, it might be researching other prevailing theories of world history (e.g. critical theory or Marxist) and imagining what a game based on different assumptions might look like. David Crowley describes this kind of dialogical relationship between hobbyist activities (such as going to science museums) and learning and identity as developing islands of expertise. Civilization III provides opportunities for students to develop deep expertise in world history, developing identities as world historians.

Unfortunately, most schools are not organized to leverage such areas of expertise. Imagine a school where there was sufficient time in the day for a Civilization playing student to ask deeper historical questions or build custom modifications for new historical problems. To truly tap into Civilization III’s potential for creating deep understandings, engaging learners in history, and recruiting learners’ identities as historical thinkers, we need to think twice about our assumptions about learning. Indeed, thinking about Civilization III as a vehicle for learning challenges us to rethink basic ideas about the organization of schools and classrooms. Imagining a school where students are empowered to shape their curriculum and participate in complex practices that might transcend the walls of the school (such as game mod making) demands a rethinking of schooling at the systemic level (e.g. Squire & Reigeluth, 2000). Hopefully, through games such as Civilization III the children who have been left behind or marginalized by history will grow to love history and construct identities at the center rather than the margins of discourses around world history.




Challenges in Social Studies Instruction

Affordances of Civilization III

Students have poor background knowledge of world history concepts, names, dates, and figures.

Civilization III has embedded in it hundreds of concepts, names, and figures which students must become familiar with in order to play the game.

Students perceive geography as a collection of facts.

Civilization III players interact with presents geographical phenomena leading to opportunities to identify the how interrelated physical and cultural contribute to how civilizations form and evolve.

Geography is divided between political and physical symbols, and students fail to see relationships between and among them.

The process of playing Civilization III, creating goals, devising strategies to meet those goals, acting in the game, and evaluating outcomes and then adjusting goals plans accordingly, serves as a context for producing continuous reflection.

Students perceive history as inevitable courses that “had to happen”

In Civilization III social phenomena unfold through the complex relationships among variables rather than simple causal statements.

Students perceive history as the memorization of facts and mastering the “one true story.”

Civilization III does not model complete historical trajectories; rather, it offers initial conditions and a rule set that become instantiated into narratives through players’ actions, encouraging the exploration of hypothetical scenarios.

Students look for simple causal relationships in historical events.

Civilization III situates players in scenarios where they might approach political scenarios from different perspectives.

Students do not develop broad frameworks for organizing historical events or robust senses of time scale.

This chain of events illustrates how playing Civilization produces a narrative that can be a framework for understanding global phenomena and leave players with a more robust framework for understanding analogous events.

Students tend to interpret social phenomena from their own cultural-historical timeframe.

Playing Civilization III encourages students to interact with several different visualizations of social phenomena.

Impoverished skills in analyzing social phenomena across media.

Civilization III allows to direct a civilization over the course of 6000 years, serving as potential narrative framework for understanding historical timescales, and the broad course of Civilization.

Table 1: Pedagogical Potentials of Civilization III

References

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1 A noteworthy exception to this pattern is world historian Pat Seed, who teaches a course at Rice University on Spanish and Portuguese Colonization as depicted through computer games. I am indebted to Pat for her intellectual guidance.

2 Although one might not be accustomed to thinking of mathematical and paper-based models as simulation systems, the abductive process of observing physical systems, building mathematical formula to account for those observations, and then testing the formula against other observations is essentially the same as computer-based modeling processes. See Peirce **** for an excellent description of this inquiry process.

3 For the sake of argument, I’m considering culture separate from the three primary variables. Culture is generally not derived from geography but from physical structures, which reinforces the materialist bent of the game.

4 Indeed, one of the most intriguing aspects of Civilization III is its ability to recruit multiple identities, particularly those who enjoy learning through building, competing, socializing, negotiating, or exploring.

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