Bypassing the Textbook: Video Games Transform Social Studies Curriculcum

| January 16, 2014 | 24 Comments
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Educators typically think of using digital and video games as the actual learning tool, but one teacher is using video games for something else entirely — as a replacement for the textbook.

Jeff Mummert, a social studies teacher and department chair at Hershey High School in Pennsylvania, uses games in his class to get students thinking critically about the subject matter the games address, even if they’re completely imaginary, he said. Game designers put a lot of time and thought into developing aesthetically appealing games that they think will draw players into an imaginary world. Mummert says his interest in games in the classroom focuses entirely on asking students to think critically about the game in the same way they would analyze a text or work of art.

Since many of his students already play video games at home, Mummert prefers to use those games as discussion points. In one assignment, for example, he asked students to critique the characters in World of Warcraft after watching a YouTube trailer for the game. In it, there’s only one “human” race that’s represented by a European male in Western clothing. The “orc” character sails in on a ship with overtly Middle Eastern overtones and promptly attacks the “human” character.

“It seems like harmless fun, but if you get your students thinking critically about it, it’s really something else,” Mummert said. He asks his students to think about the stereotypes portrayed in the game and to dig into deeper questions like, is the game racist? Do stereotypes hurt men? “Sometimes people want to play games to make them feel comfortable with issues they already have about perceptions of race and ethnicity,” Mummert said.

A few games developed in the last three or four years are actually based on historical moments — a social studies teacher’s dream, Mummert says. One game that he’s found useful is called Skyrim Elder Scrolls V, set in medieval times that has many “non-player characters,” people in the game that a player can interact with, but that are not controlled by the player. “I’ve actually used it with my class to do field work within a game,” Mummert said. He’s asked students to take population statistics and analyze whether the towns are producing enough food to feed the population. “It’s an interesting way for an AP Human Geography teacher to get kids to think about how field work works and how to use statistics to try to change things,” he said.

Another game his students have enjoyed analyzing is Assassins Creed III, which is set in revolutionary America. After watching the trailer, his class discussed how the game was marketed differently in the United States and in Canada. The trailer depicts scenes from the Boston Massacre in a recreation that many experts say is quite realistic. Talking about what is fact and fiction within the game and whether it can be harmful to misrepresent the truth helps students understand the idea of authenticity.

But there is one hazard of off-the-shelf games in the classroom: exposing kids to serious violence. Mummert says teachers need to be careful which games they select and to make it clear that just because a game is being used for textual analysis in class doesn’t mean that he, as a teacher, is endorsing the violence. A good example is Bioshock, which Mummert was initially excited about because it presented a dystopian future at the turn of the century, where the U.S. went a different direction from the rest of the world. Mummert liked the game because it offered opportunities to discuss concepts like social Darwinism, industrialization, racism, and segregation – core social studies topics. But, the “horrifically violent” nature of the game, as Mummert put it, ruined its chances of becoming an educational tool.

THE NEXT STEP: MODIFYING

While talking about historical context and implicit undertones of games can produce rich discussions in class, for Mummert, the strongest way to use games in the classroom is to ask students to propose modifications to a game based on the issues discussed. “That really brings up the thinking level,” Mummert said.

One of his favorite activities is to ask students to modify a game to reflect race and gender more realistically while retaining diversity, complexity, and player choice in the game. The assignment forces students to work within specific parameters, just as a game developer might. “Students have no concept of the kinds of skills it takes to make a video game,” Mummert said.

By asking them to modify race and gender, the assignment requires students to think about how to introduce historical authenticity into the game. “You can play, but you have to play in this fenced in area,” Mummert said, and that can be challenging.

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