Friday, March 5, 2010

Online History Games Pose a Challenge to Education

The benefits of integrating online games – particularly role-playing games – into the classroom are endless:

  • Rather than passively absorbing content to be regurgitated at a later date, students are encouraged to take control of their own learning
  • Creativity, critical thinking, decision making, and leadership skills are employed to achieve desired goals
  • There is freedom from failure, so students can try out different solutions in unfamiliar situations and can feel comfortable relying on their own abilities
In other words, role-playing games shifts the power in the classroom: educators are able to act as facilitators, rather than directors.
But what about games based on historical events?

What is history? What does it mean to teach history? To learn history?

Is it about “facts”: memorizing the correct dates, the key players, the pivotal events?
Or is it more subjective: thinking about why certain events played out the way they did, how might have things turned out differently, questioning why only certain people and dates show up in the history texts?

And how do role-playing games, which by their very nature encourage different outcomes and new solutions, fit in?

How much leeway should educational role-playing games have in allowing students to alter the historical “facts”?

There is an immense difference between reading, discussing, or even acting out historical events and actually interacting with historical figures in an online environment. There is an almost Freudian quality to the idea players should re-play the same events over and over again with the same outcome.

And when games explore politically and emotionally charged events, it becomes a weighty ethical question – one that’s not easy to answer.

On the Path of the Elders is a site rich with historical resources, including rare archival photographs, audio and video clips of Elders, and an insightful essay discussing Aboriginal perspectives of Treaty No. 9.

It also features an engaging role-playing game exploring Cree and Ojibway history. The game is specifically designed to encourage leadership and negotiation skills, but it is also intended to expose the student to some of the historical elements at play during the signing of Treaty no. 9.

The question emerged: how do we balance historical accuracy while encouraging self-governance?

This balancing act became most marked while making the Negotiating game.

This game is the culmination of a series of five other games, and it is based on the actual signing of Treaty no. 9. Each of the previous games encourages Aboriginal self-governance and negotiation, leadership, and cooperation skills.

The basic question we had to answer was: at the end of the game, does the player sign the original treaty – thus staying true to historical “fact” – or is he or she allowed to propose a new treaty? One that is more representative of what the Mushkegowuk and Anishinaabe Peoples thought they were agreeing to at the time?

Both versions could be argued from an historical standpoint – the written document was the one signed and ratified, but it is not an accurate representation of the oral agreement the Mushkegowuk and Anishinaabe Peoples believed was binding.

These dilemmas have no clear answers. What is clear is that as gaming becomes increasingly used in the classroom, and as students have greater interaction with the content material, these questions will keep arising.

We need to be prepared to rethink how we’re teaching history.

Here Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase rings true: the medium is the message, and the act of changing the medium for teaching history inevitably changes the message.

Collette Jackson, Content and Marketing Specialist at BlackCherry Digital Media, is writing on behalf of On the Path of the Elders, a free online educational resource that explores Cree and Ojibway history and culture, and the signing of Treaty No. 9.

On the Path of the Elders launches March 24, 2010. Check it out at

For more information, email us at

Created in partnership with the Mushkegowuk Cree, Carleton University, BlackCherry Digital Media, and Pinegrove Productions.

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canadian Culture Online Strategy. Created with additional financial assistance from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the Inukshuk Fund.

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