Game-Based Learning

Boosting Student Interest in History Through Video Games

Teachers can use educationally retrofitted commercial video games to supplement history lessons for secondary students.

December 12, 2022
Courtesy of Ubisoft

Playing commercial video games in classrooms can sound promising, but many games also present challenges for teachers. Commercial games can have content that is inappropriate for children of certain ages. Others may be too open-ended, with objectives that can be difficult to identify or assess. Some simply take too long to play in one or two class meetings.

To meet these needs, some publishers “open up the hood”—retrofitting full commercial experiences to meet the needs of classrooms. Minecraft: Education Edition is one example, an educational modification of the popular sandbox video game. In addition to adapting the game, the publisher has a robust website with lesson plans and downloadable worlds.

Another modification is Walden, a game EDU, which is a set of 20- to 30-minute modules adapted from the award-winning full version that can take up to six hours to complete. The educational version includes lesson plans, the ability to stream the game in a Chrome browser, and content-aligned goals.

Access Gaming Platforms Designed for Educators

Recently, Ubisoft—the publisher of blockbuster hits such as Assassin’s Creed, Rabbids, and the Just Dance series of games, launched Play to Learn. It’s a free platform for librarians, teachers, and education professionals and includes four PC titles so far. In Rabbids Coding!, children as young as 7 can learn block-based coding in a game featuring mischievous, rabbitlike creatures.

Other Play to Learn games immerse middle and high school students in different time periods. In Valiant Hearts: The Great War, players experience trench warfare in World War I, told through an interactive graphic novel–like narrative. Anno 1404: History Edition is set during the European Renaissance. Discovery Tour: Ancient Egypt lets players and students discover the virtual world of Assassin’s Creed, including the Great Pyramids and life during Ptolemaic Egypt at the time of Cleopatra, without any violence, in a guided-tour, museumlike experience.

Use Curriculum Guides to Enrich the Gaming Experience

Discovery Tour: Ancient Egypt is one in a series of gamelike worlds available on Play to Learn that can immerse students in history. In this series, a leap beyond displaying images in a textbook or projected from a website, students can explore ancient civilizations and read from the game’s encyclopedia-like database. Like a field trip through time, virtual worlds offer different entry points to understand past cultures.

The Discovery Tour lessons can support student engagement as they make rich and meaningful connections to people from the past. For instance, in Ancient Egypt, students can explore agriculture in the Nile River Basin or sail a felucca, a traditional wooden boat. In addition to the Ancient Egypt game, there are Discovery Tour experiences in Ancient Greece and The Viking Age. These two are currently not part of the free Play to Learn platform but are also available as standalone experiences without the need to purchase the entire commercial game.

Discovery Tour includes a robust and free curriculum guide of lesson plans and printable classroom materials. The lesson plans were developed by Robin Sharma and Chu Xu, international graduate students at McGill University’s Technology, Learning, and Cognition Lab.

Working with in-house historians and game designers at Ubisoft afforded Sharma and Xu a unique opportunity to develop thoughtful lesson plans that were not just add-ons. The lessons are easy to customize and work in different settings, from one-on-one to learning centers or stations, where small groups rotate to play. Discovery Tour can also be projected on a screen, where one player plays and the whole class views it.

YouTube playthrough videos offer another option if a classroom is further limited in technology. For example, this brief video from Discovery Tour: Ancient Greece explains Sparta’s social classes in detail. In this regard, the game footage becomes a multimodal text, providing students with multiple means of representation of what might otherwise be considered abstract content.

Historical Games Have Interdisciplinary Applications

The Curriculum Guide features “cards” with learning objectives, instructional recommendations, and assessments that teachers can easily modify to suit their needs. Discovery Tour is a powerful classroom learning tool that also has interdisciplinary applications. While learning history may seem like the obvious focus, the Curriculum Map categorizes lessons into six disciplines: 21st-century skills and the content areas of science, math, language and literacy, arts, and social sciences. In a math lesson, students explore the geometric shapes of the architecture in the 3D virtual environment and calculate the volume of pyramids. 

In social sciences, students can take screenshots of ancient relics or stacks of scrolls and books in the Library of Alexandria. Students also encounter ancient philosophers, such as Socrates. There are science lessons on topics ranging from oxidation to irrigation to the properties of bronze. Ubisoft has created a helpful video with more details about how educators can use the curriculum guides.

The Assassin’s Creed series recently celebrated its 15th anniversary with the slogan, “Leap into History.” This resonated with me. In my teacher education courses at the University of Northern Colorado, my undergraduate students grew up playing the games. Several shared how they piqued their interest in history, which led them to major in history education. The potential long-term impact of these games’ ability to spark curiosity is indeed powerful.

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  • Game-Based Learning
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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