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Historia: Game-Based Learning for Middle School History

Rick Brennan

A long time teacher turned game designer & entrepreneur
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Game-Based Learning Brings the History of Civilization to Life (Transcript)

Jason Darnell: Somewhere down the line learning became not fun. I think somehow kids started coming to school and saying, “I’m not gonna have fun today. I’m going to school.” And the reward of Historia, it’s fun.

Rick Brennan: Historia is game-based learning. It is a way to take a traditional subject, like social studies, but to teach it through experience and interactivity.

Student: Historia is using history and learning it through game play and you get to experience it as your own country.

Rick Brennan: All right, here we go. Twenty-eight.

Student: Oh, my god!

[ cheers ]

Jennifer Pung: Sixth graders, when they come into school it’s their first time in a big building. There’s kids coming from all different schools so they’re not from the same elementary school. So a sixth grade mind is very social. They’re gonna talk to each other at their table and not necessarily be listening. So when Historia comes around it’s definitely challenging the first few weeks while you’re setting it up, because they are confused. They don’t know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, but then once it gets started all those things kind of go to the side. I still hear them talking to their friends, but the conversation switches from the latest movie into “Well, what points did you get? How did you do?”

Student: The best part of Historia, I think, is being able to create your own history, because not only do you learn about other countries during that time period, you get to learn about what has happened and what can happen to you.

Student: Have you ever heard of “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth”? That comes from Hammurabi’s Code.

Student: If I have a teacher stand in front of me talking, it’s very hard for me to remember ‘cause I get bored, distracted. With Historia it’s no place to get distracted. You working the whole time and making decisions as a group.

Jason Darnell: So what are you finding is the most important pillar that allows you to kind of build the other ones?

Student: Maybe education.

Student: Education and government.

Jason Darnell: Interesting.

It’s important that students feel success, ‘cause if they don’t feel successful they’ll give up. And at the beginning when we first made the game, it was too hard. And the students would-- you would have a group that was doing so poorly that by the second half of the year, you’d see them a little detached, because they’d say, “What’s the point?” You know, “I’ve done the best I can and now we’re still not successful. I don’t have time for this.” You know? So Rick and I tried to build in ways students could be successful each week, or every other week, to where it’s gonna get them to keep on coming back to it.

Student: You do learn a lot because you have to research everything and you have to learn what to do and how to make right decisions and you learn how to be a government and learn how to interact with other people.

Rick Brennan: Who’s the monarch here?

Carson: Me.

Rick Brennan: Carson. Okay. So what’s the bet gonna be?

Carson: Seven. Oh, wait. Eight, eight. Yeah.

Student: Eight. Yeah.

Rick Brennan: It’s eight. Okay, you all think that’s a good bet?

Carson: Mm-hm.

Student: Jared likes ten.

Rick Brennan: You like ten?

Carson: Four hundred forty-five.

Student: But then we remembered slave revolt, so I’m like, “Let’s do eight."

Rick Brennan: Okay, okay. We’ll see how it turns. Good.

If I look at my job as everything you need to know is in my brain and I am your source of information, I feel like I’m sending the wrong message, which is “Somebody else knows the answer”.

Jason Darnell: With Historia, the teacher is just there to facilitate. You’re there to guide the learning instead of being the center for learning. You’re there to help kids learn how to research better. You’re there to help kids compromise. You’re there to help kids learn to make better decisions and that’s how learning should be.

Rick Brennan: In my experience, thirteen years of teaching, this is best teaching practice. When I didn’t teach this way, I would still have ten percent of my class who I would struggle to get to pay attention even though I did projects and games and mixed it up in debate and all that. I tried to make the class the best I could make it. Even when I did that and worked very hard at it, took it seriously, ten percent of my class maybe wouldn’t pay attention. I don’t have that problem now.

Jason Darnell: When I started teaching my mantra was “I am not scared to fail.” Failing is how you learn, making mistakes is how you get more knowledgeable and become better. And so I would try anything in my classroom to make a connection with my students, to make my class more engaging.

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  • Director / Camera / Editor: JR Sheetz
  • Associate Producer, Edutopia: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video, Edutopia: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Special Thanks: Histrionix, Lanier Middle School

This video was originally produced by Institute of Play, and was made possible through generous support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

History is the greatest story ever told. However, what makes history so compelling a story too often gets lost in translation in the classroom. As a result, students start tuning out social studies -- sometimes as early as middle school -- despite their teachers' best efforts.

As public school teachers turned game designers and entrepreneurs, my partner Jason Darnell and I know of what we speak. Like so many others in the teaching profession, we struggled to find ways to bring history and social studies to life for our middle school students.

That is, until we folded learning games into the mix.

Whenever we used learning games, the classroom atmosphere was electrified, and our students were seemingly hooked on history. Game-based learning excited them -- and it showed. So we asked ourselves a very simple question as a teacher/game-design team: "Why can't our classes be fun and compelling like a learning game every single school day all year long?" And we set out to make a curriculum-aligned social studies learning game that would take our middle school students through the coursework for the entire school year.

We thought it might take a single summer to build a game like the one we imagined. Instead, it has taken us nearly eight years to perfect our classroom-ready game, Historia.

Curriculum-Aligned Gameplay

Historia is a curriculum-aligned social studies simulation and strategy game that teaches middle school world history and cultures, economics, geography and government through interactive gameplay. The game covers over 4000 years of history -- from before 2000 BCE to 2000 CE -- so it connects the ancient past to the present day.

In the beginning, student teams form governments that guide their citizens through the triumphs and tragedies of history. The Historia timeline is divided into 21 Epochs, or rounds of interactive gameplay, which include a tutorial Epoch that teaches students how to play the game.

Anything that happens in history can happen to the people they protect as a government, so they must be prepared for everything that comes their way, Epoch after Epoch. If they make good, wise decisions as a team, their people will prosper and their civilization will grow bigger and stronger. If they don't, their people will suffer and their civilization will grow smaller and weaker.

Each government's wisdom is dependent on knowing as much as possible about the people, places and problems encountered in Historia, so students conduct rigorous, content-based research and use the lessons they learn along the way to solve problems, shape strategies and create their very own people's history. For this reason, we like to say that Historia teaches the human experience through the human experience. And yes -- it is as much fun as it sounds!

Building Skillsets via an Interactive Graphic Novel

After conducting research and settling on a strategy as a team, each government crafts a balanced budget and spends the money their economy produces on advancements and improvements that prepare their people for their times. In other words, students learn the lessons of history and then apply them in the gameplay.

From there, Historia unfolds like an interactive graphic novel in which students shape their people's history by making timely decisions and solving historically accurate problems called Dilemmas -- again, all as a team. For example:

  • Will their civilizations make peace with Alexander the Great -- or not?
  • Should their people pay the price to produce an architectural wonder of the world?
  • Or should they spend big on science and win the space race instead?

Anything is possible within the game, so students learn history by leading history.

How Does the Game Work in the Classroom?

Historia was designed by classroom teachers for classroom teachers and will be developed in stages through a unique play-based partnership linking Histrionix, ASU's Center for Games & Impact, E Line Media and Upper One Games (the first indigenous gaming company). It will be playable on PC, Mac and interactive white boards.

Eventually, Historia will be loaded with digital curriculum content and formative and summative assessments embedded in the gameplay experience, possibly replacing textbooks in many history classrooms. The game can also give new life to traditional textbooks if teachers want to pair it with a favorite that they're already using. The game will be elastic enough to be used daily for an entire school year, or episodically, starting and stopping at strategic spots. Additionally, teachers can tailor the timeline to fit the scope of their state curriculum, so if your class ends with the Fall of Rome, Historia can end there, too.

We're excited about Historia coming to a classroom near you in the Fall of 2014. And we hope you're excited, too. Game on!

Historia Resources on the Web

For more information about Historia’s release, visit the game's website. And to learn more about our GBL school-building partner, visit Neighborhood Centers.

Intrigued by game-based learning, but not sure where to begin? Edutopia's new Made With Play series takes a look at game-like learning principles in action and commercial games in real classrooms -- and offers tips and tools for bringing them into your own practice. Get more resources for game-based learning here.

Videos made possible through generous support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Made With Play series is a co-production with Institute of Play.

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Game-like learning principles in action, commercial games in real classrooms, and tips and tools for bringing them into your own practice

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ann Easter's picture
Ann Easter
6th grade social studies teacher from Indiana

I think this looks like a wonderful opportunity for all students! I can't wait to learn more about it. We are hoping to go 1 to 1 next year and I would love to introduce this idea to my students when your roll it out! Great job!!

Mary Evans's picture

I loved reading about Historia...WOW...sounds so refreshing and exciting. I hope to be able to incorporate the program someday when I have my own classroom. I love history and social studies and I know students would if only they had something like this program to interact with. Great job to the's obvious they understand their students and have made a lifetime commitment to student excellence.

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Brilliant! I love it! I've always been a fan of game-based learning, especially in the social studies KLAs. I remember playing games like Civilisation and Sim City when I was younger.

I'm definitely going to check out Historia.


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