Gamification in World History

Image from the University of California. The Mammoth group won the game, but I gave everybody extra credit for participating.

Hello All,

As you know from the last post, this is JoAnna, Matt’s wife. My world history course at Sierra college is going well. This week I designed a game for the students to play about life in the Neolithic period. It was pretty successful, despite not having enough class time to really explore the whole game.  In this post I’m going to look at gamifying education and how it specifically relates to the discipline of History.

According to Webster’s dictionary, gamification is “the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.” Although the definition gives an example of use in marketing, gamification is gaining traction in education. Students of all ages enjoy playing games, but many of the popular examples of gamification in education are for younger students. However, in my experience, older students can find even more joy and explore deeper themes in educational games. Many of my students in the World History course want to be educators themselves. By using educational games in class, I urge them to think about new methods when they go on to be teachers too. 

Lectures can be boring, I know. There are only so many things a teacher can do with PowerPoint. Listening to someone talk and staying engaged in actively learning is an important skill for students. But by injecting a little activity and lively fun into my course, I hope that my students can retain and understand even more information about a historical period. My games also encourage students to sympathize with people from the past. Modern struggles like charging your iPhone and checking your email can make the struggles of ancient peoples seem so distant. In a game, students can assume the roles of people from a past time and understand their daily lives in a way I simply can’t deliver in a lecture.

This week, my students learned about the evolution of humanity and how we came to settle in all of the habitable landmasses on our planet. Gathering resources, protecting them, and coming to terms with the rhythms of the natural world were big parts of how we progressed as a species. I had my students play a game modeled on life in the Neolithic period. I asked for four volunteers to be the deities in charge of some major resources (agriculture, meat, fresh water, and building materials) and I broke the rest of the class into four groups (the cave bear group, the mammoth group, the giant sloth group, and the sabre-tooth cat group.) Each group picked a leader and 3-4 members of the group to represent them at the start of the game. Each group sent their leader and representatives around to the four deities to collect resources the could use for survival and growth. At the end of each in-game year, I, as the head deity, collected resources from the groups for the survival for the members and to see if they had enough to grow their group (add new players.) If they didn’t have enough resources to sustain their numbers, a group member died (player had to leave the game.)

After the first year, I changed the rules a bit. The deities received fewer or more resources based on a die roll to represent famines or a bumper crop season. I also allowed groups to steal and trade resources and I allowed the deities to be capricious and withhold resources or grant extras. The arbitrary nature of the game was supposed to represent the whims and natural changes during the Neolithic period. Obviously, they could not actually fight wars. But, things did get exciting and most of the students really got into the game. It helped that I gave them the incentive of a little bit of extra credit for the group that had the most people and resources at the end of the game. Sadly, we ran out of time before we could play more than two in-game years. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and I know the activity would have gone even better if we had had more time.

Overall, I believe gamification can be beneficial to students. Some of my fondest memories were playing games in history classes. In middle school we played a medieval life game where we took on roles of serfs and landowners. I learned what a bailiff was and how much how important agriculture was to the foundations of medieval Europe. In college I took a course where we took on the roles of historical figures and wrote argumentative papers from their points of view. I still use what I learned about those figures in my classes today and it greatly improved my writing and researching skills. I don’t know if my students will remember this game, but I believe they will look fondly back on the day they got to run around in class and collecting little pieces of paper and acting out life in the ancient world.

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