Gaming the Past: How to Teach History with Video Games

Video games create role-playing opportunities for learning

I was first introduced to the concept of using games to teach history when I read Larry Ferlazzo’s post about teaching with “Choose Your Own Adventure Stories” (CYOAS).  (See, “The Best Places to Read and Write ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Stories,’” “‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Additions,” which inspired my own post: “Student-written ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Stories’ for learning history,” and a related post, “Writing Fiction as an Exercise in History Education.”)  Using the provided links from Ferlazzo’s recommended sites (such as the Microsoft site with a PowerPoint tutorial and these clowns who actually explain a YouTube adventure quite well despite failing at humor), I created my own PowerPoint CYOAS: “Lord Nivelo and the First Crusade.”

The main character was based on a real historical knight who left a charter about his decision to give up his life of robber-baron crime and repent by accepting the call to the First Crusade.  Links to online biographies, online primary sources, and an in-document glossary, provided the means for the students to build content-knowledge.  The links that moved the story provided students with the opportunity to role-play and engage in decisions that would have been relevant to a late-11th century knight.  Some decisions were purely moral and resulted in the same outcome, but the decision would have required careful consideration by a knight of the era who was opting to be moral or not.  The story progressed based on the events of history and historical persons.  In the below sample, for example, the knights in Emico’s entourage attacked the Jews of Mainz, sought to enter the Kingdom of Hungary, were repulsed, and then fell to bandits in the woods during their  retreat.  This is a dead-end scenario.  If the student selects the option of Nivelo refusing Emico’s offer, the story continues.

To recap: the students, by participating the story, do all of the following:

  1. Read related secondary and primary sources (online in this case)
  2. Build relevant vocabulary for the unit (plus, in my glossary of, “Words you may not know,” I included, “Places You May Not Know” with links)
  3. Engage the thought-processes, problems, and decision-making challenges of the historical era
  4. Engage these within a realistic fiction of actual historical events and persons, based on primary document evidence

This is a pretty useful way for students to engage the familiar and the strange in a the foreign culture they are studying.  (It is also a useful exercise for the educator who creates the CYOAS–assuming, of course, that it’s done right.)

It was thanks to Glenn Wiebe’s post, “Gaming the Past: How to Teach with Video Games,” that I was introduced to an entirely new and productive approach to teaching history with video games.  (A fact that was strongly recalled to mind when I visited, “The Art of Video Games,” exhibit and learned about the incredible potential of modern video games.)  Upon visiting Glenn’s site with the above link, you will be provided with links to’s posts by Jeremiah McCall on using and creating simulation games in the classroom and the blog, Gaming the Past.  These tools will give you another opportunity to provide an authentic role-playing experience that helps students learn about historical eras, events, or persons.

boys,household,leisure,playing,teenagers,television,video games,kids,people

A twist…

Students will benefit from playing these games–their knowledge and understanding will increase.  These games are exercises in historical experiences.  That’s useful for learning.  There is another way to approach this, however.  As you will learn from the links, above, software exists to create simulations.  This means you can make games for your students to play, but it also means that the students can make the games!

I have already advocated for this learning experience in previous posts: “Creating Educational Games,” and, “Some advice and tips on creating educational games.”  The same logic can be used in providing students with the necessary tools to create digital simulations and games.  The same knowledge that was required in making my CYOAS, “Lord Nivelo and the First Crusade,” would be the researched portion of the project for the students in developing their games.  The same ideas I suggested for board or card games in the above posts could be used to create digital simulations with the software available, today.

In this way, students are not only engaging in role-play learning for eras, but they are doing the necessary research to create a simulated historical era, and learning enough about the habits and ways of a historical period to create problem-solving scenarios in line with the era.  This is an incredibly useful learning experience, a good way to engage the current generation, and valuable experience in traditional history research.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Fiction, Games

7 responses to “Gaming the Past: How to Teach History with Video Games

  1. This is a thought provoking post Erika, and the use of PPT to create a historical CYOA (with primary sources) is a terrific idea. Since you referred to my site and work (and thank you for that), I just wanted to offer two things in case you or your readers find them useful.
    1. Inform, has a relatively new extension built in that will allow programmers to design text based CYOA type games. It’s a way to get students to design their own games that is even more simple than the basics of Inform (because it is so highly scripted). The extension is called “Adventure Book by Edward Griffiths” and it is available on the Inform site.

    2. I also have written a book called Gaming the Past that focuses on guiding teachers to use historical simulation games effectively in their classes. It’s a much more systematic and organized approach than the materials on my website.

    • Jeremiah, thanks for the comments! Inform is only a text-based simulation activity, correct? There is no ability to add graphics or images, correct?

      The book is on my Amazon Wish List. I think there are lots of opportunities to use games as active learning tools. The key is to make sure it achieves that standard and is not simply a throw away activity to take up time.

      • Actually Inform does allow for static images (and I think there has even been some work done on including animated sequences). When using this for students in history classes as a design tool, though, those extra complexities tend to make Inform, I think, unapproachable, when the whole power is it’s simplicity. I’m not sure if the CYOA extensions would work with images at all. For what it’s worth I have found that the lack of images is not an impediment to student interest and enjoyment because these are still interactive (and there is the great feeling that the computer almost understands one).

        Re: your second comment. I agree absolutely! The whole point should be to use games as effective tools that are part of planned learning environments with clear objectives (though it will likely be the case that a great deal of unexpected learning also takes place — which can be very good too).

      • Ok, thanks, that’s good to know. I look forward to experimenting with it this summer. I’ll share my results when I get that far. I’m really excited about the potential.

        Oh, and I did see how you built in an anticipation and reflection into your description of the Inform project on the posts at, so I was not implying that you had somehow failed to identify the challenges of making it an active learning tool and not simply a break from instruction. Thanks again!

  2. Here is a link to Playing History:, a website that aggregates historical online games.

  3. Pingback: Smart Summer Fun: 30 Ideas for History Dorklets | Brush off the dust! History now!

  4. Pingback: Gaming the Past: How to Teach History with Video Games | Brush off the dust! History now! « Culture Foam: Bubbling Up

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s