Thursday, May 28, 2015

Tilting at Windmills, Vol. 1, No. 3

Gaming in the Classroom: A Walden University Blog Entry

            Once upon a time when a Sony Playstation was an advanced piece of engineering I rented a video game that advertised, “What would you do if you were emperor?” It was the original version of Sid Meier’s Civilization. It looked different than the Mortal Combat clones and first person shooters so I picked it up and took it home. Right after dinner I loaded up the game and began to play on the bedroom television set. I played into the late evening. My wife came in and went to bed mumbling, “Turn it down so I can sleep.” I played on to midnight. Consumed by the need to play at least one more turn I continued on. One more turn saw the sun rise. Eventually my kids wandered down the steps into the room wondering what I was doing up so early on a Saturday.

            My wife woke up and wondering if I was going to play that game all day. I would have if the time between turns wasn’t so long to load up. I fell asleep for a few hours around 11 in the morning. That is the only time I have ever stayed up for more than 24 hours straight. Don’t be fooled by the saying, “One more turn.” It really means, “I am not stopping until I win or the power goes off.” I’ve played a lot of video games, but that was the only one that caught me up like that. 

            That leads me to the subject of this post, playing games in class. I teach History and Geography. World Regional Geography is a class that could easily take a game like Civilization and make it work. In fact, applying lesson plans to the events taking place in Civilization would be a great way to employ activist learning practices. Using the technology tree in the game shows them how civilizations developed over time. Choosing to build their empire peacefully or by conquest can show them how empires expanded over time while their opponents may turn around and conquer them separately or through alliances. 

            To avoid the need for students to buy the game separately or to have the school buy enough copies or licenses, instructors can have students play on FreeCiv at  Instructors can set up a game for their class. A few problems exist such as what to do with players that get wiped out too quick. Larger classes can have multiple games going of course. Video gaming is currently being used in courses and can be educational at the college level. Civilization is used in classes right now just like Guitar Hero is in music classes (Criswell, 2009).

Winning the game in the traditional sense is not a realistic goal either.  I would set victory conditions, but winning is not the object of the game. Learning about the human and geographic features that were involved in the past over time would be. There is also the problem with players attacking one another, sometimes through violations of treaties. I would hate to see friends backstab each other or situations develop which result in serious enmity in a classroom. These things can happen. I know this from my own experiences in high school when my girlfriend backstabbed me during a class game on WWI in which my team was winning. She stole the plans and gave them to her friends who were able to blunt my assaults and survive the blitzkrieg I had planned for them which meant I had to settle for a draw. Needless to say I didn’t have a date that weekend which led to me getting a new girlfriend later. 

            Maybe it is just me, but I am not convinced that running a video game version of Civilization is the best way to use games in the classroom. My classes are 90 minutes long twice a week. A semester usually means I have 30 class sessions. There is a lot of material to cover and allotting precious game time to a game means I need that time to be focused on learning. I flip the classes, but if I did that with Civilization that means I would not be able to do more than provide after action reports on the game and its progress. It also means students would have to play the game turn before the next one could begin. Our infamous “casual” student (insert whatever word you use for slacker going through the motions) would disrupt the game and eliminate any learning opportunities. 

            We could have the students play the game on their own, but that eliminates the value of collaborative learning. Learning experiences would be uneven and I think this would require the writing of an essay so that students show learning from the exercise. Other instructors are using Civilization IV and III in their courses (Pagnotti & Russell, 2012). There are other ways around this such as using the board game version of Civilization. There are two versions of the computer game of Civilization as well as two versions of the Avalon Hill version of Civilization which Sid Meier did play and got some of his inspiration from. There are also other games which are similar to Civilization

            One game I have used in my Geography class is the second edition of Avalon Hill’s History of the World. This is an outstanding game and one which I will be using in class this summer. Geography plays a role in how empires expand in the game. The fact that it is a board game gives instructors opportunities to stop between turns and apply assessment techniques which mean each turn is a self contained lesson. To give students more time to apply what they learned, we will be playing two rounds of the game. One round will be employed near the halfway point of the class where they use the principles of geography in playing the game. The second round will be at the end of class where they apply what they learned in studying four regions of the Earth in conjunction with the principles of Geography. I expect to see some significant shifts in playing skill.

            My students loved the game in the last semester. The students who applied the geographic principles did the best. One student went from zero to hero overnight. The student was less than engaged during the course, but when we played the game over two sessions he dominated one turn by applying the principles and deployed his forces extremely effectively. It was the best score of any player turn. The problem with the game is that it relies far too much on military forces instead of economic/social/diplomatic/technological forces. Religion is not involved and that has played a major role in historical events. The Civilization board games do duplicate these themes in the game which is why I am considering using them at some point. 
            The other problem is complexity. Obviously the past is pretty complex. No game is going to duplicate the past or really show geographic principles in conjunction with the human factors. The best a game can do is approximate them. The more realistic the game, the harder it is to learn it. I need students to learn course content, not game rules. So simplicity is pretty important. There has to be a balance between simplicity and content in the game. Designing my own game is a thought and one which I plan to pursue down the road. So there you have it. Games can be played in class and be learning exercises (Lee & Probert, 2010). A lot depends on the class and the instructor.  I am sure other instructors are playing games in their classes. I am interested in seeing if any play a Civilization game or one similar to it. Comment if you do!


Criswell, C. (2009). Can video games be Educational? Teaching Music, 16(6), 24.

Lee, J. & Probert, J. (2010). Civilization III and whole-class play in high school social studies. Ther Journal of Social Studies Research, 34(1), 1-28.

Pagnotti, J. & Russell, W. (2012). Using Civilization IV to engage students in world history content. Social Studies, 103(1), 39-48.


  1. I didn't know much about computers when I was in college (late 1980's), and I never played computer games. Some of the more adventuresome students created a computer game showing the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Another student built toy battleships with great detail. He would invite the history professors to a pond and fake battles. Most people don't know how much fun history can be.

  2. Hi Jim,

    Gamification is a topic that is widely discussed among educators today. Games or simulations not only offer student the ability to problem solve in an authentic atmosphere, they offer students to take on different roles, model performance, experience competition, and collaboratively work together (Teras, Teras & Reiners, 2014). I am in the process of building games into our new four year business curriculum. It will give the students the ability to simulate a business experience for different perspectives. ~ Sharon


    Teräs, H., Teräs, M. & Reiners, T. (2014). Giving virtual world learning a pedagogical boost with a gamified authentic learning design. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Media and Technology 2014 (pp. 1688-1693). Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).