Tag Archives: History

Simulations of Misery

I like games. Board games, simulations, video games, role playing games–as a kid, I spent countless hours in my parents’ basement playing them with friends, thinking about them, and designing them. The sound of rolling dice is music to my ears. Many of the games I’ve played are simulations of wars or battles. Fortunately, my understanding of history has grown beyond an adolescent boy’s love of playing “little wars,” but I feel like much of my interest in history stems from my days moving cardboard chits across a map of ancient Gaul or the Russian steppes. So naturally, I am drawn to the idea of using games to spark a similar interest in my students.

I’m not the most plugged in guy, but it seems to me that the buzz around the idea of gamification in the classroom is growing. The idea is that games engage students, provide opportunities to explore open-ended questions, and allow students to create solutions to problems rather than simply receiving and digesting information. Granted, this is not a new concept; many of us have fond memories of the old “Oregon Trail” game, which dates back to the 1970’s. But in education, of course, everything old is new again. In any case, with my love of games, this is an idea I can embrace without someone needing to back it up with data.

I’ve tried to integrate games, er, um, simulations into my lessons since I first set foot in my classroom. In my experience, some of the most successful games are low tech and relatively low preparation ones, such as having students assume the roles of historical figures and challenging them to interact is if they were those people. I have also designed a few card games and some that involve dice and boards. There are also some wonderful free online simulations out there that do a great job pulling in the kids (please let me know about any that work for you–I am always on the lookout for a new game or simulation to include in my social studies classes). Judging by the noise level in my room when I use simulations, the students seem to enjoy them.

Of course, there are pitfalls to avoid with games, just as with any teaching technique. It is very easy for kids to get really into the game without sparing any thought of actually trying to learn anything from it. I guess that’s where the teacher comes in, to make sure the students connect the game to the material they have just been exposed to or that the teacher will try to help them learn through the game or following the game. But this is true for any lesson that engages the kids to a high degree; we need to make sure that the students see the point in it all and don’t just see it as a day off from the drudgery of, you know, learning.

The real issue that trouble me, though, is an ethical one. I remember hearing a fellow student in one of my education classes (back in my college days in the famously liberal “happy valley” region of western Massachusetts) intoning solemnly that “war is not a game” and that any simulation related to warfare was disrespectful. I still have to struggle, a quarter century later, not to roll my eyes at the recollection of that pronouncement. But I will grudgingly admit that she had a point. Some historical events shouldn’t be “fun” to study. There are some red lines that I won’t cross. I can’t imagine running a simulation related to the Holocaust, for example, or of slavery or the Trail of Tears. But I am OK with running games to simulate World War One or the dark days of the early Industrial Revolution. I dunno, maybe this makes me a rank hypocrite. What qualifies as acceptable,and what trivializes human suffering?

I guess there are a few guidelines I have in mind when I think about using a game. Extreme caution should be used with a simulation that relates to a tragic event that may still persist in living memory, or that connects strongly to the experiences of a specific racial, ethnic, religious, or other minority group. So, no Rwandan Genocide game, no 9/11 simulation, no Iraq War simulation. Another unwritten rule would be that the game should not mock a specific individual or provide an easy opportunity for the class clown to find a way to mock an individual. Even poor Louis XVI doesn’t deserve some 16 year old Mainer parading around with a balloon with the unfortunate monarch’s face drawn on it representing his severed head. Finally, students needs to know that whatever they are doing, their experience in no way replicates the experience of actual human beings who lived through the events they are simulating. This is why I will never do a World War One simulation where students tip over their desks and throw wads of paper at each other. They can simulate the decision making process of the leaders who dragged the world into that maelstrom, but not the horror that the doughboys and tommies witnessed in the mud of Flanders.

We can’t, however, tiptoe around everything that could potentially offend. Heck, even chess is a simulation of warfare, and some would argue that many sports are ritualized warfare. Let’s face it, we read stories about human misery in part because we enjoy them; we are fascinated by the dark and macabre, and there are times when immersing ourselves in that can be instructive. Simulations and games hold too much potential to engage students, present opportunities for them to recognize connections, and provide springboards to deep and meaningful learning to dismiss them out of hand. Done carefully and thoughtfully, they can be used not only to teach the specific details of a given event, but also to help students make a sympathetic connection to those strangers who lived, and sometimes suffered, so long ago.


For those who may be interested, here are some free online simulations that I have found useful. If you have others to pass along, please do so in a comment!

Wall Street Journal’s Stock Market Simulation: Students set up a virtual portfolio that ties into real-time stock prices and compete to see who can make the most money in a set period. Be careful not to create little day trader fiends with this one!

Third World Farmer: This can be a powerful one that teaches students about the obstacles faced by farmers in the developing world. Some care must be taken that students do not use this game to mock the plight of those whose role they are assuming–students can “name” the people on their farm, and sometimes come up with inappropriate names. They also have the choice of schooling the character’s children, providing medicine (or not), or marrying them off. There’s a lot of potential for abuse here.

Against All Odds: A simulation in which students make choices as a refugee fleeing oppression and conflict. This one is very respectful of the plight of refugees.

World War One Simulation: This simple simulation of trench warfare from the BBC teaches students about the failure of technology and tactics to break the stalemate, and does a nice job remaining sensitive to the human suffering involved.

Battle of Waterloo Simulation: This is a very basic simulation that allows students a simple choice A/choice B series of decisions. It’s value is limited, in my experience, but it can be an opening activity to get students discussing the futility of Napoleon’s 100 days campaign and why Frenchmen still flocked to his banner.

Who Wants to be a Cotton Millionaire?: Another from the BBC. This one has students make a series of decisions as a factory owner at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
Muck and Brass”: A follow-up to the cotton millionaire game. This time, students are the town elders in a Victorian city deciding what, if anything, to do about social and environmental challenges.

Image: “Senet.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.

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