No Longer a Trivial Pursuit: Using Games to Teach History

By Tom Porter for

Can games teach history? This fall, a new, innovative course is investigating that question. In Historical Simulations (HIST 2624), sixteen upper-level students are examining American history, from the era of exploration through the Civil War, through the medium of tabletop games.

Modern board games have come a long way from the days of Monopoly and Risk, explained Professor of History Patrick Rael, a lifelong gamer who also devised the course. As they’ve become more complex, tabletop games have also taken on an ever wider array of topics, he said, many of them historical. “Popular games such as Ticket to Ride depict the history of railroad development, while games such as Carcassonne let players develop a medieval town. More complex games take on difficult topics such as the breakdown of the Roman Empire, European wars of religion, or the attempt to assassinate Hitler.”

Rael is leading his students in an investigation of these “serious games” and their capacity to teach, which, he said, raises a number of pertinent questions: “Can games constitute historical arguments? Are they, like historical feature films or computer games, manifestations of popular culture that promote common understandings of past events? If so, how do games impact the kinds of historical arguments they make?”

Students will explore six episodes in American history through the medium of games: exploration and colonization, the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution, the expansion of the frontier, the fight against slavery, and the coming of the Civil War.  For each theme, the class will play and study one game, putting it in conversation with historical scholarship and primary source documents on its subject.

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