At times I feel like I’m on the verge of handing over my gamified teacher card. This is one of those times.

I am an advocate of thinking of classroom design through the lens of game design. It forces the teacher to center the student experience and consider a variety of student motivators. Mechanics can be applied as a layer on top of the learning activity to make the student shine. I have a much more conservative approach to game based learning or GBL.

In one sense my hesitation with GBL is mostly with content acquisition in my US History classroom. I’m sure games like Minecraft and Fortnite Creative are excellent tools for teaching game design or systems thinking. When it comes to teaching actual historical thinking I struggle to see value – especially when time and opportunity cost are factored in.

There are some key flaws that lead me to avoid most commercial games in the classroom.

Commercial Games aren’t “real” and might teach fantasy over reality

Simulations like Sim City are to urban planning as Madden is to playing real football. In 2013 the creator of SimCity admitted that they intentionally distorted parking lot sizes from their Urban Planning “Simulator” making them a fraction of the size a real world city would need to be functional. “… we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots.” From what I understand parking is one of the most politically challenging policy decisions big city mayors face. This would be like having to learn to drive without having to worry about all those pesky traffic lights. The designer also decided to leave out food supply issues. That seems like a pretty important aspect of city planning. “Food isn’t in the game, but it’s not that we didn’t think about it — it just became a scoping issue.” I am sure that there important concepts that can be learned from SimCity but the lack of these central issues highlights the important fact that game rules are created by the designer to enhance fun or challenge and this distort the actual simulation.

The designer justified this decision by imagining that most of the parking is underground.

In 7th grade my Social Studies teacher had us ply an election simulator. To get elected the game asked a series of questions from various constituent groups around the country. This was the early 90s and there wasn’t alot of computing power. Once the player realized they just needed to tell the people what they wanted to hear it was fairly easy to win in a landslide. Like SimCity’s parking lot problem it is a fantasyland simulation of reality. I learned nothing about actual politics (maybe capitalism and its relationship to education).

They can teach unintended and problematic lessons

I covered CIV VI and its problematic tendencies in my “Ludonarrative Dissonance” and “Problematic Themes” posts. Quick Recap – While it appears that the game is teaching about progress or geography it is actually sending some subtly problematic messages. First, the notion of a tech or civics tree implies that History has a “Progress” narrative, things are always getting better, and seems to ignore losses. Secondly, the game actually encourages colonizer mentality, religious intolerance, and literal genocide.

CIVILIZATION VI - How To Deal With Barbarians - YouTube
So Barbarians are just indigenous peoples that refuse to be part of the empire? Seems problematic.

Also problematic is the stereotyping of the various “empires” in the images shown and the starting strengths and weaknesses. Commercial games are intended to be fun not necessarily teaching tools and my guess is that any game used as a teaching tool will have some of these issues that need to be addressed.

Blurred Lines for entertainment purposes

Similar to the unintended lessons, another issue is that commercial games that seem to be about history often develop a narrative that actually blurs or warps actually History for entertainment purposes. A great example of this is the Assassins Creed series. As an American History teacher I have had many students tell me about the facts they have learned from ACIII.

Assassin's Creed III - Wikipedia

Now, I have had a great time playing Assassin’s Creed. There is nothing more exhilarating than the free run mechanic as you dash across several rooftops, climb up an Italian Cathedral, and dive from the spire into a pile of hay (wait… hay? Suspension of disbelief right there) before making a silent assassination. The problem of course is that the narrative mixes real history facts with conspiracy theory garbage. As an educated adult with a background in History I am able to decipher which parts are true and which parts are nonsense. The problem with blurring the line is that when you present nonsense next to facts the nonsense starts to have “truthiness”.

colbert-truthiness | Film Quarterly

The truthiness makes the game more entertaining but actually damages the ability to teach good History. Commercial games are made to sell copies not to be teachers.

SimCity’s Creator on Real World Application of the Game (from the article linked above)

Manaugh: Now that the game is out in the world, and because of the central, online hosting of all the games being played right now, I have to imagine that you are building up an incredible archive of all the decisions that different players have made and all the different kind of cities that people have built. I’m curious as to what you might be able to make or do with that kind of information. Are you mining it to see what kinds of mistakes people routinely make, or what sorts of urban forms are most popular? If so, is the audience for that information only in-house, for developing future versions of SimCity, or could you imagine sharing it with urban planners or real-life Mayors to offer an insight into popular urbanism?

Librande: It’s an interesting question. It’s hard to answer easily, though, because there are so many different ways players can play the game. The game was designed to cover as many different play patterns as we could think of, because our goal was to try to entertain as many of the different player demographics as we could.

So, there are what we call “hardcore players.” Primarily, they want to compete, so we give them leader boards and we give them incentives to show they are “better” than somebody else. We might say: “There’s a competition to have the most people in your city.” And they are just going to do whatever it takes to cram as many people into a city as possible, to show that they can win. Or there might be a competition to get the most rich people in your city, which requires a different strategy than just having the most people. It’s hard to keep rich people in a city.

Each of those leader boards, and each of those challenges, will start to skew those hardcore people to play in different ways. We are putting the carrot out there and saying: “Hey, play this way and see how well you can do.” So, in that case, we are kind of tainting the data, because we are giving them a particular direction to go in and a particular goal.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the “creative players” who are not trying to win — they are trying to tell a story. They are just trying to create something beautiful. For instance, when my wife plays, she wants lots of schools and parks and she’s not at all concerned with trying to make the most money or have the most people. She just wants to build that idealized little town that she thinks would be the perfect place to live.

So, getting back to your question, because player types cover such a big spectrum, it’s really hard for us to look at the raw data and pull out things like: “This is the kind of place that people want to live in.” That said, we do have a lot of data and we can look at it and see things, like how many people put down a park and how many people put in a tram system. We can measure those things in the aggregate, but I don’t think they would say much about real city planning (emphasis mine).