Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History

reviewed by Sean Dikkers — November 09, 2011

coverTitle: Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History
Author(s): Jeremiah McCall
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415887607, Pages: 216, Year: 2011

Over the last decade, digital gaming has matured alongside movies and music as a media of choice for American youth. There is little disagreement that they are both engaging and motivating for players and that they could be used for education; the question is how are they best used. In light of this, a score of books identify the value of digital gaming, theories of learning, and 21st century skills around digital resources, but few venture into the classroom. Jeremiah McCall’s Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History fills a gap in the literature by connecting these theories and broad concerns about education directly to classroom practice in ways that don’t betray the underlying theory. As such, Gaming the Past is a model example of reflective research, makes enormous contributions to the field, and makes an exceptional text for education courses with pre and in service teachers.


A key insight driving Gaming the Past is that games themselves are interpretations, no different than other historical interpretations, although the interactive (and perhaps novel) nature of games invites a sort of critique in which historians normally struggle to engage students. McCall’s project as a History teacher is to challenge students’ tendency to receive historical interpretations as unquestionable truth, and throughGaming the Past, he clearly and succinctly lays out just how History teachers can use games and simulations toward that end. McCall argues that presenting students history through a game tends to produce a plethora of questions that can be springboards for inquiry. Throughout the volume, he details what techniques have worked in his classroom for fostering this kind of historical thinking.


Gaming the Past equips teachers (and teacher educators) with specific process models and supplements to take the contents of the book from a weekend read to a Monday morning activity. McCall’s extensive classroom experience (and training as an historian) comes through, as he provides educators everything needed to enact a game-based curriculum, including an insightful breakdown of game genres, talking points for how to talk to parents, students, administrators, and colleagues, and guidance for how to select games for classroom use.


A real strength of Gaming the Past is that this intellectual spadework is deeply connected to contemporary work in history education, as well as work in 21st century learning/literacies/skills. While the business sector, research communities, literacy experts, and media scholars are all presenting frameworks for what teachers should build in classrooms, McCall provides tangible tools for reaching these goals without betraying the ideas underlying these broader social transformations. Indeed, Gaming the Past reminds us that the vision and solutions for how to transform schools will most likely come from those in the field, planning lessons every day. Quality design takes time, years even, and that is exactly what the author brings to the task here. Schools may still be stodgy, but here is evidence of a brilliant reinvention of practice within those walls that is so much more encompassing than teaching about Rome - and McCall provides all the tools to recreate it. This book is about education, from an educator, for everyone that wants to see what future classrooms will look like.  


Perhaps not surprisingly coming from an historian, Gaming the Past is thus connected to both the present and past of educational practice. As much as Gaming the Past advocates digital games and simulations, it also reintroduces the central use of primary source material and invigorated research methods within history education. McCall shows his training as an historian by bringing inquiry models of analysis to bear on rich simulated gaming; students don’t just play, they learn to see the model the game presents and to assess its accuracy, value, and usefulness. McCall insists that students focus on the system represented, not the game play itself. This pedagogical approach is just as easily applied in the sciences, language arts, and other courses and is thus applicable across disciplines, making this book a landmark in the field of digital media and learning.


For teachers and teacher educators, McCall provides many specific pedagogical strategies on how to structure class time, build or use observation guides, direct attention (in and out of game), and coordinate student reflection individually and cooperatively will be most appreciated. These audiences will also be pleased to see that teachers aren’t sidelined by technology here, but are properly positioned squarely in the middle of the learning process. Teachers must foster a climate of investigation and rich situated learning, beyond simplified worksheets and vocabulary lists, in a way that roots teachers as skilled professionals and essential even in the digital age.   


In McCall’s world, games and simulations are simply tools for the larger task of understanding real human systems and rigorous thinking in the classroom. With thoughtful application, these tool-games produce not just ‘players,’ but scholars whose work rivals graduate level thinking around core issues. Each gaming genre is tied to a national standard, indicating how they not only meet the standards, but how engagement, with guidance, produces mastery level learning.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 09, 2011 ID Number: 16592, Date Accessed: 11/26/2011 8:32:51 AM


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