The recent news about the Department of Education’s research department Institute awarding the majority of their EdTech allotted Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) innovation grants to gaming companies with promising educational products got me thinking about how my personal education was influenced by video games and how gaming might affect the future of Social Science education.
Like the author I too came of age during the Oregon Trail/Carmen San Diego era, and of course I thought those games were Awesome, I spent endless hours trying to figure out where Carmen was heading next and credit some of those hours with my own zest for worldwide exploration. As I aged many of my friends turned to the urban planning overlord game, SIM CITY. I gave it several tries but I was always put off by the lack of diversity–you could design and build a basic city that looked a lot like, well Portland, or Springfield, or really anywhere USA (with much less parking). After chasing Carmen, I was ready for my world to be a little, I don’t know, spicier. I knew that European and Asian cities were very different. Why couldn’t I build those–or even better how about a new urban form that hasn’t been discovered yet?
For me the real game that got me hooked on Social Sciences was Civilization 2. I lost whole days to Civ2. You start the game as a hunter-gatherer and then you slowly build your civilization. You choose what knowledge to learns (e.g. alphabet or bronze-working; Religion or Monarchy) and those choices gave you technologies or government types, or the ability to cross oceans and explore new worlds and grow rich through colonies. You had to build your cities up through irrigating near-by land and building road networks for trade. Geography mattered alot, so chose your locations wisely. Sure this game was largely limited by its internal design to a roughly similar historical outcome as our own world but even within those constraints there were so many different permutations possible.
Today as a teacher the part about civ 2 that interests me was how I was practicing some of the basic rules of history,geograpy, economics, and even a tiny bit of sociology (be sure to keep your folks entertained and stocked with luxuries) through a fun game format. I think this can potentially be a great educational tool for my kids. Imagine if your homework assignment was to play a 3 hour game of civilization and then the next day you compared your strategy with the other kids. Questions would run the gamut; why did you build your city in the plains instead of next to the river? I researched (Of course I would give a writing assignment consisting of some sort of historical analysis). Some of the kids would probably not like it, but many of them would love it I think. Granted this could never be a full curriculum but it could be a intermittent exercise.
As an educator I am really looking forward to seeing these products they develop and I myself have several ideas of potential ones in the social sciences.
Update: It appears that the folks at SimCity have developed an educational tool and online resource center that might have some real potential for Social Science teachers. Despite my youthful desire for more interesting city design possibilities I can’t wait to test this out.