Thursday, August 25, 2011

Using Games to Teach: Through the Ages- A Story of Civilization

By Angie

The Big Idea:

Games are fun. They invoke optimism and curiosity, create systems in which it is ok to try new strategies, acceptable to make mistakes and to fail, and provide an environment in which to compete with others in healthy ways while developing and practicing a myriad of social skills. Games encourage us to enjoy time spent together socially while also critical thinking and doing what our brains love to do best: solving problems. Games help boost a sense of efficacy and inspire esteem, in a game you CAN accomplish great things, and believing in yourself is the foundation for all future successes. Regardless of their inherent “educational value”, games provide all of these amazing benefits and more. Many games also involve opportunities to learn and practice reading skills, language, vocabulary development, math concepts, and spatial relationships… to name a few! Games also provide meaningful opportunities to hone essential life skills such as thinking ahead, strategic planning, resource management, positive social interactions, conflict resolution, and teamwork. Some games model basic economic principles such as supply and demand, while others encourage players to evaluate multiple possibilities and decide on the best course of action, while still others demonstrate probability in action. Learning is everywhere in our lives, and games offer a very specific type of experience that is innately educational in all of these ways, and likely more that I haven’t listed here.

A basic concept of educational theory and pedagogy taught to teachers is that students learn best when they are engaged and interested in the material, and that a sound way to build engagement is to connect the material at hand to prior experiences or background knowledge. Effective teachers often build lesson plans that include “anticipatory sets”, activities designed to introduce students to concept and pique their curiosity, or review concepts previously learned. Effective teachers also find ways to connect the subject material in a personal way to the students, asking questions, invoking imagery, telling stories, and progressively building up ideas so that students understand not only the learning objective of the day, but the context in which it occurs.

So, here’s where I think a good number of modern board games can REALLY shine… many “off the shelf” games designed with optimal play experience in mind (not learning objectives or content standards!) can be used to introduce broad concepts to students and set up a base of knowledge and experience that will help cultivate curiosity and create connections. By interacting with game pieces and cards representing historical elements, playing through systems that are designed to emulate some of the important events and relevant themes, and experiencing fun and engaging game play centered around a specific time period, teachers can use games as an activity to help create an optimal learning environment that will motivate students to learn the content. The game doesn’t need to “teach” the concepts, just introduce them in a fun way, provide some interesting mechanics that encourage thoughtful decision making, and create an experience the players will remember.

This is a bit of a revolutionary idea, and it doesn’t necessarily integrate well into a typical classroom setting, however I think this is something worth exploring. Within the current educational climate, this idea could be implemented through parental interventions (play games with your kids!), afterschool board game clubs, through individual or small group tutoring sessions to help struggling students, and in libraries and other community outlets to enhance learning. Additionally, if time and resources allow, many games could be played in small groups in the classroom, or modified for whole group play. Games can be used to introduce a lesson block topic or could have entire lessons built around the concepts presented in the game. The point is to make the learning fun for the students and to engage them by activating their curiosity about a topic and providing relevant “experience” that can’t be easily replicated in other ways.

Forming connections with material is a key factor in retention and engagement, and playing games gives students a potential reason to care about a topic. Have you ever heard a student ramble off a giant list of stats and details about a game character they loved? Looking at ways we can use the power of games to interest students is an invaluable step in providing top notch engaging curriculum. Board games seem like an especially great avenue because they encourage social interaction and require the players to keep track of the game state information that is often hidden behind the scenes in video games, which can help provide a more solid understanding of the overall framework and enhance the learning capabilities.

An Example: Using Through the Ages

 Here are a few general ideas of how existing games could be used in this way with a complex game called Through the Ages. Through the Ages is an in-depth civilization building game by Eagle Games with a long play time that may make it challenging to use in a classroom, but it offers amazing potential to explore world history and provides a broad knowledge base upon which a teacher could build a vast array of lessons that connect back to the experience of playing the game.

As an introduction to world history, this game has mechanics that represent the how development of new technologies influenced the capabilities for food and resource production. It provides a wide range of historical leaders which each have game play mechanics that help reinforce the philosophies and tactics they are best known for. It uses wonders to present historical monuments, and again reinforces the theme through mechanics. This game provides a broad reference and jumping off point for many historical explorations, and it’s amazing strategic depth and game system really reinforce the theme well and provide an opportunity to practice many of the skills discussed above as well as cover a broad base of world history.

Playing through a game of Through the Ages can help provide an experienced base context for a wide array of lessons, and can inspire curiosity that will motivate students. “Who is Hammurabi?” “What is the Kremlin?” “Why does Genghis Khan give me a bonus to my horseman units?” On the flipside of that, playing a game that includes historical figures and places will provide something for a student to “latch” on to when they are learning about a topic. “Oh, Frederick Barbarossa? I remember him! He was my leader in that game we played and I got to turn my workers into military with him… that totally makes sense because he led his people into all those wars”. Educators can capitalize on this curiosity or reinforce these connections and make the experience richer and more educational.

 In addition to specific people and places, key concepts can be represented in a game in a way that allows students to experiment with these ideas and really get a grasp of how they work. For example, in Through the Ages technology advances such as the development of irrigation (then later selective breeding and mechanized agriculture) really affects the food production of a civilization, which influences the population level that can be sustained, the happiness of the people, and the ability to generate armies. These broad concepts can be emphasized by a teacher and used as a basis for lessons on how the availability of food has significantly impacted civilization growth, achievement, and conflict throughout history. With the experience of interacting within the environment of a concrete game mechanic, this concept can become much more tangible for students, and also far more interesting.

I could go a lot deeper into the specifics of this game, or the multiple "teachable" moments this might present so over the next few months I am planning to develop some of these concepts into curriculum ideas and discuss some specific games that seem especially suited for this purpose here on the blog. Feel free to comment or send any ideas or comments my way. I’d love to hear what other people think, how games have worked (or not worked!) for you in educational settings, and recommendations for games that can be used to teach “right out of the box”.


  1. Games are a great way to educate kids. Your example of Through the Ages is a great choice for introducing some world history concepts to older students. For younger students, just about any game that involves rolling a couple of dice can be a great introduction to math. You have to add 2 randomly generated numbers together to see how far you get to move. Later on, if students are interesting in games, this same approach can be used to teach higher math such as probabilities involving dice and cards which can be used to explore fractions, multiplication and even exponents.

    I have used some sessions of D&D to have Sabine learn some basic math. Roll a d20 and add your attack roll to see if you hit. When she gets hit, she even does some light subtraction to find out how many hit points she has left. She stays engaged because its all in the context of going on a fun adventure.

  2. Have just discovered your blog and am fascinated! The majority of my gaming sessions are with kids, too. Will enjoy reading your perspective on "growing up gamers," (nice agricultural reference - especially for a hobby with a lot of farm-themed games!).

    Gaming as education is one reason I really enjoy getting into the hobby with my kids. Especially to pull them away from video games. Now, some video games certainly can serve a similar purpose for education. But so many that are popular right now require a sort of mindless and/or monotonous repetition!