A simulation-style computer video game that allows players to act as world leaders, make momentous decisions, and discover the consequences is being used to teach students history.

Muzzy Lane Software of Newburyport, Mass., has issued “The Calm and The Storm,” the first offering in a planned series of computer programs called “Making History.” The idea behind the series is to teach students the skills and concepts they need to learn in history class using a medium they will relate to. (See “Simulation-style video game targets education field.”)

In the game, single or multiple players take on leadership roles in ten different hot-button nations during World War II, in six different key scenarios that shaped the war from 1936 to 1945. For instance, the game scenario entitled “Munich: The Politics of Appeasement” places the student at the moment following Germany’s successful annexation of Austria. “The End of Diplomacy” begins after agreements reached at the 1938 Munich Conference have fallen apart. The other four scenarios are similarly situated along the war’s timeline.

The game gives students the chance to compete against other “national leaders” in making economic, military, and international and domestic policy decisions. Students can even use features such as the game’s instant-messaging feature to negotiate “backroom deals” they can then act out in official game play.

In one scenario, students assume the role of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo of Japan, a former general who came to power in October 1941. As war minister, Tojo invaded Indochina, after which the United States froze all Japanese credits, resulting in crippling economic effects that, according to a game briefing, leads Japan to bomb the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That attack leaves Tojo’s navy in control of the Pacific. In addition, Tojo has signed a neutrality treaty with the Soviets, which gives him the breathing room he needs to carry out invasions of the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies–if he can maintain control of China, French Indo-China, and other holdings.

“Your empire awaits you,” the briefing ends.

Muzzy Lane is betting its 3-year-old empire on this new take on computer gaming for the classroom. The company is hoping its “Making History” series will find its way into American curricula from middle schools to undergraduate programs.

Though each scenario begins at an accurate moment in history, from there, students’ decisions might parallel actual events–or diverge significantly. The game allows students to make their own decisions. No action in the game occurs without a consequence. Players have objectives their countries must attain to stay afloat, and they must negotiate through the political, economic, and military events that are critical to the success or failure of their governments and citizens.

“Early in the game-play tests, a senior history major in college was absolutely furious that he’d lost control of France in only four plays,” said Bert Snow, lead game designer for the company. “When he checked against the historical record, however, he discovered he’d made decisions that kept him in control of the government about twice as long as it was held historically.”

Snow said the developers of the game have designed its scoring component to take into account a player’s performance against such historical facts, as a way of leveling the playing field between players representing countries with significantly different military or economic power and international influence.

Nick deKanter, vice president for business development at Muzzy Lane, said the game is “in effect a competition against history,” in that students are given the opportunity to do better than the leaders whose roles they play. In the process, students develop skills in analysis, synthesis, relating cause and effect, bias detection, and negotiation, he said.

The simulation software looks to engage students as they learn key facts about World War II. (photo courtesy of Muzzy Lane)
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A huge database of World War II events–compiled over thousands of hours under the supervision of respected historian William Keylor of Boston University–lets students and teachers compare their virtual leadership decisions against the historical record.

“In one instance, we called a Chinese scholar to track down the country’s national debt in 1937,” deKanter said. “We’ve also been working closely with economists to determine exactly how economies worked during the period.”

Educators also can add to this database to include materials they believe were left out of its version of the historical record. That transparency of design, the game’s creators said, has led some universities and community colleges to consider the game as a model for teaching gaming design.

In addition, tools built into its platform enable teachers to generate reports, track student progress, and provide a system for consistent scoring among a range of games.

Muzzy Lane says “Making History” permits students to engage in what experts call a constructivist learning environment, weaving together interdependent elements for productive learning. Matched with appropriate content, the company says games for multiple players offer a three-dimensional learning framework, “with teachers talking to students, students challenging each other, and an entire classroom discussing the causes and effects of a game scenario.”

Both deKanter and Snow said the game’s content is aligned with the framework presented by the National Council of History Education and can be manipulated to represent the standards of individual states.

Critics might note the company intentionally left out elements of the war it believed could not be represented tastefully in the game–the most glaring example of which is the Holocaust. But Snow said that, although the Holocaust is not directly represented in the game, some of its effects still can be gleaned through the activity.

“For instance, raising taxes against your commercial population, like Hitler did at the beginning of the Holocaust, was meant to [weaken] the country’s Jewish population at the time significantly,” he said. “That kind of activity still might play out without getting into the Holocaust itself.”

Dave McDivitt, who teaches at Oak Hills High School in Indiana, piloted the program with his students last year. He said his students really responded to learning in this type of format.

“I found that student interest and enthusiasm for this was overall very high,” McDivitt said. “It took a lot of what kids are doing–gaming–and used it in the classroom scenario. Kids love that.”

McDivitt said he was most surprised at student retention in areas he didn’t expect.

“Student understanding of European geography at that time was definitely improved,” he said. “I could mention Estonia, Latvia, the Baltics, and have kids understand where that was in terms of geography. That never happens.” He added that students’ recognition of the names of historical figures and events during that time period also improved by playing the game.

“I would say it was successful, because it reaches teenagers in a mode that is successful with teenagers,” McDivitt said.

Ann Watts, technology director of the Des Moines Area Community Colleges in central Iowa, agreed with McDivitt. Watts said the game can be used to bridge the classroom with the world outside.

“We are entering a period where the technology inside the classroom can match the ‘always-on’ technology culture of teenagers outside the classroom,” Watts said.

“The biggest difference we see with students using ‘Making History’ is the degree to which they exercise higher-order cognitive skills that go beyond comprehension of the subject matter in front of them. They’re learning about leadership and how to think critically in complex situations.”

Muzzy Lane’s deKanter said the market will drive which historical events the company continues to develop software around in the future. He said the company is now developing two additional content packs addressing American history up to the Civil War, and after.

“I think there are certain aspects of teaching history that are begging for simulations that this game doesn’t do,” deKanter added. “What was it like to be a lower mill worker at the turn of the century? Some people call it the ‘little people’s history.’ That approach is something that would come with a new template we’re developing … that would allow gamers to go walk around a historical environment, talk to people, and get feedback [from the characters represented in the game].”

Pricing for “Making History: The Calm and The Storm” starts at $39.99 per copy, though site licenses also are available.

Links:

Muzzy Lane Software
http://www.muzzylane.com

“Making History: The Calm and The Storm”
http://www.making-history.com