A software start-up company relying on MIT-derived know-how is developing a historically accurate, high-tech video game that it hopes will engage high school and college students in World War II (WWII) history lessons. The game will employ state-of-the-art technology while meeting the standards and accommodating the limitations of today’s classrooms, its developers say.

The idea appeals to some educators, who believe video-game technology can be a powerful teaching tool if tailored to the classroom environment.

Although a handful of mainstream video games, such as Civilization III or Age of Empires, are useful tools for teaching social studies, they are not a perfect match for the classroom, said Kurt Squire, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who is interested in piloting the new WWII game.

“In cases like Age of Empires, you have kids playing the game and getting interested in the history and developing a lifelong love of history,” Squire said. But “one of the problems with a game like that is it’s designed to be used at home. It requires 200 to 300 hours of game play.”

Muzzy Lane Software, of Newburyport, Mass., intends to address this and other limitations of mainstream, simulation-style programs with the launch of Making History, an educational video game expected to debut this fall.

“We’re taking the best of the state-of-the-art the gaming industry has to offer … and applying it to our product. But because it is an education product, there are additional things we need to address,” said Nick deKanter, the company’s vice president.

Making History will have shorter play segments, ranging from 45 to 90 minutes long, that are more suitable for school schedules. It also will have reporting and feedback features built in.

“If this is to be a strong tool in the classroom, it has to be able to collect and report what students have done,” deKanter said.

Unlike typical consumer-oriented video games, Making History features a recording engine that will keep track of the decisions students make and their outcomes. Besides using this information for assigning grades, teachers can start classroom debates with it. For example, if 32 percent of the class decided to go one way and the rest decided to go another way, the teacher could ask: Who had the better result, and why?

Historical accuracy is another problem with using mainstream games in the classroom. Although no simulation is entirely precise, entertainment-based games have more freedom to fudge the facts.

To combat this, Muzzy Lane’s designers have based the game on the best-known history as reported by respected universities and professors. But, because history is a product of different perspectives, teachers reportedly will be able to modify certain assumptions–such as the assertion that Winston Churchill was hawkish, for example.

Making History’s technology, graphics, and interfaces will be familiar to students. But what’s different is that students will learn, and even experience, difficult and hard-to-explain concepts surrounding WWII, the game’s creators say.

History involves a fairly complex set of events and trends, notes deKanter. Making a decision to form a treaty with another country, for example, involves economic, political, and diplomatic repercussions.

Making History intends to immerse students in the period and give them an opportunity to think and make decisions like actual historical figures. “It is designed specifically for education and not entertainment,” deKanter said.

Students will be asked to make critical, strategic decisions as they handle challenges such as reuniting a series of regions in Germany, peaceably rebuilding the country and its economy, and keeping Europe’s borders defined by the Treaty of Versailles without going to war.

The game will provide students with an advisor in each policy area.

“We try to make it easier for teachers by having an easy learning curve for the student,” deKanter said. “The game’s advisors take the student by the hand and say: You need to be thinking about these issues.”

Emerging trend

Though Making History is one of the first commercial simulation games of its kind to come to market, more will follow, predicts Squire, who works with the Education Arcade (formerly MIT’s Games-to-Teach project) and has a long history of developing and researching computer games for the classroom.

“I think immersive worlds in education will become the norm,” Squire said. “I don’t think we’re going to throw out classrooms and textbooks, but you will see [the technology incorporated] in a wide variety of areas.”

Educational simulations, on par with high-tech video games, are already widely used in military, adult, and corporate training. Virtual U, for example, is a PC game where players take on the role of a university president and practice running a university or college. Players are in charge of the school’s budget, hiring, student scheduling, student enrollment, admission standards, student housing, classroom facilities, and more.

Already there is some research, and many anecdotal reports, to suggest that the use of certain educational video games can improve student achievement, Squire said.

“In our research at MIT, students who played with a physics game called Super Charged did 20 percent better than kids [who] didn’t use the game,” he said.

Links:

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

The Education Arcade
http://www.educationarcade.org

MIT’s Games-to-Teach Project
http://www.educationarcade.org/gtt