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Skill Building through Game Building in a Public History Class

Phillip Payne is a professor of history and department chair at St. Bonaventure University where he teaches a variety of courses in United States History. He also teaches undergraduate courses in public and digital history. He is the author of Dead Last: The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding’s Scandalous Legacy (2009) and Crash! How the Economic Boom and Bust of the 1920s Worked (2015).

In recent years, defenders of the humanities and proponents of studying history often stress that it improves a student’s reading, writing, and analysis. While this is true, professors often only teach these skills implicitly, failing to explicitly communicate to their students that a key value of studying history is learning how to learn—the ability to identify and adapt to the rapid change that is the hallmark of the twenty-first century. If these skills remain vague and implicit, how does a young history major explain them to potential employers? This past semester we experimented with giving students marketable skills and the language to explain them.

Eddie Keen explored a classic board game theme – railroads. Players could explore the logistics of moving troops and supplies during the war. Eddie provided a great deal of historical information to inform player’s decisions.

Eddie Keen explored a classic board game theme – railroads. Players could explore the logistics of moving troops and supplies during the war. Eddie provided a great deal of historical information to inform player’s decisions.

For a number of years I’ve been teaching undergraduate public and digital history classes with Dennis Frank, University Archivist. The public history class, in particular, has always contained discussion of career options related to history and some public history projects based on archival work. But last year, we decided to overhaul the class to place greater emphasis on how the assignments related to the student’s marketability. In overhauling the class we sacrificed some discussion of types of public history in favor a large project that incorporated iterative design, information organization, group work, presentations, and different types of writing. To get there, we decided to build a game design assignment. This allowed us to look at gamification and the increasing role of games and gamification in a wide variety of occupations including education. To underscore our point, we gamified the assignment itself, having students pursue levels and goals rather than traditional grades (although we did have to translate them to grades ultimately). Students would both design a game while participating in a gamified class. On the assignment, I spelled out how “the game design project will develop directly marketable skills while building your game(s), including: group work, peer review, innovation, problem solving, design & prototyping, and project management.” Most of these are recognizable, transferable, skills we expect history majors to develop. Here we spelled them out.

Focusing on game design also allowed us to address how learning and commerce work on the internet. People play a lot of games online, sometimes without realizing it. Gamification is a twenty-first century phenomenon that one doesn’t often associate with history courses. Indeed, the word gamification does not have much of a history, only coming into existence a few years ago. However, gamification and game design presented some challenges. An obvious hook for students is the lure of video games. However, expecting students to know how to code or asking them to master game engine software in one semester was unrealistic. Instead, we decided to have them build board games. Board games would allow them to explore the underlying ideas of gaming and the importance of gaming in the information age without mastering complicated software. Perhaps ironically, the internet has sparked a renaissance in board gaming. The rise of Eurogames (games built using mechanics such as indirect competition and player cooperation popular in Germany) in the United States opens the door to a more diverse and rich board gaming experience. Game design allowed us to retain many of the important features of other assignments—integrating content, archival research, considering audience, display, iterative design— and added a few cool elements. Game design lent itself to a discussion of the psychology of learning and decision making. Players have to make meaningful choices, otherwise the game isn’t interesting. Player choice lent itself to a discussion of causation in history—that people’s actions had consequences.

Game design has a rich, robust body of literature across many disciplines that address using games to teach problem solving and design. Bringing games into the classroom is not new. The History Teacher has several articles on teaching with games. The Chronicle of Higher Education has had recent articles on gamification in education. Oregon Trail is a classic and Assassin’s Creed is showing up in classrooms. The popularity of video games has driven the recent rise of gamification. Gamification provides students a skill they can list on LinkedIn that might open doors in a variety of careers.


Mike Wesolowski combined elements of a traditional board game with a role playing game to give players more of a sense of the decisions members of the regiments faced.

As it turns out, another advantage is that game designers like to put useful material online. When preparing for the class we took a Coursera MOOC “Gamification” from the Wharton School of Business and listened to podcasts, most notably the Game Design Roundtable. For the class the EdX MOOC “Introduction to Game Design” served as the primary text supplemented with additional materials. In the EdX MOOC, MIT professors focused on the development of educational games. These are just a few of a growing list of resources that place game design within a broader context of business, education, and social change.

We kept coming back to the idea that the twenty-first century belongs to the lifelong learner, a notion reinforced by our exploration of MOOCs and podcasts. As we designed the class we kept in mind widely circulated lists of skills and attributes that employers are looking for. When writing the syllabus, rather than using history jargon, we used terms appropriate for LinkedIn. “Preparing drafts” evolved into “collaborative iterative design.” “Organizing research” evolved into “Information Architecture.” I wrote on the syllabus “We live in a world awash in information, most of it digital or electronic but not all. Often now the issue is not finding the information, but organizing, sorting, synthesizing, and verifying information. These are skills that history majors often intuitively develop. In this class we will make them explicit as we move between archives, secondary literature, and design process.”

Dan Leopold created an interesting game about the home front. In it, a house hold in Olean had to send supplies and other materials to members of the regiment to boost morale. Dan built the game around letters in the collection.

Dan Leopold created an interesting game about the home front. In it, a household in Olean had to send supplies and other materials to members of the regiment to boost morale. Dan built the game around letters in the collection.

Somewhat predictably, the game design assignment dominated the class. Students referred to it as the “game class.” It would have been fair for students to ask if there is any history in this public history class. Fortunately we could answer that question with the newly donated Mark H. Dunkelman and Michael J. Winey Collection of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry that mustered locally out of Olean, New York. As our primary assignment, students built a Civil War themed game based on the collection. The pretext of the assignment is that a museum has hired the class to build a board game to help visitors understand the experience of the regiment, giving students an opportunity to teach the Civil War through game design bringing together a variety of public history techniques and concerns with primary document research.

The merging of content and technique can be tricky. Students had to adjust to using unfamiliar combinations of sources and tools. We played to their strengths by combining archival research with James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom for history content even as we learned about games from MOOCs and podcasts. Most of them had little to no experience with games beyond the typical list of common board games. We began with two simple games created while working in groups. The objectives of the first game were simply to get the students working in groups and familiar with some basic game mechanics. For the second game they again worked in groups to build a microgame, a small game that can be played in a short period of time, which had a real world theme. The intent here was to broaden their use of game mechanics but more importantly to get them thinking of using games to teach or to illustrate. The first two games were relatively simple, but combining themes with game mechanics proved challenging. Students also learned over the course of the semester that writing game rules required precision and care. We gamified the game assignment by using a point system, a common element of gamification in the business and educational worlds. We needed to create an environment where students felt safe taking risks in design—learning from failure leads to good design. Students had the opportunity to earn points along the way in a variety of ways that supplemented the final game. In other words, if the game didn’t quite work the student still had the potential to earn a good grade.

Finally, digital games proved to be the elephant in the room. In planning the class a great deal of discussion revolved around whether the game would be digital. We had concerns that plunging straight into digital games would overwhelm the students. Rather, we decided to explore how museums and archives are using digital games focusing on the sandbox video game Minecraft as it is finding its way into the classroom. Rather than trying to build a video game from scratch we explore the intersection of commercial video games, public history, and education. Students had to translate their work on building a Civil War themed game into Minecraft and present on how MinecraftEdu is being used in K-12 classrooms and museums.


Ben Barnhart created an excellent military history game focusing on the regiment’s experience at Gettysburg. Ben faced the challenge of recreating a battle in which the regiment faced great odds with creating a game that allowed players to make decisions that had an impact on the outcome.

In a real way, we gave students the question that history teachers often ask: how do we make history interesting and engaging? We also had to deal with issues such as players making counterfactual choices. One student said that we couldn’t let a student playing the Confederacy win the war. Why not? How might we deal with issues of slavery and race? Is it ethical to ask a student to play a slave catcher? These and other questions led to excellent historical discussions. Sometimes we found examples of game designers who had wrestled with the same questions. Brian Mayer’s top-notch Freedom: The Underground Railroad gave us a chance to look at a sensitive depiction of slavery in the context of a board game. Incidentally, given that he is an education specialist and author of Libraries Got Game: Aligned Learning through Modern Board Games, it seems appropriate that an unplanned playing of his game made the point.

At the end of the course, students generally seemed pleased with the experience. One student described it as her hardest class, but also her most fun class. Students expressed concern with their uneven background in gaming. A couple of students had a lot of experience with board and video games, but others had no experience except for, perhaps, a distant game of Monopoly. There was consensus that merging the Civil War content with game design proved challenging, yet every one of them was able to integrate the experience of the 154th regiment into their game successfully. In the end, they recognized that the assignment had taken them outside the comfort zone of what they expected from a history class, but also agreed that it was a successful design experiment in itself.