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Friday, June 9 • 3:55pm - 4:15pm
Anti-History, Historiography, and Civilization: Teaching Secondary Students How to Do History

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The commercial game series Sid Meier’s Civilization has received much attention from scholars interested in video games’ potential in history education, however, an inattention to the pitfalls of history curriculum and educational games limits the discourse surrounding the series as a teaching tool. While advocates point to the pedagogical potential of digital games, specifically boosts in engagement and motivation, and detractors cite ideologically biased, culturally insensitive, and ahistorical content, both tend to gloss over history curriculum’s tendency to focus on history as content rather than as a practice. Secondary history classes tend to teach a kind of anti-history focused on the memorization of names, dates, and events important to existing narratives. In contrast, history is a process centered around the production of partial and incomplete historical narratives that advance our collective understanding of the past by based on the interpretation and synthesis of existing evidence. This gap between secondary curriculum and professional practice is an issue unique to history as a core subject as students in math and science do not exclusively analyze solved equations or completed experiments. Without accounting for this flaw, debates regarding Civilization’s place in classrooms will forever remain incomplete. The discourse around the Civilization games’ role in history education should evolve from how the series can or cannot teach history’s patterns or the lifecycles of civilizations to how the games can help introduce students to the practice of historiography.

Civilization games can best serve this function when positioned by teachers as objects of historiographical critique. Though related to history proper, historiography does not concern itself with what happened in the past so much as it interrogates how accounts of the past are written. Part of the reason history curriculum does not emphasize historiography is the difficulty associated with using real historical texts to introduce students to the concept, a method that relies on previous information or creates cognitive load issues. As a commercial game series, Civilization must prioritize player enjoyment over all else, leading to the series’ inherent flaws as a content delivery tool, but these flaws can become strengths when placed in the toolbox of a history teacher familiar with the series. Historiography is a vital skill that must be addressed in history curriculum, and, with instructor intervention, Civilization games can function as texts which students can read and analyze multiple times as they learn to apply historiographical thinking. Deployed for this purpose, Civilization games can succeed on a pedagogical and content level to support a more extensive curriculum aimed at introducing students to the practice of history while fulfilling Common Core standards by strengthening students’ abilities to compare primary and secondary sources, acknowledge uncertainties in historical texts, and integrate several sources into an understanding while noting discrepancies among sources.

This is not to suggest that Civilization games alone can address the flaws in history curriculum, nor is it an advocation for the widespread use of the series in classrooms. Digital games alone are not solutions to issues in education and are not appropriate for all classrooms, students, or teachers. Moreover, scholars have noted that games, when used primarily for content delivery, tend to reinforce dominant ideologies especially as they relate to individualism, militarism, competition, and colonialism in powerful ways, given games’ unique ability to invisibly shape students’ actions while presenting information, concretizing the more abstracted ideological lessons. As a result, games should only be used by instructors who can understand and address these pitfalls. This paper argues for an alternative use for Civilization games as educational tools on the subject of historiography by utilizing the games’ flaws to address complementary flaws in history curriculum.


Samuel Pietsch

The University of Texas at Dallas

Friday June 9, 2023 3:55pm - 4:15pm EDT