Troy University professor using games to teach history


Troy University students will have a chance this fall to learn about history in a rather unconventional manner: by playing games.

Dr. Scout Blum, a professor in the University’s Department of History and Philosophy, will teach History Through Games, a hands-on interactive course that marries popular board, roleplaying and video games with a history curriculum.

Blum debuted the course as a pilot in the spring, and the success has led to its place being secured in the fall semester.

“When students play games, they tend to be thinking a lot more in analytical ways,” Blum said. “They were thinking of things I hadn’t thought of. It was amazing. There was a much higher level of thought than I normally see, because they were interacting with these games.”

Blum got the idea from a method of teaching called “Reacting to the Past,” a form of role-playing aimed at getting students to identify with historical figures and situations.

“Students take on roles,” she said. “They’re given information about their roles and they’re placed into historical situations. They then have to play through those situations as that character. Students get really engrossed in it, because it actively engages this desire to play that we kind of squash when they’re in college. When they get that ability to be able to play, what we find is they get a lot more a lot more involved. They’ll read more and they’ll work more.”

Blum took that foundation and expanded it into a curriculum based around some of those roleplaying games, but also popular tabletop board games and even video games.

The class is divided into units, with each unit focusing on a different historical era – from the earliest civilizations to 21st century globalization, just to name a few.

“In a unit, I will normally do some lecture as background and the students will read some primary documents to get an idea of the time period. Then, we’ll play the game and have a couple of class periods where we talk about comparing and contrasting what actually happened and how the game portrays those events,” Blum said.

Among the games played by students are the board games Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, Cathedral and Memoir ’44, traditional games like Monopoly and chess, and the strategy-based video game Civilization V.

“One of the games we played was Settlers of Catan, a civilization-building game,” Blum said. “It has a lot of game elements dealing with the use of resources. We talked about how civilizations developed, how environment and resources were really important, and how past civilizations misused or overused some of their resources.”

In addition to showing how the games reflect history, Blum also focuses on how reality differed from the games’ portrayals.

“With Settlers of Catan, for instance, there’s no limitation on resources. One of the things the students really got out of that was this idea that there was a big contrast between what the game was doing and what was in history, what was real,” Blum said. “We talk about what the differences are, what the games leave out and why they leave those things out. It helps them see those differences a thousand times better. And they want to think about those things while they play the games rather than just say, ‘I’m going to sit here, listen to a lecture, take a few notes, go home and not think about it.'”

The students in the spring also had to create proposals for their own historical games, which Blum said were particularly impressive.

“It involved them doing research into the historical period and how that history would factor into the game they created, and those (proposals) were great, partially because the students came from such varied backgrounds,” Blum said. “We had someone who was a theater major, someone who was in business, a history major, a computer science major, and more. They just brought different perspectives and viewpoints. I was really impressed with all of them.”

Blum plans to expand the video game portion in the future, as the pilot program had students journaling about their exploits in Civilization V. Ultimately, she hopes the course draws more students to history.

“History teaches some very fundamental skills that employers are looking for,” she said. “Employers are looking for analytical skills, writing skills, the ability to think outside the box and the ability to think critically about the things they see and read. Hopefully, students take some of this away with them as they continue their work at TROY.”