December 02, 2007

Civilisation- the teaching aide

The game Civilisation for those who don't know it is incredibly addictive and great fun. In it you take charge of a civilisation- from a set of options including such noted civilisations as the Persians, Babylonians, Chinese, French, British and even Americans. You take your civilisation through the course of history, from the demise of nomadism to the age of the fighter jet. Its a wonderful game and has built into it all sorts of ideas about forms of government and economics and all sorts of things, it provides quite a useful intro for anyone playing it to all those ideas and to the idea that history could well have taken a different course- once you have built the Great Wall of China in Egypt and taken Mongolia to the space race you reall understand the idea that history is contingent, there is no plan and everything could have happened differently.

It is unsurprising therefore to me to find that educationalists have picked up on this and there are increasing efforts to use games like Civilisation and its cousin Simcity (where you build and govern a city) as teaching aides in the classroom. Aaron Wechel writes interestingly in the current issue of World History Connected about the way that teachers can use the games- both to introduce kids to concepts used in the game that they might not come across in other ways, and in making them think as though they were world leaders. Of course as Wechel notes there are problems with the whole concept of civilisation- world leaders don't choose to have Newton discover the laws of gravity and democracy doesn't emerge in a society just because someone says it ought to (if it did Donald Rumsfeld would still have a job!) There are additional detailed problems that Wechel doesn't really deal with- are the effects of particular governments and systems right for example- indeed kids need to realise that the effects of particular systems aren't neccessarily understood and are often a matter of dispute. Wechel rightly doesn't want teachers to teach kids to uncritically absorb the games they play but to critique them as well.

But I think what this whole discussion brings out though is the fallacy that many people still hold to, that computer games have no beneficial effects for children in terms of education. I think that they do- Civilisation is an obvious example where a game can teach kids about some historical concepts. But other games too are interesting in the way that they breed better cognition- for instance SimCity makes you really think about how to be a City mayor in America- how rising crime effects economic performance and prosperity for instance. Even a game that might seem not to have so much educational merit- Championship Manager (a game in which you are the manager of a football team and buy and sell players in order to create the perfect team) actually has benefits. The game teaches you to analyse massive databases of players- filter them- deal with psychology and most importantly deal with a budget. All of that is important for kids to learn. Of course all the games have presumptions built into them which maybe and often are faulty- but they shouldn't be dismissed.

Sometimes we can be too focused on being Jeremiahs, actually there is plenty of good in computer games and plenty that people can learn from them- especially when the game itself is treated with caution.


Matt M said...

Ah, Simcity - who would have thought that figuring out the balance between industry, residential and commercial, trying to develop infrastructure in the most beneficial / economic way and adjusting the tax rate could be so absorbing?

Never played Civilisation. Though I'm now tempted to look for a cheap copy on

jmb said...

Since these games have been around for quite a few years it's interesting to see the suggestion only coming up now. I wonder what age they are considering starting at. They are pretty sophisticated.

Dave Cole said...

It also applies to MMORPGs. RuneScape has been praised by Brunel University for showing people the value of working for a goal and so on.

The original Civ was a fantastic game; just in terms of sheer playability, it was wonderful. I wonder if the next edition in the Civilisation series will include as a disaster 'civil servant sends two CDs through post'.

The only flaw in Civ and SimCity is that you don't have to be voted back in; you are dictator for life and cannot be removed, meaning that you can introduce policies that hurt now for benefit later. I think it was Nye Bevan who thought that getting people to understand that would be one of the great improvements in politics.

There are other games which have similarly wholesome attributes - Wii Sport, for instance, and the various brain training games out there.


Nick Humf said...

However if my memory serves me correctly in Civilisation II, the most effective form of government becomes not democracy but fundamentalism. I suspect this was a glitch Sid Meier didn't plan for but you've got to say it's not quite what you want to tell young kids.

ps I do appreciate it's unlikely to send anyone into the hands of fanatics