Using video or computer games as pedagogical tools has always been a concept that I’ve harbored deep skepticism about. Perhaps it’s the old fogey in me that wants to say, “If it’s not hard work, it’s not learning!”
History is also more complicated than one person’s ability to control it. Thus, old games like Oregon Trail, though highly enjoyable for indoor recess, teach that when you’re faced with dysentery, for instance, your only two options are to (a) rest or (b) keep going. There’s no mention of the fact that you may be traveling in a wagon train with, say, a doctor, even if you’re not one yourself. But in real life, pioneers usually had other resources besides what was in their own wagons.
Historical video games on a larger scale, such as Age of Empires or Rise of Nations, though excellent fun, also teach a skewed view of history, most especially that war is always the way alliances and enmities are created. Don’t get me wrong–a game that involved long drawn-out diplomatic negotiations wouldn’t be that fun. But they don’t really teach an accurate view of how world politics and wars work.
So I’ve always been a little skeptical of the history people learn through computer games. But this past week as I sat in America and the Sea, I realized that much of the subject we were discussing–early exploration on the oceans–I had learned through a game.
High Seas Trader came out in the mid-1990s, I think. It’s a game in which you, the captain of a trading vessel, trade commodities across the known world, fight enemy nations and pirate ships, collect gold, and work toward promotion within the guild. It starts in 1650; you’ll die before the American colonies get their independence. You get to pick a nationality from several seafaring European nations: England, France, Holland, Spain, or Portugal.
There are certainly historical inaccuracies, and you definitely don’t learn anything about how to actually handle a ship. One major inaccuracy is that as a merchant vessel captain, you never have any contact with the navy of any nation, yours or another. (Especially if you’re British, this is a fiction. You definitely would have had contact with the navy, and not always a positive contact.) The ships you fight are always other merchant vessels or pirates.
But what you do learn is where commodities were cheapest (and most expensive), the historical names of a large number of ports, and how political alliances and territories changed throughout the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Here’s the intro to the game, compliments of YouTube.
I think this game is a worthy candidate for some updating and improving. It’s a great example of how gaming can enhance pedagogy digitally. Too bad in order to play it right now you have to play it in a DOS emulator.