Ready Player One: Is Assassin's Creed the future of teaching?
Growing up I was obsessed with simulation games. Sim City, Theme Park, Theme Hospital, and Civilisation were my go-to games, the Command and Conquer series and Dungeon Keeper were also favorites. At the time, and still, now, I attributed these games to my success in the humanities at school. Irrigation, resource management, pollution, and overpopulation – all concepts I grappled with on a near-daily basis. Urban regeneration after a devastating fire; the comparative advantages and disadvantages of democracy over communism and optimal tax rates were my bread and butter as a 14-year-old boy.
This conviction that video games, particularly simulation games, have a role in education was furthered when in sixth form I read Steven Poole’s “Trigger Happy”. From memory, I seem to remember him breaking games down into two categories or at least two schools of thought on gaming, you had the ludologists – essentially games were puzzles to be completed and the second was that games were storytelling devices. I read this about 20 years ago now so my memory may be failing me, but that is at least what my teenage self took away from the book. This resonants me with now as a History teacher - we switch between these two approaches during our lessons. One minute students are constructing a timeline (story telling) and the next they're memorising facts from flash cards ready for a low stakes quiz (ludology).
He also introduced me to the concept of ‘flow learning’, ChatGPT tells me that this was a concept originally devised by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He defined flow as "the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it." This certainly chimed with my experience of getting ‘lost’ in games. He also introduced me to the idea that the addictive quality (and therefore their likelihood to induce a state of flow) came from instant feedback. Push a button – something explodes. It was an instant dopamine hit.
When I began teaching these ideas stuck with me. The idea of ‘feedback’ being important has been reinforced by numerous educational researchers, and when watching my student’s reaction to the instant feedback given by a program like Kahoot versus the 2 to 3-week turnaround on my marking an essay – I can see clearly how the turnaround time on student feedback is vital. They'll shout and scream when it comes to Kahoot and give a vaguely interested glance at my feedback comments on an essay they barely remember writing.
There was also much talk in his book of ‘gamification’ of the world, and this has come to fruition in education already. Platforms like Seneca, My Maths, and Education Perfect provide this in abundance. The impact a platform like Blooket can have on a class of teenagers is remarkable.
This personal experience of the benefit of video games, along with a dash of the intellectual theory underpinning it, led me to dabble with creating a series of RPG games, first using RPG maker and latterly using Unity. The hope is that being able to ‘explore’ medieval Europe and speak to characters in their natural settings students would become more immersed in the world and more eager to encounter the knowledge needed to complete their homework task. These games have been met with some really positive feedback, with a few notable experiences like students from other classes lining up outside my room to ask for the workbooks so they can take part as well. I hope to build on these in the coming months and years, but I’m no video game powerhouse with a multi-million dollar budget and a team of computer science grads – I’m just an overworked history teacher (is there any other kind?) with two high maintenance children at home.
Some current video games are incredible for their historical learning potential. Ubisoft, the makers of the Assassin's Creed series, hire consultant historians to check their work – one of the Call of Duty games supposedly recreated the villages of Normandy so well (using RAF photos from WW2) that veterans knew their way around the first time of asking and it allowed them to recall more memories from the events of the time. Astonishing stuff. I have yet to create my lessons on the Industrial Revolution featuring videos and screenshots from Assassins Creed Syndicate (set in the cities of Victorian Britain), but it’s on my to-do list…
The move to VR will surely only further this potential. I once created a VR headset using an android phone and a cardboard cutout – students could walk through the trenches and talk to soldiers as they did so. My soon to retire Head of Department at the time memorably started karate chopping the air around her as she tried to climb a ladder out of the trench (she just needed to press the button on the headset - but alas).
So, why am I saying all this?
Because video games can have a hugely constructive role in education. From their ability to induce flow learning, to their addictive and immersive qualities, they are a medium unlike any other – indeed – they offer benefits almost immeasurably superior to others.
This surely has to be the future of learning, one of the main avenues to be explored as the profession develops. I think the billions being spent by the likes of Meta on VR universes indicate they will need to find some use for them beyond a more interesting way of holding a zoom meeting. Education, one presumes, is first on the list.
If you have not done so yet, check out the Wolsey Academy games at https://www.wolseyacademy.com/historyworlds
Hope it helps.