VR and the Gamification of History

If you ask someone my age (rudely named “geriatric millennials”) about what computer games they remember from school, Oregon Trail is almost always the first one mentioned. Oregon Trail had been around since the early 1970s, butas I remember became a mainstay of the elementary school classroom with the wide introduction of Apple IIs. The game revolved around travelling west in a covered wagon from Missouri to Oregon and trying to survive the ordeal. When I encountered it on the green and black monitors, Oregon Trail was being published by MECC (Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium), which had been founded by the Minnesota legislature to develop classroom computer games. As part of the “PC revolution,” smaller, cheaper computers found their way into classrooms and inspired seemingly countless educational games.

Today, a new set of new technologies are having the same effect. Game designers and educators are exploring what they can do with interactive 3D technologies and virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR). From virtual museums such as Ford’s Theatre and The British Museum to virtual battlefields and even virtual historical mysteries, students are being presented with new ways to explore the past. The opportunity to virtually explore historic places and museums that students may not otherwise be able to travel to are, I think, incredibly valuable. Both Ford’s Theatre and The British Museum give you a real sense of the sites, and Ford’s Theatre does a great job of giving you a structured tour, not unlike taking an in-person one.

Games and historical recreations, however, give me pause. What are students really learning? How to use the technology? How much are students responding to the gamification of history versus the actual historical content. One VR game project found that students formed clear memories of objects they interacted with in their game but gained little insight to the historic event the game was about (which led to game design changes). The act of playing the game was what they remembered.

Certainly, this is not a new problem. Many people’s memories of Oregon Trail today revolve around its hunting and river rafting mini-games and the high likelihood that someone you’re traveling with will die (especially of dysentery!). Few of us remember much or anything of the factoids presented about the places our journey to Oregon took us through. The deaths, though, did make us think about just how difficult traveling and life would have been in the nineteenth century, and one of the biggest decisions, when to start on the trail, subtly pushed us to consider the seasonal patterns of historical life.

Ultimately, the biggest payoff of games from an educational perspective may be the curiosity they instill. How many students my age picked up a book on the Oregon Trail or looked up dysentery in the dictionary because of the game? We’ll never know, but making history a little more accessible and more entertaining (oh horror!) may lead to a lifetime of interest in history. And that’s worth some classroom time.