Monthly Archives: September 2010

History and Gaming: a review of PBS’ Mission: US

Over the years, video games have attempted to enter the realm of history.  More often than not, the history was sacrificed for the video game.

In my youth, crude games such as Oregon Trail or the more nuanced fact-finding adventures of the Carmen Sandiego series proliferated the market.  They attempted to give useful content information in the guise of video entertainment; the product was often less than the sum of its parts.  Carmen Sandiego games could be completed with a little patience and the guidebook it came with—I did it without the book, but that’s just empty bragging.

As games became more advanced graphically and structurally, companies attempted to fuse historical elements into the realm of “role-playing” adventures—stories where the player actively makes decisions about the characters in the story a la Dungeons and Dragons.  The late 1990s and early 2000s produced a slew of role-playing games with a historical bent: Sid Maier’s Civilization, the Age of Empires series, Caesar, Call of Duty etc.  The games were long, complex, and varied, giving players a great degree of flexibility in play and scenario development.

Unfortunately, the history often stopped at the characters themselves. 

Most of these games juxtaposed characters and weapons from vastly different regions and time periods in absurd situations: Age of Empires was the worst culprit in this.  How did the Ancient Greeks develop siege cannons and musketeers, all of a sudden?  And when did Mongols ever attack Mayan temples?  One cheat code even involved a sports car with a machine gun barreling down mounted knights and assorted foot soldiers. 

Thus the conundrum: how to create a complex, exciting gaming experience while providing factual, rich content in history.  PBS may have found the answer.

Co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mission: US  is an interactive multimedia game where students play the role of individual actors in American history.  Although not without its flaws, it is a notable first step in the creation of viable and academically rigorous gaming for social studies.

PBS has launched the first mission of the game, “For Crown or Colony”, as a beta-tester so that teachers and students can give feedback on the game.  Once you register as a teacher or student (registration is free), you can begin by either the streaming web game or downloading the game onto your hard drive. 

You play as the role of Nathaniel “Nat” Wheeler, a 14 year old printer’s apprentice in Boston in the winter of 1770.  The game starts as Nat leaves his Uxbridge, Massachussets farm for his apprenticeship.  Along the way, the player must choose Nat’s motions, thoughts and actions—similar to Legend of Zelda and other early role-playing games. 

As Nat continues his life in Boston, he encounters people from all walks of life, from enslaved African and poet Phyllis Wheatley to patriot silversmith Paul Revere (improbable, I know, but such is the video game world.).  Nat’s actions will ultimately lead to the fateful Boston Massacre, and the ending of the story depends on the choices the player makes: whether Nat joins the Patriot cause, whether he stays out of the chaos, or whether he espouses Loyalist sympathies.

In each phase of the mission, players collect inventory and vocabulary that allow the player to learn more about the everyday life of colonists in the 1700s.  Furthermore, through the Classroom Guide, teachers can access exercises, lesson plans, and other educational materials to supplement.  There’s even a cute side-game a player can unlock: A Guitar Hero-type game where you can play patriotic tunes on a pennywhistle.

As a piece of interactive education, Mission: US covers most of the bases of the time period.  The characters, though, look ripped out of a Japanese cartoon.  Without color tinting, there would be little real difference between Phyllis Wheatley and Mercy Otis Warren.  Then there’s the dialogue: forgive my ignorance, but why must everyone speak perfect middle-America English?  Isn’t this New England?  Where’s the dropped R’s and the drawn out vowels?

While the animation is crisp, there is very little real action: most of the game is spent conversing with various denizens of Boston.  The action is limited to cinematic set-pieces like the Boston Massacre, and Nat as a player can’t get involved.  Wouldn’t it be cool to wing an oyster shell right on the kisser of a redcoat?

Hence the primary drawback of Mission: US—the lack of action for a demographic that demands more action.  PBS is gearing this series towards grades 5-8.  I know 3rd graders who’ll bore themselves quickly from this.  The 10-13 year old requires more virtual action and connection with the material.  Unfortunately, they get this through games such as Grand Theft Auto, which are hardly instructional.   

This first installment works well to introduce the format.  Getting the students’ attention, though, is another matter.  Future installments will have to make the player a more visceral actor in the storyline, making more complex choices.  If there is action or danger, the player should be actively involved—most current video games have a central actor that acts much more than he/she communicates.

Most importantly, future installments have to at least tickle the sensory needs of young pre-adolescents with hints of PG violence or adventure.  The waiting, talking and walking is what made me give up on Zelda.  It won’t work much better in a game designed to teach American history as well as entertain.

On the other hand, making a realistic video game about subjects like the French and Indian War or the Crusades could make Grand Theft Auto look like Pac-Man.

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Happy Constitution Day! Quotes about our US Constitution

223 years ago, a group of men in a stuffy Philadelphia government building spent a stifling summer creating a four-page document that changed the world.

September 17 is Constitution Day, commemorating the signing of the United States Constitution in 1787.  In over two centuries, countries around the world have seen revolution, coups, turmoil and chaos in which governments and constitutions are remade, discarded and remade again.

Yet with only 27 changes, the same crinkly four pages of parchment have served as the basis of one of the most successful democracies in history.  It stands as one of our “holy trinity” of founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the United States Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution). 

Today more than ever, students need to understand the development, tenets and underlying beliefs of our system of government in order to be productive citizens.

The following are quotes about our Constitution.  Many are celebratory, some offer sage advice, and others give sharp critique.   Whatever the point of view, it stands to reason that one crinkly set of papers caused so much commotion.

Happy Constitution Day, everyone!

“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” – Benjamin Franklin

 “The United States Constitution has proved itself the most marvelously elastic compilation of rules of government ever written.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams

“The American Constitution is the greatest governing document, and at some 7,000 words, just about the shortest.” – Stephen Ambrose

“In matters of Power, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” – Thomas Jefferson

“The strength of the Constitution, lies in the will of the people to defend it.” – Thomas Edison

“As the British Constitution is the most subtle organism which has proceeded from the womb and long gestation of progressive history, so the American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” – William E. Gladstone

“A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government; and government without a constitution is power without a right. All power exercised over a nation, must have some beginning. It must be either delegated, or assumed. There are not other sources. All delegated power is trust, and all assumed power is usurpation. Time does not alter the nature and quality of either.” – Thomas Paine

“Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things.” – Alexander Hamilton

“Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.” – Abraham Lincoln

“Our constitution protects aliens, drunks and U.S. Senators.” – Will Rogers

“The government was set to protect man from criminals — and the Constitution was written to protect man from the government. The Bill of Rights was not directed against private citizens, but against the government — as an explicit declaration that individual rights supersede any public or social power.” – Ayn Rand

“I think there are only three things America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.” – Gerald Early

And lastly, the birthday document itself:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” – Preamble, Constitution of the United States of America

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The End of the Line for Social Studies Tests in NYS–for now.

The NY Board of Regents on their way to chapel (just kidding)

Well, I think we found something close to closure in the social studies test saga.  It won’t be back for a while…but there’s still hope.

Since we last left the saga of the missing state social studies tests, I have been badgering the Regents to give a more intelligent response than the terse, one-line cast-off I was given.  Apparently, it must have touched a nerve to e-mail over the Jewish holiday, because today I receive a response from Dr. John King, Senior Deputy Commissioner for P-12 Education at the NYS Education Department.  Dr. King wrote:

Dear Mr. D:

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to your concerns regarding the Grades 5 and 8 Social Studies Tests. They were canceled due to fiscal difficulties, not because they were inadequate assessments. Given the current fiscal climate, there are no plans to reinstate these tests in the immediate future.

States may not use Race to the Top funding to support the development and administration of summative assessments. The US Department of Education held a separate competition for assessment funding, but that was focused on the development of a new generation of ELA and mathematics tests. It is worth noting that the application of literacy skills to social studies texts will be a feature of the next generation of ELA tests.

Thank you for your interest in New York State’s testing programs and for all the work you do on behalf of our students.

Sincerely,

Dr. John B. King

This response was a whopping two-paragraphs longer than the last note I received from one of the Regents.  In spite of all the jerking around this summer, I really did appreciate Dr. King being frank with me about the reason why the tests were cancelled.  Still, I didn’t exactly want to let him off the hook.  Here was my response:

Dear Dr. King,

First of all, thank you so much for responding to my concerns. I had reached a dead end all through the summer and I appreciate your candor and forthrightness in explaining the situation and the disposition of funds re: summative assessment.

Also, I fully take into account the difficult fiscal situation we are in, and accept the fact that social studies assessments will not be reinstated in the immediate future. I had wished that social studies not be the perennial whipping-boy of austerity, unlike ELA, mathematics, and science, but such is the situation we face.

However, I do want to leave you with some words for the future. In my years of experience of teaching in the No Child Left Behind universe, I have come to one immutable conclusion: if a subject is not tested, then it is not taught. The pressure, often the terror, of failure in exams has pushed students, teachers and administrators to focus efforts on those subjects that matter most to the education establishment, namely ELA, mathematics, and science. Social studies, far too often, has been left on the backburner, either through tests that have little or no stake in promotion or in half-hearted attempts to “integrate” social studies into the more “preferred” disciplines.

I caution you, however, to not create a “holy trinity” of subject matter while leaving social studies as the mincemeat of integration. Former Harvard president Derek Bok once said that “If you think that education is expensive, try ignorance.” We cannot produce informed, intelligent citizens without a focused, intense instructional system in social studies. Integration into ELA, while useful, does not highlight the content, but rather the reading skills and strategies. The content matters. Our democracy cannot function if our citizens now little or nothing about its form, function or history. This instruction cannot be left to ELA curricula that have different priorities in mind.

To put it in more urgent words, do you trust the future of our American democracy to students that have been cheated out of a proper education about American democracy?

Please remember these words when the fiscal situation changes.

Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,

Mr. D

I think this was an appropriate ending–albeit unwanted–for this summer’s social studies drama in New York.

However, that doesn’t mean we will give up the fight to restore social studies’ rightful status in the education of New York’s schoolchildren.  If you want to contact Dr. King and give your reasons to protect social studies in this state, here’s his contact info:

Dr. John B. King, Jr.
Senior Deputy Commissioner
for P-12 Education
Room 125 EB
89 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12234
Telephone: 518-474-3862
Fax:  518-473-2056
To give the New York Board of Regents another piece of your mind–because they appreciate your letters so much–click here for my original post on the social studies tests.  The contact information for each of the members of the board is listed.
Let’s not give up the fight.  When the economic situation improves, remind your government representatives, superintendents, the Regents and the grand poobahs in the Education Department that social studies is too important to be cast aside.

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