October 2, 2006 By Chandler Harris
A group of teenagers click a mouse and begin "bombing" England. Across the room, the English prime minister -- a teenager looking grimly at another screen -- attempts to figure out a counterattack in the midst of World War II.
These teenagers aren't at home playing shooter games on the Xbox. They're in a high-school classroom learning the dynamics of World War II in a game called Making History. Their video-game-savvy world history teacher, David McDivitt, incorporates video games in his history and sociology courses at Converse, Ind.'s Oak Hill High School.
"I see a future where students are engaged in technology at school because that's what they do outside of school, and that's how we live our lives; we're always wired to something like an iPod or cell phone," he said. "We need to move in that direction because that's where our kids are."
Let's Bomb Canada
For his world history course, McDivitt puts away the textbooks for a week and his class plays Making History -- a World War II simulation game where students assume leadership of countries during that conflict. Governing their countries individually or in teams, students negotiate treaties, build armaments and maintain their country's domestic needs. The game has a real-time scoring system that evaluates each country's performance and compares the students' decisions to actual events in the war. Thus, students controlling England during the war can actually compete against Winston Churchill and see how their economic, military, and international and domestic policy decisions measure up.
Teachers can choose from six different scenarios referring to a specific period of the war. One scenario, "The End of Diplomacy," begins after agreements made at the 1938 Munich Conference collapsed. Each scenario begins at an accurate moment in history, and students must navigate the economic, political and military events of the times, compiled in an enormous historical database by Professor William Keylor of Boston University. The game includes the correct national debt, military size and pacts formed between countries, such as Germany's nonaggression pact with Russia. McDivitt supplements Making History, which meets state educational standards, with in-class discussions and lectures.
As a result, children live history instead of reading about it, said McDivitt, who found his students making treaties and planning attacks in school hallways.
"The excitement level that game brought to the kids was incredible. Both years we played the game, the kids would play after school, [at] lunch and in study hall."
After the first year of incorporating Making History into the classroom, McDivitt knew the video game was successfully engaging his students. Yet he wondered if the students were actually learning more, or more effectively, through the video game than with traditional teaching methods, such as textbooks, lectures and in-class discussions. The following year, McDivitt surveyed 110 students from five classes: Three classes used the game, and the other two used only textbooks and class discussions. After collecting tests and essays, McDivitt found that students who played the game generally scored better on tests, especially on geography and multiple-choice questions. Yet McDivitt was most impressed by how well students who played the game demonstrated their knowledge of the events in essay questions.
"What I found most impressive was the essay question and the depth of understanding the kids who played the game had versus kids who learned solely from the textbook," McDivitt said. "I found that the game group was more thorough, and you might say thoughtful in their follow-up writing assignments."
The game brought excitement to McDivitt's classroom and helped engage students who had poor grades and were generally not eager to learn.
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