Teaching about History Through Video Games

12, December 2014

Recently, I was invited to the Wentzville Middle School by my daughter’s sixth-grade teacher to give a presentation. I was asked to discuss a blog series that I have been working on during my assistantship at the Missouri History Museum. Needless to say, this was a very exciting opportunity for me. Not only did I get to visit my daughter at school, but also I was able to discuss two areas that I am passionate about: video games and history. While I was excited, I was also very nervous. I was presenting in front of my daughter’s teacher, my daughter (who was already mortified that I was showing up to talk about all my geeky stuff), and 106 sixth graders. I have given plenty of presentations, but those have been in academia. Scholars are cake. Sixth graders—now that’s a tough audience!

Nevertheless, I went into the classroom, ready to plow through my presentation in the face of glazed-over eyes and perpetual boredom. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised. What a lovely group of children! They were enthusiastic and well mannered, and they had more questions than I could possibly answer in the given amount of time. My presentation consisted of discussing a variety of objects that children might come across as they play games, and how those objects were used throughout history. The idea for this blog series came to me as I was playing a video game and found myself using hardtack, an item that we have in our collection. I began to wonder how many other items and stories that people come across in video games that are actually taken from real life. I realized that video games could be a great educational tool. They are a form of entertainment, but they have little tidbits of history embedded within. Don’t we all pick up new information more quickly when it's combined with something that interests us? My goal for visiting the sixth-graders at the Wentzville Middle School was to find out more about their interests, and then to incorporate those interests with history by using the items in our collections.  

cobblestone street in St. Louis, 1979View of cobblestone street on Laclede's Landing (First Street). Photograph by St. Louis Globe-Democrat staff photographer, 1979. Missouri History Museum.

I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to explain this idea to the children, but they understood immediately, and the questions poured out. Interestingly, a lot of their questions had to do with natural resources. I believe that this is due to the popularity of Minecraft, a video game that uses a variety of rocks and minerals to build structures within the game world. Students wanted to know which of these substances were real and if they have the same function in real life. Minecraft uses a variety of stones, including cobblestone, moss stone, and bloodstone. Cobblestone is used in Minecraft to build, and it was used in St. Louis to make streets. We also have moss agate in our collection, as well as bloodstones from the Panama Canal. We have a large environmental collection here at the Museum, including items such as stone and metal axes. In upcoming blogs posts, I will be answering some of the questions that the sixth-graders had about these items.

Grooved stone ground axe dating between 3000 and 1000 B.C.E.Grooved stone ground axe dating between 3000 and 1000 B.C.E. Missouri History Missouri.

In addition to discussing objects found in video games, I brought a couple of old video game systems for the children to check out. These included the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision II. I showed them a Star Wars Jedi Knight and Pac-Man game cartridge, as well as a screenshot of the Atari E.T. game. The game systems were more popular than I thought that they would be, and several children recognized the Atari. All of them were interested in touching and looking at the systems. However, nothing makes you feel older than watching children take photos of your first video game system, because they want to show their parents the “antiques.” I was also quite amazed that one student knew all about the North American Video Game Crash of 1983. The hours flew by in a flurry of activity and true interest from the children.

I had a wonderful time visiting with the students, and I would like to thank Mr. Sullivan and the sixth-graders at Wentzville Middle for allowing me to be a part of their day and their educational experience. It was truly delightful, and nothing is as endearing to me as seeing a group of children get excited about history. I look forward to browsing through our collections and answering your questions! 

—Judy Williams, Digital Engagement Coordinator