Education and Video Games

Many teachers are beginning to use ‘gamification’ in their lessons. This is the idea of using game mechanics within the lesson being taught, and can be used in any subject, not just those related to technology. This can include countdowns, tracking progress in comparison to classmates, or achievements for reaching certain goals (Daniels, 2012), and can introduce an element of fun, and friendly competition in to lessons, in addition to encouraging co-operation (Loiseau et al., 2013, p.36). This post will assess how these elements can and have be used to enhance lessons, and engage students.

As stated in my first blog post, there are very few good games about the discipline of archaeology. Many popular games that do have an element of exploration of the past are extremely limited in their scope, as they are restricted by the mechanics of the game. Alternatively, many of the games simply use playing as an archaeologist to explain why the protagonist is in the old temple or creepy tomb setting (Reinhard, 2014). All the archaeologists used in these games are entirely fictional, with no real-life experts being featured, no matter how educational the game is. Other games simply use the history as an aesthetic for the game to be set within, such as the use of sixties era buildings and objects in the Fallout series. Here again, if the player wanted to analyse and inspect the objects they find, they are limited by the game mechanics.

Other games about archaeology are often educational, intending to instruct its players about a period or the discipline itself. However, these games often lose much of their fun element, as they are simply point and click Flash-based games, that don’t have a long play time or allow the player much interactivity, resulting in a game that is often little more than a PowerPoint. The BBC has several good, educational games. Hunt the Ancestor (2014) gives an excellent idea of the time and money constraints that archaeological digs are usually subject to, and shows some of the techniques that archaeologists use, including aerial photography, geophysics and sampling, but is just a text-based game. Dig It Up: Romans (No date) has more typical game mechanics, with assigning sections of the site to different ‘diggers’, that use geophysics to find artefacts that they dig up with shovels, trowels, brushes and then sieves. Although very simplified, Dig It Up: Romans gives a good idea of the process followed on an archaeological dig. These games are clearly designed for use in the classroom, as they are short, easy to use and don’t require a download. They’re engaging and educational, but not fun, or really video games, in the traditional sense.

steven deeper dig
Figure 1: ‘Deeper Dig’ (Reid, 2015)

In 2014, Doctor Colleen Morgan and her colleagues at the University of York ran their first session at Yornight. Here, using the game Minecraft, they recreated the Mesolithic site of Star Carr, and challenged the children that visited to create round houses using the archaeological evidence left in the area (Morgan, 2015a). The event was repeated the next year, to similar levels of success and chaos (Morgan, 2015b).  Steven Reid took this one step further by recreating a Roman fort, and burying it under a recreation of the modern building on that site (Figure 1). Again, this was for a public engagement event, and was aimed at young children. However, in this case it was a smaller group, and they were able to excavate the fort, as they were talked through the process with archaeologists (Reid, 2015). These cases show the ability of video games to engage an audience, especially with a platform as popular as Minecraft. Minecraft is known as a ‘sandbox’ game, with no story and very little direction, but allows the player to create almost anything they could require- for example, some of the children that took part in Morgan’s event, managed to make guns and tall, flaming towers with only the things surrounding them (Morgan, 2015a).  In both of Morgan’s events, the organisers had ‘the real tools of Minecraft’, such as pickaxes, shovels and compasses. Morgan (2015a, 2015b) reported that many were amazed to discover that they used the same tools in game that archaeologists did in real life.  This meant that the children could see something from a game that they were familiar with, in real life, allowing for them to connect the actions they take in game to those that are undertaken by archaeologists. This makes it easy for further links to be made, to engage the children in actual archaeology.

star carr morgan
Reconstruction of Star Carr in the Unity engine. (Morgan, 2015b, screenshot by author)

This kind of historical reconstruction is a common part of games set in the past. For example, the Assassin’s Creed games recreate cities as they may have been in the past, allowing the player to literally climb all over historical monuments. This allows them to make links to how they would have been used in the contemporary period, rather than just as places being conserved for the future. The ability to reconstruct sites in a digital world has the potential to be a hugely important tool for archaeologists. Site maps and the interpretations of artists are all very well, but to be able to walk through ancient settlements and temple, and experience them in 3 dimensions, will allow archaeologists and students to understand and get closer to the past than ever before. This has been attempted before, usually as a way of getting the public involved in digs. For example, Star Carr has also been recreated in the Unity engine (see figure 2), which is usually used for creating video games, using a digital elevation model (Morgan, 2015b). Reconstruction can also be used on a site as it can be seen today, to teach future archaeologists real methods, theory and skills, from excavation, to running their own dig (Dibble, McPherron and Roth, 2000). In addition, with the rise of virtual reality, it is becoming more and more feasible to conserve buildings and monuments in a 3D space, as can be seen below (EQNXDigital, 2016). Although less interactive than Minecraft, it can be highly accurate, and perfectly to scale, and so much more useful in a research setting.

For an archaeological game to be fun, close work must be done with between any expert, and the developer. One recent game that did have an academic involved, Making History II, received poor reviews as a game, despite being much more historically accurate than other games of its genre (Gardner, 2012, p. 44). In the case of the 2014 game Never Alone, the developers worked with the leaders of the Iñupiat people, one of the Alaskan Native peoples, using their myths and language to create a rich and meaningful story, set in the Arctic. These were highly experienced developers, and so could also use their own knowledge of what makes a good, enjoyable game. This meant that the game not only well educated the player on the history and culture of the Iñupiat, but was also involved fun and challenging puzzles, with boss fights at important sections of the story, some of the oldest and most typical features of video games. The game was very successful, even winning a BAFTA for Best Debut Game (Alspach, 2016, p. 2).

If more developers could take this sensitive, versatile view of history, and give it as much priority as the Never Alone developers did, historical games could be extremely successful, as well as authentic to, and educational about the period and culture being explored. As it is, developers usually simply want to use history as vague inspiration, or a theme to dress the game up in, but the game itself is ‘top priority’ (Gardner, 2012, p. 44). For video games to be useful in education, the education and the fun must be equally important in the development process.


Alspach, B. 2016. Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) FAQ FOR EXTERNAL USE. Seattle: E-Line Media. Online. Available at: http://neveralonegame.com/ (Accessed on 21/04/2017)

BBC. No date given.  Dig It Up: Romans. Online. Available at:  http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/games/digitup/romans/digitup.swf (Accessed on 20/04/2017)

BBC. 2014. Hunt the Ancestor. Online. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/interactive/games/hunt_ancestor/index_embed.shtml (Accessed on 20/04/2017)

Daniels, M. 2012. The Gamification of Education [INFOGRAPHIC]. Online. Available at:  https://www.knewton.com/resources/blog/education-infographics/the-gamification-of-education-infographic/ (Accessed on: 20/04/2017)

Dibble, H. L., McPherron, S. P., and Roth, B. J. 2000. Virtual Dig: A simulated Excavation of a Middle Paleolithic Site in France. London, Toronto: Mayfield Publishing Company.

EQNXDigital. 2016. What we do. Equinox Digital. Online. Available at: http://eqnxdigital.com/. (Accessed on: 25/04/2017)

Gardner, A. 2012. Strategy Games and Engagement Strategies. In: Bonacchi, C. Archaeology and Digital Communication: Towards Strategies of Public Engagement. London: Archetype Publications, 38-49.

Loiseau, M, et al. 2013. Raising awareness on Archaeology: A Multiplayer Game-Based Approach with Mixed Reality. 7th European Conference on Games Based Learning. pp.336-343. Online. Available at: https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-00870447/document/  (Accessed on 21/04/2017)

Morgan, C. 2015a. Breaking Blocks and Digging Holes: Archaeology & Minecraft. Middle Savagery. Online. Available at: https://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2015/06/11/breaking-blocks-and-digging-holes-archaeology-minecraft/  (Accessed on: 20/04/2017)

Morgan, C. 2015b. Minecraft for Archaeological Outreach. Middle Savagery. Online. Available at: https://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/minecraft-for-archaeological-outreach/  (Accessed on: 20/04/2017)

Reid, S. 2015. Crafting the Past – Watling Lodge. Immersive Minds.  Online. Available at: http://www.immersiveminds.com/ctpwatlinglodge/ (Accessed on: 25/04/2017)

Reinhard, A. 2014. You Play an Archaeologist. Archaeogaming. Online. Available at:   https://archaeogaming.com/2014/11/08/you-play-an-archaeologist/ (Accessed on: 20/04/2017)

Words: 1295

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