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Games and Education: A Revolutionary Idea

O’Neal Smitherman, Gail Ring, James Jones and Bizhan Nasseh

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The purpose of this paper is to describe the integration of the game Revolution into an eighth grade social studies lesson on the American Revolutionary War.  As educators work to integrate technology into teaching, there continue to be many questions regarding the benefits of using technology in the classroom.  For example, what motivates children to stay glued to a video game for hours while teachers have difficulty keeping students’ attention for 40 minutes? What impact do educational role-playing games have on student learning or, for that matter, on teaching?  This paper addresses these questions, presents findings concerning the efficacy of the use of games in supporting instruction, and considers the implications for the integration of games in the classroom.


Pretend that you are Alice, the milliner in colonial Williamsburg. It is your task to sew a uniform for Peyton Randolf, the Attorney General of Virginia, and this task can only be accomplished through the collaboration and successes of other members of your community.  Or maybe you are Tom, the blacksmith, who builds or repairs tools and weapons for the members of the town or Sally, the slave, who cooks and cleans for Peyton Randolf.  This was the opportunity that students in a middle school social studies class had early last year. Students played the game Revolution, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as part of their social studies lesson on the Revolutionary War.  Revolution allows players to experience the Revolutionary War period as one of eight participants in a three dimensional virtual world (see

During the last decade, significant funds have been used to integrate game technology in the classroom; yet, there are mixed reports about how this has positively impacted student learning (Dick, 1991; Klassen & Willoughby, 2003; Levine, 1998; Schwartzman, 1997). The field of computer gaming has risen to near equal status with the film and music industries in terms of revenue, customers, and employees (Kirriemuir, 2002).  Jayakanthan (2002) likens the influence of the computer gaming industry on youth today to the influence of music, religion, and politics in previous decades.  In fact, computer games are so popular that blockbuster films are being made about them (e.g.  Laura Croft: Tomb
).  Sawyer (2002) argues that the advantages of simulations and games are that they: (a) can foster strategic thinking and other learning benefits through repeated use; (b) utilize technology available to the general public;  and (c) can intertwine both fictional and non-fictional events.

The allure of using games in classroom instruction is the opportunity it can provide teachers to increase the motivation of students and even keep them in their seats (Prensky, 2001). Seay, Jerome, Lee and Kraut (2004) surveyed over 1800 players of EverQuest, Dark Ages of Camelot, Asherton’s Call, or Ultima Online and found that 90% of the players were males who played multi-user games for 15-21 hours per week. The primary reasons for playing these types of games were for:

  1. Character growth (21%)

  2.  Fun (20%)

  3.  Social contacts (15%). 

Similarly, in Yee’s (2004) study of the game Everquest, survey respondents listed mediation, leadership, and persuasion skills, as well as how to instill loyalty and how to encourage and motivate group members as characteristics they developed through game playing. Exploring fantasy worlds, enjoying social interactions, achieving goals, moving up game levels, and completing quests appealed to players while feelings of power, killing angry mobs, and crafting complex skills or learning a trade were listed as less appealing (Bonk & Dennen, 2005).

Chen, Shen, Ou, & Liu, (1998) point out that multiplayer games are filled with extrinsic motivators (e.g., competition, collaboration, recognition, and material goods). In effect, players are drawn into multi-user games by the possibility of being part of a community (Bonk & Dennen, 2005). When people are motivated intrinsically they become more engaged in the task. For example, it becomes easy to “lose one’s self” in a book and read for hours or spend hours learning a piece of software or even playing a computer game.  The concept of flow, developed by Csíkszenthmihályi (1990), is a state of being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.  Similarly, Herz (1997) suggests that the reason people play games for hours goes beyond being good at the game or facing danger: it is more about the engagement that a great game creates.  Teamwork may also be crucial as a player’s success often will be dependent on the degree to which he or she collaborates or works effectively with other players in virtual teams.


MIT’s Revolution

Designed as a tool for teaching Advanced Placement American History at the high school level, Revolution is an attempt to simulate digitally the world of a colonial town in order to familiarize students (players) with the social, political, and cultural mechanisms that figured in the Revolutionary War.  Each student assumes a role within the town to explore the events that led up to the war, the war itself, and its aftermath from several different perspectives.  Ideally, students should take away from the experience a dynamic, yet practical, understanding of the intricate relationships between the forces that might have shaped the genesis of the United States.

Revolution combines the role playing of Everquest (see with the mission-style structure of Diablo (see Students play roles as tailors, bankers, lawyers, blacksmiths, slaves, mothers, daughters, sons, or ordinary workers in colonial Williamsburg.  The game is divided into 40-minute chapters, and each chapter contains two interwoven strands surrounding a social event in the player’s life and a political event leading up to the Revolution.  Players begin by choosing the role they wish to play and then tailoring their character as much to their own liking as the role allows.  Players will be able to choose skin-tones, facial features, hair color, etc. within the race, class, and ethnicity they choose.  Once this is finished players immediately find themselves within the world of the game where they will be free to explore and improvise their own narrative based on the resources available to them as well as their interactions with other players.

Figure 1. Screen capture of a character from the Game Revolution


Research Questions

The following questions guided our research:

  1. In what ways did the students increase their knowledge of the Revolutionary War period?

  2. How was the student’s interest in the Revolutionary War period affected by interacting with the game?

  3. In what ways did the gender of the students affect their experience?

  4. In what way did playing the game affect the emphasis that participants believe should be allotted to the Revolutionary War in a social studies or history class?

  5. Did playing the game by alone versus with a partner impact interest, knowledge or emphasis?




The participants were 37 eighth grade students enrolled in a required social studies course and 10 high school (HS) students taking elective psychology courses.  The students were predominately male (70%; n = 33) with few females (30%; n = 14), but this was reflective of the school’s overall enrollment for those grades.  The game sessions were part of the students’ class time, and the teachers were present during the session as observers.


All students completed a short pretest survey developed by the researchers in collaboration with the teachers.  The survey asked for ratings on seven point scales concerning the students’ level of interest and knowledge in the American Revolutionary War.  The survey also asked how much emphasis should be allotted to the Revolutionary War in a social studies or history class.  The student was asked to identify his or her gender and complete two questions concerning how often he or she played video games each week and which games were played.  The students then began playing the game as the character assigned to the computer station at which they were seated.  There were six computer stations, each with a different character. In some of the sessions, a single student was at each computer station, while in other sessions dyads or triads were used.

After playing the game for 30 minutes, the students were given a posttest with the same questions regarding interest, knowledge, and emphasis.  In addition, the students were asked if they would like to play the game again, and they were presented a series of open-ended questions about why or why not they would like to play the game again, what was learned from playing the game, and the positive and negative aspects of the game.  After the surveys were completed and collected, a 10 minute, unstructured discussion of the game with the researcher and teachers completed the session.


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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
a service of NC State University, Raleigh, NC
Volume 10, Issue 1, 2007
ISSN 1097-9778
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