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Curious about the future of history based simulations?

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Sat Oct 15 2005

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As I have said before, I hate it when e-learning hacks make superficial, overly-broad analogies to hot trends. "E-learning should be like hybrid cars; Training should be like Ipod Nanos; Lessons learned from FEMA."

Having said that, I love a real analogy. For example, six years ago, I found it very useful to apply experiences with ERPs and CRMs to the then emerging area of LMSs. It did provide real glimpses into the future. As a rule, cold trends actually provide more insight than hot trends.

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So with all of that as a caveat, I would like to present up an analogy that I hope is an example of the second, not first, category.

  • If you want to see how educational simulations will be created to teach history to the K-12 and undergraduate environment, look at the various Star Trek computer games.

Here's why.

  • Star Trek is a series of many, many (far too many?) stories, that cover a coherent timeline, with consistant cultures and technologies. Furthermore, Star Trek events, despite the single brand, have been created by many, many individuals and teams. There are missing links; there are contradictions. This background material is a fairly good analogy of history source material.

  • Game developers have tried to capture the essence of the story in game forms. Star Trek games have more often than not used existing genres (First Person Shooter, Real Time Strategy, now MMORPG). They have often had to go deep (space ship battles in general) over broad (from beginning to end of Wrath of Kahn). Some new genres have been created (Bridge Commander, Starfleet Command). Some games have been created by modding other games (Star Trek mod for Half-Life 2). Some are very complex, developing deep expertise; some could not be more simple. Some just use the high level theme over an existing game (Star Trek pinball or Star Trek trivia game). This maps fairly well to the effort that different developers will probabbly go through to create historical educational sims.

  • Star Trek fans are very engaged in the process. Every new Star Trek game brings heaps of criticism, people trashing the experience as being not accurate enough (What about episode 212 when Captain Yeri fired six photon blasts in less than five seconds), or fun enough, or broad/comprehensive enough. They then mod the experience, in some cases fixing inaccuracies, in some cases making something less accurate but more fun. This maps fairly well to the role of other historians/instructors looking at the experience.

Some Lessons learned:

  • No one sim will capture the entire experience. Sims will often go deep, not broad.

  • The more accurate the sim, the more frustrating it will be to play the first time.

  • **The less accurate the sim, the easier it is to game it, but all sims, no matter how accurate, can be gamed at some point.**Multi-player games creates environments where people are faster to break the illusion and try to exploit the rules.

  • Debates around specifics are inevitable, but should not be used an excuse to discount the entire experience. 100% accuracy is neither possible nor desirable.

  • Huge holes in source material will be uncovered that were missed by linear thinkers but that are glaring to more dynamic content creators.

  • Creating new genres is more powerful but also more risky than using old ones.

  • Small simple games can be more instructive than super complex ones, especially for teaching about high level relationships.

  • Sims won't replace the source material, but augment it.

  • Time lines are less important than interactions.

  • Communities are key.

I think the real power of educational simulations in K-12 and higher-ed will come when we rethink our curriculum all together. But for those intent on history based educational simulations (and my hat goes off to everyone of you - let me know how I can help!), I think the analogy is a good one.

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