Designing a Classroom Game That Can Get Kids Excited About History

Rick Brennan and Jason Darnell, social studies teachers in Houston, created Historia so that students would take an active role in learning


About six years ago and six years into a career as a sixth-grade social studies teacher, Rick Brennan noticed he was getting the same questions again and again from his students. He knew what they would ask, when they would ask it, and he was bored. Brennan considered leaving the profession, but instead decided to innovate. Together with his colleague, Jason Darnell, he completely re-designed how learning happened in his classroom.

Brennan and Darnell were teachers who would try anything to reach their students. And they had the good fortune to work at Lanier Middle School, a public magnet school set in the leafy Montrose area of Houston, Texas, among antique shops and cool cafes, known for the oldest accelerated learning program in the city and the space it gave teachers to try new things. So over the years Brennan and Darnell experimented with all kinds of activities: media projects, debates, games. Whenever they used a game, they noticed, the atmosphere in class was electric. The kids were totally on task. And they asked themselves, why can't it be like this all year long?

"But the students are much more excited to come to class. You can hear them gossiping about it in the hallways!"

This question led them to design Historia. Historia is a civilization-simulation game that incorporates a year-long world cultures curriculum aligned to Texas state standards. The game is played in class using worksheets, research materials -- reference books and a few desktop computers -- and an interactive presentation, delivered by Brennan. During the game, students cluster together in teams to form civilizations, which they must govern skillfully as they progress through world history, meeting and measuring themselves against all the peoples that existed between 2000 BCE and 2000 CE.

There is a long tradition of simulation games in social studies. One success in the early days of personal computing was The Oregon Trail, a game where players took on roles as pioneers to face first-hand the hardships of westward expansion. The game debuted in a history class in Minnesota in 1971, with students waiting up to a half hour just to take a turn. Since then, digital simulations have come a long way in terms of speed and sophistication. But some teachers are discovering that, when it comes to learning, and especially in resource-strapped school districts, a game on paper can be as persuasive as anything on screen. "Very simply," says Brennan, "this is best teaching practice. When I didn't teach this way, I would have ten percent of my class who I would struggle to get to pay attention. I don't have that problem any more. Right now my biggest problem is calming kids down, they get so excited. And that is a very good problem to have." Brennan is not alone. John Hunter, a fourth-grade public school teacher and designer of the paper-based simulation game World Peace, tells a similar story in the recent documentary World Peace and Other Fourth-Grade Achievements.

Getting the design of Historia right took Brennan and Darnell six years, working in their spare periods and off hours, and lots of trial and error. One of the most difficult things to design was the level of challenge in each round of play. "At first it was too hard," Darnell remembers. "It's important that students feel success. If they don't feel success, they just give up." Darnell's and Brennan's most important resource in calibrating the experience of game play was their students. They were super-eager to give feedback and suggest improvements. Brennan recalls the students pushing early on and often for more interactivity. For example, in each game round a historically significant event occurs that determines the destinies of student civilizations. At first there was no opportunity for the students to respond to the event as leaders. So instead they responded as play-testers and convinced Darnell and Brennan to incorporate into the event a dilemma, a difficult choice students must make that shapes outcomes for all civilizations.

Presented by

Brian Waniewski is managing director at Institute of Play, a non-profit working at the intersection of games and learning. He is also a partner at the future forecasting firm Popular Operations.

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