Publication Date

May 31, 2023

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Undergraduate Education


Digital Methods

College teachers and education experts across disciplines have discussed the gamification of college classrooms. An increasingly popular trend in higher education, gamification involves the application of elements typically found in games to classroom instruction. Historians are eager to explore the potential of games in history classrooms. For instance, Perspectives on History has published many game-themed articles, which range from “Engaging Students in the Game of Research” to “Playing with the Past: Teaching Slavery with Board Games.”

An anime-style figure stands next to a bench in a woods, with the dialogue text: “After lecture, let’s review what we learned today!”

Gamification can be a powerful classroom tool. Shu Wan

I have been experimenting with utilizing visual novels in the classroom. According to Janelynn Camingue, Elin Carstensdottir, and Edward F. Melcer’s definition, a “Visual Novel (VN) is a digital narrative-focused game that requires interactions where the player must be able to impact the story world or the story’s progression.” The VN is an older style of game, especially when compared to today’s popular genres such as first-person shooters and multiplayer online battle arenas, but its narrative- and text-intensive features facilitate the gamification of history teaching.

In the fall of 2022, I was a teaching assistant for Yan Liu’s undergraduate course Asian Civilization 1 at the University at Buffalo. When Dr. Liu offered me the opportunity to teach a 45-minute class, I decided to use a VN to gamify the lecture about Southeast Asian history and the Burmese immigrant community in Buffalo. This idea stemmed from my past teaching experience: as a new TA during the COVID-19 pandemic, I noticed a large proportion of college students had distinctly visual and auditory learning styles. In their class evaluations, my students appreciated my use of videos for pedagogical purposes and encouraged me to design the class more interactively. This makes sense: born and raised with Instagram, TikTok, and other social media, these students were constantly exposed to visual and interactive cultures that shaped their learning styles.

To match my students’ needs, I considered adding an exam review section in the format of a visual novel to my class. A month before the class, I developed the game on the low-code development platform Visual Novel Maker. By providing multiple setup modules, this software simplifies the game development procedure into dragging and clicking. Even with limited coding skills, humanities instructors can produce games in accord with their needs. I used those modules to develop a set of dialogues in the classroom, in which both the scene background and figures are in the style of Japanese manga. On the day of the class, I invited students to play with the game to review the key points in the lecture. After announcing “Let’s review what we learned today!” I played the VN game and projected it on the wall.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I noticed a large proportion of college students had distinctly visual and auditory learning styles.

As a digital humanities and pedagogy practitioner, I reference gamification not merely as an enjoyable way of teaching and learning but, more importantly, as a kind of hybrid pedagogy agenda. As I have addressed elsewhere, after teaching remoteclasses during the pandemic, “college instructors may consider the potential of hybrid pedagogy in the traditional in-person teaching.” Through playing and projecting video game–based questions and encouraging students’ interaction, I successfully bridged the gap between digital pedagogy and classroom teaching.

After the class, I invited students to take an online survey, which proved the success of this attempt. In response to the question “Do you think it is interesting if an instructor introduces the visual novel game into class teaching?” 75 percent chose “Yes.” Their positive feedback encouraged me to add more digitally interactive components into my future curricular design. In addition to facilitating the implementation of hybrid pedagogy in the classroom, VN games can also be alternative assignments.

The following semester, I taught an online course on Asian history after 1600. This provided me with an opportunity for further gamification of the history classroom, augmenting it with a “playground” section during class time and a VN-based assignment after class. I was inspired by education researcher Marina Umaschi Bers’s Coding as a Playground, in which the playground refers to “an environment to be creative, to express ourselves, to explore alone and with others, to learn new skills, and to problem solve.” Her research inspired me to transform the history classroom into a playground, in which students could learn historical thinking and writing skills by creating and playing VN games. For this class, I used the free software Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories that is commonly used by English literature and writing instructors.

I transformed the history classroom into a playground in which students could learn historical thinking and the skill of writing by creating and playing VN games.

I introduced the basics of Twine by showing my students how to create a new visual novel step by step. I first demonstrated the interactive historical novel in the class. Then, I instructed students on the basics of the Twine and how to begin their projects there. Unlike Microsoft Word or Google Docs, which only require the skills of typing and clicking, Twine requires the basic vocabulary, grammar, and commands of HTML and CSS, programming languages that can take time to learn. Echoing Bers’s “playground,” I encouraged students to play with Twine and create their own visual novels together in the virtual classroom. The assignment required students to create their own imagined dialogues with famous figures in Asian history, such as Emperor Qianlong, Aurangzeb, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Again, I invited students to take an after-class survey. According to its results, this innovative type of assignment was welcomed by students, who also proved their competency in completing an unessay assignment.

The evolution of my attempts from adding a VN portion into class to devising the “playground” on Zoom and designing a VN-based assignment represents my hopes for the gamification of history teaching. A different take on the traditional history classroom, this pedagogical shift makes playing games an integral part of learning history, and designing games becomes a supplement to writing assignments. When teaching Gen-Z college students, I recognized the urgent need to make my class gamified and add more video game–embedded materials into my classroom. It is because our students are accustomed to learning new knowledge and skills in an entertaining and interactive manner. Hence, we should adjust our pedagogy and philosophy of teaching in accord with their preferences and learning styles.

Shu Wan is a history PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo.

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