A student came to my office last week and asked for help setting up a LAN game of Civ IV in one of the college’s computer labs. He was going to play my Age of Conquest mod scenario with some friends that afternoon. While I showed him in the menu how to set up a multiplayer game, he shared his strategy to play Spain and attack the Aztecs. It’s a bad idea.

Most people think Cortés was able to defeat Montezuma because of superior weaponry and technology. At best, that’s an oversimplification. The Aztecs were far more advanced than most people realize, and their population numbers were astounding for the time period. The capital of Tenochtitlan had an estimated 250,000 people – five times the population of the largest cities in Europe at the time.

Cortés was able to conquer the Aztecs because of two factors that aren’t present in the game. The first was disease. The second was Montezuma’s belief that the appearance of Cortés was a sign that marked the beginning of the Aztec Empire’s doom. Without the benefit of these factors, my student and his Spanish civilization would face a crushing defeat and lose the chance to gain a foothold in the Americas.

I know this because I spent almost six weeks researching Europe and Central America in the time of Columbus to create the scenario for a class called “Empire.” Population numbers for all major cities in Europe and Central America, major educational and cultural centers on each continent, diplomatic, technological and military strengths and weaknesses of the time are all represented in the mod and cited in the readme file.

For the class, students had to play the game in addition to their readings and discuss whether the scenario accurately represented the period. One of the key concepts students should have learned about was the role of belief systems as described in the book The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other.” In essence, the book and the game make the same argument: Had the Aztecs viewed the world differently, their clash with the Spanish conquistadors would have been radically different.

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Employing videogames in the curriculum at Dickinson College is a relatively recent development. It was only a few years ago when I began reading academics such as James Paul Gee, Henry Jenkins and Bryan Alexander who discuss the teaching potential of games.

Even then, we were slow to adopt. It’s one thing to point to pedagogical principles in a game, but integration into a course is a whole different question. Most computer games take hours to learn and even longer to play through. To justify such an investment in time, a game would not only have to match the content of the course, but provide a learning experience that couldn’t be accomplished through reading, writing and class discussion.

The first game that showed great promise was the international release of The Sims Online. We had already begun setting up language exchanges for our foreign language classes with native speakers abroad using Skype. Students enjoyed being able to apply what they’d learned in class that week while meeting interesting people from around the world. In turn, they would then help them with their English.

The Sims Online promised to take these kinds of exchanges to a new level. Not only could they converse with native speakers online, but they could do so in an environment with activities that mimicked those in the real world and encouraged social interaction. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Unfortunately, it was. The game itself was a complete flop. Sales in the U.S. were disappointing, and the game’s European release was postponed several times before finally being canceled.

We never ended up using The Sims Online, but it did lead me to look into ways to set the configuration files of other games to only play in certain languages. I still hadn’t thought of a way to use them in a class, but I liked the idea of students playing The Sims 2, Oblivion or Neverwinter Nights II in a foreign language in the lab. Every semester since then, we’ve purchased a few games and installed them along with a little script that asks the player to choose a foreign language from a list before the game launches.

The first class to use a videogame as part of the course was German 101. I had been asked to teach the course in the fall as an adjunct instructor. It was an unusual opportunity for me to showcase the use of a new technology as part of a class. I immediately began looking at the instructional potential of MMOGs.

The key benefit of an MMOG was its potential to create an immersive language experience. That meant the game had to be popular enough for the developers to host servers that were language specific.

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The only game that fit the criteria was World of Warcraft. In some ways, it seemed like a bad match. German 101 has chapters on parts of the house, university life and family. I couldn’t find many quests that would make very good chapter lessons.

In a more abstract sense, though, it was perfect. Every language teacher has read articles and books that extol the benefits of creating a student-centered, collaborative and task-oriented classroom. The idea was that students would be more motivated and retain more if they could apply their language skills in a meaningful way. WoW certainly matched that description, but I was far from certain it was a good idea. So I decided to let the students choose: They could either do a language exchange once a week with a student in Germany or play WoW with me on a German server.

Roughly half the class opted for WoW. We were a little too large to form a group, which made some tasks a little more complicated than others. Since I didn’t have the courage to ask the college to host a TeamSpeak server, we ended up using Skype. For each session, everyone would meet at a designated spot in world. Then we’d read some quests together and set out.

The gameplay itself was frequently chaotic. Imagine your usual conversations in WoW, take away the group functions and limit everyone’s vocabulary to that of a 3-year-old, and you get the idea.

But despite the chaos, there were real benefits that came from using the game. In addition to the extra hour of speaking and reading in German each week, the students created a cheat sheet on their own of over 100 words they thought they’d need for future sessions. They were instant experts on the command tense. They devoured the list of verbs for the emotes, and roughly half of them played the game on their own for a couple of hours each week.

Despite the extra work, I considered the game a success. The ability to immerse students in a situation made the game unique. Communicating in German became a skill they needed to succeed. Their concentration for that hour in WoW was absolute, and they were willing to spend extra time outside of class as well. It was every teacher’s dream.

Flush with success, I started looking around for other games that could provide the same benefits in other courses. History and political science seemed like the most likely candidates. By the following semester, I had enough games for a faculty workshop. I came prepared to show several games including Rome: Total War, the mod Rome Total Realism, Civ IV, A Force More Powerful and PeaceMaker.

Unfortunately, after 15 minutes of waiting, I was still the only one to show up. I was getting ready to go home when a new political science professor arrived. He didn’t even need to hear the sales pitch. He was already active in severally politically oriented online games that I hadn’t heard of, including Cyber Nations and NationStates, and he was eager to discuss ways to use games in his classes.

Since then, we’ve offered five or six courses each semester that integrate games in some way. PeaceMaker is the most popular, but we’ve also used Die Gilde 2, Civ IV, Fold It and some games on the Japanese Wii. This semester, we had students create their own games for the first time as well using Inform 7.

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I’ll usually see a couple students during the day playing a game in one of the labs. Most come in the evenings after I’ve left for home. Some play just for fun, others as one of their assignments. The best part is I can’t tell.

Last week I heard a student complain that my Civ IV mod was impossible. “It’s possible,” I said. “If you want to win, you should take the course on empires.”

Todd Bryant is the Instructional Media Liaison for the foreign language departments at Dickinson College. You can read his blog at linux.dickinson.edu/wpmu/languages.

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