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Teaching Middle Eastern History Through Games

/ 09 Jun 2021

Teaching Middle Eastern History Through Games

Isn’t Middle Eastern history too serious for games? The word itself carries associations like “The Great Game,” a euphemism for the British and Russian confrontation in Central Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even today, military conflicts are sometimes likened to chess, and succession struggles in states like Saudi Arabia are called a “game of thrones.”

Comparing wars to a recreational activity or children’s play easily hides more than it illuminates. Like a two-dimensional chessboard, a view of the world through the lens of a game can lack depth. Many human experiences get lost, especially those of so-called pawns and probably even those of kings and queens. Should teachers of Middle Eastern history therefore avoid following the current trend of gamification in pedagogy and other areas of life?

Certain game-like elements are much more than a fad, but already well-established in education. Pupils commonly compete for grades and academic honors, as they do for scores and prizes in sports. Teachers of many subjects use “quizzes” (perhaps another euphemism) to assess learning. Relatively easy questions are supposed to prepare students for more formal and tougher examinations. Quizzes often take the form of short multiple-choice tests in order to save class time for other activities–and grading time for the instructor afterwards.

Forms of assessment like machine-gradable tests—and grades themselves—are unlikely to be going to disappear. So, instead of trying to get rid of games, we should try to develop better ones.

Obviously, having to tick the box with the correct answer is usually neither fun or enlightening. However, accreditors and funders frequently demand reports about the achievement of learning outcomes, preferably with quantitative metrics. Therefore, seemingly objective forms of assessment like machine-gradable tests—and grades themselves—are unlikely to be going to disappear. So, instead of trying to get rid of games, we should try to develop better ones. (See a related article, “Encouraging Students’ Participation in Online Classes: Tools and Practices.”)

Are you, like me, generally unsatisfied with multiple-choice tests? A software that makes quizzes more engaging for everybody in the classroom is the game-based learning platform Kahoot. Students gain points by answering questions correctly and quickly on their devices. They can anonymize themselves by choosing nicknames, but the top players receive places on an animated podium.

Kahoot games can be designed about any topics. I found that they could even make paleography, the study of ancient writing systems, less obscure. Course participants compete with one another in deciphering and dating manuscripts and coins. These are key skills, especially for scholars of premodern history. Although codicology and numismatics are hardly the most popular fields of Middle Eastern studies today, some of my students were so excited that they created their own Kahoot games.

Screenshot of a student-designed Kahoot game with a question about an old coin.
Screenshot of a student-designed Kahoot game with a question about an old coin.

Kahoot games, like other short quizzes, are great for filling 10 to 20 minutes of class time. However, what if you want to play for longer?

One of the most immersive forms learning occurs in role-playing games. Applied to history, students step into the shoes of somebody who lived in a past era. In an empathic way, they learn how to think and speak like a sultan or a rebel. They thus become more psychologically invested in historical debates and arguably remember more than from any multiple-choice test.

One of the most successful series of historical role-playing games in higher education has been Reacting to the Past. Started by Mark Carnes at Barnard College in New York, it is continued by the Reacting Consortium, an alliance of different institutions. W.W. Norton publishes game sets that include rules for students, manuals and handouts for instructors, plus primary source readings. Although this particular series does not yet cover the Middle East very well, historians of the region can take inspiration from existing titles to create their own ones.

Acting can be a very deep and memorable form of learning. However, not every student is comfortable with trying to embody great persons in history, such as Suleiman the Magnificent or his wife Roxelana (known as Hürrem Sultan). Performance anxiety can be found at universities anywhere. However, in a country like Qatar without many theaters or a strong tradition of the dramatic arts, many of my students are even less used to appearing on stage. (See a related article, “Universities in Qatar Help Students Stay Connected in a Remote-Learning World.”)

Blockbuster videogames show that even the resources of a large studio are not enough to create exact and exhaustive representations of the past.

Yet, even if they are not happy to partake in immersive games themselves, they are usually ready to discuss them. This especially goes for popular electronic ones. Having grown up playing video games, many of my course participants are interested in analyzing them. “Prince of Persia” or “Assassin’s Creed” provide plenty of material for uncovering historical inaccuracies and contemporary forms of Orientalism.

Blockbuster videogames show that even the resources of a large studio are not enough to create exact and exhaustive representations of the past. The pixel count of any “Assassin’s Creed” title far exceeds the 64 squares of a chessboard. Nonetheless, its depictions of Middle Eastern history are still simplified and distorted. The same is true for any game an individual teacher is seeking to design.

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Nevertheless, just like an absorbing movie, a riveting interactive play can be a good starting point for delving deeper into the historical record. Sometimes, the best outcome of a course is that a student gets hooked to a subject. This is, indeed, how many scholarly careers begin. Good games are an easy way to get addicted.

(Note: How did you do on the questions in the images above? Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Razi (Rhazes) all influenced European medicine, as indicated by the existence of Latinized versions of their names. As for the coin, it was struck in Qustantaniyya (Constantinople/Istanbul) in the year 1099 of the Hijri era, or AD 1687.)

Jörg Matthias Determann teaches history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at @JMDetermann.




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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام