Wage-slave aka “associate” college profs are great fun, often being walking cliches of the Red Pill and related sociopolitical talking points. This professor of ancient feudal Japan was surprised by how much a student-made edutainment game taught him after he… um… told them to make it.
How student-designed video games made me rethink how I teach history
By Adam Clulow, Associate Professor of History, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts. 17 May 2021
Imagine you’re a young samurai in Japan in 1701. You have to make a difficult choice between an impoverished life in exile, or the prospect of almost certain death while trying to avenge the death of your dishonored lord. Which do you choose?
You have to ask? *kill kill kill*
Oh, wait. You aren’t allowed to kill people and take their stuff in edutainment games. *sigh* Stupid trick question.
“Ako: A Tale of Loyalty,” a video game built in 2020, takes players along a difficult journey through early modern Japan filled with decisions like this one. It’s become an essential component of my classes on Japanese history, but it wasn’t developed by a professional game studio. Instead, it was created by a team of four undergraduate history majors with no specialized training.
That and a sandbox game-making engine is all it takes, although there’s something to be said for artistic skills too.
Designing a video game may seem like a strange assignment for a humanities classroom, but as a professor who teaches a range of courses in East Asian history I have found that such exercises provide an engaging learning experience for students while also generating new educational content that can be widely shared.
A fine idea for a teacher to give his students, but the title of this article is clearly misleading. He’d already rethought how to teach history.
Among university students, video games are utterly pervasive. When I ask my classes who consumes video game content, either as a player or via streaming services like Twitch, it’s rare that a single student’s hand is not raised.
Schools and colleges have rushed to respond to these trends.
Of course they did. Schools and colleges are State-run indoctrination camps. Converging a popular recreation into a tool for mind control has got these types all excited.
Deus Ex didn’t lie to us.
Programs like Gamestar Mechanic or Scratch help K-12 students learn basic coding skills, while many universities, including my own, have introduced game design majors to train the next generation of developers.
QED. We can’t have men make just whatever games they want to! That’s what they’ve been doing and look, it’s a $180 BILLION dollar industry that we don’t control! Completely unregulated! Patriarchy memes everywhere! We must… educate them… yesss….
History professors, however, have been slower to embrace video games as teaching tools. Part of the problem is that the historical content contained within games is often, with some exceptions, repetitive and superficial.
Bullshit. Two words, Professor Clulow: CARMEN SANDIEGO. As in, Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego? That gold standard of edutainment was swiftly followed by Where in USA/World/Time/America’s Past/Space sequels in addition to reboots and a Netflix animated series. Don’t tell me you came of age in the 1980s but missed that franchise!
Even repeated history isn’t boring. History constantly repeating is why we study it. If history is ever boring, Professor, that’s your fault not history’s.
While there are many games focused on Japanese history, for example, the majority reinforce the same tired image of the heroic warrior bound by the rigid code of “bushidō,” a code that scholars have shown had very little to do with the daily life or conduct of most samurai.
Bullshit again. While I’m no expert in feudal Japan, their warrior code as recently as WW2 was terrifying. And their culture is still based around shame instead of guilt. Just because a atheist-trained indoctrinator can’t imagine dying for his beliefs (that change every day; who would?), does NOT mean that few people in history did.
In 2020, I asked four undergraduate history majors to design a fully functional video game with a clear educational payoff built around a controversial episode in Japanese history.
I was motivated by two ideas. First, I wanted to move beyond a standard reliance on academic essays. While I still assign essays, many students find them fairly passive exercises which don’t stimulate deep engagement with a topic.
Clulow deserves credit for discontentment with the usual, and very limited, methods of learning.
Second, I was convinced that university professors need to get into the business of producing games content. To be clear, we’re not going to design anything even close to what comes out of professional studios. But we can produce compelling games that are ready to be used both in colleges and – equally important – K-12 classrooms, where teachers are always looking for vetted scholarly content. A conventional academic essay is intended for just one person, the professor. But a video game produced by a group of committed undergraduates can be played by thousands of students at different institutions.
Aaaand I walk that credit back. He really is an indoctrinator, not a teacher, and hopelessly dependent upon the education-industrial complex.
At first, I worried the task I had set was too big and the technological barriers too high. None of the four team members was enrolled in a video game design program or had specialized training. It quickly became clear that such fears were overblown.
The team decided to work on a visual novel game, a genre that originated in Japan and can best be described as interactive stories. The design process for such games is facilitated by programs such as Ren’Py, which streamline development.
*Depression Quest flashbacks* NOOOO… gasp, gasp, pant. Whew. Flashback is over. We must forgive history students for not knowing how to code.
The team’s first task was to design a believable central character. Successful games push players to emotionally invest in their characters and the choices they make. In the case of “Ako,” the design team created a young samurai named Kanpei Hashimoto who was grounded in the period but also easy to relate to as a young person struggling to find his way in a complex world.
I might be wrong in this specific context but in most of history, young people didn’t struggle for lack of guidance. That is a First World problem, for kids to be overwhelmed with life choices at a young age with no fatherly assistance.
More common were kids wanting to escape the farm, either by pursuing tradeswork in cities or going to sea or military service… which was often compulsory anyway. Nothing makes you happy to milk cows for the next fifty years like trying to invade Russia.
From there, the team created branching storylines punctuated by clear decisions. In total, “Ako” has five possible outcomes depending on the choices a player makes. Numerous smaller decisions along the way open up additional ways to navigate the game.
The next step was dialogue. A typical academic essay is around 2,500 words, and students often complain about how difficult it is to fill the required pages. In contrast, the “Ako” team wrote over 30,000 words of dialogue. It required extensive research. What would a samurai family have eaten for breakfast? How much did it cost to buy a “kaimyō,” or posthumous Buddhist name, for a deceased parent? How long did it take to make the oiled paper umbrellas, called “wagasa,” that many poor samurai sold to survive?
Okay. Sounds like a fun project.
Finally, the students developed historically accurate artwork. The game has four chapters with 30 background images and 13 characters. Making sure everything was consistent with this period in Japanese history was a huge undertaking that stretched both me and the students.
Ultimately, the team learned more about samurai life and early modern Japan than any group of students I had worked with across a single semester. They read a dizzying array of books and articles while working and reworking the overall design, dialogue and artwork. And they succeeded in developing a fully functional video game that has already been used in other classrooms across the country.
Most importantly, I believe their experience provides a template for how student-designed video games can transform the humanities classroom.
Making this game was surely fun & educational but I see Depression Quest-level problems such as “what’s for breakfast?” that are not going to motivate players. Period accuracy is great but it’s not why we play video games, and it’s not fun to role-play characters such as “Ako who refused to fight and die as honor demanded”. Nobody wants to be a coward.
One part of me wants to credit Clulow for going the extra mile in his studies and student interactions. He’s clearly not a normal aca-drone. But another part of me watches him join a long line of malevolent lie-spewers in trying to twist our favorite pastimes into opportunities to mindfuck us.
The Hegelian synthesis of my thoughts is that his product is most likely a technically-accurate depiction of feudal Japanese life coupled with a shocking tone-deafness about people who care more about honor and tradition than their own lives… which is what captures the gamer’s imagination about samurai so completely.
That would align it with much of modern historical entertainment. Many historical movies in recent years went to great pains to ensure that everything from costumes to accents were realistic… not counting the main plot of a kung-fu princess kicking Conan in the balls for staring at her chest.
Clulow still has his un-tenured job after distributing this game so I feel no need to actually play it to know its loyalties.