The Informal Learning of History with Digital Games

Beavers, Sian M. (2020). The Informal Learning of History with Digital Games. PhD thesis The Open University.



Digital games that represent history, i.e. ‘historical games’, are a fundamental way that players can engage with the past. Their focus on historical representations, narratives and processes means educators are using them in formal educational practice. Surprisingly, there is little empirical research on the educational outcomes from the use of historical games in formal contexts, and the specific ways they can increase a learner’s historical awareness and understanding. Existing research on historical game engagements outside of these formal contexts is even scarcer. There has been very little study of whether, what, and how players informally learn through historical games, and their informal learning activities in relation to them.

This thesis presents two empirical studies that begin to address this imbalance, exploring player perceptions of historical games as a medium for informal historical learning. The first, an online survey completed by 621 respondents, compared audience and player perceptions of fictive historical film, television series, and games. This situated historical games within the wider media landscape of fictional representations of the past in visual culture, and how they are comparably perceived as media for informal historical learning. The second, more extensive study adopted an ethnographic approach, narrowing the focus of the first by exploring players’ informal learning experiences with historical games that specifically represent classical antiquity. It identified the historical knowledge outcomes particularly associated with historical game use, also examining player’s learning practices with the games that move beyond the game experience (e.g. information seeking, modding, after-action report writing, forum use, and LetsPlay videos).

This research thus offers a greater and more comprehensive understanding of informal learning with, and in relation to historical games, highlighting the interplay between these various informal engagements and activities, and how these relationships can influence, determine, or affect player understandings of both the past, and the present.

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