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Bringing games into the classroom can help students think through challenging subjects.

Playing games with history

CMU students are developing new ways to engage their peers with the past

Contact: Ari Harris

​In a bleak future, a tyrannical dictatorship sweeps the globe. Its ruthless leader decides to conquer the nations that stand against him by destroying their history and culture. Rogue researchers fight against time to safeguard the past, collecting important cultural artifacts and documenting important historical events to preserve what remains of their countries.

It sounds like the plot of a new young adult novel, but it is actually the description of a new game for teaching world history, called "A Rebel's Guide to Rescuing History." The game is being developed by a Central Michigan University alum, an independent scholar, a researcher from the Rochester Institute of Technology and CMU history faculty member Jon Truitt. Truitt is the director of CMU's Center for Learning Through Games and Simulations.

Learning beyond lectures

Truitt and CMU alum Hailey Zacharski are trying to shift the way some students approach the study of history — from reluctance to excitement.

History is full of old news and dead people — characteristics that may make it a dry subject for some students, said Zacharski.

But the lessons history offers are often relevant today, and delving into the past doesn't have to be boring.

Zacharski always loved studying history, and she came to CMU to earn a secondary education degree to teach the subject. As she participated in various history role-playing games in Truitt's world history course as a freshman, Zacharski noticed her peers perking up.


Students in Jon Truitt's World History to 1500 class work on developing their own games.

"Taking on the persona of a historical figure allows the student to personally connect with history and makes study more meaningful. Students love to play games, and it allows them to think about the content in a more complex way. They have to utilize higher-level thinking skills when playing the game, and this enhances their comprehension of the material," she said.

Truitt frequently incorporates games into his classes at CMU and, through the Center for Learning Through Games and Simulations, helps other faculty implement game-based learning in their courses.

"It's an effort to make education better and to reach more students. Games are not a silver bullet, but active-learning approaches can help students process and engage with information in a different way," Truitt said.

The center includes faculty from several academic departments and offers workshops for educators at CMU and universities around the country.

"No one ever seems to forget these experiences, which is something we cannot always say about the typical classroom experience." — Hailey Zacharski, CMU alum and game co-developer

Rebels with a cause

When Truitt invited Zacharski to help develop his new game, she decided to use the experience as her Honor's Program capstone project.

The goal of the game was not only to engage students more actively in the study of history, but also to improve their writing skills and teamwork. Each team is responsible for saving a certain area of the world during a certain period of time. They must research important figures and events and produce a one- to two-page paper about the topic to preserve it. Well-written papers may earn the team resources, such as access to cultural artifacts or additional time to conduct research.

Truitt, Zacharski and the game development team are talking with a publisher to put the product in the hands of more educators in the years ahead. Zacharski also hopes to adapt the game for high school classrooms.

"It is always surprising to hear my classmates talk about the games they played months or even years prior. They are able to recall key details about the historical events as well as the events of the game itself. No one ever seems to forget these experiences, which is something we cannot always say about the typical classroom experience."

Successful strategy for teaching

Developing games at CMU helped alum Emily Lint find new tools for engaging her high school students in the classroom.

"As an education student, it was a perfect fit for me to be working on tools to teach students. Developing the game forced me to consider things like whether the questions were appropriate for the students' reading levels, where they might get stuck and where the whole lesson could go off the rails," Lint said.

Now, as the social studies teacher at Brethren High School in Brethren, Michigan, Lint is developing her own games to engage her students. She created a Civil Rights-themed board game that introduces students to life as an African-American person during the Jim Crow era.

"Games like these help students develop an appreciation for history, understanding that these were real human beings who made choices that steered history in a specific direction. They have the opportunity to weigh those choices and think about how they might have acted in the same situation," Lint said.

And it seems to be working.

Lint surveyed her students at the end of the school year, asking them to consider how the use of games helped them learn. As one of Lint's students put it: "They are really fun and make me actually learn, especially because I am involved in the activity. They make me feel like I'm in the time period."

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