Gamifying the 13 Colonies

posted Sep 9, 2014, 3:02 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Aug 3, 2016, 6:51 AM ]
I love games. I play them (both board and video) heavily. I also watch them constantly. If I timed it out I probably spend more time watching games now than actually playing them. Seeing how others interact within game spaces is truly fascinating to me. I love games so much in fact that I study them. I did my master's capstone project on the effectiveness of using games to teach history and I've read a ton of books on my own to further pull in whatever information I could. 

So, why not put that theory to work?

This summer I started building a game to help simulate what it would be like to found a colony in the Americas. I finally had my first chance to try it out today. I've been working on it on and off a ton so I was very eager to see how it all played out. Here's how it went!

The Setup

Packaging is a surprisingly important part of any game. It helps to bring the player into a new world. If the packaging is boring it can be hard to get them into it. If it is too chaotic you make it hard for the player to want to even try to make sense of it. For this game (which is fully digital) I decided to do it as a parody of an existing game, the Settlers of Catan. Why reinvent the wheel? I took the Settlers box art, did some photoshop magic and bam, new packaging. That was the first image my kids saw when they came into class. They knew a game was coming.

The next step is to introduce the story of the game. I did this with a short video intro (like I do with most of my "special" labs) that just layered titles over a clip from America the Story of Us. Add a layer of tense music from Cell Dweller and bam number two, we've got flavor. The video calmed the kids down (after the usual OH BOY WE'RE IN GROUPS excitement) and laid out the basics of the game.

How to Play

My first "build" of the game had a ridiculous number of variables. Students were tracking population, food stores, wealth and relations with Britain. They could build numerous types of buildings to affect these numbers. It was way too much. Ultimately I boiled it down to the key elements to represent the historical situation - population and relations. Having two variables meant I could easily play off the conflict between the two. Decisions did not have to be very complex. They all pretty much raised one variable at the expense of the other. While the game could function with just one variable having two really forces decision-making on the groups.

The game starts with students choosing their desired location for their colony. We've already done extensive work comparing the colonial regions based on economics and climate so their discussions were quite interesting. Groups then chose a name for their colonies (which I will likely not do in the future simply for time considerations) and created their first three laws. I didn't give much explanation on what I wanted as far as laws because I really wanted them to get a sense of the chaos of a founding. Most came up with things like "no stealing" and "freedom for all" with a few creating contradictory laws like "freedom for all" and "no rebellion" which led to some interesting conversations. The laws ultimately have little effect on the game as currently built so I may end up eliminating them entirely but they didn't seem to hurt the game either.

With a location and laws in place the game begins. Each round ("season" in flavor terms) consists of building a building or sending an envoy to Britain. Farms increase population. Envoys increase relations. I also let them build special buildings like schools and hospitals. These did not immediately effect population or relations but had later effects on various events.  After they had built and recorded their changes in score an event took place. Each event is based on a historical situation faced by the colonies. The first event, for example, is the arrival of a slave ship from Holland leading the groups to decide if slavery will be legal in their colony. Each group decides and records their decision on a score sheet. I then reveal the results. In this case, saying yes meant an increase in population while saying no led to an increase in relations with Britain. This cycle continues (build -> event, build -> event) until the first Winter comes up. In Winter groups create a new law instead of building but otherwise play continues in the same fashion. 

After each year (4 turns) the game advances 50 years with a brief interlude summarizing how things really progressed in the colonies during that period.

Ultimately we reach Spring 1776 (which will eventually be summer, I made this addition at the last minute so getting it to even 1776 was a bit of a feat) and a final event. The Declaration of Independence is presented to your colony and you must decide whether you will sign it or not. Signing it results in war and a massive hit to your population. Refusing raises your population in the short run but with dire warnings about lost freedom in your colony. In the end, nobody wins. I wanted students to experience the impossible position the colonists were in by mid 1776. The costs to either decision were extremely high.

What Went Right?

Thankfully, most of it did. Well, the second time I ran it anyway. First period struggled a bit since I had little hiccups to fix along the way, but overall it went very well.

Most students were highly engaged. I admittedly had one group of girls that clearly had no interest in the game. They still played along but there was no discussion among them. They just went through the motions. Most groups though were heatedly debating what to build and what decisions to make. They caught on pretty quickly what the results of each decision would likely be and that didn't make it any less intense. If anything, knowing that most decisions came with a cost made them even more intent on choosing "correctly" for their team.

The flow worked out as well as it could given literally zero playtesting beforehand. After going very slowly through the first turn the students picked up the mechanics of the game quickly and it was easy from then on (until we hit my major mistake of mixing up two result cards - oops.) The decisions were clearly the highlight of the "fun" but even the build phases were interesting enough to keep the game moving along.

Fun and engagement are all well and good but they don't mean much without learning. While I believe there is a place for fun for fun's sake in the classroom if that was my goal I didn't need to spend months designing a new game for it. I wanted them to learn. Initially I wanted them to learn the challenges of setting up a new colony. As the game evolved it became more about understanding the impact the various causes of the Revolution had on the populace. I really feel like the game hit on both accounts. Their debates indicated the difficulty in making the choices and their recognition as the game went on of how their choices would impact their score showed they understood the outcomes of the events. The game served as an excellent review of these causes and sets us up perfectly for the next step - the War itself. 

In fact, it worked so well at setting it up that I think doing it before teaching the Declaration might even be more effective. Leaving them with that final decision of signing the "mystery" document or not and then not revealing the result of that decision until teaching the Declaration for the next few days would be an excellent hook. Still, I'm very happy with how the learning goals were met.

What Went Wrong?

The next time I make an instruction sheet without a typo will be the first time. I was awfully close this time. I had no words misspelled but I did manage to block out some of the wrong lines on the score sheet. This led to some confusion as there was nowhere to record event decisions in the winter seasons. Similarly, since I added the 50 year time jumps at the last minute I did not consider that I had nowhere to add that information on the score sheet. Oops. Those, thankfully, were minor mistakes that were fairly easy to correct.

There were some bigger ones though. First and foremost I did not build in "quiet down" time between the turns. Usually when I do a game or simulation with steps I build in a short writing component after each step. This quiets the room and lets me be heard when I give instructions on what to do next. This game doesn't have that so I was rather constantly talking over the kids. They were on task and working, I just had to talk over their interest and excitement. My second class went better since I just used my microphone but first period was a bit rough. I think the best solution to this would be to build in more timers. I have timers on the decision slides but that's it. If I put them on the build slides too with a rule that stated "any speaking after the timer will result in a population loss" then I think I'd alleviate a great deal of this problem. Of course, I could also build in a writing component but, as you'll see, I already had trouble finishing in a period.

Second, I had trouble finishing the game in one period. I managed the second time through by skipping a couple seasons and the Design a Flag step of the set up. Still, I was frequently rushed and there was zero time for debrief. So, the question now becomes do I shorten the game or lengthen it? I think I will end up going longer (an extra 20 minutes would be great) and then include a stronger writing component along with it.

Finally, there were the uninterested girls. I don't know why they weren't interested but they clearly weren't. Without any real accountability in the game they would be disinterested and get away with not learning. Disinterest is fine but not learning is not. Again, a writing component would help.

What's Next?

The true test of the effectiveness of the game will come next week. My students will be doing a DBQ based on the question of whether or not war was the right course of action for the colonists. Their experience of building their colony and feeling the impact of their choices and the events should really help color their responses. I almost certainly would not have taken a full day to do this game if I wasn't planning the DBQ. 

I suggest you give the game a look if for no other reason than to see how it works. It is far more simple than my rambling here might imply. It was well worth the effort and I could see myself building a similar game based on other periods of history with multiple key decisions (Going West and Causes of the Civil War come to mind.)

Games get my highest recommendation!