Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Ball State Students Create Historical Video Game

on June 20, 2011
Screenshot of Morgan's Raid, a serious educational game created by teams of Ball State University students.

A Ball State history professor saw a serious issue with the way fourth-grade Indiana textbooks were explaining a Civil War event. A computer science professor was interested in gaming at the same time.

And through a mutual colleague, Ronald Morris and Paul Gestwicki started addressing a serious education problem with a serious game. They led computer science students in creating an educational video game about Morgan's Raid. And now, schools can start using the game.

Indiana fourth-graders don't learn much about Morgan's Raid

When fourth-graders learn about state history, they don't learn much about Indiana's only involvement in the Civil War. At most, textbooks have a paragraph about the raid that Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan led in Indiana and Ohio in 1863.

"It's just not compelling," Gestwicki said. "It's more of the folk tale, like the fact that he stole some bolts of cloth and some hams, which is not significant. It doesn't explain why this raid really was important for Indiana history or why it was important for Civil War history."

After he fought and plundered his way through Indiana, he moved on to Ohio, where Union forces captured him.

This month, the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park near Ball State opened a Civil War exhibit about Morgan, a project that had been in the works for five years. And toward the end of this semester, students and professors finished up Morgan's Raid, a historical video game that puts students in the role of Morgan.

"We both realized there's a great opportunity here to tell this piece of history in different ways." 

Computer science students work together on a serious game

For the past three semesters, the History and Computer Science departments worked together on Morgan's Raid. Students in the "Methods of Elementary Social Studies" class created a curriculum guide for teachers. And computer science students worked on the game itself.

Both Morris and Gestwicki led the project. In fall 2010, a class of about 25 or 30 computer science students worked off a design document to create the game. They split up into four groups that worked on different pieces of Morgan's Raid.

In spring 2011, Gestwicki asked about eight students and an artist to work on Morgan's Raid in an independentt study with him. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, they met for three hours in a classroom space. Again, they split into groups of at least two to do different tasks, said Phil Parli-Horne, who worked on the project for both semesters and graduated this week.

"I don't think I've ever worked on a project across the entirety of my academic career that was such a team effort."

They worked in two week sprints and each took on different tasks to complete in those weeks. Parli-Horne said he felt like he was going to work, and that was a good thing. If he could work in an environment like that with people like the ones he collaborated with, that would be great. In fact, they all joked around that they should form a company, steal Gestwicki away and work together.

Projects like this give him a feel for what work will be like in the real world. He sees education as something that should help him get a job.

And a few months before May, he already had a job lined up. That tells him that employers are interested in hiring students who have done impressive projects like this one.


Fun game designed to start serious conversation

Making a game fun is hard. And one of Gestwicki's goals was to make the learning legitimately come from the fun.

He and Morris threw the problem at undergraduate students in an Honors College colloquium. And it took everyone involved with the project a long time to figure out the core fun and learning mechanic of the game.

"I learned a lot more about how to approach the problems and how to scaffold students into this very very difficult research level thinking of trying to make educational games or trying to make serious games," Gestwicki said.

His team tried to make a fun game that leads to positive and predictive learning outcomes. And that's a different approach than most game designers take outside of academia.

Anything that engages a student's mind is valuable, Parli-Horne said. The game won't teach a student necessarily. But it opens the door for them to have conversations with teachers and gain a different perspective on the raid.

"We designed it to be fun, but we also kind of designed it to raise specific questions that the student might ask about the game and the role they're playing as this Confederate soldier who's invading Indiana."

They tested both paper and digital prototypes of the game with elementary students. And while they may have some bug fixing to do, the game is pretty much done.

Morgan's Raid, which meets Indiana standards, is available for anyone to play. And Gestwicki already has two more projects lined up.

This summer, he's starting a digital archeology simulation designed to help elementary school students understand what archeology is. And next spring in a Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry seminar, he'll work with students on a game that explores themes of the underground railroad.


Morgan's Raid video game You can play the game, check out the history sources and find a curriculum guide.

Paul Gestwicki's Blog Check out more details about the design, development and testing of Morgan's Raid.

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