History Made Fun

A post by a self-confessed history-phobic student who took a new look at her most dreaded subject a decade later

Dreadful memories of a dreaded subject

For a schoolkid brought up in China in the late 2000s, history and other ‘fact-heavy’ subjects were never all that appealing. I remember having a difficult time cramming my brain with unending lists of significant historical events and figures whose names included some of the least memory-friendly combinations of Chinese characters. And as I failed to detect any correlation between the two (except perhaps some random mnemonic associations), the taught formula – who did what when where why – did little to decrease my anxiety towards the subject. Despite my considerable efforts, the unflattering exam results invariably suggested that history was not my forte. Even in the rare cases where I managed to get a decent score on a test, I would flunk it completely if I retook it the next day, since the information would refuse to stay any longer than overnight. I felt sad and upset about my lack of interest in the subject, as we were taught since childhood that learning these ‘facts’ by heart was the least we could do to stay connected to our cultural roots, as it were, and to pay due respect to the nation’s great history.

I was not the only one who suffered the misery of learning the subject in this constraining way, though. My fear and distress were shared by many of my science-minded classmates, who found memorizing the periodic table a lot more pleasant. Understandably, I bid an early goodbye to my most dreaded subject by choosing to become a college student majoring in English. I knew that as a humanities student, I would be reading history somewhere along the way, but taking the subject off the menu as the main course offered no small relief. Above all, it relieved me of the burden of memorizing stuff taught in a way that made one believe that it was the ultimate truth, the only way in which one ought to approach things that had happened in the past. Inquisitive student though I was, I spent much of my pre-college years being sceptical about the value of rote-learning things perceived as important yet meaning little to me.

A turning point

In my sophomore year as an English major, we studied an essay entitled ‘Why Historians Disagree’ by Allen Davis and Harold Woodman, compilers of Conflict and Consensus in American History. That piece of writing included what struck me then as the most rational and sensible arguments about history as a substantial domain of knowledge. The authors’ closing remark even aroused in me a desire to read up on some of the ‘disagreements’ generated in the field: ‘When students realize that there is no one easy answer to the problems historians raise and that “truth” is but an elusive yet intriguing goal in a never-ending quest, they will find the study of history to be a significant, exhilarating, and useful part of their education’. As a result, I began to read bits and pieces of history, mostly written in English, and was amazed at its lively diversity, which invited and made room for reflection and exploration. Though one does not normally need to develop literacy in a foreign language to relearn and appreciate the learned accounts of history in one’s native culture, this is how things turned out in my case.

A relook a decade later

It was not until a decade later, however, that I took a serious look back at my dreaded school subject. To my delight, I have begun to notice subtle changes in the teaching and learning of history in the local context, with technologically enhanced methods developing rapidly in response to the pressure to modernize and internationalize the subject. In particular, as the notion of gamification becomes increasingly trendy in the global discourse of education, a host of less rigid teaching and learning approaches have emerged, one of the most contested of which is the use of digital historical games. It is not that I belong to a generation with no access to similar fun alternatives. It is just that back in my school days the connection between learning and gaming had not been meaningfully established in a context where a social stigma about gaming prevails to this day.

My first realization of the changes came from my aunt, who has been teaching for over twenty years as a secondary school history teacher in China. As I noticed that she seemed to be enjoying more leisure time than before, I asked her what had happened. ‘The students now have access to a wide range of resources; they can figure out their ways to learn and choose what they like’, she explained, ‘and they prefer the more fun way, which means I can have some fun myself’. Married to a devoted gamer-cum-pharmacist, she readily embraces the idea of edutainment and encourages her students to try new, fun ways to learn the subject. Her only daughter has grown up to be a game guru, and this senior computer science major dreams about becoming a game developer in the future. That my twenty-year-old cousin outperforms me in both history and gaming is not surprising. That I lack the experience to properly construe the idea of historical games is not surprising either. Yet I’m taken aback by the changes that seem to have been taking place in a system famous for its ‘exam-driven education fever’.1 Could it be the case that history is now being made fun for Chinese schoolkids as well? A combined keyword search for ‘history’ and ‘game’ on Baidu (the Chinese Google) compelled me to explore further.

As my search results show, high on the list of titles popular among Chinese players are Uncharted Waters, Nobunaga’s Ambition, Epic of the Grand Regent and Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Koei, as well as Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, Victoria and Hearts of Iron by Paradox Interactive. While Chinese players seem to have a taste for imports, domestic developers and publishers may have some catching-up to do in terms of consumer base expansion. A number of gamers shared their experiences on social media sites of how game-playing assisted their learning in one way or another. One devoted gamer recalled his writing from memory a full list of countries involved in World War I in record-breaking time when he was twelve, which stunned everyone, including his history teacher. Another recounted turning her hobby into a research interest and completing an MA with a thesis on the translation of foreign history-themed games. Still another made a thorough analysis of the portrayal of China across the four most popular Paradox games and suggested reasons for its overall powerful image in these titles.2 Interestingly, this research-minded gamer took notice of a number of subtle discrepancies between what he had read in his secondary school textbooks and what he had found in Hearts of Iron III. As our textbooks record it, prior to the Anti-Japanese War, the Republic of China had not yet entered an era of heavy mechanization. In the game, however, the supposedly light machinery equipment was used to produce heavy weaponry, with tanks assembled in looms and aircraft carriers constructed in flour mills. While the gamer did not go so far as to argue that the developers had intended to give the country an in-game advantage, he did note that the contrast between the in-game scenario and the historical reality was amusing.

Loose details such as these may bother the stern-faced historians who cannot tolerate the smallest fabrication in accounts or stories, yet most gamers are kept too cognitively occupied during the game to be bothered by the occasional deviations the virtual reality presents. At the same time, they seem to remain fully aware of the distinction and respect what comes to be known as the ‘historical fact’, as stated in the parenthetical disclaimer to Lin’s post: ‘All the descriptions of the powerful countries in the above games under discussion have nothing to do with the real history’.3 All seem to subscribe to the understanding that history is more than just a video game. Moreover, with some care and knowledge, they may engage themselves not only deeply but also critically with the game and expect to get more out of it than a trophy.

Reflections on the changing landscape

Honestly, when it comes to history in the sense of happenings beyond our experience of time and space, nobody knows for sure what the reality is, and one can only seek ways to approximate that reality. While textbooks offer one such way, games can serve as an equally valid one. Yet we intuitively find the former more authoritative, reliable and serious than the latter, given our received attitudes towards an academic versus an entertainment genre. Overall, it could be this sharp perceived contrast that stands in the way of legitimizing gaming as a beneficial way of learning.

In comparison with the traditional method of spoon-feeding ‘facts’ to students, gaming offers a fun alternative by engaging students in an interactive experience of history. What is remarkable here is the imaginative dimension gamification adds to the scene. Although it is a long way from revolutionizing the history curriculum, it does help relax our perception of history and the way it is narrated and interpreted. In the Chinese context, history can be approached in two distinct ways: the official, authoritative, orthodox way, known as the zheng shi (standard histories), and the folkish, unsanctioned, unorthodox way, the ye shi (wild histories). The former is upheld as the most appropriate, desirable interpretation that best serves the interests of the country and its people.4 Given its ‘venerable tradition of official historiography’,5 it is no surprise that history textbooks in the country’s secondary schools offer a uniform account that discourages alternative understandings, hence the pressure to memorize things to be passed on as cold, hard facts.

In this regard, the host of opportunities the gamification of history offers may outweigh the betrayal and distortion of the historical record it possibly induces. The liberation from the conceptualization of history as the presentation of indisputable facts can only be beneficial. After all, history cannot be imposed on individuals who, as equal inheritors of the past, have a right to find their own ways to connect to that past. They should be trusted to explore history with judgements they make based on personal knowledge and experiences. History can be made fun and meaningful by engaging individuals in creative efforts towards mining the riches of the humanities.

  1. Lan Yu and Hoi K. Suen, ‘Historical and Contemporary Exam-Driven Education Fever in China’, KEDI Journal of Educational Policy 2, no. 1 (2005): 17–33. [return]
  2. Zhiwei Lin, ‘“P she si meng” li de zhongguo tai qiang le [China Is Portrayed as a Great Power in the Four Popular Paradox Interactive Products]’, Chuapp.com (blog), 13 September 2017, http://www.chuapp.com/article/284074.html. [return]
  3. Lin, ‘“P she si meng”’. [return]
  4. One documented example of this strategic interpretation can be found in Chairman Mao’s particular interest in historical studies. In reviewing a Chinese historian’s writings on the civil war history of China, Mao praised the stance the author took in writing his work: ‘It is good for you to clarify in your book your judgement on fighting back and surrender. It would help the ongoing anti-Japanese war if you condemn surrenders in South and North Dynasty, South Song, Late Ming and Qing and hold them as negative examples while eulogizing those who fought against the invaders’ (original in Chinese; my translation). See Mao Zedong, Maozedong shuxin xuanji [Selected Correspondences of Mao Zedong] (Beijing: People’s Publishing House, 1983), 136–37. [return]
  5. On-cho Ng and Q. Edward Wang, Mirroring the Past: The Writing and Use of History in Imperial China (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005), xiv. [return]