13 Free Online History Games

This is a quick smattering from the hundreds of different free online history games and interactives I have come across. This slice of the history games web underscores a few key points behind building the Playing History collaborative directory.

First, the list gives a quick sense of the different diversity of groups making history games. Each of these places have their own silos of content, making it nearly impossible for teachers to get a quick sense of what sorts of games are out there on a given topic.

If you get a chance to click through some of the links you will get a clear sense of the other need Playing History can address. The quality of these games and interactives varies widely. By allowing educators to rate and review these games in one central location Playing History can ensure educators can find both topical an high quality games.

If you get a chance to take a look at some of these post your reactions and thoughts about them in the comments.

From NOVA via WGBH Boston

Escape from Antarctica– Students relive Ernest Shackleton’s voyage from Antarctica’a Elephant Island to South Georgia island using a sextant and a chart.
Galileo’s Experiments– Students conduct virtual versions of Galileo’s thought experiments, including those using an inclined plane and a pendulum.
Map of the Maya World– Students explore 15 Mayan cities in an interactive map.

From the National Museum of American History

You Be the Historian– Students examine objects left behind by the Springer family, who lived in Delaware more than 200 years ago.

From Colonial Williamsburg

Williamsburg Coins: Students examine the diverse types of money jingling in the pockets and purses of colonial ancestors.

From the British Broadcasting Service

Viking Quest – Students explore Viking life by building a ship and looting monasteries.
Who Wants to Be a Cotton Millionaire? – Students run a cotton company in Victorian Brittan

From the Discovery Channel

Attack on Pearl Harbor– Students explore the virtual battleground through an interactive map
The Emperor’s Tomb– Students enter the mysterious tomb of the first emperor of China.

From the History Channel

Explore Shermans March– Students trace this historic civil war event

From the National Portrait Gallery

A Brush with History – Students explore famous portraits.

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Holocaust era in Croatia- Students explore daily life in holocaust era Croatia

From PBS Kids Go

Day in the life of a Native American Boy (ca.1855) -Students learn about daily life of Native American children in the mid 19th century.

Creating History In New Media

Word cloud for the Creating History With New Media course website

I am excited to taking Jeremy Boggs course “Creating History In New Media” to round out my MA in American History. The syllabus is pretty exciting, if a bit overwhelming, mix of tech skills (HTML, CSS and using WordPress and Omeka) with readings in project management and process for web design. If your into this sort of thing take a look at his syllabus.

Over the course of the semester each class member, ideally working in groups, will work a digital history site from bar napkin sketch to launch. I am lucky to have teamed up with Jim Safley, CHNM’s Web Programmer and Digital Archivist,  to work on putting together a smaller scope version of the Playing History project. (If you don’t feel like clicking the link Playing History will be a collaborative directory for educators to find, review, and post lesson plans relating to freely available history games they can use in their classrooms.) Jim and I will be using Omeka as our CMS.

Blogging is a big part of this course. Most of my classmates will be putting together class specific blogs that assume a considerable amount of shared classroom experience. That’s great.  I plan to take a slightly different tack.

While I will be participating in that community, I also want this blog to continue to serve a more general audience of folks interested in my particular take on digital history/humanities stuff. I have two primary reasons for doing this, the first of which is altruistic, and the second of which is a bit more self serving.

(1) I don’t think many history programs offer this kind of course. So if anyone wants to virtually audit it: grab a copy of the syllabus, and subscribe my RSS feed to follow along as we work through it together. I intend to post general class reactions to projects and readings alongside my own reactions, as well as, general information about how our class sessions worked. I think this, in conjunction with the course site, should also provide fruitful food for thought for educators interested in developing similar kinds of courses.

(2) I really think the Playing History project Jim and I are working on is a valuable endeavor and the more folks we can get to react to our planing documents (sitemaps, wireframes, photoshop mockups, HTML mockups, and final product) the more likely we will be able to launch a compelling first iteration of the Playing History idea.

New Genre: Non-Fiction Video Games

I think our games vocabulary is a bit impoverished. When most people think of games they think of fictional, often fantastic stories. Killing elves, post apocalyptic settings, shooting up all sorts of big bads. But games can also offer interesting ways to engage with the real world. To borrow a word from print I think that non-fiction can provide a compelling way to describe games that create playable environments out of real world data, documents and statistics.
There are other approaches for describing game genres. Terms like educational games, games for change, and serious games try to define genre of games by the intended user experience. Each is a description of the goal of the games, not their content. In my experience this is not the way we describe other media, at least other successful generals of media. Do you want to watch a educational film? Are you interested in reading an exciting new educational book? The idea of serious games is equally problematic. If a military simulation like Americas Army is a serious game are we suggesting that engaging games like Fallout 3 or Bioshock are frivolous?

I think there is a much broader, largely unexplored category for games.

I think we are getting to a point where dividing games into fiction and non-fiction makes sense. Gamers are getting older and there is good reason to believe that as they do they will be looking for other ways to engage with games. If we think about the experiences of watching a documentary, or reading a great work of non-fiction, we can get a taste of what these games could be like. Take those appeals to facts, to real data, and make playable experiences. Below I have three examples of different kinds of games that fit within this genre. Each of these create playable experiences out of real world data.

Science Games:

Example Operation Resilient Planet

In Operation Resilient Planet you recreate the field work of contemporary underwater ecologists. Through a series of mini games built around these scientists’ actual work, players gather data which they then deploy in arguments with other scientists. In practice it is a bit like Phoenix Wright meets a great episode of Nova. The game is built for middle school students, but I found it to be quite engaging. The same basic idea, using real scientific data to make a engaging game space, is in action in the discovery channel’s Sharkrunners game.

Historical Games:

Example Colonial Williamsburg Revolution

Grounded in the historical expertise of folks at Colonial Williamsburg this multi-player Neverwitner Nights mod lets people play through the events around the American Revolution. There are a lot of other examples of games that model a variety of different historical ideas. Commercial games like Civilization, military games like Rome Total War, and the Romance of the Three Kingdom’s series. There are still a lot of less explored ways to build historical games. Things like biographical games, and non-military period piece games are still largely unexplored.

Political Games:

Ayiti: The Cost of Life

Try managing the health, education and finances of a family in Haiti. Don’t let the cartoon-y look of this one fool you, its pretty grim. There are a ton of other examples of these sort of political games, and some lively discussion of these sorts of games as journalism or as games for change. For some other neat examples of these sorts of games see Peacemaker, a Civ style middle east simulator, or the game of non-violent resistance, A Force More Powerful.


To abstract a little bit from these specific examples, the game play in each of these games hinges on real world experience; scientific data, historical documents, economic information, and develops a playable space from those experiences. History, science and politics were the first three sub-genera that came to me. What other sub-categories of non-fiction games should we be thinking about? Or am I just completely wrong headed about this?

Scientists in Action: Front Door Iconography At The National Academy Of Sciences

As I’ve mentioned before I have been looking at the Einstein memorial on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences as a interesting spot to think about science in public. In working on the project I have been trying to find points of comparison, other statues of scientists or presentations of scientists, ideally in a similar setting like the National Mall. The first point of comparison to consider is the iconography on the National Academy’s building.

Just as the placement, posing and popularity of the Einstein statue suggest interesting points to explore perceptions of science the etchings on the door and reliefs along the side of the building make suggestions about what science is. I’m not entirely sure what to do with them yet but, they are so engaging that I thought I would share them, and some first thoughts.

Each of the panels below tries to distill a scientist’s work and achievements into a few icons and actions. Each panel is stunning, but I’m not sure about how successful they are in representing the scientist and their accomplishments. I suppose there is not much you can do in less then a square foot of space to commemorate a scientist. Below I have tried to extract the gist of what each pane suggests scientists do. What is your take on these? Oh, and does anyone have a clue about what the four little icons surrounding each pane are about?

Galileo Galilei 1564-1642

  • Setting: Outside
  • Action: Pointing
  • Tools: Holding, but not using a telescope

Issac Newton 1643-1727

  • Setting: Unclear
  • Tools: Scroll
  • Action: Unclear, Is he looking at calculations and charting the orbit of the planets? Is he flying a kite?
  • Extra: Science involves awesome capes

James Watt 1736-1819

  • Setting: Sitting by some huge gears
  • Action: Cranking gears and taking notes while other guy looks on
  • Tools: Lever, or some sort of super wrench

Charles Lyell 1797-1875

  • Setting: Pedestal suggests some sort of museum setting
  • Action: Looking at striations in strata
  • Tools: Magnifying glass

Charles Darwin 1809-1882

  • Setting: Museum? Clearly there are mammoth bones, but what is the tower all about?
  • Action: Reading, possibly dosing off, and potentially skull gazing
  • Tools: Book and a skull

Louis Pasteur 1822 – 1895

  • Setting: Labish alterzone with draped statue on a pedestal
  • Action: Looking at a test tube, resting an arm on books,
  • Tools: Testube, might be a Bunsen burner
  • Extra: Only panel to include a table

Euclid and Aristotle are also on the door, but it is a bit tougher to get a good shot of them because they are way up top.

All of these images come courtisy of Flickr user sethgaines