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Political Science



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Why use computer games in a liberal arts educational context? In general, their educational potential is recognized because there is significant evidence that “learning is most effective when it is active, experiential, situated, problem-based and provides immediate feedback,” all features that can be found in games (Connolly, Boyle, MacArthur, Hainey & Boyle, 2012, 661). At their best, games “are motivating, provide immediate feedback, can adapt themselves to the level of the learner, provide repetition to the point of automaticity, encourage distributed learning, can teach for transfer, and use other excellent teaching techniques” (Gentile, 2011, 75). We can be reasonably confident that games are an effective delivery mechanism of content (Gentile, 2011, 77) even while bearing in mind calls for the production of more robust evidence of this through randomized control trials (Connolly et al, 2012, 671-2).

How well can this potential be realized in support of liberal arts learning? I take the purpose of liberal arts to be engendering a set of aptitudes and habits of mind with a scientist’s informed skepticism at the core, along the lines of those set out by Bill Durden, including: “how to ask the right questions, how to gather information, how to make informed decisions, how to see connections among disparate areas of knowledge” (Durden 2012). There is evidence that in the right circumstances games can evoke scientific habits of mind and social knowledge construction (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008) and increase cognitive performance independent of content (Barlett, Vowels, Shanteau, Crow & Miller, 2009, 101), so those of us who work in liberal arts education should be open to the possibility that they can be productively integrated into the curriculum.

But can they be used effectively to help upper-level undergraduates grasp the nuances of complex political, social, and economic processes? I have used one popular commercial-offthe- shelf (COTS) game, Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, in senior seminars grappling with such complexities, with increasing success as I have adjusted the way in which I use it. This essay reflects on my experiences with the game and offers suggestions for liberal arts educators who might be considering introducing games in similar teaching contexts.

From 2008 to the present, I have taught four senior seminars on Empire at Dickinson College. The emphases and assigned texts have changed depending on whether I am leading the seminar for Political Science majors or as the capstone for the interdisciplinary International Studies program, and also in response to my observations about what provokes the most fruitful discussion. Assigned works have included books by Albert Memmi, Edward Said, Niall Ferguson, Howard Zinn and others, Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now Redux, and Civilization IV. While some of the others have come and gone, Meier’s turnbased strategy game for PCs has become a staple of the seminar, paired in particular with Tzvetan Todorov’s challenging work of cultural history, The Conquest of America. How does this odd couple work to help undergraduates understand the nature of empire?


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