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U Arizona History Profs Turn Gaming into Credit-Bearing Learning Activity

Two professors of history at the University of Arizona have created a learning experience based on "Age of Empires IV," a real-time strategy video game about medieval warfare and civilization-building. The University of Arizona Illuminated History Experience combines gameplay with supplementary content about the game's historical context.

U Arizona associate professor of medieval history Paul Milliman and associate professor of Roman history and department head Alison Futrell developed the learning content in collaboration with game designers from World's Edge (a subsidiary of Xbox Game Studios and publisher of the Age of Empires franchise) and development studio Relic Entertainment. They created short videos to introduce students to the experience and the history behind it. Then in the game, students must play through key story points across four "campaigns": the Norman conquest of England; the Hundred Years' War between England and France; the rise of the Mongol Empire; and the emergence of Moscow as a world power. They then take an assessment based on the University of Arizona content that tests players' knowledge of the historical time period. Those who complete the experience can earn one academic credit (pending successful admission to the university).

Age of Empires

Age of Empires IV gameplay. Image courtesy of Arizona Board of Regents

"It's a really innovative way to learn," said Futrell. "We don't know of any partnerships like this between a university and video game designers anywhere else in the world. We hope that both students on the University of Arizona main campus and Age of Empires players will be excited about the course and interested in other classes the history department offers."

"The Age of Empires franchise has been building a community of history enthusiasts since its inception," commented Will McCahill, business lead at World's Edge, in a university news story. "With our latest installment, Age of Empires IV, the teams at World's Edge and Relic decided to double down on what we call 'humanized history,' where we allow players to live out real historical events through gameplay. University partnership wasn't our initial goal, but the first time I played the campaign, it sparked a 20-plus-minute conversation about the Normans with our narrative designer. I realized we needed to get this in the hands of students…. I'm excited and I think students will be pleasantly surprised by this unique approach to learning history."

Milliman also plans to create a U Arizona course tailored to individuals who might come to the university via the Age of Empires IV experience. "It will help them transition from being gamers to being students," he explained. "This will get online students familiar with doing historical research and being a university student. There won't be any textbooks or tests. It will be project-focused and based on the experiences they had playing the game with our additional content."

For more information, visit the Age of Empires site.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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