Making History Fun! Interactivity and Video Games in Digital History

As we have learned in the past few weeks, museums, historic institutions, and libraries are beginning to embrace digital methods as part of their outreach and engagement programs. One method that particularly effective is participatory exhibitions and video games. As part of this practicum, I will explore the Smithsonian Institutes Museums on Main Street, Histories of the National Mall, and the online iCivics game Argument Wars.

Museum on Main Street

First up is Museum on Mainstreet (MoMS), part of the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, designed as an outreach program to focus on small towns and rural communities, with a median population of 8,000. Their goal is to “to engage communities and become a catalyst for conversation about life in small-town America.  We want to start dialogs, build excitement, facilitate connections, and open doors to your community’s history, culture, people, and sense of local pride.” MoMS has visited over 1,800 communities as part of their program.


MoMS Home Page

On the website home page, they have several dropdown options: Exhibitions, Stories, Resource Center, Educators, and Partners & Venues. These are parts of the collection the highlight the most, with options to select featured items from each section. Under exhibitions, it gives information about the exhibit, some images, some key terms from it, and the schedule for the exhibit. Stories allows for people to submit stories that make them feel connected to history in some way. MoMS then posts the narrative, media files, and relevant links. The resource center contains downloadable .pdfs and webinars that help people with the preservation of local history. Lastly, the educators tab allows for teachers to get involved with MoMs, promote their students work, and to gain access to lesson plans and educational resources.

The MoMS Stories page

This platform is a really good example of participatory action in museums through their dedication to community members and teachers actively submitting and publishing how history affects them through the program.

Histories of the National Mall

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media designed the Histories of the National Mall to allow viewers to explore its rich history through a collection of maps, question-based explorations, collections of significant people, and significant events that shaped the history of the National Mall.

Histories of the National Mall home page

The map is interactive and looks similar to those available on CurateScape. It allows you to view several different layer options including historic maps and to view and select points of interest. The explorations tab has small entries that answer questions or fun facts about the National Mall. The people tab functions more like an Omeka collection, with each entry having a lot of detail and metadata about the individual. Lastly, the events tab allows you to explore a curated list of past events in chronological order. Each entry has tags, allowing the visitor to explore the site thematically as well.

An example of the vintage map layer

Argument Wars

Both of the previous websites functioned more as interactive or participatory exhibits, but Argument Wars is a fun example of an educational video game. iCivics is an online source that focuses on creating engaging and interactive civic education. Argument Wars is one of their games which allows the visitor to argue 9 major Supreme Court cases, including Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona.

Argument Wars case selection page

I decided to play Brown v. Board of Education and then choose your lawyer avatar. It begins with an opening title slide, giving background information about the case and telling me that this case has a voice over option (yay accessibility!). Another nice touch is that the game presents the judges as randomized characters, making the bench much more inclusive and diverse than it traditionally has been.

Owen Wilson opens before the Supreme Court

It then allows you to decide which side of the case you’d like to argue. It then goes through opening arguments of the case, from your character arguing for your side to the judges commenting on the arguments and then hearing from the opposing side. You then get to select what Constitutional base you are using to make your argument.

An example of choosing your Constitutional basis

Then you get 4 rounds to present your arguments. You draw cards that either support your argument, object to the opposition’s argument, or explain further to the court which can give you more points. Within the cards are some explanations of terms to help the player navigate some legal jargon.

An interactive panel letting you choose your framing of your final argument.

After the four rounds the game tells you which side won and “what actually happened” by providing more details about the case. You can then download a certificate of completion or return the title page.

The closing page after finishing your case

All of these sites are creative examples of creating history in engaging ways through digital methods. Which of these did you like the best? How can we continue to use the popularity of video games to engage people with history? Should major institutions begin to program more interactive and video games as part of future exhibitions?

3 Replies to “Making History Fun! Interactivity and Video Games in Digital History”

  1. Hi Josh! Thanks so much for this in depth look at these websites. I think all of these sites show how impactful history can be when it’s easy to access and engage with for users. I remember playing iCivics in my AP US Government class to help us prepare for our AP Test. It was very fun and a very effective way to review content. I think it is ideal for high school students! Thank you for also covering the Museums on Mainstreet platform! I think that is a really powerful tool for small communities to engage in charting and storing their local history. I think sometimes community archives can be overwhelming and something like Museums on Main Street looks like a good introduction into local history and preservation.

  2. Hi Josh – I think these are really interesting examples of digital history. I wonder how MoMS is received in different communities and how the Smithsonian prepares to engage the cultures and histories of the communities they enter. Argument wars actually looks really fun. Sometimes games like this can seem boring and too educational. The user does not get to have enough fun while learning and this looks like a good balance.

  3. Josh, thanks for this great post! I also remember playing iCivics in school. I think it is a really powerful tool to apply content learned in the classroom. Especially when it comes to learning the amendments, it is easy to memorize and recite them for a test, but not as easy to understand how they are used in practice. My personal favorite was the National Mall site. It is easy to see the Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument as historical in itself, so I love the idea of showing the public that there is a rich and compelling history behind that significance–if that makes sense.

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