Practicum: You are the Historian

Link: https://youarethehistorian.org/

I found this game when I was looking on the Smithsonian’s website for an activity for my students to do the week of Thanksgiving. The Plimouth Patuxet Museums, a Smithsonian affiliate, have offered this game on their website since 2002, but according to their website, they recently “reimagined and redesigned” the game with the help of FableVision Studios and an Indigenous Advisory Committee. Using oral histories, artifacts from the museum, and primary source documents, players can investigate the events leading up to the “First Thanksgiving” in 1621 from an Indigenous and Colonial perspective.

The game uses pictures, music, soundscapes, and storytelling to immerse the player in the story of Alex, a student investigative reporter. It begins by laying out three major questions– the who, what and why of the First Thanksgiving. Once inside the game, there are four puzzles to complete before players can unlock the final level.

Level 1

In the first level, players sort artifacts into these five time periods. Clicking on the magnifying glass can tell players more great information about each of these time periods. After players select the right time period, the game gives players more information about the artifact they just sorted. If players answer wrong, the game also gives them more information as a hint. What is notable here is that the time periods go all the way back to 12,000 years ago, which establishes that the Wampanoag people lived in this area for a long time before first contact.

Level 2

A common focus throughout every level and the conversations between Alex and their teacher is examining primary sources to gain information. Here players read a primary source and try to translate it into more familiar English. The game translates most of the words. They only ask players to translate some of the words, and they are given a word bank to help them. The highlighted portions are what players are supposed to focus on because those are the words that will disappear in the first translation. Just like the previous game, if a player gets a wrong answer, the game will give them a hint to help them.

Level 3

Level three is pretty similar to level one, but instead of time periods players sort artifacts into categories of who used that particular artifact. This level is teaching players that there was a lot of interaction and cultural trade between Indigenous and Pilgrim people.

Level 4

This level is similar to level four in that players look at another primary source document to understand the past. This letter tells players about what actually happened at the First Thanksgiving.

Alex talks to their teacher after each level to prompt players to think about they learned, make comparisons, and draw conclusions

At the end of each letter the game prompts players to write down the password they got from completing the letter. It’s good that they tell them this because the game does not store the passwords in an accessible location. If a player forgets, they will have to repeat the level to learn the password again.

Level 5

The first part of level five recaps what players learned in levels 1-4. Alex and their teacher also discuss what they learned and how history is more complicated than tradition narratives. The “tipster” who began the journey is revealed to be two Junior Educators at the museum. The end has a printable completion certificate.

Conclusions

The National Museum of American History’s website advertises that the game is good for students in grades two through six which may sound like a stretch because the abilities of a sixth grader far exceed that of a second grader. However, this game is very inclusive and learning disability-friendly. Text is large and easy to read. All text, except for the recap in level five, is read aloud by a narrator and a glossary defines all difficult words, so second graders who are working on their reading skills can still participate. Each level also has an option to “Ask and Expert” to help players who might be struggling. Another detail I noticed was that Alex was never given a gender. Additionally, Alex is a very androgynous name, so players could interpret their gender as whatever they want. This makes the game more inclusive.

The game takes about 45 minutes to an hour to complete, and is actually really educational. I learned things I did not know before. It doesn’t talk about the dark history of what happened after the First Thanksgiving, but it does give really age-appropriate information about what happened before. I ended up assigning this game to my students, and another teacher I worked with assigned it to all of her classes, first through fifth grade. As an educator, I think the only downside to this game to this game is that besides the certificate, it doesn’t give educators a way to ensure students actively participated in the game. As a public historian, however, I think that this game tells students a lot about how historians research the past and can get them interested in learning more about the work historians do. I recommend you play it if you have the chance.

6 Replies to “Practicum: You are the Historian”

  1. Hi Sara!

    Thank you for your post on this game. I definitely did not know it existed and may use it next year with my students those 2 days of school before Thanksgiving break as well. I am wondering if a way to engage kids in this would be to play it all together on projector. It could be fun to read the primary sources together and maybe do a vote on where things go or what decisions to make. I definitely see the annoyance on the side of the educator with that though. Maybe in the future they could upgrade it so teachers could see the choices that the kids made and get some hard data on it.

    -McKenna Crews

  2. Hi Sara!

    Great work on this post – I love an interactive historical game & I know students love a reason for computer time as well. One thing that stood out to me with this game is the combination of material culture and historical narrative. I think teaching people early on to understand how to ask questions of and engage with objects is an important skill to build a love for museums and history! Building that skill virtually and then taking a field trip to a museum is a great way to build confidence in a museum.

    – Caroline Morales

  3. I love that this game has kids engage with both artifacts and documents. I wasn’t truly introduced to primary source-based history until high school, and even then, artifacts just weren’t a big part of it.

    Do you think that some activities/puzzles are more successful than others? Or do they all do a pretty good job of engaging/educating the viewer? IMO, level four feels like they ran out of ideas and threw a reading comprehension test in there… not quite as history-based as the others.

    – Jessica Shainker

  4. Great recap of the game! I also loved how they kept the main character gender neutral. I was very pleasantly surprised with the focus on Indigenous culture and perspective in this game, in addition to the colonial perspective. When I first saw that this was an elementary school age game about the first Thanksgiving I was worried that it would be a watered down, traditional and problematic narrative of Thanksgiving, but it definitely seems very inclusive and more complex than anything I was every exposed to about Thanksgiving at this age. I also really appreciate the emphasis on primary source documents in this game.

  5. Great post Sara! I don’t think I had seen the “You are the Historian” game before and you did a great job introducing it to all of us. I find it really fascinating that they reengineered the game recently and it’s great to hear that they did so with the guidance and input of an Indigenous Advisory Committee. I think that speaks to the important kinds of work that so many institutions focused on history education need to invest time and energy into.

    You do a great job of giving us a tour of the game and how it works, and I found your conclusions/analysis of it incisive. I think it’s interesting to see how much one can learn from something like this that is intended to be playable/usable in roughly a class period or hour of time.

    I do think that the approach to the game, of making the player be the historian, is a useful framework for creating history interactives. So much of what we are trying to teach people is about the “how” of history instead of just the “what” of history and I think the way games can invite players to take on roles like this can be really useful in that regard.

  6. Hi Sara! This is a great ancillary research for educators. I think the best part about it is how it seems like students are playing a game but also learning. Educational games have always been my favorite and I know many other students agree. The only concern I have with creating more games like this is the amount of resources it takes to build a game as accessible as this one. Obviously, the Smithsonian has a wealth of resources and funding, but I don’t think it is easy to replicate as well.

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