Delving Into The Past With Past/Present History Game


The human race has been a part of real-life events that surpass even the most imaginative tales of fiction. Historical learning is an enthralling mix of mystery, heroism, terror, morality and great joy, and yet in the space of educational technology, history has been rather neglected by game developers. Although, perhaps caused by the intricacies involved in gamifiying a historical event, a pioneering game telling the story of American immigrants in the early 20th Century is now leading the charge for History educational gaming.

Past/Present is a 3D role-playing social history game that uses four exciting episodes to learn about important historical events in US history including industrialization, immigration and labor conflicts. But the game is not only history based, but also focuses on important aspects of social studies such as culture, institutions, societal change and scientific transformation. Other standards are also examined such as markets, scarcity and entrepreneurship for economics, and chronological thinking, historical analysis and decision making for historical thinking. This broad outlook makes the game accessible for teachers of many different subjects, not just US history teachers.

Set in the volatile early 1900’s time period, students inhabit an era of labor unrest, personal struggles and economic poverty. The game begins by students taking the role of either Italian immigrant Anna Caruso who works at Boylston Mill, or Walter Armbruster, Boylston Mill’s manager. The students interact with non-playing characters such as policemen, newsboys, salesmen, mill workers, lawyers and ministers who all have differing political views and backgrounds. The aim of the game is for students to collect evidence, complete goals and solve mysteries based on three Big Questions (e.g. Does the mill treat workers fairly?), with the epilogue altered to whichever choices they make in the game. The ultimate goal of the game is for students to understand different economic, cultural and interpersonal perspectives on the industrial labor conflict.

Past/Present uses mini-games to bring home the difficulties involved with working, and the conflicts it brought about during this era. One such game involves working at a mill and having to balance controlling multiple looms to make cloth, avoiding injury, maintaining productivity and repairing breakdowns all at the same time. These mini-games are a good motivator for students, and are thoughtfully constructed to make sure students are learning about history, problem solving and having fun all at the same time. In effect, the games turn somewhat dull content (production rates, work organization, food costs etc…) into a more exciting and energetic learning experience.

past present guy

The detail the game uses both in the graphics and other areas such as facial expressions and character dialogue is impressive. The characters are lively, and the voice overs are enjoyable to listen to without being ear-splittingly annoying or drearily boring. All of the dialogue is subtitled which also aids reading comprehension. The game allows students to make their own decisions and learn about history without being given repetitive facts or having to read long historical content. By presenting history in a narrative and engaging storytelling format Past/Present successfully bridges using educational technology with history.

Aside from our positive perceptions of the game, Past/Present has also been evaluated by researchers in multiple schools with highly encouraging results. Teachers were eager to try the mini-games and found that they had an effective blend of content and skill. Students also reacted positively to the game as a whole, in particular to being about to choose which role they want to be, and make choices based on it. This seventh grader explained: “I like that you can choose what you want to do, even if you’re Anna or Walter. Like, I can choose what to say to people and it affects how they talk back to me. I think it would’ve been hard in Walter’s position, with all the stuff he had to worry about.”

We spoke to Louis Alvarez, Producer of Past/Present to tell us a bit more about the game’s background, and how it can benefit both students and teachers:

Tell us about the motivations behind developing a History-based educational technology game?

Past/Present began as a submission to an RFP from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was looking for new digital tools to reach middle and high school students. We were attracted to history because we felt this was a subject that had been neglected by educational games in favor of the STEM subjects. We knew it would be a challenge to create, since history is not binary, black-and-white, or subject to only one interpretation. We decided to make an asset of this complexity by creating a game where there are no “correct” answers, and which forces players to consider how their own circumstances (is their avatar rich or poor? apolitical or committed? craven or courageous?) shape their responses to historical events.

past present office

What are the key benefits of Past/Present for teachers?

Middle-school students are prone to seeing the world in black and white and to impose their own 21st century views on the past. Within 90 seconds of starting to play Past/Present students are immersed in the world of 1906, identifying with the challenges their character faces, buffeted by conflicting impulses, and getting a real taste of what life was like a century ago. With its rich storytelling and liberal use of humor, Past/Present is an ideal way for teachers to help their students hone their critical thinking and decision-making skills.

Past/Present is also great for teachers whose classrooms contain many different learning styles, since the game is designed to appeal to multiples ways of learning. While the story happens to be about industrialization, immigration, and labor, the lessons students get from playing the game can echo through any unit the teacher undertakes.

We think it’s a great way to kick off the school year. The game is supported by an extensive website with lesson plans, a photo archive, and supporting essays from leading scholars, and is designed to be easy to run and learn right out of the box.

How do students benefit from the game?

The many layers of Past/Present reward each student regardless of their proficiency with games, their reading level, or their individual learning style. The game is challenging and fun on many levels, and its immersiveness works like a good historical novel, where the details and attitudes of daily life long ago are brought forward naturally. Most students implicitly understand the grammar of the game, with its quests and objectives, and can explore the game world in a structured fashion while coming to understand the complexity of the historical experience. By inhabiting the persona of Anna or Walter, students learn empathy and gain a deeper understanding of their challenges.

Why do you think game based learning is important for modern teachers?

Like television before it, gameplaying has become an integral part of most American children’s lives, and it seems essential to incorporate it into today’s classrooms. We feel very strongly that games like ours can never replace an engaged teacher who knows her individual students’ strengths and needs. What games can do is provide teachers with strong tools they can use to shape their lessons, and we’re proud that our game can be used to enhance many different parts of the social studies curriculum, from the use of primary sources, to the analysis of multiple perspectives in history, to finding parallel examples in current events. The challenge is to create games that truly educate and don’t rely on superficial flash (or dull storytelling).

Past/Present has a very comprehensive set of teacher’s resources which are an exceptionally welcome addition to the game. Many educational games lack these resources, making it difficult and time consuming for educators to integrate the game into lesson planning and national standards. The wide-ranging Classroom Launch Guide not only includes technical information and game instructions but contains handy lesson strategies and teacher cheat sheets, making lesson assimilation a breeze. Past/Present also gives a whole range of Student Materials with printable worksheets, questions, background information, and interesting timelines. More importantly, it also links its game features with national standards giving legitimacy to its educational content. Past/Present is available to play free through a standard Internet browser with a minimal of set up via their website.