Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Engaging Youth in History (& Games)

Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Albert Einstein

Getting young adults interested in anything these days seems difficult. They’re distracted by a sometimes-overwhelming amount of schoolwork focused more on scoring well on standardized tests than actually developing learning skills. They’re immersed in the complex social intrigues of school and friends. They’re plugged in to smart phones and tablets (much like a rapidly growing segment of the adult population...). How do parents and teachers tempt them to explore and possibly engage with new experiences? It’s easier when parent gently share and nurture their own interests with their kids – adventure games, comic books, sports, reading, hobbies – but children reach an age where they want to head off on their own...a journey that doesn’t always result in the discovery of some engaging academic or extracurricular interest. I recently explored two resources to help inspire an interest in history (and perhaps even games with historical themes): interactive fiction and speculative fiction

Both forms of fiction inspired many gamers; they certainly informed my own youthful exploration of adventure gaming. Fantasy and science fiction inspired many players to investigate roleplaying games that in turn encouraged further exploration of these genres. The infamous “Appendix N” in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide provided a wealth of such resources to investigate...or even a validation of past works read. Since the earliest emergence of roleplaying games fantasy fiction genres have evolved (much as those games have). Where once readers had only a few flavors of science fiction and fantasy they now can indulge in numerous sub-genre like steampunk, urban fantasy, cyberpunk, and alternate history (among many others).

What kids in the 1980s knew as the popular Choose Your Own Adventure books (and others using a similar programmed entry format) people now call “interactive fiction.” While some of the interactive fiction of my youth incorporated fantastic elements and genres, others offered a glimpse into other geographical regions, adventurous situations, and historical periods (Spy for George Washington comes to mind). Solitaire gamebooks like the popular Fighting Fantasy series evolved from interactive fiction by incorporating very basic game elements to further engage readers in the medieval fantasy world. Solitaire tutorial scenarios in roleplaying game rulebooks further developed this form to demonstrate rules mechanics and offer a taste of the setting.

The specific examples of engaging fiction I discuss below focus on a particular historical period I personally find interesting: World War II. Like many far more distant eras it’s been romanticized and popularized over time by films and novels to the point where it’s achieved an almost modern mythical status. These particular titles satisfy my interest in exploring this historical period; similar works can help inspire young adults to investigate “what if” scenarios, both within a purely historical context “first hand” (the interactive fiction) and within a fictional context with alternate history or fantasy elements arranged on a historical frame.

Historical Interactive Fiction

I discovered Capstone Press’ You Choose Books and World War II Pilots: An Interactive History Adventure while wandering the children’s section of Barne & Noble. I’ve long enjoyed interactive fiction in various formats, so when I saw a shelf full of history oriented You Choose Books I picked one for a period and subject I’d enjoy. The 112-page paperback boasts 3 “story paths,” 36 choices, and 20 endings, along with historical photographs, maps, a glossary, index, and bibliography. A brief introduction provides historical context at young adult’s reading level, then dives into the interactive exploration of aerial warfare in World War II.

Readers begin by choosing one of those three story paths: fly with the RAF in the Battle of Britain; fight the Japanese over the Pacific; or join the Tuskegee Airmen to face challenges in both the skies and on the ground. The entries in each story path understandably rely on a lot of exposition to give readers a better idea of what it might have been like to have participated in these historical events. Like some young adult interactive fiction a few choices arbitrarily lead to unexpected paths no matter how carefully one considers the available choices. Yet the book achieves its goal in immersing the reader by text and photograph in the period. It engages several young adult themes, particularly the reasons one makes certain choices and the personal loss in the brutality of war. While it might not entertain adults for very long, young readers might enjoy exploring the different story paths and re-reading them to see how making different choices affects the outcome.

Capstone Press publishes a host of historical, practical, and fantastic You Choose Books, from The Battle of Bunker Hill and Life as a Samurai to Can You Survive an Earthquake? and Can You Survive a Zombie Apocalypse? Most cost a very affordable $6.95, though some books with a larger page count (300+ pages) run around $14.95. They’re certainly worthwhile for young adults interested in dabbling in a particular historical period or subject (or just for having fun with the more fantastical titles).

Alternate History Fiction

Historically based speculative fiction can tempt young readers with “what if?” scenarios incorporating exciting elements to keep them engaged. While this material entertains on its own, it can also lead young readers to ask what really happened in the fantastically altered historical fiction.

An author I knew during my time editing West End Games Star Wars Adventure Journal recently sent me his alternate history young adult novel, Darkest Hour, because he knew I enjoyed reading material on World War II and particularly the Battle of Britain. Tony Russo wrote several pieces for the Adventure Journal years ago and I’m glad to see him continuing his writing and publishing. I’ll admit I was hesitant to immerse myself in Darkest Hour at first; the back cover copy mentions enough departures from history (a Great War without American intervention, sky pirates, the unstoppable Black Legion) and I wasn’t sure I’d care much for the young adult aspects. I was quite wrong. The focus on a young female protagonist in a world that accepted women in men’s jobs (after the lengthy war decimates a generation of young men) appealed to me, especially in addressing the concerns of having male and female pilots in the same service. I approached the alternate history elements from the opposite perspective of a young adult reader; I was familiar with the original historical context and enjoyed noting the differences and how the author extrapolated them, whereas a young reader could enjoy the book as it stood and explore the historical differences later if interested. The young adult themes – life changes, increased responsibility, social struggles, the weight of one’s choices, and the personal brutality of war – seemed a little heavy handed at times, but worked well within the historical fantasy context to weave an engaging story...apparently the first in a series.

The story certainly immerses the reader in the excitement of aviation and aerial combat, though it’s well-grounded in the reality of passing the grueling training exercises, competing with other pilots, and ultimately facing the enemy in deadly combat. Darkest Hour is a good coming-of-age story with fantastic historical elements enough to tempt young readers to explore the history of the real Battle of Britain. It’s available in both electronic and print editions at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. (I’ll also offer a note that this alternate history universe has a rich potential for exploring through wargames and roleplaying games....)

Battle of Britain in Gaming

Both interactive fiction and alternate history fiction offer engaging introductions to historically themed games. Young readers of both World War II Pilots and Darkest Hour might enjoy exploring World War II and the Battle of Britain through a number of games:

Wings of Glory WWII: The forerunner of such games as “Flight Path” games as Star Trek: Attack Wing and the X-wing Miniatures Game, Wings of Glory offers a host of planes from World War II (as well as a World War I version). Collect a few fighters and send the models into dogfights using the included maneuver card decks as movement templates. While not as easily accessible as the “Flight Path” games, it certainly has more intuitive rules that most other options and has a particularly satisfying visual appeal. The game isn’t easy to find among retailers, though (looking for materials online might prove more successful) and it can get pricey with the addition of more airplanes, particularly larger bombers like the Heinkel He 111, Messerschmitt Bf 110, B-25 Mitchell, and the B-17 Flying Fortress.

Battle Over Britain: This game combines charts to mark altitude and firing position with counters, playing cards and dice to simulate dogfights in the Battle of Britain. Like chit-and-board wargames it includes airplane pieces listing individual flight and combat parameters. Having the higher altitude and a good firing position help determine success, though it still requires rolling a die and consulting a combat table. The game includes standard rule for two players plus a satisfying solitaire option and guideline for campaign play. Minden Games offers similar games and supplements for several aerial engagements during the war; most come in the $12.95 to $13.95 range.

Eagle Day: The Battle of Britain: In this grand strategic game two players face off deploying numerous fighter and bomber squadrons over England. Where previous games focus on tactical plane-versus-plane action, Eagle Day covers the vast scope of the Battle of Britain in a more traditional chit-and-board wargame format. Balancing resources to continue the fight serves as a central theme. The $12.95 for this “mini-folio” title from Decision Games makes it an affordable choice.

Interactive fiction, alternate history fiction, and related games are good ways to encourage young people to explore history beyond the classroom. Sometimes they’ll latch onto a subject and explore it enthusiastically, other times they simply dabble and move on to some new interest. But without exposing and encouraging them to investigate on their own – and find some enjoyment in it – they risk ending their engagement in a fulfilling aspect of their own education.

Our education system is increasingly embracing a black-and-white way of thinking, in which ‘learning’ and ‘play’ are diametrically opposed. ‘Learning’ is the serious stuff that happens inside a classroom and can be measured via multiple choice questions and a No. 2 pencil. ‘Play’ is frivolous, fun, and worst of all, optional.”


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