For some students, the study of history can be challenging when the words and pictures in a textbook don’t connect with their 21st-century lives. But what if they could travel back in time to walk in the shoes of children their age? How would they handle challenging situations?
“Games are a great format for kids to investigate history,” says Jim Diamond, who researches how video games can enhance teaching practices in K–12 classrooms. “With teachers’ guidance, they can develop historical empathy by interacting with historical figures. It’s different from how history is typically taught.”
Diamond is a research associate with EDC’s Center for Children and Technology in New York City. A native New Yorker, he earned degrees in history and educational technology at Boston University, followed by work as an admissions officer at BU and Harvard Business School. “That’s when I had an epiphany,” he says.
How did your career path lead from college admissions to educational technology?
After college, I floated around for a few years, working in higher education admissions. One day, I was sitting at my desk and realized this wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life. I had teaching in my mind for several years, so I quit my job and got hired as a substitute teacher in the Boston Public School system. That was a real baptism by fire.
At the same time, I started taking classes in graphic design and media theory, and I got really interested in the idea of bringing design and education together. After teaching elementary school for two years, I went back to graduate school for my master’s degree in educational technology. Eventually, I decided I wanted to help teachers integrate technology into their teaching, which led me to my doctoral work and to EDC.
Were you interested in computers as a child?
When I was about 8 years old, Logo—a computer programming language developed specifically for children—was just making its way onto the scene. My school offered afterschool sessions for kids to learn to program computers using Logo at Queens College. I loved it, and I loved programming.
Did you grow up playing video games?
Yes! The very first computer we had in the house was a Commodore VIC-20. I remember playing some very simple cops and robbers games on that. I also started creating my own games using BASIC. From there, I eventually went to a Commodore 64, for which I had hundreds of games. I played games constantly, and I still enjoy playing video games. My favorite genre is survival horror games because I love the tension. I’m a horror movie junkie who loves to suspend disbelief and give in to fantastical narratives.
How do video games engage students in learning about history?
Many kids love playing in virtual game worlds, where they face obstacles, overcome challenges, and make meaningful decisions that influence game outcomes. At their core, games are about action, and well-designed educational games can promote the practice of historical thinking skills through play. On several projects, EDC is studying how video games can support K–12 teachers in helping their students develop skills and content knowledge in motivating environments.
For example, we’re evaluating the Mission U.S. project for Channel Thirteen/WNET and the American Social History Project, with EDC’s Bill Tally as our principal investigator. Mission U.S. is a history game about characters and situations leading up to the American Revolution. Middle-school students are placed in a historical setting where their decisions about where they go, who they talk to, and what they do next can affect the outcome.
The first game in that project—called “For Crown or Colony?”—puts students in the role of a printer’s apprentice who navigates his way through colonial Boston. They’re exposed to the political tensions that existed at that time as they complete tasks and meet characters that represent different perspectives. The game culminates in the Boston Massacre. Teachers tell us that kids who are struggling as readers have found some voice through the game.
What are you looking forward to next in your work?
This fall, we’re returning to the classroom to do more formative work on Possible Worlds—a casual science game for the Nintendo DS—and Mission U.S. That means working with kids again, which I’m looking forward to.