New year, new class, new run of Civilization 4.

Today, my grade 11 English and Social Science class had their first lesson of a four week unit where we will be using Civilization 4 as a learning tool. This will be the third year that I run this unit and I´m truly excited to get this run properly on the road.

This time around I have opened the classroom to researchers from the University of Bergen who will be studying the virtues and caveats to the use of games. Though I feel very confident that my use of Civilization in class has significant value for my students, I am also acutely aware of my own bias. I look forward to receiving critical feedback from actors who do not have my level of personal involvement in the project.

Class today passed in a frenzy. All of my students arrived to class today with the game ready to play. In previous years, installation difficulties has been a major frustration during the first few days of the project. Thankfully, this year installations were completed without so much as a hiccough.

There is significant variety in the students familiarity with the game. Some were familiar with the Civilization series from before, some had played around with the game for a couple of hours, while others had not tested the game at all yet.

If students are to have the learning outcomes I wish of them for such a project, it is absolutely crucial that they learn the basic game mechanics as quickly as possible. Though students are not assessed on how well they play the game, they need to be able to play fairly well to draw the necessary analogies between concepts in game and concepts that we want to examine in English and Social Science.

Many of my students left class fairly frustrated today. Unlike Tetris Battle which seems to be the game of choice for a fair portion of the class, Civilization 4 requires a significant investment for gameplay to have value both for entertainment and for education. However, based on the experiences we´ve made over the last two years, most students should be fairly up to speed by the middle of next week.

My students have just completed their first blog posts for this project about their expectations regarding the use of games in the classroom. I will share a selection of these on the student blog


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Other great resources on learning, games and play

As I take a short breather from the growing stack of tests and papers to assess, I want to recommend to the readers of this blog some other excellent resources on the use of games in education. Some of these have recently come to my attention, others I have been following for a while. What they all have in common that they are written by passionate individuals who have realized, and want to share the learning potential that can be found in play.

Ludic Learning

In his blog Ludic Learning, Canadian teacher Paul Darvasi chronicles in great detail his experiences using the indie-game Gone Home as a literary text in his High School English class. This is probably the most detailed and easy-accessible description of a game-based learning unit that I have come across. The blog can serve as a “how-to” guide for making use of games in the classroom. One major advantage with his approach is that though the unit is extensive, it does not require the teacher to be a “hard-core gamer” to implement.

This limited-run blog will provide everything a teacher needs to know to duplicate the experience and, hopefully, build on it.”

I agree. I´m strongly considering running a unit based on Paul Darvasi´s ideas with my grade 11 class next year.

The Civilized Classroom

The Civilized Classrom is a project run by two teachers at Mediagymnasiet in Sweden, where they use the sequel Civilization IV – Civilization V, learning English and History. Their approach has some similarities to ours, though their focus is to a larger extent on concrete scenarios to examine specific historic events/eras as well as discussing counterfactual history. Both students and teachers blog about their experience making this a rewarding read. This was of particular interest to me, as it offers me new perspectives on how this kind of game can be utilized in the classroom.


ELT Sandbox

This is a site run by David Dogson, an English language teacher in Turkey. He has quite a few exciting ideas on how various games can be made use of in the classroom. I particularly inspired by his reflections on how a gaming session with Tropico 4 engaged his students in utilizing the language and thereby “leveling up” their language skills.

Though his examples primarily relate to language learning, he covers several topics that are relevant to any educator interested in the classroom use of games

Digital media, games and play

Though not himself a teacher, Mathias Poulsen is one of the leading voices in the movement to use games and play for learning in Scandinvia. This Danish entrepreneur promotes a wide array of topics related particularly to the value of play for learning. Poulsen is the best example of a GBL Maven that I have come across. If anybody is doing anything interesting with regards to games in education in Scandinavia, Poulsen probably knows about it.

If you have any other examples of excellence within any area related to the intersection between games and learning I would be happy if you left a comment.


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Games in Education at Nordahl Grieg Upper Secondary School

During the span of the last two years, Nordahl Grieg Upper Secondary School has become one of the leading schools in the use of game based learning. I will briefly outline some of the projects that we have completed or are in the making.

Civilization IV: We are right now in the middle of our second run using Civilization 4 to study concepts in Social Science, English and Norwegian. Both teachers and students have shared their experiences on our blogs in the hope that other educators might be inspired to experiment with some of the same methods. I encourage visitors to this blog to also have a look at, and comment on my students work. Their texts are published here (Norwegian) and here (English)

Portal 2: One of our Physics teachers has had a great deal of success using Portal 2 as a simulation tool. With this game, students are able to simulate complex physics experiments that otherwise would be difficult or impossible to do without risk of severe bodily harm. Furthermore, the game facilitates the possibility to bend the laws of physics which is an excellent point of departure for discussion of how these affect the real world. 

The Walking Dead: A lot of teachers would flinch at the thought of using a violent video game like the Walking Dead in a classroom. Not our own Tobias Staaby. In order for this game to progress, the player must resolve a series of dilemmas: In a small group of survivors with limited resources, how should food be distributed? In a situation where to save one person, the other will not survive; Who should live and who will die? These dilemmas are used to discuss moral philosophy – The Categorical Imperative, virtue ethics, consequntialism etc.

Skyrim: In Norwegian class, Skyrim has been used to examine romanticism and Norwegian romantic nationalism, focusing on Edmund Burke´s discussions of the sublime and the beautiful. The game´s imagery was compared and contrasted to classical works like Caspar David Friedrich´s The Wanderer over the Mists.

These are just some of several forays Nordahl Grieg has made into the realm of game based learning in the last year. Other teachers have been experimenting with Minecraft, DragonBox, Dear Esther, iCivics and many others. 

I truly believe that within a few years we will see an explosion in the use of games in educational context. I feel extremely fortunate to be part of a school like Nordahl Grieg which will be one of the catalysts for this explosion.


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Learning Activities Week 3 and 4

At this point, all students have a fairly good understanding of the mechanics of the game, and we are ready to set off on some juicier learning activities.

Over the next two weeks there are 2 tasks that will take up most of class time:

  1. New blog assignments
  2. Screenvideos using Civ4 to demonstrate real world conflicts

Like last week we have assigned  students 3 different blog tasks. Half the class will be writing in English, the other half will be writing in Norwegian. This time, they will receive summative and formative assessment in either Norwegian AND Social Science or English AND Social Science. Their instructions are as follows:

1. Civics

In Civilization IV, the player can select between ceveral different civics. Read about these in the Civiliopedia and the list of terms we put together before the break. Each of these may benefit, and/or disadvantage your civilization. Consider the games you have been playing: Which civics did you choose for your civilization? Why? How did your choices benefit or disadvantage your civilization? Imagine you were running a real country, would you have made the same choices? Draw parallels between the game and concepts we are studying in Social Science.

Recommended resources (Norwegian)

2. Diplomacy

Which kinds of international agreements can one enter into in Civilization IV? Which factors decide how succesfully you are able to conduct negotiations? Is the way diplomacy is represented in the game an accurate simulation of how diplomacy is conducted in the real world? Why, why not? Draw parallels between the game and concepts we are studying in Social Science.

Recommended resources (Norwegian)

3. Power

Define the term power in international relations (In English this part is essential as ‘power’ in English is an even broader term than ‘makt’ is in Norwegian). How do states in Civilization IV exert power over each other? Relate this to the concepts of Charismatic/Ideological power, economic power and military power. Refer to real-world examples in your text.

Recommended resources (Norwegian)

The Screenvideos are in my opinion the most exciting activities we do related to this game. In this task, students will use the WorldBuilder  function in Civilization 4 to place resources, geographical features, units, cities etc. on the game map. They will then be using a screen recorder to demonstrate and comment on a recent or ongoing international conflict. Their instructions are as follows:


  • Your presentation should discuss causes for this conflict arising as well as suggestions as to how this conflict could be resolved. You are expected to demonstrate understanding of the learning material from NDLA Social Science (Norwegian Site) and to utilize correct terminology in your presentations.

  • Start your presentation by defining how you understand the term “conflict” for the purpose of this assignment.

  • Screenvideo/Screenshots from Civilization IV gameplay should be used as an illustrative tool in your presentation.

  • Duration: 7-10 minutes

  • It will be up to you to decide which digital tools you will use to make your presentation, but if you require technical assistance from your teachers we reccommend using Camstudio, standard record function in Windows and Windows Moviemaker

  • Recommended resources (In Norwegian):You may select an ongoing conflict from this list, or any other ongoing or recent conflict you find interesting (subject to my approval)

I hope to be ready to post some of the texts my students wrote for Blogpost 1 tomorrow. Once again, I urge readers of this blog to check out my student´s text and comment on them. The blogs have had about 1500 hits in the last 2 weeks. I would strongly appreciate if some of you would take the time to also leave a short comment.



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Vocabulary Lesson

Last class before spring break we ran a vocabulary unit related to Civilization 4. This is the task my students were working with:

  • In this document I have listed all the different civics that can be used in Civilization 4 as well as some of the technologies.
  • I have divided the class into pairs – Each pair will work with 2 terms. 
  • Translate the term into Norwegian and write a short description in English (In your own words) The first sentence should be in bold font and give a general definition of the term. The next 3-5 sentences should be an explanation of historical/cultural context and/or some fast facts related to the term.
  • Once you have filled in the form and have learnd the meaning of the terms all computers will be closed.
  • You are then going to be partnered with other pairs where you will explain their meaning to each other. Bring a pen and paper, and take notes. Make sure you ask questions if you don´t understand the description 
  • NB! Speak only English when giving your explanations.
  • We will end the class with a Kahoot quiz on the terms that you have been working with.
  • I will open the google doc for editing before we leave today. All groups must post their descriptions before you start working on your blog posts.
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Learning Activities Week 2

These are the tasks our students will be working on in the coming week:

1. When a game in Civilization is won or lost, the player has the choice to either end the game or “one more turn”. Which qualities or attributes of games is it that make them addictive? Can other media like movies or books be equally addictive, or is this phenomenon unique to games? Make use of current news stories or research on this topic in your texts.

2. What can be learned from games? Many young people and adults spend a considerable amount of hours playing games. Are these hours spent purely for entertainment/a waste of time, or are there other benefits that can be had from play? Use examples from your own experience with Civilization IV and/or other games you have played. Make use of current news stories or research on this topic in your texts.

3. Games and Gender. Do video games have a particular appeal to boys? What are the differences and similarities in typical gaming habits of males and females? What are typical “boy games” and “girl games”? Make use of current news stories or research on this topic in your texts.


We expect to publish this round of student texts on Monday April 14th.


Other areas that will be covered/discussed:

Social Science:

  • Influence/authority in international relations – Students are expected to understand how military, financial and idealogical authority is used in the interaction between nations. We will look at real-world examples and examine how these concepts can be illustrated in Civilization 4.


  • Vocabulary work – Students come across a whole range of terms and phrases that are unfamiliar to them in Civilization 4. One doesn´t necessarily need a complete understanding of these to succeed in the game, but when my students discuss making the switch to from despotism to hereditary rule, or decide whether to research feudalism or code of laws, I want them to know what these concepts entail.
  • Meetings between early colonists and aboriginal populations – At some point in their games, students will come across a situation where they will encounter a civilization which is technologically vastly superior or vastly inferior to them. We will discuss the outcomes of these meetings in game, and explore whether these are analogous to real-world meetings between European colonists and the indigenous peoples of English speaking countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.




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Let´s play!

The game is now, finally installed on all student computers. The issues I addressed in the previous post were quickly resolved by one of our students. We presented the problem to the class, and within hours a solution was on the table. This student was also extremely helpful in getting the game installed and working on all computers (Thank you Markus!).


By the beginning of class Wednesday, some students had played the game a significant amount, some had just barely stuck their toes in the water, while most had not yet opened their first game. In this first week of the program our main goal is to get our students comfortable with the basic game mechanics and user interface. Student´s will also be challenged by the fact that they will come across unfamiliar English vocabulary, and Social Science concepts, but at this point, this will be approached piecemeal as new situations occur.

Students are currently playing in pairs. Students take turns either playing the game, or filling in a log sheet where they make note of their progress. The purpose of the log is on the one hand to facilitate discussion in the pairs, and on the other hand to keep a record of decisions for a later reflection on their choices.

Civilization IV is quite a complex game. Both students who have played games extensively earlier, as well as novice gamers report that understanding the game functions and mechanics is quite difficult. This was not surprising, as we had similar experiences the last time we ran this project. Like last time, we largely rely on students to work this out on their own, and teach each other. Different from last time, is that we will be more vigilant in identifying and aiding students with significantly slower progression. Our largest failure the first time we ran this project was that we did not realize that a few students took a long time to grasp basic game mechanics. These had considerably worse learning outcomes than is acceptable. By giving special attention to this group from the outset, all students will have the necessary framework to reach their learning goals.

Although the level of confusion was high, so was student engagement. I was at times barraged with questions, related both to gameplay and the concepts that the game presents:

“Why would any civilization adopt slavery?”

“What´s a ´faux pas´/hereditary rule/caste system/ a settler?”

“Why did Montezuma just declare war on me?”

“Where should I build my first city?”

“Why should I build roads when I can build catapults and horse archers?”

“Why are my people unhappy?”

“Is this game addictive?”

“Why would anyone want to spend time on this?”

Though we made a conscious decision not to specify any learning goals in this first unit, that certainly does not mean students are not learning. Through their explorations of gameplay, discussions with classmates and their teachers, students are reflecting on a wide  range of issues within sociology, international relations, language and geography. Some of these we will explicitly covered in later units, other learning outcomes will depend on the priorities and interests of the various students. We have some pretty awesome units planned out for the coming weeks, but what in my opinion makes this project truly great is the extent to which it facilitates both intended and “un-intended” learning outcomes.

Students posted their first texts on their personal blogs yesterday. Of these, Vegard and I selected 3 texts in English and 3 in Norwegian that were published on the class blog (English, Norwegian). Their task was as follows:

You have now had a bit of time to play this game. What are your expectations for using Civilization IV in class? Write a short text (Max. 400 words). To get you started you may want to consider these questions:

Do you have previous computer game experience?

Can games be a useful learning tool? Why? Why not?

Why do you think we have chosen to use computer games in our lessons.

The opinions so far are mixed. Some students who were initially skeptical to the project, are now more positive. Some who were initially positive, are put out by the complexity of the game, and are worried that time spent learning the game mechanics could be better spent elsewhere.

I encourage anyone who reads this blog to also have a read at what my students write about their experiences. I would be thrilled if you also took the time to comment on their texts. As I wrote about last year, an important aspect of this project is for students to get the chance to write texts that will be read by an authentic, interested audience.

Students will be writing at least 4 texts in the coming months. For each assignment, we will publish at least 6 texts on the project blogs. By the end of the project all students will have published one or more texts on the project blog. Vegard and I will try to keep up, updating the teacher blog as least as often as the students write, though we might be a bit more lax about our deadlines than we expect our students to be.

I truly look forward to getting into the nitty-gritty of this project, and I hope that with this blog we might inspire teachers elsewhere to give “classroom-gaming” a go.

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