Student Postmortem: Reliving the Revolution

By Karen Schrier [08.31.06]


How can we use emerging technologies to engage students in the learning of history? How can we show that there’s more than one side to every story and multiple ways to look at the past? These are a few questions I was beginning to consider during my second year as a masters student at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program.

But would I create an interactive scavenger hunt? A guided historic tour? A simulation of a past moment? Or a role-playing game? And how would I do all of this for my graduate thesis—on my own and with no money?

Simultaneously, I began to learn about the potential of handheld technology to enable real world exploration. I started to consider how I could use it to create location-based experiences and learned about a few handheld “augmented reality (AR)” games being developed at MIT, including the MIT Teacher Education Program’s (TEP) Environmental Detectives and RiverCity AR. These were games that took place in the real world and enable participants to access virtual information that was pre-programmed to appear on their GPS-enabled handhelds when they stood at specific locations in the game area. Game players would work together to solve scientific problems happening on the actual MIT campus, by gathering virtual “fake” data and speaking to virtual “fake” people.

Reliving the Revolution

Why not design my own handheld AR game? I was able to use TEP’s new AR game editor toolkit, which enabled me to modify the RiverCity AR to create a game played using GPS-enabled PocketPCs. Prototyped and designed using a highly iterative process, the resulting game is called Reliving the Revolution (RtR). RtR simulates the Battle of Lexington, the famous battle that initiated the American Revolution. But what’s unique is that the game actually takes place in Lexington, Massachusetts and can only take place there.

First Map

To play the game, participants try to figure out who fired the first shot at the Battle of Lexington—a mystery that still remains today. To do this, participants explore the historic site of Lexington Common, which still features some of the same buildings and structures from 1775. They use the handheld computers to find and access hot spots of information in specific locations around Lexington. At these spots appear virtual items, like a musket, descriptions of buildings like Buckman Tavern or virtual historic figures, like Paul Revere. The historic figures provide testimonials about what they think happened, and they share evidence in the form of maps, documents, and images.

The catch is that the participants play the game in pairs as one of four different historic roles: an African American slave/Minuteman soldier; a free/white Minuteman soldier; a female loyalist; and a British/Regular soldier. Depending on the role, participants may receive very different evidence: a British soldier might give misinformation to a Minuteman soldier, or a slave might share more insights with a fellow slave. Although participants play the roles in pairs, they are allowed to collaborate with the other roles throughout the game. The game participants must collect and analyze all of the evidence, and then regroup with the other roles at the end to debate who they believe fired the first shot.

FeatureWhat Went Wrong

Technical difficulties. The biggest problem when testing RtR with groups of kids was that there was always one GPS device that didn’t work, or would only receive a signal intermittently. Despite the patience of the participants, this nevertheless frustrated their game play, especially in that it kept the technology from being transparent. After I finished testing RtR for my graduate thesis, TEP bought GPS devices that were incorporated into the handheld devices. These should be more reliable and would make the game play more fluid.

Competition against what? The participants were competing against the clock rather than each other, so the game needed to better emphasize the time constraints. Participants had only an hour total to gather and analyze their evidence, but because there was no visual reminder of time running out, they didn’t feel enough competitive pressure.

Roles not obvious? Participants were each playing one of four roles, and just before the game began, they were given a sheet detailing their biography. But when “interacting” with the virtual historic figures they discovered, the participants couldn’t ask questions as their role or make decisions that affected others based on their role. In other words, they couldn’t “play” their role enough. I tried to build into the evidence and testimonials more reminders of their role, which had mixed results.

Overwhelming goal? Having one large, complex goal (who fired the first shot at Lexington?) was initially overwhelming for some of the participants—they had to gather lots of contradictory data, and it was sometimes difficult for them to find a clear path. Later iterations of the game play provided smaller, more manageable mini-missions, which helped the participants better understand what was happening in the game and evaluate the larger goal. These smaller goals were distinct for each of the roles, and to solve them, participants needed to rely on information found only by other roles, which further encouraged collaboration.


FeatureWhat Went Right

Fun, enthusiasm and engagement. The participants were really excited about playing the game; they were motivated to find the virtual items and figures, collect and analyze the evidence, and debate what happened in Lexington. They enjoyed acting like historians, and having the responsibility to solve a “real” history mystery.

Lots of learning. Participants learned a lot more about the historic figures, sites, and issues involved in the Battle, but they also practiced important critical thinking skills, such as analysis and interpretation.

Collaborations. The participants worked well together, and learned more because they were sharing tasks and bouncing ideas off of each other all throughout the game. The debate at the end of the game helped solidify learning by allowing them to collectively interpret evidence, argue their views, and share conclusions. In each trial of the game, participants came up with a distinct, but well-supported solution as to what happened in Lexington and who fired the first shot.

Authentic experience. Participants believed the game’s content to be authentic, and therefore, treated it more seriously. They collected, compared, and critiqued the evidence as if it was real, so their learning became more authentic as well.

Multiple views. By looking at the Battle of Lexington through the eyes of a historic figure, participants started to consider that there could be multiple, valid perspectives on a historic moment. They also started to make connections to current events—and wondered aloud whose history would show up in the textbooks of the future.


Participants had fun and were engaged in the game. Even if they didn’t learn every detail of the Battle of Lexington, they were immersed in a rich learning experience. For a few hours, they acted like historians—they rummaged through an archive of Revolutionary War information, chose the meaty evidence, and used it to help them write a brand-new historical narrative of the past. But they weren’t in a library or staring at the Internet, they were walking around Lexington, following in the footsteps of a historic figure, and rediscovering the Battle where it actually happened.

The game play added to this: the participants had to create efficient strategies and on-the-spot decisions to gather enough evidence to make a compelling case before time ran out. Each role only got one piece of the puzzle and contradictory stories of what might have transpired to initiate the first shot. Thus, they had to share and argue their interpretations with the other roles during the impassioned debate that ends the game.

So, throughout the experience, the participants practiced essential skills like bias identification, decision making, delegation, and problem solving—skills they might not normally encounter in classroom activities. Not only that, but the participants reignited their waning interest in history, and even began to see why it’s important to be historical thinkers in an increasingly global digital economy.

Next Steps

Educators, researchers and game designers—and really anyone—should create their own educational AR games. Seek new environments, topics, platforms, content and game play, and test it out with people. Find other ways to engage students and help them practice critical thinking and new media literacy skills. Most importantly, teachers should support their students in designing these types of games and experiences. By considering how to represent history or their neighborhood or a book in a game, students will be able to reflect more deeply on their own assumptions, values, and preconceived notions.


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