Pulling the Thread

Attempting innovation in education


Finding consensus of what it means to be innovative in the classroom, or education in general, could prove to be difficult, if not impossible. It is easy to get caught up in equipment like iPads and new computers but most teachers would probably agree that the presence of the new materials do not guarantee innovation or improve the learning potential of the students who use them. True innovation, in education or otherwise, involves trying new things, going out on a limb, and being prepared to learn from failures or missteps. For the purposes of this exercise, we are going to throw out the term innovation and simply refer to its premise as “trying out an idea.”

The Idea

Sid Meier’s Civilization V (Civ) is a turn-based strategy game that has been around for more than two decades. The game has grown into a gaming cultural icon with the fifth edition having launched in 2010 and still being played hours on end by players around the world. In the game, you choose from different civilizations throughout world history and you compete against others, the game’s artificial intelligence (AI) or other human players, in an attempt to gain victory from a cultural, scientific, or military dominance of the other participants.

Civ is a very intricate game and it takes quite a bit of concentration to be successful and to learn the gameplay process. Each civilization has its own personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. Atilla the Hun and Genghis Khan benefit from a strong army in the early game and can quickly spread across the map. Choosing Korea will help you in achieving a science victory, but only if you can successfully navigate the process of surviving and flourishing until you complete the Apollo program and launch a space shuttle into orbit. How the AI handles playing as Ghandi is a running joke in the Civ community; if you attack him be prepared to defend yourself.

There are so many potential threads that can be pulled from this game for use in a classroom setting and the the articles that follow this page will attempt to demonstrate on a few of those. We are going to start with a breakdown of the intricacies and play style of the game. We will then talk to a psychology professor who will expand on the historical and cultural details of four civilizations you can use within the game. We will also explore the math and programming side of how the game functions and what exactly is happening as you click around the map. We are going to try out an idea. Can we use Sid Meier’s Civilization V in a classroom and education setting beyond just playing the game? The end goal of these next few articles is not to offer completed lesson plans or classroom activities, but rather to introduce a new tool (Civ) and attempt to pull out the threads engaging educational exercises. The hope is that readers will take these steps, or concepts, and apply to other digital tools or strategies they may have at hand. Who knows, maybe they will also play a little Civ.

*For those interested in playing or using Civ in their classroom, it is unfortunately not a free program. Since it has been out since 2010 you can buy a copy for less than $8 on the video game platform STEAM. One license will allow you to install the game on an Apple or Windows computer and the turn-based functionality of the game will allow for multiple players to play from one machine or installation.

Playing Civ with Esports coach Eric VanHoose

Eric VanHoose is the Esports head coach at the University of Pikeville (UPIKE) and a lifelong gamer. Coach VanHoose works with college students in UPIKE’s scholarship supported League of Legends team and helps the players translate their video game skills to the college classroom as they pursue their degree. As you will learn in the video, he has spent more than 600 hours perfecting the art of playing Sid Meier’s Civilization V. In this video, Coach VanHoose will break down the basics of the game and demonstrate key concepts to playing successful and engaging campaigns.

History and Culture with Dr. John Howie

The easiest thread to pull with Civ is further exploration into the culture and history of the many civilizations within the game. In some ways this thread is the easiest to look over, or bypass altogether, because it is the most straightforward exploration of ideas within the game… but that would be a mistake. Easy does not mean simple and as we explored the game with University of Pikeville psychology professor Dr. John Howie we learned just how complex the easy path could become.

Dr. Howie was not familiar with the game so we began by showing him the basics and introducing a basic premise or theme for our discussion. We were working to recreate the Spanish arrival to South America and the impact of the Inca, Mayan, and Aztec cultures as a result of Spain’s arrival. This just happened to be a specialty of Dr. Howie and he was more than excited to take us through the history and culture of the period.

Bringing in a specialist to discuss the intricacies of what actually happened in the historical context could translate to any number of classroom activities. The layers and experiences you can add to a student’s learning by involving a new perspective or voice can help take this simple first thread and turn it on its head.

The most interesting discovery came from how Dr. Howie would phrase or describe what would need to happen in order to win the game as one of the South American cultures. It would be easy to assume someone would need to know more specific details of a game and how to play it before they could accurately predict outcomes within the game, but Dr. Howie relied on facts, his experiences, and the cultural and historical perspectives of those respective civilizations: the game does that as well, so it actually makes complete sense.

Math and Programming with Jacob Stratton

Jacob Stratton, the Chief Mathematician at The Holler, is the coordinator of new media at the University of Pikeville (UPIKE) and refers to himself as a computer scientist. Stratton graduated from UPIKE with a double major in mathematics and computer science. He is the type of person who finds math fun and was very excited at the challenge of finding math and programming examples within the Civ game to pull out as an example.

Pulling on this thread ended up being quite challenging. Sure, if you have played Civ you can see that math and programming are a key component of how the game works, but how can that be demonstrated in an interesting way or translated to a classroom? The process of narrowing down ideas came from a quick brainstorming session in The Holler studio where possibilities and examples were thrown out and narrowed down to feasible ways to move forward. In the end, the solution came from a very familiar place: Google.

A quick web search for “Math in Civ 5” brought up a wiki page created by Civ players from around the world and features the algorithms and formulas the Civ game engine uses to make decisions and control the forward progress of the game. With a game as popular as Civ 5, more than 21 million copies sold as of 2014, it is a safe bet you will find a strong online community surrounding the game. This thread became much easier to pull after taking a moment to remember how large the Civ community is and realizing, with almost 100 percent certainty, other players have likely explored the ideas of how math and programming are used in one of the most-played games in the world. The next step was to explore some of the formulas and demo how the math translates to the actual game.

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