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Monday, December 21, 2020

Nihon no Okami: A Game to Teach about Japanese History and Worldviews

I have previously posted about a game we found to teach about Japanese history called Warlords of Japan. In grade 8 social studies in Alberta, our curriculum focuses on worldviews and the things that shape them and change them. We do a case study about Japan, focusing on the Edo and Meiji periods to learn about a period of government-imposed isolation and then the subsequent adaptation and modernization sparked by the Americans' forceful demand to Japan's leaders to open their borders to trade.

Warlords was fun, but it was created in the 1990s and its pedagogies aren't current. It also misses big parts of our curricular outcomes, only focusing on the feudal period before isolation. My teaching partner Tara and I decided that we needed to design something more rooted in current best practices in teaching and learning and game-based learning specifically, and more aligned with our curriculum.

We created a game called Nihon no Okami, or Okami for short, which translates to 'Wolves of Japan' (our school's team name is the Grey Wolves, and we often name our games in accordance with that). The game is very loosely based on Warlords of Japan, and shares the area of control Risk-like gameplay elements and the idea of the map with that game. Mostly everything else has been redesigned.

In Okami, students work in groups called goningumi, each of which is assigned a home shiro (castle). The goal of the game is to gain the most territory, develop the best local economy, with the happiest people. This works out to gaining territory in the game, as well as making economic and social improvements to their home shiro. The whole game (which was the entirety of our case study about Japan as it addresses all outcomes in the Program of Studies) takes eight weeks to play. The game changes as the weeks progress, representing the different periods in history: pre-isolation, isolation, civil war, adaptation, and modernization.

The gameboard for Nihon no Okami

Tara and I are open source teachers and want to share this game with anyone who can use it. We have developed a teachers' guide, which will give you the information you need to recreate this game in your classroom, along with links to all resources and handouts. We want you to hack it and make it work in your setting. Our request is simply that you share back what you do so we can learn from you, too. You can find our e-mails in the teachers' guide, or you can comment on this post to share back.

Jars of Koku (a unit of measurement of rice, the currency of Edo Japan) and the currency in Okami

We use principles of game-based learning borrowed from the now-defunct Institute of Play to design all our Social Studies projects:

  1. Everyone is a participant
  2. Failure is reframed as an iteration
  3. Everything is interconnected
  4. Learning happens by doing
  5. Feedback is immediate and ongoing
  6. Challenge is constant
  7. Learning feels like play
When using game-based learning in the classroom, two outcomes are important. Firstly, it's important that the game is fun and the students feel invested in the game and in their learning. Secondly, and more importantly, it's important that they learn. We know from research about effective teaching that students must find the work they do intellectually engaging, and "fun activities" don't really cut it. We believe we have created a careful balance here to position the learning in this game as knowledge they need for gameplay, and by connecting this with games, we have deeply connected the learning of history to something that's important in the worlds in which our students live.

In terms of these outcomes, we believe our design has been successful. Our students loved playing this game, and were visibly and audibly engaged in both the game and the learning required by it. We also believe our students have learned a lot. We outline assessment practices in the teachers' guide, and most of our students were demonstrating high levels of achievement through the iterative assessment practices this game involves. 

Two students strategizing

A final note about the competencies games develop. When we play games, we learn skills that are important in school and in life. We learn collaboration, cooperation, sportsmanship, patience, strategy, long-term thinking, if-then thinking, among others. We get opportunities to coach our students on character, citizenship, and personal development. We see our students' humanity shine through. And that's got to be worth something.