Using Red Dead Redemption To Teach History

How video games are perfectly positioned as tools for education.

A history professor at the University of Tennessee, Tore Olsson, has decided to use the Red Dead Redemption series as a basis for his American History class. Developed by Rockstar Games, each game is set in the latter decades of the Wild West as technology slowly creeps in and brings to heel the last vestiges of freedom in the glorious Western frontier. While Olsson says that video games like this are not completely historically accurate, these games will provide an intriguing basis for exploring themes that are often overlooked in history classes.

Olsson mentions that, “It’s almost like the games use real historical dilemmas as stage-pieces for setting their adventure. It’s our job in the class to try to fully understand those topics and their contradictions — which is of course what history students do in a regular history class. We’ll just use the game as a bridge to address those topics.

He says the class will explore themes like:

  • The frontier mythology and its long afterlife
  • The expansion of monopoly capitalism and how railroads extended corporate power
  • The astounding inequalities in wealth that became obvious during the Gilded Age
  • Settler colonialism and the dispossession of Native peoples
  • The making of Jim Crow racial violence in the South
  • The Mexican Revolution and its transnational impacts
  • The memory of the Civil War and the making of the Lost Cause myth
  • Women’s suffrage and its opponents
  • American empire and the expansions of 1898
  • The cosmopolitanism of the American population, including Chinese, Mexican, Italian, and German immigrants, among others
  • Stereotypes of Appalachian degeneracy and poverty alongside the reality of corporate extraction and dispossession
  • The privatization of law enforcement via the Pinkerton detective agency

Riveting stuff!

In the US, history is a topic that is often overlooked in education, with colleges always pushing students into more STEM-focused careers. While playing the games won’t be a requirement, most kids are at least familiar with Red Dead world if they haven’t already logged dozens of hours in-game already.

Merging video games with education.

Video games are ripe for use in educational scenarios like this. They can be useful tools to cover areas that often require more context to grasp. The immersion mixed with accessibility is unbeatable. I would love to see their use expanded in classes across the country. I would jump at the opportunity to take an Egyptology class or a Greek mythology class that utilized well-known video games like Assassin’s Creed or God of War as an access point into the topic.

Being able to hop into a virtual world and relive historical moments is remarkable. Another perfect example is Minecraft:

In a world where misinformation runs rampant, where lies can spread halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on, tools like this are great for fighting that battle for truth, context, and authenticity.

When I look back at my classes now, I regret not taking certain ones more seriously. Video games are more popular now than ever before. Using them as a way to get people my age and below excited about learning and exploring and understanding things that are more complex and knotty than we think is crucial. There’s no question that video games are changing the world. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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