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WIU Department of History Interim Chair Tim Roberts
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WIU Interim Department Chair Develops Gaming Approach to History Lessons

December 2, 2021

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MACOMB, IL – How would the course of history have changed if President Abraham Lincoln had not made the decisions that led to signing the Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery?

A new digital program, designed by Western Illinois University Department of History Interim Chair Tim Roberts, asks students to consider President Lincoln's circumstances in the form of an interactive video game called "Lincoln's Decision." The program is being created with help from the summer stipend program in the WIU Foundation and the Office of Sponsored Projects.

Roberts began working on the program while studying for a graduate certificate in digital humanities and public history with George Mason University and the Smithsonian Institution. Through that study, he learned to use a story-telling software program called Twine.

"Working in the digital humanities has opened my eyes to new possibilities," said Roberts. "We can study the past using new technology, and then rethink how we interact with historical artifacts."

Roberts noted that 90 percent of young adults play video games, so it only made sense to adapt the Twine software to encourage studying the past, building on students' acquaintance with fame technology. In a WIU class Roberts teaches on the Civil War, he assigned students to use Twine to tell stories.

"My class last spring developed their own Twine stories about a Civil War topic," he said. "The students were terrified at first, but by the end of the semester we had some amazing work, including stories about runaway slaves, soldiers trying to escape prisoner of war camps, and even theater patrons trying to stop John Wilkes Booth before he shot Abraham Lincoln."

In Lincoln's Decision, students become Lincoln in 1862, deciding whether and how to emancipate slaves. The game allows students to see the results of their decisions, whether or not they match up with those made throughout history.

"History isn't fixed," said Roberts. "What people decided to do in the past affected our present; things could be different now. Twine allows students to encounter embedded, primary historical sources, interpret them, and see how that interpretation affects the outcomes."

As the programming develops, Roberts will be working with about 60 high school teachers of Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History to use the digital program in the classroom, as well as conduct a learning assessment for feedback on its validity as a learning tool.

"Textbooks, of course, are important pedagogical resources, but digital, interactive media, like Lincoln's Decision, which explicitly trains students on cause and effect, contextualization and contingency, can really enhance critical thinking skills, which are sometimes hard to teach simply through traditional pedagogy," Roberts said.

In the third year of a grant Roberts received, he may expand the program to consider 20th century topics, such as decisions in foreign relations, or choices made by civil rights activists and immigrants.

The hope of the program, Roberts added, is that it helps students explore what they can accomplish at WIU, and to consider the career options they have with a degree in history.

"The tools historians use to understand the past are being radically transformed, and it's cool that students can get exposed to 'digital history'," he said.

For more information about the WIU Department of History, visit

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