Innovating Public History: Who Wants to be a Cotton Millionaire?

First, let me just say that the time has finally come! I had to do homework for video games!!

I was assigned Who Wants to be a Cotton Millionaire? for this week’s blog post for History and New Media.  The game was created by the British Broadcasting Corporation, more commonly known as the BBC.  th (1)

The game lives on an archived history page on the BBC’s webpage.  This page features a series of tabs that represent a different time period or subject in history.  In order to find the game manually, the user will need to click on the “British History” tab.  However, I suspect most users will do what I did and Google search the game’s title which gave me a straight connection to the game through both the first and second results of the search.

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Once I arrived on the page, the title screen the game detailed a brief history of the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England along with a description of how the game works.  I moved to the next screen by clicking “Launch the Game” at the bottom of the screen.

After launching the game, a screen popped up giving me background information on my character.  From there, I clicked “play” to begin.

Next, the “Introduction” screen emerged.  This screen explained to me how the industry of weaving cotton into yarn needed to be overhauled.  After hitting “next,” the screen continued to explain how my character wanted to invest in a new business to weave cotton into cloth and detailed the decisions I would have to make.

The first decision I had to make was where my business should be located.  I was given two options: Cumbria and Lancashire.  These two locations are shown on a map and I could click on both locations to find out their traits.

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Once I made a decision, the game explained why it was or was not a good decision and whether or not I lost or gained money.

The second decision I had to make was what type of labor my new business would use.  The game gave me a choice between men and women and children, but that was all it gave me.  No information concerning the choices was made available to me like it was for the decision on locations.  After making my decision, I was again informed whether it was or was not a good decision and whether or not I lost or gained money.

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Next, I had to decide which type of power I would use for my new business.  The choices proposed were waterwheel, steam power, or the homemaker.  Again, no information given about these choices, just the option to select one.  Similarly, I was taught how my decision impacted my business.

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The last decision I had to make entailed making an improvement to my newly established business to improve its efficiency.  I was given two options – better machinery or improving working conditions. Again, I was not given information about the selections and for a third time I was informed about how my decision affected my business.

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Finally, the last screen revealed whether I was a successful entrepreneur or not and why.  This screen is a two part screen and offered me the options to play again or exit the game.

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So, I guess all of you are wondering what decisions I made and whether or not I was successful.  Well I am ashamed to say that I was not a successful businessman, because I chose the wrong location.  Unfortunately, this is because I was thinking that the game was set in the 19th century and not the 18th century.  While the game explains on the title screen that it is set in the 18th century, it does not repeat its setting often, so I quickly forgot.

With all of this being said, I played two more times. Once to ensure that changing my location would result in a win and the second to change all of my decisions to see how the game reacts for different users.  It is important to note that all of the pages expressed historical information.

Following my experience with the game I asked my fiance to play as well.  I did this, because I wanted to see how a user without a history background interacts with the game.  I found that the game was a sweeping success.  He explained how he learned about geography, labor standards, the Industrial Revolution, among other things in 18th century England.

While I do not believe that Who Wants to be a Cotton Millionaire? is a suitable substitute for classroom learning, I do think that it could supplement classroom learning and may even be an alternative for those who do not learn well in a traditional classroom setting.  A theory that is purported by James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

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5 thoughts on “Innovating Public History: Who Wants to be a Cotton Millionaire?

  1. Thanks for a great review, Anna. One of the major flaws of this game, I thought, was in its lack of consistency in providing the player with background information about potential choices. Gee talks a lot about how good video games set a player up with the basic tools and understanding they need to successfully play a game in the earliest stages. I think Cotton Millionaire was very misleading because after I was able to find more information about each location before making a selection, I thought I would be able to do that with my subsequent decisions as well. But I quickly learned that was not the case, and when I clicked for more information on the next page I did not get any context and found that I had inadvertently made my selection. It’s too bad that they designed the game in a way that does not provide the kind of context you need to make good choices, and also set it up in a way that was misleading about how the game was played.

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    1. I agree completely. However, I do feel that after critiquing so many aspects of the game, us as historians have lost sight of the good qualities a game like this could provide. While it does have some poor qualities, I do think that a game like this will provide a fun and meaningful way for visitors to engage historical topics. I am eager to see how a game like this could make controversial topics such as slavery more accessible and comfortable to the public.

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  2. Anna,

    I appreciated your thorough and thoughtful review in class, and I appreciate rereading your report here. When I first played the game, I was surprised by how quick it was, and did feel a little disoriented the whole way through. I ended up in debtors prison my first time through and felt frustrated, because how the heck was I supposed to know whether to set up shop in Cumbria or Lancashire? I have never heard of either! While I didn’t think I acquired enough historical information from the game, it did make me curious to go explore a little more about the British cotton industry. And I do think you made a good point that non-historians might approach this game very differently, and feel they have a positive, fun and engaging experience with a historical topic. I guess that is what public historians really want–to engage the public with historical information, as much (or as little) as the user is willing.

    Would you use a game like this in a classroom or in a museum education environment?

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    1. I absolutely would use a game like this. In the museum world it seems that there is ideal and then there is realistic. Take collections for example. There is an ideal way to store and preserve objects, but in reality the museum often times does not have the resources to ideally store their collections. I think it is the same for this game. While it is not the most ideal historical game, it does provide useful lessons and engages visitors in a new and meaningful way. In addition, it helps bring the museum environment into the 21st century by using digital technology to teach history.

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