Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

Blog: Who Won the War of 1812?

by Family Learning Interns at the USS Constitution Museum

Sorting Through History

Date: 7/29/2011
Author: Julia da Silva

Today Sarah and I began working in the gallery with our last prototype—a card game about the results of the War of 1812. This has been perhaps the most challenging of the interactives that we’ve been working on, as it was the least defined when we began. The learning goals for the interactive are fairly straight-forward:  the results of the war were convoluted and no one participant achieved all of its objectives outright.  From this very general idea we aimed to develop a card game. Unsure of where to begin, we decided to start at the very beginning.

The one thing we knew for certain was that we needed to integrate the war’s results in some fashion. Along with the museum’s research historian, we developed a set of twelve “results cards” that outline the war’s outcomes for the three largest players: the United States, Native Americans, and the British Empire.

Results Cards

Results cards

We wanted these cards to be representative of the relative circumstances of the players at wars’ end.  (That is, we wanted to keep the proportion of “good” to “bad” results true to the situations each was actually faced with… Giving Great Britain only negative results, for example, would be historically inaccurate.)

Armed with our results, we needed to develop a way to physically illustrate the concept that we’re hoping to teach.  Molly, Sarah, and I tossed around a number of different methods, most of them based around some sort of balancing or scale system, whereby the visitor makes judgments as to:

  1. Who was affected by a result (sometimes the answer will be more than one party)
  2. Whether the result was positive or negative
  3. How positive or negative the result was

At the conclusion of the game, the positioning of the scale(s) would indicate the relative outcomes for the Americans, Native Americans, and British.

We hemmed and hawed, scribbling down ideas in fits of genius only to quickly scrap them. What had originally seemed such a straight-forward idea was quickly proving to be quite complicated and displaying it succinctly and clearly proved difficult. So we decided to strip things down to the basics and just get a sense of what our visitors thought of the results and what their answers to the above questions were. One variable at a time!

We expect, and hope, that there will be some variation in people’s responses to the game’s question of “Who won the War of 1812?” As families evaluate the results, they will naturally place different emphases on what they’re reading and arrive at different conclusions. Nevertheless, we did want to be sure that we were communicating what we intended to convey and that people seemed to understand what they were reading.

Sorting sheet

Sorting sheet

We therefore drew up a straightforward sorting sheet and asked visitors to read the results cards and place them in the appropriate spots. We didn’t think that sorting little pieces of paper into piles would be a particularly fun task for folks, but were very pleasantly surprised in this regard! Families got into it and had some really great conversations, including some very thoughtful insights. Without prompting, they also began sorting the cards into multiple categories—for instance, placing a card about the United States’ seizure of Native American lands into the “Positive for United States” and “Negative for Native Americans” sections. This is exactly what we had hoped to have visitors do, but we worried that it might prove too confusing. Clearly we didn’t need to be concerned!

We found that visitors’ judgments were fairly consistent. Most of the cards were always sorted the same way; within about a quarter of the cards we saw some small variation. This is about what we’d hoped for. A lot of the results are clearly positive or negative (“The war cost Great Britain an estimated £25 million and the lives of roughly 4,900 British citizens.”), but some were more ambiguous (like the aforementioned expansion of the United States). We saw the consistency and variation exactly where we had expected to.

We now feel fairly confident that visitors will be comfortable reading a results card, deciding who was affected, and whether that effect was positive or negative. Our next variable, if you will, is determining whether or not visitors are comfortable assigning values to the different results (“very bad” versus “moderately bad,” for example). For this, we’re planning on using glass beads and asking families to respond to each results card by adding or removing one, two, or three beads from containers marked for each actor. We hope to determine whether or not weighing the different results adds any meaning to the activity for visitors or if, as is so often the case, simpler is better.


Buckets and Beads

Date Prototyped: 8/3/2011
Date Written: 8/10/11
Author: Sarah Budlong

Julia and I were very pleased when we asked visitors to categorize the results of the War of 1812 and they responded by quickly grasping the complexity of each result and actively engaging with the historical content. Our first session taught us that visitors are comfortable deciding whether each participant (United States, British Empire, and Native Americans) was positively or negatively affected by each result of the war. Our next challenge was to measure how easily visitors differentiated between results that were really negative vs. slightly negative and really positive vs. slightly positive. We added this element to the game because we were concerned that visitors would think that every result of the war had an equal impact and we did not want to create a false equivalency among the results.

Bins and beads

Bins and beads

Before we could test whether visitors felt comfortable judging the impact of a result, we needed to find an engaging and appealing format for the game. Our goal was to find a format that would visually show players how each result affected each participant. We thought about using scales, but knew that it would take time to construct a scale prototype. Because we wanted to test the game right away, the first format we tried was the simplest one we could think of. We found three small buckets and labeled them “United States,” “British Empire” and “Native Americans.” Then we found a bunch of small, colored beads. We grabbed the three buckets, beads, and results cards and headed down to the gallery to see how our visitors reacted to our prototype.

We asked visitors to read the results cards and think about which participant was affected by each result and whether the affect was positive or negative. Then we told them that they were going to mark each decision they made by adding and removing beads from the three buckets. For example, if they decided that a result was positive for the British Empire they could add between 1 - 3 beads to the British Empire bucket. If they decided that a result was negative for the United States, they could remove between 1 - 3 beads from the United States bucket. The number of beads they chose depended on how big an impact they decided that result had.  To anticipate visitors starting with a negative rather than a positive result card, we started each bucket with ten beads in it.

Full prototype game

Full prototype game

Our results were mixed. We found that the best conversations occurred when family members debated which participant(s) were most affected by each result. For example, one result is that, “The expanding United States, eager for more space and natural resources, pushed Native Americans off of their lands and further west.” In most of the groups that we tested, one person would immediately say that the result was negative for Native Americans. Another person would then jump in and claim that the result was positive for the United States. If both of those claims were made, the group would usually decide to put the result in both categories (positive for United States, negative for Native Americans.). Although this part of the game went very well, we had less success getting visitors to think about the impact of each result. Once visitors decided that a result was positive or negative for one of the participants, they did not want to take the extra step and decide to which degree it was positive or negative. The majority of groups treated the beads as an afterthought and did not count the beads they added or took away from the buckets. The players usually just grabbed a loose handful of the beads, threw them in the bucket, and moved on to the next result.

After prototyping, we realized that we have to do some more digging to find a format that works for the game. We want a format that visually demonstrates how many positive and negative results each participant had, so that visitors can tell at a glance who benefited most and who suffered most from the war. Our latest idea is to devise a  format that utilizes the results cards as game pieces. We also need to rethink whether or not visitors should judge the degree of positive or negative impact each result had. Our prototypers treated that aspect of the game as an annoyance and adding it might overly complicate the game-play. In short, we still have a long way to go before the card game is ready to be an unfaciliated gallery interactive.