Challenging Myths through Gameplay: Reacting to the Past and Popular Ideology in the Classroom – Joshua J. Jeffers

A few years ago, I was teaching the second half of the U.S. history survey course and using the Reacting to the Past game Greenwich Village, 1913.1 My class included a student who had completed the first half of the survey with me where I had used Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York, and this student had excelled at it, ultimately planning and leading a successful slave revolt, a rare outcome in that game.2 So, I assigned him the role of Big Bill Haywood, leader of the Industrial Workers of the World. Haywood is a central character in the Greenwich Village, 1913 game and I thought this role would be a perfect fit for this precocious and outgoing student. After receiving his role sheet, however, he stopped attending class. 

The issue, as it turned out, was that the role asked him to discuss and defend socialist ideas he was not comfortable expressing. He believed that I was essentially attempting to brainwash him as part of an academic conspiracy that the popular media had warned him about. I explained that my goal was not to convert him to a system of belief, but to help him understand the beliefs of people like Haywood and the workers for whom he fought. If we can understand these ideas, I told him, we can examine and empathize with these individuals more effectively and better understand the past. The student seemed relieved, returned to class, and completed the game. Most Reacting games require students to write position papers advocating for or against certain causes, actions, or ideas. This student’s position papers, which he wrote as if he were Haywood, demonstrated that he had developed a much more sympathetic view of striking workers and had gained a nuanced understanding of the labor struggles of the early twentieth century. He ultimately united those portraying labor activists, led his faction to a successful final vote that averted a strike at the silk factory in Paterson, New Jersey, and essentially “won” the game. The game had accomplished its goals.

When my student first voiced his apprehension about the role I asked him to play, it was not initially clear to me whether he was most afraid of defending socialist ideas or worried that those ideas might actually make sense to him. His dilemma highlights the power of the Reacting pedagogy. This student’s ideological conditioning almost shut down the learning process. Entering the class assuming that socialism is evil, but then confronting evidence that depicted working-class struggles more sympathetically, he realized that socialism may not be as evil as he thought, which greatly confused him. But Reacting pedagogy (and some sympathetic conversations with me, the professor) opened this student’s mind where it once had been closed. This experience exemplifies the challenges instructors face when using this type of hands-on learning in the classroom. It also reveals its many possibilities. My naivete in this instance notwithstanding, I believe that Reacting games offer a way to challenge myths and popular conceptions and enable students to engage with the past on its own terms. 

I have found that teaching early American history is also an exercise in myth-busting—teaching history with a hammer, as Nietzsche might have called it. Confronting such myths is difficult in part because students often have emotional attachments to specific historical beliefs and perspectives and challenging them can mean challenging a student’s identity. This problem is rather unique to the liberal arts.

Figure 1. Thomas Jefferson depicted through a portrait using oil on linen. Rembrandt Peale, “Portrait of President Thomas Jefferson,” (1805). Oil on Linen. New York Historical Society, NY. Public Domain CC 1.0.

John Patrick Coby’s The Constitutional Convention of 1787 exemplifies how Reacting games can serve as an antidote, by placing students in a historical context that is too specific for popular assumptions to be of any use.3 The Constitutional Convention is a hallowed moment in American memory, one shrouded in myth and celebration. Consequently, few Americans are aware of the identities or personal histories of the delegates who attended, the intensity of their debates, and the slim margin by which the Constitution passed. By grounding historical nostalgia in the concrete challenges and contentious debates that confronted the Founders, the game’s design separates students from the popular mythology of the Convention and encourages them to consider these men and their goals more deeply as a way of achieving the game’s goals.

Figure 2. Reacting to the Past is an award-winning series of immersive role-playing games that actively engage students in their own learning. John Patrick Colby, “Cover image for John Patrick Colby’s Constitutional Convention of 1787,” (2017). Image provided by author.

The Constitutional Convention brings students into the world of republican theory by asking them to role-play the subtle differences that marked the goals and concerns of individual convention delegates. This allows students to move past any mythologized assumptions they have about the origins of the Constitution in order to grapple with what their character believes is needed to save the republic and how they must work to reach a compromise to achieve it. By immersing them in the concrete dilemmas convention delegates faced, students become more intimately involved with the immediate and often highly personal choices these men confronted. Such a personalization of the past cuts through many popular myths fueled by modern partisan politics and encourages students to view the past more empathetically and to engage with it through good-faith intellectual inquiry.

Dr. Joshua J. Jeffers received his Ph.D. in history in 2014 from Purdue University where he specialized in Native American history, environmental history, and U.S. settler colonialism. He is currently assistant professor of history at California State University-Dominguez Hills where he teaches Native American and early American history. He lives in La Mirada, California with his wife and three children. His

Twitter: @jjeffers58.

Links to Other Teaching with Games Roundtable Posts:

The Royal Geographical Pastime: A Game from 1770 – Holly Brewer

Indigenous Perspectives and Historical Empathy – Maeve Kane

Gaming the Framing: To Teach the Convention, the Constitution, and the Founding – John Patrick Coby

Reacting to the Past for Early Americanists – Elizabeth George

Building Student Engagement with Reacting to the Past – Christopher E. Hendricks

Controlled Chaos: Roleplaying Revolution in Southeast Texas – Brendan Gillis

Harnessing Competitiveness for Good in RTTP Games – Brett Palfreyman

See the Q&A feature for a summary of the roundtable’s key ideas.

  1. Mary Jane Treacy, Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015).
  2. Bill Offutt, Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013).
  3. John Patrick Coby, The Constitutional Convention of 1787: Constructing the American Republic (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017).