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

Figure 1. This painting depicts Independence Hall in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, and includes George Washington, Richard Spaight, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Christy, Howard Chandler, “The Signing of the Constitution,” (1940). Oil on canvas. Architect of the Capitol. Public Domain.

A Convention delegate—who shall go unnamed—while researching the backgrounds of his colleagues in Philadelphia, has uncovered information of a compromising nature; and being something of a scoundrel himself, he resolves to use that information in ways that will advance his own interests. One by one he approaches his targets, intimating that, for considerations, he might be willing to keep quiet about their secrets. When he comes upon Alexander Hamilton and repeats the rumor that Hamilton once proposed hereditary membership for the Society of the Cincinnati, thus threatening to supplant the Republic with a military junta, he is staggered by Hamilton’s response—not a deal but a duel, to be conducted immediately. Nerf pistols at 20 paces! 

This is but one of the many surprising developments that await students in a classroom enactment of the Constitutional Convention. Using a game book titled The Constitutional Convention of 1787: Constructing the American Republic, students study the Constitution by making it themselves. The game is part of the Reacting to the Past series that originated at Barnard College and has now spread to over 500 campuses across the country and around the world.

Reacting to the Past is an innovative classroom pedagogy that teaches history and related subjects through a series of role-immersion games. Students in Reacting read from specially designed game books that place them in moments of major historical significance. The class becomes a public body; students, in role, become specific individuals from the period and/or members of factional alliances. Their purpose is to advance a policy agenda and achieve their objectives through formal speeches, informal debate, negotiations, vote-taking, and conspiracy. After a few preparatory lectures, the game begins, and the students are in charge. The instructor serves as an adviser, or gamemaster. Outcomes sometimes vary from the actual history; a debriefing session sets the record straight.

Currently there are 40 or so games in regular use; dozens more are in various stages of development. An editorial board oversees their progress. 

A game consists of three components: (1) a game book, (2) an instructor’s manual; and (3) the role descriptions. Sometimes a supplementary book is included as a fourth. These materials, aside from published game books, exist in the Consortium Library accessible to registered faculty free of charge. 

Why study the Constitution, or a host of other subjects, through the medium of role-play? The advantages are numerous:

  • Students are rarely bored in Reacting because they are active participants and often leaders rather than passive note-takers. 
  • Students rarely miss class, and rarely for any reason other than sickness, and sometimes not even then.
  • Students work harder than in conventional classes because they want to win and because they have allies who depend on their efforts.
  • Students speak—and speak and speak—formally at the podium and informally in debate. The silent classroom, the bane of every instructor, is completely absent here.
  • Students write better papers, because their objectives are clear, and their audience is known.
  • Students retain more of what they learn, because reading is purposeful, and thought is suffused with emotion.
  • Students have the chance to inhabit a character from a distant time and place and to view the world as that person would view it, to advocate for what that person values and believes.
  • Students learn to operate in an adversarial setting, with every proposal contested or met with a counterproposal; but also in a collaborative setting, combining with allies and negotiating with adversaries. Reacting games, therefore, provide indispensable training for students considering law school or aspiring to executive positions.

More specific to the “Constitutional Convention,” students playing the game are impressed by the contingency of the event, by the overriding importance of who showed up and stayed around, and by the distinctiveness of each delegate, affected by background, beliefs, obligations, and ambitions. Likewise, they can hardly miss the fact that tough bargaining underlay many of the Constitution’s provisions. 

But most of all, students discover that big ideas informed the debates and shaped the Constitution. Leading the list is Madison’s idea of the extended republic. During the New Jersey Plan debate (much expanded in the game to provide entry for Federalist and Antifederalist thought of the Ratification period), Madison explains his new theory, only to be countered by opponents holding firm to the widespread assumption of the time that small-state republics are the sine qua non of liberty. Or the idea of representation, particularly the true nature of a republican representative. One party, called nationalists, likens a representative to a trustee exercising independent judgment for the common good, while the other party, called confederalists, likens a representative to an agent of the electorate doing exactly as the voters would do if assembled and properly versed. Or the presidency, especially such elements as mode of election, term of office, and re-eligibility, with a virtual dare to the student-delegates to come up with a solution better than the electoral college.

And then there is slavery. How to justify so abhorrent an institution, and in a republic proclaiming universal rights, no less? On the other hand, how to deny a region of the country an invaluable, perhaps irreplaceable, labor source, long accepted, and whether to risk breaking up the union because of this?

A role-playing game on the Constitutional Convention cannot resolve the slavery controversy, nor does this game take sides. It rather puts students in positions to grapple with the issue for themselves, firsthand. Madison is told that his nationalism is tempered by his southern regionalism. In the matter of electing the president, for example, popular election would supply the executive with a base of support independent of the legislature and so satisfy an essential requirement of separation of powers, a doctrine heartily endorsed by the nationalists. However, popular election would do grievous harm to the South, half of whose population is enslaved and thus non-voting. How to respond? Meanwhile, Luther Martin of Maryland is told that his states’-rights confederalism is tempered by his abolitionism, a moral stance that would have him welcome the intervention of the national government in the internal affairs of the states. He too faces a dilemma. The supposition here is that students playing roles will better appreciate the difficulties of framing a constitution and better understand what was at stake and what was possible for the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia—better than if they simply heard or read about the event.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 is unique among Reacting games in that it comes in three fully developed versions: Full-Size, Mid-Size, and Standard. The first two versions follow the course of the Convention and set students the task of constructing fairly complete constitutions working from the Virginia Plan (Mid-Size is like Full-Size only shortened by the removal of some constitutional issues). For both versions the roles are individualized; factional affiliations, while present, are of secondary importance. College students are the primary audience, but the Full-Size version is challenging enough for graduate students and law students. The Standard version, aiming for simplicity, brevity, and accessibility, attempts no faithful rendition of the Convention; it instead focuses debate on four large Convention issues. The resulting constitution is therefore much abridged. The Standard version employs both individual and factional roles, although factional identity is more important here. The intended audiences are college and AP high school students. All versions use the same game book, but each has its own instructor’s manual and its own role descriptions. All versions as well are adaptable to classes of varying sizes—from 12 students at the low end to 40 students at the high end. As a sampler, a related short game exists titled Raising the Eleventh Pillar: The New York State Ratifying Convention of 1788 (W.W. Norton, 2021). It takes only one week to play; the three versions of the “Constitutional Convention” game take from three to eight weeks. 

Our unnamed friend, the serial blackmailer, has a secret of his own to hide. He is a speculator in western lands, but his many risky investments will all collapse if the Mississippi River, controlled by Spain at its mouth, is closed to American traffic. Rather than trust in government-to-government negotiations to keep open the river, he has involved himself in a conspiracy with British agents to start a war against Spain, driving it out of the West. A letter he wrote to a fellow conspirator on the frontier was stolen before it could be destroyed, and our blackmailer is now worried, and rightly so, that the letter has come to Philadelphia (i.e., is hidden somewhere in the classroom). If another delegate should find the letter first, it won’t matter whether the blackmailer survives his duel with Hamilton. The drama continues!

(A longer version of this article first appeared in the online journal Starting Points, March 12, 2018.) 

John Patrick Coby is Esther Booth Wiley 1934 Professor of Government at Smith College, where he teaches courses in political theory and American political thought. He is the author of six books and numerous journal articles, book chapters, and book reviews.

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

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

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

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