Teaching with Games Roundtable Q&A — Michael LaCombe with the Authors

Figure 1. On trial for the crime of libel against the governor of New York, John Peter Zenger is defended by Andrew Hamilton and was later acquitted by a jury. Creator unknown, “Andrew Hamilton defending John Peter Zenger in court, 1734-5,” (Between 1877 and 1896). Photograph/Print/Drawing. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Library of Congress. Public domain.

What can games in general (Reacting To The Past – RTTP – and others) do that other teaching activities and strategies cannot?

Many of your comments talk about student engagement, or collaboration, but to what teaching or learning end?  How do you channel or focus engagement into written and oral communication, content knowledge or other course goals?

The pedagogical payoffs of a roleplaying game, as with other forms of experiential learning, can be tricky to quantify. Playing and reflecting on Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution can transform the classroom dynamic for the rest of the semester. After the game, students show more willingness to talk, to engage with each other’s ideas, and to take creative risks. The experiential elements of the game foster an investment in the events of the period that carries over into subsequent readings and discussions. In fall 2021, for example, my students talked me into allowing extra credit for cooking any recipe printed in Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796). Two others proposed and collaborated on a podcast in lieu of a final paper. Reacting to the Past games can boost student engagement in a way that makes other elements of my pedagogy more effective. (Brendan Gillis)

I’ve taught a number of different kinds of games in history courses (card games, video games, small homebrew simulations like a Boston Massacre or John Peter Zenger trial, and team-based learning courses with application problems).  I think engagement and student investment is a good course goal in itself—having students in my Intro to U.S. History course prosecute and defend Zenger leads to much better understanding of the stakes and deeper conversations on the role of a free press and the government than simply having them discuss a document from a course reader.  I like offering video games like Elizabeth LaPensée’s When Rivers Were Trails or Never Alone | Kisima Inŋitchuŋa  as options for analysis assignments where we discuss history as narrative, but in general I don’t assign video games for required assignments because some students struggle with getting stuck on levels.  For required activities I prefer games that gameify skills I want students to practice anyway, like RTTP or a simulated trial does with reading, writing, and argument, or games with mechanics that help students see things in a different way, like Potlatch. (Maeve Kane)

Student engagement with their roles and the historical situation often leads to the purposeful use of documents and cross-referencing with the historical context essay. Since they need to use the documents as part of an argument, they need to understand their subtleties. Consequently, rather than skimming for content highlights, my students are often looking for ideas that they can promote, challenge, or sabotage. Ideally, this leads them back to the historical context essay. After the first reading (which is usually a skimming), it becomes a sort of reference book. Students who return to the essay often use it to orient the documents to the specific context of the situation in which they were created. (Nick Proctor)

What can some (specific) RTTP games do that other games can’t?

I like the depth of engagement that RTTP requires from students.  With climbing class enrollments and fewer history majors, my department is trying to more consciously and explicitly articulate for students what kind of skills they gain from the history major. RTTP has been a good tool for me to show students the importance of taking notes on argument rather than content, clear and persuasive writing, empathetic listening, prioritizing your own most important goals, and consensus building.  In general I’ve found that my classes that do RTTP go on to do better with dissecting scholars’ arguments in traditional essays, because they’ve had to really invest in careful reading of others’ arguments and have had a concrete demonstration of how you can agree about the basic facts but differ significantly on their meaning and interpretation.  Teaching at a large state school where my “small” junior/senior classes in the major are 48 students, getting this level of investment from almost every student was not something I was able to achieve on my own with traditional essays.  The immediate feedback from the reaction of their peers and the necessity of working with others has also helped support my course goals of improving student argumentation skills without overwhelming me with marking papers. (Maeve Kane)

To what extent have you found these games valuable in teaching “soft skills” like empathy or cultural understanding?  Have you explicitly used these games to teach critical/creative thinking skills like problem-solving?

My inspiration for Forest Diplomacy was BaFa BaFa, a classic game of cultural misunderstanding. Like BaFa BaFa, the game initially separates the players into two cultural camps. The situation is complicated by the “go-betweens,” who straddle the cultures, and player knowledge of the historical situation, which is always present in the background even when they are playing their roles, but it always amazes me how quickly the students acclimatize to their cultures. Playing the game over multiple sessions gives cultural affinity an opportunity to gel, which can set up a big payoff in terms of empathy, but only if the instructor devotes time and effort to the topic as part of the debriefing that follows the game. (Nick Proctor)

To what extent have you found that these games enable you to teach writing/communication in a different way, by giving student writers a specific role, audience, and purpose for writing?

We give students assignments to write persuasive essays all the time, but we rarely put them in situations where they will actually have the opportunity to persuade someone. Placing all the students into roles fundamentally changes the situation. Now, they need to understand a position that is different from their own well enough to argue from it. Then, if they are writing and speaking to persuade, they need to think about the positions of the other players. These temporary shifts in identity require them to encounter ideas in a profoundly different way. (Nick Proctor)

In what ways do these games offer new ideas for assigning primary sources?

I am much more attentive to the people who either “lost” the historical situation as well as those who were, for one reason or another, relegated to the sidelines. Sometimes this is a minoritized or subaltern position. Other times, it is an archly conservative position. Including these documents in the games, which designers need to do in order to achieve an intellectual balance, creates a much richer intellectual terrain. (Nick Proctor)

How do specific RTTP games relate to the specific goals of early America courses?

Contingency is the major reason that I teach with RTTP games.  From a content perspective, I would probably not be teaching the 1758 Treaty of Easton in more than passing in an early American course if I weren’t teaching Forest Diplomacy.  But I do teach it because I find that the game drives home better for students than anything else how much power Indigenous groups had in diplomacy, that early American history was not an inevitable march of Indigenous decline, and that there were real and important distinctions and conflicts between Indigenous nations (and between settler groups).  Cultural understanding can be more of a mixed bag, and I do a lot of teaching after the game to make up for that. FD in particular stresses the opacity of settlers and Indigenous people to each other, so students playing settler roles sometimes come out of the game feeling like they have less understanding of Indigenous peoples’ motivations than they did going in.  Post-game debriefing and reflection helps mitigate this, as does an emphasis on NAIS (Native American and Indigenous studies) scholarship and descendent communities’ histories.  I have not yet taught any of the Revolution or Constitution games, but in general one of the things that I enjoy about RTTP is that they introduce students to the messiness that scholars have to make sense of and make students more aware that scholarly narratives are also constructed narratives. (Maeve Kane)

In what ways do these games encourage teaching and learning about intercultural communication/understanding?  How do they help students understand the different racial/cultural/religious groups of early America?

Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution has Black and Native American characters who can play important roles as action unfolds, but the game’s principal focus on the sessions of the Provincial Congress does not leave much time to foreground these perspectives. As such, I assign an excerpt from “The Memoirs of Boston King” (a Black loyalist evacuated from New York after the Treaty of Paris) for one of the sessions immediately following the game before turning to Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost, which addresses a much broader range of experiences. (Brendan Gillis)

Managing immersion is, as I see it, the biggest challenge of RTTP. Forest Diplomacy does this through its three act structure. Revolution in NYC does this by including a wide variety of roles. Anne Hutchinson does this by putting players in the middle of several overlapping arguments. No game can do it all.  (Nick Proctor)

Most of us early Americanists want to stress the contingency of events like the Revolution and Constitution.  How do RTTP games help in this regard?

The design of Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution creates a host of opportunities for chaos, confusion, and tumult that can provide a potent lesson in the contingency of revolution. It is difficult for many students to maintain teleological views of independence when confronted with how difficult it can be to accomplish much of anything in the Provincial Congress. The disruptions that result from the hunt for the smuggler, mob actions, and the cheers (or jeers) of the crowd. I find it helpful to stir the pot a little in the first few sessions, but once the game gets going students tend to be more than capable of sowing their own chaos. (Brendan Gillis)

Absolutely – RTTP games help. For my students, it is often revelatory to recognize that plenty of different things could have happened. On a higher level, it is even more satisfying when they realize that even more things were just not in the cards – even though it seems like they should have been from the point of view of the twenty-first century. (Nick Proctor)

Many instructors express practical concerns regarding RTTP adoption:

Game materials often describe the moment one turns over the classroom, ceding control of the way the class operates.  The unpredictability of events during the game and of student reactions to those events is a design feature that makes many instructors uncomfortable.  What do you do if students just sit there?  What do you do if total chaos breaks out?

This was one of my primary concerns when I first taught with a Reacting to the Past game. Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution lays out a clear schedule for the first session, guaranteeing at least a moderate amount of activity. It is appropriate (and often useful) for the Gamemaster to pass notes to individual students, and I find it helpful to encourage students to create opportunities to push their characters’ agendas. A little chaos is necessary for students to take ownership of the exercise. Instructors always have the option of calling for a five minute “faction break” or even ending the game session early to give everyone a chance to process where things stand. (Brendan Gillis)

In my experience, Reacting does not bring out a side to the class that isn’t already there, whether you’ve noticed it or not. If you ask a discussion question and everyone just stares blankly, that “class personality” will not automatically resolve just because you have started a game. With some groups, more scaffolding is helpful; with others, they are itching for you to step aside. There is a lot that you can do before the game begins to ensure a successful game. You can make sure the class members have been in groups with as many other people as possible so that they have interacted before the game begins. You can cast the most outspoken students in the most outspoken roles. You can even stop and restart a game if it doesn’t launch correctly. You are still in charge, but your work may not be as visible. (Elizabeth George)

The great worry for new instructors is this: What will happen in the first minutes of the first class when the students supposedly are in charge? What if the game begins in stony, sullen silence? What then? While not impossible, a silent start is highly improbable, because in the previous class a presiding officer will have been identified or chosen, and in the time between classes certain students, directed by their role sheets, will have written their first papers. (This they do without your direction—the game directs them.) These students will then communicate their intent to speak to the president or chair, who will arrange the speeches in an appropriate order. When you arrive in class, what you likely will see is this order of speeches written on the board and students in their seats or milling about the room. When all are seated and the room is quiet, the president will declare the meeting in session. Thus it will begin and on it will go, through the game’s agenda, until a debriefing, postmortem session concludes the exercise. (Patrick Coby)

An important term of the art is the concept of a “plausibility corridor.” This is the range of potential outcomes. We encourage designers to think about the limits that they want to put on counterfactual outcomes and to build controls into the game to counteract players who push them too far. Some of these are in role sheets, which can prohibit certain actions. Others are baked into the game rules (e.g. voting rights). Others are left up to the instructor. Even with all this, players can still take games in weird directions. This is one of the advantages of games with multiple sessions. This gives the instructor the opportunity to execute a course correction without trampling on eager players. A mid-game “GM (Gamemaster) intervention” that occurs outside of class honors student agency in a way that jumping up in the middle of class and shouting, “No, no, no. Couldn’t happen. No” has the potential to undermine the whole project. If it just won’t wait, most games include something like Forest Diplomacy’s “talks in the bushes.” Nudging a player to suggest this can be a good way to talk to people in a smaller group, which seems less disruptive.

Every time I run RTTP I wonder, “Is this the time it will fail?” So far, at least one of the students has always been willing to step into the breach. I think there are several reasons for this. 1. The objectives in most role sheets compel them to take action. 2. The fact that we will be playing the game for multiple class sessions means that they fear being bored out of their minds. 3. It seems like it might be fun. 4. There is usually some sort of “convening officer” with the responsibility to get the ball rolling. (Nick Proctor)

What about student reactions to specific role assignments or game scenarios?  In nearly every game, women will be asked to play male roles, but in some cases men will play female characters, white students will play Black or Indigenous roles, and so forth.  What are your strategies for allowing students to fully engage with the game while remaining sensitive to racial stereotyping?  Are there situations (nonwhite students expressing unease at their role assignment) or specific roles (enslaved characters in Patriots & Loyalists or the “liquor card” granted to certain characters in Forest Diplomacy) that have raised concerns?

Think carefully about role assignments. Reacting asks students to commit themselves to different worldviews. Some of these, no doubt, are offensive to today’s sensibilities, and students may have sincere and serious objections to serving as their representative. The solution is to survey students before assigning roles to determine their tolerance for playing parts they view as objectionable. Some games include roles for “journalists” or “historians” who report on debates more than they participate in them; these can be ideal roles for students reluctant to espouse controversial viewpoints or compete in an adversarial setting. You may also want to establish ground rules for games in which some students are tasked with promoting unsavory ideas: for instance, limiting the use of certain words or symbols, employing time-outs from the game, or requiring students to complete a contract stipulating expectations and procedures. It generally helps to encourage students to come see you if they feel uncomfortable with their roles. In the majority of cases, you will be able to talk them through their discomfort. Finally, the postmortem session provides a valuable forum for discussing the discomfort of students and exploring the differences between themselves and their characters. (Patrick Coby)

Before my games, I always brief the class on the range of roles and circulate a survey where they can opt out of certain roles with no questions asked.  So far, my only students who have opted out of specific roles have been students with public speaking anxiety who do not want to do roles at the center of attention or students with dysphoria who do not want to play a specific gender (I don’t ask on the survey, but I’ve had very few students exercise the opt-out and the few who did disclosed their reasons, which I paraphrase here with permission).  I choose to prioritize student buy-in and I would rather have students comfortable with other discomfort the game brings—speaking in public, disagreeing with and being judged by peers, or taking an ideological position they may not agree with.  I have not yet had a bad experience with an RTTP game, but I usually run them at midterm or later after students have had a chance to get comfortable with each other and me.  I also generally structure my classes around small group discussion so that students know at least some of their peers well in a class of 48 before we do a game.  For me, the time investment of spending several weeks of class time has been worth it because students see immediate payoff from the skills we worked on earlier in the class and visibly incorporate feedback into later assignments, versus the sometimes lackluster integration of course skills and feedback in midterm and final papers that many instructors are familiar with.  I’ve made my peace with trading depth of practice for breadth of content coverage because I was never able to cover all the content I wanted anyway, and I feel that the process of learning to think like a historian is more enjoyable for me and my students this way. (Maeve Kane)

I always remind students that RTTP is not about embodying another person. It is also not about imagining the lives they lived. It is about the ideas that they expressed and what those ideas look like when they clash with the ideas of other smart, driven, and engaged people. I explicitly forbid accents and costumes, but I encourage “notional costumes” like hats and ribbons. (Nick Proctor)

Yes to all. Much of this is left up to individual instructors, but as we move games into new editions with University of North Carolina Press, I hope to provide more framing and more options for situations like this. (Nick Proctor)

Although some RTTP games take only a single class meeting and others a small handful, the best-known early America games require weeks of class time.  How would you respond to concerns about sacrificing coverage of course content or other course goals?

In my experience, the boost in student engagement in the wake of a roleplaying game more than makes up for the sacrifice in class time. Students are more likely to read, participate, and even undertake independent research. Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution has the advantage of incorporating a considerable amount of historical content into the course of the game. Students read Locke, Paine, and other politicos before debating the Continental Association and the Declaration of Independence. Four weeks can seem like a huge investment of time for one activity, but the game can integrate remarkably well with an upper-division course on the American Revolution. (Brendan Gillis)

Before I fully embraced Reacting, I had to put aside the goal of coverage. I was never convinced that I was actually “covering” all of the material anyway, and students’ exams presenting a garbled version of what I had “covered” in class disabused me of any notion that packing in the content was working. I am content to do a few deep dives into specific moments in history, and I use the in-between time to build up the context. When students can talk to me years later about specific content from the game or another deep dive activity, I feel like the learning has stuck much more effectively than a lecture. (Elizabeth George)

Most Reacting games come with abbreviated game agendas, allowing, for example, a four-week game to be played in three or two weeks. The Constitutional Convention game, the longest in the series at eight weeks, has abbreviated versions that can be played in five weeks (further reducible to four) and four weeks (further reducible to three). A related game in the Norton Flashpoints series, Raising the Eleventh Pillar: The Ratification Debate of 1788, takes only one week. You should understand, however, that the Reacting pedagogy takes time to deliver its benefits, thus the less time, the fewer the benefits. (Patrick Coby)

Importantly, while the Reacting Game Library hosts some one session games, it does this as a service to the community rather than as an official aspect of our work as an institution. The short games do not go through a formal review process. 

One session games are easy to fit into your syllabi, and they provide a good change of pace in many classes, but I am somewhat skeptical about their pedagogical impact. Mostly, students seem to think they are fun. Full length RTTP games, which have 4-6 sessions of gameplay are a different creature. Five, ten, fifteen years later, when I run into a student at the farmer’s market and ask them about what they remember from a class we had together, they cannot remember a single lecture, and they often strain to remember specific books, but if there was an RTTP game in the class, they invariably recall it, often in great detail. When I press for details about the historical situation, they can provide them. 

Players also discover things other than the content. I well remember a quiet, female student playing the Provincial Secretary in Forest Diplomacy. The role sheet instructed her to make sure the treaty council was not a failure. When the council began, the Lt. Governor (who is supposed to run the first session of the council) was a no show. After a minute or two, during which I sat in the back of the room thinking that disaster was ahead, she slapped her knees, stood up, and said, “Welp, I guess I’m going to run this thing for him.” She did a brilliant job. Two years later, she told me that this experience was what convinced her that she could handle law school. She is now a practicing attorney. (Nick Proctor)

RTTP games allow anachronistic outcomes.  How do specific games manage the question of anachronism, and do you have strategies for addressing this question?

Every game includes the possibility of ahistorical outcomes. These fall within a “plausibility corridor,” so called, of mildly to wildly counterfactual—of “could easily have happened” to “could never have happened.” If it is important for you to retain historical verisimilitude, you may want to keep this corridor narrow by nudging players to act in certain ways or by intervening from afar in deus-ex-machina fashion (better done out of class than in). On the other hand, if your learning objectives emphasize leadership, self-development, creativity, you may want to widen the corridor and relax these controls. Consider the case of the weak and quiet student who haltingly delivers a speech riddled with historical errors. Do you jump in and correct the errors, lest the class be misinformed, or do you hold back for the sake of the student’s confidence? Or take the case of the clever and enterprising student who cobbles together an implausible coalition? Do you remind the factions of their purposes and send all parties back to their corners, or do you respect the novelty of the endeavor and let the maneuver play itself out? Questions such as these admit of no sure answers but require subtle judgments about complicated matters of content, student psychology, and pedagogy. (Patrick Coby)

Handling this sort of thing is usually the responsibility of the instructor, but I’ve found that eager students will often police it themselves. Only when they are at a loss will they turn to me and ask for some historical guidance, which I am happy to provide. (Nick Proctor)