Roundtable: Teaching with Games – Michael LaCombe, Guest Editor

Figure 1. This painting documents the destruction of the gilded lead statue of King George III of Great Britain in Bowling Green, N.Y., by New Yorkers and Continental soldiers after the Declaration of Independence had been read to Washington’s troops on the Commons on July 9, 1776. Johannes Adam Simon Ortel, “Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City,” (1852–1853). Painting. Gift of Samuel V. Hoffman. New-York Historical Society. Public domain.

Preliminary Reflections – Rose Beiler and Judy Ridner, Co-Editors, EAS Miscellany

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To what extent are games an effective and even inspiring pedagogy for teaching early American studies? What challenges do instructors and students confront when using games to teach? More specifically, to what extent do immersive, role-playing games like Reacting to the Past encourage students to more actively engage with primary-source texts and to better understand and maybe even empathize with the diverse peoples of the early American past?  

These are some of the questions we had when we began planning this “Teaching with Games” roundtable with our guest editor, Dr. Michael LaCombe of Adelphi University, last winter. Neither of us had ever taught with games–particularly role-playing games–but we had friends and colleagues, including our guest editor, who had and who touted their pedagogical benefits. We were curious–as we suspect many of you might be; we wanted to know more.

The eight early American scholars Lacombe gathered to participate in this roundtable teach at diverse institutions–from small, private colleges to larger comprehensive state universities and research institutions. Their experience using games in the classroom varies. Some have taught using different kinds of games–from board to role-playing games–in both introductory and advanced-level courses; one of them even authored a Reacting to the Past game. Others, however, have used only one game in a single course. The students they teach also come from diverse racial, ethnic, religious, political, and regional backgrounds. Yet, the common theme of their posts and the Q&A session LaCombe hosted with them is their shared belief that games can be a transformative pedagogy. The rewards for using games to teach early American studies, they argue, far outweigh the challenges and risks.

And that enthusiasm for teaching with games is important to keep in mind, especially in light of the recent controversy over the Reacting to the Past game on Frederick Douglass. After students and faculty raised concerns that role-playing racist, pro-slavery views was troubling and promoted contemporary white supremacy rather than challenging it, Reacting to the Past removed the game from print, much to the consternation of the game’s authors and many faculty who regularly taught it. Those wanting to read more about this controversy would be wise to consult the discussion on H-SHEAR. It includes a link to the May 13, 2022 Wall Street Journal article about the controversy and responses from many scholars, including roundtable participant Joshua Jeffers. 

Our goal in this roundtable is not to rehash this recent battle. Yet, roundtable participants do address the challenges raised when asking students to role-play early American characters whose race, gender, political views, or perspectives on the world are different from their own. They also portray the knowledge and understanding students gain by doing so. We thank all of the participants, and particularly our guest editor, Michael LaCombe, for sharing their thoughtful insights.

As the first roundtable hosted by EAS Miscellany, we hope you will find it thought-provoking, informative, and, most importantly, useful. 

Figure 2. Wampum plays an important ceremonial role in the Forest Diplomacy game, and Daniel Smolensky, an Adelphi undergraduate, made these in Fall 2021, working mainly from images he found online. I am often surprised with the seriousness and care with which students approach their roles in Reacting games. Photo by author.

Roundtable Introduction – Michael LaCombe, Guest Editor

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If one were asked to pick a moment when gaming pedagogy went mainstream, one could point to the February 2020 American Historical Review, which included reviews of a number of Reacting to the Past games. This roundtable, which features posts from eight early Americanists who have experimented with using Reacting and other games in their classrooms, discusses the rewards and challenges of game-based pedagogy. It also addresses some of the reservations that have—so far—prevented gaming-curious instructors from taking the leap.

Holly Brewer’s piece describes a game from the eighteenth century that introduces her students to the peculiar mindset of young British imperialists. Maeve Kane describes how she uses Potlatch, a game designed by Coast Salish academics, to encourage her students to explore the different and more collectively minded cultural assumptions that inform the game, especially when compared to more familiar games like Monopoly. Both authors make a strong case for how games can change students’ perspectives on the past and present.

Since Reacting to the Past games have received the most attention in the field (and among our roundtable contributors), an excellent place to start is the contribution from Patrick Coby. Coby introduces Reacting pedagogy for those unfamiliar with how it works by discussing the Constitutional Convention game, which he wrote. (Two other early American Reacting games, Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution and Forest Diplomacy, are also discussed in the roundtable.)

Much of the roundtable expands on themes Coby raises: the benefits Reacting to the Past games have for increasing student engagement, teaching historical contingency, improving the quality of written and oral assignments and primary-source analyses, and, above all, encouraging a certain type of critical thinking. Offering a perspective based in part on her initial reservations, Elizabeth George describes how she matches different types of Reacting games to different classes and students. Christopher Hendricks echoes this point when he discusses how he came to embrace what is often seen as an obstacle: the need to devote a substantial block of the semester to a single Reacting game.

Skeptics argue that Reacting games encourage anachronistic or counterfactual views of the past. Brendan Gillis proposes a way of thinking about student learning that embraces anachronism within the structure of the game and its debriefing sessions, where the actual course of events can be laid out. Reacting, after all, is not the same as re-enacting. Many instructors also worry about how they will manage students’ discomfort with role-playing characters whose political views or cultural perspectives are dramatically different than their own. Brett Palfreyman describes the emotional engagement students can have with their role, and the need for instructors to understand and empathize with this feature of student engagement.

Joshua Jeffers explains his own perspective on Reacting games as a means for recovering the complexity and contingency of the early American past at our current moment of extreme political polarization. Both Gillis and Kane also stress the games’ ability to engage with contemporary students, often in unexpected ways: Gillis presents the perspective of a minority-majority campus in Texas playing the Patriots & Loyalists in New York game, and Kane presents her Haudenosaunee students’ unique perspectives on the Forest Diplomacy game.

Yet, as the roundtable also suggests, even instructors who use role-playing games have concerns. Several authors express the discomfort that can arise when white students play nonwhite roles, such as Indigenous or enslaved people. It bears repeating that Reacting is not the same as re-enacting: the games do not require students to perform a role so much as to inhabit it and present a particular viewpoint as part of the game’s larger structure. Many of the authors engage with this issue, but they agree that, even in these potentially fraught circumstances, the games do not force students to “play Indian,” to use Kane’s example, but to approach the past and, one hopes, each other with a more open mind.

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Michael LaCombe (Adelphi University) teaches classes, reads, and writes about early America, food, and early modern England. He lives in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn with his wife and daughters.

Read Michael LaCombe’s 2021 EAS article, “‘To the end that you may the better perceive these things to be true’: Credibility and Ralph Hamor’s ‘A True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia.”

Links to 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

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.

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