The competition was addicting. To win, senior Christian Thomas had to leave himself outside the classroom and give way to a ghost from the past.
That deceased person could be maddening at times – spouting beliefs Thomas himself did not share. More than once, he found himself leaving class mad that someone else’s character had bested him in argument.
It’s all part of the game – the “Reacting to the Past” game, where students become characters from the past to learn important moments in history.
Role-playing games are enjoying a resurgence of popularity at Georgia College. At least five professors used some form of Reacting to the Past this fall. Three have developed their own mini-games. One, Dr. Peggy Elliott, was first in the country to conduct a Reacting game entirely in French. And eight faculty will attend a Reacting winter conference in January at the University of Georgia.
Only 53 or 1% of higher-education schools belong to the Reacting to the Past Consortium. Georgia College is one of them.
“It’s going through a bit of a renaissance,” said Dr. Steven Elliott-Gower, director of the Honors Program and longtime advocate of using Reacting games to teach.
“It really lends itself nicely to the liberal arts mission,” he said. “It’s very interdisciplinary in nature and uses history, rhetoric, philosophy, politics, science.”
Thomas first played Reacting in Dr. James Schiffman’s History of Broadcasting class. Schiffman has created his own game, which he hopes to publish, about FCC hearings on broadcast monopoly in the late 1930’s.
Thomas played NBC’s powerful tycoon, David Sarnoff, and got into yelling matches with other players. He took the game outside the classroom, smooth talking undecided players into voting his way.
“This was a challenge for me,” Thomas said, “because I was against some of Sarnoff’s ideology. I believe he had a monopoly on chain broadcasting. But I had to change my mindset to become Sarnoff. All the students did this, and that’s why the game felt so real.”
“It felt like Christian had left the room, and I was now my character,” he said. “I wanted the votes badly, and the only way to get them was to become that person.”
Thomas enjoyed the game so much, he volunteered this semester to come back and play President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Schiffman’s course. This time, he couldn’t speak in class but fought Sarnoff behind the scenes.
“This game is extremely effective,” the mass communication major said. “It forces students to learn about a certain time period that was a turning point in history. I believe I learned more about the television industry through this game, than I would taking a whole semester on the subject.”
More than 300 colleges and universities – about one in 20 – use role-playing games, according to Reacting to the Past’s website. It was first created in the late 1990s by Mark C. Carnes of Barnard University, who wanted to wake up and engage bored students. Today, there are 18 published games and more than 20 in development. Games typically last six weeks but can take two weeks or one day.
Students make speeches, basing their positions on real facts and primary texts written by historical giants like Plato, Aristotle, Edmund Burke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Margaret Sanger, Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud.
One side wins, the other loses. That’s often a big motivator to do extra research and learn the material. Students are no longer reading history but living it. They might dress in togas for the Athens game, when Socrates expressed concerns about democracy as a new form of government. They fight about women’s and worker rights in the Greenwich Village game and debate each other during the trials of Socrates or Galileo. Students can play Henry VIII or Sir Thomas More in the Reformation Parliament game.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Elliott-Gower said. “It’s what I call ‘dangerously engaging,’ because students really get into it. They spend so much time on it, and they can really get creative. They get emotionally involved in their roles, and their characters can get quite upset if things don’t turn out as they hoped.”
Dr. William Risch used Reacting’s French Revolution game for the first time this semester in his “Seeing Like a State” course. The game teaches effective communication and teamwork, he said, turning students into leaders who are more empathetic and take responsibility for their actions.
Dr. Amy Burt also used Reacting for the first time this semester in her “We the People” course. Her class played the Greenwich Village game, about suffrage and labor rights and what it means to live in a free society.
“I’ve taught this class in a variety of different ways,” said Burt, before the game began. “I want my students to have a bit of ‘buy-in.’ I want them to get excited. I want this to light a spark. This gives them the opportunity to go off-the-road with critical thinking – so I’m hoping something wonderful will happen.”
Shy students often find their courage playing Reacting games. One student was terrified to speak in public, Dr. Peggy Elliott said, but ended up voting Marquis de Lafayette out of office and taking his place during the 1789 National Assembly in France.
Elliott uses the French Revolution game to teach classes like French Culture and Civilization, where one student is King Louis XVI and others are lords, moderates, Jacobins or commoners with no voice in creating the new French constitution.
Last fall, junior special education major Serena Odeh was one of those voiceless members of the crowd. The experience is not something she’ll forget.
“At first, I was frustrated, because the other members of my team were too shy to get into their characters,” Odeh said. “I was really excited about my role, because I love fighting for justice. I took the initiative to really get into my character, hoping the rest would follow. Eventually, they did.”
Odeh and the commoners did everything they could to disrupt the government. They banged on tables. They played recordings of a large, yelling crowd.
“I personally had to do a lot of research about the time period and factors that affected the characters’ decisions,” Odeh said. “It’s almost like conducting a research paper without writing the paper. It’s an interactive, engaging way to learn about history.”
Students get roll sheets about their character’s background and beliefs. Unbeknownst to their peers, some get secret objectives. And many play “indeterminists,” who haven’t made up their minds and can be swayed and bribed to one side or another. Often, it’s the flip-flopping indeterminists who help win a cause.
But, sometimes, it simply comes down to fate – and roll of the dice.
Game outcomes can be entirely different than what happened in history. King Louis XVI doesn’t always get beheaded, for example. His monarchy can be reinstated with the help of Austrian troops that put down the crowd’s revolt. An emperor or prime minister might decide to use their powers and banish or execute someone.
It’s this ability to affect history that makes Reacting fun and effective. But it’s important to spend time in class after the game, Elliott-Gower said, going over what really happened. That debriefing brings role-playing full circle.
“In a regular history class, you’ve got a massive 400-page textbook, and you read and discuss, read and discuss, test, test, test,” Elliott-Gower said.
“In a Reacting game, you’re not going to cover all that material. But you’re going to cover it more deeply and in a much more engaging way,” he said. “Reacting to the Past really fits in with our commitment to give transformational experiences.”