Report from the 2017 Reacting to the Past winter conference held at the University of Georgia, January 13-14, 2017.
by Carrie Klaus, Dean of the Faculty, and Professor of Modern Languages, French, and Allison Roehling, Assistant Professor of Economics and Management
The Reacting to the Past (“Reacting”) game-based curriculum, which has been around since the late 1990s, is credited with enhancing student engagement and skills in teamwork, critical thinking, oral communication, problem-solving, and integrative learning . At the Reacting winter conference held at the University of Georgia in January, faculty and administrators experienced a Reacting game first-hand and spoke with instructors with experience teaching with Reacting across the country, as well as with former student participants. We both played the game Patriots, Loyalists & Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776. Allison was a member of the patriot faction, a rural farmer elected to the Provincial Congress in New York to address issues of mob violence in her county. Carrie was a loyalist, a tea merchant fallen on hard times because of non-importation policies who wanted to regularize trade again.
Both of us found the pedagogy engaging. We were eager for each game session, during which we would bring forth, hear, and vote on proposals put before the Provincial Congress with the looming threat of a mob attack by non-voting players, i.e., women, slaves, and landless laborers. Experienced instructors shared reports of students asking for additional class sessions, sometimes in the early morning if it was the only time all participants were available.
Reacting games build a sense of community among participants. Mark Carnes, Executive Director of the Reacting Consortium and Professor of History at Barnard College, author of Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College (Harvard UP, 2014), commented in his keynote address that by playing the games, “students who are loners get plugged into existing networks and cliques are broken apart.” Similarly, Peter Felten, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning and Professor of History at Elon College, and co-author of Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education (Johns Hopkins UP, 2014), stressed that the games foster a sense of belonging among students that is critical to their persistence and success. It was striking to hear the enthusiasm about Reacting expressed by faculty members teaching at institutions enrolling many first-generation and/or non-traditional students and from hispanic-serving and military-serving institutions. Former student participants were as enthusiastic as the faculty; one student who had returned to college after a significant personal crisis credited the game he played during the first semester of his return with keeping him in college. These comments point to the promise of Reacting as inclusive pedagogy.
Indeed, Reacting games produce a student-centered classroom and may be active learning at its best. However, there are several drawbacks to Reacting games that give us pause. First, inclusive pedagogy is not the same as an inclusive classroom. Despite their innovative approach, many of the games, such as the one we played, do not challenge traditional western views of history centered upon, for example, white male privilege. Although the game titled Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman focuses on women’s suffrage in the United States and includes more female roles than male, others, such as Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945, include no female roles and do not address gender. “Patches” for some of these games can apparently be found online, such as women’s roles that have been written for the India game. Games currently in development engage with issues of race, including Frederick Douglass, Slavery, Abolitionism and The Constitution, 1845, a game some participants in the conference had played, and Montgomery 1956: White Supremacy, Civil Rights, and the Bus Boycott, a game that is still a “Prototype,” but that was played in October 2016 at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
Second, in the game we played, the outcome of votes was almost always determined by characters’ self-interests and by deals that had been made behind the scenes rather than by ideas. Thus, although the game may well reflect how these events truly transpired, it removes incentives for students to read primary and secondary sources closely and to use these sources in argumentation. With individual interests driving results, Reacting games emphasize that strategic decisions are based on personal and social implications rather than on ideological motivations, theories, etc., i.e., the traditional components of course content. While for some classes an emphasis on social history may be appropriate or even desired, organizers acknowledged that Reacting games are not for every class and should be adopted only after careful consideration of whether the game aligns with an instructor’s course objectives. An instructor needs to consider learning outcomes carefully and how to encourage students, through the design of writing and speaking assignments, to engage with sources and ideas.
Finally, the most common concerns among instructors are that Reacting games focus on skills development at the expense of content coverage and that they require a significant investment of time both in and outside the classroom. The majority of available Reacting games take 3-4 weeks to complete. These learning outcomes and the time commitment required suggest that the games may be most appropriate in courses seeking to develop students’ core competencies (Q, S/L, W), first-year seminars, and electives.
All that said, Reacting is an innovative pedagogy that is well worth exploring. While most frequent users of the games are historians and other faculty teaching courses in the humanities, newer games offer promising options for faculty in the social sciences and STEM. Among these are a set of microgames funded by the National Science Foundation that can be played in 2-4 days, requiring less sacrifice of content. Examples of these games include London 1854: Cesspits, Cholera, and Conflict over the Broad Street Pump, a game in development that could be fascinating in a course in Global Health; Ways and Means, 1935: Debating the Social Security Act through Math, a game designed by mathematicians; European Response to SO2 Pollution, 1984; and The Pluto Debate: The International Astronomical Union Defines a Planet.
Ultimately, Reacting games are specific combinations of tools enabling students to take charge of the classroom. Many of us already incorporate some of these tools into our teaching, e.g., debates, role playing, simulation, etc. The Reacting pedagogy may shed light on how we can improve our methods of classroom engagement and generate further conversation on how to motivate students to be more active in their education. Experiencing a Reacting game first-hand can give faculty ideas on how to develop these strategies even further, without requiring adoption of a full game. Faculty interested in learning more should consider attending the annual faculty institute held each summer at Barnard College in New York (next scheduled for June 8-11, 2017) or a future winter or regional conference. There are also many resources available to instructors online as well as an active support group in the Reacting Facebook “Faculty Lounge.”
 Results are from a survey of faculty conducted by John Burney of Doane University in spring 2013.