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“You’re gonna make us do weird, role-playing games?”

Note: this piece is the first of a four-part roundtable on Reacting to the Past that will be featured on Process this week.

Mark C. Carnes, formerly Co-General Editor of the American National Biography, teaches history at Barnard College, Columbia University.  He is also executive director of the Reacting Consortium.  Youtube videos of Reacting classes can be found here.

Many students, on first learning about Reacting to the Past, are skeptical.

So are historians, and for good reason.  Reacting is a radically different way of teaching.  It consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles based on classic texts:  patriots and loyalists in New York City in 1775, pondering Locke and Paine; secessionists and unionists in Kentucky in 1861, parsing the U. S. Constitution. Students run classes; instructors become Gamemasters.

Historians are constitutionally wary of The Next New Thing:  most of us have learned that pedagogical fads come and, mercifully, they go.  How I happened to succumb to such a strange pedagogy is another story, and one I’ve told elsewhere (Minds on Fire:  How Role-Immersion Games Transform College, Harvard, 2014). But I’ve been struck by the scores of historians who tell me that they have already done “something” like Reacting.  And always they report that their role-playing simulation had worked well. They add that they didn’t take it “this far.”

But taking it farther makes all the difference.  A Reacting game, when published, is a substantial intellectual edifice, consisting of from 200,000–300,000 words of historical background, rules, advisories, role packets, and instructor guidance.  It may occupy a month of class time, and this makes a difference, too.  Not until the second or third week do students fully inhabit their roles and come to believe, at some imaginative level, what they are saying.  And that’s when they do wonderful things.  Two examples:

A first-year student playing Emma Goldman in a game on radical labor and woman suffrage in New York in 1913 gave an impassioned defense of anarchism that left her classmates speechless. Only later did I learn that this student was the granddaughter of one famously conservative president and niece of the conservative who then occupied the White House.  Reacting, she said, had shown her how to “look at our society through the lenses of other perspectives.”

A student from the Congo whose people had been attacked by rebel troopswas assigned the role of John Ross, chief of the Cherokee nation, in a game set in Georgia in 1835.  Her victory objective was to oppose removal west of the Mississippi.  Confronted with the “exact same situation” that had driven her family from the Congo, this shy student knitted her faction, though burdened with several slackers, into an effective team.  She then became active in student government and was named to lead a campus diversity initiative.

A Reacting game begins with a setup phase, usually consisting of two or three classes.  For The Trial of Anne Hutchinson, for example, students read the gamebook (mostly written by Michael Winship), which sets out the historical and theological context, outlines the rules of the game, provides an introduction to the Christian Bible, and includes documents such as John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” illustrative conversion narratives, and the transcript of the 1637 trial.  In class, the instructor lectures or leads discussions on these materials. (Gamebooks for published games are available from W. W. Norton)

At the end of the second setup class, the instructor distributes detailed role packets.  (The packet for Winthrop, for example, is 25 pages long.) Some professors distribute the roles randomly; others prefer to assign the main roles to the strongest students. In addition to the two major factions, another dozen or so students are assigned roles that introduce new layers of indeterminacy and complexity.  Part of the third class is devoted to meetings of the factions (which often strategize endlessly outside of class).

The game itself begins with the fourth class, when the instructor retreats to the back of the room and functions as behind-the-scenes guide.  The First Pastor takes charge by delivering a sermon reflecting the orthodox position. Hutchinsonians show why it is wrong.  Then some players seek admission to the Church—and the political influence that comes with membership.  Church members scrutinize these conversion narratives.  Does the petitioner reflect Hutchinsonian or Winthropian theological bias? Is his profession of faith a smokescreen for pecuniary or political gain?  The game eventually shifts to the General Court, where theological matters become entangled with issues of gender, wage and price controls, the threat of Indian attack, and relations with the king in London and radical Protestants in Scotland.  Instructors grade—swiftly—the flood of written work:  sermons, critiques of sermons, conversion narratives, drafts of laws, speeches on various matters, and so on.

The Hutchinson game reaches its culmination during class ten (the sixth of the game phase). Sometimes the General Court acquits Hutchinson or rescinds Winthrop’s wage and price controls. Such deviations from history highlight the issue of contingency, a major element of the final “post-mortem” discussion: “Why did our game diverge from history?”

If a Reacting game jumps the historical tracks early on, however, the subsequent sessions become hopelessly weird.  If delegates to the Constitutional Convention vote to retain the Articles of Confederation or to establish a monarchy, students won’t learn much about the Constitution.  That’s why all Reacting games undergo from three to eight years of development, including dozens of test-plays. These reveal potential implausibility, which designers fix by adding new rules and roles. That’s why the games are so large. If the Gamemaster intervenes frequently, students lose their sense of agency. Thus most of the guidance must be embedded in the game itself.

Reacting games “work” because most students get drawn deeply into their roles and establish close ties to their faction.  Occasionally, however, an entire faction may flop.  For example, if students who are supposed to rescind Governor Winthrop’s controls on wages and prices fail to speak up, the subject will never be voiced:  the entire class will fail to perceive the intersection of theological and economic issues. Some Gamemasters forestall this danger by distributing weak students among multiple factions; other instructors function partly as cheerleaders, meeting with factions outside of class to spur them on.

Usually, however, Reacting games naturally generate extraordinary levels of student engagement.  Last spring, for example:

Three students attended and spoke in every session of Pat Coby’s Reacting class at Smith College.  Each also completed 20 pages of written work—even though they were not enrolled in the course;

A freak snowstorm shut down the University of Texas at Austin; but Julie Casey’s Reacting students were dismayed: “Seriously, this is the one time I’m upset about a snow day,” a junior reported on the class’s Facebook page.  The students arranged to meet at an off-campus conference center;

During the final week of a Reacting game set during the Second Crusade, Martina Saltamacchia of the University of Nebraska in Omaha mentioned that an upcoming conference of medievalists in St. Louis featured several panels on the subject.  Ten of her students pleaded to attend. Then they raised the funds for registration and the trip, participated in the sessions, button-holed the presenters afterwards, and so impressed Adrian Boas, the keynote speaker, that he offered to pay their food and lodging to work on his excavation at the Montfort Castle. Last summer, three of Saltamacchia’s students spent the summer near the Sea of Galilee.

Teaching students such as these is a delight, especially for historians who have grown weary of pulling hard against the strong undertow of student apathy.  That’s a major reason why Reacting has spread to 350 colleges and universities during the past decade.  This has resulted in the establishment of the Reacting Consortium, hosted by Barnard College.  The board of the Reacting Consortium manages the website, runs workshops and conferences, and, through an Editorial Board and a Publications Committee, supervises the development and eventual publication of over sixty Reacting games ( (Ten games have been published; another 25 can be downloaded from the game library; another 50 prototypes are available from the authors.) All materials, except for student copies of the published games, are freely available to faculty at Instructor Resources).

Which issues constitute a suitable game is hard to determine.  Many believe that a Reacting game must grow out of debates over important ideas.  But sometimes this can be difficult.  A game has long been in development on the 1973 American Psychiatric Association’s identification of “homosexuality” as a “mental disorder.”  Some instructors worry that asking students to articulate the APA’s traditional stand is to promote a form of hate speech; others, including gay and lesbian rights activists, want students to confront the stark reality of the historical context of their movement.  The Editorial Board must ultimately decide such matters.

Reacting will never replace traditional pedagogies.  Reacting games cover less chronological terrain than lectures; and probably the games are less effective at instilling the analytical detachment that is a prerequisite for solid scholarship.  On the other hand, it’s hard to learn a subject if you don’t care about it.

Interested historians should consider attending a Reacting workshop, where professors play a mini-version of a Reacting game. “I am not sure I have ever had a deeper learning experience,” James Lang wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“On Being Nehru for Two Days”). Or just visit a Reacting class, where instructors are eager to show off impassioned students who, like their teacher, have forgotten their skepticism.

But be forewarned:  Many skeptics become Reacting’s biggest proponents.