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CHAIN REACTIONS

A Reacting Blog

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  • April 07, 2022 12:02 PM | Riley Daugherty (Administrator)

     By: Mark C. Carnes 

    Professor of History
    Barnard College


    (This is a shortened version of the blog post, go to the Brilliancy Prize Page to see the extended version) 

    The Brilliancy Prize, the first major award of the Reacting to the Past program, takes its name from a chess tournament in New York City in 1876. The match pitted two of the finest players in the world: Henry Bird, an English accountant, and James Mason, an Irish-born American journalist. Siegfried Leiders, a chess enthusiast and Broadway restaurateur, offered a silver cup for the most “beautiful play” during the tournament. Bird won the “brilliancy prize”--as it came to be known--after he sacrificed his queen to gain a winning positional advantage. (Here’s that remarkable game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jtuz4LioR78).  Soon most chess tournaments featured brilliancy prizes that celebrated imaginative play over workmanlike victory. The message was clear: Winning isn’t everything: we cherish creative genius.

    During the 20th century, however, chess grandmasters increasingly aspired to precise play rather than flamboyance. Brilliancy prizes were offered less frequently. Then they faded away entirely, remembered--if at all--as a relic of an amusingly swashbuckling era of chess.

    So why did the Reacting Consortium resurrect the concept?

    Because the Reacting to the Past pedagogy is fundamentally an exercise in imagination. Reacting obliges students to transcend what they know, to enter worlds far different from their own, to advance ideas they may have never imagined--much less articulated or defended. And because Reacting is meant to inspire imagination, a Reacting game should itself embody imaginative exuberance. The Brilliancy Prize encourages game designers to do more than build solid intellectual structures; it inspires them to find ways to make the experience unforgettable and astonishing, to entice students into working harder by losing themselves in play.

    An early and indisputable example of this transformative brilliance was--is--the “post-mortem” session of Mary Jane Treacy’s Greenwich Village, 1913. During the game, radical labor leaders and woman suffragists contend to win over the Bohemian artists, writers, and philosophers of Greenwich Village--the “influencers” of their time. The game seemingly ends in 1913. But at the outset of the next, “post-mortem” class, set in 1917, students are informed that the game is not over: they must resume it, playing the same roles as before, but this time under entirely new conditions: the United States is at war, and labor leaders, suffragists, and everyone else must rethink their positions entirely. Treacy’s ingenious stratagem teaches students that the rules of life change--unexpectedly and profoundly: real-life never achieves easy resolution.

    Reacting is predicated on one major element of subversion. After setting up the game and introducing its philosophical underpinnings, the instructor sits in the back of the room, shuts up, and becomes a GM (a gamemaster, or game manager) while students are transformed into legislators, kings, and religious leaders who take charge of the classroom. Students do the talking, make the crucial decisions, and change the course of history; the instructor, though important behind the scenes, has a visibly diminutive role.

    Reacting game designers have found other ways to impart subversive elements to the games. Treacy’s Greenwich Village “post-mortem” switch-a-roo gave ostensible losers a chance to reverse the outcome of the earlier game. The French Revolution game employs a similar subversion. Set during the French revolution in Paris in 1791, most students are members of the National Assembly. But some students play roles as the “section leaders” of Paris who cannot vote in the Assembly. Unbeknownst to the members of the Assembly, however, the section leaders possess the power to summon the pent-up anger of the sans-culottes of Paris to de-stabilize the city, driving conservative delegates from Paris (and France). Once the “section leaders” have engaged in mob action, the game suddenly shifts from being a debate on issues of policy to an exploration of the merits of revolutionary violence. The outcome is very much in doubt.

    Game designers have access to an infinite range of subversive elements in game design. That’s because human beings are irrepressibly inventive at getting themselves into messes. Game designers, by trying to mimic that whacky historical reality, inevitably happen upon ingenious game mechanics.

    The first Reacting Brilliancy Prize (2019) was awarded to Martha Attridge Bufton, Interdisciplinary Studies Librarian at Carleton University, and Dr. Pamela J. Walker, Professor of History at Carleton University. Butfton and Walker recognized that students playing the Greenwich Village game confronted an unusual challenge:  The game shifted swiftly--it was filled with surprises--and students needed to find materials quickly to write papers and give oral presentations. They needed ready access to a research library. But rather than wait for students to find their way to the library, Bufton and Walker wrote a new role--based on an actual Bohemian librarian--and had Bufton take on the role in the classroom. Students, who often regard librarians as forbidding custodians of propriety, came to regard Player Bufton as a teammate they could lean on for support.

    The second Brilliancy Prize (2020) went to Terri Nelson, a professor of French language and culture at California State University at San Bernardino. When the pandemic thrust hundreds of Reacting instructors into Zoom classrooms, Nelson, almost overnight, figured out how to take many different in-class Reacting game elements and convert them to online play. She subverted the assumption, shared by myself and many others, that Reacting was an active-learning pedagogy that could only be played in a classroom.

    The 2021 Brilliancy Prize was awarded to historians John Giebfried and Kyle C. Lincoln for their ingenious mechanics in Remaking of the Modern World, 1204, based on the Fourth Crusade. The game reaches a climax during the siege of Constantinople, when each player must relinquish their “factional” identity and independently decide on their character’s next action, chosen from a list of categories such as violence, piety, plunder, and sacrilege. These decisions are entered into a scoring formula that determines the overall outcome of the siege. This mechanism encourages student accountability and moves the game to an exciting and plausible conclusion. After the siege, moreover, the game is not over. Student-players, having made decisions, acquire “Nefa” points, which measure “infamy”--actions that may alienate Greek and Bulgarian subjects. Those who won the siege may now face a debilitating backlash. Students learn that every action we take has consequences, some of them unforeseen.

    The winners of the Reacting Brilliancy Prize, in short, are worthy heirs to Henry Bird, a mild-mannered and very proper English accountant, who rocked the chess world by casually tossing away his queen to ensure that his remaining pieces worked together more effectively throughout the board. What glorious--and subversive--audacity!


    About the Author
    Mark C. Carnes, Professor of History, joined the Barnard faculty in 1982. His academic specialty is modern American history and pedagogy. His courses include The United States, 1940-1975, and several courses featuring the Reacting to the Past pedagogy, which he pioneered in 1995. Professor Carnes served as General Co-Editor (with John Garraty) of the 24-volume American National Biography. He is Executive Director of the Reacting Consortium, which directs the Reacting to the Past pedagogical initiative, now used at over 400 colleges and universities. His most recent book is Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College (Harvard University Press, 2014). 






  • February 18, 2022 11:15 PM | Anonymous


    By Nick Proctor, Chair of the Reacting Editorial Board 

    During the fall and into the winter, most of the work of the Reacting Editorial Board has been focused on the transition to publishing all of our full-length games with University of North Carolina Press. Our new arrangement offers several advantages including:

    ·  Lower prices for Gamebooks
    ·  Ebooks for every title
    ·  More fully integrated editorial process
    ·  The Reacting Consortium will host all Role Sheets and IMs, allowing these to be “living documents” that authors can change and update
    ·  Publishing with a university press may aid some authors with promotion and tenure
    ·   More generous royalties for authors and the Reacting Consortium

    In addition to a mass of paperwork, the transition has involved making some tweaks to the templates for all the game materials, developing a universal style sheet that improves accessibility, and contemplating ways in which our games might better deal with particularly sensitive issues. As a consequence, some of the Norton and RC Press games will go into new editions fairly quickly. Others, particularly those that were originally published by Pearson, need significant editing. As a stopgap, UNCP will provide copies of all existing games under new covers, but authors are working hard to bring forward significantly revised editions of old chestnuts like Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945, and The Trial of Anne Hutchinson: Liberty, Law, and Intolerance in Puritan New England. Mark Carnes is at the center of his efforts. He is being assisted by a variety of co-authors who promise to bring exciting new dimensions to these well-established titles.

    In addition to transitioning existing games to UNCP, three new games should come out in time for spring 2023 courses. These are:

    ·  Democracy in Crisis: Weimar Germany, 1929-32
    ·  Memory and Monument Building: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1980-1982
    ·  A new, significantly expanded edition of Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman 

    We anticipate that other new titles will follow. This list is particularly exciting because all but one of the authors of these games are new to the series. These include:

    ·   The Crisis of Catiline: Rome, 63 BC
    ·   Radical Reformation: Wrestling with Religion in Augsburg, 1530-1534  
    ·   Korea at the Crossroads of Civilizations: Confucianism, Westernization, and the 1894 Kabo Reforms
    ·   The Prado Museum's Second Expansion: The Diverse Art of the Spanish-Speaking World
    ·    Literary Journals, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy in St. Petersburg, 1877
    ·   Argentina, 1985: Contested Memories 
    ·   Watergate, 1973-74 

    We appreciate the patience of these authors. Some of their games have been kept in a holding pattern while we worked out details with UNCP. They will not need to wait until all of the previously published games are in print. Instead, we will begin moving them into the production process as soon it is possible to do so. Hopefully, all or most of them will be available for fall of 2023.

    Finally, two games that are often used by members of the community, Bacon's Rebellion and the Birth of American Racism, 1676, and 1349: Plague Comes to Norwich, are nearing approval for publication.


  • January 07, 2022 7:14 AM | Anonymous


    by: Jace Weaver

    Reacting to the Past’s new publishing agreement with the University of North Carolina Press is the culmination of years of dedicated work by a number of people both on the side of the Reacting Consortium and UNCP. Reacting enjoyed many years of publishing with W.W. Norton, which stepped in after Pearson abandoned us. Their books from Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman and Patriots, Loyalists, and the Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776 through Japan, 1941: Between Pan-Asianism and the West were high quality publications that literally saved Reacting. As with any parting, there is necessarily sorrow. We are pleased, however, that we will remain in partnership with W. W. Norton on the Flashpoints series of short games.

    A change nonetheless became necessary. Financially, the relationship with Norton became unsustainable, if Reacting itself was to be financially sustainable. The new publishing arrangement with UNCP offers many advantages to both Reacting and its authors. It will offer Reacting a better financial return, helping secure its solvency into the future. UNCP is one of the oldest and most respected university presses in the country. Reacting authors will have an academic press publication on their CVs to aid in promotion and tenure. Though there will be inevitable changes, UNCP publishes quality books that will serve both our authors and instructors.

    In the short run, there will be additional work for both authors and those of us in Reacting management and administration. On a personal note, this includes for my co-author Laura Adams Weaver and myself. Our book, Red Clay, 1835: Cherokee Removal and the Meaning of Sovereignty was published by Norton in 2017. Everyone at Reacting and UNCP, however, are working hard to ensure there is no disruption of service for instructors using Reacting. Once this transition period is past, I am confident the benefits will outweigh any current hardships. We look forward to a fruitful relationship with University of North Carolina Press for years to come.

    Read the original press release on our new partnership with UNC Press here, and additional thoughts and updates from Nick Proctor, Reacting Editorial Board Chair

  • December 09, 2021 3:01 PM | Anonymous

    By: Vincent Thibeault
    Professeur de Philosophie
    Collège André-Grasset


    I discovered Reacting to the Past pedagogy while doing research for my college on gamification and education. I was looking for a way to energize my philosophy courses, and decided to see whether using games in the classroom would work. I attended the Serious Play conference in Montreal in 2019 and took part in a game demonstration with Tony Crider, where we had to decide on the status of Pluto. I was taken aback by the energy level that I felt in that workshop. After trying out different ways to gamify my class, I had the feeling that, right then,I had stumbled upon a very promising teaching pedagogy. Maybe that was what I was looking for: a new and almost magical way of teaching that would take my classes to another level. I had to try it. 

    I consulted the Reacting Consortium website and was thrilled to see the plethora of games offered. Understandably, several of them were centered on the history of the United States, but quite a few were more internationally-minded, which was more relatable for my target audience. I presented the pedagogy to my colleague and research partner Frédérique Desharnais, who, despite being skeptical at the beginning about gamification, decided to join the project, even if it meant quite a bit of work implementing it in our classrooms. 

    The Quebec CEGEP education curriculum requires an “Ethics and politics” class be taught,  and we decided to integrate in “The Needs of Others”, a Reacting scenario based on the Rwandan crisis of 199,4 where players reproduce the UN Security Council and must debate what to do. The game spotlighted the French-Canadian general Romeo Dallaire and did not demand an extensive knowledge of the American constitution.

    Nothing was in French, so we needed to translate most of it, which seemed at first an incredibly demanding feat as we were also teaching almost full time. We asked the author of the game, Kelly McFall, if we could translate his book, and he graciously agreed. We contacted the editor and publisher, and asked if we could use the translations legally by paying a fee per student, and they generously accepted as well. The cost was then included in the printed textbook price paid by the students.

    We did not have the funding to pay a professional translator, and we wondered if achieving our goal was even possible. However, after doing some research online, we discovered the European platform deepl.com, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to translate texts. The quality of the translation was impressive, and, despite having to carefully reread and rework the texts to correct mistakes, a large part of the work was done painlessly and automatically. This program allowed us to complete the translations at a rate that was unimaginable at the start of the project. 

    Between the textbooks, the handouts and the role sheets, translating all the material involved in a Reacting game was quite time-consuming, even with the help of AI. We had to scan the book, extract the text via Adobe Acrobat Reader, put it in a word document, and readjust the layout. We then passed it through the Deepl translating service and reviewed everything carefully. For the Core Text sections, most were already available in French online, so we just made sure we used the right versions.

     After all this work, the time finally came for my first Reacting class in the second part of the winter semester 2020.  Then, the Covid pandemic started, colleges in Montreal had to move to 100% online, and the project was in jeopardy. Thankfully, with the help of fast internet, reliable wifi and the community of the Facebook group Reacting Faculty Lounge, I managed to get enough support to move everything online on Zoom and Slack. 

    At the end of the semester, while many of my colleagues were complaining about the low quality of online teaching, I had found a very effective pedagogy that adapted to online learning marvelously. I received some of the most positive comments of my career from students who really enjoyed the intensity and dramatic qualities of Reacting. 

    Since then, Frédérique and I have been busy translating other games. So far, alongside “The Needs of Others,” we have translated “Threshold to Democracy,” “Food or Famine 2002,” and “Enlightenment in Crisis.” We are sharing these translations with the Reacting Consortium community, and you can find them all here. We are glad to share this ground-breaking pedagogy.


    About the Author
    Vincent Thibeault obtained his master's degree from the University of Montreal and has been teaching philosophy at Collège André-Grasset in Montreal, Canada, since 2017. He realized that he needed to change direction within his own teaching practice and explore other pedagogical methods to engage with his students on a deeper level. The integration of technology in education and the gamification of teaching are his most recent areas of interest in pedagogy. He uses simulations from the Reacting to the Past series in the classroom, a method which he hopes to introduce and promote within the French speaking world of education.


    Blog Author Questionnaire
    One word to describe faculty: Cooperative
    Two words to describe your school: Innovative, Open-minded
    Three words to describe students: Passionate, Courageous, Enthusiastic 
    Four words to describe favorite games: Competitive, Complex, Strategic, Intense 
    Five words to describe Reacting: Dramatic, Immersive, Interactive, Nail-biting, Revolutionary




  • October 13, 2021 5:26 PM | Anonymous


    By: Dr. John Giebfried
    Assistant Professor of History
    East Georgia State College


    A sociology professor with a fascination for LARPing, a young history professor with a decade of experience as a high school debate coach in inner-city Chicago, an English professor desperately looking for a way to make Freshman Composition more interesting, and a former Southern Baptist preacher who left the pulpit to become a history professor all log onto a Zoom meeting. Is this a joke? Maybe if they had walked into a bar. But this last semester it was a Faculty Learning Community.

    What drew all these people together? Well, pestering emails from me, but also the promise of learning about Reacting to the Past (RTTP) as a way to improve their teaching toolboxes.

    I teach at East Georgia State College, a liberal arts transfer college in rural south Georgia that is part of the University of Georgia system. Most of our students come from disadvantaged rural backgrounds. Some are seeking associate degrees; most, especially on my home campus in Statesboro, are looking to prove themselves here before transferring to Georgia Southern University, the large state university up the street from us.

    In the fall of 2020, I was selected as one of the Chancellor’s Learning Scholars for East Georgia State College. The Chancellor’s Learning Scholars program began in 2018, when the University System of Georgia created it as a system-wide investment in student success. The system selects two to four instructors from each state college or university to facilitate Faculty Learning Communities on their campuses. These Faculty Learning Communities “explore specific teaching topics in sustained, meaningful conversations about teaching and learning with supportive colleagues and peers.”

    Perhaps unsurprisingly - considering I am writing this for a blog on the Reacting Consortium’s website - I chose to run my Faculty Learning Community about Reacting to the Past.

    Now, I know not every institution has a program exactly like the Faculty Learning Communities we have in Georgia, but faculty seminars and peer learning groups are common enough that I believe my experience over this last year can serve as a model for other faculty members. At the very least, I hope I can provide suggestions for what to do, or, perhaps, what not to do.

    Suggestion #1: Find a Common Reading

    Most Faculty Learning Communities are based around a shared book. Ours was no exception. When it came to picking a book, however, we had an easy choice: Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. 

    For those unfamiliar with it, the book is not exactly a history of the Reacting to the Past pedagogy. Instead, it is Carnes’ diagnosis of the problems in higher education and his passionate case for Reacting as the solution to that problem. A central argument of the book is that “subversive play” is one of the strongest human motivators and that the Reacting pedagogy can tap into that concept to open up students’ minds in manifold and distinctive ways.

    The best part of the book is that it follows the classic dictum of “show – don’t tell.” The book is full of compelling stories from students that make it effortlessly relatable. For example, the story of the young Muslim woman assigned the role of David Ben-Gurion in a Reacting game about pre-WWII mandatory Palestine especially resonated with me, having lived in Israel several years ago. Other members of my Faculty Learning Community locked onto different stories, but everyone found two or three that really stuck with them long after they put the book down.

    It was also surprising to realize that the challenges we face with student distraction, disinterest, and lack of preparation, were just as prevalent in an era before smartphones and at an elite school like Barnard College. We all related viscerally to Carnes’ struggle to get students to discuss Plato’s Republic.

    In terms of organization, the book is divided into two parts. The first three chapters lay out Carnes’ diagnosis and proposed solution for the problems of higher education. The rest of the book looks at some of the benefits that Reacting can bring to the classroom, from improving critical thinking, to teaching leadership, to inculcating empathy. While reading the first three chapters is crucial for everyone, with our time at the end of the semester was running low - there were five of us, with five chapters to go and a lot of finals to grade, I found that I could assign one of the latter chapters to each of the faculty members in the group, and then have them report back to the group about the chapter.

    I will note that while I strongly recommend Minds on Fire, if you are leading a group that has experience with Reacting to the Past, or has more of a desire to create and explore, I have heard of such groups reading Nicolas Proctor’s Reacting to the Past Game Designer's Handbook. That might be another option to consider.

    Suggestion #2: Have a Memorable First Session

    In many ways, “show – don’t tell” was the motto of my Faculty Learning Community. I wanted to make sure I hooked everyone early, so rather than assign part of Minds on Fire for the first week I decided that they should experience Reacting (or something close to it) on the first day.

    There were many options to consider - I know many have been introduced to Reacting through Athens Besieged or the shortened version of French Revolution. However, I felt that Mary Beth Looney’s Bomb the Church (now Monumental Consequence) game was ideal because I had such a mixed group of specialties in my group. The fact that the game is set in an indistinct time and place with stock character archetypes, like “The Priest” or “The Widowed Mother”, can make it more relatable and accessible to those without any background in the history of, for example, the Peloponnesian War or the French Revolution.

    As I do with students at the start of the semester, I gave my group members no warning that this was coming. I simply opened the group with the game prompt, gave them a character sheet and two minutes to read and think - then we went for it. Because we were a small group, I decided it was best to “play” myself, but I deliberately chose the closest thing the game has to a “neutral” role, so as not to affect the outcome too much. I also made the decision to give the faculty members characters that they could relate to – hence my former Baptist preacher became the town priest, and I assigned the role of the widowed mother to the English professor who was the only mom in our group (afterward, all agreed that assigning them a relatable role helped them get into the game). The game was close, and in the end, the town priest dramatically changed his vote to agree to bomb the church he had spent his life in service of, in order to save the lives of the townspeople he was also bound to serve.

    Afterward we had a great discussion about how much we agreed or disagreed with the choices of our characters and talked about the game’s most famous real-life analogy, the bombing of Monte Cassino during World War II. Overall, it proved a very effective introduction and let them get a taste of role-playing games before diving into Minds on Fire, which we began at our second meeting.

    Suggestion #3: Give Experiential Opportunities

    While that one initial opportunity to play Bomb the Church served as a good introduction, I felt that I should try to give my fellow faculty members the full classroom experience of Reacting during the semester, if possible.

    Cover of The Remaking of the Medieval World, 1204. Blue with some medieval text and drawingOne thing I did was to invite faculty to sit in on my classes not just as observers, but as participants. One professor, the abovementioned sociologist, joined my online Western Civilization class as we played The Remaking of the Medieval World, 1204: The Fourth Crusade, a game that I co-wrote with Dr. Kyle Lincoln. The game’s form helped logistically - we played the bulk of the game in a three-hour chunk over Zoom, but played the final part, the aftermath of the siege and sack of Constantinople, over Discord asynchronously. This meant that it was not as large of a commitment for the professor, as he didn’t have to sit in on two and a half weeks of classes.

    I assigned this professor an indeterminate role, Brother Barozzi of the Knights Templar, so that he wouldn’t unbalance any of the factions. As the professor played him, Barozzi tried in vain to get the crusade to Jerusalem and to accept the papally-mandated teachings on spiritual matters; despite his military prowess, he also failed to make it over the walls of the most fortified city in Christendom. In fact, the only student to make it over the walls with an armed contingent was playing not a knight, but a monk – the Cistercian abbot Martin of Parisis. This student later pushed his luck, put aside his monastic habit, and became the most powerful secular lord in the new crusader empire under Empress Anna. In turn, Empress Anna got the crusaders to recognize her, the twice-widowed former empress of Byzantium and daughter of the former King of France, as ruler of the empire in her own right.

    Speaking with the professor after the fact, he praised the students and the effect that the game had on them; now, we are working on plans to incorporate Reacting into his coursework going forward. I strongly recommend having faculty members in a group like this sit in or participate in actual classes, though I do suggest making them indeterminates. We noticed (not unsurprisingly) that in this case, students deferred to the professor, at least in not wanting to argue too vociferously – although the fact that he lost almost all the major votes suggests he did not tilt the game too much in his character’s favor.

    I also helped another professor, the Chicagoan debate coach who specializes in slavery and abolition in the 18th century, to add a game to his class for the Spring semester. During the first session of our Faculty Learning Community, I showed the contents of the Reacting Consortium’s digital library to the faculty members and pointed out games I thought would be of particular interest to them. Since the semester was already underway, this professor decided to add a game near the end of the semester. He chose to play The Fate of John Brown, 1859 by Bill Offutt, both because it was a shorter game (this necessitated the smallest number of changes to a syllabus already underway) and because John Brown was a character he found particularly historically compelling.

    I helped talk him through the game, how it worked, and what to expect. While I could not be there for the running of the game, since we teach at different campuses, the professor recapped the experience for the whole community at our next meeting. He spoke about how well it all went and expressed his hope to do this again next semester.

    Final Thoughts

    Overall, while I wish we could have met together in person, and not on Zoom (alas, pandemic regulations), the Faculty Learning Community was a great success. If you are an instructor looking to lead a learning community, reading group, or similar peer group, my advice is simply this: go for it! It’s a great experience and an opportunity to expand the footprint of Reacting on your campus. You can follow the ideas I described above or try your own thing. If you have ideas, try them out and write up the results for this blog! And keep one principle in mind: “show, don’t tell.” That’s the key to success.


    About the Author
    John Giebfried is a historian specializing in the Crusades and the Mongol Empire. He completed his PhD at Saint Louis University in 2015 examining the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade and Latin rule in Constantinople. He has served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's "Mobility, Empire and Cross Cultural Contacts in Mongol Eurasia" prosopography project and has taught at Saint Louis University, Webster University, and Georgia Southern University. John currently serves as an Assistant Professor of History at East Georgia State College. He is a co-author of The Remaking of the Medieval World, 1204: The Fourth Crusade


    Blog Author Questionnaire
    One word to describe faculty: Learners
    Two words to describe your school: Friendly, Transitional
    Three words to describe students: Full of Surprises
    Four words to describe favorite games: Raise difficult moral questions
    Five words to describe Reacting: Student-centered teaching done right!



  • September 10, 2021 4:40 PM | Anonymous


    By: Dr. Nicolas Proctor
    Professor of History and Chair of the Reacting Editorial Board

    Over the past ten years or so, I have had some interesting experiences with undergraduate student authors working on Reacting games.

    About eight years before WW Norton published Chicago 1968, I was teaching an upper-level historical game design seminar. The structure resembled a “reality” television show. Toward the beginning of the semester, each student pitched an idea for a game. A series of elimination rounds followed. In the end, the process yielded two designs. Teams of students then developed these into playable prototypes. Toward the end of the semester, we play-tested both of them.

    Dustin, a history major in his junior year, pitched a game about the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968. People liked the idea, so it advanced. I liked the idea too. One of my comments to Dustin was something like, “This could go the distance.”

    He and Emily, who joined the development team after her idea was eliminated, discovered an abundance of historical documents, interesting people, and intellectual collisions. This, accompanied by unstinting support from other students, allowed the game to go forward to the last stage. This meant that a team of a half dozen students came together to develop a working prototype.

    The genesis of the game was Dustin’s fascination with the Kennedy family and the possibility that Ted Kennedy could have become the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968. His was, in fact, the first role mentioned in the prototype gamebook. As a stark contrast to Kennedy’s liberalism, the team decided to include a role for the race-baiting southern populist George Wallace. To clear space for Kennedy to shine, the role sheet for George McGovern prohibited him from seeking the nomination.

    All this created drama, but in terms of accuracy, it was deeply flawed. Historically, there was a “draft Kennedy” movement, but he did not attend the convention and had no serious intention of throwing his hat into the ring, whereas McGovern was very much in the running. Furthermore, for a variety of reasons, George Wallace did not attend.

    Since Dustin was so interested in the Kennedys, he took it upon himself to write the Ted Kennedy role. He was a good student, had a stack of books about the Kennedys, and was completely stoked about the game, so I trusted his rendering. In retrospect, this was a mistake. Not because Dustin consciously tried to distort the history in order to cast more light on one of his favorite historical figures, but because I did not double-check his conclusions until much, much later.

    The tunnel vision that he exhibited is, I think, typical of undergraduate research. They can follow their interests with great avidity, but they usually lack the opportunity to develop much of an understanding of the broader context. This is not necessarily due to disinterest. Mostly, it is because of the time crunch. The team slammed together the Chicago prototype in a couple of months. They all worked very hard, but their attention was divided. In addition to other classes, the students all had other commitments like jobs, families, LSAT preparations, and athletics. Their work far exceeded my expectations, but that did not mean there were no shortcomings.

    In short, I over-trusted. I was so impressed by their enthusiasm, teamwork, and the tremendous volume of research and writing they completed that I became unrealistic in my expectations. I assumed their research was better than it was.

    As I continued to work on the project, I discovered some other problems that were less obvious, but more serious. The most glaring of these lurked at the bottom of the stack of roles. The last role in the gamebook was for a student journalist named Roger Black.

    The role sheet was fairly well written and did a good job of describing student journalism. The problem? Roger Black did not actually exist.

    Because my classroom playtests never had over twenty-five players, I never used the role. Once I discovered the problem, I clipped the role, but I wanted to have someone similar in the game. This led me to real underground journalists like John Schultz, Warren Hinckle, and Abe Peck.

    It is embarrassing to know that this serious problem was hanging out in plain sight for a number of years. I took care of it well before I submitted the game to the Reacting Editorial Board, but this error still troubles me. What if it had been slightly better written? What if it was partially based on a real person, but included a few invented details? This scare probably pushed me to be a better historian, but it also persuaded me that the best thing to do with student writing is probably to use it for inspiration and then throw it out.

    This experience taught me a number of things about working with undergraduate collaborators on Reacting games. If you are considering working with undergraduates on a Reacting project, they might be good things to keep in mind.

    Require copious citations. Ask your students to cite everything. Everything. Paraphrasing, inspirations, background information – it should all be cited. Require footnotes and annotated bibliographies. In addition to helping them to develop good habits, these resources are essential if you continue to work on the game.

    Delve deeper. Before sharing the game with anyone, check out all the sources that your students cite, and then go deeper. Read the whole chapter and familiarize yourself with the whole book. The speed of undergraduate research means that they often have trouble seeing the forest for the trees. In the case of Chicago, I suspect the action-oriented tree that read, “Draft Kennedy” obscured the darker, torpid forest of a family in mourning.

    Aspire to a multi-semester commitment. Dustin and Emily, the two students who took the lead on Chicago, were both close to graduation. They were both bright and hardworking so I tried to keep them involved, but they moved on to other projects and wisely concentrated on graduating and then getting on with their lives. This was the right choice for them, but I definitely missed their energy, insight, and ability to answer questions like, “Who the hell is Roger Black?”

    Find an Ethan. Several years later, Ethan Frederick took another iteration of the course. His game about the Second Spanish Republic showed outstanding promise. The following semester, his interest was undiminished, so he wrote a historiographical review on the topic. Then, the semester after that, he researched and wrote an undergraduate thesis that focused on the gendering of violence in Spain during the period covered by the game. Finally, he presented the game at the Game Development Conference. All this work meant that he quickly surpassed my expertise. It also paved the way to graduate school at the University of Minnesota where he wisely decided to put the game on the back burner. If you ask him, I bet he will send you a copy of the game. It is terrific. This game started as an undergraduate project, but that is not where it ended up. This is a hard model to emulate, but it is probably the best.

    Accept your doom. How many Ethans are there in the world? Not many. I lucked out. If Dustin or Emily had decided to go to graduate school, they might have continued to work on Chicago 1968, but that was not in the cards. If, over the course of years, your student evolves into a scholar on the topic of the game, that is great! You are a wonderful mentor! Strive for this, but do not expect it. In most cases, you should read and think about their work, but once you have done this, file it away. Think about their conclusions, look at their sources, contemplate the fleeting nature of life, and then write it yourself.


    About the Author
    Nicolas Proctor is a Professor of History at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he has also served as department chair and director of the first-year program. Proctor is also the Chair of the Reacting Editorial Board, overseeing game development. He lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with his family, a print shop, lots of books, five chickens, and too many Legos. After completing a traditional historical monograph, Bathed in Blood: Hunting and Mastery in the Old South, he reoriented his research to fit the needs of a teaching institution and focused on writing historical role-playing games. 


    Blog Author Questionnaire
    One word to describe faculty: Dedicated
    Two words to describe (your) school: Above Average
    Three words to describe students: Actual Human Beings
    Four words to describe favorite games: Interesting decisions spark creativity
    Five words to describe Reacting: Mark shared his toys, yay!



  • September 02, 2021 1:55 PM | Anonymous


    By: Dr. Rowan Steineker and Dr. Jeff Fortney

    Assistant Professors of History 
    Florida Gulf Coast University


    “Very complex,” “too many issues,” “might be overwhelming for undergraduates” are just a few examples of the constructive feedback we received about our game Between Two Fires: The Civil War Comes to Indian Territory at the 2019 Game Development Conference. If this was the response from seasoned Reacting veterans and game designers, we knew students could be in way over their heads. While revising, we realized that our proximity to the subject matter may have obscured our sense of the student experience. And though we still have work to do on Between Two Fires, we have since made monumental progress thanks to an invaluable collaborator: a student research assistant. For three semesters, we have worked with our student, Katherine Ryan, and in the process discovered many mutual benefits for partnerships in designing Reacting to the Past games.

    We aren’t the first to propose student collaboration. The topic has been discussed in the faculty lounge and several Game Development Conferences and workshops, but always with some hesitation. Many—rightly so—worry about exploiting students, an already oft over-exploited group. Fortunately, our school, Florida Gulf Coast University, supports a Work-study in Scholarly Experiential Research Program which pays students to collaborate with faculty and engage in professional development workshops. While not every university may extend such opportunities to their students and faculty, we do encourage game designers to look for similar paid pathways to engage their students in Reacting to the Past research and game design.

    Collaborating with a student research assistant has several advantages for faculty, beyond passing off the mundane tasks. Did we want to transcribe dozens of handwritten, 19th century documents? No, not really. But, Katherine’s contributions went well beyond that. She extensively researched primary sources, drafted character sheets, and helped design game mechanisms.

    Screenshot of Gather.town website with tables made for multiple delegations from Indigenous/Native American/American Indian tribal delegations (including Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole) Most importantly, she provided a student perspective that allowed us to better recognize the needs and challenges of our target audience. For instance, she revealed that even after considerable time researching, she still grappled with understanding one of the game’s major issues for debate, and was concerned that other students would as well. She also developed a “Reacting Tips for Success” guide, drawing on interviews with fellow students as well as her own experiences in Reacting to the Past games. When we shifted to online courses amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Katherine developed a Gather.Town space to test and adapt the game for online play (seen in the photo).

    It is difficult to overstate just how integral Katherine became to the ongoing development of our game. Our experience is just one example of engaging students as partners in pedagogy. Research on student-faculty partnerships in learning and teaching indicate outcomes that are mutually advantageous: including deeper engagement, greater awareness, and more effective classroom experiences.1

    While our collaboration supports these outcomes, we suggest there are additional specific benefits for students who face pernicious questions of “What are you going to do with that degree?” from “that uncle” at the Thanksgiving table. Just as participating in Reacting to the Past games helps students build many transferable skills, researching and developing Reacting to the Past games can offer these same benefits and more. The opportunity to work one-on-one with professors on research and pedagogical design provides a concrete professional development experience for undergraduates. The National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies eight Career Readiness Competencies, including: 1. Career & Self-Development; 2. Communication; 3. Critical Thinking; 4. Equity & Inclusion; 5. Leadership; 6. Professionalism; 7. Teamwork; 8. Technology.2  In one way or another, our student partner demonstrated competency in all of these areas over the course of our collaboration.

    You don’t have to just take our word for it! Our student Katherine secured an internship transcribing documents for the National Parks Service because of her experience researching and transcribing primary sources. She has since parlayed that internship into a paid position digitizing oral history collections. She has also presented at numerous conferences, has a forthcoming peer-reviewed publication, and has been appointed project manager of a university-wide digital mapping project. Full disclosure: she is an outstanding and ambitious student and we cannot take credit for her accomplishments. Nevertheless, it has been a pleasure to help her build key, transferable skills, and to find they are highly desired by employers…and not to have to transcribe all those documents.

    1. Alison Cook-Sather, et. al, “Guidelines for Student and Faculty Partners,” Students as Learners and Teachers (SaLT) Program, Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges 2019.
    2. National Association of Colleges and Employers, “Career Readiness: Competencies for a Career-Ready Workforce Guide,” Revised & updated March, 2021.


    About the Authors
    Jeff Fortney is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida Gulf Coast University. His areas of research and teaching include United States history with a focus on the Native American, African American, and Civil War history. Rowan Steineker is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida Gulf Coast University. Her research focuses on the history of education and the American West. Additionally, she teaches courses in Public History and Digital Humanities.


    Blog Author Questionnaire
    One word to describe faculty: Resilient
    Two words to describe (your) school: Scenic Swamp
    Three words to describe students: Underestimated, Hardworking, Creative
    Four words to describe favorite games: Excessive strategy and drama
    Five words to describe Reacting: Making history pedagogy great again

  • July 26, 2021 8:34 AM | Anonymous


    By: Dr. Kasee Clifton Laster
    Lecturer in English
    University of North Georgia 

    The quote which forms part of my title comes from a student paper, but it applies equally well to myself as an instructor. In the fall of 2019, I made my first tentative foray into Reacting to the Past in the first-year writing classroom, and in the spring of 2020, I went “all in,” offering three sections of English 1102 all focused around Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776.

    To offer a bit of spoiler: Reacting to the Past turned out to be an even better fit with composition instruction than I expected going in.

    First, the institutional context: I teach at the University of North Georgia. Each of our five campuses has a slightly different mission, and although I have since moved to the Oconee campus, during the semester described, I taught at the Gainesville campus. The Gainesville campus has open admissions (99%), a large number of first-generation college students and first-generation Americans, and an average incoming ACT of 17 to 23.

    My initial interest in offering Reacting in composition had less to do with writing pedagogy itself than with some of the many other responsibilities that composition classes are often expected – explicitly or implicitly – to shoulder. Because composition comes early in the college career, I was looking to Reacting to encourage engagement, active learning, and agency; because my students range widely from undocumented individuals to immigration hardliners, and from seasoned veterans to 15-year-old homeschooled dual enrollees, I was also looking for a way to improve empathy and communication.

    Of course, I knew that the Reacting to the Past pedagogy requires the kind of close reading of dense texts and intentional and careful selection and use of sources that students should practice in first-year writing. However, to my surprise, I found that where Reacting particularly excels in the first-year writing classroom is in building audience awareness.

    Composition teachers are constantly looking for ways to move student writers past what is often termed “writerly” prose, essentially, talking to oneself on paper: self-conscious, self-absorbed, and at the very most, acknowledging an audience of one – the instructor. As students revise, ideally they are working towards “readerly” prose, which considers what readers want and need to know about a topic and seeks primarily to serve the reader rather than oneself.

    Reacting to the Past turns out to be the best method for encouraging readerly prose that I have yet encountered in nearly three decades of teaching. Feedback from classmates is neither forced (“how many people do we have to peer review?”) nor delayed (“I still haven’t heard back from anyone”) but rather instant and high-impact: quite simply, a proposal passes or it doesn’t, usually with some noise. Students’ own accounts indicate that this kind of feedback makes a big impression.

    During spring of 2020, I offered one game (the same for each section), and with extensive scaffolding and faction meetings, used nearly half the term to play it. I added additional writing to the two speeches/papers required by the game, including a role request; students were not given any more information about the roles than can be found in the gamebook, but based on that limited information and their interests, life experiences, etc., constructed an argument for their top three choices. I also added a post-game personal learning reflection and a post-game “faction-interaction” reflection.

    The second half of the course turned to a more traditional “how-to”/process model, in which students wrote a researched argument on a contemporary topic that paralleled issues in the game. Students chose topics one might expect considering the Patriots and Loyalists game, such as gun control, but also ranged further afield to student loan forgiveness, civil forfeiture, and the War Powers Act (given the turn of events spring semester 2020, I also opened up the option for students to write about the pandemic, but the great majority stuck to issues directly suggested by the game).

    By sheer luck, every class completed the game the week before we went entirely online.

    As I’m sure is the case with anyone who has taught using Reacting, I could go on for pages listing positive student feedback, but I will restrict myself here to comments specifically related to writing and rhetoric:

    • “The Reacting to the Past game. . . makes it easier to write. . . I was more diligent about it because I knew if I didn’t write good papers, it would affect both my faction and me.”

    • “I. . . learned how to write better in a formal fashion. I do not remember having much experience in high school with writing specifically for a crowd and a target audience to read the paper to them. The excitement that the game brought made it easier to write and express myself.”

    • “I was really pleased about the petition that I wrote, [because] I was fighting for the rights of slaves during the game. I loved my petition since it got straight to the point, showed how much of a hard worker I was, and got in a few jokes during my petition to make them laugh a little.”

    • “On many occasions during the game I was compelled to argue a point with another character and often called them out on certain topics when I felt as though they had contradicted themselves or their own faction.”

    • “Since I was a moderate, I had to ask several questions, meaning I had to analyze and break down the arguments. Questioning the durability of my classmate’s arguments helped me see what I want to include when I argue, and what I want to avoid.”

    • “I feel that this game has . . . . taught me to how to extract more information from government writings and historical writings. It has guided me to look beyond just what is written and to see the underlying factors, the effect it has on a populous, the influence it has on people’s thoughts, and how ideas can impact and shape the world.”

    • “The game has taught me to delve further and inspect historical documents with more accuracy.”

    Some comments that were particularly gratifying to me – as I ultimately see the mission in first-year writing courses as preparing students to function as citizens in a democracy and to rise above the current state of public discourse – are these:

    • “I. . . developed active listening because before I really did not pay attention to what people had to say, but after this game I listen to what people actually have to say.”

    • “Today, lots of people tend to just argue without listening and with this game it had to put everyone in a mindset of ‘oh I must argue my side but I don’t have to be yelling my opinion over what they are saying.’ Everyone was able to get their word in and argue their side civilly and we were even able to talk more after class about the game.”

    I’ll give the last word to my excellent 11:00 section Robert Murray, who picked up (long before I did) that a proposal to free slaves if they joined the British Army left him no choice but to abstain; as a Quaker, he could vote in favor of neither slavery nor militarism.

    For all his depth of understanding, however, he does seem to have confused Quaker Oats and Cap’n Crunch.

    A poster with a cartoon character (that looks like the Captain Crunch mascot) on it, and the words "We want YOU to join the Quaker Alliance"
    Actual game artifact


    About the Author
    Dr. Kasee Clifton Laster is a Lecturer in English at the University of North Georgia, Oconee Campus. Dr. Laster has previously served as the chair of the Humanities Department at Shorter College as well as the Director of Education Abroad at the University of Georgia. She teaches a variety of courses but especially enjoys all periods of British literature. Her dissertation concerned Clara Reeve, an eighteenth-century novelist, critic, and antiquarian, and examined Reeve's use of Arthurian materials and insular romances to forge tales of British national identity during the first Gothic novel craze.

    Blog Author Questionnaire
    One word to describe faculty: Caring
    Two words to describe your school: Public, Complicated
    Three words to describe students: Hard-working, First-generation, Stretched
    Four words to describe favorite games: Fast twists and turns
    Five words to describe Reacting: Most fun teaching experience ever


    Keywords
    Writing, composition, first generation students,

  • June 21, 2021 1:15 PM | Anonymous


    By: Emily Fisher Gray
    Professor of History
    Norwich University, The Military College of Vermont  

    I like to wear my Athena costume on the first day of my Freshman Seminar class and jump right into Athens Besieged. It’s a memorable first day of college for the students and a better introduction to what will happen in a Reacting to the Past based class than the typical syllabus day. The only downside for me is the heat: it’s late August in Vermont, classrooms do not have air conditioning, and I am wearing a second costume underneath the first.Blog Author Emily Gray dressed in her Athena costume, with a white draped tunic and red draped himation, both with gold detailing. Norwich University was founded 200 years ago to train military officers and nods to that tradition by having faculty and most students wear military-style uniforms. So under my Athena robes or other Reacting-inspired regalia I wear the uniform of a Colonel in the Vermont State Militia, styled after the “Army Greens” Class A uniform of the US Military. Students in my classroom wear the prescribed uniform of the day: usually a white shirt with gray trousers or camouflage field service uniform. Thus, on the first day of Freshman Seminar, a slightly-overheated Athena looks out over a sea of first-year students in identical clothing with identical haircuts and tells them that they are not freshmen, not recruits (“Rooks”) in the Corps of Cadets, but Greeks who must figure out how to respond to the Spartan siege of Athens. It is a testament to the power of Reacting that these students, who have recently made the challenging transition from high school graduate to Rook in the Norwich Corps of Cadets, transform again so quickly into Athenian citizens and immediately jump in to solve a whole new set of problems.

    Many faculty who use Reacting to the Past pedagogy find that costumes help create the liminal space that turns a college classroom into an ancient city under siege, or a medieval city council chamber, or a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. At a military university where most students are in uniform, however, costumes pose a unique set of challenges. My students at Norwich University have a very limited wardrobe. They are each allowed one footlocker which contains only the clothing items they are issued: various formal military-style uniforms; a plain t-shirt, shorts, and reflective belt for physical training; and a fluffy maroon bathrobe. There is not much variety, or many options for obtaining other items in rural central Vermont, even after the Rooks are “recognized” as full members of the Corps and given permission to go off campus. Further complicating the issue of costumes in uniform, many of my students are under contract with various branches of the military. They are not wearing the Norwich student Corps of Cadets uniform, but one issued to them by the Navy, Marines, Army, or Air Force. Sometimes, students in “real” military uniforms hesitate to mix uniform pieces or wear hats or other items that are not within military regulations, even for a class activity. As a faculty member I have always enjoyed strong support from the ROTC Colonels and the Commandant of Cadets, who have always given permission for students to be out of the standard uniform for academic purposes, but I make costumes optional for students out of respect for those who feel uncomfortable wearing their uniform in a way they view as improper.

    Given the challenge of costumes for uniformed students on a military campus, I am continually amazed by their creativity. Students frequently mix and match uniform pieces to create fashions that are historically plausible and serve to help visually mark the classroom space as different. Young white cadet weating red waist tie from bathrobe as cravat while still in military uniform. He also holds a character nametag worn on a lanyard.Of all the contents of their footlockers, the bathrobe has proven to be the most versatile item. It works effectively to transform a student into a Roman Senator and equally well to distinguish members of the Crowd in the French Revolution. One enterprising student turned the waist tie of the bathrobe into a passable cravat, and since then many students have followed his example, stuffing it into the neckline of their shirts to become aristocrats during games set in early modern Europe. The reflective PT belt can be worn across the body as a sash and though it lacks a certain gravitas, it can serve effectively as a marker of faction identity. Cardboard Bishop’s Miters, helmets, crosses, and other items are easy for students to make and wear during an RTTP game, and the end of a game is frequently marked by a recycling bin overflowing with interesting handmade objects.

    Young Black cadet wearing military uniform, with nametag/namebadge changed to read Lafayette.Sometimes it takes very little to transform a student’s uniform into the perfect Reacting to the Past costume. Military uniforms are covered with patches, badges, ribbons, and epaulets that communicate everything someone would need to know about that person’s military rank and previous experience, like a wearable resume. People who have served in the military are attuned to these visual cues and can instantly “read” a uniform. I never served in the military, so when one of my students came up to me the day we started French Revolution and asked me how I liked his costume, I was confused. It looked like his standard Norwich-issued Corps of Cadets field uniform to me, until I looked closer. He had replaced his cadet rank with three stars and his name tape with “Lafayette.” Naturally, his fellow students noticed it right away. The change was small, but extremely effective. There is nothing this student could have done to more effectively signal his leadership status to a room full of students attuned to the visual cues on a military uniform.

    With such a limited wardrobe to work with during their college years, some students find the option to wear a costume for class to be a liberating experience. Another of my Lafayettes, a chemistry major on the verge of graduating and commissioning as a Navy 2nd Lieutenant, ordered a complete 18th century French officer’s uniform online. Our class met at 8:00am, so the student had simply no choice but to dress as the Marquis de Lafayette for the daily Corps of Cadets formation at 7:45 before coming to class. When the semester ended, I offered to find a home for this wonderful outfit in my costume closet, but the student demurred: he was pretty sure he would need to use it at some point during his career as a naval officer. Students connected with Pegasus Players, our on-campus drama society, also come up with some great costumes. One semester, a male student assigned to the French Revolution role of Marguerite Andalle proudly wore a bonnet and fancy dress to class each day. For these students, the option to dress in costume for a Reacting to the Past game gave them the perfect opportunity to be transgressive and safely push back against the limitations of a military campus that otherwise offers little opportunity for self-expression through clothing. Mikhail Bakhtin would be proud.

    Costumes are not the only way to signal that students have entered a liminal space in a Reacting to the Past classroom. I hang banners and flags, play music, and sometimes move the class to a different location for the duration of a game. Students have debated responses to the Black Plague in our campus chapel and led the French Revolution from an indoor tennis court, for example. But even on a military campus with limited access to historical attire, allowing students the option to dress in costume for Reacting to the Past games gives them opportunities to exercise creativity and have some fun while getting into character.

    About the Author
    Emily Fisher Gray is a Professor of History at Norwich University, where she also serves as the Vice Chair of the Faculty Senate. Gray has written on the early causes and progress of the Protestant Reformation, the phenomenon of Lutheran-Catholic co-existence, and the unique aesthetics of Lutheran architecture. Her ongoing research takes place in churches, libraries and archives in the former Free Imperial Cities of southern Germany, especially Augsburg, where she lived for a year as a Fulbright Fellow. She has written a Reacting game "Wrestling with the Reformation: Augsburg, 1531."

    Blog Author Questionnaire
    One word to describe faculty: Curious
    Two words to describe your school: Liberal-arts, military
    Three words to describe students: Enthusiastic, Open-minded, Game-breakers
    Four words to describe favorite games: Armies, Duels, Sausages, Votes
    Five words to describe Reacting: Transformational, Challenging, Brilliant, Engaging, Essential

  • May 26, 2021 12:23 PM | Anonymous


    By: Traci Levy
    Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Gender Studies
    Adelphi University 


    Even though I have been running role-playing games in my classes for more than five years and studying the Reacting pedagogy 
    for longer than that, I felt daunted about designing my game. Sure, I had written a mini game that my students played in one class period. But, the new game will run for weeks and eventually, I hope, be used by other instructors. Motivated by the anxieties around this new project, I created a writing accountability group for game designers.

    Writing accountability groups (or WAGs) are a well-known mechanism for helping scholars develop regular and effective writing habits. Making and sharing writing goals with other writers, can help people develop good writing habits and be more productive. People who are designing games can benefit from the same incentives and support structures as people writing chapters, articles, or books. At least this has been my experience after organizing two WAGs for game designers and participating in one. 

    The positive aspects of writing accountability groups for game designers are important and manifold. A supportive group of people struggling with similar issues can offer valuable perspective, feedback, and encouragement.

    Sharing relevant knowledge about games is another benefit. Forming a WAG with other Reactors who are designing games, for example, allows members to pool the knowledge of all the games we have played at Reacting conferences and run in our classes. That can be incredibly helpful when trying to figure out different game devices and mechanisms for your own game. Which games have mobs or crowds? How have games handled accumulating resources? Which games rely less on voting? Chances are others in your group will know.

    Helpful support can even spill outside of assigned WAG meeting times. WAG members become aware of each other’s challenges and interests. We sometimes email each other ideas. One of my WAG members has written a game that uses artefacts. After hearing a podcast talking about teaching through sensory experiences and objects, I made sure to send her a link. Another time, a WAG member emailed me after group time. After talking about ways to help students in my game feel like they were working in the same company, a group member emailed me satirical corporate promotional videos that made me chuckle and helped me think through this game design challenge.

    Besides the shared knowledge and support, the pressure of participating in a WAG can be helpful, too. Harnessing the discomfort that goes along with missing publicly-shared deadlines can increase productivity. We don’t like to break our word, so we are more motivated to stay on track. 

    Here’s a quick guide on creating a writing accountability group for game designers:

    1. Find a group of people that you enjoy interacting with who are working on designing a game. 

    Are you part of a listserv, professional organization, conference, Facebook group, etc., where you could do outreach and find out who might be interested in forming a WAG? In the Reacting community, we have two very helpful Facebook groups--the Reacting Faculty Lounge and the Reacting Game Design Lounge

    2. Decide what kind of WAG you would like. 

    There are at least two different ways to think about WAGs. In one, you share goals at the beginning of an in-person or virtual writing session, everyone writes, then you share progress. The other involves sharing writing goals for a week or two, often using a shared document. Then, the group uses the weekly meetings to discuss what you wrote and the ideas you would like to discuss. Make sure the group is clear and in agreement on your WAG type.

    3. Organize into a group of three-to-five game designers. 

     If everyone is going to share and interact, and keep the time commitment reasonable, a small group is key. If you have more interest than you anticipated after making queries-- which happened when I asked in a Reacting reading group on Nicolas Proctor’s Game Designer's Handbook --one strategy is to help the group break into more than one WAG. 

    Bonus: If you create or become aware of another game design WAG, you can have an “exchange day” where each group sends some members to the other WAG, or a “mega-WAG session” where both groups join together. The two Reacting WAGs that evolved out of our earlier reading group have benefited from an exchange day and are preparing for a mega-WAG session. It’s great for intellectual cross-fertilization!

    4. Decide on the frequency of meetings. 

     Weekly, biweekly, or monthly meetings are all fairly common. In the case of our reading group that evolved into WAGs, it was easy to divide. We had three game designers who preferred biweekly meetings and four who preferred weekly meetings. So, the frequency of meetings helped us figure out who would go into which group.

    5. Agree how long everyone commits to participating in the WAG. 

     3-months? One semester? Decide how long you would like everyone to initially commit to the WAG.

    6. Agree on a time and place to meet.

    Finding a good day of the week and time when everyone can meet is critical. You might use Doodle, Google Docs, or email exchanges to figure out availability. If your group can meet in-person, it’s helpful if you can find a suitable space that will reliably be available. If your group will meet virtually, someone needs to create and share the link.

    Sharing your game design challenges, triumphs, and processes with the same group of people over time can do more than help you design a better game on schedule. You get to know and enjoy the company of other people with similar interests. As a result of our group, I have joined a WAG member’s class to play an art buyer in the Art in Paris, 1888-9 game. Group members have shared readings, podcasts, and TV recommendations. (Some of us have finished watching The Crown; others were motivated to do so after an interesting discussion.) Meeting online, we have gotten to see and admire each other’s pets. And--a hallmark of life during COVID--we have cheered each other on as we received vaccine appointments and, then, vaccinations.

    From the point of view of productivity, shared knowledge, and all around camaraderie, creating a writing accountability group for game designers can be a wonderful experience.

    Traci Levy's Game Designer Writing Accountability Group meeting on zoom   (Alt text: Screengrab of four zoom squares featuring smiling Reacting professors who are writing education games and simulations, three women and one man)

    About the Author
    Traci Levy is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Gender Studies at Adelphi University. She is designing a role-playing game that focuses on the inequities of informal caregiving in the United States. The game is tentatively titled “The Challenge and Politics of Care.”

    Blog Author Questionnaire
    One word to describe faculty: Learners
    Two words to describe your school: Academic COMMUNITY
    Three words to describe students: Teaching's best part
    Four words to describe favorite games: Develop community through teamwork
    Five words to describe Reacting: Students arrive early, leave late

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