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Brilliancy and Subversion in Higher Education Gaming

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:  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). 

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