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Brilliancy Prize for Reacting

Modeled after the brilliancy prize in chess, an award for a spectacularly complex and beautiful strategic idea or combination of moves, the Brilliancy Prize for Reacting was instituted in 2019 and is presented to a particularly ingenious or creative idea or pedagogical practice that advances Reacting games. Such ideas or practices could include ground-breaking reacting games, novel elements in game design, new curricular applications of the reacting game pedagogy, original modes of institutional adoption or dissemination, or other imaginative and resourceful innovations. The Brilliancy Prize for Reacting consists of a $1,000 award, presented each year at the Annual Institute at Barnard College.

The committee for the Brilliancy Prize includes Terri Nelson (CSU-San Bernardino), Rick Colby (U of Oregon), and Traci Levy (Adelphi University). 

An Essay on the Brilliancy Prize from Mark Carnes 

Past Brilliancy Prize Winners
2021 Kyle C. Lincoln and John Giebfried
2020 Terri Nelson
2019 Martha Attridge Bufton and Pamela J. Walker

Apply for the Brilliancy Prize


BRILLIANCY AND SUBVERSION IN HIGHER EDUCATION GAMING

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.

All good games contain such elements of surprise. A game is no fun if everyone knows what will happen. Chess wouldn’t be much of an improvement over checkers were it not for the knight, which moves in an idiosyncratically complicated way. Football, similarly, would be little more than a brawny scrum were it not for the odd shape of the ball, which imparts a zany unpredictability to every play. The tedium of Monopoly is relieved by random die rolls that send would-be tycoons to “jail,” regardless of their capitalist acumen.

These examples highlight another element of brilliancy. Although surprise raises our attention level, what delights us most is subversion. Most chess games reach their conclusion when a lowly pawn, in solitary defiance of the powerful pieces, makes it all the way to the other side of the board and becomes a mighty queen. We delight when David topples Goliath. Or when a top golfer flails away in a sand trap or the boxing challenger knocks the world champion on his kiester. Soccer subverts the most fundamental rule of homo sapiens: our reliance on hands for interacting with the world. Little surprise that it became the most popular game in the world.

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.

Read more from Mark Carnes...

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.

Pat Coby, chair of political science at Smith College, embedded dozens of plot twists in his persistently clever design of Henry VIII and the Reformation Parliament, 1534. Every game session is compelling because Coby continuously resets the conditions of play and introduces startling reversals of fortune.

Other successful Reacting games employ all sorts of ingenious devices that simultaneously recapitulate the complexities and contingencies of the past while enriching the experience of students playing the game. Some of these ingenious elements have been conceived by students. Every game design is built upon multiple test plays of a game, usually beginning with the designer’s own students. When thrust into real-life, adult situations in these games, students often find additional resources or come up with fiendishly clever ploys. Many of the students’ inspirations, suggestions, and research find their way into Reacting games. A recent example: I have spent two decades thinking about how to increase the number of roles for the game set in ancient Athens, when I learned that Jack Campbell, a student in Paul Droubie’s history class at Manhattan College, had written a role for Aristophanes: the student playing the famous comedian would be obliged to lampoon the speeches and actions of other players. With Mr. Campbell’s permission, I’ve incorporated that ingenious idea into the new version of the game. (The role sheet includes mention of the fact that Campbell created the role). Most game designers tell me of similar instances of ingenuity, devised by their students.

Other than tapping into the ingenuity of students, Reacting 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 ingenius game mechanics.

But Reacting has generated brilliance in other—and unexpected—ways. John Burney, the chief academic officer at multiple colleges, has long puzzled over institutional resistance to pedagogical innovation. Many administrators were—are—under pressure to improve the learning experience of students; and some are eager to commit money to such efforts. But Burney realized that pushing seed money to instructors was insufficient stimulus for classroom innovation. Administrators themselves must understand and embrace new active-learning pedagogies—like Reacting. So he conceived of a model where teams of instructors and an administrator would themselves play Reacting games at faculty training workshops, generating the sense of the teamwork and problem-solving they would need to persuade other faculty members and administrators to embrace change. Administrators themselves were pleased by the role-inversion—in game play they often assumed subordinate roles—and they perceived that pedagogical change could itself be fun, an astonishing idea.

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 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 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!



PAST RECIPIENTS 

2021 Kyle C. Lincoln and John Giebfried 

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 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. 

2020 Brilliancy Prize for Reacting - Terri Nelson

The jury for the Brilliancy Prize of the Reacting Consortium was tasked this year with making two awards: (1) for “a particularly ingenious or creative idea or pedagogical practice that advances reacting games,” and (2) in light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, “for a similarly brilliant idea or practice, but one that specifically advances reacting games run via remote learning.” Among a number of strong nominations, one person clearly stood out in both categories. The Reacting Consortium is therefore pleased to announce that the winner of both awards of the second annual Brilliancy Prize for Reacting is Terri Nelson, Professor at California State University, San Bernardino.

As one of the several nominators’ letters written on her behalf stated, “Although the Reacting Consortium has proposed to divide the Brilliancy Prize this year into two components, … Professor Nelson has vastly surpassed the likely standards for both.” Nelson is ever at the forefront of Reacting community and technology, innovating ways to play games, and sharing her ideas with others. She is, as one of her nominators put it, “a one-person wonder.” Indeed, the nominators called out not one, not two, but many brilliant ideas and practices that Terri has introduced to our community.

Earning her the first prize, Terri's contributions have included:

  • Early adoption and promotion of Slack in Reacting classrooms
  • Initiation of an end-of-game ritual enabling students to reflect on and disengage from their role
  • Robust mentorship and promotion of her colleague's professional development, including creation of a Google Classroom space for a Faculty Learning Community at her home campus to support faculty new to the Reacting pedagogy
  • Work towards creation and moderation of GM 101, an online-shared FAQ document in which dozens of veteran Reacting faculty share their insights on the nitty-gritty questions of game management and teaching with games

Earning her the second prize, Terri's contributions have included:

  • Creation and sharing of several online materials for the Athens game, such as a deck of “Pandora’s Urn” interactive slides, mechanisms for tracking the vote for the Trial of Socrates online, and a sophisticated slide deck for GMs to organize the Tribute missions
  • Introduction of the Reacting community to online applications like Pear Deck and Dotstorming, providing practical examples of how these applications can be used to make online learning authentically active learning.


2019 Brilliancy Prize for Reacting - Martha Attridge Bufton and Pamela J. Walker

The Reacting Consortium is pleased to award the first annual Brilliancy Prize for Reacting to Martha Attridge Bufton, Interdisciplinary Studies Librarian at Carleton University, and Dr. Pamela J. Walker, Professor of History at Carleton University. Together, they created a character for a librarian in Greenwich Village, 1913. Their character Maud Malone, based on a real historical figure, was a New York City librarian, union organizer, and suffragette. She appeared during game sessions to offer research support, help students formulate research questions and navigate the library resources. Maud is both a creative idea and a pedagogical practice. By embedding Maud in the game—rather than relegating Martha to a traditional “one shot” library research session—they have created a new role for librarians in the Reacting pedagogy to support the acquisition of core scholarly information seeking competencies.


Apply for the Brilliancy Prize

Nominations for the Brilliancy Prize for Reacting can be made by any member of the Reacting community, including self-nominations.

Letters of nomination (no longer than three pages single-spaced) must include a detailed description of the innovation being nominated and a rationale for why it is deserving of the award. The winners will be decided by a committee of three faculty active in the community.

The Brilliancy Prize is awarded to someone whose "particularly ingenious or creative idea or pedagogical practice" advances Reacting games. To that end, we invite nominations to include supporting documentation to help the jury to better understand their brilliant innovations and how they advance Reacting games. (Nominations previously submitted are welcome to add documentation by the extended deadline below).

Applications for the 2022 Brilliancy Prize should be emailed to Jenn Worth at jworth@barnard.edu and must be submitted no later than July 16, 2022.

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