Playing with the Past

Thursday, November 21, 2019

By Troy Osborne, Dean of Conrad Grebel University CollegeTroy Osborne, Associate Professor of History

Should sixteenth-century Augsburg city councillors tolerate religious dissent? What is the best way to secure the social contract in revolutionary France? Will a newly independent India be a Hindu, Muslim, or multi-faith nation? Students grapple with these questions as they take part in one of the “Reacting to the Past” role-playing games which I use to promote active learning in my classes. 

After providing background context, I assign students specific roles with goals that are informed by classic texts from the past, which can range from the Bhagavad Gita, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s writings, or the Schleitheim Confession.  Once the roles are assigned, students run the class sessions, while I recede into the background to become the ‘gamemaster’ who advises them and grades their work. To achieve their character’s goals, students collaborate in factions to persuade others through several speeches and writings. 

While students clearly enjoy the chance to take on a new role and compete against one another, the emphasis is not on fun but on learning. In my experience, students engage more deeply with the material than in a traditional seminar or lecture course. The games promote engagement with big ideas from the past that may not seem relevant to the present. In addition, I hope students grow to understand that people with whom they may disagree have an intellectual structure supporting their worldview and are not simply wrong or ignorant. The games are not scripted, which helps teach students the idea that history is not inevitable but contingent, that it is shaped by a variety of forces. Informed by ideas and constrained by particular contexts, people in the past shaped their world in the best way they could. 

Perhaps one of my favourite outcomes of this pedagogy is the way that the collaborative work leads students to build relationships with each other that extend beyond the classroom and even after the game has ended.