Role-playing games bring history to life for both teacher, students

While on sabbatical during the fall of 2019, Professor of History Diane Mockridge explored the use of immersive role-playing games to support engaged learning in her courses. She attended a workshop at Barnard College on this pedagogy, “Reacting to the Past,” and was motivated to introduce “reacting games” into her teaching at Ripon.

“Over the years, I have staged mock historical trials in many of my courses, but Reacting games are like my mock trials on steroids!” Mockridge says. “Reacting games are set at a key turning point in history. Students are assigned roles based on real historical people and are given both individual and group objectives (students work in factions). They read key texts from the time and need to stay true to their individual persona and the spirit of the age as they propose, debate and pass legislation by writing papers and delivering speeches. Collaboration and coalition-building are key to every game as a student cannot win a game without convincing others to vote in favor of their proposals.”

She introduced this concept to Ripon with a new course she offered in the spring of 2020, “Playing in the Past: Understanding History through Interactive Games.” Three games in the course focus on: ancient Athens after its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War; the heresy trial of Joan of Arc; and the effects of the bubonic plague of 1348 on the city of Norwich, England. The latter two games also were incorporated into Mockridge’s Catalyst classes.

The games were played in the classroom until March “when our modern plague resulted in moving the games to an online format,” Mockridge says.

Class sessions are run entirely by students. As “Gamemaster,” Mockridge sits back and watches the drama unfold. A typical game lasts three to four weeks, with class meetings before the game providing general guidance on the historical context, major texts and intellectual issues of the game, while class meetings after the game are called the “post-mortem” phase where the historical record is set straight.

“My students thoroughly enjoyed the games and have urged me to incorporate more Reacting games into my courses,” Mockridge says. “I am committed to this method of teaching as it develops so many key skills that we strive to teach our students: persuasive writing, public speaking, critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, negotiation, adapting to changing circumstances, and working under pressure to meet deadlines.

“For me, it is a really fun and exciting way to teach. Incorporating Reacting games has been one of the most satisfying experiences in my 39 years here at Ripon College.”

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