The Virtues of Play

In the late 1990s, Barnard College professor Mark Carnes was exasperated by the lack of energy in his classroom. "You were bored! I was bored!" he yelled at a student who said his class had been her favorite. "You could feel the boredom in the room!"

"Well, yes," the student responded. "But all classes are sorta boring. Yours was less boring than most."

This statement shook Dr. Carnes, inspiring him to create a new pedagogy in order to bring excitement back to the classroom. Introducing to the world rules for historical classroom roleplaying, he created the Reacting to the Past Consortium, a group that publishes history-based role-playing simulations for the classroom. These intricate games place students in charge of the class, fully immersing them in the written and oral arguments of the historical period as they battle for their character's cause. Reacting games allow students to debate, think, and act as though they themselves are immersed in a historical moment. Students challenge each other as if they were the individuals of the times, using the same texts that those bygone participants had at their disposal, battling with ideas informed by historical context, and improving personal skills left untouched by the standard lecture.

It is exceptionally challenging to learn history in retrospect. Reacting to the Past allows students the best possible glimpse at a time period and promotes viewing history through the same lens as those who came before us. It also promotes the development of personal character: if you are shy, quiet, or cowardly, these fictional games allow you for a few brief hours to lower your personal walls and be loud, brave, and perhaps even foolhardy. By allowing for the growth of critical thinking, teamwork, speaking, writing, and leadership skills, Reacting to the Past is more dynamic than the lecture format, and the Consortium argues that their games can teach students as much, if not more than a traditional lecture.

The vigorous debates, backroom deals, and backstabs that draw certain folks to the subject of history are now thrust directly into the lives of students. Humans are competitive by nature, and when effectively activated, this can drive some incredible learning. Dr. Carnes describes this as “subversive play,” igniting passions that are more than just academic stimuli and strike at core human desires.

Students are also forced to shuck their worldview for a few brief hours a week to take on any number of alternate beliefs. This not only humanizes the historical figures, but makes their seemingly radical ideals come alive. Despite being inherently competitive, Reacting games allow for students to create lasting bonds and friendships.

Storytelling has always been a crucial component of the human experience; it is the backbone of who we are and part of what separates humans from other species. These games allow for the students not only to create stories, but to experience the creation of history right in their own classroom. The competitive elements cause students to remember the trials and tribulations of the games, ingraining the historical moments into their memory. While the typical lecture might have students continue the discussion for a week or so, the average Reacting to the Past game will have students talking about it semesters later.

The magic of both Reacting to the Past and other role-playing games is that they allow for the use of play to practice life skills in a high stakes—albeit, no risk—environment. Voice actor Liam O'Brien described it best when discussing the classic game, Dungeons and Dragons: “You can take risks in an arena where there aren't any real consequences and you can sort of work stuff out, have fun, be brave, be stupid, be selfish, be anything. It's the human experience built on a skeleton of dice.”

With all of the benefits that stem from role-playing games, it was inevitable that these pastimes would eventually be used for more than enjoyment. The American prison system has even adopted D&D in an effort to provide a recreational outlet and alternative rehabilitation for mental health issues. Teachers in early education are battling the “erosion of sustained reading” by introducing students to the literary classics through D&D-style adventures within the great book’s setting, and therapists are using it to help children cope with and overcome social issues by teaching children that actions have consequences and how to better handle social encounters. These same benefits are what have made the Reacting to the Past format so effective in universities.

The breakthrough of role-playing games as a tool to better the human experience is merely in its infancy, but from the kitchen table to the classroom, storytelling games are claiming their rightful place in society.