Gamifying Historical Events

Teacher reading book to young students in classroom (Shutterstock)

Games and gamification of historical events have been popular pedagogical tools in classrooms for years, and have generated countless discussions about their use. Reacting to the Past has garnered both praise and criticism. Recently, historian Walter Greason debuted Sojourner’s Trail to great acclaim. Games can be wonderful tools to teach, but like any pedagogical tool, they require a careful assessment of risk versus reward. No more is this evident than when teaching about historical trauma, like slavery.

The American Historical Association recently published a piece in Perspectives by historian Patrick Rael, discussing his use of board games to teach about colonization and slavery. One of the games, Puerto Rico, follows the history of colonization and uses brown tokens to represent the colonized. As Rael notes, the “game’s defenders insist that slavery is just pasted on,” and “does not claim to accurately represent slavery.” Rael confirms that the game does not actually teach any Puerto Rican history.

Yet, it is worth asking, can we reasonably separate a game like Puerto Rico, which specifically explores colonization from the human experiences from the history? I would argue not. No matter how you frame it, playing with these pasts cannot really be separated from the theoretical, and particularly in the context of a history course.  Black Boricuas make up the second largest ethnic group in Puerto Rico. The next largest group of Puerto Ricans identify as mixed race. The game may not specifically, accurately represent slavery, but slavery is an intractable part of the Puerto Rican past. 

There have also been far too many examples of the ways that “playing slavery” has proven traumatic to students of color.  In 2019, historian Rebecca Onion published a piece in Slate describing the ways that role-playing history has gone wrong when teachers attempted to “make history personal,” and wound up “reinforcing white supremacy in the name of ‘learning.” A recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that in K-12 settings, the teaching of the history of slavery is inadequate for a number of reasons but particularly because teachers don’t necessarily have the subject background to do it well.  The study also cited examples that included one of many reports where students had been directed to reenact a slave market. A major textbook company depicted the slaves as “happy,” perpetuating a common myth that erases the violent, abusive nature of the slave trade.  Another child was asked to provide “3 good reasons for slavery.” 

A professional historian who researches and writes on slavery arguably has a better sense of perspective than a K-12 teacher who does not have the same level of expertise. In college classrooms, faculty also frequently have more control over the selection of their textbooks, and the content in general. But, we are unavoidably teaching against this backdrop of a system that has consistently failed to teach the real history of slavery and racism. In fact, as the recent backlash against The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory demonstrates, many faculty are teaching about slavery in environments that are actively hostile to teaching these histories.

These realities must be reflected in the decisions we make in the classroom. In many respects, the gamification of historical events is like other pedagogical decisions. There are instances where it works well, and is a strong teaching tool, and does no harm.  Nonetheless, faculty must always consider the potential for harm, and the fact that most careful scripting, best classroom management, and good intentions cannot eliminate that potential.  So, why borrow trouble? Why take a risk that might irrevocably damage a student’s learning environment?

Playing board games might be a way of teaching about slavery, but there are other approaches that can approach these difficult subjects without whitewashing them. Bethany Jay and Cynthia Lynn Lyerly have written one guide to teaching about the enslaved past. Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed, which specifically interrogates the public memory of slavery in an accessible way is another way to really think about what understandings of slavery that students might be bringing with them into the classroom.

Faculty at primarily white institutions particularly need to be mindful of what students of color – Black students in this instance – with personal ties to the history, slavery, AND their past experiences with an overwhelmingly white K-12 teacher population might have experienced. These students are generally well-aware of the history of slavery and colonization. Having to reenact them in a classroom with white classmates not only will not enhance the learning experiences of the students of color but will make the classroom experience hostile to them. It is important that these histories not only not obfuscate the past, as in the examples in the SPLC report, but that we model approaches to these histories that center the needs of those who do not have the privilege of forgetting about the enslaved pasts when they leave the classroom. 

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Jessica Parr

Jessica Parr teaches at Simmons College in Boston and is an Affiliate Assistant Professor of Women Studies at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. She's primarily interested in African American print culture, and religious and political thought. Her first book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @ProvAtlantic.

Comments on “Gamifying Historical Events

  • Interesting piece, Professor Parr. You mention Reacting to the Past, a role-playing pedagogy for college classes, and allude vaguely to it having weaknesses and virtues. Fellow historian James Stewart and I are the authors of the Reacting to the Past game, “Frederick Douglass, Slavery and. the Constitution, 1845” (Norton, 2019), the only published RTTP game that confronts the founding trauma of American history, slavery. I am curious about your views about the RTTP pedagogy.

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  • Thanks for this, Professor Parr. I take your key message to be that instructors must work carefully with games in classrooms. That is sage advice; as you note, the project can go wrong in many, many ways. But I do think it’s important to pay attention to this medium. As it assumes ever-larger space in our pedagogy as well as our entertainment culture, it will be important to help students understand how the games they play work to represent the past. We might consider historically-themed games akin to films (which are presently less profitable than AAA video games). Just as we want to equip our students with the tools they need to dissect movies about African American history (my students are now submitting essays on films like “The Butler” and “The Green Book”), we might want to help them how this medium works. Much agreed that this can be treacherous ground. But I would suggest that the work ahead may be less about whether or not we think of games, and more about how to do it responsibly. Few of us, I doubt, would argue that we should never treat the film medium because it so frequently fails to represent the past well. Indeed, the critical work of identifying that failure can teach students an awful lot — not just about the past, but about how it is remembered and represented.

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