facebook icon twitter icon youtube icon

Reacting to the Past

What if you did more than study history? What if you could live it? That may sound far-fetched -- as far as we know, time travel has yet to be invented -- but the history department at Simpson College has discovered a creative way to bridge the gap. 

"In the past couple of years, I've been an African-American slave, Thomas Paine, a Puritan, an advisor to the Emperor of China, and the British Governor General of India."

~ Benjamin Williams, '08

Many of the courses offered by the history department use games and simulations to immerse students in a particular historical moment. These games vary from short and rather abstract exercises that last a single class period to much more involved role-playing games that require several weeks. Most of these longer games are drawn from the Reacting to the Past series developed through Barnard College.  Simpson College is one of the founding members of the Reacting Consortium, a group of 300 colleges across the country that use this creative pedagogy to get students not only excited about history, but understanding it on a deeper level.

One of the most interesting things about these games is the degree to which they are run by the students themselves. After a few preliminary sessions of traditional instruction in which the professor makes sure the students understand the historical context and main intellectual collisions of the game, she steps back and lets the students take charge. This is thrilling, disorienting, and quite challenging for most students, but by figuring out how to run the game the classroom becomes theirs. 

 "One of the things I love best about the game-based approach is how it puts students at the center of the classroom."  - Nicolas Proctor, Professor of History

In addition to using games in most of his classes, Nicolas Proctor is currently developing several different games for the Reacting series. "Forest Diplomacy, 1756" explores the issues of war, peace, and land that divided Indians and colonists during the French and Indian War. "Kentucky, 1861" examines how the people of a pivotal border state deal with the secession crisis that led to the American Civil War. "Montgomery, 1956," puts Martin Luther King, Jr., and his co-conspirators on trial for their roles in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and "Paris, 1888" dramatizes the rise of modern art. He is also involved with a project to develop a series of games as a substitute to standard US history survey textbooks.

Both Professors Rebecca Livingstone and Judith Walden also us the RTTP games in several of their courses and are developing their own as well.  

Great speeches in the Crusades game earn students 'relics'.  Students must then construct a reliquary for the bones.

"The simulation games . . . bring out enthusiasm in every student. They are an opportunity for students to step into the shoes of the individuals they play and understand how difficult or complex their lives were at the time. If you love history as I do, you will find these games to be on of the highlights of your major and college experience."

~ Keith Bryan, '11

Experienced RTTP students have the opportunity to pitch and create their own games in Hist 369 Historical Simulation Design.  This course allows students to work together to research, design and write prototypes of several games, which they will playtest and refine during the semester. 

Some of the student-created games:

  • Speak of the Devil: Hell-bent for Blood in Salem Village, 1692
  • America, the Great War in Europe, and Mexican Intervention, 1915-17
  • Revolution in the Heartland: The Farmers’ Holiday Association, 1932-33
  • Vietnam: The Eve of Escalation, 1964-65
  • Chicago, 1968 - The Democratic National Convention
  • Mary Queen of Scots