Using “Reacting to the Past” Role-Playing Games to Foster Vigorous Active Learning

Genevieve Amaral

As a newly-hired full-time faculty member at Temple in 2015, naturally I agreed when my Associate Director asked me to join a weekend-long teaching workshop. When I looked more closely at the email describing the event, however, I was a little daunted: I had committed to training to use “Reacting to the Past” (RTTP), a role-playing pedagogy in which students become immersed in elaborate, multi-week games set at major historical and ideological junctures. According to the email invitation, the best way to learn to use the method is to experience a game directly, so faculty would be playing an accelerated version of Greenwich Village, 1913Players would assume the identities of women’s suffrage leaders, major figures in the Industrial Workers of the World union battles, or the artists who peopled the cafes of New York City at the start of the twentieth century. I was to be Emma Goldman, the anarchist firebrand.

Suspicious of what seemed like a gimmick and terrified of making a fool of myself in front of all my new colleagues, I spent the week before the workshop feverishly reading the gamebook, researching Goldman, and preparing for my (or rather, Emma’s) speeches to the bohemians of Greenwich Village (that is, Temple faculty in the Intellectual Heritage Lounge in Anderson Hall). When I began playing the game that Saturday morning, I was surprised to discover how much I had learned and retained about a thinker I had known almost nothing about a week earlier. By the end of the workshop, stunned at how engrossing and exciting RTTP could be, I was sold.

Since then, along with faculty in the Intellectual Heritage program and others across campus, I have committed to using RTTP games regularly in my classrooms each semester. We draw from the dozens of games published by the Reacting Consortium, each of which asks students to react to critical historical moments ranging from the collapse of democracy in ancient Athens, to the trial of Anne Hutchinson, to the succession crisis in 16th-century China.

Most games take between three and four weeks to complete, during which students are tasked with the traditional seminar work of reading critically, writing, and presenting in class. The twist with RTTP is that students do so entirely in role. The goals and ambitions of their historical figures and factions become the “victory objectives” that drive active learning and cultivate ethical reasoning, including the capacity to understand the perspectives of others removed by a (sometimes vast) geographical and temporal distance.

When I asked some of my colleagues why they use the method, they pointed to active learning, among other motivations. IH Professor Jim Getz does it for “two reasons: first, I’m convinced by the peer-reviewed data of the effectiveness of the pedagogy in teaching not just the what but the why and how of history. Second, I find it much more rewarding as an educator than simply standing in front of a lectern giving lectures or leading seminars.” For IH Professor Susan Bertolino, “Students complain endlessly about boring lectures. The games are not boring, plus they have to listen to their peers in order to construct arguments. If the group is cohesive, there is community, friendship, and a lot of fun.”

RTTP does present unique challenges. Professor Getz admits that “it is distinctly unnerving to cede the classroom to students. There is a lot that can (and does) go wrong. There is a robust community at Temple and online to help when things go sideways, but part of the beauty of this pedagogy is that it is often exactly when things go off the rails from the historical situation that students can learn the most—it’s at these moments when students are most able to see their own twenty-first-century biases.” Similarly, according to Professor Bertolino, “the games are wonderful to use, but they demand a lot from the instructor as students have to take active roles. Many are not used to this. They regard education as passive in which they receive information from the instructor.” “However,” counters Professor Getz, “the natural competitiveness of students mitigates this. Once RTTP starts and students start to perceive they are ‘losing,’ student investment shoots up.”

While RTTP began as a liberal arts initiative, many STEM games have recently been developed, teaching topics like epidemiology and germ theory through the 1854 cholera epidemic in London, or nutrition science and public health policy through the invention of the USDA food pyramid in 1991. Instructors interested in trying the method might begin with a one-class “micro-game,” available for free download on the RTTP website. With the support of CAT and GenEd, Temple is a Consortium member, giving all faculty access to the Consortium’s online resources after creating an account. Those new to RTTP can also join the growing community of hundreds of faculty across the country who meet annually at Barnard College (where the method was invented by history professor Mark Carnes) to train and share strategies. If you’re looking to increase active learning and inherent motivation among your students, consider RTTP. Just prepare for things to get active; as Professor Getz recalls, “I have never had students flip tables while talking passionately about the importance of democratic principles in a non-RTTP classroom.”

Genevieve Amaral is Assistant Director of Special Programs for Temple’s Intellectual Heritage Program.

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