Historical Thinking History Instructional Design

Playing well with others

Teacher educator Christopher Martell recently tweeted a call for collaboration:

I enthusiastically support this. High school history teachers need to be in touch with the field in order to globalize and practice historical thinking. Recognizing that history is not a settled set of facts about the past means that continuing to learn models historical thinking for our students. I count myself lucky to have benefited from many such collaborations, online and off. Reading Martell’s tweet brought some of the former to mind.

Both the World History Association’s annual conference last June and the Great Lakes History Conference last month fostered productive, collegial interactions between students, historians, and teachers. GLHC sessions brought together academics, undergraduates, and secondary school teachers. This was especially interesting given the conference theme, “Playing with history.” I participated in two Reacting to the Past (RTTP) simulations, a setting which brought people from all of these backgrounds together. In fact, undergraduate students from Grand Valley State who had participated in the simulations as part of their coursework were resources to those of use who were new to RTTP. Playing Felix Diaz during the Mexican Revolution and academic painter William Adolphe Bouguereau in Paris c. 1888 was fun and educational.

At Grand Valley State, I joined Bram Hubbell in discussing the pitfalls of simulations in high school history: Less Scrambling, More Reflecting.  As Jeremy Greene pointed out on twitter, this had the potential to be awkward.

Yes, but the differences between a brief and giggly classroom scramble for desks and the multi-day, complex RTTP activities are significant. Undergraduate student panelists at the conference repeatedly mentioned deeper context as a an advantage of learning history through RTTP. The complex simulations feature multiple characters, so students see the context in which historical actors made decisions. The complexity also forces students to confront different perspectives and experiences of people the past.

In total contrast, simulating European imperialism in Africa with students claiming elements of their classroom strips the Berlin Conference of any context and presents only one aspect (great power competition) of one set of historical actors (European imperialists). This approach elides colonial agency and debates within imperialist countries. More importantly, it turns a great human tragedy into a mirth-inducing game. As I’ve written before I find this deeply problematic.

A session at the Great Lakes History Conference titled “The Ethics of Gaming in the Early Modern World and Beyond” sharpened my thinking on this.  Andrew Peterson’s presentation “Representations of the Early Modern Global Economy in Hobby Board Games” revealed some of the same callousness in gaming set during early global imperialism as in simulating the “new” imperialism of the late nineteenth-century.

Martin Wainwright’s presentation in the same session, “Perpetrating Virtual Atrocities: How Video-Game Developers Treat Slavery and Genocide,” provided insight into both. Wainwright argued that a game designer’s perception of their proximity to slavery makes a significant difference in how they present it. For instance, a very callous depiction of racialized slavery that he found in his research was in a Danish video game for children in which players place enslaved people in the hold of a slaving ship. The game mechanics resemble Tetris. Along with the rest of the room, I gasped when Wainwright presented the visual. Wainwright attributes the amazing insensitivity of this game to the sense among some Danes that they occupy a moral high ground because Denmark abolished the slave trade, but not slavery in its colonies, before other Europeans. The game designers apparently wanted the game to demonstrate the evils of slavery. Wainwright contrasted this with Civilization IV, developed in the former slave-state of Maryland, which does not reference slavery at all.

With these and other examples Wainwright persuasively argued that game designers are less sensitive with topics that seem farther from their society. This gets at the essence of the offensiveness of the “Scramble for Africa” simulation: it assumes that teachers and students today are at a distance from late nineteenth-century Africans and this distance makes their tragedy an appropriate object for our play.

We must decolonize the study of colonialism particularly and World History more generally.  RTTP could contribute to this, although most, but certainly not all, of the non-US games fit more into the study of Western Civilization than World History. Additionally and unfortunately for secondary educators, the amount of time required for RTTP games–4-10 class periods–and the cost–college students purchase , game guides as a class book for $35 each–are large barriers to adoption in high school. Bram noted at the conference that these games are probably best suited for mid-level college courses without survey requirements. Most high school history classes have broad curricular demands, whether from state standards and/or Advanced Placement curricula that make this type of deep exploration impossible. But, we can apply lessons from the best aspects of RTTP to evaluate our own simulations and games. We should ensure that students use them to contextualize events of the past and see their complexities.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

Let me know what you think!

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