On Thursday, I found myself screaming at the Ming dynasty Emperor Wanli for wanting to anoint his third born son in place of the first born. For all my remonstrations, I was executed as a Confucian martyr on Friday morning. On Saturday, I entered a chaotic meeting between illustrious American citizens desperate to uphold slavery and a team of Abolitionists. All in all, in the last week I travelled between five centuries in a matter of four days.
I was not in a time machine. I was at the Reacting to the Past Institute at Barnard College, one of the most exhilarating new methods of revolutionizing higher education that I have experienced. Reacting to the Past (RTTP) is a series of elaborate games, set in the past, where students take on the roles of historical characters, and through arguments and gameplay, have the potential to reshape history. In order for students to “win” the game, they have to thoroughly master literary and historical texts for their games’ time period, and to be able to fight against their in-game opponents through a series of oral presentations and written work. In other words, students in Reacting to the Past have to basically do everything their professors want them to do in a college class—read and analyze texts, learn about historical contexts, learn how to construct forceful and convincing arguments—but in the guise of a game. I played two characters in two games—a follower of the Ming Confucian extremist Hai Rui in Confucianism and the Crisis of the Wanli Emperor, set in 1587, and an undiscovered, young Walt Whitman in 1845 in Frederick Douglass and Abolition.
I was astounded by how participating in the games completely changed the way both my fellow gameplayers and I learned. Like many of our students, most of us had come to the workshops less prepared than we should have. But the intensity of the gameplay drove us to comb The Analects the night after the first game to find evidence to thwart our foes; and to thumb through Douglass’s autobiography to make claims against the scientific racism of the nineteenth century. I can only imagine what Reacting to the Past does for the undergraduate classroom.
I’m now planning to organize an introduction to Reacting to the Past event in summer 2013 for faculty and graduate students in the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia for instructors. Along with Jeff Hyson of St. Joseph’s University, we’re thinking of holding a brief conference where faculty will get to play a few games and think about how they can introduce them in their classes. If you’re interested in taking part, or serving as a GameMaster, please email me: adelinekoh [at] gmail [dot] com. We’re thinking of holding a meetup in the Philly area the last two weeks of June, and I’ll be sending out a doodle poll soon. If you’re in the NY/NJ area, we may hold a Google hangout, so send me a note as well if you’re interested.