Gaming U.S. History

Last spring I read an interesting article by Ken Owen at The Junto blog on gaming the Revolutionary War as a classroom exercise. While this approach might be a little unconventional for most instructors, using a gaming exercise in an American history class is something I have always wanted to try. This semester, I have the opportunity to give it a shot (so to speak) in my Civil War and Reconstruction class, and I have been planning a gaming/simulation exercise to recreate the Battle of Antietam mid-semester.

The way I envision this exercise is as follows: I will assign the roles of various important commanders to individual students. In the weeks preceding the “battle” students will research the lives and backgrounds of their assigned commander, paying particular attention to that person’s role at the Battle of Antietam. On the day of the exercise, using playing pieces to represent their troops, participants will recreate their commanders’ actions and decisions using a historical (and highly detailed) map of the battlefield blown up to poster size. Meanwhile, I will manage events by walking them through a timeline and presenting them with actual problems and dilemmas of the participants. And then, once the exercise concludes, students will write up their findings and reflections.

This may seem like a colossal waste of time to some of you. After all, aren’t our undergraduates’ valuable time (and valuable tuition dollars) better spent on weightier issues than playing games? Maybe, or maybe not. It seems to me that a gaming exercise could, if properly executed, present a unique opportunity to open up some new avenues of learning, particularly in a military history context. I think it will engage students by encouraging them to compete. It will require them to consider complexity in history, and demonstrate the sometimes cruel nature of contingency, particularly in war. And finally, I hope that the exercise will encourage a sense of empathy for or intellectual investment in their subject that might not exist simply by reading through a dry textbook or monograph.

This may be a triumph, or it may be a disaster. Either way, I’ll be sure to let you know how things turn out.

3 thoughts on “Gaming U.S. History

  1. Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad I’ve caused further thinking on this. I really enjoyed the experience, and it’s something I’m keen to repeat in other classes (and, indeed, I’m thinking of creating a freshman seminar on history and board gaming).

    The thing that maybe surprised me most about the class was how much some students got into it (not necessarily the ones I’d have expected)., Assigning roles may work even better here, as it will give an even greater sense of agency – which will be valuable in itself. Good luck, I’ll be fascinated to hear how it goes!

  2. Do you know about the Reacting to the Past pedagogy? It’s built around multi-week immersive role-playing games, set in moments of historical crisis. Students prepare by reading key texts and historical background; they then receive individual and/or factional role descriptions, which include biographical information, strategic advice, and victory objectives. Once the game proper begins, all participation (as well as all writing) is in character, with faculty only monitoring the action and occasionally announcing “news bulletins” or rolling dice to determine the outcome of an event. It’s enormously rewarding, because students really take ownership of their learning. More info here:

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