Education by Role-Playing

I’m recently back from the UK where I defended my dissertation and then took a vacation to drink Scotch and travel about the Highlands.  As I’m almost de-jetlagged and as the airline has finally coughed up my luggage, I’ll soon be returning to proper blogging.

In the meantime, I thought I’d just post a link to a really interesting site from Barnard College about a technique for teaching undergraduates about critical periods in the past, emphasizing the role of historical contingency and (more controversially, but, in my view soundly) about the agency of individuals.  Their technique is a game called “Reacting to the Past.” It involves roleplaying and does have some sort of determination of winners and losers.  (How this determination is made is not clear.  My impression is that entails voting by a panel of judges, but I may be wrong.)

As Israel and Palestine are on everyone’s minds these days, check out the video of the students playing a scenario of “Reacting” dealing with the founding of Israel.  “The game was based around the work of the Palestine Royal Commission (also known as the Peel Commission) which arrived in Jerusalem in 1936 to try and determine the causes of conflict and make recommendations for the future.”  It’s fascinating and really powerful, not least because most of the students were Jews or Muslims and they were purposely cast against type for the purposes of the game.  I applaud all of them for their intellectual integrity and for the research and effort that they clearly put into their preparations.

That scenario clearly has some connection with military history.  Another scenario in development which deals more directly with military history is entitled “The Second Crusade: The War Council of Acre, 1148,” and it deals with the decision to launch the…Second Crusade.  Barnard has in the can already yet another scenario dealing with New York City during the Revolutionary War. Rather amusingly, the description of this scenario includes the amusing line, “Winning requires the ability to master the high political arguments for and against revolution as well as the low political skills of logrolling, bribery, and threatened force. [However] Military force often determines the winner, much to the surprise of the students who concentrated merely on internal game politics.”  Never forget Mao: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

I wonder if it might not be possible to apply the “Reacting to the Past” methodology to a course that is more specifically related to military and diplomatic history.  Possible scenarios.

  • The run-up to World War I.
  • The decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
  • The run-up to the U.S. Civil War.
  • The Prague Spring of 1968.
  • Perestroika, the USSR and the East Bloc.
  • Japan and the United States: The Road to War.

Of course, if one wanted to be particularly controversial, one could create a REALLY interesting scenario around the Arab mujahidin at the end of the Soviet War in Afghanistan.  Near enemy?  Far enemy?  Azzam or Bin Laden?  I shan’t hold my breath, but that would be really cool.

[Update:  Gah.  Always follow every link.  Grants have been given for two additional games that deal to some degree with military history:  “Kentucky in 1861: A Nation in the Balance” and “Petrograd, 1917.”]

Published in: on June 9, 2010 at 1:50 AM  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. In 2005 I was wondering how best to run a SASO/FID/COIN simulation on the cheap for my Military English students. I was fiddling about with a traditional, yet simple wargame design of my own, when a colleague suggested just using an Engle Matrix Game (

    Over the years I’ve written MGs covering crowd-control and peacekeeping in Mitrovica, Kosovo, COIN operations in RC-E Afghanistan, and a final one based on the excellent book Defense of Jisr Al Doreaa. The games were easy to run and provided many teaching moments. The best part was increased attention to the base documents; students used techniques and ideas found in the reading as well as coming up with their own. In the Afghan scenario, US forces lost a company commander due to booby-trapped livestock, which seemed funny at the time but unfortunately real life mirrored the game a few weeks later.

    Drop me a line if you’d like to discuss it further–at the moment I’m deciding whether to prepare a course around PKO in Congo or ongoing operations in Marja/Kandahar.

  2. Really nice to see roleplay being recognised for the valuable engagement tool it really is!

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