Conference at Simpson Brings Life to the Past — and to the Classroom

It was 1968 all over again.

There was Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, unlit cigar in hand, searching for a smoke-filled room. In another area sat a few of the Democratic presidential candidates – Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy, the peace candidate.

In the back, shouting protests, were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, leader of the Yippies, as well as Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party.

The tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention, which in reality produced what was referred to as a “police riot” against protestors and ushered in the presidency of Richard Nixon, was ready to begin anew.

It was hard to predict what historic figure you might run into this week at the 2014 Reacting to the Past Game Development Conference, hosted by Simpson College from July 16-20.

Some 60 educators traveled from throughout the country – and from Canada and Japan – to play, design and develop role-playing games.

But these are no ordinary games. Reacting to the Past is a teaching method designed to engage students as they study one particular historic event, person or time period.

“It’s not like Dungeons and Dragons,” said Mark Higbee, professor of history at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich.

More than 300 colleges and universities have used some version of Reacting to the Past games in the past 13 years, and the popularity of the role-playing method is increasing as educators discover how much students relish – and learn from – the process.

Teachers Reacting to the Past

“One of the big secrets in higher education is that teachers and students often are bored,” Higbee told the group. “Reacting breaks that paradigm… The students usually get hooked.”

The first day of the four-day conference focused on showing educators unfamiliar with the games how they work.

“We always tell people that until they go to a conference they won’t really know what the experience is like,” said John Burney, a history professor and vice president for academic affairs at Doane College in Crete, Neb. He also is chair of the Reacting Consortium Board.

For Simpson, one of the first colleges to embrace the Reacting to the Past model, the conference offers a chance to gain name recognition and to showcase student and faculty work. Ten faculty members, four current Simpson students and three alumni participated.

Two Simpson professors, Judy Walden, associate professor of history, and Rebecca Livingstone, associate professor of history, were scheduled to present at the conference.

Livingstone is one of the co-authors of the game, “Memory and Monument Building: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, while Walden is author of the game, “A ‘virtuous woman?’ The Abolition of Sati, India 1829.”

Livingstone’s game was to be “play-tested” and Walden’s “workshopped” by conference participants.

Nick Proctor

Simpson also played a big role during the first day of the conference. The game chosen to be played, called “Chicago, 1968,” was originally developed by Simpson students Dustin McNulty ’13 and Emily Stover ’13 in a class taught by Nick Proctor, professor of history and one of the initial enthusiasts of the Reacting method.

McNulty and Stover were on hand to watch the professors play their game.

“This is nothing I would have expected to happen,” said McNulty, a substitute teacher in West Des Moines.

Stover said she uses the method as she teaches high school students in the Laurens-Marathon School District.

“The students really do get more interested in history,” she said. “They get excited about it.”

She looked around the Kent Campus Center room.

“I can’t believe this is something I had a part in creating. All our hard work paid off.”

At the conference, the educators broke into several factions, including Democrat office-holders, protesters, journalists and convention delegates. Each person is given a role to play, and each had been given a packet of information before the conference regarding their character’s background and goals for the convention.

But this is not a re-enactment. Reacting to the Past allows history to occasionally veer off into unexpected directions.

“Here the context changes based on the way the game is going,” Burney said.

Aaron Vanek

Several of the participants brought costumes and props. Aaron Vanek, who portrayed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson kept a long cigarette holder clenched in his teeth. The person who portrayed the Black Panthers’ Seale wore a black beret, just as he did.

Paul Fessler

Paul Fessler, professor of history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, portrayed Hoffman. He brought a stuffed pig to represent “Pigasus,” the Yippies’ candidate for president in 1968. He also spared no profanity in channeling Hoffman’s speeches.

“It’s not the way I normally talk,” he later acknowledged.

But perhaps no educator assumed his character’s role more enthusiastically than Jack Gittinger, a Simpson professor of education. As protester Jerry Rubin, Gittinger donned a purple bandana, held a toy purple megaphone and wore a jacket scribbled with a peace sign and “Off the Pigs in Defense of Self-Defense.”

Jack Gittinger

Proctor said the game is designed to provide “a crystallization of all the tensions of the ‘60s,” including hawks vs. doves, police vs. protesters, segregationists vs. integrationists, and old-school reporters vs. practitioners of the so-called “New Journalism.”

“All of these are in the stew,” he said.

Each character has multiple goals to achieve. Winning or losing depends on how close a character comes to achieving those goals.

The rest of the conference was organized to help educators design and develop new games. Some of the topics included John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry; the debate over the true inventor of calculus; and the 1964 trial of Nelson Mandela.

Simpson is a logical site to host the conference. Proctor has been with the Reacting to the Past consortium almost from the beginning, and the College’s history department looks for ways to use that teaching method.

Other colleges have noticed. Grinnell College faculty has consulted with Simpson about using games in their classrooms, and they had a representative at the conference.

Educators familiar with the Reacting to the Past teaching style say students retain more information, interact more with other students and enjoy the experience more than a traditional lecture.

“I would assign papers that students didn’t want to write and I didn’t want to read them,” Burney said. “They were boring and same the same thing, over and over again.”

Now, students still write papers based on their game experience, “but they’re much more interesting because the students are much more invested emotionally,” he said.

Proctor said he believes educators are just beginning to tap into the potential of game playing as a teaching tool.

“It really increases the level of student engagement,” he said. “It becomes the students’ classroom.”

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  1. Mark Higbee on July 20, 2014

    Thank you for this account of the Game Development Conference, 2014! Simpson College did a great job hosting it, and I very much enjoyed seeing the Simpson campus. Everyone was much impressed with the Simpson students we meet.