Re-creating the Past, One Game at a Time

When Oregon State University history professors Amy Koehlinger and Marisa Chappell discovered a new way to bring the past to life in the classroom, they immediately started thinking about how perfect it would be for Honors College students. In fall term, 2015, they got their chance, and it was every bit as exciting as they […]

July 13, 2016

When Oregon State University history professors Amy Koehlinger and Marisa Chappell discovered a new way to bring the past to life in the classroom, they immediately started thinking about how perfect it would be for Honors College students. In fall term, 2015, they got their chance, and it was every bit as exciting as they imagined.

Professors Chappell and Koehlinger
Professors Chappell (left) and Koehlinger (right) supervising a game session in class. Photo credit: Mina Carson

Instead of drawing on traditional lectures and discussions, History 299H, “History Games,” builds an immersive role-playing experience for students, in which they adopt the roles of historical characters and act through historical events. In the fall of 2014, Koehlinger and Chappell attended a workshop at the University of Oregon to learn more about this type of course. “We played a very abbreviated version of the game to see how it works,” says Koehlinger. “They had a student panel there, and these students were crazy excited about this, overwhelmingly enthusiastic.” After participating in the workshop, they brought the idea back to Oregon State and began creating a course of their own, with support from an Honors College Experiential Learning Course Development Grant.

Based on the pre-existing curriculum for the “Reacting to the Past” courses at Barnard College, “History Games” is set in Greenwich Village in 1913. During early sessions of the course, the professors provide students with the context to build and inhabit that world: “The first thing we do in the class is say ‘Here’s the United States in 1913,’” Koehlinger explains. “’Here’s the art, here’s the music, here’s the culture, here’s what gender relations are like, this is what work is like, here’s what your kitchen would look like, this is what it’s like to live in this time and place.’”

Students are then assigned historical roles, characters they will play throughout the course of the game, who each belong to a particular viewpoint perspective. This course has three “factions,” as the instructors call them: The suffrage faction; the International Workers of the World (an early labor union) faction; and the faction made up of the anarchists, dreamers, writers, and artists. “The Greenwich Village game is interesting because all of the players are sort of on the same side,” says Chappell. “They all have a progressive vision and want to see a more just world, but they have different ideas about what the priorities should be for getting that.”

In a field that can sometimes seem stuffy and old-fashioned in the classroom, the opportunity to explore history in a new way was immensely appealing for the professors and the students. The idea is that instead of learning for a test, students are motivated by the concept of mastering the game – a game which requires active engagement with the past and historical themes. “Young people these days are immersed in game culture,” says Chappell, “and if you provide that aspect of play and competition, it will provide an internal motivation for students to seek out additional information so they can advance their position.”

Students listen as another delivers a speech. Photo credit: Mina Carson

To increase the sense of immersion, both professors also reward students for engaging at deeper levels. Dressing in character, creating period art work, and performing activities in character are just a few of the ways students earn influence points and improve their standings in the game. This level of involvement also results in a deeper learning: “When you have to embody a historical person and a historical perspective, you learn it in a much deeper way,” says Chappell, “because you’re emotionally as well as intellectually engaged.”

Koehlinger and Chappell took full advantage of the learning possibilities inherent in this kind of engagement by placing students into roles that expanded their perspectives. “Some men were playing women, and some women were playing men,” explains Koehlinger. “There’s something about students becoming emotionally invested in the perspective that’s not theirs. There’s a chance to play across type, and to enter the world of someone quite different from yourself.”

This is not just a goal for the class, but one of the goals of teaching and studying history, the development of a sense of empathy for and understanding of multiple perspectives from various time periods. Another major theme of historical analysis – the contingency of past events and their dependence on individual choices – is also captured uniquely well through the experiential engagement of the game. “This is one of the hardest things to teach,” Chappell says, “because history has happened. It’s done, we know the ending.” By re-living and, in a sense, re-creating the past through the course of the class, students experience the uncertainty and unpredictability of actual life and get a sense that historical events were not inevitable. Chappell notes that sometimes a game will end much differently than things actually happened.

Students deliberating during a game session. Photo credit: Mina Carson

“History happens because certain people make certain choices, do certain things,” Koehlinger explains. “There’s a liveliness of unpredictability when it’s happening that you can see in the games. Someone playing the game especially well can affect the course of events just like people in the real world can.”

But the role-playing is not the only source of learning for students. The textbook in the course is also chock full of primary sources from the time period, many of which are writings by the people the students are playing. “They’re sort of learning history from the inside out,” Chappell says.

This unique class found a well-suited home in the Honors College, and was met with great excitement from students. “Their evaluations were ridiculously enthusiastic,” Koehlinger says with a smile. “Honors is such a great place to incubate this course because the students are so bright and engaged.”

While this class has a future in the HC and will run again in fall term, 2016, Chappell and Koehlinger hope to also find a way to offer these types of reacting classes as a sort of “Freshman Experience” for students in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion.

Let the games begin.


The course description and registration information can be found in the HC Course Descriptions for Fall 2016.

CATEGORIES: All Stories Courses and Faculty Features

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