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Role-Playing Game Upends College Lecture and Ignites Fire in Students

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Carsten Tolkmit/Flickr
Carsten Tolkmit/Flickr

The excerpt below is from the book "Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College," by Barnard University professor Mark C. Carnes.

Everyone responds to a role- immersion game in a different way. Some are stimulated by the competition, others by the imaginative reach, and others by the absurdity of it all. Gilberto G. Jimenez is among those who mostly enjoy its competitiveness. Gilberto was born in Monterrey, Mexico. After graduating from the local high school, he spent a few years racing a Formula 3 car. Th en he went to the University of Hartford, where he took a Reacting seminar in 2007. In the first game, set in Athens in 403 b.c.e., he was assigned a role as a radical democrat. It instantly engaged his competitive instincts.

From the start he sought an edge over the other students. "I knew my peers were doing the same thing, looking for an edge over me," he revealed, "so I had to research topics I knew they would bring up so that I could defend my stance." His chances of winning improved if he could persuade the Athenian assembly to rebuild its navy. But Sparta had just crushed
Athens and Athenian remilitarization might provoke Spartan intervention. Gilberto went to the library to research the subject. He discovered that while the Spartans committed themselves wholly to war, they also indulged in a long period of recuperation afterwards. Athens could "sneak up" and rebuild its navy and defensive walls while the Spartans were still recovering, or so he argued.

As he delivered his speech, Gilberto noticed that his heart was pounding. "It was silly," he observed. He had raced cars at speeds in excess of 150 miles an hour; he was not in the least
intimidated by public speaking. His excitement was "something more": he wanted to win, just "for the sake of it— to be number 1." Perhaps, he suggested, the compulsion to win was rooted in biology— part of our programming as a species to survive in a competitive world. A lust for competition was part of his own makeup: of that he was certain.

Other Reacting students care less about competition and instead enjoy imagining what it’s like to be someone else. Eric Welkos, a senior majoring in Asian art history at McDaniel College (Maryland), is an example. When he enrolled in an art course that included a Reacting game set in Paris in 1888, he considered himself a devotee of the avant- garde. Assigned the role of William Bouguereau, a staunch traditionalist and avowed foe of Gauguin and Van Gogh, Eric considered playing the part ironically: perhaps as a stuff y pedant whose retrograde views would send classmates into hysterics. But once immersed in Bouguereau’s writings and paintings, he uncovered more merit than he had thought. Traditional academic painting revealed a disciplined beauty and aesthetic power. Soon he found it easy to denounce Van Gogh and Gauguin “for slopping some paint on a canvas and calling it art.” For their part, the students playing Van Gogh and Gauguin tweaked Eric over Bouguereau's rotund cherubs and bare- breasted angels.


MindsOnFireEric enjoyed the competitive banter and the debates. But what appealed to him most was becoming Bouguereau. "I really absorbed him," Eric admitted. "To play Bouguereau, you have to be Bouguereau inside and out.” Eric eschewed his customary bohemian garb and came to class in a black pinstripe suit, bow tie, and pink shirt. The other students in the class embraced their roles, too. When Eric met them outside of class, immediately they assumed their game identities: Bougeureau chatted with Monet and Meissonier. The student playing Van Gogh took to wearing a Band- Aid on her ear. Becoming other people was fun — researching their lives, writing papers from their perspective, voicing their ideas in class.

Often students find this surprising. Accustomed to hiding behind the glittering facade of their Facebook wall, many are initially unnerved by the idea of becoming someone else. For example, when Ashleigh Schap, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, first heard about Reacting she was appalled by the prospect of "weird role- playing games." An upper- class
student further warned that the workload in Reacting was "brutal," so Ashleigh resolved to take nearly any other course. But scheduling problems intervened and she had no choice but to enroll in a Reacting class: "I thought it was going to be a pain in the butt."

In the first game, she was assigned the role of Thrasybulus, the general who led the radical democrats in Athens in 403 b.c.E. Her initial task was to persuade the Athenian assembly to punish those who had collaborated with the Spartan army of occupation. Lest she make a fool of herself, Ashleigh worked hard on her speech. At the beginning of the first game session, as she
walked to the podium, stomach churning, she worried that the speech would bomb — and that the class would be a dud. But as she spoke, something clicked: her words made sense and she saw several other students — all of them strangers — nodding in agreement. Then, while looking at the impassive faces of the other students, she wanted them to nod, too. She poured emotion into her words, and soon she was hooked. When she returned to her dorm, she started her next paper. She had become Thrasybulus.

I really bought into it. I genuinely adopted a set of beliefs, and I very genuinely sought to defend them. The game was fake; we all knew that. But the goal — influencing
your peers, making your voice heard, saying something worth hearing— that was very real. We weren't actually in Athens, but we were actively trying to change each other's minds.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Reacting is how readily students surrender their skepticism and, like Ashleigh, "buy into" Reacting. Partly this is because they take possession of the class. To be sure, students recognize that their sovereignty is illusory. Their thoughts and actions are constrained by the rules of the game, by the requirements of their particular roles, and by the ultimate authority of the instructor-as-gamemaster. Students perceive that the professor who has given them suggestions on how to win or write a persuasive paper has just walked over to their opponents and done the same with them. Students who are on the verge of winning chafe when the gamemaster folds in complications that make their task harder. A major element of all Reacting games is the tension between the students who run the class and the gamemaster who enforces the structure of the game. Th is dynamic invites students to subvert it and often they do: sometimes they undertake additional research to challenge gamemaster rulings and to propose rule modifications.

Sometimes, however, the subversions are more explicit.

A vivid illustration occurred in Larry Carver’s Reacting class at the honors college at the University of Texas at Austin in March 2009. His students had finished "Henry VIII and the Reformation Parliament" and the class was midway through the set- up phase of "Defining a Nation: The Indian Subcontinent on the Eve of Independence, 1945." The setup included a 100-question quiz on nearly 700 pages of readings: the 200-page game book, large sections of the "Bhagavad Gita" and the "Qur'an," and a history of colonial India.

On the day of the quiz, Ingrid Norton, a graduating senior, arrived early. Her reading of the materials had been perfunctory. The threat of a quiz had been insufficient to make her study
hard, and now it loomed. She grumbled about the quiz with her peers. "Reacting absorbs students into ideas, gives them motivations for reading that are more organic (and internal) than
quizzes," she mentioned afterwards. "We all knew we would eventually do the reading." But she was convinced that the forced quiz went against the spirit of Reacting.

Then an idea popped into her head. "What if we hold a nonviolent protest against the quiz today? Like Gandhi?" she asked her classmates. The idea caught fire, Ingrid recalled, because it "tapped into the anarchic inclination" of students.

A few minutes later Carver entered the room, joking about the heat in India. The students stared at him with poker faces. "OK, OK," Carver said. "Must have been something I said, so let's try this again." He walked out and closed the door. The students looked at each other. Then Ingrid hurried to the center of the room and sat down, cross- legged. Everyone joined her, some giggling, others nervous and uncomfortable. When Carver re-entered, the protesters said nothing.

"Ingrid," he asked, "are you behind this?" She smiled innocently. Then he walked out.

"The emotional tenor changed instantly," Ingrid recalled. "He had pulled out the rug from us." "Go after him!" several students pleaded.

Ingrid and some others leaped up, ran out the door, and caught up with him down the hall. "No," he replied. "“I'm not coming back. The offices in India close early. Sorry."

Ingrid saw the glint in his eyes: "I felt frozen out, but I knew he was messing with us." The delegation returned to the classroom and the students spent the next hour in agitated debate. Had they erred in challenging authority? Carver was not just their instructor; he was also head of the honors college. Would he really punish them?

Ingrid, however, put things together. The British, she argued, would have stormed off, too, or thrown the protesters in jail. Gandhi himself had said that those who engaged in civil disobedience should expect to suffer the consequences. The path to justice was never easy. Soon the students were lost in a debate over the tactics and philosophy of civil disobedience.

Carver's ingenious response to the students' make - believe civil disobedience — to pretend that it was real — transformed the class into a subversive play world within a subversive play world. Carver was both taking the protesters seriously — and playing with them. "It had us a bit on edge," Ingrid recalled, "but it energized us," eliciting

that lovely feeling of challenging authority, of being encouraged to be anarchic in an educational setting, of taking a class in your reins, and just that cool thing where you're admitted into a realm possessed by authority figures. ... This was what I felt about the best of my college classes, that I could go out and take on the world.

Most subversive play — because it contravenes normal social structures or beliefs — edges toward man-bites-dog absurdity. And the first thing that strikes observers about a Reacting class is its weirdness: callow young men and women acting as if they were Ming emperors, or eminent scientists in the Royal Society, or Founding Fathers of the American nation. Whenever a Reacting course is first offered at a college, word spreads that something “strange” is going on. Soon a reporter shows up. What draws attention and generates headlines are the unusual happenings, such as Nate’s standing on a chair to incite the mob or Ingrid’s impromptu sit- down strike. Usually, toward the end of the article, the reporter quotes students on how hard they have worked, but the main point of the story is that Reacting classes are absurd.

As indeed they are. Yet the strangeness of Reacting is not limited to the occasional over- the- top actions of some students. Everything about the experience is weird: coming to class before sunrise; working all night to gain an advantage to win an academic game; identifying with historical figures with unusual beliefs; parading an eager- beaver enthusiasm in a student culture predicated on sophisticated disinterest. The permeating strangeness of Reacting is another reason it’s fun.


Mark C. Carnes is Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia University. He teaches recent American history along with seminars in the "Reacting to the Past" program which he initiated in 1996.

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