Reacting to the Past Role-Immersion Games
McFall learned about Reacting to the Past—a role-immersion approach to teaching history—about fifteen years ago. He had been looking for ways to make his World Civilizations class more engaging and found out about the program from Mark Carnes, the History professor at Barnard College who founded the Reacting to the Past Institute, the precursor of the current Reacting to the Past Consortium. According to the Reacting to the Past website, it is “an active-learning pedagogy of complex role-playing games. Reacting promotes engagement with big ideas, and improves critical, practical, intellectual, and academic skills”; the website also states that “Through immersive role-playing, students are able to experience history in a way that transcends traditional classroom learning.”
Once McFall looked at the website, he made a snap decision to use this approach the following term. He immediately ordered the books, then had a moment of fear, not knowing exactly what he had gotten himself into. He registered for a conference to learn how to teach using this method. Once there, he was blown away—as a PhD student, he had studied, in part, how multi-ethnic societies work—but in playing a game over one weekend, he felt that he had learned more about that subject than he had during his doctoral studies.
McFall says that each game “invites students to immerse themselves in a society facing a debate or challenge in which participants disagree.” Each student is assigned a role, either a known historical figure or a fictional character based in historical fact. McFall offers an example from a game he developed—The Needs of Others: Human Rights, International Organizations, and Intervention in Rwanda, 1994—in which the students are ambassadors to the United Nations in 1994, responding to reports of escalating genocidal violence in Rwanda.
These games, set in times and spaces that are very different from the students’ current lives, impel participants to “practice careful critical reading, empathetical thinking, and persuasion,” McFall notes. They must think much more deeply about every aspect of the given history and its context than students who simply learn historical facts. Another challenge students must confront in playing these games is that of inhabiting the beliefs and sensibilities held by people from other geographic locations and historic eras; students must step out of their twentieth century American viewpoints when playing Reacting to the Past games.
McFall states that this hands-on learning approach has transformed his teaching; the “students are taking over leadership in the classroom,” and his role has shifted to coach, guide, and—at times—cheerleader. Not only is role-immersion a more effective way to teach, McFall points out, but it also offers institutional benefits such as community building and retention. He now takes his own students to conferences such as the one that hooked him; the students help other professors learn to play.
McFall, now the Director of the Reacting Editorial Board, has written or co-written five games so far; the creation process of each game has taken five years every time. To gather the needed information, he conducts some primary research, but the majority of the research is secondary. The goal in assembling and writing the materials is to produce all of the historical and intellectual materials necessary for students to truly immerse themselves in the scenario. As an academic historian, McFall also had to learn to adopt a non-academic voice to write in this creative non-fiction genre. He says that he was not trained to write in different ways, so developing a new writerly voice was definitely a learning process. As the Reacting to the Past website states, each game includes four sets of material: “A student Gamebook, which outlines the historical context, game premise, central debates, and rules; an Instructor’s Manual with complete instructions on running the game on a day-to-day basis, complete with course handouts; a packet of role sheets to be distributed to students with instructions on their individual goals and strategies for game play; [and] a variety of companion texts / primary source readings (which may also be included as appendices to the student game book).”
As each game is in development, McFall explains, it is extensively revised throughout an extended period of review and comment; games are also played in dozens of classrooms before they are finished. His first game was in version 8.2—eight major versions, with two updated adaptations of the final one—before going to the publisher. McFall notes that it can be challenging to integrate the feedback in ways that still make sense, are truthful, and are helpful to the students who will play the game.
All kinds of teaching can be fun, McFall says, but playing Reacting to the Past games has made his classrooms “much more fun places to be.” He also appreciates that the games allow him to “connect with students on an entirely different basis.” Instead of McFall giving lectures as the source of knowledge, students come to him for advice as they wrestle with the material. Their deep engagement with the information and process also helps them to remember the material in much more detail.
Not Only Fun and Games
In 2007, history professor Marshall Poe founded New Books in History, a podcast focused on amplifying awareness of excellent new books in the discipline of History. As the podcast caught on, he expended the offerings, eventually forming the New Books Network, “a consortium of author-interview podcast channels dedicated to raising the level of public discourse by introducing scholars and other serious writers to a wide public via new media,” as its website states. McFall adds that these podcasts can allow undergraduate and graduate students to access books they would not otherwise read, and students could also be exposed to professions they may not have previously considered.
McFall originated the New Books in Genocide Studies podcast channel under the NBN umbrella twelve years ago. He defines the central focus of Genocide Studies as “studying mass violence in order to address, prevent, and mitigate its effects.” As the field has matured, he says, it has become more nuanced and interdisciplinary in its approaches. Now, the field has become particularly interested in questions of colonialism and how genocidal violence happens not only in specific moments, but also in the tensions between occupier and occupied. While many people have had the sense that such tensions were receding, we can now see the re-emergence of ideas such as antisemitism and racism in many places around the world. As a podcast host, McFall is happy to provide authors who engage with these issues a way to interact with the public.
McFall focuses on horrifying and sobering content within Studies in Genocide, and he balances that heavy material with his other interests. One such interest, he notes, is teaching courses on women in sports. He points out that this subject also has its own challenging content, but there is also success and joy to share in the material. McFall’s Reacting to the Past gamebook—Changing the Game—draws on this subject matter, having players examine the issues on a fictional college campus in the days of the U.S. congressional Title IX hearings. As the book’s description explains, “As students wrestle with questions of gender parity and the place of athletics in higher education, they learn about the implementation—and implications—of legal change in the United States.”
McFall leaves this month for his first student trip since the Covid pandemic began. This will be the tenth trip he has taken with students, and he is still excited by the opportunity. While he does have content and cultural awareness goals, he tells his students that his biggest goal is to see them all continue to travel throughout their lives.
McFall spends much of his time focusing on Newman’s Honors Program, including perennial concerns of recruitment and retention and what the current focus of an honors program should be. One thing McFall has done with his Honors students for the past ten years is to play the French Revolution game with them annually. He says the experience has created immediate connections between alums, current students, and prospective students; they have an established topic of conversation: “What role did you play in the French Revolution?” McFall calls attention to the ways that this connection has been “hugely beneficial.”
Newman University was founded with the purpose of “empowering graduates to transform society,” and McFall enjoys working with students to help them discern ways that each one can make a difference in the world. Through podcasts, course offerings, educational trips, and role-immersion game play, McFall offers a variety of ideas to inspire other scholars in making connections between our content areas, our students, and the communities outside of our campuses.