It’s 1720 in northern Europe. The king of Denmark wants to woo French Huguenots to settle in his country, and he’s trying to convince his court it’s a good idea. The Huguenots, for their part, are entertaining multiple offers, since they’ll bring with them a wealth of trade expertise that will benefit their host country.
It’s the sort of negotiation most students read about in textbooks, but at Luther, this lesson and many others take a more immersive shape through a unique pedagogy called Reacting To The Past in which students game-play an event by taking on assigned characters, researching through primary texts from the period, and acting out roles with their peers.
Associate professor of French Anne-Marine Feat uses Reacting To The Past (commonly called Reacting, or RTTP) in most of the classes she teaches. Several years ago, searching for a way to get her reticent students to talk more and thus improve their language skills, she decided to add Reacting games to her curriculum—and it’s worked. “I’ve noticed for the past two years that the language proficiency of graduating seniors has increased for those students who’ve done the games compared to those who haven’t—and even compared to students who’ve done full language immersion during a semester abroad,” she says. “Students who’ve played two or more Reacting games in a foreign language are getting better scores, even if they’re only a minor in the language.”
But the benefits of RTTP don’t stop there. A study in the Journal of Education Psychology found that RTTP students showed increased empathy, higher self-esteem, and enhanced verbal and rhetorical skills. In addition, RTTP encourages teamwork, critical thinking, and analysis, and it teaches cultural competency and civil political discourse.
There’s also evidence that it increases engagement on college campuses—in and out of the classroom—and aids in retention. A study by faculty at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) found that students who participated in RTTP their first semester in college were 10 percentage points more likely than non-RTTP students to return to EMU for their sophomore year. At the 2016 Iowa World Language Association conference, Luther students Alexander Davis ’19 and Megan Oliver ’19 presented data from the University of Utah that suggests students who play RTTP games have more acquaintance and friendship ties and denser social networks by the end of a game than they had at the beginning.
Even better, while Luther students are reaping the benefits of this innovative teaching tool in and out of the classroom, they’re also coauthoring, alongside professors and international peers, some of these unique, effective, mind-opening games.
RTTP transforms the classroom
So what does the Reacting classroom look like? On the first day of a game, students are given role descriptions and goals and supplemental materials. They use these to guide their research and build their characters—for example, a principal at a French school that has banned Muslim girls from wearing headscarves, or English physician John Snow during the 1854 cholera outbreak in London. During the days or weeks of gameplay, professors take a back seat while students run the classroom—making speeches, lobbying for causes, wheeling and dealing with other groups, exchanging covert communiqués, and taking votes—and the group occasionally rolls a die to determine outcomes. Following the game is a postmortem in which the class digests what happened in the game and how the game differed from history.
It’s interesting, Feat says, to see how the dynamic in the classroom changes as students start taking ownership of a game. “Students who may not necessarily be engaged in the traditional way of learning tend to go above and beyond in researching and performing during a game,” she says.
Feat notes that the competitive and peer-accountability aspects of Reacting are powerful motivators for some students—there is, after all, a winning and losing side in each scenario. She recalls a student on academic probation in a J-term class in which students role-played the French Revolution. “The first two days, when we talked about political systems, he was barely upright,” she recalls. “But three days into the game, this young man was standing on his desk, yelling as the archbishop of Paris, quoting Rousseau’s Social Contract.”
She continues, “I teach a lot of literature, so people need to read. If they don’t, they experience peer pressure during a game because they’re not doing their part.”
“Taking on a character also plays into success,” says assistant professor of Scandinavian studies Maren Johnson, who uses Reacting in her curriculum. “What we’re asking students to do is really countercultural right now, because we all like to live behind our screens. But assuming another role allows them to feel freer to say or do things and engage with peers in a more intimate way than they may do in their 21st-century personalities.”
RTTP, Feat says, is a transformative experience. In her Dawn of Democracy course last year, students played three games: one on democracy in ancient Greece, one on the French Revolution, and one on the end of apartheid in South Africa. “I had students in the classroom who voted on both sides in the last presidential election,” she recalls, “and they all said at the end of the semester that the game helped them discuss topics that were incredibly important but also incredibly difficult to discuss.” One night, students from the class, which ended at 9 p.m., stayed until 10:30 to talk about how Plato connected to President Trump’s recommendations on immigration. “If I had just asked them to read Plato and state what they thought—that’s scary, that’s vulnerable,” she says. “The game facilitates a kind of civil political discourse.”
Kari Hoff ’20, a computer science and Scandinavian studies double major, has participated in multiple Reacting games and says, “It’s a lot more engaging and interactive to be living—rather than just reading—the experiences of people. While it can be difficult when you don’t agree with the opinions of your character, it gives you a chance to see why people think that way. There’s so much ‘us versus them’ that happens throughout time and across the world. Role-playing makes you realize that everyone’s human.”
Minh Anh Nguyen ’20, a philosophy major and Spanish and French minor, agrees. Last fall, she acted as the United Nations security general in a Reacting game about whether the UN should send troops to Rwanda during the genocide in that country. She says, “I’d learned about Rwanda before, but through the game I learned a lot more about the perspectives of different parties rather than just getting an overview. I saw the complexity of the problem.”
Students as co-creators
Reacting games are used to supplement learning across academic disciplines at Luther. Professor of chemistry Brad Chamberlain ran one on the trial of Galileo. Assistant professor of nursing Laurie Bouska used one about physician-assisted suicide in her Nursing 185: Death and Dying course. When Feat had a lot of science students in a class, she ran a game regarding challenges to the USDA food pyramid. When Johnson team-taught Paideia 450 with assistant professor of environmental studies and political science Rachel Brummel, they ran a game on the ethical deliberations surrounding climate accords, which included an optional weeklong science lab on acid rain.
But Feat and Johnson are taking things a step further by not only playing but also creating games—with the help of students. For the past three years, the professors have engaged student researchers in writing games that expand the RTTP library in their respective fields. Over the summers, Feat and Johnson use Dean’s Office grants to fund the student-faculty collaboration. During the school year, they hire Humanities Research Lab work-study students to refine the games and prepare them for publication.
Johnson says, “For us, it’s been this really cool intersection of how we can best serve students in the classroom and best work collaboratively with students and introduce them to the research and the academic process.”
RTTP as cultural exchange
While Johnson and Feat have been researching Reacting games with students since 2016, this summer they had a unique opportunity to invite students and faculty from the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway, to participate. The connection was made possible by Sean Taylor ’84, professor of history at Minnesota State University–Moorhead.
In 2011, Taylor was a Fulbright scholar at Agder, where he met Jan Erik Mustad, associate professor of English. Mustad teaches future English educators and says, “The plan is to use these games in middle school in Norway. Role-playing is becoming more common there, as it is everywhere, but RTTP has three elements we’re focusing on: language production, critical thinking, and the active learning of history. It’s a new, effective way to engage with sources.”
This spring, Mustad and Taylor secured a $350,000 grant from the Norwegian government for a four-year collaboration between Luther, the University of Agder, and Minnesota State University–Moorhead. The collaboration kicked off this June, when Mustad and six Norwegian students joined six Luther students—as well as Feat, Johnson, and Taylor—to work on designing RTTP simulations.
Taylor has no doubt that the fruits of their labor will prove valuable. He remembers being introduced to Reacting at a conference in 2005. “I thought, This is what needs to happen for education. It’s a fundamental game changer,” he says. “Now, having done Reacting since 2005, the first question I ask when I’m designing a course is not what books can I use, but what games can I use?”