Reacting To The Past Conference

Chippewa River 640

I spent the last several days a few miles from this beautiful park, at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, doing some role-playing. A group of university history faculty, centered around the figure of Marc Carnes at Barnard College in New York, have been using role-playing to teach history to undergraduates for more than a decade. Recently, they have signed a  contract with Norton to publish several titles a year. In support of this mission, they have organized a series of conferences to popularize the concept and recruit authors. I and a colleague and old friend, Allison Shutt, got together to propose a game on the Haitian Revolution. She had run a version of the game in her class last year. We brought in a third co-author, Shari Orisich, who is a recent graduate who has worked with one of the leading spirits of this movement.

The concept of the game is similar to Model United Nations, something I did as an undergraduate. Students are assigned roles in a historical situation, given a certain amount of research material and encouraged to do more research, and then gather in a series of class meetings to debate from the perspective of their assigned character. They are expected to write speeches and participate in open debate, wheel and deal and backstab in order to achieve the goals of their character. The professor serves as game master, introducing outside news flashes, resolving character initiatives using a set of rules, and occasionally playing roles that aren’t represented in order to make sure all voices are heard.

These are good teaching tools, I am convinced. I have done a couple of short simulations in my classes, and students always enjoyed them. I got students to participate in Model United Nations a couple of times as a teacher, though the degree of commitment to long trips to other schools on weekends was often a deterrent. But RTTP is something that takes place in the student’s own classroom and doesn’t require significantly more work than the same amount of class time devoted to lectures. And I think that if the student is required to inhabit the mind of a historical player for a couple of weeks, she or he will certainly have a better understanding of at least that slice of history.

Our game covers the whole Haitian Revolution, from the early debates about civil rights for free people of color through the final victory of the peasantry, who escaped from the plantations that the government of newly independent Haiti was trying to keep functional even in the absence of slavery. The game will last six hours, which for anybody who has done recreational role-playing gaming is a ridiculously short time to cover a number of serious topics. Our playtest session at the conference did only the first two hours. The pace was astoundingly quick.

There was a good deal of chaos and disorder during our playtest. Much of it was intentional; I wanted to make sure that everybody got the disorderly nature of the conflict. There are always quite a few sides in any revolution, but this one was more disorderly than most. The playtest certainly reflected this reality, as players were roaming about, occasionally assassinating each other or sending each other to the guillotine. Students appeared to be having fun during the session.

During the debriefing afterwards, though, a couple of students said that the chaos had taken away from their ability to understand the ideas that the simulation was supposed to convey. They were too concerned about the wheeling and dealing aspect to pay attention to the problem of how to end slavery without ending the plantation system. So we are going to experiment with a more rigorous sequence of play that clearly delineates the time for debate and the time for lobbying, military maneuvers, and backstabbing.

I also participated as a player in a couple of other games at similar levels of development that dealt with similar issues – a Petrograd Soviet (1917) game and a Spanish Republic (1931-1936) game. Both were fine games and I learned a lot. Both deal with the precursors to a violent conflict. The Petrograd Soviet is discussing the relationship between socialists of various stripes and the Provisional Government that took power after the Tsar was overthrown. The October Revolution and the Russian Civil War lie in the future, and are not covered in the game. Similarly, the Spanish republican Cortes is meeting to discuss the structure of the new Spain after the departure of the King and the dictator. There is tension with the military, but nobody has heard of Franco and the “day God died”, July 18th, 1936 is still five years in the future,.

Our game is going to cover the conflict and go into the post-war settlement. I think this is better, but it is a controversial decision. The time constraints may make our game seem rushed, and the conflict elements coexist uncomfortably with the usual RTTP model of debate. Most RTTP games use a “podium rule”, where the presiding character during a debate must call on speakers who approach the podium regardless of their ideological prejudices. I’d rather let the political leaders control the politics and let the disenfranchised plot revolution. We are after all making a game about a war, even though it is not going to be a wargame.

The last session of the conference was a “quick pitching” session in which we had an hour to come up with a group presentation for a new game. This was more about getting us to think about the features that make up a good game pitch, but I ended up really liking the concept of the game we came up with: Modernization in The Russia of Peter the Great. Coming soon to a game design conference near you.

The ticket I had gotten had me leaving Michigan on Sunday afternoon, so I had the morning to walk around the fine park system in Mount Pleasant. The photo above is of the Chippewa River, which flows through town on its way to the Great Lakes. Then, I got a ride with a grad student back to the airport, and the fun began. The flight out of Saginaw was delayed for like four hours. Very little information – United didn’t even send me a text or email with the announcement of the delay until like an hour after the scheduled departure time, and there was no United ticket agent around. Finally, the departure was scheduled for 10:45, by which point the flight from Chicago to Baltimore that I was supposed to be on was already landing in Baltimore. I asked the United guy in Saginaw if he could get me a hotel in Chicago, and he said no but there should be no problem there. Unfortunately, there was. I got off the flight in Chicago at about 12:30, wandered around the airport for a while before I found a United customer disservice office, and they took a good half an hour before they reluctantly gave me a hotel voucher. I walked outside to catch the promised shuttle, and thought to call the hotel to see where their shuttle stopped. Surprise, surprise, they were all full up. United had given me a voucher for a hotel room that didn’t exist. I tried to return to the customer disservice desk, but the security checkpoints were all closed and I was stuck. I ended up finding a reasonably comfortable bench seat downstairs by baggage claim next to a plug, plugging in my CPAP and phone charger, and sleeping for three hours or so until the TSA guys came back on duty. Then, I went and got United to give me some food vouchers and a ticket on American Airlines. The American flight left on time but had to re-route because of weather, so I arrived in Baltimore at 11:15, 21 hours after my ride dropped me off at the Saginaw airport. I could have driven from Michigan to Washington DC in that amount of time.

Stay away from United Airlines. They are worse than most third-world airlines I’ve been on.

Anyway, I had plenty of time to work on the revisions to my game. We’re not exactly ready to go with round two, but a whole lot more ready than we were Sunday morning.


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