Many students at HU have heard of professor Dwight Brautigam’s reacting games in his history classes. Students are pushed to take on the roles of world leaders living out historical events—becoming very popular around campus.
By Sarah Disbro, Staff Writer
Students yelling. Arguing. Cheering. Then someone calls out: “Off with King Louis XVI’s head!”
From the outside, one might think this class is completely unorganized and chaotic.
The last detail one might notice is the professor sitting in the back of the room with a beaming smile on his face, taking in the chaos. They call him The Game Master. His real name is Dwight Brautigam, long-time professor of history here at Huntington University. Rest assured, there’s a method behind this unique teaching style.
Brautigam teaches his civilization classes and a number of his upper level history classes by having his students play reacting games.
A reacting game is a way of getting students to live out history. Each student is given a character role with background information on their life.
Some of these characters are major historical leaders, while others were created by the author of the game.
In order to win the game, students must achieve their given objectives as well as stay in the context of that certain historical period. Students are either put into groups, called factions, where they work with other students, or become an “indeterminate,” working on their own to achieve their goals, and making deals with other factions.
Of the 34 years that he has been teaching at Huntington, Brautigam only started having his students play these games after he discovered them on sabbatical in 2014. Once he learned more about reacting games, he said he was “all in” for having his students play the games starting in fall 2015.
The games have become a success among students.
“I like having to think creatively and on my feet instead of reading from a book, or listening to a lecture,” said Carissa Burdick, a current student of Brautigam’s.
“I find it enjoyable to try and keep up with everything that is happening, especially because everybody has their own agendas,” said Jackson Wood, another student in that class. “They [classmates] want to get done what they need to get done with zero regard about anybody else’s agenda.”
Brautigam has seen first hand the benefits of teaching with this style.
“Students are more likely to come to class, and they are more engaged,” said Brautigam.
Both Wood and Burdick also said they are less likely to skip class. They get to know their classmates better and are more into learning history.
It wasn’t always easy using the games to teach.
“I’ve gotten better the more I’ve done the games, but in the beginning it was hard to not interfere and let students make mistakes,” said Brautigam.
After playing the games for so long, Brautigam now has more knowledge about the set up of a game and notes he has learned from his students.
“Students are capable of a lot more than you would think,” he said.
Reacting games first began with Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College, when he pioneered them in 1995.
“I was bored with my classes. I experimented with some structured debates, and then the idea took off,” said Carnes in an email interview.
Carnes has seen numerous benefits from students playing the games.
“Reacting plunges students into the churning waters of the past, and obliges them to figure out how to survive and prevail,” said Carnes. “In the process they learn history in a deep way. They also learn how to solve problems, think critically, and work effectively with teams. While doing this, too, they should have fun.”
Even though professors have seen first hand just how effective reacting games are for students, Carnes said that some doubted the process.
“College instructors were skeptical; many still are. Many contend, reasonably enough that teachers should teach and students should shut up, pay attention, and learn.”
While there are some doubters, reacting games have been embraced by a number of universities all over the country.
According to Gregg Toppo in USA Today, the games have become popular in universities.
“Now in use at about 350 colleges and universities, from Ivy League campuses to community colleges and even in a few prison classrooms, the games span much of world history,” wrote Toppo.
As of now there are 30 published role playing games with hundreds of others waiting to be published.
Teaching the games allows students to be plunged into France during the middle of the French Revolution, or have them be world leaders who make crucial decisions in World War I.
A large majority of the already published reacting games take place either in the United States or Europe. Other games expand on conflicts dealt with in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
Since the reacting games take place in multiple parts of the world, students are exposed to a wider view of world history, one which they are able to live out.
Carnes has written and published his own reacting games. The books “Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791” and “Threshold of Democracy” are both used by Brautigam.
Brautigam has also been in the process of writing his own reacting games. As of now he is working on two, both of which he has his students play.
Brautigam created his game “Challenging Authority” because he wanted a game set in the Reformation era. He hopes to have this game published by Norton Publishing Company in about a year.
The idea for Brautigam’s other game “Choosing Loyalties: Life in Vichy France” was a result of teaching an upper level history class in which only five students were enrolled.
Debating on what to do in the class, Brautigam decided to develop a game with the help of his students. This game is further off for publishing and won’t be ready for two to three more years.
Brautigam said the most difficult part of writing a game is creating role sheets and having an interesting conflict take place in the game.
By teaching reacting games to students, he agrees that it is more fulfilling than if he were to lecture.
“It’s magic,” he said.
That magic can be seen first hand with how his students view history after taking his classes.
“Professor Brautigam has helped me in my knowledge about history by showing me that there are always two sides to a story,” said Wood. “No matter what the story is, there is always the other side that thinks what they are doing or what they did was good.”
Wood, who is hoping to be a history teacher of his own one day, wants to use reacting games in his own classrooms at some point.
The Game Master thoroughly enjoys seeing his students thrive in the chaos of his classes.
“Sometimes I’ll threaten students that I’ll lecture them,” Brautigam said, “but I would never go back.”