Making a game of history

The game starts with a choice: You hear the new “Jazz music” on the radio. Do you turn it up or turn it off?

And then another choice: do you wear lipstick or no lipstick?

The player has to navigate a series of these situations, making choices and taking chances to make it through “The Four Fabulous Flappers.” The winner, with the most points at the end, is told “you are satisfied and happy with your life.” The loser: “you are in constant battle with your mental health” and “you feel lonely and forgotten.”

Playing “The Four Fabulous Flappers.” All photos taken with permission.

Playing “The Four Fabulous Flappers.” All photos taken with permission.

The game is one of 10 my students designed, developed, and then played this week in HIST 121: American Experience in the Modern World. This is their “creative project,” worth 20 percent of the grade. It’s an assignment I’ve developed teaching both halves of the U.S. history survey at Valparaiso University this last year and it’s worked pretty well.

I got the idea for a creative project from Emily Suzanne Clark, who wrote about “unessays” on the U.S. Religion blog in January 2015. I immediately liked the idea. For several reasons:

1. It gives students another way to engage. Writing is important and tests are important, but they’re not the only ways of thinking something through, or communicating knowledge.

2. It encourages creativity. I like creativity.

3. Students seem to like it. The problems of a project can pull students into the questions I’m trying to get them to ask in a history class, and get them interested, get to them to feel some personal stakes.

The only thing I didn’t like was the term “unessay,” but I found it easy enough to dispense with the name. I call it “the creative project” and that works.

So, since 2015, I’ve been assigning various kinds of creative projects in my history classes. When I taught religion and American politics, I had students made campaign ads for fictitious candidates. When I taught the history of World War I, students made propaganda posters. In a course on the Great Depression, the class cooked a meal.

And in my U.S. history surveys, I’ve had students make games.

With the games assignment, I was thinking about how I wanted my students to think about history. Their tendency is to treat history as an accumulation of facts and think their job in my class is to gather and retain some of those facts (the important ones) for some period of time (until the test). Whereas I think the discipline of history is less about “stuff happened,” more about how it happened, why it happened, how people thought about it when it happened and the choices they made in response. I especially want to dramatize for my students how choices come to seem plausible or implausible and how people are limited by history, in the choices they can make.

This reminded me of an article I wrote about the secret spiritual history of the choose-your-own-adventure books. R.A. Montgomery, one of the two guys who came up with those books, was really into educational games. He thought role-playing games, in particular, were a good way to teach people about moral choices and teach people ethical responsibility. Montgomery had a lot of faith that if we as a society could teach people to take responsibility for their choices, then we could tackle the most serious problems of the modern world.

I don’t share that faith, but I do love choose-your-own-adventure books and I bring those kinds of questions into my classroom.

I want my students to think about what it would be like to be a black man sentenced to work on a railroad in Southern state run by Redeemer Democrats after the failure of Reconstruction. What would you do? What could you do? I want them to imagine living through the industrial revolution, and think about the anxieties they might have about cities and immigrants and drunk men. Does banning alcohol seem like a good idea? What do you do when you can’t enforce it? I want them to conceive of the Vietnam war not just as a thing that happened but as a condition in which people lived—people exactly like them, students at Valpo—and in which people had to make real choices.

So the question was, how do I assign a creative project that gets students thinking about historical actors, agency, and structural conditions? The answer was: have them make history games.

Here’s how I did it, in case anyone wants to adopt or adapt the assignment:


Introduce the assignment two or three weeks before you want the class to play the games.

Talk specifically about what makes a game a game: there’s an objective, there are certain obstacles, and there are moves. Talk about how this is the same idea as a narrative arc: a person wants something, there is something in the way, and the person takes action to try to overcome those obstacles (make them tell you a story in three sentences—beginning, middle, and end). In their games, the player is a historical person. What does the person want? What are the obstacles? What are the moves?

Explain the the project will be done by groups. Each group should have three or four people—no more than four. Each person should have a designated job so that separate grades can be assigned, if that’s necessary.

The game can be built on/adapted from an existing game, using the rules or structure. But students should not limit themselves to board games: football is a game; so is Fortnite; so is charades. It’s a creative project, so be creative!

The project is graded by three criteria: 1. Research. One team member will produce a bibliography documenting the sources used to develop the game (I require certain numbers of certain types of sources—so many academic books, so many primary sources, etc.—as well as notes on why each internet source is reliable). 2. Communication. One team member writes a short report on the choices a player must make in a single game. The game succeeds if it teaches the player about historical choices. 3. Creativity. It’s supposed to be fun to play, and I want students to have fun making their games.

Then we play the games.

With 40 students, this takes a couple of sessions. One team member teaches people to play the game and the other team members play other games. The next class period, a different team member teaches people the game. Sometimes a game takes a long time to play—games modeled on Risk and Monopoly are pretty slow—other games go really fast. But everyone plays several games, over the course of several class periods. My favorite moment is when a student is playing another student’s game and says “wait, I know how to win,” and gets obsessed with figuring out the best strategy. I love hearing students describe each other’s games, too. One student, this morning, said a game was “like Mario Kart but then you die.”

Several students have told me they liked their games enough that they’ve taught people to play them outside of class.

Even if they’re not that good, the games work pedagogically to teach students to think with and through American history, engaging them in a creative, collaborative project that dramatizes historical choices. And that’s what I’m going for: That moment where a player has to think about lipstick as a historical choice.