Director's Blog

Director's Blog

Bringing history to life with role-playing games

Mosaic Templars Cultural Center - Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"General Toussaint L’Overture," 1938, by Jacob LawrenceThis Friday, September 22nd we’re partnering with Opera in the Rock to present (for the first time in Arkansas) snippets of William Grant Still’s Troubled Island. The opera is about a 1790 revolution in Haiti led by slaves against French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue. I first heard about the Haitian Revolution during my time living in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina where The Historic New Orleans Collection had done an exhibit of work about Toussaint L’Overture and the impact that the Haitian Revolution had on blacks living in New Orleans. I was chatting with a former colleague, Dr. Allison Shutt, about the opera at the museum and she mentioned that she was working on a historic role playing game which focused on the Haitian Revolution. I’m always interested in different ways of presenting history to students and asked her if she would share with the blog more about this unique work. What follows is our interview:

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself—What’s your background/expertise?

I’m a historian of colonial Zimbabwe, meaning that I study the historical period before independence in 1980. I like telling small stories of everyday life that illuminate larger processes of change. Over the course of my career I’ve studied a small farming community in Zimbabwe, hoes manufacturers in northern Togo in West Africa, and the everyday performance of racial hierarchies in colonial Zimbabwe. Along the way, I’ve been fortunate to live and study in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Togo, Kenya, and Haiti.

A few years after getting my PhD in History at UCLA, I came to Hendrix College to teach African history. A few years ago, I added a course called “Doing History” to my list of course offerings. That course is devoted to role playing games.

2. I know you’ve recently published a book; gaming seems like a polar opposite from that. How did you become interested in historic role playing games? Did you see a gap in the field for history that needed to be told in this way?

I think what attracts me to writing role-playing games is the creativity and fun inherent in creating a game. I discovered this method of instruction a few years ago when I attended a workshop organized by a group called “Reacting to the Past,” which is based at Barnard College in New York City. Mark Carnes, a professor at Barnard, created the method combining academic rigor through the reading of standard texts and student-centered learning by putting students in charge of the game once it starts. It is the most marvelous thing to watch as students work out big, historical questions, such as the meaning of liberty and the role of the state in the lives of individuals and groups.

What makes the games fun and educational for students is that they get to make decisions that take them along plausible paths in history. Students have roles to play and they have goals to meet during the game. So, in many ways, the game is choregraphed by the authors of the game, but the best games allow students to be creative and all games allow different outcomes to what happened historically and even what happened the last time the game was played. The games are dynamic.

3. You mentioned that you’re working on a game about the Haitian Revolution. Can you tell me a bit about that?

I wrote the first version of the game for a freshmen seminar focused on the history and literature of Haiti. By that time, I had attended another Reacting to the Past conference, played a few more games, and begun to understand how to create a game. So I did. My first game was grounded in debates around three set questions concerning labor, land, and leadership of Saint-Domingue (Haiti). Students worked in three factions—insurgents, French, and outside observers. Each faction had similar if not exact interests and had a set of group and individual goals to reach before the end of the game.

To my mind, the game helped students understand the racial identities of the characters far better than any other method I had tried before. A particularly memorable moment for me as an instructor was watching the entire class pause to listen to a debate about race and belonging between the student playing Dessalines, a former slave and the general who declared an independent Haiti, and a Free Colored named Riguad, who believed that mixed race property owners should rule. Riguad asked, what is my place in this new country you’re proposing? And without any hesitation whatsoever, Dessalines, sword in hand, replied, “We are all blacks.” The student was referring to a clause in the Haitian Constitution of 1805. That Constitution declared, “Haitians will henceforth only be known generically as Blacks.”

Typically, students have a great understanding of the Haitian Revolution as overturning the racial hierarchy among white planters and African and African-descended slaves. However, they have a bit more trouble understanding how the Revolution opened the way to reframing racial identities. So, for instance in the 1805 Constitution, all whites had to leave the island but Poles who had fought for the revolutionaries were black and could therefore stay. And under the terms of the Constitution, the Poles become Blacks, just like all Haitians. Once students get to the stage in the game to debate what should be in the Constitution, they really get how concrete and historical racial identity-making was made, dismantled, and remade.

4. What do you see as possible applications for this game? How could teachers incorporate this in their curriculum?

Our game is being test-played in three college classrooms this fall, and we’re hoping to test-play the game at a national conference next year. The test plays will help us to see what aspects of the game work and what parts we need to rethink and revise. But in the end, we want the game to be accessible to teachers who want to discuss the Haitian Revolution in their classes. To facilitate a widespread use of our game we provide a detailed schedule for classes, including three days of preparation, five days of play (in a 50-minute class), and one debriefing day. Best of all for instructors new to role-playing and to the Haitian Revolution, we also provide a day-by-day overview, a historical summary, a discussion of the main debating points, and a list of solid secondary sources. Most of all, the game puts students right into the middle of a realistic simulation of the Revolution. They make choices, and through making those difficult decisions, come to appreciate how Haitians came to establish their new country out of a decade of battle.

5. Can you share with us what you’re working on next?

I will be working on this game again after we receive feedback from the three test-plays. My colleagues and I hope that the game will be available for regular play within the next year or 18 months.

I’m also at the beginning stages of a biography of a 1950s-era Zimbabwean politician named Jasper Savanhu. He’s a fascinating person who was critical to much of Zimbabwean politics up to the early 1960s, as a trade union leader, newspaper journalist and editor, and later as a high-ranking minister in what was called the Federation of Central Africa. He was a controversial figure at the time because he was not a conventional nationalist, and in fact nationalists denounced him. Still, by the time of his death in 1984, the new government in Zimbabwe praised his contributions to the country. So, there’s a lot to think about in this one life.

Thanks so much for being a part of my blog today, Dr. Shutt. As a reminder for my readers, Allison Shutt’s book Manners Make A Nation: Racial Etiquette in Southern Rhodesia, 1910-1963 (University of Rochester, 2015), was shortlisted for the 2016 inaugural Fage-Oliver book prize given by the United Kingdom African Studies Association for the best African Studies book written in the previous two years. Manners Make A Nation examines the everyday rules of racial interaction in colonial Zimbabwe that whites constructed through laws and defended with violence and explains how Africans undermined this “racial etiquette.”

I look forward to seeing everyone Friday, Sept. 22, at the lunch and learn from 12-1 p.m. and the performance from 7-9 p.m. of William Grant Still’s Troubled Island! More information about the event is available here.

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