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“Making History Come Alive: Reflections on 20-years’ Worth of Role-Playing Simulation Games, Exercises, and Paper Assignments”

Gregory Aldrete

For the last 20 years, I have experimented with a wide array of role-playing exercises, incorporating them into every class that I have taught.  In this presentation, I will briefly describe three categories of role-playing activities that have seemed to be particularly successful, and then will offer some observations about the potential risks and benefits of employing role-playing as a pedagogical technique.

One of these categories is role-playing simulation games.  For my standard Greek History survey class, I developed a complex multi-class policy simulation game in which teams of students assume the identities of various Greek states.  Each state is given a set of resources as well as short- and long-term goals, and the game proceeds through a series of rounds in which the players are free to conduct diplomacy, make and break alliances, and even wage war in the pursuit of their goals.  The game covers the period from the end of the Peloponnesian War through the rise of Macedon.   In my Roman History class, I created a game called “Dignitas” in which students assume the role of political figures from the Late Republic, including Caesar, Pompey, Cicero, and Clodius, each with varying abilities and resources, and then compete to see who can amass the most dignitas through performing actions such as attracting clients, winning elections, waging military campaigns, successfully prosecuting law cases, or constructing public works.   A second way that I have incorporated role-playing into my classes is through paper assignments that require them to adopt the persona of an ancient author and write a “lost” primary source.  For example, after having studied and read the biographies of Plutarch and Suetonius, students had to write a biography in the style of one of these authors for a historical figure for whom no actual biography survived. Finally, since I teach a number of military history courses, I routinely incorporate a Roman legionary or Greek hoplite day into the syllabus for which students have to construct a scutum or aspis shield, and then are drilled in the appropriate marching and fighting techniques, culminating in a mock battle.

Each of these strategies has clearly produced some benefits in terms of enhancing the depth and quality of student learning, increasing the retention of information, engaging students more deeply with the ancient world, and eliciting greater participation.  Such exercises encourage students to draw connections and offer insight into historical processes--how and why things happen, or why people made the choices they did, rather than simply memorizing what happened.   They require the consideration of alternatives and consequences, while fostering an awareness of conflicting demands. Role-playing links cognitive and affective learning, as well as inviting participation from different types of learners. 

As with any strategy, there are potential drawbacks.  When using simulation games, misconceptions, stereotypes, or erroneous ideas may be reinforced, and complex concepts and processes can get simplified.  When writing role-playing papers, students can sometimes become overly focused on the purely creative aspects of the assignment to the detriment of the desired content.  A key factor in avoiding these pitfalls is an adequate preparation by the teacher which bases the simulation on a discrete body of source material, lays out ground rules to govern the course and conduct of the exercise, and assigns clearly defined roles to the participants.   Despite these potential risks, the occasional employment of role-playing exercises in the classroom can be a powerful, engaging, and highly effective pedagogical tool.

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Interactive Pedagogy and the Teaching of Ancient History

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