Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Reacting to the Past

Review of Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College

MindsonFireReview: Mark C. Carnes, Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). 371pp + index. $27.95.

This volume is partly about the shortcomings of traditional university pedagogy. It is partly about the value of educational games. For the most part, however, it is about the Reacting to the Past series of historical educational role-play games first developed by Carnes and now by a growing number of other educators associated with the Reacting Consortium. The Reacting series includes classroom-ready role-play material for historical and philosophical debates ranging from the restoration of Athenian democracy through to the French revolution, religious debates in Puritan New England, to the independence of India—and much more. Although Carnes’ book devotes only very limited attention to other educational game use, and says equally little about their use outside of history and general humanities courses, it is nonetheless a very lively, deeply thoughtful, and powerful argument for the use of such games in the classroom.

Carnes asserts that role-playing games like the Reacting series sharpen critical thinking; develop writing, presentation, and other skills; and engage students in a way that lectures and readings are often unable to do. Central to his argument is the notion of “subversive play”—that is, playful activities which offer the possibility of upsetting the familiar order. Much of student life, Carnes suggests, has long revolved around joyful engagement in such subversive play, whether through sports competition, video games that immerse the player in fictional and unfamiliar worlds, satirical and “disrespectful” attitudes to authority, or norm-defying social activities (such as parties, drugs, and drinking). Role-immersion games, he suggests, tap into this quite natural human fondness for competition and challenging the established order by enabling students to adopt new personae, struggle to convince others, and thereby seek to change the course of a re-imagined history-in-the-classroom.

The author is able to cite significant research that shows the benefits of the Reacting approach. At times, however, the book’s unapologetic enthusiasm for immersive role-playing means that some potential drawbacks of serious games are glossed over. Most research on educational gaming more broadly shows its benefits are often highly variable or relatively limited. Indeed, because of this, some dispute resolution scholars have even questioned whether  role-play negotiations are really an effective pedagogical tool. Much depends on the game being used, the skills of the instructor/facilitator, and the manner in which it is integrated into broader curriculum. There are substantial opportunity costs to consider: time spent role-playing is time taken away from delivering material through lectures or other techniques. There are also practical constraints—for example, those presented by large classes. Many Reacting-type immersive role-plays take place in medium or smaller classes over several weeks, a luxury not all instructors may have.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book a great deal. Carnes manages to anchor his discussion in a considered critique of traditional educational approach, while making effective use of vignettes, interviews with former participants, and scholarly research to make his points. His enthusiasm is infectious. Even if this book is largely arises from the author’s particular experiences with Reacting to the Past, its value extends well past this to make a substantial  contribution to broader debates on contemporary university education.

simulations miscellany, 12 August 2013


Some recent material on conflict simulations and serious games that may be of interest to our readers:

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The folks at Reacting to the Past historical role-play project are in the process of transitioning to a new publisher, which may temporarily affect the availability of their published volumes:

As the new academic year approaches, we wanted to reach out to everyone in the RTTP community with important information about the availability of Reacting to the Past Series games for the Fall 2013 semester. The Reacting to the Past Series is currently in transition to a new publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, and is temporarily unavailable for purchase. We are confident that our relationship with W.W. Norton & Co. is going to be a successful one, but we must remain focused on quality and be willing to accommodate to industry-standard timelines.  Unfortunately we cannot guarantee that printed versions of the nine (previously published) RTTP game books will be available to purchase by September 1. Therefore, we have implemented a new policy to ensure that instructors will be able to obtain game materials for Fall 2013 courses. All instructors planning to teach a published game should follow this alternative procedure.

As noted at the link above, RTTP will make their simulation materials in the Fall 2013 term via an encrypted PDF version of the student game book(s).

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The preliminary programme for the 7th European Conference on Games Based Learning (Instituto Superior de Engenharia do Porto, Porto, Portugal, 3-4 October 2013) is now available.

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Eversim—the same people who produce Masters of the World and Rulers of Nations—also produce iScen, a software programme that allows you to create netowrked interactive multimedia training modules. Currently only available for PCs, version 2.0 (in development) will also be available in a Mac version.

A free evaluation version is available from their website. (If anyone with some experience in educational simulation wants to review this for us, drop us a line.)

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These two papers aren’t new, but were only posted to the Social Science Research Network earlier this year:

  • Zapalska, Alina and Brozik, Dallas, A Model for Developing and Evaluating Games And Simulations in Business and Economic Education (December 19, 2008). Zbornik radova Ekonomskog fakulteta u Rijeci, časopis za ekonomsku teoriju i praksu – Proceedings of Rijeka Faculty of Economics, Journal of Economics and Business, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2008, pp. 345-368. Available at SSRN:
  • Ebner, Noam and Efron, Yael, Little Golano: An International Conflict Management Simulation (2009). Available at SSRN:

simulations miscellany, Spring 2013 edition


As the northern hemisphere welcomes the imminent arrival of Spring 2013—evidenced by the view outside my front window this morning (above)—PAXsims is pleased to present another collection of conflict simulation and gaming news from around the internet.


Need a virtual continent? Look no further than “Missionland,” the four million square kilometres of politically-correct terrain data produced by the NATO Science and Technology Organization, Modeling and Simulation Group. You’ll find the full story at Defense News.


The folks at Reacting to the Past have announced the formation of a new “Reacting Consortium.”

Reacting Consortium is an independently chartered organization of colleges and universities committed to developing and publishing the “Reacting to the Past” series of role playing games and providing programs for faculty development and curricular change. Its broader mission is to promote imagination, inquiry, and engagement as foundational features of teaching and student learning in higher education. Institutions interested in exploring the benefits of membership should contact Dana Johnson, Administrative Director, at

We are already working to expand our outreach activities, as well as to strengthen our collaborative enterprise.  Several faculty workshops will be held in the coming months, including a Regional Conference at Pikes Peak Community College (Colorado Springs, April 19-21) and a special JALT Faculty Workshop at Sophia University in Tokyo (May 11-12).  Registration is also open for the Thirteenth Annual Faculty Institute at Barnard College (New York, June 6-9). Interested faculty are encouraged are encouraged to register early. For further details about the program, registration rates, and the call for proposals, please visit the institute web site.

Finally, the Reacting Consortium is developing a partnership with a new publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. Norton will be working closely with the Reacting Consortium Editorial Board to prepare revised editions of existing games and to publish new games, as well as to expand the resources available to instructors and students

You’ll find several forthcoming RTTP events and conferences listed on their website, including a RTTP Game Development Conference to be held at Central Michigan University on 18-20 July 2013.

This conference focuses on designing games for the pedagogical method “Reacting to the Past.”  We will play several Reacting-style games that are currently in development, discuss game design principles and processes, and work to expand and explore ideas for new games.

For further information, please visit the conference web site.


The latest issue (March 2013) of Simages—the newsletter of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association—has been published, with NASAGA news, several articles, and information on the 2013 conference. You can download it here.


At Forbes, Michael Peck comments on “Al Qaeda’s Goofy Video Game.” Technically it’s not really an al-Qaida game at all, but rather a game by a couple of AQ wannabe game designers, but he’s right that it isn’t very good. You’ll also find coverage at Foreign Policy magazine, Kotaku, and Globalpost.


What have the folks at MMOWGLI been up to lately with their Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet? You can find out at DoD Live.


Kris Wheaton (Institute for Intelligence Studies, Mercyhurst University) offers more thoughts on game-based learning and intelligence at his Sources and Methods blog. What’s more, he’s also formed a gaming company!


We missed this one before: an academic paper by Nina Kollars and Amanda M. Rosen  on “Arming the Canon: Reviving the Foundation of International Relations through Games—another of the many game/simulation papers presented at the recent 2013 APSA Teaching & Learning Conference.

This paper attempts to add a layer of conceptual clarity to the study of simulations and games in international relations by classifying simulations and games according to their unit of analysis and the number of sources they attempt to incorporate. We present this classification and note the advantages and disadvantages of such a model with particular attention paid to the potential misuses of topic-based and multi-source games. We introduce a new unit of analysis, the question- or problem-based approach, and offer a new game to illustrate the potential benefits of such an approach. Ultimately we conclude that a large part of the answer to whether or not simulations are effective in advancing learning may depends on how a particular game is framed and executed.

“Reacting to the Past” 2012 Institute

Barnard College has announced details for its 2012 “Reacting to the Past” Institute, which will be held in New York on 7-10 June 2012:

Registration is now open for the 12th Annual “Reacting to the Past” Institute at Barnard College. We look forward to reconnecting with colleagues and to welcoming new faculty and administrators to the RTTP network. | Click here to register now.

As is our custom, the program will feature two cycles of game workshops that allow participants to experience two different games over the course of the institute. In addition to six titles from the published series, offerings include five games in development and two new chapter-length science games. |  Learn more about the Featured Games.

We also invite proposals for concurrent sessions that explore a wide range of issues related to role-playing pedagogy, course design, game management, and faculty recruitment. The deadline for proposals is March 15, 2012. | View the Call for Proposals.

For further information on registration rates, travel, and lodging on campus, please visit the institute page.

“Reacting to the Past” is a series of historical role-playing simulations, published by Pearson in the form of student resource books that provide detailed background for the historical case and the various actors, as well the rules and issues to be debated. The instructor’s manual for each game is available directly from RTTP.

“Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills.

Pioneered in the late 1990s by Mark C. Carnes, Professor of History at Barnard College, RTTP has undergone considerable development and expansion.  In addition to the eight games currently published by Pearson Education, another twelve games are being developed by teams of faculty from across the nation.

All of the games are set in the past, and thus might be regarded as history, but each game also explores multiple additional disciplines. Part of the intellectual appeal of RTTP is that it transcends disciplinary structures…

The published games currently address:

While a number of other games are currently in development:

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