Conference to focus on using games and simulations in history education

Grand Valley students participating in a Reacting to the Past game about the French Revolution.
Grand Valley students participating in a Reacting to the Past game about the French Revolution.
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts
Mark Carnes
Mark Carnes, the founder of Reacting to the Past, will present this year's keynote address.
Image Credit: courtesy of Mark Carnes

Games and simulations are not just for leisurely fun — they are commonly used as educational resources to help better engage students, especially when it comes to learning about the past. 

The Great Lakes History Conference, this year themed “Playing with History,” will examine how “playing” can help expand a person's understanding of history.

The conference will take place October 12-13 at the Eberhard Center on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. 

David Eaton, associate professor of world and African history and conference co-organizer, said the conference will place a heavy emphasis on exploring teaching methods that use game dynamics.

“These pedagogies represent an opportunity to make history more exciting for students,” said Eaton. “Historically based computer games like ‘Crusader Kings II’ and ‘Europa Universalis IV’ remain extremely popular.”

One such teaching method is Reacting to the Past (RTTP) — an interdisciplinary teaching method that involves complex games that are set in the past during periods such as the Renaissance, Enlightenment and French Revolution.

The goal is to have students learn about history through adopting roles inspired by classic texts, and then refining their problem-solving and communication skills in order to prevail in scenarios that closely parallel historical events. More than 150 games are being used in classes across the country, including at Grand Valley.

Mark Carnes, the founder of RTTP and professor of history at both Barnard College and Columbia University, will present this year’s keynote address.

“The Students’ War Against Higher Education: Avoiding a Rout” will take place October 12 at 6 p.m. in Loosemore Auditorium, located in the DeVos Center.

Eaton said the conference will include five RTTP games, as well as a number of breakout sessions about issues faced by "gamemasters" (professors) or others utilizing RTTP, ethical challenges posed by simulations, and other types of gaming that can be incorporated into the classroom, such as computer games.

The Great Lakes History Conference was established in 1975 and aims to bridge the divide between universities and the general public by attracting educators, graduate students, public historians, independent scholars and the general public from around the world. This year’s conference is sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, History Department and Pew Faculty Teaching and Learning Center in conjunction with the GVSU Reacting to the Past Consortium and the Michigan Council for History Education.