In the morning, McPherson College freshman Tessa Szambecki plays a slave fighting for freedom in colonial New York on the eve of the Revolutionary War.

In the morning, McPherson College freshman Tessa Szambecki plays a slave fighting for freedom in colonial New York on the eve of the Revolutionary War.
In the afternoon, she plays the Roman general and ruler Mark Antony trying to manage an empire after Julius Caesar’s death.
She is one of several student playing “Reacting to the Past,” a game series that puts students in the middle of historical events. Kerry Dobbins, who teaches history at McPherson College, said these games help students see history and citizenship differently.
“They all have this idea of what it means to govern and be governed,” Dobbins said. “When you play games, you see the world in a different way.”
Dobbins first heard about “Reacting to the Past” games at a conference in 2010. She said she was immediately interested in the similarities between these games and other role-playing games she enjoyed, such as Dungeons and Dragons.
“They gave me two books, a teacher’s guide and a student’s guide,” Dobbins said. “I looked at them and thought, ‘This is the player’s guide, and this is the dungeon master’s guide. I get this!'”
The game gives students different roles to play, from politicians and generals to widows and soldiers, along with documents available at the time. Students are responsible for studying the materials and getting in character to achieve their characters’ goals.
Elijah Brady, who plays a pro-revolutionary statesman in the New York Assembly, said this approach helps him see history differently.
“It’s definitely a change from normal class,” Brady said. “You're literally interacting with history.”
Ashley Schweizer, who plays an anti-revolutionary leader, said it helps her see events from different perspectives.
“You understand all the different sides, not just one,” Schweizer said.
Dobbins said this is one of the main objects of “Reacting to the Past” games. She said students often struggle to understand the historical context of events and ideas from the past.
“One of the difficult things is not being in a 21st century mindset,” Dobbins said. “It’s easy to say a slave owner is evil. That’s not necessarily true. Now they’re thinking, why did they do that?”
The game runs for five weeks with one week of preparation. Students use information that would have been available at the time to make speeches and achieve their goals. They are penalized for making decisions that violate the rules of their character or the culture in which their character lived.
Dobbins has used these games in her 100-level classes for three years, but this year has seen several firsts both in the game and in its setup. Dobbins encouraged her students this year to use Twitter to communicate as their personas would have had Twitter been available at the time.
For example, a speech Szambecki made Wednesday about why the slaves should be freed prompted one listener to tweet, “Oh dang!! That speech from the slaves got me!!” and another to reply, “Sympathy for slaves is one thing but what would Southern colonies do if NY freed them?”
The second tweet proved to be prophetic. When the assembly voted to free the slaves, Dobbins informed them the southern states had decided to disown New York. In addition, the freed slaves announced they were going to defect to the British army.
“Earlier, I tweeted, ‘Let my people go!’” Szambecki said. “Now I’m going to go back and tweet, ‘I’m free!’”
The slaves’ defection became a rallying point for the loyalists, as it made victory for the patriots less likely in the battle of New York, which will take place Monday. Until then, the patriots had maneuvered themselves into a good position with a strong army ready to defend the city.
This sudden shift highlights the effect individual decisions can have, something Dobbins said is an important aspect of the games.
Another aspect Dobbins appreciates is the fact that students don’t have to follow history and can come out with different outcomes. While the battle of New York ended with the city getting partially burned, Dobbins said New York ends up being burned to the ground in most of her classes.
In another game, students played the roles of leaders and factions during India’s bid for independence. Historically, this resulted in the formation of Pakistan as a separate country from India, but Dobbins said the class was determined to keep the country unified.
“They succeeded, but they said afterward it was extremely difficult to get everyone to agree, and the final agreement probably wouldn’t last more than two years,” Dobbins said.
While the game can get chaotic during debates and discussion, Dobbins said the game format helps students gain a better understanding of how history turned out the way it did because they get to experience it themselves.
Class tweets for the New York Assembly can be found at @MacAmRev. Tweets for Rome can be found at @MacRome44.

Contact Josh Arnett by email at and follow him on Twitter @ArnettSentinel.