Publication Date

December 1, 2017

Perspectives Section



Social, Teaching Methods


Students spun to learn their characters’ fates. John Liu/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Students spun to learn their characters’ fates. John Liu/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Students in my Renaissance and Reformation course were in for a surprise. After spending several weeks learning about the Renaissance—defining it, understanding the role of popes and patrons, and analyzing art—it was time to shift to the experiences of common people and the way the Renaissance did (or didn’t) shape their daily lives.

Social history can seem inaccessible to students. They struggle to see how historical forces shape societies, and they assume that people in the past were either primitive versions of themselves or so completely different as to be inscrutable. As a basis for our studies we used the textbook Street Life in Renaissance Rome: A Brief History with Documents, but to really immerse my students in the everyday life of this time and place, I used The Game of Life—a classic board game. Turning the reading and homework assignments into a game made social history more accessible and engaging. I decided to test out my idea in a very small class—just five students—with the goal of adapting it to my 30-person World Civilization class. Since game play requires little to no instructor intervention, multiple game boards could be used at once, or students could play in teams.

As Life is normally played, the object is for a player to retire as a millionaire. Each player spins to move through education, career, and family life. In the newest version, players draw action cards that tell them to perform various tasks to earn money. On the game board, there are “Stop” spaces marking major life events (marriage, children, and so forth). For the game to help teach the history of Renaissance Rome, of course, I had to modify it (more on that soon). The point was to urge students to see ordinary people as human beings who responded to large-scale historical forces. The game helped them do so, by allowing them to construct a kind of community, in class and online.

One priority in constructing assignments around the game was to get students to care about the content of the primary sources in the textbook. Pedagogically, I was inspired first by Sam Wineburg’s contention in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001) that students typically do not read texts critically or see primary sources as vibrant, legitimate documents of the past, even when taken through a critical reading exercise. In another vein, José Bowen, in Teaching Naked (2012), argues for the primacy of “direct physical interaction” in college classrooms, with technology playing a complementary role outside them. Edith Sheffer’s Creating Lives project also proved useful, as did the Reacting to the Past pedagogy; both are established pedagogical tools that allow students to role-play and immerse themselves in historical periods or events.1

Forming the community began in the class session in which I introduced the game. Based on information from the textbook, students first created characters for themselves. They decided on the gender, family status, religious beliefs, and economic status and aspirations of their character. Most created a historically plausible version of themselves. A pre-law student created a lawyer; an environmental studies student created a healer knowledgeable about plant life. Students posted their character biographies on a class online discussion board so that they could all read one another’s biographies and follow one another’s stories. With the characters created, we discussed social history and its construction from the known and the inferred.

Then we started playing. The goal was to have a “successful life,” which students were to assess for themselves by writing a reflection paper at the end of the game. They therefore kept careful track of what happened during the game, so that they would be able to write about it. During the first 15 minutes of class, we would play Life until everyone reached the next “Stop” space. Instead of using the action cards included in the game, I created a few Renaissance Roman action cards, and students created more at the end of each class. (These were a class “exit slip,” but they also allowed students to reflect on the day’s lesson.) Action cards included penalties, such as “Your sins have caught up to you! Pay 100 ducats for an indulgence,” or benefits, such as “Find an authentic performance of a Renaissance-era piece of music. Earn 300 ducats.” With our modified game rules, students could earn or lose money and “power/influence points.”

To be eligible to play the next round, students had to complete an assignment and post it on a discussion board for all to read. Each assignment was created around a scenario and directed students to respond to one or more documents in the text. Students had to imagine their characters doing things typical of life in Renaissance Rome: evaluate the reputation of various women, visit a doctor to diagnose an illness, and others. I would respond to the students’ posts and direct them to respond to me or to one another. Through it all, they wove complex narratives of their characters’ lives, always taking into account the changes brought about by the events in the game and the information in the documents. They interacted with each other as well, reinforcing the sense of community I had hoped would flower. The students got caught up in one another’s stories, both in how they responded to the documents on the forum and how their responses shaped their fates in the game. As we played, students discussed whether other players’ actions were consistent with their characters. Fashioning a cohesive narrative became paramount.

Turning the reading and homework assignments into a game made social history more accessible and engaging.

At the end of the game, students had to spin to see how they weathered the sack of Rome in 1527. In some cases, the characters experienced very few effects, but other characters witnessed the slaughter of their families, and some even died themselves. The final paper (about whether their lives were successful) brought forth reflections that might have been primary sources from the Renaissance. As one student wrote, “[M]y six children, all grown into young adults, were beginning to spread their own influences into the streets of Rome: one of my sons continued to work with me as a barber, two went into the services of the Papacy . . . and my daughters were all being pursued by noble suitors. They brought me continual joy, until . . . the Sack of Rome. Before my very eyes, my children were slaughtered and their bodies debased. My family lost, I now have no reason to continue living, no one to pass along my prestige to.”

Two aspects of the unit stand out as particular strengths. Creating a Renaissance persona encouraged students to read the documents from their character’s perspective and think about how that person would respond. This breathed new life and urgency into the documents. When asked to answer analytic questions in character, students read the documents thoroughly and responded thoughtfully, more than they might have done if they perceived an assignment as busywork. These questions were not substantially different from those I would have asked for a traditional assignment.

Students also realized that how they responded to the documents would affect them in the game; this realization led them to craft responses that they could “live” with. When students read Pope Paul IV’s papal edict of July 1555, which placed significant restrictions on Jews, they had to decide whether to keep up a relationship with a Jewish business contact. Most of the students decided to try to maintain some sort of connection, and even though most of them lost money and influence in the game for their decision, they had grown too attached to their character to compromise their (modern) moral standard.

The second strength was the addition of game elements into the template for a Creating Lives assignment. The elements of chance and competition, while having no effect on students’ grades, kept students engaged, created a “direct physical interaction,” as Bowen would have it, and added a measure of reality to these created lives. Using a well-known board game, rather than one created specifically for the class, streamlined the game play, as all of the students were at least somewhat familiar with the game (which is designed to be learned quickly in any case).

One unforeseen benefit was the degree to which the students created their own Renaissance Roman community. As they followed each other’s stories and read and discussed each other’s varied responses to the texts, they thought through the implications of multiple interpretations and experiences of the same event. When most of the characters, or their families, died or lost everything in the Sack of Rome, the students noticed the death not only of their individual characters but of the community as a whole. After following the characters’ stories for several weeks, reading about their deaths in the final assignment was jarring and somehow sad. History had come alive through some pieces of cardboard and plastic, a discussion forum, and the community the students crafted.

While there is no direct way to prove that students learned more from this assignment than they would have in a typical one, it did create a direct physical interaction and an opportunity for meaningful engagement with the texts. While students did mention the game as a highlight in their end-of-semester evaluations, perhaps a better indication of their level of engagement was that I overheard them talking about the game in other classes and explaining what had happened to their characters. Months later and in a different class, one student who had played the game recalled how her decision to befriend Jews in Rome led to harsh consequences. She noted how difficult it was to escape the historical context of one’s time.

In using games in class, I have consistently noted that students recall details of the game years after the class is over, and I have very rarely heard them recall details of a normal assignment. As I try to build historical understanding in my students over the course of four years, games have proven to be reliable, memorable building blocks.


1.See Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 2001); José Antonio Bowen, Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012); Edith Sheffer, “Creating Lives in the Classroom,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 22, 2009; Edith Sheffer, with Kathryn Ciancia, “Creating Lives: Fictional Characters in the History Classroom,” Perspectives on History, October 2013; Mark Carnes, Minds on Fire: How Role Immersion Games Transform College(Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2014).


Elizabeth George is an associate professor of history at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas, where she is a member of the Center for Games and Learning.

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