Published December 01, 2021 by Tom Porter

“Playing with the Past”: Bowdoin’s Rael on Teaching History with Games

“We live in a golden age of board games,” wrote Professor of History Patrick Rael in an article he produced in October for the journal Perspectives in History

rael board game 2017
Prof. Rael supervises a board game with students in 2017

For the student of history, there are numerous gaming options, he explained, from games that enable you to design a medieval town to ones where you get to build the Seven Wonders of the World.

Such games, said Rael, offer new ways for students to engage history in the college classroom. “On the most basic level, playing games enhances students’ fluency with historical basics—the who, what, where, and when of a particular history. On a more advanced level, games permit players to imagine changing historical outcomes. They invite discussions of counter-factuality and contingency, resisting the teleology and determinism that are so common to looking backward in time.”

Rael went on explain how the skills developed playing board games “cover the entire range of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, from the acquisition of trivia-like information to the metacognition associated with iterating strategies.”

Rael, a US historian whose expertise includes African American and Civil War-era history, regularly offers courses that incorporate board and computer games. In the article, he discusses several games he has used to teach classes on colonization and slavery. In Struggles of Empires and Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas, for example, players represent European powers as they expand overseas, often utilizing slavery to help them achieve this (and having to deal with the consequences). Freedom: The Underground Railroad, on the other hand, takes a different approach, said Rael. Instead of tempting players to practice slavery, they are asked to undermine it by playing the roles of activists and abolitionists trying to help slaves escape from the American South.

These games offer a variety of ways for students to consider the history of slavery, argued Rael. Not just through the historical themes on display but via the messages delivered in the playing of those games. “Games, like all media, deliver their interpretations through their form as much as through their content. Understanding both hones our students’ capacity to critically encounter the history that is so pervasively represented in popular culture.” Read the article

This semester Rael is teaching The History of African Americans from 1865 to the Present (HIST 2141, AFR 2141) and Mapping American History Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) (HIST 2625, DCS 2550 – read more).