Let the Games Commence!

By Tom Porter

Combining a passion for history and gaming, some fifty people—students, staff, professors, and guest scholars—gathered on campus recently to play historically themed board games and discuss ways in which they represent the past.

The history department’s Kemp Symposium is held—sometimes annually, sometimes less frequently—to explore different aspects of the subject and invite guest speakers onto campus.

“Previous symposia have focused on issues like labor and emancipation, science as knowledge-seeking, the Russian Revolution, and drugs in eighteenth-century France,” said Professor of History Patrick Rael, who organized this year’s event, titled “Ludic Histories” (“ludic is the Latin for ‘play,’” he explained).

kemp 2024 attendees
Some fifty scholars, gaming designers, and students attended the 2024 Kemp Symposium. (Organizer Patrick Rael is at the front in the middle, seated on the floor.)
“More and more, history is being taught by popular culture, so it becomes ever more important to think about the ways that happens. Historians have become comfortable analyzing the ways popular entertainment media, like Hollywood feature films or video games, approach history,” said Rael, a historian primarily of nineteenth-century America and a keen advocate of using games in the classroom. “The remarkable growth of the board game market in recent years demands that we extend our analysis to this fast-growing new medium,” he added.
gaming board at 2024 kemp symposium

The symposium, held over the weekend of April 19–21, was organized in a novel way, explained Rael. At the heart of the event were four Saturday play sessions, during which attendees played a wide range of games. Games played included Pandemic: Fall of Rome, in which players are tasked with defending the Roman empire against the “barbarian” hordes, and John Company, which deals with the fortunes of Britain’s East India Company through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

“On Sunday morning,” said Rael, “we reflected on our play experiences, filtering them through guests’ insights into history and games. We explored four central historical themes: ancient Rome, Central American history, histories of colonialism, and the history of Western expansion.” In doing so, he added, attendees noted how many board games, being essentially products of consumer entertainment culture, offer troubling historical depictions, rife with the kind of historical mythologies historians seek to challenge in their teaching.

“For example,” explained Rael, “games about ancient Rome often depict generic ‘barbarians’ as uncivilized ‘others,’ while those set in Central American history frequently invoke a thin veneer of history (like the image of the circular Mayan calendar) without really understanding it. Other games seem to celebrate histories of colonialism in which the protagonists are not the peoples displaced by European expansion, but the imperial powers that exploited them.” Likewise, he added, games set in the mythic American West often either erase the presence of Native Americans or subordinate their roles.

“I came away from the symposium with a much clearer picture of how gaming and game-design can engage students with historiography in ways far more meaningful than most assigned reading.”

—Associate Professor of Classics Robert Sobak

historical gaming at kemp symposium 2024

Guest scholars included Elizabeth Davidson, a Latin teacher who runs the Beyond Solitaire podcast, Jonathan Truitt, a history professor from Central Michigan University who researches the place of games in Mexican culture, and Cole Werhle, a historian who designs games about colonialism and imperialism. Friday’s keynote lecture was offered by Jason Perez, a cultural consultant who runs the Shelf Stories podcast, which examines questions of racial representation in games. “Titled ‘The Crime and the Cover Story,’ Jason’s address illustrated the ways histories of oppression have often been obscured, neglected, or justified in history, noting how modern board games partake of this troubling pattern,” said Rael. Other guests included scholars from MIT’s Game Lab and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, designers of historical games, and educators well-versed in using games in history classrooms. 

“We discussed the challenges inherent in altering historical mythologies deeply embedded in a popular culture that is often more concerned with selling history than teaching it,” Rael observed. “We found promising potential on the margins, however, where independent designers and scholars are increasingly offering titles that do important work in diversifying the subjects of historically themed games and challenging historical stereotypes. Furthermore,” he added, “history, and ludic histories in particular, have taught me of the truly emancipatory potential of play, which has the capacity to let us imagine ourselves into the kind of society we’d like to be.”

jason perez at kemp sympo
The keynote speaker was Jason Perez, a cultural consultant who runs the Shelf Stories podcast, which examines questions of racial representation in games. 

Other Bowdoin faculty members at the symposium included Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies Matthew Klingle: “As a college professor who is a sometime gamer, I appreciated how seriously the Kemp Symposium participants wrestled with questions central to the practice of historical scholarship,” he reflected. “One key question was how to challenge the power of intractable myths in American popular culture. How can a game about the Lewis and Clark expedition subvert ideas of manifest destiny and the frontier? How can you design a game about contact between Europeans and Indigenous peoples that upends stereotypes about colonialism or the ‘noble savage’ without turning play into schoolwork?”

Associate Professor of Classics Robert Sobak said the symposium did more than merely inform him how to better incorporate games into his classes. “More surprisingly, and more importantly, I came away from the symposium with a much clearer picture of how gaming and game-design can engage students with historiography in ways far more meaningful than most assigned reading. I look forward to deploying much of what I learned during this amazing conference in courses to come.”

Phoebe Marin ’24 assisted in hosting the symposium and participated in it. “The most enlightening part of the weekend,” she said, “was to see all the ways in which experts in the field analyze games in relation to the narratives they tell, considering factors ranging from market desire and industry concerns to inherent otherization in popular stories to how game mechanisms are leveraged to portray history. As an undergraduate student interested in game studies, I found that the weekend reaffirmed my desire to enter academia, and it truly made me excited for the work I plan to conduct both during the rest of my time at Bowdoin and after."