Summer camp is for history games (mud optional)

Monopoly board for educational history games

Photo byHarshLight

Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (an Orwellian-sounding name if there ever was one) has just launched a communist-style variation of Monopoly, to help teach kids about life under communist rule. Lots of waiting in lines, lots of squabbling over basic necessities, lots of random shortages—”Go to end of line. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 zloty.” It’s an interesting (/bizarre) twist on the infinitely adaptable, but essentially capitalist game.

(As an aside, I’m trying to imagine the reverse scenario, where little communist children play Monopoly to learn about the evils of capitalism, but then I think, who doesn’t love collecting their $200 or watching their little plastic hotels take over the board? And where’s the lesson in that?)

I suspect the Institute of National Remembrance would approve of the very hands-on history lessons I got at summer camp when I was a teenager. One of the highlights for my age group (we were 14 and it was 1991) was the Soviet Jew “game,” where the camp was transformed into Soviet Russia and we played Jews trying to get exit visas for Israel. We were each given a new identity for the evening, and a cold potato for dinner. We had six hours, from dinner until midnight to complete our task. The cabins were transformed into offices, such as the education office, where we had to get stamps for our visas. Mostly it was a lot of standing in line, a lot of getting yelled at by counsellors/Soviet officials, and a lot of humiliating begging. There was also a lot of anti-Semitic invective hurled at us, generally at random while standing outside a cabin in the cold and mud (the conveniently grim weather was clearly on the KGB payroll), all in the interest of furthering our education of life in the USSR. Very few of us actually managed to escape to Israel.

Looking back, I wonder how our counsellors, high school students barely a few years older than us, must have felt.

I still remember standing in the mud in my rain boots for long periods of time as it got darker outside, but mostly I remember the jarring unreality of it all—this ugly world that we were trying to recreate in that most stereotypically idyllic setting for childhood summers. It just all felt so fake, especially our counsellors, who yelled a lot and generally tried to act mean. A favoured tactic was playing us off against each other—for instance, promising the needed stamp or paperwork in exchange for information about our family members. But ultimately, the game didn’t make much of an impression on me. Maybe it was the over-the-top acting by our counsellors, maybe I was too hungry and cold to pay attention to much else, or maybe I just couldn’t forget that it was a game (and one that my parents had already won for me, thank you very much), but the experience mostly just washed over me.

So are games really an effective tool for teaching history? Does being more or less removed from the actual event make a difference? I was completely nonchalant about the Soviet game because it never felt real. I knew that the reality was much worse and much different. I wish I’d asked some of my fellow campers whether they had a different reaction to it.