Teaching history through games: Are some things off-limits?

Monopoly ship piece representing teaching history through games

Photo by Mark Strozier

In my last post, I talked about a new Monopoly game in Poland, which is being used to teach children about communism. I also talked about a role-playing game I participated in at summer camp, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, where we played Soviet Jews trying to escape the country. Come to think of it, it’s the the only time I ever remember learning about Soviet Jews in the entirety of my Jewish education. As I noted already, the Soviet Jewry game didn’t make much of an impression on me, and I don’t know that an anti-communism Monopoly game will either.

But I don’t know what kinds of tools would be more effective. I also think that our response tends to vary with the event itself. A game about the Middle Passage (more on that in a moment) seems to ruffle fewer feathers than one about the Holocaust, though in another 300 years, we may not react so strongly to a Holocaust game either. Other efforts, like memorializing Holocaust victims on Facebook, will probably also be viewed differently. Games are meant to be fun, so it offends our sensibilities when that activity is used to convey the horrors of reality.

During the Holocaust, a Monopoly game created in the Theresienstadt concentration camp helped children living in that particular time and place deal with their reality. But what happens when we take that concept and apply it forward into the present, as a means of education?

For instance, Train, a board game created by game developer and professor Brenda Brathwaite. The board is a window with broken panes; the game revolves around moving your pieces onto trains. You can probably guess where those trains are headed. Players aren’t told what the game is about—when people figure it out and what they do next is more the point of the game than “winning.” It seems that people generally either stop playing or try to game the system and save their Jews.

You crammed a bunch of wooden pawns uncomfortably into your train car, even stacking them on top of each other, because you thought it didn’t matter. You played cards to speed your train to its destination. You played intelligently and optimized the mechanics in your favor, and you won. And that means you lost. It’s easy to claim ignorance: I didn’t know what I was doing, I was only following the rules. But once you do know the results of your actions… do you keep playing? – Tabletop Tuesdays: Game as Gallery Art [Updated: Link no longer available]

Train is actually part of a series Brathwaite has developed, called The Mechanic is the Message. She was inspired to create it when she realized her daughter had completely missed the point of a school lesson about the Middle Passage. Other games in the series cover Haiti, her family’s immigration history, and more. But Train seems to generate the most discussion, underscoring my point about our responses being based on the specific nature of the event. What about a game based on the Columbine massacre [Updated: Link no longer available]? There are plenty more, I’m sure, that I’m not aware of.

A Holocaust-themed video game also made the rounds recently, to general condemnation. What is it about video games that makes them so different from a board game? In the video game, called Sonderkommando Revolt, players try to kill Nazis; in Train, players are Nazis. Of course, Train mostly sits in a museum, as opposed to blasting into your living room via flat-screen. I have the same instinctual response, that a video game adds to the problem, while a board game, or a role-playing game at summer camp, is more likely to increase our understanding of history.

But here’s another question—why is it acceptable to depict general, randomized violence in video games, but not violence that actually turns out to be real? Shouldn’t our queasiness about reality-based video games make us look more critically at the supposedly non-reality based ones? Why are we bothered by depictions of violence that has already happened, but are so non-plussed by violence that exists in a perpetual state of possibility?

So what do you all think? Are games an effective means of teaching history? Are some historical moments beyond the pale? And why do we respond so differently to real vs. imaginary scenarios? Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts!

© 2017 Lea Zeltserman