Group projects can be frustrating for students in the best of times. Should they play a role in pedagogy during a pandemic? I struggled with this question in my Age of Reformations course, which included a group board-game project as its final assessment. As originally intended, this project asked groups of students to work together to research a historical event or theme from early modern Europe. Students would then implement concepts such as causality, contingency, and change over time as they designed a historically accurate and playable game. Inspired by a pedagogy panel at the Sixteenth Century Society & Conference annual meeting in St. Louis (2019), I hoped to use this game-based group project to help majors and minors learn to effectively collaborate in groups, to think critically and carefully about historical representations in games, and to apply the skills of historical analysis developed throughout the course in a non-traditional format.
Scholarship clearly shows the merits of game-based pedagogy for teaching historical perspective. Patricia Seed’s reflection on a decade of game-based pedagogy maintains that “having students design games does create more active and engaged students of history.”1 Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott note that “games-as-history piece together a narrative of the past, which may well not be accurate by traditional historical measures of facts, but which forces players to understand the role of contingency, and to learn about history as a dynamic process and not events, dates, people, and places to learn by rote.” 2 However, much of the scholarship on pedagogy and games centers on the use of video games in face-to-face classrooms.3 Would its merits translate into a board-game project in an online learning environment?
This question drove the redesign of the second half of this course, and attempts to answer it led to more questions than answers. How could I allow students to keep the work they had already done—research, game design, group contracts—without forcing them to hold to plans that were no longer tenable? Would working in a group prove impossible for students now geographically dispersed, in tenuous living situations, with disparate internet access and resources? In light of the mental strain faced by all of my students, would there be mental space for the creativity and original thinking that the project required?
The first lesson taught by this pandemic is about uncertainty, and how to continue on without having immediate answers to all questions. As a young woman teaching in a region of the country in which traditional gender roles remain dominant, communicating expertise and authority has been a constant consideration in my teaching and classroom management. Yet in the face of the chaos caused by COVID-19, I made the decision to be transparent about my own uncertainties and hesitations. I sought student feedback on the course modifications, adjusted throughout the class, and made sure that students always had a means to communicate concerns (often for extra credit). This transparency allowed me to be a better teacher: to meet my students where they were, to make sure their voices were valued and heard, and to create an online learning community that helped students feel less isolated and less alone in their uncertainty.
Ultimately the class received three options for final projects. Students could complete the group board-game project, using the planning and research their group had already done before the pandemic. If the group agreed to split up, each group member could either do an individual scaled back version of the game project or write a more traditional essay that dealt with the concepts of causality and contingency around which the game project revolved. Students immediately expressed relief in being able to play to their strengths and excitement about proceeding with the version of the final project that suited their needs best. I had assumed that few if any of the students would continue with the group project option, but to my surprise, about half of the groups chose to remain together. Of the remaining students, about half opted to design their own games while the remainder chose the traditional essay. In allowing students to play to their strengths to an unprecedented degree, I was able to see student learning and comprehension of course material in ways that best displayed their knowledge. In short, allowing students to submit what they considered their best work resulted in high levels of student satisfaction and almost universally impressive projects.
Despite the challenges of group learning remotely, the students who produced group projects found the Zoom meetings, shared Google documents, and process of collaboration to be a meaningful way of continuing in community in an isolating time. Some groups worked on each element of the game together, developing both digital communication skills and more complex ways of thinking historically. Other groups split the workload by resources and individual strengths. For example, in one group, a more introverted student worked on trouble-shooting the rules and on researching specific historical figures while a more extroverted student play-tested the game with her family.
Students who chose the individual game option likewise play-tested games or spent time talking through game design choices with those quarantined with them. As students developed games on topics like early modern witch hunts, ideological debates during the Reformation, the 1524–25 Peasants’ War, or navigating Baroque culture and the court of Louis XIV, they unexpectedly became involved in the very process of public-facing history that we had discussed as we analyzed board games like Here I Stand, Fief, or Dominion: Renaissance prior to the pandemic. They learned the joy of being experts in their field and had a chance to put that expertise into practice as they explained to their families the ways that gender affected one’s chances of surviving a witch hunt or how gossip and etiquette shaped status and political power in early modern courts.
Finally, as I had hoped when designing the project, students learned to think more critically about the events and themes from the course. After reading primary sources and scholarship on witch hunts, one group shifted from a game in which the objective was to find the witch in the village to one in which the objective was simply to survive. The group decided that a historically accurate game would be one in which the characters’ gender and socioeconomic status, gossip, mob hysteria, and the luck of the draw determined who lived to win the game. Another student whose game centered on the Peasants’ War commented that until he started trying to structure a playable game, he did not fully understand the odds that the peasants faced in the 1524–25 uprisings. Designing a strictly historically accurate game, with each side given health and attack values proportionate to their actual assets in 1524, led to a completely unplayable game. Only by changing the numbers to give the peasants advantages they did not in reality have could the event be turned into a game. Perhaps because students were developing projects on early modern crises in a time of crisis, many of the games highlighted how disasters exacerbated social tensions and reinforced social barriers, a theme that directly connected to the current events unfolding as they worked on these projects and provided historically informed framing for the social issues and inequity highlighted by the current pandemic.
The initial uncertainty related to pursuing a non-traditional final project in a time of pandemic never fully disappeared. However, as we worked through the challenges of living in a pandemic and online project-based learning, I learned that in times of exceptional stress, play-based and non-traditional pedagogy is important. Group work allowed students to continue to interact with peers and friends in a way that felt “normal.” Flexibility in formatting allowed students to show historical learning at a time when the ability to focus on careful prose and editing was difficult for many. Agency in choosing their final project gave students a chance to feel like they had control over one area of their life. The chance to act as experts and teachers within their homes and quarantine communities encouraged and affirmed students at a time when they most needed confidence in their learning. Finally, in shifting to an online platform, I learned to recast my own uncertainties as an early career scholar as potential strengths rather than weaknesses. Project-based pedagogy gave my students that same chance to reconceptualize their own “weaknesses” as strengths while developing their skills and confidence as historians. When we move back into physical classrooms, I plan to carry this vulnerability, flexibility, and emphasis on student agency into those spaces. Whenever that day comes, we look forward to playing all these board games together and introducing future students to the wonderful possibilities of project-based pedagogy.
For examples of games created by students in the Age of Reformations course, see:
Lynneth Miller Renberg is an Assistant Professor of History at Anderson University in Anderson, SC. Although she hated group projects while a student, she has recently become interested in the potential of game-based and performance-based group projects as a means of incorporating diverse learning styles and creative assessments into the college classroom.
1 Patricia Seed, “Looking Back: A Decade of Using Games to Teach History, 1996–2006,” 19 Aug. 2009.
2 Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott, eds., Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 31.
3 See, for example, Tobias Winnerling and Florian Kerschbaumer, eds., Early Modernity and Video Games (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).