Role-playing, Games, & the Dangerous Lure of Historical Empathy

Spectres on the Stage

Scene one: you’re a terrorist with a gun, in an elevator. The doors open, and you calmly walk out with your fellow radicals to begin taking deadly aim at crowds of civilians in a Russian airport. At stake is your ability to maintain your cover as a CIA mole in Vladimir Makarov’s ultranationalist network. The carnage is as bad as you can imagine. You’re playing a character in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, in a scene that attracted international notoriety – but also helped the game reap millions in sales.

Scene two: you’re a fire-eating slave-owner, from Kentucky. The 1861 special winter session of the General Assembly has opened, and you arrive in haste in Frankfort, desperate to convince your fellow lawmakers that the state needs to join the Confederacy. At stake is the right to exploit human property, your life’s blood; failure would mean destruction. You’re role-playing as part of a Civil War history course, using a version of the Reacting to the Past pedagogy that has earned plaudits from educators and elite journalists nation-wide – but has also attracted student protest.

The potential pitfalls and productive tensions of video game design and historical education are more alike than they might appear. In part, that’s because in the overlap in the Venn Diagram of “history” and “video games” there sits role-playing, the practice of inhabiting a character. All at once it is a core mechanic, a dramatic technique, and a practice at the heart of disciplinary knowledge production. But as the scenes above suggest, the power of role-playing brings with it unique challenges and considerations. When we play a role, it changes how we understand a narrative, by placing us in it. What might that mean for how we understand historical arguments – and ourselves as critical observers?
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