In the summer of 1787, after the Articles of Confederation failed, representatives of 12 states gathered together in Philadelphia to write the U. S. Constitution.
The process is moving about as smoothly as can be expected, but there is one big problem: none of the delegates can decide on the country’s national animal. The group is split between the bald eagle, the turkey, the mountain lion and the raccoon. Fringe opinions believe the wolf or woolly mammoth may make for a good representative of the country. John Rutledge of South Carolina has been a particular advocate for the squirrel, to the displeasure of the convention, each time he merely mentions the animal the room erupts in chaotic discourse.
This particular convention also is not happening in 1787, nor in Philadelphia, it is a roleplaying history class taking place at Pacific University in Winter Term of 2019. The class attempts to teach students by putting them into the shoes of delegates.
Each student is assigned the role of one member of the conference and is given a 20-page packet containing their background, important issues, writing assignments, special objectives and political party alignment for the next week, according to history professor and gamemaster Lisa Szefel.
The game takes the form of argument at the convention, students make arguments via a podium at the center of the room, vote on how the constitution should be written and earn points at the end of the convention for matching what is written in the Constitution with their personal and party goals. The party with the most combined points at the end of the class wins, according to Szefel.
But the game is more than merely argumentation, early in a session, a member of the convention was accused of being a drunk by another. The confrontation nearly lead to a duel outside, fought via dart gun. When they felt like they were not being heard, delegates from small states grouped together and nearly gathered the power to make a risk versus reward dice roll to overpower the larger states during a crucial vote over the size of the Senate.
Szefel said the game often escapes the class, overtaking conversations over dinner and with roommates. History can change, as well, the group nearly changed how the Senate worked before a student playing James Madison came up with a compromise that the convention could agree on mere moments before voting.
Ultimately, the class is about creating stories. By creating stories around the material, students are more likely to remember it, according to Szefel.
“This is meeting students where they are right now,” said Szefel. When students are more engaged, they retain more information, according to Szefel, who also said that playing as a character from history helps students understand the point of view from that time period much better than a lecture.
“You get to know students in such a different way from a normal class,” Szefel said. “When I see students [from last Winter term], I usually don’t remember their first names, I remember their character.”