Gaming Russian and Soviet History

by Barbara C. Allen, LaSalle University

Note: Please see the January 2021 issue of NewsNet for this article's endnotes/external resources.

Will your students prevent the Bolsheviks from seizing power in 1917 or will they transfer all power to the soviets? Will their negotiations bring a peaceful end to the Cuban Missile Crisis or let loose nuclear conflagration? Which city of Rus will the Mongols target next for complete destruction or exaction of tribute? How will Emperor Paul redirect Russia’s foreign and domestic policy after the death of Empress Catherine the Great? Can the British and Americans save Eastern Europe from falling under Soviet control at the Yalta Peace Conference? These vital questions have no predetermined answers in the games which students play in classes based on Reacting to the Past (RTTP) and other gaming pedagogy. While students must adhere closely to the ideas of the characters they play, the outcomes derive from players’ persuasive, evidence-based rhetoric, interpersonal dynamics, and contingency.

Several years ago, I transformed my instruction through RTTP pedagogy. Specifically designed for higher education, RTTP games employ role play, writing, speaking, and debate and encourage students to take leadership roles, cooperate, compete, and innovate. Students assume the roles of historical characters representing philosophical, scientific, cultural or ideological perspectives and must attempt to achieve goals specific to their character. In factions composed of characters with similar views, students work together to accomplish their objectives. Some students are indeterminates who vote independently of factions on issues but may join a faction of their choice by the end. Instructors operate on the sidelines and grade work while students run class sessions; sometimes they intervene to keep a game from going off the rails. Students do not operate according to a script. Contingency, individual personalities and group dynamics influence voting, so the result of a game can differ from historical reality. Nevertheless, students’ grades depend on representing their character’s views faithfully.

Game play is preceded by days or weeks of preparation, during which instructors guide students through the historical background and primary sources. A counterfactual element in each game facilitates confrontation between characters professing different ideas. Following the game’s highly fraught conclusion, a postmortem class dissects how historical reality compares to how events unfolded in the game. Reading and writing requirements for the games vary, according to whether a class is introductory or advanced. Games usually unfold over three to four weeks of classes but can be compressed or expanded in order to fit a class schedule. Short games (including those in Norton’s Flashpoints Series) can be played within two weeks. Microgames which require no advance reading are available as well but may lightly cover context and intellectual currents. The “game manual” (textbook) comprises a historical narrative, an introduction to Reacting, game rules, a schedule of topics, an overview of factions and individual roles, and “core texts” (primary sources) for students to read and cite in their speeches and papers. Unpublished materials in the password-protected online Reacting Library include an instructor’s manual for each game, detailed role sheets, factional advisories, and handouts. Instructors should bring to class dice, name cards, and other accessories. A game usually begins with a liminal moment, such as the pig sacrifice in the Athens game.

My students at all levels have proved very receptive to RTTP and have enthusiastically assumed leadership roles, exercised creativity, and debated one another. In anonymous surveys students expressed near-universal agreement that they learned more from immersive role play than from lectures and discussion. In an article our university student newspaper ran about the class, students were quoted saying: “I absorbed a lot more than I would have in a regular lecture-style classroom, because we were immersed in the subject and had to think like the characters;” “These role-plays were beneficial because we were actively engaged; we had to write, present, use our creativity, and discuss historical events which is different from the typical history class;” and, from a male student, “Never in my life has being a woman pretending to be a man been so fun and educational.”

The games I initially deployed in my first-year Honors Western Civilization class are recommended for beginners: “Threshold of Democracy, Athens in 403 BC” and “Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791.” I trained by playing compressed versions in the Reacting Summer Institute for Faculty. Having gained experience, I added unpublished games to my curriculum. Because game designers share unpublished materials for free with instructors, it cuts down on textbook costs for students. Dr. Sally A. Boniece, Professor of Russian History at Frostburg State University, shared with me materials of a game she has developed, “The February Revolution and Dual Power in Petrograd, 1917.” After that was a striking success, I expanded my use of Reacting to non-honors first year seminars and upper-level Russian history classes.

In addition to Reacting games, I have used microgames developed by Dr. Ray Kimball of West Point – “Mongol Matrix,” “After Catherine,” and (with Dr. Kimberly Redding of Carroll U) “Eyeball to Eyeball, 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis.” I obtained Core Committee approval to offer a first-year academic seminar called “Gaming the Past: People, Ideas, Events” in Fall 2020. The onset of COVID-19 forced me to rapidly switch game play to asynchronous remote modality in Spring 2020. During and since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, RTTP instructors and game designers have collaborated on the fly to create asynchronous and synchronous online versions of the games. By Fall 2020, I had trained and prepared sufficiently to run games synchronously on Zoom. For reasons of space, here I will focus on my favorite game.

February Revolution, 1917
“The February Revolution and Dual Power in Petrograd, 1917,” designed by Dr. Sally A. Boniece, unfolds in Soviet Executive Committee meetings during the first half of 1917. Character roles are drawn from the major socialist parties, from worker and peasant social groups, and from soldiers and sailors. Socialist politicians in revolutionary defensist, moderate internationalist, and extreme internationalist factions debate whether the Soviet should cooperate with the Provisional Government or replace it, and whether Russia should continue the war or withdraw from it. They seek votes from students playing the indeterminate roles of peasants, workers, soldiers, and sailors, who ask questions ranging from simple to sophisticated. The instructor, acting as game master, introduces breaking news releases to invigorate debate and create suspense. Like developments in 1917, those in the game are turbulent; characters radicalize during the course of play. Student players draw upon translated primary sources to inform their speeches, questions, and comments. Because some peasant and soldier characters are illiterate, socialist intellectuals, workers and sailors educate them politically. The game highlights peasant, soldier and worker roles in turning events and gives voice to Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks as well as to Bolsheviks, countering the traditional textbook emphasis on Bolshevik hegemony.

The context, background, and ideological nuances were difficult for students to master. I coached them, but their struggles also reflected those of historical actors in a rapidly changing context. While preparing, my students took the Arzamas quiz “Who are you in 1917 Russia?” ( to test how well they understood their character’s views. This game is particularly meaningful to me because Alexander Shlyapnikov, whose biography I wrote, is in the game. I always feel nervous and excited when choosing a student to play his role. This game transferred very smoothly to asynchronous online play. Breaking news releases helped tremendously to sustain momentum and keep students engaged remotely. When I run the game face-to-face, the extreme internationalists (Bolsheviks and leftist SRs) achieve all power to soviets in a successful July uprising, but in asynchronous play, students in indeterminate roles paid closer attention to the moderate internationalists’ (Sukhanov and Martov) argument favoring an all-socialist coalition government and the moderates prevailed.

Because faculty can adapt the Reacting method to a range of courses from introductory surveys to specialized upper-level classes for majors, RTTP contributes to multiple opportunities through a student’s years in university for high impact, engaged learning activities, thus supporting retention, persistence, and graduation rates. Research has shown that higher student engagement in general education classes can support retention. A 2015-16 survey of students who had taken Reacting classes at Middle Tennessee State U showed that student engagement was higher in general education classes employing Reacting than in those that did not. A 2008-9 Eastern Michigan U study showed that the retention rate of students who had taken Reacting versions of introductory history classes was 10% higher than those who had taken non-Reacting intro history courses. Students who had taken Reacting in their first year at Indiana U South Bend “showed increased self-efficacy” in academic and social skills at the end of the semester; women’s self-efficacy increased to match that of men. Self-efficacy is more important than self-esteem to academic success, because it is based on “people’s judgments that they can succeed on specific tasks.” A follow-up survey of Reacting students at Eastern Michigan U showed that in comparison with a control group, the Reacting students reported greater teamwork skills, public speaking confidence, better understanding of cultural differences, and higher engagement. So far during the COVID-19 pandemic, my students have agreed that the games create a sense of community online. Students collaborated with me in finding creative solutions to adapt face-to-face games to the Zoom environment. My first semester freshmen have made friendships in their Zoom classes that they did not expect to form in a remote educational environment.

Barbara C. Allen is Associate Professor of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She earned her Ph.D. in Russian and Soviet history at Indiana University Bloomington.