Guest Blogger: Mary Gross – Tension and Fear

This week, we feature the first entry in a four-part series by guest blogger Mary Gross, Associate Professor of History at Marian University of Wisconsin, who has been designing games for history, political science, sociology, and first year studies courses for more than 20 years. Her post begins with an introduction to the series, followed by an entry on a game featuring the mechanics of instant death and dice rolling.

Bio: Mary holds a BA from University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in Urban and Public Affairs, MA in History from Texas A&M, Ph.D. in History from the University of South Carolina, and a Masters Certificate in Game Design from Michigan State University. She teaches a wide variety of courses including introductory courses in Sociology and American Government, World History survey courses, upper level European, Latin American, and Middle Eastern courses, and special topic courses including the History of Sex, History of Terrorism, History of Disease.  More recently, she began teaching courses in Game Design.

By Mary Gross

In the past few decades, innovations in primary and secondary history education have focused on analytical skills including critical reading of primary source documents, analysis of change over time, and the development of arguments based on historical evidence. Sam Wineberg and others have challenged history educators to go beyond teaching facts and begin teaching the thinking skills regularly employed by historians. Not only are students able to learn some of these skills, learning the skills is likely to increase student interest in history.

The problem is developing activities which allow students to fully engage with a topic that can seem abstract and is, in reality, distant from them in both time and space.  My students are not likely to take part in revolutions. With any luck, they will not fight wars or live through famines. Many will never travel widely and it is highly unlikely that any will travel back in time.  Fostering a connection between twenty-first century students and historical people and events demands that teachers and professors develop activities that lead students to become emotionally involved with the past, a skill referred to as historical empathy.  

The term historical empathy has been described in a variety of ways.  Some writers have focused on the cognitive skills commonly referred to as perspective taking or contextualization.  Others have seen it as an affective response, understanding the actions or beliefs of another by feeling the same emotions.  Still others have combined the two, referred to as a Cognitive-Affective Spiral in which the cognitive creates a spark of interest which leads to more study.  With greater study, affective experiences help maintain the interest and lead to understanding of the complexity which deepens the cognitive understanding, allowing a cycle to begin.

Regardless of the definition of historical empathy, this skill is worth fostering among students.  Empathy for people in the past is easily transferred to people in the present. Games, because of their immersive qualities and the intrinsic motivation they encourage are an excellent way to foster historical empathy.  This four part series will focus on mechanics which facilitate the development of historical empathy. It is hoped that the series will help educational game designers create games which intentionally develop this important skill

Part I: Tension and Fear
By Mary Gross

Even in a sanitized textbook, the horrors of World War I are apparent.  Students are quick to see the futility of trench warfare on the Western Front.  In discussions, students argue that they would have refused to get out of the trenches and fight.  As a result, they see the soldiers as pitiful pawns or ignorant automatons. Allowing them to experience a shallow sense of the fear and sheer randomness of life in the trenches changes their views of the soldiers who faced the full experience.

“Over the Top” is a simple game played on a PowerPoint board, projected on to a screen.  Students are lined up in random order and ordered into the board’s No Man’s Land. Each step forward requires them to roll a 100 sided die.  If they roll a 1-4, they receive a chest wound and remain in No Man’s Land. A roll of 50-53 results in a leg wound, also stranding them in the field of battle.  A 98-100 results in instant death. The odds are consistent with injury and death rates in the first days of the Battle of the Somme. Students in the second and third ranks, must move forward and roll the dice as they replace their fallen comrades.  Just as they reach the barbed wire on the far end of the battlefield, retreat is called, and they can roll the dice and try to get back to the trench safely. Once all of the able bodied students are safe back in the trench, they can go back out to No Man’s Land and save a friend, rolling again to get to the friend and then to return to the trench.  The game continues until all of the wounded are returned to the trench, all of the students are wounded or killed, or those in the trench decide to remain safe and not rescue any more of their comrades. After the game, students write a reflection on how they felt rolling the dice or their decision whether to rescue fallen comrades.

The mechanics are simple.  Roll and move. Students’ reactions are more complex.  Students write about a feeling of dread as they pick up the dice and the relief they feel when they are “safe.”  They express their anger and frustration at being shot and having to wait to see if they would survive. Some lucky few are far enough back in the ranks that they don’t ever have to roll the dice.  Some are thankful. Others wanted their chance to face the results.

The call of retreat brings about shouts of “I was almost there!” and “Thank God!”  Regarding the choice to rescue a friend, elicits similar complex emotions.

Students wrote about how they know that their friend would have rescued them and that soldiers are like family members.  They can’t be left behind. Some students steadfastly refuse to rescue others. They reflect on their decision in interesting ways.   One student wrote, “I wasn’t going to rescue anyone. They were calling for me to rescue them, but I thought, ‘I don’t care. I’m not going to die out there.’”

They do not, of course, ever face any actual harm, but emotions run high every time the die is picked up.  Dice rolling is an activity which seems to create drama and so it is particularly useful to create tension and fear.  It is, in effect, casting your lot to the winds of fate. But dice rolling also acts in engaging students in “magical thinking” that their hand or the way in which they shake the dice can, somehow, influence what happens.  This adds to the perception of agency and control. Because they feel agency in the rolling of the dice, they also feel somewhat responsible for the outcomes. All of this heightens tensions in a way that having someone else roll the dice would not.  Dice rolling also involves a period of uncertainty between when the dice leaves the hands and when it comes to a stop. This makes dice rolling more dramatic than flipping a card. The possibility of cocked dice or dice tumbling off the table increases the tension even further as this requires the whole dice rolling process to be completed again.

Including the mechanic of instant death amplifies the tension inherent in dice rolling.  With each roll, the student can be out of the game, sent off to the left side of the room which, for the purposes of the game, is called the afterworld.  They then watch as play continues. Because of the agency they felt in rolling the die, they often feel disappointed and express frustration with the unfairness of the game.

Normally, a game that involves only luck would not be appropriate for learning, but in the case of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War I, survival was often a matter of pure luck.  It induced in soldiers a feeling of fatalism and frustration, but also an intense devotion to the others soldiers. Having played the game, students are able to better understand the fatalistic tone often found in the soldiers’ poems, prose, and letters home.  

In their reflections and the conversation after the game students demonstrated their understanding that the feelings of tension and fear they experienced were similar in type, if not in scope, to what the World War I soldiers must have felt.  Even knowing that they were all still going to be alive at the end of the game did not prevent them from worrying as they waited their turn to roll the dice.

The world is full of randomness and history provides many of examples in which this mimics many experiences people have experienced in the past.  Every ship that ventured into the sea stood a chance of failure. Every battle ever fought contained random elements. Histories of entire nations were dramatically altered by unimaginably random events such as Henry II of France who, while jousting, had a lance hit his helmet.  It broke apart and one splinter went into his eye with such force that it penetrated his brain, killing him. His wife, Catherine de Medici, then ruled as regent while her three unlucky and/or sickly sons each took the crown in turn.

Textbooks tend to present history as a simple linear narrative, free of other possibilities and “what ifs”.  Games which use mechanics of dice rolling and instant death can help students to see that the people who were living at the time didn’t have a linear narrative to follow.  For them tomorrow was full of possibilities, just as the students’ own lives are full of possibilities. This realization increases their empathy with the people they find in the textbook both on a cognitive level and an affective one.

Are you interested in being featured on the CGN website? If so, submit a blog post on any topic related to GBL in higher ed., and/or send links/descriptions of your blogs to Stay tuned for another guest contribution next week.