Guest Blogger: Mary Gross – Uncertainty and Anxiety

Today we return to Mary Gross’ four part series on games in higher education designed to encourage historical empathy. This third entry once again features a game involving chaos, but in a different sense than previously discussed.

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Part III: Uncertainty and Anxiety
By Mary Gross

As the third part of the series involving game mechanics which increase historical empathy, this blog looks at branching stories and progress meters to create uncertainty and anxiety among students.  Because of the linear and authoritarian way in which textbooks are written, it is easy for students to forget that while they know how the event will turn out, the participants do not. This leads to comments like “if they just would have waited a few years to act, the whole revolution would have been over.”  Pointing out the fallacy of this thinking doesn’t always lead students to rethink their reactions.

“Preventing the Second Revolution” is a game which puts students in the position of the Russian Provisional Government which lasted from March to October 1917.  Students compete in teams. The goal is to prevent triggering of a second revolution. They may also choose to construct a free and democratic government for the Russian people.  Projected onto the screen are thermometers, one for each team. Each team has a stack of cards placed in front of them. Each card contains a situation and two possible decisions that could be taken and represents a round in the game.  Next to each decision is a number of “chaos points” which increase or decrease the “temperature” on their team’s thermometer. If their decisions result in a total of more than 150 chaos points, the second revolution is triggered.

The game is played in rounds.  Each round begins with the top card being flipped and read.  The decision is made and the resulting chaos points are added or subtracted from the thermometers.  The situations on the cards are actual situations faced by the Provisional Government. For example, they must decide what they will do with Tsar Nicholas II and his family.  The cards have dates on them corresponding to the approximate date on which the Provisional Government faced the situation and made a decision. This allows students to keep track of the passage of time.

The choices create a branching story line, although this is not readily apparent.  In the first round, the choice seems obvious. The workers in St. Petersburg have created a political organization to represent the will of the workers.  They called this organization a Soviet. The St. Petersburg Soviet was initially willing to work with the Provisional Government as long as the government treated the workers fairly.  The Soviet movement is recognized as potentially radical. Students must decide whether to work with the Soviet or to use the army to crush it. The choice to work with the Soviet does not give the team any chaos points.  Crushing the movement with the army adds chaos points to the team’s thermometer. Most students, will choose not to crush the movement.

The third round card reveals that earlier choices impact the chaos points of later decisions.  This decision is whether to give the workers an eight hour work day. Choosing to create an eight hour work day results in five chaos points because the factory owners would be upset and more likely to oppose the government.  Not creating the eight hour work day results in ten chaos points because the workers would be upset and there are more workers than there are factory owners. However, if the Provisional Government had sent in the army to crush the Soviets in the first round, the number of chaos points is 20 because the workers, already upset at the crushing of the Soviets, will feel even more disappointment in not gaining a maximum work day.  They are now much more likely to oppose the Provisional Government in subsequent rounds.

Once the nature of the branching story reveals itself, students try to predict how a decision in the present round will affect future decisions.  Their natural tendency in the beginning is to try to be nice to the people and provide them with freedom. Hence, they free political prisoners, refuse to kill Tsar Nicholas II and his family, and give the people freedom of assembly.  These measures, however, make it increasingly difficult to maintain peace and civility because, after years of oppression, the Russian people wanted freedom and were certain that the new government could and would provide it.

The branching story also allows deeper contemplation of what seem to be hopeless or inconsequential decisions.  In round five, for example, students must decide whether to break up the large estates and give peasants the land or retain the large estates.  Both decisions result in 15 chaos points being added to the thermometer. Giving the peasants land will anger the wealthy landowners who will then oppose the government.  Maintaining the large estates will anger the peasants who will then oppose the government. Since either decision will result in the same negative consequence, the students must try to predict what the overall effect of the decision must be.

The use of the metered progress mechanic influences the way in which students contemplate their decisions.  Early on, they make their choices in the long term, considering what their ultimate goal will be and how best to achieve it.  Two general strategies evolve among teams early in the game. Teams will decide to be dictatorial, thereby forgoing the objective of creating a free and democratic government.  Others choose to create the democratic government. There are some teams who don’t choose a strategy, but this is less common.

As the rounds continue and the thermometers fill up, decisions begin to be made only in the short term.  They make the decision which entails the fewest chaos points being added to the thermometer. The closer the thermometer gets to 150, the more likely they are to make any decision which keeps them in power and allows them to get to the next round.  As their anxiety increases, the more short term their thinking becomes.

The change in the decision making from long to short term is not a bug.  It is a feature. It is common for those in power, faced with uncertainty and the anxiety it causes, to consider only the short term.  This leads them to make decisions that seem illogical or ill-considered. Reading a textbook account leads students to judge the decisions as “stupid.”  When, however, they read the account of Russia’s Provisional Government after playing the game, they are more likely to argue that the fall of the Provisional Government was the result of poor options rather than poor decisions.  

The game reveals that the only way to prevent the second revolution was to create another authoritarian regime.  Those high minded students who try to create a free and democratic government find their efforts rewarded by an increasingly protest minded populace led by the very people who the government freed from prison and allowed to return from exile.  Thus was the plight of the Provisional Government. Instead of seeing the leaders as vacillating and weak, students feel sorry for them and recognize the realities faced by leaders who come to power after revolutions. This goes beyond the cognitive skill of recognizing the perspective, adding the affective skill of actually feeling, if even as a pale shadow, the uncertainty and anxiety that good people face in chaotic and developing situations.  


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 contactcunygames@gmail.com. Stay tuned for another guest contribution next week. 

1 thought on “Guest Blogger: Mary Gross – Uncertainty and Anxiety”

  1. I have been reading this terrific series with great interest. I am a math professor, but I can still appreciate how randomness and some extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking game ideas can help students see history in a different way.

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