Playing with History
From the time he made a LEGO diorama of the Boston Tea Party in his junior year of high school, Dr. William Thompson knew that teaching history was the right job for him. Nothing else could have truly measured up to the fulfillment and excitement of learning and teaching a subject that resonates across generations. Dr. Thompson explains his job with the following analogy: “The present is haunted by the ghosts of the past––so it’s my job to tell ghost stories.” Teaching at the college level provides him with the freedom and creativity to find what really works for his students. In his courses, Dr. Thompson equips students with the opportunity to explore history through a variety of methods, including immersive role-play simulations and tabletop games.
Dr. Thompson’s arrival at Northwest this year is the culmination of 13 years of post-graduate study in history, theology, and teaching methodology. NU’s location was perfect for where he and his family wanted to live, having grown up in the Pacific Northwest most of his life, but he also hoped to work at a Christian college where his unique expertise would be helpful to the community. From a young age Dr. Thompson had always held a passion for history, but as a teacher he has since developed a passion for helping students connect historical thinking to their faith. He explains that “as Christians we are called to live in the present, with hope for the future, but we walk along historical paths every day that influence our choices, beliefs, and actions.” Nearing the end of his first year, Dr. Thompson has been impressed by the welcoming atmosphere that both students and faculty have cultivated in NU’s community.
The idea for integrating immersive role-playing simulations into the classroom was something that developed over time. When Dr. Thompson was in his PhD program at UCSB, the focus was on how to lecture and facilitate in-depth readings of documents and the like. “I encountered role-playing sort of by accident. I was invited to attend a Reacting to the Past (RTTP) conference in Los Angeles that hosted an academic role-playing event for attendants.” It was there that Dr. Thompson got to play the role of reporter Walt Whitman, whose historical job involved observing the turbulent era just before the start of the Civil War. Being in character and performing history alongside the other participants allowed Dr. Thompson to realize the value of contemplating history through the eyes of historical figures. “In all of my courses, I encourage students to look at the world through the experiences of people in the past. This is called historical empathy, and it is one of the most powerful things history can teach us. We are not now so different from people in the past, which is a valuable lesson for studying history, and also for interacting with our friends, neighbors, and coworkers.” Dr. Thompson believes that immersive role-playing games are a transformative means to achieve the goal of teaching historical empathy. Dr. Thompson has even written his own role-playing game Conclave 1492, which focuses on the election of the pope during a key year in world history. It has been used nation-wide by instructors at a variety of universities. Learn more about this game and others like it here.
Adding tabletop games into the curriculum had been a near fluke in the beginning. While teaching a summer term class on Tudor England at UCSB, Dr. Thompson came up with the idea for students to take everything they had learned in class and apply it to the creation of their own original board game, rather than writing a research paper or taking a stressful final exam. From then on, Dr. Thompson began to invent a variety of ways to incorporate historical games into the lesson plans of his courses. Although none of the games are able to fully teach every aspect of history, or remain entirely accurate, they still provide students the opportunity to take a different perspective and generate discussions amongst the students in a way that inspires them to think about history on a deeper level. “Table top games are just as useful as a lecture to get students interested in a given topic, plus they have the added bonus of student interaction, and they’re fun!” Dr. Thompson sets aside time for a postgame discussion, where students identify strengths and weaknesses, points of inaccuracy, and ways in which the game connects to other course material.
Dr. Thompson also hosts game sessions during his office hours on Fridays from 2:30pm-4:30pm, usually in his office (Rice 16) or a spare classroom. These weekly mini-events allow Dr. Thompson to share in his love for history and gaming. Students also gain the opportunity to get together and connect with peers as they enjoy a soda or iced coffee from Dr. Thompson’s office mini-fridge and talk about any number of topics, from history to pop culture, faith to football.
Of all the tabletop games Dr. Thompson has presented in class, there are three that currently stand out as his favorites of the curriculum:
1. Secret Hitler
Secret Hitler is a social deduction game where each player is secretly given one of three roles, some individuals are told who is on their team while others are not. Dr. Thompson uses this game to introduce his students to the rise of fascism in 1930s Germany. Although the game is not entirely historically accurate, it serves it purpose in generating discussion within the class, allowing the lesson to develop on from there.
Diplomacy is a grand strategy board game where the players take on the roles of world leaders during the years leading up to WWI. This game illustrates the general mentality of European leaders during WWI who saw land and soldiers as pieces on a board and resources to be strategically used to their advantage rather than the overwhelming tragedy of loss that it truly was.
The board game Pandemic was one of the highlights in Dr Thompson’s Global History class, which focuses on the theme of disease in human history. The goal of Pandemic is for the players, in their randomly selected roles, to work cooperatively to stop the spread of four diseases and cure them before the full pandemic occurs. In addition to the game being relevant to the modern setting, the main purpose of the game is to encourage the students to think about how to respond cooperatively to the given challenges of the narrative. In the end, students either succeed together, or fail together. Students in Dr. Thompson’s Global History course also play a three-week-long role-playing simulation of the Black Death in England. Dr. Thompson noted that “over half the class had died by the end of the game, which really drove home the point of how transformative the plague was in terms of its effect on society, religion, and politics.”