ASHLAND — John Moser doesn’t just teach history at Ashland University. The long-time professor helps his students bring it to life.

Moser, who joined the AU faculty in 2001, uses role-playing games found in the Reacting to the Past series to help students experience first-hand significant moments in world history.

The games take the teaching of history far from the days of dry lectures and required rote memorization of facts and dates.

Why just lecture about the Yalta Conference when you can assign students the roles of Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill during the crucial week in 1945? If you want students to understand Plato’s Republic, why not stage the trial of Socrates?

Moser and an increasing number of faculty members at colleges and universities around the country, are now using games from the series, a concept created in the late 1990s by Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College in New York City.

But Moser, who has used the games for 12 years, does more than use the games. He also designs them, learning just last week that three of his games have been accepted for publication. 

“I have played historical-based games my entire life,” said Moser, who has also published four books, the most recent in 2015. “I have always looked back on how much I learned by doing that.

The role-playing games also dovetail with Moser’s love for theater, an active participant for many years in local community productions.

“As long as I have been involved in academia, I have been looking for games I could use (in classes). For a long time, I didn’t have a lot of luck. It seemed like there were games aimed at elementary school students, but none really had the complexity I would want to use with college students,” said Moser, the chair of AU’s Master of American History and Government Program.

AU students role playing

When he is using a game, Moser spends class time in traditional lecture mode, going over the historical background of the period or moment and the rules of the game. During the game play, he will also lead a couple of seminar-style discussions about the main readings involved.

He assigns students roles and observes as the game proceeds. Each student gets a detailed description of the character they’ll play, along with a game handbook filled with primary historical documents, classic texts and other historical information to provide context.

For example, one game Moser uses is titled, “Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791,” which drops students into the intellectual and political currents that surged through revolutionary Paris.

“We are two years into the French Revolution. The Bastille has been stormed. The king has been brought back to Paris. Now there is talk of a Constitution and consolidating the revolution,” Moser said.

“You have conservatives who think the revolution has gone drastically wrong and must be rolled back. You have moderates who are happy with the way things are and want to freeze them at that moment. You have the Jacobins, who said ‘We’re just getting started,’ and you have the crowd leaders who stir up ‘violence,'” Moser said.

Moser said each student faction has objectives, some known and some secret, requiring students to lobby, compromise and make deals.

His role is the game-master, using an instructor’s manual that lays out protocol for playing the game, the order of business and advice for adapting the game based on the number of students and amount of time.

When the game is complete, Moser uses a “debrief” class session to ensure students know what actually happened in that historical moment, compares the results of what the students did, and leads a discussion on how to account for the differences.

Au role playing

When using Reacting to the Past games during a semester, Moser doesn’t use traditional exams and quizzes.

“Students write papers, which they are graded on. They are also graded on speeches and their overall participation. Are they engaged? Are they asking questions and making comments? Are they participating in discussions when they are not in character?” Moser said.

“Students learn pretty quickly there is a real connection between the amount of work they put in and how well they do in the class,” he said.

Moser admits the game-playing environment isn’t for every student.

“Every now and then, I will get a student who is resistant. Sometimes they are very bright students who have gotten really good grades through traditional means. They push back sometimes when asked to do something out of the ordinary, other than sitting in class and taking notes,” he said.

“I like to spend some time talking about effective speaking techniques. When people react negatively to the games, that’s one of the things they are most likely to dislike. They love the plotting and working behind the scenes, but when it comes to getting up in front of the group to give a formal speech, they are terrified of that. I try to make it as non-threatening as possible,” Moser said.

A graduate of Ohio University, then the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champign, Moser taught at George Mason University and the University of Georgia before accepting a tenure track job at Ashland University.

Moser is on sabbatical this academic year, focusing on game development, not book publishing.

“While I was working on my last book, I said after (that) I am just going to focus on designing games the rest of my career,” he said.

Prior to being published, a Reacting to the Past game is extensively vetted, peer-reviewed, and revised. There are five “levels” to the game creation process, with the fifth and final being a published version, according to the games’ website.

AU speeches

Designing, creating a game and getting it published may be more daunting than writing books. One of the games he just learned will be published,  “Japan, Pan-Asianism, and the West, 1940-1941” was a project he worked on, intermittently, for more than 10 years.

“To say that I’ll be excited to see it in print would be a feeble understatement,” Moser said.

“It is a publication. Creating a game is a huge amount of work. Effectively, you are writing two books, the game guide and the instructor manual, and a whole bunch of role sheets.

“First of all, the scholarship has to be good. You have to be operating on the latest scholarship because you are producing a work of history. On the other hand, you want to design something that is playable and fun. That can be tricky,” Moser said.

When he planned his sabbatical, Moser’s idea was to work on new games. Now with the news three of his games have been approved for publication, he may have to change those plans. 

“Obviously getting the original three into shape for publication is the first priority, but I don’t have a sense for how much work that’s going to involve. I’m still hoping that I can do that in addition to working on the new games, but it may be that something has to give,” he said.

Moser is grateful he works at a university that has allowed, and even encouraged, the still relatively new teaching technique.

“If I were teaching at a research university, I certainly would not be designing games. I am fortunate to be at a place like Ashland, which has a broad definition of scholarship,” he said.

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