Teaching Imperialism through Gaming

European Imperialism is an important but difficult topic. Important because it has had an enormous impact on history. Difficult because it deals with some incredibly heinous acts that still reverberate throughout our collective consciousness (how else can you explain the volume of angry blog posts on Columbus day?).

In all history classrooms, it is important for students to get an feeling for more than just dispassionate events, but also for the beliefs and thoughts of the people involved. In the case of Imperialism, that absolutely needs to include the people who were colonized, disenfranchised and in many cases, destroyed by imperial powers. However, our studies must also include the views of the colonizers. Across the board, history classrooms tend to portray these concepts rather two-dimensionally. All of the natives resisted, and all of the colonizers raped and pillaged. As with anything, there must be nuance in our portrayals.

I am excited to introduce a new way of teaching Imperialism to my World History classes in the next month:

Dog Eat Dog is a single-session role playing game that examines the effects of imperialism (well why else would I bring it up?). Unlike many role playing games, where the burden of moving the game forward falls to a Game Master, Dog Eat Dog has all players share in progressing the story equally. It also has extremely simple rules that allow for storytelling to take place. The result? It is ideally suited for classroom use.

In Dog Eat Dog, small (3-5 people) groups play out the experience of a group of colonizers and natives as they interact with one another. One player takes on the role of the entire race of colonizers, running military, trade, diplomacy, and even tourism. The other players play individual natives who are community leaders, trying to deal with the colonizers.

The game is played over a series of scenes, where the natives describe what they are doing to help their people through colonization. This might be organizing resistance, or preaching assimilation. At any point, the Colonizer player may join scenes and interact with the natives. In the case of inevitable conflict, players roll against one another. The highest roll wins. But here is the thing. If the Colonizer player dislikes the result, they can step in and alter them.

 

It seems unfair on the surface, but think about it. Was it fair for the Aztecs when the Conquistadors arrived? Was it fair for the Zulus when the British Empire attacked? No. No it was not.

The game is governed by a series of rules that begins the same way each time: “The colonizers are superior to the natives.” At the end of each scene, the Colonizer player determines if and how the natives broke the rules, and based on these decisions, the natives make more rules they will have to follow in future scenes.

This is fantastic on a number of levels, but mostly because it serves as a metaphor for how colonization happened. Invaders arrive, forcing their value system on the natives and judging them on it. The natives don’t really understand the value system and are forced to figure it out as they go.

If my short description above is not enough, check out the experiences of Shut Up and Sit Down when they played it. Suffice it to say, it became an introspective experience for all involved. And that is why I think it could be a powerful tool for teaching!

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below.

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