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Can (Role-) Playing the French Revolution En Français Also Teach the Eighteenth Century?

Peggy Schaller

Introduction | Changing the Game with a Game | Roles | Readings | Rules | Results | Post-Mortem

Changing the Game with a Game

With the general content set, I needed to reflect on the integration of French language into the course. These were upper division language students, mostly majors and minors, many coming to the class with only five semesters of college-level language study. Their abilities to converse in the target language are always diverse, but at this point students are expected to be able to follow a class taught entirely in French. As such, the requirements of the lower division classes— grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and basic communication—give way to the more advanced learning outcomes of actual conversation, more spontaneous discussion, improved pronunciation, better writing and reading comprehension, and a broader, more topic-specific level of vocabulary. The global language objective was to move the majority of students from Intermediate Low or Mid performance ranges in speaking, reading, writing, and comprehension to the Intermediate High range as delineated in the guidelines set out by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and available at

After reviewing the format of my previous courses, it seemed clear that such an ambitious goal for both historical / cultural content and language acquisition required a more engaging approach. Lectures, class discussions, and essay tests—traditionally essential elements of the course format—would potentially benefit from the introduction of a new element of classroom activity that I was anxious to apply: the role-playing game. This was not to be just any game, however. Earlier that year, I had attended two faculty workshops organized by the creators of a series of role-playing games grouped under the general heading “Reacting to the Past.” The games—in which all attendees played roles as part of the workshop experience—focused on historical events that occurred in periods of pivotal historical, social, and / or political change in a given society.

The game at the workshop to introduce attendees to this new (to us) pedagogical format was entitled “Art in Paris: 1881–1882.” What we experienced as players was a sharp departure from the activity that occurs in the classic classroom learning environment. Participants took on the roles of real historical figures who had lived on both sides of the uproar in the art world that Paris experienced at the turn of the century, when the leaders of the French Academy were rejecting such artists as Monet, Pisarro, and Van Gogh from the traditional expositions. As players, we had to understand our own objectives as well as those of potential allies and clear opponents so that we could achieve the ultimate goal of rallying a maximum of support for our position. The debates, collaboration, and even backstabbing were intense and the game heated up, with usually reserved academics dressing in character and calling each other out in the public arena of the game. The level of interest increased exponentially as the game progressed and the players became more invested in their newly assumed personae and their game objectives of converting others to their beliefs through debate, discussion, and any other means of influence.

Nothing in my pedagogical past compared to this: not small group work, debates or play-acting that I had been exposed to and to which I had exposed my students. Faculty members at the workshop initially complained that they had not been given enough time to read their scripts for their roles and the primary source materials, and so they felt ill-prepared to assume a role in a real historical event for which their backgrounds had not prepared them. When the game began, hesitation and confusion were apparent on everyone’s faces. Yet as the sessions progressed and players delved into the reading materials provided by the Game Master, adults normally charged with the stately communication of knowledge were arguing over secret notes, arranging clandestine meetings, and all eagerly lining up to state their arguments and persuade other participants to take up their cause. This was clearly an opportunity for engaged learning at a much higher level than the traditional classroom formats, and one that encouraged students to delve into the thoughts and aspirations of the historical figures they were studying. It was also a format that I hoped to capitalize on with my own students in upper division classes.

Excited about the potential that I saw in the games, I was therefore even more pleased to learn that one of the original games in this “Reacting to the Past” series—a group of over thirty historically based role-playing games set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas—appeared a logical fit for my C&C course. “Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France, 1791” was first introduced about ten years ago by its designers, Mark Carnes and Tom Kates, and they have been fine-tuning it ever since. The setting, post-Revolutionary Paris in and around the National Assembly of 1791–1792, was designed to plunge students into the lives of those engaged in creating the legislative documents that would become the rule of law in the new French state “attempting to reshape a political and social system—the ancien régime—whose foundations were laid in stone many centuries ago” (Carnes 7). What interested me was the possibility of having students move beyond the simplest understanding of the major events and those responsible for shaping them, which is generally all that they are able to handle. Was it possible to have students grasp the complexity of this period sufficiently to engage in meaningful debate? Could they read the primary texts that informed thought during the period leading up to and around the events of the Revolution and then use those texts to speak and write persuasively enough to convert enemies into allies? Would they be able to debate effectively the significant decisions to be made during this period, realizing the effect they would have on the future of France and the world for decades, even centuries to follow? And finally, would framing the French Revolution and its aftermath as a “game” cause students to misinterpret the actual events and their importance in the history of France? These questions seemed to be addressed positively by the game developers and many of its users in training sessions and on-line chats.2 I particularly liked the developers’ comment that, while the game would not follow the exact historical model, this was in fact not desirable. “The pedagogy presumes that students can gain some purchase upon the real history by becoming engaged with a simulacrum of that reality” (Carnes 33). There remained, however, another lingering question of sorts: could the game also be played in a second language? To date no one had played the game in French, or contemplated the impact that using a second language for the game might have on its projected outcomes. In retrospect, this was a fact whose importance at multiple levels had escaped me when I made the decision to move ahead.

The first issue was to familiarize myself with the game, its players, and the appropriate amount of translation work that its setup entailed. The game was developed to capitalize on the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) role-playing game embraced by young adults in which players meet to act out adventures encountered by their defined characters in the fictional worlds in which the game places them. A similar concept was also introduced in the 1990s by the online development of the Warcraft series, culminating in the 2004 release of the global phenomenon “World of Warcraft,” described as a “massively multiplayer online role-playing game” (MMORPG).3 The developers of “Reacting to the Past” felt that if players of these recreational games would go to great lengths to research fictional characters in imaginary—though somewhat historically-based—settings, a similar set-up of strategic play to achieve goals of domination and defeat could also motivate students to delve into actual historical events. The “Reacting to the Past” games are set at pivotal moments of history that might have had different outcomes if different decisions had been made. The historical setting used for “Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France, 1791” began in the French National Assembly (by that time the Constituent Assembly) in Paris on the day after Louis XIV’s capture following his escape from Varennes where the royal family was being held. In the legislative hall, delegates from three major political movements debated articles to be incorporated into the Constitution of France for the last six months of the year, while the hungry and disenfranchised crowds demonstrated in the streets. Such detail sufficient enough to establish viable players presented the first pedagogical decision: do all the written materials need to be in French?

Next Section: Game Preparation: The Roles, or Playing the Part

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