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Trust But Verify

September 10, 2021 4:40 PM | Anonymous

By: Dr. Nicolas Proctor
Professor of History and Chair of the Reacting Editorial Board

Over the past ten years or so, I have had some interesting experiences with undergraduate student authors working on Reacting games.

About eight years before WW Norton published Chicago 1968, I was teaching an upper-level historical game design seminar. The structure resembled a “reality” television show. Toward the beginning of the semester, each student pitched an idea for a game. A series of elimination rounds followed. In the end, the process yielded two designs. Teams of students then developed these into playable prototypes. Toward the end of the semester, we play-tested both of them.

Dustin, a history major in his junior year, pitched a game about the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968. People liked the idea, so it advanced. I liked the idea too. One of my comments to Dustin was something like, “This could go the distance.”

He and Emily, who joined the development team after her idea was eliminated, discovered an abundance of historical documents, interesting people, and intellectual collisions. This, accompanied by unstinting support from other students, allowed the game to go forward to the last stage. This meant that a team of a half dozen students came together to develop a working prototype.

The genesis of the game was Dustin’s fascination with the Kennedy family and the possibility that Ted Kennedy could have become the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968. His was, in fact, the first role mentioned in the prototype gamebook. As a stark contrast to Kennedy’s liberalism, the team decided to include a role for the race-baiting southern populist George Wallace. To clear space for Kennedy to shine, the role sheet for George McGovern prohibited him from seeking the nomination.

All this created drama, but in terms of accuracy, it was deeply flawed. Historically, there was a “draft Kennedy” movement, but he did not attend the convention and had no serious intention of throwing his hat into the ring, whereas McGovern was very much in the running. Furthermore, for a variety of reasons, George Wallace did not attend.

Since Dustin was so interested in the Kennedys, he took it upon himself to write the Ted Kennedy role. He was a good student, had a stack of books about the Kennedys, and was completely stoked about the game, so I trusted his rendering. In retrospect, this was a mistake. Not because Dustin consciously tried to distort the history in order to cast more light on one of his favorite historical figures, but because I did not double-check his conclusions until much, much later.

The tunnel vision that he exhibited is, I think, typical of undergraduate research. They can follow their interests with great avidity, but they usually lack the opportunity to develop much of an understanding of the broader context. This is not necessarily due to disinterest. Mostly, it is because of the time crunch. The team slammed together the Chicago prototype in a couple of months. They all worked very hard, but their attention was divided. In addition to other classes, the students all had other commitments like jobs, families, LSAT preparations, and athletics. Their work far exceeded my expectations, but that did not mean there were no shortcomings.

In short, I over-trusted. I was so impressed by their enthusiasm, teamwork, and the tremendous volume of research and writing they completed that I became unrealistic in my expectations. I assumed their research was better than it was.

As I continued to work on the project, I discovered some other problems that were less obvious, but more serious. The most glaring of these lurked at the bottom of the stack of roles. The last role in the gamebook was for a student journalist named Roger Black.

The role sheet was fairly well written and did a good job of describing student journalism. The problem? Roger Black did not actually exist.

Because my classroom playtests never had over twenty-five players, I never used the role. Once I discovered the problem, I clipped the role, but I wanted to have someone similar in the game. This led me to real underground journalists like John Schultz, Warren Hinckle, and Abe Peck.

It is embarrassing to know that this serious problem was hanging out in plain sight for a number of years. I took care of it well before I submitted the game to the Reacting Editorial Board, but this error still troubles me. What if it had been slightly better written? What if it was partially based on a real person, but included a few invented details? This scare probably pushed me to be a better historian, but it also persuaded me that the best thing to do with student writing is probably to use it for inspiration and then throw it out.

This experience taught me a number of things about working with undergraduate collaborators on Reacting games. If you are considering working with undergraduates on a Reacting project, they might be good things to keep in mind.

Require copious citations. Ask your students to cite everything. Everything. Paraphrasing, inspirations, background information – it should all be cited. Require footnotes and annotated bibliographies. In addition to helping them to develop good habits, these resources are essential if you continue to work on the game.

Delve deeper. Before sharing the game with anyone, check out all the sources that your students cite, and then go deeper. Read the whole chapter and familiarize yourself with the whole book. The speed of undergraduate research means that they often have trouble seeing the forest for the trees. In the case of Chicago, I suspect the action-oriented tree that read, “Draft Kennedy” obscured the darker, torpid forest of a family in mourning.

Aspire to a multi-semester commitment. Dustin and Emily, the two students who took the lead on Chicago, were both close to graduation. They were both bright and hardworking so I tried to keep them involved, but they moved on to other projects and wisely concentrated on graduating and then getting on with their lives. This was the right choice for them, but I definitely missed their energy, insight, and ability to answer questions like, “Who the hell is Roger Black?”

Find an Ethan. Several years later, Ethan Frederick took another iteration of the course. His game about the Second Spanish Republic showed outstanding promise. The following semester, his interest was undiminished, so he wrote a historiographical review on the topic. Then, the semester after that, he researched and wrote an undergraduate thesis that focused on the gendering of violence in Spain during the period covered by the game. Finally, he presented the game at the Game Development Conference. All this work meant that he quickly surpassed my expertise. It also paved the way to graduate school at the University of Minnesota where he wisely decided to put the game on the back burner. If you ask him, I bet he will send you a copy of the game. It is terrific. This game started as an undergraduate project, but that is not where it ended up. This is a hard model to emulate, but it is probably the best.

Accept your doom. How many Ethans are there in the world? Not many. I lucked out. If Dustin or Emily had decided to go to graduate school, they might have continued to work on Chicago 1968, but that was not in the cards. If, over the course of years, your student evolves into a scholar on the topic of the game, that is great! You are a wonderful mentor! Strive for this, but do not expect it. In most cases, you should read and think about their work, but once you have done this, file it away. Think about their conclusions, look at their sources, contemplate the fleeting nature of life, and then write it yourself.

About the Author
Nicolas Proctor is a Professor of History at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he has also served as department chair and director of the first-year program. Proctor is also the Chair of the Reacting Editorial Board, overseeing game development. He lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with his family, a print shop, lots of books, five chickens, and too many Legos. After completing a traditional historical monograph, Bathed in Blood: Hunting and Mastery in the Old South, he reoriented his research to fit the needs of a teaching institution and focused on writing historical role-playing games. 

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