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Listening to the Past: Experimenting with Sound in Reacting Games

November 01, 2023 9:27 AM | Anonymous

By: Emily Fisher Gray
Professor of History
Norwich University, The Military College of Vermont

Emily Fisher Gray is a long-time reactor and game author, her latest game, Wrestling with the Reformation in Augsburg, 1530 is one of four Reacting to the Past games being published by UNC Press this Fall!

I sat in front of my computer, stumped by a game design problem. I was trying to create a microgame on the Schilling Revolt of 1524, to get players excited and prepared for my full-length game, Wrestling with the Reformation: Augsburg, 1530. To create the suspense of an urban uprising, I needed to build a sense of menace and danger with an irate mob, but I wanted all available players in the role of city councilors, besieged together in the council chamber. I did not want to give anyone a character sheet that instructed simply, “be very angry, yell a lot, and occasionally shake a pitchfork in a threatening manner.” That might be fun for a few minutes, but it hardly involves the kind of deep thinking and problem solving I was hoping this activity would generate. I needed a crowd without casting a crowd. 

As a professor at a military college, I can generally expect to have a roomful of enthusiastic students eager to help me puzzle through sticky game-design challenges. In the summertime absence of students, my teenage son and his friends are my next best resource, so I took this problem to them. Their solution was immediate, and in retrospect, obvious. My son pulled up Spotify on his phone and within a minute “Crowd – Angry” was playing through the speakers in the room. It was perfect. The noise was chaotic and tumultuous. The voices were disgruntled and sullen, occasionally rising to outraged and furious. Bursts of shouting came through, and even a few dog barks. It was exactly the backdrop against which I could present a set of irrational proletarians’ demands to a roomful of players and say “NOW what are you going to do?!”

In my years of experience using Reacting to the Past to create a historically immersive experience for students, I can’t believe I have neglected the potential power of sound. There are some games that encourage singing – the Ca Ira marks the climax of crowd action in the French Revolution game, and Greenwich Village offers personal influence points (PIPs) to those who are willing to break out into song. I have occasionally (if anachronistically) played La Marseillaise or a Bollywood hit or something from the musical Hamilton to get students excited about an upcoming game. But I had never before considered what a historical space might sound like and made use of the limitless trove of sounds on the internet to supplement a game with historically resonant noise.  

I plan to introduce sound effects into my fall semester Reacting games, both to enhance the experience for students and to solve some constraints and game challenges. Allow me to briefly explain how I intend to experiment with sounds, and suggest a few ways sound effects might be useful in a variety of Reacting games. 

(1) Using Sound to Build Excitement and Suspense. 

After trying “Crowd – Angry” in a playtest of the Schilling Revolt at the summer Annual Institute, I thought of many ways this sound clip could come in handy. I intend to make it the backdrop of the die roll at the end of Reformation in Augsburg, which determines whether Augsburg will be able to maintain its chosen religious reforms or devolve into either invasion by the armies of Emperor Charles V or another urban uprising. But “Crowd – Angry” could also be a perfect supplement to crowd actions in other games, magnifying the effect of student action, especially in a smaller class. It could enliven a lackluster French Revolution Grand Journee and add verve to the mob in Patriots and Loyalists. I purchased a chicken hat after a bland tarring and feathering action in Patriots and Loyalists last spring (is there anything you can’t buy on Amazon?) but I think “Crowd – Angry” would be even more useful in helping to convey a sense of historically-plausible popular rage. 

(2) Using Sound to Signal a New Space within Gameplay. 

Reformation in Augsburg includes a mechanism whereby the most important city councilmen can adjourn to the Gentlemen’s Drinking Club to make decisions without the input of their lower-status colleagues. I rarely have access to a separate classroom or open hallway, so my drinking club meetings generally take place in the back of the room.  This fall, I plan to create a unique auditory space for the drinking club meetings thanks to “Medieval Tavern Ambience,” another wonderful Spotify find. Contrary to its name, this sound clip does not transport us to some rowdy low-class establishment, but to a genteel space of clinking glasses, murmured conversations, and soft lute music, perfect for behind-the-scenes dealmaking by my powerful Augsburg oligarchs. If it works as I expect, this music will help me seamlessly transition the class into and out of drinking club meetings with minimal game manager intervention. I’m not sure “Medieval Tavern Ambience” has applicability beyond Reformation in Augsburg, unless you have insomnia – it’s labeled as a white noise sleep sound – but there are other games where students move into an alternate space or time while they remain in the classroom. For example, next time I play 1349: Plague Comes to Norwich I can guarantee that the Grim Reaper will come accompanied by the ominous tolling of a church bell or a nice funeral dirge. 

(3) Using Sound to Create Liminal Space or Transition into Gameplay. 

I have struggled to replicate in other Reacting games the fun liminal activities that open each session of the Athens 403 BCE game. After a nice pig sacrifice and hymn or poem for Athena, students are centered in Athens and ready to play. At the Annual Institute this summer, my creative council clerk for Reformation in Augsburg decided to write a prayer to open each council session, but I would not feel comfortable asking a student to do that as a regular requirement of the game. Instead, I have combed through dozens and dozens of church bell sound effect clips to find the perfect sound I can play to transport everyone to sixteenth century Augsburg to begin each day’s session. It is amazing how many different ways bells can be made to sound, from joyful wedding bells to bells signaling danger to bells appropriate to the Grim Reaper in 1349: Plague Comes to Norwich. For me, “Three Ringing Church Bells” strikes the perfect tone, so to speak: upbeat, energetic but not frenetic, a sound that still signals the start of the day in historic towns across Europe. If sound effects are successful in helping make the transition from 21st century classroom to 16th century council chamber for Reformation in Augsburg, I will definitely be looking for other historical noises that could help signal to students that they are entering a game. 

I am convinced that allowing students to hear sounds of the past will help put them in the right headspace to engage more effectively with the historical ideas and situations in Reacting games. A small Bluetooth speaker is an easy addition to my bag of Reacting props along with the flags, name tags, gavel, chicken hat, and other essential miscellany I carry with me to Reacting classes. I am curious to hear if anyone else has experimented with sound effects in class, and to get your ideas about how specific sound clips might add to the experience of the Reacting games you play!

Be sure to check out Emily's newest game: Wrestling with the Reformation: Augsburg, 1530

You can also find her previous blog post below:

The Reacting Consortium - Costumes and Uniforms: Reacting at Military College

About the Author

Emily Fisher Gray is a Professor of History at Norwich University. She has written on the early causes and progress of the Protestant Reformation, the phenomenon of Lutheran- Catholic co-existence, and the unique aesthetics of Lutheran architecture. Her ongoing research takes place in churches, libraries and archives in the former Free Imperial Cities of southern Germany, especially Augsburg, where she lived for a year as a Fulbright

Fellow. She has written a Reacting game, "Wrestling with the Reformation: Augsburg, 1530,” and is developing a game on the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.

Blog Author Questionnaire

One word to describe faculty: Curious
Two words to describe your school: Liberal-arts, military
Three words to describe students: Enthusiastic, Open-minded, Game-breakers
Four words to describe favorite games: Armies, Duels, Sausages, Votes
Five words to describe Reacting: Transformational, Challenging, Brilliant, Engaging, Essential

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