Simulation Games and Memory
Dr. Matthew McGrath, Social Studies Department Chair, Upper School History Teacher
Congratulations! You Are About To Relive This Tense and Purely Fictitious Moment
Oyez Oyez Oyez! let the Court come to order! “Since the prosecution and defense attorneys have both made their opening statements…prosecutors, you may call your first witness on charge number one against the President.” All eyes in the jury box turn to rest on President Andrew Jackson. The year is 1837, and the outgoing President has been impeached by the House of Representatives on a host of five charges. He is accused of appointing friends to government jobs without consideration of merit. He is accused of illegally expanding the power of the executive branch; destroying the sovereignty of state governments; harmful and ill-advised decisions that have wrecked the economy. The prosecution also claims that he has failed to live up to “the principles of the Declaration of Independence” with respect to a host of minority groups— women, African-Americans, Native-Americans— while denying them their rights to life, liberty, and property. Prepared to fend off any challenge to his honor, and spoiling for a duel, Jackson now sits uncomfortably in the dock for this Senate trial. Congratulations! You are about to relive this tense and purely fictitious moment.
In real life, Andrew Jackson was never impeached by a House of Representatives dominated by his own Democratic Party. Likewise, Harry Truman was never murdered by an unknown assailant in early 1953, one day before he was due to leave the White House. In the 1850s, Senators William Seward, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, James Buchanan, and Jefferson Davis never stood toe-to-toe in Congress after each national crisis, challenging each other face-to-face as the nation barreled recklessly toward bloody Civil War. In real life, Lyndon Johnson was never forced to defend his escalation of the war in Vietnam in a courtroom setting to critics from the Left, nor was he forced to defend his “Great Society” programs in a similar fashion to critics from the Right. The fact that none of these scenarios really happened is irrelevant to the simulation game— an intentionally fictitious scenario designed to allow students a way to explore historical arguments, motivations, and context.
For many years, I have found the use of mock trials, “murder mysteries,” mock debates, and other simulation “games” to be the perfect medium between academic rigor and student engagement. They allow students to dive into their “parts” with outside research, explore the intricate connections between personalities and the complexity of past events, verbally clash with adversaries holding opposing arguments, then evaluate the events in writing after the fact. In the Social Studies classroom at the secondary level, games exemplify MBE research-informed lesson designs— particularly in the areas of cultivating intrinsic motivation, “encoding” information for long-term memory, and allowing students a low-stakes opportunity to fail. The game turns workaday retrieval into a felicitous accident. Because they have a blast “playing” the game, it is not an overstatement to say that they are almost “tricked” by the circumstances of activity into remembering. Perhaps most notably, these games provide high school kids a rough approximation to the elementary school playground— a low stress space for imagination and fun with peers.
Social psychology expert and author Peter Gray recently visited Park Tudor to relate what conclusions he has come to in his years of studying the importance of “play” to a child’s development. To be sure, Gray’s concept of “play” as an activity where children create their own rules and do so autonomously without adult meddling is distinct from the in-class simulation game as it is “played” in the secondary History class. There are definite parameters to the mock trial and rules devised by the instructor that must be adhered to. The end-goal of Gray’s free-play is not proficiency in a subject or long-term retention of information but play-for-its-own sake, initiated by kids themselves— a free range where kids test their social skills with their peers and learn competences on their own, in their own time. They might succeed or fail with their peers, but the end result is the enduring knowledge of what works and what does not. There is, however, an important link between that kind of pure “play” and the base-alloyed “play” of the simulation game: the use of imaginative skills to “play pretend” in a low-stakes environment and use those skills to explore something we would call “real.”
As a tool for encoding long-term memory, the use of simulation game “play” is second to none with respect to lesson design. Students are far more likely to make “mental models,” retrieve intricate details not only about historical events and personalities, but also, more importantly, retain details about the arguments and points of view that they were required to “play” during the game. In our mock impeachment trial of Andrew Jackson, two prosecuting attorneys and two defense attorneys must prepare their cases outside of class prior to the trial, correspond with their classmates playing the parts of witnesses, prep their witnesses (all “homework”), and bring their case to “court”: a charge a day for one week (click here to see a copy of the full assignment). Whether they play attorneys or witnesses, kids are far more likely to recall the complex details of the Jackson Era several months later. Multiple factors make this so. One is that kids create their own “narrative” about Andrew Jackson and associate the historical arguments in their minds with memories of their own friends. “Remember when Lucy played Jackson? Remember her hilarious testimony when she was asked about nullification?” Retention is enhanced because the details about Jackson get blended in our brains with personal information that is both tactile and verbal (what educational scholars used to refer to as “constructivism,” but recent work refers to as “mental modeling”). Another is that students are put on the spot multiple times in the same class and forced to “defend” their positions, which are essentially fantasies based on the likely positions of historical actors. Students are only able to build these narratives, or likely responses, because they did considerable reading on the subject prior to day 1 of the trial. Putting them on the spot forces them to constantly reiterate their positions out loud— quite an amazing tool for “embedding” factual knowledge in long-term memory.
I wish that I could claim credit as the originator of the truly revolutionary (and fun!) simulation game templates that I use in my own History courses, but the true innovator in designing student-centered game-lessons was the late Eric Rothschild— one-time instructor of AP US History at Scarsdale High School in Scarsdale, New York and one of the key figures behind the early development of the AP U.S. History test. Not only was Rothschild experimenting with these games in his own History classes as early as the mid-1960s, around the time the AP tests were evolving, but he shared his templates and lesson ideas widely with other teachers, explicitly scoffing at the very notion that his games might be declared proprietary or sold to printing houses as intellectual property (see below for a link to the OAH’s in memoriam page as well as an article about Eric’s passing; one student’s quote about him sums up his influence: “Mr. Rothschild was the teacher everyone wanted to take— somehow he made being smart being cool”). For decades after, countless social studies teachers benefited from his innovative games-as-lessons templates after getting ahold of them in college courses, professional development conferences, and seminars at the AP US History exam readings. I was lucky enough to take a Summer course with him at Manhattan College twenty years ago— the year I began teaching AP History— and have been using modified models of his games ever since.
Long before modern brain science confirmed what we now understand to be important prerequisites for long-term retention of information, Rothschild’s sim games were “making it stick” with his kids in their preparations for the AP US History exams in the 1970s and 1980s. He understood that play-acting was a powerful tool allowing students to demonstrate their understanding of point-of-view, and, perhaps even empathy with the historical actors they were “playing.” Those performances in class are not easily forgotten. He also understood that games where students must grapple with nuanced, time-specific arguments and use those arguments to “win” would embed details more permanently in long-term memory. In Social Studies, where students are required to master vast sets of factual content in short periods of time, any device that masks the memorization “work” involved and permits the student to pick up that content simply as a side-effect of the game itself, is far preferable to any rote-practice alternatives— and far, far more preferable to the student attempting to retain details on their own by simply re-reading textbook or homework materials.
One of Eric’s games that I use in my AP US History course is the fake murder mystery. We assassinate a prominent figure— last year it was Harry Truman just before his leaving office in 1953— and the students “play” FBI agents trying to track down the murderer (click here for a link to see the full assignment). Students are given three suspects to do an FBI dossier on and they must ascertain the likelihood that their suspects did the deed. Who had motive? Who had the temperament? Who was directly connected to Truman in his political or social world? They meet as an FBI investigative team and choose the eight most likely suspects, who are then called in for questioning the next day (dark room with a hot lamp in the eyes is essential for proper interrogation). As an instructor hoping to prepare students for a fairly rigorous College Board exam in AP US History, the “embedded” long-term memories that result from a game like this are teacher-gold. How likely is it three months after the Truman murder game that students will recall the various political issues of post-World War II America? All a student would need to do to begin retrieving the info is to replay the game in their minds. Who did I play? Who did he she play? What were the arguments in my final paper proving that Mao did it? When I played Bob Taft, how did I defend myself under questioning? The retrieval process becomes personal and, if not effortless, much easier.
Testing social limits and giving imagination free reign on the playground might be a distant memory for high school kids as they look toward their futures after Park Tudor. It is possible, however, to tap into some of that dormant playground-spirit to inspire and inform. As lesson designs in the Upper School History class, games not only let loose these creative forces, but commandeer them to enhance long-term memory and break down what would otherwise be intimidating ‘scholarly’ content. Between college applications and standardized tests, it also cannot be a bad thing when kids are given a chance to let loose that little kid on the playground for a few more goes.
 Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher, Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 27-28.
 For more on the importance of “play” at all levels, see Peter Gray, Free To Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct To Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, And Better Students For Life (New York: Basic Books, 2015) and Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Avery Trade, 2010).
 For “mental modeling,” strategies for long-term “retrieval,” and “encoding,” see Peter C. Brown et al., Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2014), 72-76 and 118-120.
 For more on Eric Rothschild, see https://www.oah.org/insights/posts/2019/july/in-memoriam-mr-eric-rothschild-1937-2018/ and https://www.scarsdalenews.com/schools/scarsdale/eric-rothschild-was-a-teacher-for-the-ages/article_0b23ea2c-0b29-11e9-b0c4-438f71d26491.html