Political Thought

Reacting to the Past

"Reacting to the Past," pioneered by Barnard College, consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned "roles" with "victory objectives" informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. Reacting classes typically consist of two or three "games" a semester.

The Hobbes Game

This game, designed by Victor Asal, illustrates Thomas Hobbes' description of the state of nature. Students are given a 'life card' and told the object of the game is to survive by still having a card at the end of the game. They are told how to challenge other players for their cards, and that if challenged, they must fight. Although they are never told they must challenge someone, students immediately do so. Even after being told they can stop fighting and still win the game, students frequently wish to continue fighting, sometimes for the glory of winning. This simple game serves as an excellent introduction to Hobbes for a political theory or international relations class.

Game Theory.net

An online "support group" for game theory instructors. Students can play the prisoner's dilemma game against five different personalities.

The Rawls Game

Step behind the veil of ignorance. The Rawls Game, designed by Donald Green, illustrates the problems of utilitarianism and social justice. Students are made members of 'Nacirema' and told they are fundamentally selfish. They are faced with a series of policy issues to solve where the solutions benefit the majority but cause financial harm, disease, or death to several members of their society. Acting as a parliament following strict rules of procedure, they made decisions in full knowledge of whether they as individuals will benefit or be harmed by a particular policy proposal. Over the course of the game, students realize that changing the decision rules—moving from consensus to majority rules, for example—does not necessarily increase justice, but that delaying the revelation of their personal stake in the policy resolution might. Another version of the game, using policy examples from North Carolina that can be substituted to fit any location, can be found here: Stepping Behind the Veil of Ignorance.

Articles, Books, and Conference Papers

Ahmadov, Anar. 2011. “When Great Minds Don’t Think Alike: Using Mock Trials in Teaching Political Thought.” PS: Political Science and Politics 44(3): 625-628. Abstract

Gorton, William, and Johnathan Havercroft. 2012. “Using Historical Simulations to Teach Political Theory.” Journal of Political Science Education 8(1): 50- 68. Abstract

Lightcap, Tracy. 2009. “Creating Political Order: Maintaining Student Engagement through "Reacting to the Past.” PS: Political Science and Politics 42(1): 175-9. Abstract

Schaap, Andrew. 2005. “Learning Political Theory by Role Playing.” Politics 25(1): 46-52. Abstract