ReformationVille: Utilizing Games and Social Media for Historical Role-Playing in the Classroom

When I began teaching as a graduate student at Fordham University, I was not only a first-time teacher with anxiety about the unknown territory that lay ahead, but I was also in the midst of preparing for my comprehensive exams. So I did what I imagine most do… I depended heavily upon the most familiar and “safe” pedagogical method of my own education: the lecture. Admittedly, I had some doubts about the effectiveness of lecture-driven teaching. But looking back, it made sense. Lecturing was what I knew and, while I still risked delivering a bad one, at least I would feel some control over the classroom. Over the past few years, however, I have come to realize that teachers and students alike miss out when multi-faceted learning activities are not utilized and students’ freedom to be creative is restricted. As a result, I have found myself more and more willing to branch out pedagogically-speaking. In particular, I am becoming increasingly interested in utilizing an experiential pedagogy, even though it would require me to relinquish that sense of “control” that I coveted as a first-time teacher. That said, what might this look like in a college course?

As I ponder new opportunities, I have been also reflecting on which creative and experiential activities made the biggest impact on my own education. In doing so, one thing keeps bubbling up to the surface. Role-playing. All these years later, I still vividly remember participating in an American Revolution simulation in 8th grade History. As Sean Devlin, a friendly tavern-keeper, I wrote an autobiography, networked with classmates to win others to our cause, and participated in mock continental congresses. Then again, in high school, my IB History class engaged in a series of trials derived from our study of the Cold War. I served both as a prosecutor in the case against American meddling in Latin America and a defendant (an East German president) in another team’s charges against the Soviet Union for doing likewise in Eastern Europe. Looking back at these experiences, I am convinced that they were invaluable for fostering those higher levels of learning (critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, etc).

Now, as a historian of Christianity, I have been toying with developing a Reformation role-playing simulation wherein my class would become an “idealized” late medieval town. Not only could I plug this activity into a number of classes, ranging from surveys of Christian history to Reformation specific ones, it could offer unique pedagogical advantages. For example, my students could hopefully experience the important reality, which text-based courses can sometimes struggle to convey – that the Reformation, like most theological disputes, was not simply waged with pen and paper, but dramatically affected families, friendships, the workplace, and the public square. The challenge, of course, is getting students motivated and participating. But it seems to me that I might be able to get the most traction by incorporating some of the ways in which our students interact with games and social media. Using this approach, I could encourage them to invest in developing their persona’s theological convictions and supporting their particular faction by drawing explicitly upon the skills of character development and  alliance building found in games like World of Warcraft as well as the desire to garner comments and “likes” on Facebook status updates.

Admittedly, this is just the beginning. Building on this foundation, I hope to grapple in future posts with which digital tools (e.g., Twitter) and parameters (e.g., various game dynamics) might help realize my goal of role-playing as a way of teaching the history of Christianity. And I’d love to hear your thoughts as well! For instance, what creative and experiential activities were most influential in your own education? Have you tried anything like this in your own classes, and how did it go? Which digital tools have you used or think might work?

*This post has been also cross-posted at



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