Minds on Fire – Mark C. Carnes

Earlier this year I crowd-sourced a list of teaching materials. Now that the fall semester is imminent, I am finally getting a chance to sit down with the list again in order to prepare for my courses.

The subtitle of Minds on Fire is its mission statement: “how role-immersion games transform college.” The book itself is a manifesto for Reacting to the Past, serving to defend and justify the games developed by the consortium.

Carnes’ core contention in Minds on Fire, and the underlying principal behind Reacting to the Past, is that students are engaged in “subversive world[s] of play” that range from video games to Zombies v. Humans to fraternity events. On the other end of the spectrum “all classes are kind of boring.” The solution, Carnes argues, is to harness the subversive worlds of play toward academic ends; that is, give students competitions and games that tap into their natural inclination for this subversive behavior and get them to do more work without thinking about it as work. Teachers facilitate the games, but then step back and empower the students to take the reins.

After setting out these principals, Carnes dedicates much of the book to laying out the advantages and countering the criticisms of using games in the classroom. There are chapters on how Reacting games teach morality and leadership and spontaneously produces community, things which are often touted as the purpose of a humanistic education or baked into college mission statements. Another section rejects the positivist contention that the past is a fixed stream and that opening the possibility of changing the past undermines history education. In each instance, the philosophical and pedagogical ideas are buttressed by excerpts from interviews with students who went through Reacting courses.

Minds on Fire is a convincing read, though I should say that I went in predisposed to think that as someone who has always balanced a fascination with history books with hours of subversive play. Carnes acknowledges, but also skims past, some courses are not going to be suitable for Reacting games and that not every Reacting exercise will be a raucous success. Nor is there much acknowledgement that Reacting is a radical proposal that seeks to achieve a fairly standard aim: significant learning experiences. Reacting classes, by not seeming like school work, give students ownership over their education and “trick” them into having experiences that cannot be faked or cheated.

There are other means to this same end, but there are also numerous classes where Reacting is a particularly effective way to grapple with issues, and I think it is no coincidence that some of the success stories came from Freshman Seminar or great ideas sorts of classes. I also think that long-running games could be particularly successful in discussion sections as a complement to lectures.

In sum: there were times that this book was too much of a manifesto, but while not every course needs to be a Reacting game, but every course can take lessons from Minds on Fire.

Civilization and its Resources

A few months back I wrote about the rhetorical position taken by the Civilization series. This post cascaded into a desire to teach a course that blends historiography and historically-themed games and while I am not here to announce that I am teaching such a course, I recently found myself again thinking about these issues.

Strategy games operate on economies based largely on resources. The Total War games have a monetary economy paired with population, where the population is necessary to recruit troops, but the real limitation is money that acts as a proxy for all necessary resources. The Age of Empires series used the quartet of gold, stone, food, and wood and included trade and a supply-and-demand marketplace mechanism to manipulate your resource stockpile. Food was the most common resource so long as you had access to wood because you could continually build farms, but maps were finite and so were resources.

Civilization is different. (I am using Civ 5 as representative here.) At first there is stone, wheat, grapes, wild animals. Wood mostly exists for the energy used in construction, which then speeds up building the civilization. The other resources are not immediately usable, but they are visible. As the civilizations progress through the ages, resources become available. Horses, iron, coal, oil, aluminum, and finally uranium. In each case, the civilization constructs the human apparatus (pens, mines, plantations, wells) to exploit the resource, with each location providing a variable amount. Once the resource is exploited, it is available until used and reclaimed once free.

From a game-construction perspective, this makes sense. The long version of the game spans thousands of years and has multiple win-conditions, including technology and culture. Conquest, which is the core of the other games mentioned above, is just one possible outcome. Resources are necessary to achieve any of these conditions and streamlining resource management improves game play. Civilization does offer a facsimile of colonization to find new resources as settlers move into uninhabited lands, but sanitizes the concomitant exploitation. At the same time, though, it is possible to win with only minimal expansion because all resources are permanent.

Just as there is no slavery in Civilization, neither is there rape of the environment outside the gradual reclamation of swamps and forests for their exploitation by humans.

Civilization and its antecedants

Before I ever considered the possibility that I could become a historian, I played games. This is a normal progression for a young person, and being someone who already loved history, I naturally gravitated to historically themed games, including fighting games like Dynasty Warriors (Three Kingdoms era China) and the Age of Empires series. I still enjoy both of those sets of games, but in more recent ages, I have particularly come to like civilization building games like Europa Universalis and, of course the Civilization series. Earlier this week I was looking through online forums and other resources to satisfy my curiosity about how the series portrays Greece—the topic of a future post, in all likelihood—and stumbled across an online emulator of the original Civ game. Naturally, I gave it go.

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The title sequence starts in space, panning into the galaxy. Starting a new game picks up where the title leaves off, this time centering on the earth, which the player watches evolve. Over the top is narration:

In the beginning, the Earth was without form, and void.

But the Sun shone upon the sleeping Earth and deep inside the brittle crust massive forces waited to be unleashed.

The seas parted and great continents were formed. The continents shifted, mountains arose. Earthquakes spawned massive tidal waves. Volcanoes erupted and spewed forth fiery lava and charged the atmosphere with strange gases.

Into this swirling maelstrom of Fire and Air and Water the first stirrings of Life appeared: tiny organisms, cells, and amoeba, clinging to tiny sheltered habitats.

But the seeds of Life grew, and strengthened, and spread, and diversified, and prospered, and soon every continent and climate teemed with Life.

And with Life came instinct, and specialization, natural selection, Reptiles, Dinosaurs, and Mammals and finally there evolved a species known as Man and there appeared the first faint glimmers of Intelligence.

The fruits of intelligence were many: fire, tools, and weapons, the hunt, farming, and the sharing of food, the family, the village, and the tribe. Now it required but one more ingredient: a great Leader to unite the quarreling tribes to harness the power of the land to build a legacy that would stand the test of time:

a CIVILIZATION!

Most of the conversations I’ve had about Civilization style games have revolved around their vision of history. In short, technology trees promote history as linear, progressive, teleological, despite also serving as a way for the designers to balance game-play. While acknowledging that game balance is a) difficult to attain, and b) critical to a game’s success, this presentation of history is open to criticism. Again, this is a topic for another time. Here I am taken by this opening conceit of Sid Meier’s Civilization series.

The sequence actually begins before the earth is formed. The game asserts that there is potential—seemingly for its exploitation by humans, the “intelligent” race. There is a slight concession to the improbabilities of evolution, but accepts humans as fait accompli. After all, this is a game about CIVILIZATION.

It is in the home stretch of the opening sequence that the assertions become more interesting. Society, it tells us, is not a civilization. The former involves people living together for survival, but the latter is something constructed in historical memory out of bricks of literature, written history, and monuments. (Civilization generally forces players to spend time creating technologies for farming and hunting, but never mind that.) This is yet another way that the games prioritize settled societies over nomadic ones, to go along with, for example, barbarians that spawn in territory that doesn’t belong to civilizations.

But then the kicker: none of this, not unity, not the legacy of civilization, not progress, is possible without the guiding hand of a great person (man, usually). Once again, this may be dismissed as a quirk of design in that the leader functionally has no role in game-play. And yet, Civilization sets an individual as the paragon who makes slight modifications of the rules and sets the character of the civilization. Famously, the original settings had passivity and aggression on a loop, so when Gandhi, who had the lowest starting level, became more peaceful he would become hyper-aggressive and India would start slinging nuclear warheads at all available targets. It is compelling game design, to put famous individuals as national characters, despite its manipulation of history just as much as does the equation of nations and “civilizations.” To pick up the Gandhi example again, he is a figure from the creation modern India, while the vast majority of “Indians” would no doubt be horrified to learn that their national character is pacifistic on account of him.

Civilization is a game. I am sure that some people are introduced to history through it and its ilk, but this does not necessarily mean that it need be scrutinized and held to task for historical accuracy. But it is also true that the series takes a rhetorical position with respect to the nature of civilization and the historical processes that create it, in this case before the game has even begun.