Sunday, December 30, 2012

History and Fun: Oil and Water?

My memories from history class have little to do with history. Far more than the King-Byng Crisis or responsible government, what stands out is my grade 10 teacher’s vigorous pacing and his rock-hard gel hairdo. He seemed unable to stay in one place for more than a moment. As a class, we were like the audience of a tennis match, our eyes going back and forth as we followed our tennis-ball teacher.

History class is a hard sell to the present generation of students, and it’s not hard to see why. Traditional approaches rely heavily on memorization of facts and dates, both of which are instantly available to anyone with a smart phone these days. What format would make Canadian history engaging? Well, today I want to share just one answer from an unlikely source: board games.

My wife and I love board games. One of our favorite dates is to go out to a café called “Snakes and Lattes” – Toronto’s first board game café. It’s a wonderful place, and I urge you to go there immediately. During our visit yesterday, we discovered a game which re-enacts the contest for North America. “A Few Acres of Snow,”(1) as it is called, places you and your opponent in command of the Thirteen Colonies and New France. As it won a prestigious Golden Geek award in 2011, I had high expectations.

We sat down at our table and eagerly opened the box. I asked one of the helpful staff to teach us the rules, but he said “Ooh, sorry... It’s a real niche game. There’s a small group of people who love it, but I’ve only played it once.” Not discouraged, we opened up the manual and began to unravel the rules of play. About two hours later, my voice was hoarse from reading 12 pages of rules, and Jess had a look of despair and protest on her face.

The rules were complicated because, well, running a colony is complicated. On any given turn, you can choose from 21 actions, including different types of expansion, attack, and money-making. It was tough going for us unseasoned n00bs to learn the game, but its complexity is also its strength. The game leads you to see the economics of scarcity and choice in the history of the colonies. The different strategies in the game are analogies of the real choices that were available to the British and French. Of course, playing a board game is not the same as learning the real story, but is has the effect of making the real story more interesting. The game shows that our history came from choices – things didn’t have to turn out this way, as there were countless other choices available to those with power. Add to that innumerable contingencies and chance events, and our history is transformed from a bore into a tense drama.

(1) The name came from a quote of Voltaire, who dismissed the loss Quebec in 1759 as just "a few acres of snow."
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