Playing with Power: An Alternate French Revolution Role-Play

This article is part 2 of a series of posts on using the concept of ‘play’ to teach history in a Malaysian college setting. You can read part 1 by clicking here.

On the first day of the final ‘Playing with Power’ session of 2018, I explained to the World Civilization 2 (from 1500 CE) class their three historical role-play options – World War II, Atlantic Slave Trade, or French Revolution – of which they chose to immerse themselves in the French Revolution. This led to 14 weeks of secret meetings accompanied with banana leaf rice to plot imprisonments and assassinations, and ended with a pizza party where it was revealed that the game had been rigged from the very beginning.

Game Structure: More Historical Accuracy and a Preplanned End Game

Following the previous two sessions of ‘Playing with Power’, I experimented with the idea of including more historically accurate elements to the practical framework of the alternate history role-play. In the last two role-play rounds, the students were given the creative freedom to decide the goal(s) of their groups but were also required to support their decisions relating to trade, agriculture, city planning, cultural landscape, technological advancement and military strategies with historical sources. This existing structure gave the students creative control over the role-play whilst developing their historical thinking to reimagine the historical event. However, I observed that such creative freedom was an issue for some students who were more accustomed to the traditional pedagogy offered by the Malaysian education system. This is because the Malaysian education system rarely encourages students to cultivate critical skills such as historical thinking and imagination, and instead emphasizes passive learning and rote learning for the sake of achieving good grades. This pedagogical method has unfortunately hindered some students from pushing the boundaries of their intellectual capacities. The net result is student discomfort when a teacher ventures to offer his/her students more open-ended learning goals, or lesson formats. With my test groups, the prospect of immersive role-play, designed to illustrate how history can be both fun and relevant, made some students miserable.

Therefore, when designing the French Revolution alternate history role-play, I decided to include an additional gameplay strategy to improve the role-play’s historical accuracy – a political and religious “manifesto” attributed to each playable faction. Although the manifestos were not thoroughly accurate, I drafted them to convey the “essence” of the Clergy, Nobility, Others and Jacobin as “factions” of the 1789 French Revolution. In this alternate universe, the Clergy faction was a social class of holier-than-thou individuals who aimed to create a theocratic government with the pope as its leader, and maintain Catholicism as the state religion. The Nobility faction was an arrogant social class who sought to maintain the existing form of government with King Louis XVI as its political puppet, and reinforce Catholicism as state religion. The Others faction (historically called “the third estate”) was a social class that lacked the holier-than-thou attitude of the Clergy, and the surplus wealth and power of the Nobility. Anachronistically modelled after the English middle-classes, they were merchants, artisans, commoners and peasants who firmly believed in Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s notion of liberalism, and John Calvin’s statutes of Christian religious reform. The Jacobin faction had a similar manifesto as the Others; unlike the Others, believing themselves to be the revolutionary avant-garde, they would seek to terrorise and eliminate anyone who was not on their side.

This alternate French Revolution game-world required the class to divide themselves into groups of three or four who will then represent a faction of the 1789 French revolution, for 14 weeks. Within these 14 weeks, students are expected to upload their plans to Padlet (an online platform for collaborative work) prior to a two-hour role-play session held every alternate week or once in three weeks. During these two-hour role-play sessions, each faction is given the opportunity to explain how they achieved their main quest(s), initiate any sort of negotiation(s) or alliance(s), conspire against one another, and/or manage an ad hoc gameplay strategy (i.e. Imprisonment and Assassination) presented to them by me, the game facilitator. Throughout these 14 weeks, students must ensure their plans align with their faction’s manifesto and their hidden quest(s) must not be revealed to anyone outside their faction. Should either of these two game-structures be violated, a 1% penalty will be awarded to the affected group. To further ensure that the students were consistent with the assignment, marks were equally awarded to both the Padlet updates and role-play sessions. Each aspect of the assignment weighs 9%, respectively: 3% for historical accuracy, 3% for historical creativity and 3% for coherency of plans, and an additional 2% for the Final Quest. Hence, the entire alternate history role-play assignment is worth 20%. Besides that, because of the four new gameplay strategies introduced to this role-play practical framework, I played a more active role as game facilitator to ensure that the outcome of the role-play would unfold as I had intentionally planned. As their World Civilization lecturer, I deliberately rigged the end game of this role-play to teach them that sometimes despite collaborative efforts within the majority of the population, the vicious cycle of unequal distribution of resources and power will perpetuate for as long as the 1% (i.e. the social elites) have dominant control over a nation’s wealth, income and resources. This article illustrates how I subtly rigged the flow of the role-play to fit the objective I had set for the assignment, without raising any suspicions amongst the students. Moreover, to maintain the anonymity of significant students whose roles greatly influenced my decisions as both game facilitator and lecturer, I will be using their initials only.

From left to right: “Viscount Chip” (ZLN), “Pope Sam” (TWZ) and an “Other” (JT).

Gameplay Strategies: Hidden Quest and Imprisonment

The manifestos are an extension of the Hidden Quest – a new gameplay strategy introduced to the alternate history role-play practical framework. It was introduced after former students and colleagues suggested a similar idea – tailor specific quests for each group which may or may not contradict another group’s quests – to make the role-play more challenging. For instance, though the Clergy and Nobility shared the same religious manifesto, the Nobility’s Hidden Quest dictated that they were not allowed to collaborate with the former, on any grounds. This made the Imprisonment gameplay strategy, another new addition, interesting to observe. Before the second or third role-play session began, I ‘arrested’ a member of the Clergy (“Pope Sam” played by TWZ) for sexual harassment, a Noble (“Viscount Chip” played by ZLN) for corruption, and a Commoner (played by JT) for stealing bread. For the next two hours, while the rest of the class dealt with their main quests, the three captives were required to plan their prison escape. By the end of the two hours, they successfully escaped prison with the help of a member of the Jacobin, who was a prison guard. Unfortunately, in the middle of plotting their escape, all four individuals made a secret pact to protect one another no matter the final outcome of the role-play. This secret pact led to “Viscount Chip’s” violation of the Nobility’s Hidden Quest and as a result of that violation, the Nobles were penalised 1%.

Introducing the Hidden Quest and Imprisonment gameplay strategies in my design set the mood for the rest of the role-play, as all three factions, especially the Clergy, grew suspicious of the other groups. The question which troubled everyone throughout the two hours was “who accused the three individuals of those criminal acts?” and evidently, suspicion fell on the Jacobin as none of their members had been arrested. Indeed it was my aim for the Jacobin to make use of this opportunity to create unrest and possibly lure the Others to their side, however that was not the case as I shall discuss later in the article.

Nevertheless, creating the quests – main and hidden – in an ad hoc manner allowed me the opportunity to predetermine the final outcome of the role-play, without revealing the fact that the game had been rigged from the very beginning. When I observed the three imprisoned students interact to plot their escape, it dawned on me that roping in “Viscount Chip” into the Traitor faction would help me fulfil my planned end game. This is because “Viscount Chip” (whose real name initials is ZLN), unlike majority of the students who have taken my World Civilizations classes, entered my classroom with an unparalleled sense of historical thinking and historical imagination. Well aware of his imaginative skills and inventive approach to problem solving, I convinced the Traitors to consider enlisting ZLN as the fourth member of the Traitor faction, instead of eliminating him. I will further explain later in the article why I deliberately singled out ZLN to join the Traitors, and how this conscious decision was necessary for me to achieve my prearranged outcome of the role-play.

The Jacobins Challenge

Jacobin’s unaccomplished Main and Hidden Quests including a reprimand from me.

When the Jacobin faction did not take advantage of the Imprisonment quest to cause unrest and raise suspicions between the other three factions, it was merely the beginning of a challenge I would experience as an educator and game facilitator throughout this term’s role play. Throughout the 14 weeks, the students who played the role of the Jacobins, did not meet the role-play deadlines and not once approached me for help despite constant reminders that should anyone struggle with the assignment they were welcome to consult with me. This is the first time since I introduced the assignment that a group demonstrated such serious lack of participation, poor communication within and between groups, and an overall lack of initiative. The students did not attempt to identify the types of occupation the Jacobins held during this historical period nor establish potential ways the Jacobins could accomplish their manifesto. Their lack of engagement inevitably affected the progress of the Others whom they had collaborated with, to plan a joint Final Attack against the Nobility. However, because the Jacobins consistently neglected to update their Padlet, the plan to take down the Nobility failed. Evidently, at the end of the term, the Jacobins not only lost the role-play but sadly also lost a substantial amount of marks for the alternate history role-play assignment.

Summary of the Final Attack by the Jacobins compared to the Others’ summary.

Gameplay Strategy: The Double Agents

The silver lining to this challenge was the introduction of yet another new gameplay strategy; the Traitor faction. My intention of introducing the Traitor faction into this role-play was for its members to assist the Jacobins in fulfilling the latter’s manifesto. However, when the Jacobins failed to take initiative, the members of the Traitors, effortlessly stepped in to fulfil the role as troublemakers. With the exception of ZLN (i.e. “Viscount Chip”), the other three Traitors were randomly selected on the day the class voted to reimagine the French Revolution. The rationale for choosing a member from the Clergy and Nobility, respectively to collaborate with a member of the Others was that in the 1789 French Revolution, the National Assembly owed much of its initial success to the assistance and leadership of the liberal-minded members of the First and Second Estates who sympathized with the Third Estate’s demands for a reformed French government. Although the Traitors were given the option to collaborate with any of the four main factions, they unanimously chose not to form any secret alliance(s). Their dedication to work in isolation and in secret is reflected in the manifesto they customized for themselves: create a new government led by them, by eliminating King Louis XVI, the Clergy, Nobility, Others and Jacobins. In my opinion, their decision to not collaborate with any of the other four factions is because they enjoyed the thrill of being double agents.

From left to right: TWZ (“Pope Sam”), EL (“Other”), and ATS (“Earl Gaston Shang”).

The Traitors’ delayed realization of the amount of work required to secretly plot against their original factions merely reinforced their loyalty to one another. Hence, whatever decisions they made within their original factions, they did so with the Traitor’s manifesto in mind. To maintain their anonymity, the Traitors and I agreed that I would execute their plans on their behalf. For instance, it was supposedly I, the lecturer and game facilitator, who selected and imprisoned the three individuals. However, in reality, the Traitors agreed on the people who would be imprisoned hoping that the exclusion of the Jacobins would plant a seed of wariness amongst the other three factions against the Jacobins whilst maintaining their anonymity. Interestingly, in the midst of that two-hour session, a naive member of the Others volunteered himself as the individual who reported the wrongdoings of “Pope Sam”, “Viscount Chip” and his fellow Others. This surprising development only benefited the Traitors as now the Clergy and Nobility became more suspicious of the Others and Jacobins.

Gameplay Strategy: Who Should We “Assassinate”?

The Assassination gameplay strategy was introduced to remove any possible threat(s), weaken a faction or two, or to simply cause more chaos. As the executor of their decisions, I informed the class, at the beginning of another session, that two individuals had been assassinated. “Bishop Ho” (played by IH) who was mistaken for “Pope Sam” and “Earl Gaston Shang” (played by ATS) whom many had grown concern that he might exploit his position as the French Minister of War, were the unfortunate victims of the Assassination. This element presented a couple of challenges: i) what would the student(s) do for the remainder of the role-play, and ii) how would I grade their individual work. For IH (“Bishop Ho”) I informed the Clergy that he could no longer actively participate in discussions but could continue updating their Padlet. However, this was not the case as I was informed, later, that the Clergy had excluded him from all their discussions. Fortunately, the Assassination element was only introduced 3/4 way through the role-play therefore IH’s role-play grade would not be severely affected as he had actively contributed to the foundation of the Clergy. Moreover, I reinstated him as an active participant during the role-play’s Final Quest, in which he did not hesitate to actively contribute to the fulfilment of the Final Quest. On the other hand, owing to ATS’s status as Traitor, his assassination was only made to appear successful so that the rest of the class would believe that the Nobility was weakened. In actuality, ATS remained hidden from the public while he assisted the newly recruited fourth member of the Traitors – ZLN – to fulfil the Traitor’s manifesto.

The class standing in silence, to commemorate the untimely deaths of “Biship Ho” and “Earl Gaston Shang”.

Game Changer: ZLN and the Traitors

Whilst discussing who they should assassinate, the Traitors and in fact, the Clergy, Others and Jacobins all identified ZLN (i.e. “Viscount Chip”) as their biggest threat. Eminently, from the beginning of the role-play, ZLN demonstrated his ability to master the assignment, almost effortlessly, with historical creativity and accuracy whilst being a team player. His idiosyncratic approach towards the role-play such as his swiftness in identifying potential foreign allies and businesses to ensure protection and a steady flow of income for the Nobility, made him a clear stand out. Consequently, the rest of the class recognised their need to either weaken or eliminate him. However, instead of assassinating him, I, as their lecturer, encouraged the Traitors to persuade him to join them. Not only is ZLN exceptional at historical thinking and imagination, his dual role as the French Minister of Finance and War reinforced my suggestion that he would be a valuable asset to the Traitors. This is because the military and business allies he had successfully procured as a Noble, could easily help the Traitors overthrow the existing government and organisational structure of France. More importantly, their decision to invite ZLN to become a Traitor ensured that the role-play’s end game, as mentioned earlier in the article, would unfold as I had designed.

For 13 weeks the Traitors had successfully manipulated the flow of the role-play to their advantage. However, approximately 24 hours before the Traitors revealed their true identities and intentions (i.e. ‘The Big Reveal’), two members of the Others (YSJ and AJP) walked into my office and stumbled upon an unlikely quartet in conversation with me. As game facilitator, I made the executive decision to “assassinate” AJP and instruct YSJ to remain silent about what she had seen. If I had “assassinated” two members of the Others, it may have raised unwanted questions and, the Traitors and I did not want our plans to go awry. Nevertheless, I had a quick sit down with both YSJ and AJP to ensure them that they had not ruined the role-play nor were their grades affected. This honest discussion with them was necessary as the class had, collectively, become very invested in the role-play.

From left to right: TWZ, ZLN, ATS and EL. Moments before AJP and YSJ discovered our secret meeting hideout.

Owing to the Clergy and Nobles exploiting their positions to procure land, wealth and weapons, whilst the Other quietly fed the other three information about the Others’ plans and their collaborative ability to plot and execute historically imaginative plans, victory was guaranteed for the “social elite” faction of my role-play. Historically-speaking, occasionally political and social rebellions do not yield the positive outcome the 99% of the population had hoped for because “the 1%” (i.e. powerful elites) tend to dictate the social, economic, and political conditions that perpetuate the vicious cycle of unequal distribution of resources and power. Hence, to ensure that my prearranged endgame would unfold accordingly, I encouraged the Traitors to have more sessions with me so that I would have a rough idea of their plans for the upcoming role-play session. This private sessions allowed me to design the original four factions’ weekly quests in a way that would ultimately benefit the Traitor’s manifesto and consequently, fit my objective for the role-play.

The toughest challenge I faced with the Traitors was evaluating and grading their work seeing as being double agents meant doing twice the amount of plotting and executing. This led me to design an ad hoc Final Quest after the ‘Big Reveal’, in hopes of balancing out the workload. In this Final Quest, IH (“Bishop Ho”) and ATS (“Earl Gaston Shang”) would play active roles whilst EL (The Other), TWZ (“Pope Sam”) and ZLN (“Viscount Chip”) would remain passive. As the Traitors successfully accomplished their manifesto, ATS was appointed the Prime Minister of France and his first task was to pay back the endless amount of debts ZLN had accumulated as Minister of Finance and War. To do so, the reimagined France had to colonize the fictional nation of “ZZLand” to sell the latter’s resources. Colonization without the exploitation of “ZZLand” and its people – according to the first five Articles of the Human Rights Convention – was the class’s Final Quest. This proved difficult as history has persistently demonstrated to us that the act of colonization typically coexist with the exploitation of the colonies’ inhabitants and resources. Regrettably, a lack of punctuality saw the class miss their deadline. Thus, they were unsuccessful at fulfilling the Final Quest. Nevertheless, because they demonstrated a significant development in their historical thinking and imagination throughout the 14 weeks, I agreed to take into account their late submission with a minor penalty.

The End Game

Although I am generally strict when it comes to assignment deadlines, in the case of this alternate history role-play, I constantly remind myself of the reasons why I am working towards designing a practical framework suitable for students accustomed to rote learning and passive learning. The reasons are as always, to help cultivate their ability to think and imagine, historically and to demonstrate that history can be both fun and relevant. Throughout these 14 weeks, I have observed the students struggle to adapt to the unorthodox nature of the assignment and the creative freedom they possessed to dictate the direction of the assignment. Nonetheless, midway through the term, though they continued to stress over who to collaborate with or conspire against, they were fully immersed in the alternate French Revolution game-world. By the end of the 14 weeks, they were intellectually and creatively tired from using “too much brain power” as a few of them remarked but also added they had learned more about History and the French Revolution, than they had expected.

Despite having introduced four new gameplay strategies to the practical framework with few people whom I could turn to to bounce ideas with or seek advice from, my friend’s original idea and rationale stands true: if students are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in their learning process, they are more likely to be inclined to learn more about the subject and field. Hence, my role shifted from teacher to facilitator. Nonetheless, these 14 weeks have also revealed to me a few challenges I need to address should I decide to employ this practical framework for future class assessments. How do I select a group of students to play the role of Traitors without making the workload imbalance and grading difficult? How should I address students who lack the initiative to be good team players? Should the Assassination gameplay strategy be kept? If so, when is it an appropriate time to alter a student’s position from active  to passive?


  1. Wow this is great Michelle well done

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