Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring  2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 8, Issue 1

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.


The Great War in the Classroom


Laura Cruz, Western Carolina University


Laura Cruz, Ph.D.,  is an assistant professor of History.



The article describes an on-line interactive simulation used to teach the origins of World War I. The potential pitfalls of using role-playing in the history classroom are discussed, as well as the reasons for its success.


Many students are turned off by history because it seems to be nothing more than a litany of names, dates, facts, battles, and kings. They do not realize that above all else, history is about imagination. It is a particular kind of imagination—one that is grounded in the sources upon which it is based—but no less creative because of that. Even at the introductory level, history can be dynamic, interesting, and relevant.  At least, it can do this in theory. Translating ideals into practical results is never as easy as one might hope. The Great War project was conceived to confront two problems that I was having with my Western Civilization II class. The first problem was how to teach military and diplomatic history without putting everyone to sleep. In Western Civilization II, the main focus is on World War I and II. Most of the instructors I had seen bypassed the wars themselves and focused on their impact and lasting influence. While this helps to increase relevance, it does skew the perspective on the wars towards hindsight, which can trivialize the reasons why the wars were fought in the first place. I wanted to correct this and to have students grapple with the strengths and weaknesses of international relations, a major theme of the course.


A second problem was assigning a research project. I tried several more conventional projects, such as writing essays on points of controversy or analyzing primary sources, and had dismal luck with these. Other instructors had reported success with interview and field trip projects, but these are not easily applicable to European history classes. Like most institutions, the school where I worked was pushing its instructors to make better use of its technological resources, but I was concerned about the ease the ease with which students can (and do) plagiarize material from Internet sources, whether intentionally or unintentionally. A good assignment would need to compel students to do original work. 


The Great War project, an extended role-playing exercise, was the result. Many historians believe that the countries of Europe demonstrated a profound lack of imagination when it came to the diplomatic machinations that directly preceded World War I.  In this simulation, students are divided into groups of 1-4 players, each representing one of the countries that participated in those machinations. They are encouraged to produce new outcomes that better reflect the interests of their respective nations, so the risk of plagiarism is minimized.  By using role-play, I intended to capture the benefits of active learning and student cooperation. Though more research needs to be done, most preliminary studies have shown that active learning is more effective than traditional lectures (McCarthy, 2000). Additionally, I hoped to promote the development of civic responsibility, an awareness of international affairs, and sensitivity to cultural differences, all of which had been successfully done using role-playing techniques in other settings (Hofstede, 1999;  Monahan, 2002; Menton, 1994).


Other instructors have used World War I simulations in their history courses, but I found no model that fit my requirements. First, the best simulations were designed to be played by high school students and so did not encourage the depth of research that is expected in a college level course (Ali, 1996; Niles, 2003). Similarly, most models focus on the end of World War I and the simulations are of the Paris Peace talks. This emphasis narrows the focus of the simulation, which can be helpful in establishing boundaries, an important part of role-play design, but I felt that it bound the students too much. Because the winners and losers were already determined, it limited the pedagogical value to the evaluation of the treaties and their effectiveness. By moving from 1918 to 1914,  I opened up options and opportunities and placed the war in the greater context of European balance-of-power politics before the war. In other words, students would have to look backwards far more than forwards in time to be effective players.   The final design element was the incorporation of technology. A fully on-line/computer based World War I simulation is commercially available from Granada Learning (Granada Learning, 1996). Though excellent, it, too, focuses on the end of the war. Further, I wanted on-line interaction to supplement classroom work, not replace it. Even if this were not the case, my University, like many, is unable to provide computer laboratory space for such an extended time. I chose to structure the project in different arenas of activity, each designed to overlap with the others.


Before beginning the project, individual students fill out worksheets of background information on the history of their countries up to the assassination of Archduke Frans Ferdinand in July 1914. Based on that material, the country groups must collectively decide on their preliminary goals, which will be compared to their final results. In the next phase, they participate in an on-line diplomatic simulation that takes place over the course of approximately four weeks. Using WebCT, I established two main forums for action. The first is the main discussion board, representing the international press. This is the public forum where the players may post press releases, propaganda statements, disparaging comments about their enemies and wonderful shows of support for their allies. It is also where they make announcements about changes in alliances, leaders, or other types of news that other countries may want to know. Each country must publish one short public statement at the onset that describes their background and views, (but they are not required to be completely truthful). The second arena is the level of secret, private, or privileged negotiations, which are done using e-mail or instant messages, all of which must be copied to me. Both of the on-line components are asynchronous, which gives busy college students more flexibility and increases participation (Coates, 2001).


To keep things interesting and authentic, I did surreptitiously assign some students to act as or to recruit spies. In the first games, the spies were simply members of important groups who sold valuable information to interested parties. Since the groups are small, though, the leaders were fairly effectively able to identify and oust spies. With the help of our network administrator, I was able to add some dummy students to the class roster and the spies used these as aliases for posting and sending mail. At first, I chose random, unassuming names based on cartoon characters, such as HSimpson. At several points, the spies requested more sinister titles and the system administrator was nice enough to oblige. We had EIreland (for the IRA) and CHaos, just to name a few. One particularly memorable student called herself the Fortune Teller and posted riddles for others to solve. I have experimented with giving spies particular missions, such as gathering vital information about secret alliances, and just generally letting them loose to support their cause. The success of either seems to depend heavily on the personality and motivation of the students.  The culmination of the project is an in-class diplomatic conference that extends over 3-6 class periods where controversial issues are debated, motions made, and, often, wars are fought. I give them a preliminary voting matrix, with three votes for the most powerful countries and one vote for the smaller countries. Using basic parliamentary procedure, students begin by discussing relatively straightforward issues—changing votes and the assassination—which provide initial focal points (McDaniel, 2002). As they get accustomed to their roles, the issues become more complex and are initiated by the groups themselves.


I have encountered several problems in conducting this project, some expected and some unexpected. As with most group projects, there is the problem of students who do not pull their own weight. They ignore the requests of group leaders, do not keep up with events on-line, and are generally content to let others do the work. Because nearly all activities take place on line, I can easily identify those students. If I see that someone is not participating, they can be assassinated. If they do not respond to an ‘assassination attempt’ e-mail within a specified period of time (thus giving them a chance to redeem themselves), they are removed from the activities and must produce a traditional research paper. I have found that the reasons for non-participation are almost always temporary or easily resolvable. The games are usually sufficiently interesting that even the most apathetic students at least read the press boards. 

The fact that the project simulates military situations can also produce the other extreme—students who are too aggressively involved. I have found it extremely important to establish rules of proper decorum, as the option to post anonymously can tempt students to act inappropriately (Bell, 2001). I emphasize to them that they are permitted to impugn other players and countries as long as it relates to the role that they are playing and not to the player personally. Generally, they have abided by this. I have had two cases of participants spreading graphic pictures of dead bodies. I permitted the use of historical photographs but required the senders to post a warning about the nature of the contents. As of last year, I have allowed the students to engage in actual combat, using a matrix that based on the rules of the board game Risk™, modified to apply to the boundaries of 1914. At first, I was skeptical of the educational value of rolling dice, but I added the caveat that the dice rolls could be weighted depending on how well the students argued for gaining advantages. This has spurred more research than any other aspect of the project, as students delve deeper into strategy and tactics, military technology, geography/terrain, and leadership training. It also serves to sharpen their ability to make oral arguments and there is a noticeable improvement in their ability to persuade as the project unfolds.


Often, particular countries have to be motivated to action. As the instructor, I do find it necessary to keep the ball rolling by selectively interfering in the course of events. If the action is lagging, I may post an anonymous message in the press to cause trouble, hire a new spy and give him some juicy information, make some suggestions to key players, or put up a new topic for the participants to debate. It is, however, very easy to over-manage and to try to push them towards preconceived paths. They will get more out of the exercise if they are permitted a great deal of latitude. Because such projects are unconventional, it is important for instructors to over-communicate the objectives. I did not do this the first time and several students were frustrated or confused. Now I spent approximately twenty minutes describing the project in some depth at the onset. I also provided each team leader with a special colored dossier that clearly laid out each assignment and described each phase of the project. Finally, I gave each team a separate sheet with appropriate references (both on-line and in the library) as well as some hints and tips. A warning for instructors—some class time had to be devoted to orienting the students on the use of the WebCT system (approximately thirty minutes) and to proving summaries and discussions about on-line situations (ten minutes per class).


The project also receives lecture support. As I said, international relations is a major theme in my course. Right at the outset, I have the students do an in-class role-play exercise to demonstrate the development of balance of power politics in Renaissance Italy. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 is carefully analyzed and there I introduce the role of diplomatic personalities. As we get closer to World War I, I emphasize the origins of the factors that played a role in the tensions among the European countries, including nationalism, imperialism, and the unification of Germany and Italy. After the project conference, I lecture on the horrors of World War I and the damages wrought by the treaties that followed. As I tick off the devastating consequences of the war country by country, I have students compare their own relative success or failure to the historical record. After the conference, I argue that World War I defined the modern world and  fractured the optimism of the previous centuries, which serves to underscore the significance of the project and to promote interesting discussions about alternatives.


A project such as this one raises questions about teaching history. Historians are often and justly leery of role-playing exercises. History is a done deal. It is about events that already happened. Role-playing either reduces the students to actors reading scripts or it creates ahistorical situations, the first is ineffective and the latter is diversionary. I find that the advantages of the Great War project far outweigh the possible disadvantages of arriving at new conclusions. To participate, the students must learn a great deal about European politics in general and World War I in particular. The division into groups allows them to explore the history of one country in more depth than I could ever hope to cover in a lecture. For example, the ‘President of the United States’ said that she felt like the project allowed her to really understand this rather complex event in some depth and with the added ability to reflect upon its implications for the role of the U.S. in the world.


Moreover, it is no wonder that they feel that way because they work hard at it. As new situations arise, they have to do more research and the competition spurs them onward. For example, a heated debate took place last semester between the King of Italy and the Sultan of Turkey. They each hit the books in order to get the best of the other and their debates filled up over eight pages. Before the final conference, each team received a copy of the agenda and several teams were up late the night before trying to find that last piece of international law to clench their position. The Kaiser of Germany said that the project sharpened his debate and negotiation skills and taught him the art of ‘graceful compromise’.  An additional advantage is the ability to divide the students into groups. This allows the instructor to place students of varied abilities (and personalities) into positions where everyone can be challenged. The biggest factor that can make or break a simulation is the choice of leaders. I usually place my most responsible students in the leadership roles. That said, I also usually choose at least one leader who I believe has leadership potential, but who has not had the opportunity to exercise it before. The bestowal of responsibility can bring out some student’s better qualities. Students whose abilities or interest are not as strong can serve as members of the groups, where tasks can be subdivided to fit their particular strengths. Last year, I began handing out a questionnaire at the beginning of the semester. It asked questions such as “do you like being the center of attention?” or “are you good at deceiving people?”, in order to better match them to an appropriate position.


The most rewarding part of the project is how much students get caught up in the exercise. I get the impression that many of them really come to care about what happens to their country. I never have better class attendance. They post e-mails at four o’clock in the morning. Some check in every few hours when things get hot and heavy. Students from last semester have asked if they could watch what their counterparts are doing and perhaps provide expert advice (which can be helpful with role-playing in large classes (Bernstein, 2002)). There is usually at least one group that makes a secret deal and does not share it with anyone else (including me) until the most pivotal moment.  I have been developing this project for several years and the outcome has never been the same. Germany has taken over Europe, which is not so surprising, but so has Russia, which is. Serbia has been annihilated and it has carved out its own Balkan empire. France has lost all of her colonies and taken over Africa. It is all about how you play the game.


References/Works Cited

                Ali, P.C. (1996). Case Study and Role-Play in an Advanced History Course. Memphis, TN. National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Faculty Development Symposium. (EDRS No. 402891).

                Bell, M. (2001). On-line Role-Play: Anonymity, Engagement, and Risk. Educational Media International 38, 251-60.

                Bernstein, J., Scheerhorn, S., & Ritter, S.(2002). Using Simulations and Collaborative Teaching to Enhance Introductory Courses. College Teaching 50, 9-12.

                Coates, D. & Humphreys, B. (2001). Evaluation of Computer-Assisted Instruction in Principles of Economics. Educational Technology & Society 4, 133-44.

                Hofstede, G.J. & Pederson, P. (1999). Synthetic Cultures: Intercultural Learning through Simulation Games. Simulation and Gaming 30,  415-439.

                McCarthy, J.P. & Anderson, L. (2000). Active Learning Techniques versus Traditional Teaching Styles: Two Experiments from History and Political Science. Innovative Higher Education 24, 279-94.

                McDaniel, K.N. (2000). Four Elements of Successful Historical Role-Playing in the Classroom. The History Teacher 33, 357-62.

                Menton, L.K. (1994). The Use of Simulation as a Teaching Strategy for Civic Understanding and Participation. Teaching History: A Journal of Methods 19, 3-18.

                Monahan, W.G. (2002). Acting Out Nazi Germany: A Role-Play Simulation for the History Classroom. Teaching History: A Journal of Methods 27, 74-85.

                Niles, G.  Paris Peace Conference. Retrieved August 8, 2003, from

                Granada Learning. (1996). WWI Cd-Rom. Retrieved August 8, 2003,from