The phrase "school through play" applies literally to the case of the instructional simulation game "Czechoslovakia 1938-1989" (Československo 38-89). Using a combination of a computer game and interactive comics, students are led through key moments in contemporary Czechoslovak and Czech history so they can "experience" the events of that time from the perspectives of various people.
One of the characters in the game is a Romani woman who survives the camp at Lety by Písek. News server Romea.cz has interviewed Vít Šisler of the Institute of Information and Library Studies, Philosophy Faculty, Charles University in Prague, about the game.
Q: How did the idea to create the "Czechoslovakia 1938-1989" simulation game come about? Was there demand from schools, or was the initial impulse from the Institute for Contemporary History?
A: "Czechoslovakia 1938-1989" is not a computer game in the literal sense of the phrase, but an instructional simulation aiming to present high school students with key moments in contemporary Czech history. The development of the simulation is taking place at the Philosophy and Mathematics-Physics Faculties of Charles University in Prague and the Institute for Contemporary History of the Academy
of Sciences of the Czech Republic as part of a project financed by the Czech Culture Ministry. The initial impulse came from our team and is based both on the positive results of our previous educational simulation, "Europe 2045" (evropa2045.cz), which several thousand students have experienced to date, as well as similarly successful projects from abroad, such as the Danish "Global Conflicts: Palestine" or the American "Revolution" simulations.
Q: I am personally very taken with focusing on "little history", the everyday situations of people living during a certain time as compared to "grand" history as we know it from classic textbooks full of groundbreaking dates, the names of strategic documents and the names of sovereigns. Could you describe a bit for our readers what the "charm" of this game is and why "little history" is important to history and society?
A: "Czechoslovakia 1938-1989" does its best to present key moments in Czech history not from the position of one "grand narrative", but from the perspectives of many actors whose fates, values, convictions and political opinions are different - if not, indeed, very often opposed to one another. The simulation intentionally makes it possible for students to "experience" events of the day from the perspectives of various people and, we hope, to develop a deeper understanding of their cultural, political and social context. At the same time we are endeavoring to overcome this traditional division between "grand" and "little" history - historical context and the behavior of individuals are showing to be mutually related in the simulation.
Q: I was also taken by the game's emphasis on the plurality of possible perspectives on a specific situation and the motives for the behavior of the specific characters, the effort for students to understand an event in a broader context. That in and of itself supports independent, critical thinking, not just during this history game, but in general. Was that one of the main intentions from the beginning?
A: The emphasis on critical thinking, the ability to independently evaluate sources, and discussion in the classroom was one of the aims of the project from the start. The students are led toward imagining themselves making the decisions of those involved in past events through the simulated game situation, imagining their motivations as well as the options and restrictions dictated by the broader context. Within the framework of the simulation, the user always encounters a variety of positions, perspectives on the past, i.e., it is not black and white in terms of its program, but leads pupils and students toward evaluating people's behavior in a broader context.
Q: The game's simulations are based on the stories told by people who remember these events, so part of designing the game was probably research using the oral history method. That is a brilliant opportunity for capturing history through its direct participants, through the experiences of "ordinary" people. Historical science has known this method roughly since the first half of the 20th century (correct me if I'm wrong, I am searching my memory from my time in college) - do history classes in schools also know this method and what it has produced today?
A: Oral history processes have been used in the schools since time immemorial, since even before this technique became established professionally. During the First Republic, Legionnaires visited the schools, and after the Second World War, members of the Partisans and the People's Militia visited the schools. Naturally, the memory that was always promoted was the one that was in accordance with the dominant political discourse. Oral history methods are also being used today, both as reproductions of "heroes' memories" (for example, the People in Need project "Stories of Injustice" - Příběhy bezpráví) as well as by receiving family memories (children simply ask their grandparents and parents what they remember) - these are not focused primarily on ethically desirable models of behavior, but on the plurality of past experiences.
Q: How does the game run? Could you take us through (at least roughly) its twists and turns? Let's imagine a student who sits down at the computer for the first time in school to play this game. What awaits him? What is the basic principle of the game and what is the teacher's role?
A: The "Czechoslovakia 1938-1989" simulation game can be used in the schools in several ways. The basic way is the variant in which the teacher runs the simulation on a video projector and the whole class is involved in addressing each situation or choosing the questions to ask the people in the simulation. In the second variant, the students play the simulation on their own at home and the teacher then relates it at school to simulations of other instructional activities. The basic principle of a simulation is that its "gaming" aspect takes place in the present. The past is made present in the simulation through the stories of those who remember the times, through documents from that time, personal materials (diaries, letters, etc.), and through black and white comics that depict the memories of those who were alive then. The students can influence what is asked of the characters in the simulation and how it is asked. According to the answers, they then access various levels of the story, but they cannot influence the past per se.
Q: The simulation includes a passage discussing the camp at Lety by Písek and thereby touches on the topic of Romani people. Could you describe that to us a bit more?
A: The first module of the simulation is based on the stories of people whose fates were tragically interfered with by the Second World War. One axis of this module is the story of a postal official, Jindřich Jelínek, who was arrested in connection with the assassination of Deputy Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich and then gradually interrogated by the Gestapo before passing through Terezín and Auschwitz. Other characters enter the simulation through their particular roles in his story, opening up new, stand-alone topics such as ordinary life in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the shutting up of the Jewish population into the ghettos, the domestic resistance, collaboration with the occupying power, the Holocaust, the Romani genocide, judicial retribution, etc. This module focuses in particular on the events between 1942 and 1945. Memories of the camp at Lety by Písek are present in the simulation through the testimony of a Romani woman who experienced that camp (and not only that one) as a young girl. The player can follow her through the story of Jindřich Jelínek and learn something about her fate and, indirectly, about the fate of Czech Roma.
Q: With whom did you consult on that part in particular? Is the character based on a model from real life, or is she a compilation of several patterns?
A: The individual stories in the simulation are based on authentic memories selected by historians from the Institute of Contemporary History at the Academy of Sciences and the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University, as well as from the memories collected by the Post Bellum association. The specific characters in the simulation, however, are fictional, as are the stories that frame this investigation of the past. We proceeded that same way in the case of the story of the Romani girl. The stories are modeled as historically recognizable situations meant to draw the students into the plot and open up the past to them as a space in which to ask their questions.
Q: Did you get any feedback from students and teachers when you ran the pilot testing of the demo version last year? Were there any responses to that part of the game in particular about the concentration camp at Lety? Did you try to test it at schools with larger numbers of Romani students? Are you planning to do that?
A: The feedback from students and teachers has been distinctly positive and we received many valuable comments about what to adjust or change. We got feedback in general for the whole module concerning the Second World War, but not specifically about the part that deals with the camp at Lety by Písek. We haven't yet intentionally tested it at schools with higher numbers of Romani students, but in the fall of 2014 we are planning to test the simulation in various regions of the Czech Republic and in the broadest possible range of schools.
Q: In one interview I read that during the game, marginalized groups and members of other national minorities also turn up - what other people are represented there besides Roma? Could you give us some examples of stories involving such characters? How much are they based on actual reality? Were these consulted with experts, including members of these minorities? Will students from those minorities also be included among the testing students?
A: Each module of the instruction simulation "Czechoslovak 1938 - 1989" emphasizes various options for how to experience selected moments in contemporary Czech history. The simulation is intentionally based on the memories of various groups in the population and different levels of society, as well as people of various political opinions. Specifically in this module about the Second World War era, the recollections of the following people are included: An active participant in the anti-Fascist resistance; a woman whose husband was taken away and who lived through everyday life in the Protectorate; a Jewish Holocaust survivor; a Romani girl who survived the Lety camp; an activist journalist; a political prisoner, etc. Other modules of the simulation include, for example, the recollections of a Czech man from Volyně who experienced the Eastern Front with the General Svoboda's army, or a Sudeten German woman who was displaced when she was a young child as part of an organized transfer. All of these stories are based on actual memories, but they have been altered for the didactic purposes of the simulation, and they often make use of more than one source.