• Kathryn Cammell

Reacting to the Past: Part One

Student playing Queen Victoria in the Reacting to the Past game

This year in the Tertiary Foundation Certificate’s ‘Foundation History’ course (HISTORY 91F), a team of researchers field tested their new Reacting to the Past (RTTP) game. The game turned the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 into an interactive experience for students, who were assigned role sheets of historical actors and given victory objectives that they were to meet to win the game. Versions of this game have already been played in the courses ‘Making Sense of the Sixties: the USA 1954-1973’ (HISTORY 241/341) and ‘Making Modern America 1877-1924’ (HISTORY 257/357). However, this is the first time that a game of this nature has been developed about a topic in New Zealand history, and the first time that it was played by students.

In part one of this series of blog posts, we share the perspective of Dr Sara Buttsworth, the Senior Tutor for the ‘Foundation History’ course and one of the designers of the game. We will also hear the perspective of one of the students in the class. This reflective piece was written as part of the assessment for this course, which required all students to reflect on their experiences playing the game. In the next part of this series, we will hear from more students about their experiences playing the game.

Dr Sara Buttsworth

Transliterating the RTTP pedagogy for Te Tiriti is part of my ongoing quest to incite students’ passion for and understanding of New Zealand’s histories. In my course the 4 C’s –Change, Continuity, Context, and Contingency are the core concepts all history students need. These principles come to life, literally, when our game is played. In the past I have used smaller exercises to excite imagination and engage with the 4C’s, like composing a Te Tiriti ‘rap battle’, or designing board games on the different phases of The New Zealand Wars. These exercises shine a light on people from the past who had feelings, reactions and, who were parts of multiple relationships. In 2018 I played with the RTTP ideas of the game, focussing on research rather than role sheets. However, it became more a re-enactment than a reaction to each other and the historical details – this was informative but did not excite the level of engagement as the full RTTP experience in 2019. In 2019, students saw the importance of people as individuals with complex relationships, and reacted to speeches, documents and backroom negotiations: What would have happened if Hone Heke had a cold and therefore failed to persuade anyone in February 1840? Might there have been threats made to the safety of individuals and groups if they signed the document? Just how important is having enough food? Just a few of the many questions and issues that arose through our gameifying of this important part of New Zealand’s history.

Students playing the Reacting to the Past game


For the last two weeks, and in three sessions, we did a reaction to the Treaty of Waitangi based on the perspectives and personalities of people who were present at the time. Since there is no actual existing record of the meeting and discussion that took place in 1840, all interpretations and reactions had to be based on the research or lack thereof that each group did for their assigned person. This created an interesting dynamic during the roleplay, but it also made it really amusing to watch and take part in.

A lot of the time the dynamic was created because some of the most relevant people in the historical event were given to people who either did not do much research or were too shy to speak up. For the later, that cannot really be helped because it is a personal problem that has to be overcome, but for the former, I personally found those people really exasperating. Why even turn up? Anyway, historically strong and charismatic ‘characters’ such as Hone Heke became almost nonexistent, and even irrelevant when forced to speak. This created an unequal dynamic among the Maori chiefs where there were not as many vocal ‘for’ people as ‘against’ people, though it was also good as it made people step-up in order to fill in the roles that were inactive. It is also important to note, that people actually gained more confidence as the sessions went by. In the second session, a larger variety of people spoke compared to the first session, and this increased even more in the last session. That was cool, and made the roleplay a lot more fun to take part in. I say fun, but it was also a lot more stressful; I spent a lot of nights just thinking and organising my thoughts for the next session. Apart from that, there were also the people that were consistently good - continuously speaking up, asking questions, and expressing their opinions. These people were not necessarily confident or even comfortable with public speaking, but they understood the importance of submerging yourself into the roleplay in order to react properly, and create the right atmosphere. I found those people really amazing, and I hope I also managed to express myself the same way, though I personally know that I honestly could have spoken up more. I tried my best with the little ability I have.

All in all, this roleplay just highlighted and emphasised what we have been studying in the lectures and readings. That is the importance of relationships and interpersonal relations. A lot of things can change with a simple tweak in the personality of a person or a change in what a person does. It is kind of like a strange sort of butterfly effect where by not doing or doing something, something else may happen as a result. Seeing those changes in person, really helped to visualise that process for further study and research. Those who were not really engaged probably would not have realised this though. Therefore, I appreciate the efforts put in for the roleplay as it is honestly a good way to understand how decision-making works based on context and external factors. It was fun.


Kathryn Cammell is the co-founder of Tahuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying New Zealand history. Thank you to Dr Sara Buttsworth and the anonymous student who contributed to this post. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.

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