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War Games: Gamifying the Vietnam War and teaching The Things They Carried, Part 2

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This blog is part two of a two-part series about teaching The Vietnam War using a BreakoutEDU Lesson Plan, if you haven't yet read part one, you can do so here. Download the lesson plan here.

Student Reactions & Takeaways

When I first played a BreakoutEDU game, I was initially discouraged by it. While it was a lot of fun, I wasn’t really sure how we had come to the solution. I had carved out a role for myself as an organizer of information, but in so doing, I missed how our team acquired the information. Pedagogically, that was a problem for me, because I saw how a quiet or less-confident student might hide from the academic content of the game, or worse, miss out on learning because they were playing the game.  

My solution came in the debrief following the game.  Not only would this include planned questions to help students retell the “story” of the game, but it also creates a space where unplanned observations could be addressed. Mostly importantly, students would have the opportunity to review their new information in a different way. This post dives into those “planned” and “unplanned” interactions.

As an aside, I have since run this game with classes as small as seven and as large as 28.  A general observation was that, with smaller classes, the quieter students will generally have more space to be outgoing.  Similarly, students who may be a bit more difficult in a regular, lecture-based class, tend to embrace the competition and teamwork elements, even to the point that many humbled themselves to students they might normally try to overshadow. In smaller classes, each student would take a role, while larger classes would have small groups taking on that single role. Both styles of gameplay had their merits, but ideally, I preferred the smaller class, though neither was more or less detrimental. 

Short-term Success

Looking back, being able to recall benchmarks like the Gulf of Tonkin or General Westmoreland were a small part of the game. I relied on students to guide the class through what pieces they found important with questions like: “Where did you struggle?” “How did you resolve that challenge?” “What were you doing during the game?” and “What parts engaged you?” With this, I was able to hear what students found interesting and then I could briefly lecture on the content of that portion of the game.

Bigger goals included experience. Students were much more easily able to reflect on the pictures they had seen, or having carried a heavy rucksack of equipment.  In terms of character education, students in all classes pointed to listening to each other as a “lesson learned” from the day.

Long-term Success

It wasn’t until a few months later that the impact of the game was really felt. History teachers started coming up and asking what I had taught about Vietnam. I said “nothing,” but explained that we read The Things They Carried and told teachers about the game. At least at low level, students were able to carry this knowledge into their history classes.

For our unit, that experiential knowledge was easy to use as an anchor throughout the text. As we read the story in class, the book opened much in the way that the game had: There were references to political controversy in the vignette “On The Rainy River.” Students reminded each other of equipment they had seen, while it was being listed in the story’s title vignette, and even in “The Ghost Soldiers,” students pointed to their classmate who had to return from Vietnam and drew connections between that separation and O’Brien’s own removal from his unit.

Observations during Test Runs and Gameplay

Anecdotally and in order, these are the social media platforms of choice for my students: Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter. That is to say, the fewer the words and the more pictures, the more popular.  Students today are the Facetiming generation while their teachers may recall the advent of the flip phone or smartphone. This means that the cadence our students use to communicate is not only different than that of their teachers, but also it is easily disrupted without a visual.

We used this concept to redefine how we presented content.  This included drafting a simulated newspaper article about the war, working with actual military equipment, and -- my favorite -- using walkie-talkies.  Learning how to communicate with a walkie-talkie was perhaps the largest learning curve my students had to overcome in the game.

Understanding the Game

One of the biggest successes of BreakoutEDU is how easy it is for students to self-differentiate. Finding their place in the game helps them buy in. Many bought in from the moment we began to name draftees, yelling things like, “I don’t want to die!” or “I’m a pacifist!” Students who were not drafted, however, were often a little more hesitant to get into the game, especially with larger groups.  In both instances, it was important to maintain or inspire that enthusiasm by creating an easy first lock to uncover.  We did this through the iPad passcode, which was highlighted on artifacts like the newspaper and deployment dossiers.

Returning Teams

In my mind, the true barometer as to whether or not students were feeling the sense of separation was in how they came back. “Soldier No. 394” [the player I had designated to return home midway through the game] was often a good litmus test for this.  At times, if the Vietnam team was ahead in moving on to Level 2 [see lesson plan], we gave the Home team the choice to let No. 394 come into the room right away or to wait.  When students voted to wait, they were usually experiencing more camaraderie within their own team identity, whereas teams who invited No. 394 in quickly more easily recognized the value of sharing information and good communication.

Often, it was No. 394 who volunteered to share the “story” of the game when we were debriefing as a full class at the end of the game.  This was because the student had seen both rooms and had more information to share. There are different identities in both rooms and different levels of excitement or desperation, and No. 394 recognized that.  Additionally, there were times where No. 394 struggled to join the new team as a member of the Home team, but more often than not, this student was able to recognize what information was needed and what materials were available in the opposite room.  If you choose to hand-pick teams, make No. 394 an observant student, it goes a long way in helping both teams to be collaborative.

The most interesting return came from my largest class. In such a large group, there were more voices and more leaders in both groups. When such a large group came from one room into another room with such an equally large group, one girl pulled all the newly arrived “soldiers” off to the side and, unprompted, told them the story of what had been happening with the Home group up until that point.  This retelling was not unlike the end of Return of the Jedi where C-3PO recounts the entirety of Star Wars to his new Ewok brethren.  That act of putting everyone onto the same page was what made this group the only one to finish in the allotted time.

Who Wins?

Not every class beat the buzzer, or even got into the box at all.  Some got caught up transcribing the wrong words, some failed to communicate with other groups and missed out on half of the images, some even just spent too long yelling over one another rather than working together, but those who did always won.

In the first vignette of The Things They Carried, which shares the same title, O’Brien writes about his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross.  Cross is a pseudonym, so named because O’Brien views him as a Christ figure who “Carried the lives of his men.”  Whenever O’Brien’s platoon loses a soldier, Cross blames himself for being too selfish and too distracted. This was the unintended result of the game, but one that created a perfect comparison to the war stories O’Brien was sharing: classes that shared information succeeded, classes with selfish leaders failed, but everyone won or lost together.


For additional resources to teach The Vietnam War in your classroom visit PBS LearningMedia's Teaching The Vietnam War collection, including resources from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's latest film The Vietnam War and resources from Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

Kevin Coughlin is a 2012 graduate of Suffolk University in Boston, MA, where he earned a BA in English Literature and a minor in Political Science.  As a government student at Suffolk, he first visited Washington, D.C. while enrolled in the Washington Center’s Inauguration Seminar in 2009.  In 2013, he began teaching in the nation’s capital as a part of the Alliance for Catholic Education -- the Master of Education program at the University of Notre Dame -- where he earned an M.Ed. in Secondary Education. He currently teaches at the Woodward School for Girls in Quincy, MA.

Kevin Coughlin

Kevin Coughlin High School History Teacher

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