Book review: “Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College” by Mark C. Carnes

I am just finishing up teaching my first year at Nevada State College. One thing I have really loved about my new institution is new ideas are encouraged. I not only feel free to try out new ideas in the classroom, my colleagues love their craft and share their own ideas. It is a hotbed of pedagogical innovation.

While scrounging the internet for a few sources on a presentation I was putting together for our Center for Teaching and Learning, I stumbled on Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. By the time I finished the first chapter, I knew I had hit something big. This is more than a “teaching hack” that one can slip into a lecture, with the general structure of the course unhindered. A Reacting classroom, as the program is called, envisions reenacting key historical events throughout history in order to make them more real to students. Imagine experiencing the events leading up to the assassination of Julius Caesar or the theological controversies at the Council of Nicaea. But make it Dungeons and Dragons style.

I was almost immediately sold. I try so hard to make the material feel relevant to my students, to try to pass on some of the enthusiasm I feel for the topic at hand with little success. As Carnes expresses,

Few regular instructors enter their traditional classrooms confident that their lectures and open-ended discussions will produce an intellectually vibrant experience‚Ķ Too often, our regular classrooms resemble a movie in which excellent actors struggle to breathe life into a so-so script. It’s a lot of work and not many find the performance all that satisfying.

One of the brilliant aspects of the Reacting classroom is that it is entirely student-driven. The instructor steps back to allow students to drive the action. I intend to try out my own Reacting classroom next semester. I was skeptical at first, as I teach statistics and math courses; are STEM fields an appropriate avenue for role-playing games, especially when we feel compelled to cover so much material in a given semester? I have yet to do my first trial run, but I found the Reacting Consortium has a range of games appropriate for STEM classrooms. I am preparing my first game to be taught in a statistics course, London 1854: Cesspits, Cholera, and Conflict Over the Broad Street Pump. This game centers around an outbreak of cholera in the mid-nineteenth century before we even knew disease was spread by germs. This story is well-known to biostatisticians and epidemiologists, as it is practically the founding moment of epidemiology: John Snow was able to narrow down the source of the outbreak to a single pump by mapping out cholera deaths. The use of data visualizations to solve a public health crisis is a powerful story, and one that is perfect for a Reacting classroom. The story situates you in a moment where the science is still up for debate. The anticontagionists, a faction of scientists who believed disease wasn’t spread by invisible vectors, but rather bad air, had a powerful hold and represented the status quo. John Snow had to build a powerful argument to overturn the established opinions of the day. In this Reacting classroom, you come to realize that science changes, and that things we take for granted weren’t always so undisputed. It seems particularly relevant in our post-pandemic 2022 world.

I have been poring myself into my first Reacting classroom. I’m still nervous. Will students take it well? Carnes paints a rosy picture, with students swearing by Reacting, praising it to the skies years later. I’m also nervous about the large amounts of preparation students have to put into it to do well. My students rarely crack open their textbook; will they do so in a Reacting classroom? The great thing is Reacting has a great community built around it, and I have already found a great support network.

I’ll report back next semester to let you all know how it goes!

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