SIMAGES 2013.2 – Martin Campion Interview

Created a History Laboratory for Classes Using Games

Interview with Martin Campion

Martin Campion has been using simulations and games for learning and fun since the 1950s.  He carried his interest in simulations and games into university teaching.  He is a long-time NASAGA member going back to 1979 and a former board member.  He is NASAGA’s 2013 recipient of the Ifill-Raynolds Award for Lifetime Achievement.  He was interviewed by Brian Remer.editors

SIMAGES:  In your early days you were a history professor at Pittsburgh State.  What prompted you to begin using games for teaching?

Martin Campion:  First of all, we must note that I taught at Pittsburg State U (no h), in Pittsburg, Kansas, not to be confused with Pittsburgh, PA, Pittsburg, CA, Pittsburg, TX, Pittsburg, NH, Pittsburg Landing, TN, or Pittsburg Landing, Idaho.  All the Pittsburgs, I suppose, were named after the place in PA, after which it changed the spelling of its name.

I began using games for two reasons:  First, I was unhappy with the combination of lecture and discussion that is the traditional approach to college teaching, except in sciences which have laboratories.  Incidentally, at Pittsburg I asked for and miraculously got control of a room which nobody was using.  I put my game collection in it and held small classes in it and met in it with the Historical Games Club.  I ordered a sign for the room which hung there for many years.  It said ‘History Laboratory’.  Eventually, it was stolen, possibly by my department chairman.  The second reason was that I had myself studied military history because I wanted to design war games and had learned more that way than I would have through reading alone.

SIMAGES:  Which games that you’ve invented are you most proud of and why?

Campion:  I have three published games:  Rails West! (SSI, 1984), Medieval Lords (SSI, 1991), and Masters and Slaves (Perspicacity Software, 1991).  If they had consciousness, I would certainly never identify one as my favorite, but, without that problem, I have to identify Rails West! as my choice.  It has after all been with me the longest, beginning some eight years before its publication, and going through numerous changes since publication.  It actually garnered an award, which gave SSI a plaque to put on their wall.  And many years after its publication, I started attending Origins and GenCon game conventions and I started running into people who remembered Rails West! fondly.  Masters and Slaves is my most innovative game, and Medieval Lords is closest to my first love, war games, but Rails West! was both innovative and, covering late 19th century business, dealt with a kind of war.

SIMAGES:  You began designing games before computers were widely available.  What advice do you have about managing the transition from designing games for in-person play to designing for on-line play?

Campion:  Adjusting for on-line play is more of a programming problem than a separate design problem.  When thinking of design, one should think of multiple-possibility play.  I want to design a game, for example, which is playable by one to a dozen persons on one to a dozen computers anywhere in the world.  The people should be able to play the same game sitting down at the same time or at different times.  They should be able to communicate with each other by an in-game chat facility, by cell phones, by e-mail, or by shouting across the room, or even walking and whispering.  For people, we can also mean groups or teams who will have their own communications.  So maybe we will need 6 X 12 computers—which, of course is no problem these days, especially since the computers in question can be tablets, smart phones, all sizes of laptops, as well as desktops.  When a new game is started, some of the choices made will result in quite different games.  There will be a difference between a game that is going to be played in turns when all the players are ‘present’ either on-line or in person, and a game in which turns are sent to a server and processed all at once every 48 hours, let’s say, and a game in which turns are sent in and processed as they come in.

SIMAGES:  You were active in the very early days of computer gaming when a ‘design team’ might be just one person.  How did you manage being that one person while also teaching college courses full-time?

Campion:  As a college professor, I was expected to do things outside of my classroom duties—things like writing books and delivering papers at professional meetings.  The question in my career was whether the things I wanted to do would actually count as professional activities.  It was my good fortune that I was at a school which valued my activities, instead of a school which would deduct from my ‘score’ for such strange accomplishments.  There were some minor differences of opinion.  One of my department chairmen said that one of my published games would count about as much as an article in a professional journal, while I thought that it should count as much as a book.  So time was not a great problem, although 1990, the year I designed Medieval Lords, is famous in my life as the year I took only one day completely off—Thanksgiving Day, I think.

SIMAGES:  I’ve heard you say in another interview that games aren’t necessarily good at teaching facts about history.  Yet you used them in your teaching for years.  What do they teach that you found to be so valuable for your history students?

Campion:  I like to say that games teach the twin laws of history—that of free will and that of determinism.  The first law means that things could have been different than they were—that people in the past had real choices which could have led to different results.  Napoleon could probably have won the battle of Waterloo.  On the other hand, the second law means that choices were constricted by the circumstances of the time.  Most likely, if Napoleon had not met his Waterloo at Waterloo, he would have met it somewhere else a few months later.

SIMAGES:  How have you seen NASAGA change over the years and what do you think is our next evolutionary step as an organization?

Campion: The last time I spoke on this question (S&G, June 1995, p. 177), I referred to groups of gamers wandering in and out of the organization.  I was on the point of wandering out myself and have been disassociated for about 12 years now.  But I also said that I would not be surprised to see groups (or individuals) wander back in again, and maybe that is what is going on right now with NASAGA adopting the goal of attracting more academics.

SIMAGES:  What projects or issues are you working on currently?

Campion: In the last 20 years I have been retired from history teaching, but doing some business programming and a little computer programming teaching.  But I have been constantly doing game-related programming which has not resulted in any saleable products.  One problem has been technological.  I keep seeing new technologies that I want to use in my new version of Rails West!  I also have been trying out new technologies by constantly re-designing a pseudo-game called Tic Tac Toe ++.  Then I have to try new technologies out on TTT++, then on RW! and by the time I am comfortable with them and have them working with my games, something new is on the horizon.  So…   Also I am working on a board game, to be called ‘Big Steel’.  This is actually a continuation of a project I started in about 1974 which eventually resulted in the creation of Rails West!  Now I have designed a version of Big Steel, creating enough of the game to play ten turns simulating six players.  At this point I decided it wasn’t much fun and I put it on the back burner to await more inspiration.

SIMAGES:  What games have you been playing and which do you see as most promising for learning?

Campion: These days I play almost exclusively for fun.  I play an old old board game, Speed Circuit, most weeks with a dedicated little group.  Other than that I play Eurogames and Sid Sackson games.  I hardly ever play computer games, except occasionally I take the windows version of Rails West! or the DOS version of Medieval Lords out for a spin in order to think about how to reprogram them.  I try new games when I go to two or three games conventions per year.  The board games which have looked promising are the historical variants of Settlers of Cataan, and games like The Making of the President 1960.  Computer games which have looked promising include the Making History series.

SIMAGES:  Gamification is the new buzz in business education.  What does gamification mean from your perspective and how important is it?

Campion:  I had to look that word up in order to answer your question.  It seems to be an old idea made into a new trend.  It certainly looks something like the game Micro-Economy as described in Robert E. Horn, The Guide to Simulations/Games for Education and Training, 3rd ed., 1977, vol. 1, pp. 12-13, and also described in the 4th ed. of 1980.  It continues to exist up to the present as the MicroSociety movement.  The fact that a new word has been coined and that much talk has been generated is encouraging.

SIMAGES:  What do you see in the future for learning games and simulations?

Campion: So far, my forecasts about serious games have been off the track—although the term ‘serious games’ itself has acquired a new currency along with the new word ‘gamification’.  Again, a hopeful sign.  I was appalled by the rise of standardized test evaluations in the 90s, and the fact that this tide seems to be going out is promising.

SIMAGES:  You’ll be delivering a keynote at the NASAGA conference in Sarasota.  Can you give us a tease?

Campion:  I just did.



MicroSociety Movement:

Robert E. Horn, The Guide to Simulations/Games for Education and Training on Amazon…

Online emulator for Rails West!

From the above link:

Rails West! is a simulation game about the 19th century speculation in railroad financing.  It allows for 1-8 players, with up to four under computer control.  The long scenario starts in 1870 and ends after the 1900 turn (with 31 turns total).  The short scenario starts in 1890 and ends either in 1895 (6 turns) or 1900 (11 turns).  The objective is to accumulate cash, stocks, and bonds, and to control viable transcontinental railroads through strategic decisions.

Martin Campion can be reached at