It’s that time of year again. I’ve reached the Cold War, and when it’s time to talk about the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the 1950s, it may as well be hundreds of years ago for my students, so every year I use the Dot Game to create a feeling of paranoia.
I first learned about the Dot Game from a History Alive! Training session, and as far as I know, credit goes to the Teachers Curriculum Institute for creating it. The Dot Game works great for the Red Scare, but it also would work in a unit on the Salem Witch Trials or any period of doubt and suspicion.
The game is easy and 2-3 rounds can be played in 10-15 minutes. First, you need a set of cards. I cut index cards in half. Most of the cards are left blank on both sides, but on some of the cards, make a dot on one side. (I use C for commie.) For a set of 30 cards (I make a few more cards than the number of students in my class.), I might include as many as 10 commies.
The night before, I send out a Remind text to students saying “Trust no one.” (Caution: Times have changed. The next day, students said, “Oh, we thought your wife cheated on you or you were warning us about something happening at school.”) Give each student a card with explicit directions to look at but not to share or show what’s on their card to anyone. Then explain: Most of you are good, decent Americans. However, there are a few dirty, stinking commies amongst you bent on destroying mom, baseball, apple pie, and everything else about the American way of life. Your job is to form the largest group possible without a communist. You can’t show your card at any time when making groups.
There are two ways to win: 1) the largest group with no communist infiltrator wins and 2) any communist who has successfully infiltrated a group and is the only one in the group is a winner. I’ve had winning groups of 1 person and as large as 12 people.
Give them 2-3 minutes each round. At the end of each round, have groups reveal their identity one at a time, starting from the smallest sized groups. Vary the number of communist cards you give out during each round. On the second or third round, I will interrupt and say things like, “We’ve just confirmed there are at least 3 commies among you…… We’ve now confirmed there at least 5 commies out there…etc.”
After the rounds, debrief. Ask
- How did you feel during the rounds?
- How did you know whom to trust?
- How did it feel to have your trust betrayed?
- How did it feel to be accused but innocent?
- Who was the best deceiver?
- Who was the worst deceiver?
- What were the stakes at risk for losing this game? (very low level) Now think about nationally in the 1950s. What were the stakes then? Can you see how paranoia multiplied and why it affected people so much and why McCarthy was so powerful for a while?