History At Play

Tags: history gaming, hi-fi, educational rap music, “is this anything?”

Bart: Oh boy! Free trading cards!
Milhouse: Wow! Joseph of Arimathea! Twenty six conversions in A.D. 46!
Nelson: Whoa, a Methuselah rookie card!
Ned Flanders: Well, boys, who’d have thought learning about history could be fun?
Bart: (horrrified) History??
Milhouse: Learning?!?
Nelson: Let’s get out of here!!!

OK, so in the actual episode, Ned and Bart actually said “religion,” not “history.” I’m just playing with the text, which is partly what this post is about.

Is history fun? I recently read Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 1998 book, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, which reports on a decade-long survey about the ways thousands of ordinary Americans engage with history (or don’t) in their lives. Their major finding probably didn’t or won’t surprise anyone reading here, except perhaps in how starkly the data bore it out: while the majority of survey respondents cared deeply about the past, and engaged with it daily in a variety of informal ways, apathy or even hostility to formal history as taught in school was almost universal.

The Presence of the Past is full of interesting discoveries (I was struck by how much more successfully museums foster a sense of connection to the past than classrooms), but this post is about a bunch of activities Rosenzweig and Thelen mention without studying in detail:

Hundreds of thousands of Americans who do not earn their living as history professionals dedicate considerable time, money, and even love to historical pursuits. They volunteer at local historical organziations, lead tours of historic houses, don uniforms for battle reenactments, repair old locomotives for the railway history society, subscribe to American Heritage and American History Illustrated, maintain the archives for their trade union or church, assemble libraries from the History Book Club, construct family genealogies, restore old houses, devise and play World War II board games, collect early twentieth-century circus memorabilia, and lobby to preserve art deco movie houses. These amateur historians might be considered a third group, distinct from the history professionals who pursue the past for a living and the popular historymakers who made up the bulk of our study.

As that last sentence explains, amateur historians were not the primary subject of Rosenzweig and Thelen’s attention. They were more concerned with the ways that “everybody else” engaged with history. That’s fair, but I myself am becoming more and more interested in the amateur history world, and in a particular set of activities we might call “history at play.” I’ll have, I hope, more to say about this in future. I thought I’d begin by rounding up a cluster of examples and asking, a la David Letterman, “is this anything?”

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Tags: The Cold War avante-garde, from R&D to D&D, the secret origins of hex paper, KAAAAHN!

Really, Cheney should be the Dungeon Master.

Mathematicians, physicists, historians, psychologists … all have something to offer the modern warrior. … Now, in the early days of the Atomic Age, there is developing a scientist-soldier team whose joint function is to outguess any conceivable enemy in any conceivable future situation. … Huddled around an electric brain that helps the fighter to fight and the thinker to think, they are beginning to work–or play–together in the most elaborate war game imaginable.
–“CORG plans Tomorrow’s Army Today,” Army magazine, 1956.

Let’s take another run at the deep history of roleplaying games.

My previous post talked about “Braunstein,” the proto-roleplaying game run by David Wesely in 1967, and how Wesely was inspired in part by Charles Totten’s Strategos, a book about wargaming from the late nineteenth century. On a D&D collectors’ forum called The Acaeum, Wesely recalled two other books that inspired him:

I created all the non-military roles for the first Braunstein game, not because I had too many people for the game, but because I had become interested in the concepts of N-player strategy games (where N is > 2) discussed in Kenneth Swezy’s [sic – see below] book The Compleat Stategyst and of overlapping and conflicting, but not directly opposite, objectives laid out in [Kenneth Boulding’s] Conflict and Defense.

Totten’s book led us from the roots of roleplaying to 19th century theosophy, the Lost Tribe of Israel, and the U-Mass Amherst fencing program. What might we learn from Wesely’s other two books?

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