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??
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?”
History Gaming: Niall Ferguson said last year, “There’s never been a more important time for people to play World War II games.” (Methinks a case could be made for 1939.) And other smart, if less celebrated, historians like Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Gavin Robinson (is there something about Brits and war games?) have had plenty to say on history and computer games of late. I’ve been posting myself about computer gaming’s dodgy old uncle, tabletop gaming, which is also often historical in nature. A game’s interaction with history may be distorted or superficial, but it may also be detailed and intense. Consider the work put into something like Brett Schulte’s Civil War Gaming Blog or, in a very different genre, my friend Chris Lehrich‘s series on using Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, and Chris’ own giant brain to create realistic, non-Eurocentric fantasy cultures (continued here and here). Many games and gamers devote terrific effort towards getting historical details “right”, even when the point of the game is to turn history totally on its head.
Hi-Fi: Tom Scheinfeldt, Roy Rosenzweig’s colleague at CHNM, had a nice post a year ago about how often sci-fi and fantasy literature are written as, and about, history. Much of what we classify as “science fiction” is at least as preoccupied with history as with science. Consider H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, or Neal Stephenson. If not for the efforts of the redoubtable Hugo Gernsback, we might well call this genre “history fiction,” or “hi-fi” for short. As with history gaming, historically-oriented science fiction and its cousins alternate and secret history can combine a scrupulous regard for some kinds of historical fidelity with total disregard for others. In many cases, too, the plot and characters of “history fiction” are largely a vehicle (sometimes a creaky one at that) for the allo-historical speculation. I can’t be the only person who, when he sees a new Harry Turtledove in the bookstore, opens it to see the map on the inside cover and study the way Aztecs with gunpowder or a victorious Confederacy have changed history this time… but then immediately puts the book back on the shelf.
Creative Anachronism: That name may call to mind stout men in chainmail speaking without contractions, but I mean it more broadly, embracing everyone from Civil war reenactors to those mysterious subcultures of Japanese teens who dress like Victorian flappers from outer space. Plus the devotees of steampunk, clockpunk, and other punky flavors of retro-futurism, the folks who construct brass iPods and wooden Xboxes and other ingenious violations of the history of technology. In each case, we have what I guess I’d call an aesthetic fascination with some aspect of the past, but no particular or necessary interest in the questions that occupy professional historians.
Fake History: No book last year delighted me more than John (of The Daily Show and “I’m a PC” fame) Hodgman’s Areas of My Expertise, a delirious almanac of untrue history that reads like the dreams you might have if you fell asleep reading a history textbook. Expertise is wonderfully absurd (I’ve already excerpted some of my favorite parts) but the flights of fancy spin off from real historical trivia and often reward historical knowledge. In context, some of the funniest parts of the book are the true facts stuck in amongst the madness. Other people are tilling these fields as well: George Pendle, the author of Strange Angel, a breezy but real biography of American rocket pioneer turned occultist Jack Parsons, has followed up with a totally made-up biography of forgettable president Millard Fillmore. Pendle also appears in a mock documentary called That Was History as a bow-tied talking head discussing 19th-century anti-clown legislation. Closer to (my) home, Mark Rayner’s The Skwib often features pseudohistorical comedy that presumes background knowledge (for instance, his series of Lost Powerpoint Slides), and through Mark, I seem to have fallen in with something known as The Emily Chesley Reading Circle, about which, the less said just now the better. Some explorations of the form are more Borgesian art projects than jokes: witness the everexpanding history of Kymaerica, the World Without Oil, or the wonderful Boilerplate, the 19th-century robot that fooled comedian Chris Elliot.
Now to ask the question with which so many student papers are bludgeoned: so what?
Many historians are dismissive or uneasy around this stuff, and I understand the reasons why. History can be hoaxed or distorted for all sorts of pernicious purposes; it seems perverse to do it just for fun. Also, amateurs are often interested in very different aspects of the past than professionals: ask any Civil War historian who’s been buttonholed at a conference by a diehard reenactor. And finally, play, being play, can be escapist, thoughtless, and childish. That’s sort of the point.
But historical enthusiasm this intense should not be dismissed lightly. These activities may not be for everyone but they are extremely satisfying for some. It is worth our while as history educators to figure out why.
But! There is a special pitfall for teachers and professors here. When we educators get wind of things like Ferguson’s World War II game, we often think, “Oho! I could use this so-called ‘video game’ to fool my students into learning.” Beware! That way lies a lot of wretched computer games, educational rap music, and Pokemon rip-offs. Not to mention bored students. Because playing in order to learn is teacher logic, where play is the means and learning is the end. To everyone else in the world, I fear this is backwards. The people who love the kind of stuff I’ve described in this post, the kids who will keep doing it after the bell rings, who will make history and the past a presence in their lives for the rest of their lives, are the ones who learn history in order to play.
(Cross-posted to Cliopatria. Comments welcome either place.)
To Be Continued?: The History Punks, Alternate Niall Fergusons, Madness and Civilization III.