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?”

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.


  1. Wow. Yes! At least, that probably describes my relationship with history to a T – picking and choosing, drawing connections and correlations between the typically unrelated, etc. I can’t seem to be articulate about it at the moment, but yes! That’s absolutely something! And I definitely want to hear more…


    Man, whenever I’m playing Civ III, I gotta tell you, Ghandi and his merciless hordes of elephants and musketeers chew through my puny archers like arms in the chipper. Ghandi’s always in with the doublecross, playing the diplomatic game just long enough for his troops to mount outside my capital. I should look him up on Wikipedia, see what kind of carnage he perpetrated in real life.


  3. On sci-fi and history, Carl Abbott has a book that looks interesting, which you probably already have heard of.

  4. Reading through Two Years Before the Mast by Dana I found myself fascinated with all the old sailing terms.. and wondering, who preserves this language? It has often struck me that a great use of video games would be to preserve specialized experiences and vocabulary.

    I like your distinction between popular historical pursuits and professional pursuits. I find Wikipedia an interesting index of where popular interest lies. Popular areas are well covered and even argued over, while subjects that are more world-important (like my field of Arab/Islamic history and literature) will receive scant references. Why? Not an amateur area of interest..

    I too wish there were a way to bridge these two ways of pursuing history. And dislike the academic upturned-nose..

  5. Great post Rob (and thanks for the plug). I think the “history-as-play” dynamic works both ways. Sometimes, you need to know the history before the play becomes possible (HI-FI) and in other cases, the play can spur the learning (gaming).

    The latter was certainly the case for me in terms of the Napoleonic Wars. Many years ago, I spent a couple of days with these intense (freaky) war gamers using thousands of brightly colored miniature figures, ten-sided dice, and sheets incomprehensible tables, and came away thinking, “why the hell did my Household cavalry do that?” (Charge, win, and continue charging until they were behind French lines and subsequently obliterated by a combination of artillery and swarthy infantrymen with fanatical love of L’Emperor.)

    Then I had to do some reading.

  6. Thanks for the comments, all! More to come, I promise.

    Jeff: I’m prepared to give you credit for just about any creativity you want to claim. And yeah: That little weasel, Gandhi, I know exactly what you mean. The Indians and the Mongols are my two all-time Civ nemeses.

    eb: Thanks for that link. I think I may have committed the classic lazy professor sin of recommending that book to a grad student without actually reading it. But I should track it down myself.

  7. I wonder why nobody took me seriously when I tried to criticize the proposal the SUNY Trustees ended up ramming through the general education redesign we had already been working on at my school by arguing, “We should just let the students play Civ for a semester and write an essay on their conclusions.”

  8. Everyone’s read Kurt Squire’s dissertation on using Civ III to teach history with middle schoolers, right? The best sequence was when one of the tough kids admitted that he’d cheated the night before and read ahead in the textbook so that he’d know what technologies to focus on. (And I’ve usually found that it’s Xerxes who cheats.)

    And Carl Abbott’s book does look interesting…

  9. Great post. I have to quibble, however, with your placement of World Without Oil (worldwithoutoil.org) in the category of “Fake History.” World Without Oil is really about the future, I think. Both the game and the metagame focus on exploring what will happen, based on the structures of today. Like any prognostication, it’s largely speculative, but that’s different I think than “fake”.

  10. Writer Guy: Thanks for visiting, and commenting. You’re right, World Without Oil is more than “fake history” or even an “art project” – I’ve been looking into it more since writing this post (and hearing the great Boing Boing Boing interview with Jane McGonigal), and it’s very intriguing stuff. Are you involved or playing with World Without Oil? If so, I’d love to talk more.

    So yes, calling WWO “fake” is unfair, but I stand by “history,” in a way – this dovetails with another point I want to make in a later post: historical thinking is not the opposite of futurism, it’s very closely allied with it. What people are doing when they talk about the future is, I would argue, more like doing history than it is like doing any other academic discipline.

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  12. “historical thinking is not the opposite of futurism, it’s very closely allied with it”

    I totally agree. In fact, WWO fan Matt Arnold called the game “a historical pre-enactment” – which I think is a great term for it. Why should Civil War re-enactors have all the fun?

    Am I involved with World Without Oil? I’m the creative director!

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