Concept Courses

Last fall, Bill Turkel had a great blog entry calling for “concept projects” in academic history: like concept car prototypes or catwalk fashions, these would be imaginative efforts that need not prove wholly workable or utilitarian, but that might serve to get ideas into circulation, push the boundaries of the form, or, a la Thoreau, simply “affect the quality of the day.” A similar staple of my old Boston gaming / blogging circle was the Game I’d Like To Run post: basically these were trailers or elevator pitches for mental movies, never-to-be-written novels, and genre mashups that we had no real intention of constructing, but were fun to imagine and share.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about a handful of “concept courses,” probably because the school year just ended and so right now I’m about as far from facing a real classroom as the calendar lets me get. My next couple of posts, then, will be ideas for university classes that are interesting (to me at least) to think about and with. How they’d really work in practice, how they’d get approved by an education policy committee, whether I’d be qualified to teach them, are all of less importance than the notions themselves, the fragile but lovely potential of shiny soap-bubble ideas.

Here’s the first:

The Great Game: Simulation, Gaming, and History

In time, those unconscionable maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guild struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following generations … saw that the vast map was useless, and … delivered it up to the inclemencies of sun and winter. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are tattered ruins of that map, inhabited by animals and beggars.
–Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”

I’ve talked before about my interest, and at the same time my doubts, around simulation gaming as a way of teaching history. The map is not the territory, as they say, and a perfect simulation would require rewinding and replaying the past itself. Even the best simulation game, I argued before, becomes more and more about itself and its own assumptions the more you play. The discussions I’d really like to foster in a classroom are the ones faced by the designers, rather than the players, of a game. What factors and options should we include? What behaviors might be allowed or encouraged? How do we tweak the simulation and to what end? What is the logical scale at which to simulate a given event? (A student of mine made the casual observation, to me pregnant with significance about war and American popular memory, that there are umpteen top-down strategy games about World War II, but that computer games about the Vietnam War are invariably first-person shooters.)

This course would have three braided strands. The first would be a history of simulation games and of ideas about the simulation of history, from China’s go and India’s chaturanga, to medieval pageants and tournaments, to the Prussian kriegspiel and mechanical merry-go-rounds. We’d zero in on the zenith of simulation in the mid 20th century: nuclear strategy games at RAND, economic games at the Harvard Business School, and the electronic computers for which the simulation of war was the first true killer app. The second strand would be a critical analysis of simulation itself. We’d take apart some modern computer games and some older efforts at simulation to figure out what they do and don’t say about history and causation. Why do we so often play at war and so rarely at peace? Can sim games only recapitulate drum-and-bugle history? If every move in the game alters actual history, what standards are there for judging a simulation plausible or realistic? The third strand would be to enlist the entire class in creating a game that simulates some moment or aspect of history, whether from scratch or by modding a sufficiently customizable game engine. Could we create a game of class conflict: Howard Zinn’s A People’s Civilization? How about a game simulating race and gender history: Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization? Or, inevitably, Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, a game about social systems of power and knowledge that simulates simulation itself?


  1. This sounds like it would be an interesting course, though I’m not entirely sure I understand it. Re-creating historical events in a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ sort of way to see what the different outcomes might be would be neat though. I look forward to hearing about your ideas for a course about robots or crack-science, which I hope is on the agenda.

  2. Sign me up, please, Prof. MacDougall.

    Given what you’ve written, here are some games to ponder. I’m not suggesting that I think that these are particularly good, per se. But interesting, yes…

    A game that models (kinda) the Palestinian /Israeli conflict:

    A game that doesn’t model anything, but tries to leverage an emotional connection to a real event:

    And an interesting article on the “Darfur” game:

  3. I’d also look heavily at the intelligence work that Booz Allen Hamilton did. Even back in the 60s they were running simulations and wargaming exercises for the CIA, including a “games room”

  4. Rob,

    You are probably aware of this one:

    “Why do we so often play at war and so rarely at peace?”

    Interestingly enough, Third World Farmer happens to be one of the more popular RPGs at Arcade Town.

    Like most simulations, it has some deep flaws. The unfortunate conclusion one could reach is that if only people would plant diverse crops that they could bring themselves up to a ‘First World’ standard in a dozen years or so. . . .not, obviously, the point the programmers were attempting to make.


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  6. Time travel is the future of history. Well, in SF like Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book (and kind of in Octavia Butler’s Kindred). Some historian ought to teach a course on the historical novel that includes this and alternate histories like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, as well as more conventional ones like (in the American tradition) The Scarlet Letter, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Beloved, and Mason & Dixon. Then, keeping in mind your dictum, the students’ final projects would be to write their own historical story…and author’s note discussing their choices.

    Same could be done for historical films.

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  9. Also, the game as metaphor for political manipulation and interference: The Great Game between Britain and Russia.

  10. Just realized Marc Bousquet has a good analysis of managerial investments in “serious gaming” like William Massy’s Virtual U in How the University Works (71-78). May be worth a look!

    I’m leaving the comment here both b/c it’s relevant to your topic and in memory of the fun time our families had at the Falls! Where should we meet next in that mythical time when we’re not overburdened and stressed out?

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  12. Hello,

    I am interested in recreating a infographic like the one Matt Bloch did in All of Inflation’s Little Parts.

    I am unable to contact Matt.

    Is there a way I could obtain information about this interesting infographic?

  13. Bill: I’m not sure what led you to my site in search of Matt Bloch, but assuming you are talking about the Matt Bloch who does infographics for the New York Times and others, you may be able to contact him through his website:

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