Who Would Win?

Let’s try a demonstration, before this series on history at play gets any more high-falutin’ and theoretical than it already is.

Here is an exercise in playful historical thinking, based on years of professional training and SSHRC-funded research. You can do it yourself, right now, although like most forms of play it will be more fun and rewarding if you involve a friend or two. Ready?

Viking Warrior
Here we have a viking and a samurai. Let’s say they had a fight. Who would win? Why?

And here’s the multiplayer version: Find someone who disagrees with you. Try to convince them, while they try to convince you. Find evidence that supports your answer.

Impressive, no? Your tax dollars at work, Canadians.

But seriously, that right there is one of the basic building blocks of playful historical thinking.

Take a counterfactual question–as far as I know, vikings never fought samurai–and have at it. You can enter this debate with any level of starting knowledge, arguing solely from the evidence in the pictures (that samurai looks pretty fierce, but the viking has his buddies with him). Yet there is no bottom to the amount of evidence you could gather or the complexity of the arguments you could marshal on either side. You could talk about military tactics or metalworking technology. You could research the agricultural potential of Scandinavia or the codification of Bushido. You could spin out a whole saga in which a Nihonese armada devastates the Vinlander entrepots at “Perleshavn” and vengeful Norsemen go a-viking into the Inland Sea.

Here’s another version of the counterfactual game, with some anachronism thrown in for good measure:

You are a Justice on the United States Supreme Court. Cases come before you involving matters that the framers of the Constitution did not and could not have foreseen. Make decisions on these cases based on your interpretation of what the framers, and later legislators, would have wanted. Explain your reasoning.

Notice that the question “what would happen” is often a more open, engaging conversation starter than “what did happen” or even “why did this happen.” The practice, so natural to historians, of arguing about what really did happen can seem foreign or nonsensical to students and other non-professionals. It takes considerable training and acculturation to learn how historians argue about the actual past, or why anyone would want to do so.

The standard objections to counterfactual history don’t faze me much. I’m not arguing for professional monographs on alternate history, I’m just saying that counterfactual thinking is a potentially fruitful kind of historical play that people already enjoy and engage in all the time. (Some  arguments for counterfactual history don’t impress me much either, but that’s a different post.) It is not true that there is no way to judge or scrutinize counterfactual arguments. A teacher posing a counterfactual question to a class of students can still demand that they produce real-life evidence for their arguments, make analogies to actual history, and offer logical warrants for their claims. Plus we all have a highly developed sense of what is “realistic” or “plausible,” even when discussing outright fiction (cf the vigor with which fans critique the “realism” of Star Trek or what have you). The fact that we might disagree on what is “realistic,” or that real history itself is “implausible” at times, only ensures that we will have lots to talk about.

21 Comments

  1. Rob,

    These posts and your work on History at Play will be extremely valuable to me as a teacher candidate. I only wish you were writing about this when I was teaching history. They’ll give me plenty to think about to be sure.

  2. Very interesting. I’m looking forward to more of this History@Play stuff.

    BTW, the picture doesn’t show up in the feed, nor does any kind of placeholder that might indicate there is a picture if you click through. It was bizarre enough that I assumed so but i’m sure there’s a way to have a caption or something show in the feed.

  3. Thanks, Danny! I know I’m going about it in a very verbose roundabout way, but my ultimate goal here is to come up with something that might be useful to “front line” history teachers.

    And thanks, Jo! I’ve added alt-text to both images – I should always do that anyways for accessibility reasons – plus a clarifying sentence.

  4. Yes many Vikings take the samurai warrior to pieces, but one-on-one, we need to know a bit more. I notice the file name indicates this is “Takenori” samurai, perhaps referring to the family name, which is a famed family of warriors in the 16th century. So, no doubt his armour is made of steel, and that would be a huge advantage over the Viking’s iron armour and wooden shield.

    On the other hand, the Viking warrior has just come off a ship, and has doubtless not bathed for some time, in which case the waves of stench coming off him might just buy him the time to plant his spear in the samurai’s unprotected face.

    Of course, I realize this was just a hypothetical question to illustrate a point of pedagogy, but let’s face it, both Viking and samurai warriors rock.

  5. The Samurai doesn’t stand a chance: “This is a war-like country, we come from that Northern European, basically, the northern European genes…the blue eyes! Those blue eyes! Boy, everybody in the world learned real quick that when those blue eyes sail out of the north, you’d better nail everything down, m*therf*cker! Nail it down! Strap it down or they’ll grab it! If they can’t take it home, they’ll burn it! If they can’t burn it, they’ll f*ck it!” George Carlin – What Am I Doing In New Jersey? [1988]

  6. Your idea of using counterfactuals doesn’t have to play out only in history classes. It’s a really strong method for activating student’s reasoning skills and, at the same time, it forces them to really master the content of what they’re learning.

    How would I do this in a Math class? Hmmm.

  7. Counterfactual math? That’s a toughie. Maybe non-Euclidean geometry? But unless H.P. Lovecraft lied to me (which he almost certainly did), that will make your students go insane and invite incursions from beyond space and time.

  8. Didn’t Marvel go this route with their “What If…?” title (the actual title of which I’m too lazy to look up)? Aren’t all the post-9/11 epic superhero allegories a return to your viking v. samurai (or Hulk v. Fantastic 4) scenario?

    I guess I’m asking b/c in my experience as a comics collector in the ’70s and ’80s, I got pretty bored with that stuff pretty quickly. I think the shock value of getting to do what you describe in, say, a gen ed history course would be teh awesome for, like, a semester. But are you talking about (a) offering specialized “fun” history courses for majors, (b) rethinking the entire structure of a history major, or (c) improving historical literacy among the vast majority of students who may never take another history course than the gen ed one that’s fun?

  9. To put this another way, “fun” sometimes turns into a lifelong pursuit of a particular endeavor. But for most people, what’s “fun”gets boring more or less quickly. Then they need a new source of “fun.” That’s where my discipline–English–comes in, I suppose. It’s for the more easily amused. Or those who could have been history majors were it not for the ADD….

  10. TC/Bruce: “Who would win” is a deliberately banal example. I was just trying to show that counterfactual questions are easy, natural, grabby conversation starters. When I’ve used counterfactual thinking in class, the questions have been more subtle. That said, the conversations I’ve had in the last few days about samurai and vikings, with everyone from a 3 year old to a professor of Japanese history, suggest to me that even banal questions can scale to accommodate multiple levels of historical knowledge. (I’ve also been told there is a TV show devoted to just this question, and they had an episode about samurai vs. vikings.)

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  12. Rob, I’m not knocking the question at all! What’s banal for some is fun for most, right? And can go in all different directions, most unexpected….

    Thanks for the link–will check it out.

  13. Wow, now I can send my colleagues to that post for explanation of why we should junk 1/3 of our gen ed program and teach history via playing, critiquing the assumptions behind the design of, and trying to improve upon/design a competitor to Civ!

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  15. Ah, never mind. I’m still catching up on your recent spurt of blogging.

  16. No worries, Matt. I hadn’t heard of the show myself until I wrote that post, but clearly vikings vs. samurai is a question with legs. :)

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