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?
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.