Playful Historical Thinking

Though I am on parental leave this semester, I will try to wipe off the baby drool and other effluents for long enough to attend what I expect to be two very keen events: Great Lakes THATCamp, coming up this month, is a regional edition of the Humanities and Technology Camps launched by those magical Oompa Loompas at the Center for History and New Media. And then in April I will take whatever clever ideas I gather at THATCamp and try to pass them off as my own at Kevin Kee’s conference on Playing With Technology in History.

These user-generated “unconferences” work best when people use their blogs etc. to share some thoughts ahead of time. So here to start is the abstract I wrote for the latter conference with Tim Compeau, project manager for our SSHRC-funded research on “History At Play”:

Rob MacDougall and Timothy Compeau, “Playful Historical Thinking: ARGs and Pervasive History Play”

“Pervasive games,” also known as “alternate reality” or “augmented reality games” (ARGs), move play away from the computer screen and back to the physical world by overlaying game narratives and challenges onto encounters with real world people, places, and things. While the first such games were designed as promotions for commercial media such as computer games and films, designers and players were immediately intrigued by the genre’s potential for education and addressing real world problems. This paper reports on the authors’ SSHRC-funded effort to develop an ARG or pervasive game for history education—a game that uses history as its content, historical methods as its procedures, and museums, archives, and heritage sites as its playing spaces. We believe this emerging genre has great potential for teaching historical thinking and engaging popular audiences with history in the material world. But it remains to be seen if ARGs in their current form are scalable in terms of effort, impact, and cost. Ultimately, our experience may point away from highly-designed games as such and towards a kind of “playful historical thinking” as the way to foster more useful and lasting engagement with the pervasive presence of the past.

ARGs or pervasive games are interesting and fun–I’ve just signed up (*) for Jane McGonigal’s latest, the World Bank-funded “save the world” game EVOKE–but the thing I’d really like to talk about at both conferences is what I bring up in the last line of that abstract: “playful historical thinking.”

I wrote this excited post about the “historical thinking” literature when I first read Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts back in, gosh, 2005. I’m still keen on this literature and a bit mystified it hasn’t been picked up by more historians. How do we think about history? What are we doing in our heads, what cognitive moves are we making, when we think historically? Once you read people like Wineburg (other good examples include Peter Seixas, Denis Shemilt, Keith Barton and Linda Levstik), you start to realize how sterile many of our debates over history standards and curricula and “what history is for” are.

Using games or play to teach history is hardly a new idea, but many efforts in this direction remain rudimentary. I wonder if we can’t connect developments in gaming and other playful uses of technology to the research on historical cognition. If there is a problem with THATCamp culture as a whole–and I say this as a member of, and cheerleader for, that culture–it’s that we’ve been better at building new tools than at identifying crucial or compelling problems to apply them to. (At least, that was my sense at the first THATCamp, in 2008.) Rather than simply shoehorning educational content into existing games or game genres, we should also work backwards from the kinds of humanistic thinking we would like to inculcate.

That sentiment is hardly original to me, of course. Kevin Kee made the point in this recent roundtable on the topic of history and gaming, and he draws it out in this article (subscription only), which matches three computer game genres to Peter Seixas’ three frameworks for thinking about history.

One valid criticism of the historical thinking literature, especially in its first wave, is that it sometimes took as a given that the goal of history education should be to get students to think about history in the same ways that professional historians do. But is that really so? How do we want our students to think about history, not just while they’re in class, but when they grow up, leave the classroom, and set out into the world? Again, it’s a question you can’t fully answer until you think seriously about what history is for.

Professional historians can be playful in their thinking. Wineburg notes the “ludic” nature–right down to reading with silly voices–of a skilled historian’s engagement with primary texts. But playful historical thinking diverges in significant ways from the standard professional stance. Greg Dening, who argued forcefully for a history that is playful, theatrical, and mysterious, nevertheless warned of the prejudices against it: “History-making, whether one understands it as an everyday vernacular activity and/or especially if one sees it as an elite and guilded activity is known to be a serious affair. Vernacular history has created too much pain and division to be clownish about it. Academic history has made too much a science of Apollonian sincerity to be playfully Dionysian about it.”

I want to make a case for playful historical thinking as a healthy, productive, and even responsible way for citizens of the 21st century to relate to the past. Our new digital tools–or toyboxes–are well-suited to fostering historical play, but playing with history is hardly new. So I want to begin by looking for inspiration at the ways people already play with history, with or without digital technologies. That’s why history at play is a running subtheme of this blog. In this post from a few years back, I tried to sketch out some popular categories of history play–simulations, reenactments, fake, secret, and alternate histories, etc.–but there’s much more to be said and thought and done.


  1. And… I’ve just un-signed up.

    I love the way EVOKE enlists everybody as a superhero solving real world problems – it’s so much like Global Frequency, I wonder if Warren Ellis is getting royalties? – but I do not love the way, in the first week at least, “game play” instantly becomes a frenetic contest for eyeballs.

    Now I feel like a very bad person, but I do not need one more hyperactive social networking system in my life, even one designed to save the world. I will still check in on EVOKE as the game goes on to see what emerges from the chatter.

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