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Pastplay

Last week I had the pleasure of taking part in a terrific two-day symposium on playing with, making, and teaching history, hosted by Kevin Kee and funded by The History Education Network (THEN/HIER). The Twitter hashtag was #pastplay, although as I remarked at the time, we were often too busy playing to tweedle.

The first day was organized on the emergent unconference model. There was no formal structure, other than a mandate to play with history and technology. People brought games and toys and ideas, and we went at it. (Actually, it occurs to me we were supposed to record some reflections in a video “confessional” a la reality TV, but I never did.) On the second day we workshopped the draft papers written by each participant for a possible edited volume. The authors of each paper could not speak while their paper was being discussed, other than to ask clarifying questions–a key hack that kept things moving at a pretty good clip.

The two days were quite different in structure and tone, but I thought the sweet n’ sour pairing worked well. Things were freer and more fun than most traditional academic history conferences, but also more satisfying and productive than a pure unconference can be. Your first unconference is a little like your first rave, I think. You can’t believe it’s going to work until you see it in action; then you spend forty-eight hours blissed out and wondering “why can’t life be like this all the time?” But each time after the first, the seratonin high is a little less intense. You can only enjoy so many group hugs before you want to start putting that energy to work. So right now I’m most excited by hybrid meeting forms that combine playfulness with real productivity.

Barely Games

My contribution to the first day was a set of “barely games” for playful historical thinking: quick, low-tech exercises that each transgressed against professional historical practice in some playful way. (The term “barely games” comes from this lovely talk by Russell Davies, which I find a far more appealing take on little games than Jesse Schell’s blithe dystopia.)

Russell Davies: “When I think about games and playfulness, [commercial video games] don’t come to mind at all. What pops into my head is … that experience of driving in the back of the family car, scrunching you eyes up at night to turn the streetlights into laser weapons and shooting other cars. Or watching the passing shadows on the road beside you, imagining shapes and rhythms.”

We played a little “Who Would Win“, a little “Would You Rather,” and a terrific round of “The Old New Liar’s Club,” all described in recent posts here. (Many thanks to Devon Elliott for providing the Liar’s Club Mystery Object, a “ghost slate” used by fraudulent mediums to produce fake messages from the spirit world. It worked like a charm.) We also tried a new exercise I called “The Paranoid Style,” an attempt to simulate historical apophenia–the uncanny way that history has of providing evidence to confirm whatever paranoid historical theory you just set out to prove.

The “Paranoid Style” game was suggested by some friends of mine, many of them Shaolin masters in playful historical thinking. After a little briefing on pareidolia and apophenia, illustrated with the most convincing five minutes of the old Dark Side of the Moon / Wizard of Oz mashup, I asked each participant to choose one well-known historical figure. Then I told them we were looking for evidence of the secret conspiracy of vampires that has pulled the strings behind the world for hundreds of years. So we went through what we knew about each of our historical figures and found “evidence” of each one’s role for or against the Great Vampire Conspiracy.

I had a smaller group than I’d hoped for–I was competing with Bill Turkel‘s wonderful toys. But the participants were more than game, and I thank them for indulging me. If anything, they were too willing to indulge me: we very quickly spun out a goofy little chronicle of the vampire-vs-electricizer war behind the world, but we probably didn’t work at it long enough to get to the real kick of autohistoric apophenia, when the evidence starts to line up all too well with the fantasy you have just concocted, and you skate right up to the edge of believing. It’s a powerful and uncanny feeling, and if it serves as good inoculation against pseudohistorical thinking, it also colors your relationship with “real” history ever after.

Edited To Add: Trevor Owens, who would’ve fit right in at #pastplay, points out an iPhone game called Wiki Hunt that lives in the “everything is connected” space. As is often the case, this seems to be a commercialization of something the kids were doing anyway: I’ve heard tell of clever youngsters playing “how many links to get from a random Wikipedia article to Justin Bieber” with nothing more than a desktop computer and a web browser. Back in my day it was Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Or was that Sir Francis Bacon?

Bleeding Play

Our contribution to the second day was a paper I wrote with Tim Compeau describing a pervasive game for history education that he and I are designing and some of the difficulties we’ve run into. I haven’t blogged about this project much, for fear of leaking spoilers, and we put a password on our paper for same reason. I intend to post a spoiler-free version soon, or at least parcel out the key paragraphs on this blog. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the conversation in our allotted 30 minutes turned mostly to issues of publishing and peer-review–worthy subjects, certainly, but the questions I really wanted help with did not get taken up as much. How does one do iterative design of a game that cannot really be repeated? Can you control design sprawl in a genre that is about all about surprising players with how big the game really is? Are ARGs always inevitably allegories of conspiracy?Still, reaction to our paper and our project seemed positive. The general sentiment seemed to be that we were (or I was) worrying too much and should just charge ahead. “You’re on the bleeding edge,” Kevin said. “Just bleed!” That can be arranged.

Up With People

Finally, I have to say something about what a terrific group of people I met or remet at this little conference. Seriously, I was just floored by the intelligence and creativity and generosity and awesomeness of all the people there.

I have some qualms about the “digital humanities” label, currently having its Elvis moment. (Not the label, I guess, just the way it’s exploded in the last year or so. The inevitable anti-DH backlash is currently scheduled for Spring 2011; watch this space.) But I have nothing but love for the people who do this kind of work. Historians powered up with coding chops and tech fu; geeks leavened with humanist soul. What could be better? I could name names, but I’d have to list basically every one.

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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.”

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Survival of the Fittest

Searching for something else, I just came upon a comment I’d clipped and saved by Timothy Burke at Scott Kaufman’s Acephalous. The post is a few years old; SEK was talking about how “Social Darwinism” never really existed, at least not in the simple, coherent form handed down to us by Richard Hofstadter. Tim says:

There are a very substantial number of tropes, terms, events and so on which are taken as historical truths which, when you take the trouble to trace them back, rest on very slender … scholarly foundations. You could spend your life as a historian just doing skeptical investigation of many commonly reproduced ideas about the past… Eugenics is an interesting example that’s closely linked to “Social Darwinism”: it differed very substantially from nation to nation, but in England and the United States, it actually had very little to say about people of color, contra the commonly received view (which I often see in humanistic writing). It certainly had a powerful racial referent, but a lot of that was implicit, and almost always directed at white people, at a notion that the hierarchical place of whites was threatened by their ebbing biological strength due to their over-civilization. In other words, it was a lot weirder than the commonsensical invocation of it often looks.

But this is also of course where a truly intricate sense of intellectual history can enter the picture: you could ask why the idea of “social darwinism” as a past construction which we imagine ourselves to have overcome (but which can be invoked in the present to criticize some opponent) became so appealing. In other words, excavating the historiography of “Social Darwinism” can turn into a backdoor intellectual history of the time at which Hofstader published his work. You could observe that perhaps the term was so appealing at the time because it was a useful mythography for New Dealers trying to sum up how their form of capitalism was a moral triumph over the capitalism of the robber barons. Or perhaps it was also a comforting term for mid-century biologists and social scientists, stressing the evolution of proper formal boundaries and precision between disciplines. … “Social Darwinism” almost invariably gets used as a way to stress the moral and intellectual distance between late 19th Century America and now, that we are both better scientifically and morally.

When a guy’s comments–not his blog posts, his comments on someone else’s blog–are this smart and useful, maybe the rest of us should just pack it in?

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Frontiers of New Media 2009

Not 24 hours after I dissed the networking/self-promotion side of blogging, here’s me doing some networking and promotion!

I’m spending this semester as the Simmons Visiting Professor in Communication and History the University of Utah. My family and I just recently arrived in Salt Lake City and once again, I’m bowled over by both the beauty of the place and the friendliness of the inhabitants. One thing I’m doing here is helping to organize the 2009 Frontiers of New Media Symposium. Longtime readers may recall me gushing about the 2007 Frontiers of New Media Symposium, which was one of the smartest, friendliest, most fun academic conferences I’ve ever been to. Now I and the Departments of History and Communication have the modest task of recapturing that lightning in a bottle.

The symposium is just two weeks away, on September 18 and 19. If you’re in the SLC area you should absolutely come out. The keynote speaker is AnnaLee Saxenian, Dean of UC-Berkeley’s School of Information, and we have a great lineup of panelists on the second day. If you’re not near Utah, please visit the website, follow the blog or Twitter feeds, and spread the word to any who might be interested, even via social media platforms I might have disparaged last night. I’ll be blogging at the FoNM site from now until the conference–there’s a neat video there now of UC-Riverside’s Toby Miller on the history and future of television–and doing my best to make our conversations there accessible to people who can only join us virtually.

My inspiration here is THATCamp 2009, which was held back in June and exploded over Twitter and the internet–at least the parts of it I frequent–with such force that I kind of thought I was there. Frontiers of New Media isn’t nearly as big or Tweety an operation, but we will do our best. I even considered disguising the symposium as “THATCamp Rocky Mountains” in order to ride the coattails of the regional THATCamps popping up everywhere. We have a great panel planned on New Media and the Practice of Scholarship, featuring CHNM’s Sharon Leon and my favorite mad scientist historian, Bill Turkel–so that’s plenty THATCampy.

So, yeah. Ignore what I said yesterday about the Hobbesian waltz of the A-list and the long tail. Network! Tweet! Work the room!