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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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History Invaders!

One of the challenges in designing games or activities for education is the interface between a game’s subject and its mechanics. Picture if you will the classic computer game John Kerry Tax Invaders, released by the GOP during the 2004 election. The gameplay is identical to Space Invaders, but instead of a ship you control George Bush’s head, which shoots lasers at blocks inscribed with tax increases. The subject of this game was, I intuit, John Kerry’s perfidious plan to raise taxes. (If you play the game in 2010, I guess it represents an alternate history.) But the game play, the mechanics, is just moving from side to side and shooting descending blocks.

Jesper Juul calls the two layers of a game the rules and the fiction. The indie RPG community uses system and color in similar ways. Ian Bogost writes about procedures and contexts.* There are a hundred things to say about how these layers interact, but one of the most basic is this: When you begin to play a game, what you encounter first is its superficial subject matter–the fiction, the color. But the more you play, the more you interact with the mechanics beneath the surface. Ultimately, games become about whatever their mechanics or procedures are about.

(* I think Bogost, who is extremely smart and useful on these subjects, would actually argue that the two layers are much more interdependent than I’ve made them out to be here.)

Designing educational mechanics or procedures is a lot harder than shoehorning desired material into a game. It is almost never enough to slap an educational skin on an existing game or rule set, easy and tempting as that may be. Because the more you play, the more you play through the surface content of a game. If a game is going to teach anything long lasting, its lessons have to be embedded in its very mechanics and procedures, the stuff players manipulate and the actions they perform.

This is my critique of Civilization and similar games, much as I love them, as history-teaching tools. The more you play, the less you think about history, as you learn to interact directly with the game’s algorithms. (One solution to this is to have students design their own mods or simulations, so they can be the ones debating the procedural logics of history.)

The board game Monopoly was once a political critique of landlords and capitalists, designed by a Quaker woman named Lizzie Magie to illustrate the ideas of Henry George. But the game’s procedures contain no real critique of capitalism, and when the original context is forgotten, it is the procedures that remain.

Several tabletop roleplaying games in the 1990s tried to get away from the combat-heavy kill-all-monsters gameplay of their 1970s and 80s forebears. “This game is not just about combat,” their boosters promised. “You can use it to play out epic stories of intrigue, tragedy, and romance.” But the two hundred pages of rules they provided for simulating combat said otherwise. And even though tabletop gamers have a grand tradition of hacking, tweaking, and ignoring the rules, those two-hundred-page combat systems exerted a powerful gravitational pull.

Urgent Evoke is the massive multiplayer “save the world” game from the World Bank Institute and “too cool to be real she must be the escaped protagonist of a William Gibson novel” game designer Jane McGonigal. I signed up to play last week in a fit of enthusiasm about serious games and denial about time management. At one level, Evoke is about fostering social and entrepreneurial innovation in and for the developing world, and it is awesome and inspiring and energizing. But at the procedural, mechanical level, Evoke is also a Frankenstein’s mashup of Twitter, Facebook, and the whole social networking popularity contest that’s invaded every other corner of our lives. Play is, or at it least it felt this way to me, a frantic scramble for eyeballs. I feel old and codgery, but I had to quit after 48 hours.

The things I’m saying here have been around for some time, but “History Invaders”  games (Scot Osterweil calls them “Grand Theft Calculus” games) keep coming down the pike. If public historians and history educators want to be serious about teaching with games and play, we have to inject ourselves deep into the game development process. We have to articulate what we think history and historical thinking are good for in the first place. And then we have to build outwards from the kinds of historical thinking we want to inculcate, creating games and activities whose fiddly bits are historical sources, whose moving parts are historical ideas themselves.