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The Action Figure Curriculum

So is there a takeaway lesson here, or just a bunch of allegedly grown men thinking way too hard about childhood toys? Well, what is so compelling about the action figure playset combination? Could we use those qualities to promote a kind of playful historical engagement? Could we imagine a historical curriculum built, metaphorically, around “playsets” and “action figures”?

Details, Details

One thing both Lego and Playmobil get right is offering just enough detail to fire the imagination, but not more. A Playmobil Viking is not a Viking. But if we know something about Vikings already, it is just detailed enough to make us think about Vikings. And if we don’t know anything about Vikings, it is just detailed enough to help us start to learn.

The implication for teaching history? Because we are all too aware what small fraction of the facts we teach is likely to be remembered, our instinct as teachers is often to cram in as much content as we possibly can. But is this self-defeating? Socrates said “education is not the filling of a vessel, but the kindling of a flame.”* Isn’t it smarter to be realistic about the bandwidth of our classrooms, and therefore be deliberate in the details we choose to emphasize?

*According to Wikipedia, there is no evidence Socrates ever said this. But who are you going to believe, Socrates or Wikipedia?

Avatars with Kung Fu Grip

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud unpacked the way abstraction invites identification. When we look at a detailed photograph or a realistic drawing of a face, he said, we see the face of another. But when we look at a simple, stylized cartoon, we can project our own identity on to it. We can see it as our self. This is why cartoon protagonists from Tintin to the Simpsons are so often drawn in less detail than their backgrounds or supporting casts. The abstraction of a Playmobil, or any tiny plastic representation of the human form, has a similar psychological effect. Henry Jenkins describes action figures as avatars that let children enter imagined spaces and try on various roles.

When I talked about playing “Would You Rather” I touched on the tricky place of self-identification in history. For most professional historians, imagining yourself into history really is off limits, more so even than something like counterfactuals. And I want to be careful here, because I do believe the most mature kind of historical thinking only comes when we confront what we cannot understand or empathize with in the past. Still, in proscribing personal identification, play-acting, and make-believe, professional historians amputate a whole lot of what people want from their history.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All

Action figures are built to a few uniform scales, which encourages mashups and crossovers. A Playmobil curriculum means thinking as much about how courses fit together as about their individual content.

Is there any way to analogize from playset and action figure towards general courses and specific topics? What if, instead of general introductory surveys and more specific upper-year seminars, a curriculum was built out of scene-setting “playsets”—Pre-Confederation Canada, Gilded Age America, or even a thematic/conceptual setting like “Revolution”—and then different students brought different “figures” to the table—key personalities, maybe, or representative groups?

I dunno. I’m just blue skying here. What I do know is that any good line of action figures triggers a powerful collecting impulse. As soon as you get one, you want another, and then another, and then of course the playset to house them in. The more figures you collect, the more powerfully you want the others, maybe because of the exponentially increasing number of possible interactions between them.

Is the link to education so far-fetched? The pleasure of collecting action figures is partly about material objects, but it is also tied to mastery over lore. Every parent has marveled at their child’s ability to memorize dinosaur species and genera, arcane Pokemon statistics, the names of Thomas the Tank Engine’s many belligerent companions. What alchemy of pedagogy, psychology, and graphic design would we need to work to make a course calendar one fraction as addictive as the Calico Critters catalogs my daughter pores over for hours on end?

(Lego photos by Mike Stimpson–see the whole set here.)

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Action Figure and Ground

I went birthday shopping for some four-year-old friends the other day and rediscovered the romance of the Playmobil playset. Or the action figure playset in general.

I trust you know what I mean by a playset. It’s a toy building or vehicle, often opening up to a cutaway view, a proscenium stage on which our little plastic heroes perform their scaled-down dramas. The Ewok Ghetto from Star Wars. Barbie’s Malibu Dream Bordello. G.I. Joe’s Jungle Bunker with Spiderhole. (“Action figure,” by the way, was a term cooked up in the 1960s to sell G.I. Joes to boys without having to utter the dreaded word “doll.”)

The playset, for me at least, occupies a sweet spot on the spectrum from ludus to paidia, and also on the spectrum from abstraction to specific representation. A playset is not a game. It doesn’t come with rules or an objective. But its combination of character and setting, or action figure and ground, is pregnant with a million possible stories and adventures. At our house, it’s the playsets that are in constant use. Not the structured board games, not the electronic toys that play for you, and not the austere modular blocks.

Your household may differ. There was a revealing little moment at Pastplay when I was singing the praises of Playmobil to my friend and colleague Bill Turkel. But if you know anything about Bill’s work, you can probably guess that he was, like so many makers and hackers, a Lego and Meccano kid. For Bill, to play is to build. Those little plastic bricks are like computer code made physical. They combine and recombine according to dead simple rules of assembly to create infinite, unpredictable forms. Michael Chabon has a lovely essay on Lego in his recent Manhood for Amateurs, where he calls “the old familiar crunching” of Lego bricks and blocks “the sound of creativity itself.”

I get that. But what I always did with Legos was to build something approximating a playset and a couple of action figures. Then it was on with the show. I guess what I most like to snap together, take apart, and recombine are not objects but stories. My preferred bricks and blocks are characters and eras, bits and pieces of history, fiction, movies, and myths. This is me hacking, or this, or this, or this (god help me). With apologies to the extremely swell Stephen Ramsay, that’s myscrewmeneutical imperative” (link is to a PDF of Stephen’s paper on “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around”). I trust there is room in The Amazing New Digital Humanities™ for both kinds of play.

At one point in Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost compares the specificity of Playmobil figures to the modular abstraction of Lego:

When I began buying Playmobil for my kids, I originally thought there was no way they could offer the same kind of creative play as Lego, since the latter can be recombined in many more ways. But on further reflection, the high specificity of Playmobil pieces offers procedural learning on a much more deeply culturally embedded level … We don’t see just knights in Playmobil, we see Crusaders. We don’t see just fighters, we see Mongol Warriors. By providing a specific point of reference bound to human culture, the toys come equipped with specific cultural meaning as well as abstract processes for substitution. The components of each collection provide adequate context to allow kids to recombine their toys in a way that preserves, interrogates, or disrupts the cultural context of each piece.

Michael Chabon’s Lego essay ends on a similar note. After noting, and at first lamenting, the shift from the chunky, lo-res Lego bricks of old to the Technicolor precision of today’s “trademarked, conglomerate-owned, pre-imagined” kits (Jo VanEvery notes the same shift in comments here), Chabon pulls a switch:

I should have had more faith in my children, and in the saving power of the lawless imagination. … Kids write their own manuals in a new language made up of the things we give them and the things that derive from the peculiar wiring of their heads. …When he was still a toddler, Abraham liked to put a glow-in-the-dark bedsheet-style Lego ghost costume over a Green Goblin minifig and seat him on a Sioux horse, armed with a light saber, then make the Goblin do battle with Darth Vader, mounted on a black horse, armed with a bow and arrow. That is the aesthetic at work in the Legosphere now–not the modernist purity of the early years or the totalizing vision behind the dark empire of modern corporate marketing but the aesthetic of the Lego drawer, of the mash-up, the pastiche that destroys its sources at the same time that it makes use of and reinvents them.

This kind of bricolage (get it? Lego? bricolage?) is just what I imagine when I talk about playful historical thinking. You root around in the drawers of the past. You pull out whatever seems useful, or interesting, or beautiful and pointless. You reenact the narratives of your culture and you tell new stories with the resources at hand. You mix and match, snapping Skeletor’s head on Barbie’s body, or imagining George Washington’s advice for 21st century ills.

If it sounds like I’m endorsing some kind of “nothing is true” postmodernism, I don’t mean to be. I’m just talking about good old-fashioned play. Postmodernism copies some aspects of play, but play was around a long time before postmodernism, and is likely to stick around longer too.

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Toys Not Games

I like talking about “history at play” or “playful historical thinking” more than “history games” or “serious games” because of some of the baggage that comes with the word “game.” I know that “game” is a capacious label, but more and more today the word describes a commercial product, a highly structured and packaged experience.

For the past several months, I and some devious co-conspirators have been working on a kind of historical ARG, and what we’ve hashed out is pretty cool. But it’s also been a ton of work, and I wonder whether the ratio of effort to impact in a project like this is ever going to be scalable or sustainable for time and cash-strapped educators. That’s one reason I’ve been talking up “barely games.” I’m trying to deconstruct my own ideas about games and gaming, breaking them down to more basic building blocks of history and play.

Game scholars sometimes distinguish between two modes of play, ludus and paidia. (The terms come from Wikipedia French sociologist Roger Caillois, and are always a hit at parties.) Ludus describes structured, rule-driven, competitive games, while paidia describes unstructured, improvisational play. Professional sports are mostly ludus; playing make-believe is mostly paidia. Too much ludus and a game can become a grind; too much paidia and an activity can feel pointless. Left to their own devices, children and others skilled at play will typically introduce paidiaic elements into ludic games (arf arf, my Monopoly dog is biting your Monopoly hat!) and ludic elements into paidiac play (you can’t step on the black tiles–they’re lava!). The two modes are really poles on a spectrum, and maximum fun seems to be a moving target somewhere in the middle.

Commercial and cultural factors have pushed the computer game industry way over towards the ludic end of the spectrum. Hardcore gamers want and expect ludic challenges. Yet many breakout hits (think of The Sims, Guitar Hero, even Grand Theft Auto) also allow for paidiaic forms of play. Will Wright describes his greatest hits (SimCity, The Sims, Spore) as “toys” rather than “games,” and their freeform possibilities are a lot of what make them open and accessible to a wide audience.

(I don’t know where on that spectrum you’d put the Facebook-style “casual” games like Farmville and Mafia Wars that seem to be taking over the world. Their low-intensity suggests paidia, but in other ways they are almost pure ludus–”games” in name only, with almost everything but the scoring mechanism stripped out.)

Three years ago, Bill Turkel was calling for “history appliances.” I think we need more history toys.

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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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Trikipedia

“There is ‘collective intelligence’. Or, if you don’t want to dignify it with that term, you can just call it ‘internet meme ooze’. It’s all over the place, just termite mounds of poorly organized and extremely potent knowledge. … We cannot get rid of this stuff. It is our new burden, it is there as a fact on the ground, it is a fait accompli.”
–Bruce Sterling, in a recent talk on “Atemporality for the Creative Artist

Trikipedia is like Wikipedia, only tricky.*

While Wikipedia can be inaccurate or incomplete, misleading or misused, Trikipedia is always intentionally so. Its “facts” change from day to day. Articles disappear and are repurposed elsewhere. Arcane feuds wash over the place, recasting everything in terms of somebody’s manichean squabble. There is enough truth in there to lure the unwary, but falsehoods sprout like weeds, worming from article to article, corroborating themselves, the better to deceive.

Students are assigned to write research papers using only Trikipedia as a source, not in spite of its dangers but because of them. It’s an exercise in critical literacy, in making sense of a world of shoddy metadata and nearly infinite information whose truth value lies somewhere between 0 and 1.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine Trikipedia as some kind of elegant, malevolent A.I. But you could build one today with human players. Just set up your own wiki** and fill it with real history to start. Everyone then has to write a paper using only the Trikiwiki for research, while simultaneously seeding the wiki with misdirection and lies. The final papers are scored a la Balderdash, or that seminal work in history through material culture, the 70s game show Liar’s Club. You get points for discovering the truth, but also for each one of your lies that has fooled anyone else.

*Not really. Actually, I think Trickipedia (with a ‘c’) is a site about skateboarding tricks.

**One could imagine playing this on Wikipedia itself. Arguably, that is what many people with an intellectual axe to grind are already doing. But don’t! I irritated enough archivists with my last hypothetical; I don’t want the Wikipedians after me too.