Geocaching, and its low-tech granny letterboxing, are a kind of hobby treasure hunt, massively multi-user hide-and-seek games played in the great outdoors. Basically, players hide caches or letterboxes in out of the way places, then other players use clues or maps or GPS coordinates to find them. The caches usually contain a logbook, so you can record your find, or a stamp or trinket you can keep to prove you found it. Eccentric Brits have been doing this since the 1800s, but the internet and inexpensive GPS devices turned the hobby into a phenomenon. It’s easy to see why. Going for a hike is fun, but it’s way more fun when you go on a hike and find hidden treasure.

Why can’t we do this with historical research? Historians know how terrific it feels to discover hidden treasures in the archive, but we also know you can pan a lot of silt between each nugget of historical gold. What if we could rig the game for our students, patrons, and history buffs, to let them enjoy the thrill of the chase and the joy of the find?

Call it clio-caching. Leave calling cards in card catalogs, plant trinkets and rewards in archive boxes, bury treasure in the textual layers of the past. Then share your clues: There’s a cache buried in the James Forrestal fonds at the Truman Presidential Library. Find the last letter Isaac Brock wrote before the Battle of Queenston Heights and you’ll find a prize.

Hard core cliocachers could string out long chains of clues, each one leading to another, threading through linked archival sources. Rank them in order of difficulty: Letters by Civil War soldiers. Quilt and textile museums. Sealed files of the Warren Commission, or the Kremlin. Cliocachers could spend their Saturdays tromping through letterbooks and diaries. Families could bring a lunch and picnic in the past.

As any letterboxer can tell you, the value of the find is immaterial. In the hiding and the seeking lies the fun.


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.


Would You Rather

I do know that “who would win, a viking or a samurai?” is an inane question. Any time I’ve actually used counterfactuals in my teaching, I’ve tried to raise subtler issues. That said, “who would win”‘s very inanity makes it an easy, grabby, natural conversation starter. I’ve had several conversations since Wednesday about vikings and samurai–more, certainly, than I’ve had about Tuesday’s post on history and narrative. I’ve even been pointed to a hilarious TV show called Deadliest Warrior, which devoted an entire episode to the great viking vs. samurai debate! And the wide range of people with whom I’ve had these conversations–from a 3-year-old to a professor of Asian history–suggests to me that even silly questions can scale to accommodate multiple levels of historical knowledge.

One thing I don’t love about the “who would win” question is the way it tilts the playing field towards military history and the history of technology–worthy subjects, but hardly the only histories worth talking about. It seems like alternate history almost always ends up using the old school, Boy’s Own flavors of history–military, political, technological. I talked about this in the coda to Gernsblack, which was a stab at alternate cultural history (with a crazy technological deus ex machina, I admit). This is going to sound like total name dropping–insufferable to people who know who she is, pointless and nerdy to people who don’t–but I had a great conversation once with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich about whether you could write alternate social history, alternate gender history, alternate material culture history, and so on. I think I almost had her sold on the idea, but I also think she is very good at humoring people.

So here’s another demonstration question, not much more complicated than “who would win?”

When and where would you rather have lived: 18th-century France, 15th-century China, 8th-century Ghana, or 1st-century Rome? What would your life there have been like?

Obviously you can swap in other times and places if you like. As with “who would win,” the question is deceptively deep. As soon as you start discussing it, you’re talking about social history, material culture, and the history of everyday life. One of the first things anyone considering this had better ask is, “What would I be? Can I be born a noble or a queen, or do I have to be some kind of peasant or slave?” And whatever the answer, now you’re talking about class and hierarchy. You’re also thinking comparatively. Whose lot was tougher: the poorest tenth of the world’s population before the industrial revolution or the poorest tenth today?

For a follow-up question you could ask: “if we asked the same question to somebody living in 18th-century France, 15th-century China, etc., what do you think they would answer?” Many of us living in the 21st century would probably choose on the basis of material comfort, and so find most earlier eras wanting. But would that be a universal choice across time? What other criteria might other times and cultures use? Are we certain that the sum total of human happiness has never been higher than it is in 2010?

This question’s grabbiness comes from the second-person pronoun–it’s not “which is better,” it’s “would you rather”–which pulls you in to imagine yourself in history. This is a staple of history at play. Think of reenactors, roleplayers, historical romance readers. It’s also almost totally illegitimate in serious history, much more so than counterfactuals. Niall Ferguson can edit a collection of alternate histories and it merely burnishes his hunky teledon credentials. But don’t hold your breath for the anthology about, say, Patricia Limerick at the Alamo or Tony Grafton’s fantasy life as a Renaissance magus. I’m not saying I really want to read that anthology, but I have no problem with leveraging the roleplay instinct for history teaching and fun.

If you’re getting the idea that what I mean by “playful” historical thinking is known by many as “bad” historical thinking, go to the head of the class.


Who Would Win?

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?

Viking Warrior
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.Review Android Smartphone

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.