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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.

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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.”

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.

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Technology Grows On Trees

The question should not be, “Had Edison never lived, would we have had an incandescent light bulb?” but rather, “Had the Western world never discovered electricity, would non-Western cultures eventually have developed the incandescent light bulb?” My answer to this question is basically negative. Western knowledge of nature was neither “better” nor “deeper” than the beliefs of the Chinese, Africans, or Aztecs. It just happened to be the kind of knowledge that led to the emergence of light bulbs.
–Joel Mokyr, “King Kong and Cold Fusion: Counterfactual Analysis & the History of Technology”

Like just about everybody else in the humanities wing of the ivory tower, I’m grading papers this month and not exactly loving it. You’d think somebody who can go on at such length about writing pedagogy wouldn’t find the actual doing it such a drag. I did have one assignment this term that was a pleasure to grade: in our course on Science, Technology, and Global History, Bill Turkel and I had the students critique, and suggest alternatives to, the Civilization technology tree.

In Sid Meier’s Civilization and many other simulation games, “tech trees” are used to represent possible pathways of technological change. You may start the game with no knowledge of writing, but once you “invent” writing you can then work towards inventing map-making, or literacy, or a code of laws. The game uses the term technology pretty loosely–communism, meditation, and literature are all “technologies” in the most recent edition–but then so do historians of technology. The branching paths of technological possibility are all represented as a tree. CHNM’s Trevor Owens had a nice post last month, from which I stole this post’s title, about how historians and sociologists of science might profit by playing with these models.

Civ has been a motif in our course: we used images from the game in our posters advertising the class, screen-shots have turned up in our lecture slides, and I’ve turned to the game from time to time in order to abstract examples about the interaction of science, technology, and history. (Here are my thoughts on teaching with Civ from a year or two ago, and on a course about gaming and simulation.) In my first lecture this term, we talked explicitly about the tech tree and its underlying assumptions about determinism, contingency, and technological change. Here are the slides for them that care, with the caveat that they are designed not to substitute for attendance at the lecture. (Keen-eyed geeks: yes, that is Ming-3 from GURPS Alternate Earths, and yes, that is Fu Manchu’s awesome kite-borne army from the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)

The Civ tech tree offered a nice way to talk about the “Needham Question“–crudely put, why didn’t China beat England to the industrial revolution? (I thank Jon Dresner for berating Bill & I about the low China content in an early draft of the syllabus. The course is still not quite as global as we want it to be, but the Needham Question and its shortcomings became a really key theme of the modern half.) It’s easy to play a game of Civilization in which China industrializes first. It’s much harder to play a game in which nobody industrializes on the European model, and it’s impossible to play a game in which technological progress veers onto an altogether different path. The Civ tech tree offers a range of choices but is basically linear in the end, and the fact that you really need certain technologies to win the game makes it more linear still.

So after that lecture, we asked the students to come up with alternatives to the tech tree and to explain what their alternate models suggest about history and the process of scientific or technological change. The point wasn’t to come up with the “right” model, as if there is such a thing, but to imagine and explore different ways of thinking about determinism and contingency. Are future scientific discoveries lying around “out there” waiting to be invented, or do we create them only in the process of discovery?

I was happy with the assignments we got back. The students really went to town with multicolored diagrams and the like, and they had some great ideas: tech wheels, tech matrices, tech gumbo, and more. One of my favorite ideas was a riff on Katamari Damancy, that surreal “could it be any more Japanese?” game where you roll around a highly adhesive ball that grows as it picks up the things you roll over. The student’s idea was a rolling tech wheel. The spokes of the wheel represented paths of technological development you could pursue–navigation, metalworking, what have you–but you also had to adapt to technological contingencies in the form of the various things you rolled over. I’m not sure how this would actually work as a game, but as a crazy Katamari bricolage view of human history, it’s fun to wrap your head around.

Another great idea, perhaps more workable, gave players the ability to discover not only technologies but also the connections between technologies or areas of knowledge. So instead of the game presuming that electricity always leads to radio or steam power to the railroad, the player could choose what to link electricity too. Maybe electricity is connected to flight: presto, electric airships. Maybe electricity is connected to medicine: build enough links and electrical medicine becomes a physical fact of your alternate game world. Hold on, you might be saying. Is that how scientific progress really works? Well, I don’t know. But you can see how that’s a rich question for a course like ours to tackle.

If the tech tree assignment didn’t grab our students, they also had the option of suggesting an alternative to the current disciplinary structure of the university, and explaining what that model said about the underlying organization of human knowledge. Those were interesting too, but I didn’t do as good a job of setting up expectations, and so I got a lot of suggestions along the lines of “professors should answer student emails more promptly.” True enough, probably, but not quite so much food for thought.

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Martin Luther King Jr. Day

My U.S. history class is (appropriately) discussing the civil rights movement today. In addition to their usual reading, I pulled together a bunch of YouTube clips of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and others. You can check them out here. Most of those are probably familiar to anyone reading here, but Eldridge Cleaver is fun to watch, and there’s something surreal about seeing Malcolm X on the ur-Canadian talk show, the CBC’s Front Page Challenge.

I’m also posting this to show off my students, frankly. Scroll down the course website and see how much time and thought they put into their comments on the reading each week. I really am quite proud of them.