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Sympathetic Physics

John Worrell Keely and his invention.

Poking my head out of the woods for one little bit of good news: Technology & Culture has just published my article, “Sympathetic Physics: The Keely Motor and the Laws of Thermodynamics in Nineteenth-Century Culture.” It’s about the Keely Motor, which was the most notorious perpetual motion hoax of the 19th-century–unless, of course, it was real. Technology & Culture is probably the leading journal in the history of technology, and I’ve been wanting to publish an article there for years. I’m delighted that the first one I did was this one, which I think is both smart and a lot of fun.  Read more

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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.”

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.