Clio Final Post

Well, this has been a pretty unusual semester! Instead of spending hours downtown at the library or toting a bag of large bricks (aka books) around campus, it’s been me n’ my computer anywhere with wifi all term (my back would like to express its gratitude, my brain, its confusion).

This semester has also been very different in terms of content, and I’d like to reflect on that briefly. As mentioned in my Gaming post, I found great value in pulling away from the monograph form by looking at some digital alternatives for both presentation and information handling and the intersections between these. Regardless of what we think about the other forms we explored, I think that moving “history” away from the conventions and terms of its (written) textual production/between and amongst other modes allowed us to think more carefully about “history”… not ‘what it is’ essentially, but dialogicaly perhaps?

I have also already mentioned to a couple of you, my paper (mock grant proposal) for this course is probably one of my favorites that I have written. It wasn’t especially polished in the end, but that wasn’t the point. I enjoyed how much it changed as I gained new information. Yes, seminar papers and such do too, but this was more marked, more tangible, being governed by objective rules (where is the data? how does the computer handle this? what’s missing?) than by a more subjective interpretation of information. The projects were so very process rather than product driven, and my “end product” was a tool that was likewise process driven.

These are generally the things I enjoyed most about the course. Additionally, I’m sure we were all exposed to something new in terms of what’s going on out there, new tools to try. I really enjoyed our week on the spatial: there are lots of new tools out there now, for free, for people who like to mess around with GIS and other mapping tools that weren’t there when I had undergraduate courses. It was also great just to get a thorough survey of what’s out there now for humanities folks!

And finally, it was neat to have a mix of so many different kinds of students even though we’re essentially in the same department. It was great to meet new people and to see the projects my own group worked on. I’m looking forward to tomorrows rapid-fire survey of what everyone else came up with!



Gaming: Practicum ‘Reflection’

    Design a game sounds to me like an undertaking bigger even than our class project. I thought I’d reflect on what kind of game I would think of creating instead.

My ideas seem to come out of knowledge of the kinds of games I personally enjoy and have played. Most of the topics I considered involve things like conquest and empire expansion: very popular just as McCall mentioned in our JDH readings. He suggested that the question of why this is a popular subject for games is an area worthy of enquiry, but I think it might be simple. The short answer is probably that conquest itself is inherently gamic and games as we typically know them are inherently about conquest: we talk about tactics and strategy and many of our oldest games are about war (chess, go). The game is inherently competitive, whether playing against a computer or a person. We get game theory from games, especially from chess, go, war, and economics. Winning and losing is considered as a sum; it is computational, quantitative, metred. One of the problems I saw posed in the readings relates to how we can use such games to do history as we do it today. From the readings: we can do some kinds of history this way, yes (select for history as determined broadly by single events), but others are harder to get at (select for individual experience, a la Stefan Tanka, week 10, or unlimited complexity, a la McCall this week on complex agencies), to balance between a computational mode and human content.

Matthew Kishenbaum, an English professor, wrote a post to this point, “War, What is it Good For? Learning From Wargaming” in Play the Past. He discusses wargaming as a specific gamic mechanic set, focusing on the historic sand-table game Kriegsspiel practised still in the Pentagon, major corporations, and Beltway thinktanks. These sessions involve many players, literally or figuratively around the sand table and counters of popular imagination. They are (far beyond chess and go) complex, multimodal, in which not all players have all the available information, determine probabilities by dice or equivalent, and allow a game master to change the whole scenario of play by entering entirely new factors by surprise (I both desperately want to participate in one of these and am having paranoid Ender’s Game fantasies: if I played a war-game at the Pentagon would it really be limited to the gamic space?!?)

Kirshenbaum deals with two mechanic systems broadly for war-games. Games that have a phenomenal array of constraints that both enhance complexity and enforce some degree of historical accuracy (I think it’s one of the Napoleonic games he describes where the player must count their water ration per number of troops as they play). And games of the simplified, generalised format (like the Macedonia conquest game described by McCall in his discussion of oversimplification of the agency of enslaved individuals) where the experience mimics only that of the primary agent and complexity is hidden within the mechanics of bodies of sub-agents (i.e. whatever factors included are calculated towards how the group handles as a single entity, ergo the problem with representing slavery).

These games are not used exclusively to model and play war, but also anything we can conceive of as “war” by like computational terms: pandemic response, resource management, other related disaster management. Kirshenbaum poses the question about modelling water management in Yemen with war-games vs other gamic modes: what might we learn from the war-game that we cannot by other means? In turn this asks: what is a war-game? What is essential to its mechanics that we can differentiate it from other modes and redeploy it to contend with other questions?

What this seems to return to is Chapman’s comment in JDH readings this week: again, ‘history is inherently referential and representational’ (see my last post); games do not eliminate the choices we have to make for the book length narrative. What may be causing a bit of anxiety in the community over this matter is the simulation aspect of the game, the completeness of the picture of a historic or “historic+” (to borrow from Antley) that goes far beyond what we know for certain, produces an illusion of wholeness: we expect the game to do much more perhaps than what it is able to by its conventions and mechanics? Antley’s suggestion (again, last post) that we explore the unique epistemological possibilities of the game as complement to, not replica or replacement of, written text.

I made a list of alternative structures to war/conquest game mechanics that answered questions, responding to Kirshenbaum, in ways war-games could not that was far too long for this reflection post. But, in short, it included linear type RPGs that I enjoy (like the famous FFVII and franchise) that are dreadfully good at imparting ethos even as you are forced through the storyline (in fact it draws you through). We’ll call this a given narrative, very top down. At the other extreme, the open world RPG, in my opinion, dreadfully good at imparting an existential crisis… and I’m being snarky but serious (and they really are my least favorite kind of game): the problem with teaching history with a game of too many liberties is that far from asking the player to replicate a complete narrative interpretation, they allow the player to subvert, or avoid entirely those narratives, which also teaches nothing (I’m just not in the corner with those in favour of counter historical reasoning as a key problem solving skill).

I have no real conclusion to these musing, but I am curious about an in-between mode and its potential. There was a phase of games before Skyrim and the latest Fallout, I think including an Elder Scrolls or so ago (Oblivion?), that offered less of an open world and more a multiple set of crossing linear paths, complex enough to mask itself as such. Could such a game allow, through repeat play, the reproduction of facets of past events that upon repeated play would produce the sort of complexity we might desire in a simulation?

Gaming (Week 14 RR)

Articles for the week on history gaming focus on using games (especially computer games) to “do history” (writ broadly). The doing of history must be conceived of here especially as an interaction between the game’s producers (authours) and the player-as-agent who both consumes and produces (oft termed prosumation) by playing the game. Some of the concerns expressed over the value of history games surround the gamer’s agency to replicate or deviate from “historical truth” by playing, but as is also oft expressed by (all) the authours of this week’s readings (at some point or another), games are closed (delimited) systems: some of the open world type games that are popular these days emulate an open system by having more liberties that we can perceive at once and by masking some of their constraints, but do not actually approach unlimited.

Still the questions of agents having liberties to alter history in the game, and of the selection of content by the producer/authours, factor into a discussion of the validity of games as “history” through assessments that focus on their form or framework vs “historical” content. Adam Chapman in his article for JDH special section on games privileges reading form over content. An example: a clever (about the desires of his or her audience) commercial game maker might give us mythic or legendary history instead of “actual” but we may in fact get from its mechanics an ethos that is quite historical (I am thinking here of my post from last week on alternative histories, reading the Roman historian Livy or legends of Alexander as historical although it is not our objective modern mode of history. I am also thinking of a comment I once heard in response to a query about the ‘historical accuracy’ of the film 300: “I don’t know about that, but it’s the film the Greeks would have made about themselves”). A twist on this is offered by Antley in his post on Playing the Past, “Better Folklore through Alchemy” that explores the modernisation of an older knowledge system, bringing a medieval epistemology to a modern episteme through a sequence of subtle transformations, analogous in fact to processes we might use to understand an ancient knowledge system as time-bound historians (what he calls ‘Medieval+’).

Another response to concerns about historical content comes from Chapman who suggests that history is always “referential and representational” aka selective. One nice thing the content of the whole Clio course has provided, by pulling us away from the monograph, is a good understanding of the text artefact with its forms, conventions, structures and how it might be detached from “history,” and of how very much we think of history as a practise of texts. I’m actually glad we came to gaming in the final week and have the accumulated knowledge from the term to depend on for understanding its concerns (cf the James Paul Gee article and “leveling up” our knowledge and problem solving abilities as he might say). Antley’s article in JDH, “Going Beyond the Textual in History,” deals with text and game as complementary, arguing against efforts of other scholars to enforce a textual mode in the making and judging/evaluation of history/”historical” games, also reflecting earlier course discussions on other digital history modes and their relationship to the conventions of text (hereafter though, I start to question his argument based on weak relationships and contrasts (ones that he admits to) between the ways written texts reveal and conceal their structures and scaffolding and the ways the algorithm does this with the game-text; a text is a text and they can vary without calling that into question: (channelling Shira) there is an entire discussion out there of the relationships between visual and mixed media texts (especially art and film, with which games already are considered) and written text, from which he could draw from (ok, maybe not for a blog post, but in general).

One additional trouble I had was with Antley’s suggestion that we utilise the epistemological potential of the game text rather than trying to import those of the written/text/monograph: this sounds good, but he and the other authors represented in the JDH selection (I had this difficulty with the who section) offered very little in the way of concrete examples of how this might work. Maybe the difficulty is that of using the text to describe another medium (we should go, as our practicum assignment commands, and play a game!), but a difficulty with explaining the gamic mode of doing history was also apparent in our Laura Zucconi et. al. reading on “the Pox and the City” and in Antley’s piece mentioned above on Medieval+ (he saw how it ‘modernised’ a historical knowledge system but elaborated no further on the ramifications that has). The more satisfactory descriptions of games with historical modes, settings/content were like those of Rebecca Mir writing on “the Babylon of Babylon Twins” in Play the Past where gaming is intended to reconstruct a cultural heritage and encourage public interest in preserving that heritage in a fraught political situation. But this is always the case that it is easier to discuss the uses of history when they are so concrete and direct.

Gee also provided a concrete and legible example in his discussion of exploiting the gamic epistemology to “do” history as he explained how the gaming metaphor to teaching. How might games impart the values from last week of training historical thinking more than trying to teach us “history?”