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Another response to concerns about historical content comes from Chapman who suggests that history is always “referential and representational” aka selective.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?”

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