Week Ten Reading Blog: Gaming the System

“Our consciousness of the past is inextricably bound by pictures.”  I concur fully with Joshua Brown’s assertion about the inherent visual quality of history and the impact that historical visualization has on our understanding of the past.  In my experience, the power of history not only rests in well-crafted prose that critically examines historical themes and events but also in one’s ability to experience that history visually and through other senses.  Thus, I appreciate fully the digitally immersive, highly visual quality of Brown’s The Lost Museum Web site and his historiographical argument for why and how people of the past tended to resist such visual innovations in the media of their day.  That same resistance seems ever-present today as we negotiate the new era of the “digital turn.” Brown’s argument is most convincing to me, though, in the context of understanding the inherent resistance people often bring to new visualizations of the past, but I don’t see how his argument supports the core subject of this week’s readings, Gaming, or addresses my own skepticism about this form of digitally visual history.

The article by Laura Zucconi, Ethan Watral, Hannah Ueno, and Lisa Rosner about the development of their interactive historical game, Pox and the City, gets to the heart of my concerns regarding digital games as a viable means of teaching the meaning behind historical events.  Granted, as the authors assert, games “work best when they are visually stimulating,” but the visualizations and attendant algorithms that players must negotiate don’t seem to me to be the best way to do history — at least history that has any true meaning. My deeply entrenched skepticism on this topic stems from watching over time my own son’s addictive interplay with video and digital games starting in the late 1980s. He played a variety of historically themed games that I found to be amusing and, in some cases, quite accurate in terms of period dress, equipment, and architecture. Specific games that I recall him playing were computer-based versions called Civilization (the same one by Sid Meier that Adam Chapman analyzes, I believe) and The Sims or console-based fantasy games with historical components, such as Zelda.  But he always seemed most interested in mastering the algorithms that allowed him to proceed to the next level, a behavior in keeping with Zucconi and company’s statement that “games work best when they are open-ended, allowing players a set of choices without pre-determined outcomes.”  But in seeking to master these algorithms, my son often made anachronistic choices that essentially created counter-factual history, “a kind of historical fiction rather than historical fact,” as the authors readily admit. When I told my son that certain choices he made digitally would not have been viable or possible in the game’s actual historical setting, he simply stated, “Well, that’s how it is here.” Thus, I was never quite certain that he learned the proper lessons from his digital immersion in these historical games. I would like to believe that he took away some important themes from these games, such as social lessons on how people lived in the past and the limitations of their existence. But, in the main, he seemed to treat these historical games more as problem-solving tutorials (not really a bad thing) rather than as instructive historical mediums. And, worst of all, he grew up hating history. Go figure.

In many ways, the games my son played in the past and contemporary examples such as Pox and City have more in common with modeling simulations like Elijah Meeks’s and Karl Grossner’s ORBIS than they do with Brown’s The Lost Museum.  Simulations can help us predict what might happen using historical data as the basis for their construction. Thus, they have their own utility in this regard. But I think that players can get something more out of  games if the scenarios are coded to avoid or eliminate anachronistic choices by the players; in other words, if the available algorithm steers them toward proper (my code word for “realistic”) historical situations, then the game can have greater value.

Adam Chapman’s approach is probably to best way to assess the historical utility of these games. He contends that if we are to understand video games as a digital “form” that conveys a type of historical meaning rather than as one that captures “content” with historical fidelity, then we must examine them in the context of the video-game medium itself.  Like film, as Chapman explains, games can “function as a mode of historical expression” if we choose to view them in the context of the medium within which they exist and, perhaps, as their own analytical category.  I agree with Chapman that these video games “are, like all histories, mimetic cultural products”; but, like all things that people construct, even historical monographs, they have to be considered effective only in the context of their capabilities and limitations. But I depart with Chapman in his contention that a game like Sid Meier’s Civilizationis history [emphasis added] [simply] because it is a text that allows playful engagement with, connects to and produces discourse about the past.”  I agree that playing can equal learning in some settings, but when someone “flips the mental switch” from the learning mode to the entertainment mode, I think more is lost than gained. And, yes, I concede Trevor Owens’s point that games reach a broader audience. However, I disagree with Owens that games are “particularly good” at “articulating causal models for why something turned out the way it did.” Those causal models are most likely carefully programmed algorithms that may not make sense in the real world.

Ultimately, I think games can be one way to allow an interested public to explore history in both a visual and an immersive sense — as long as we supplement those games with other effective forms of historical discourse, such as interactive maps; qualitative and quantitative models; high-resolution photographs and lithographs; and, yes, dare I say it, monographs. I see more power in many forms working in unison with each other rather than privileging one form, such as games, over all others.

Steve Rusiecki

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