Why Play with History? Part II

Definitely a Game Player

If you’re a historian or history enthusiast with a pulse in late 2015, there’s a good chance that you’ve been living like I have: obsessed with Alexander Hamilton’s rap battles, and walking around singing “I am not throwin’ away my… shot!” to falling leaves, stray cats, and startled passing students. The cause, of course, is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new hit musical, Hamilton.

In development for more than half a decade, the show is remarkable for too many reasons to explore in a introductory hook, but here I’d like to focus on it as a work of history. Miranda has been quite direct about the historiography he relied upon to build his masterpiece; but while Ron Chernow, H.W. Brands, and Joanne Freeman are critical to the work, equally important is the way in which Miranda has used the unique genre of the Broadway musical to advance a new historical interpretation. Casting people of color to play members Founding fathers and mothers, using hip hop and R&B musical forms, making an urban and urbane New York City fundamental to the setting and the characters’ motivations, and, not least a portraying Hamilton as a classic hard-working immigrant hero (if a tragic one) – these amount to much more than an entertaining way of “making history come alive.” By playing to the medium, Miranda has advanced a novel argument about the meaning of the American Revolution that would be impossible to articulate as artfully, as cleverly, or as thoroughly in a different format.

Of course, there’s a difference between playing with history, and making a musical of it. But Miranda’s MacArthur Award-worthy work shares something in common with how historians and game designers have been attempting to use their medium’s unique possibilities.

A Medium for Making an Argument

The Medium is a Message -- from behind the grave!

In the previous post, we looked at some of the ways scholars have approached video games as an object of analysis. But the medium can be used more actively: instead of being dissected, video games can present historical interpretations and arguments through simulated historical settings and gameplay mechanics. Efforts of this sort are a branch of the larger “Serious Games” movement, and indeed, Pox Hunter could be classed as this kind of work, blurring the line between scholarship and art, as well as that between teaching tool and research project. This is a branch of active development that, thus far, is perhaps more theorized than well realized. But there is a unifying factor among diverse projects: an interest in turning the “procedural rhetoric” of video games, to use Ian Bogost’s term, to the analytic, persuasive, and expressive ends of scholarly inquiry.

When it comes to active research, however, this approach has its limits. “Serious games,” including those about history, have more often been an endpoint for research rather than an active component of the process of new analysis. That is, they are tools for communicating existing historical interpretations, narrative information, or environmental details about the early nineteenth-century opium trade, say, or the underground railroad, but not primarily a means of creating those interpretations. Games, both online and off, have been embraced as a medium for teaching historical knowledge or historical analysis skills, but the neither the medium nor the procedural methods it entails have been used for how they can be used to produce knowledge.

Which brings us back around to our original question: why play with history? How might video games aid us in doing historical work?

One answer, put forward by scholars like Niall Ferguson or Philip Sabin, is that games offer exciting possibilities for modeling military or economic systems. At sufficient levels of complexity, the interlocking processes of these systems can produce unexpected events, contingencies which could then provide an impetus to learn something new about the underlying model, or help create a new model – acts of interpretation that would deepen and refine engagement with the historical data and assumptions upon which the game might exist.

At first glance, such advantages might seem more difficult to realize for historical inquiries that that depart from quantifiable assessments – modeling troop maneuvers and economic simulations are one thing, but isn’t describing culturally-specific systems of knowledge, political ideology, or gender relations something another else entirely? In some ways, yes, but the same work of simulation that might go into a strategy or a war game would also pay dividends for historians seeking to understand other kinds of historical phenomena.

Seen from a certain perspective, there are examples available among commercial games already. The indie hit Gone Home (2013) is a study in the recreation of a historical period, the mid-1990s, and a place, the suburban Pacific Northwest. Players in the game take on the role of a character unraveling a mystery – centered on the emotional life of a lovelorn teenager – and in the process immerse themselves in simulations of the material culture of the period as well as its gender politics.

While we might be tempted to analyze the game for its accuracy as a historical text, it would be worth considering first what the designers learned from the work required to create the environments that make up the game – material as well as emotional or intellectual. What new questions arose in construction? The salutary exercise of interpreting spatial arrangements need not only adhere to those games created in a first-person view, or otherwise depicting settings that may have been viewable to human eyes, either. Because it is an audio-visual medium, environmental design is a component of all game genres – the arrangement of space visible to players is just as important in third-person role-playing games, or grand strategy, and much like the choice of narrative voice in a linear text might, poses unique challenges of interpretation.

Like curated museum exhibits, neighborhood tours, hit Broadway musicals, and other forms of public history, video games require interdisciplinary work. And like other forms of public history, the act of creatively assembling materials for audio cues, art assets, material culture, and narrative content provides its own source of new questions and a pressing need for new kinds of analyses. However, in addition to these new inputs for research, games also involve systems and mechanics, procedural models for interaction that are themselves descriptions of causality, but unique ones insofar as they (generally speaking) require player interaction to function as a game – and thereby introduce contingency as part of the design.

From a historical research perspective, then, video game design (or analysis) provides an opportunity to understand change over time in a particularly “thick” way: not only must historical materials be studied, interpreted, and explained in a linear narrative, but that narrative model must be operationalized such that a player can interact with it in a series of contingent actions that use mechanics to cause changes in systems. In other words, the design of play, as much as the playing itself, can be part of a research cycle.

Why Play with History?

This could be us, but you playin

With characteristic capitalization, G.W.F. Hegel once observed that History can sometimes seem nothing more than a “slaughter-bench,” an altar upon which human lives – and ideals – were sacrificed. While modern historians have (mostly) put Hegel’s search for the world spirit aside, the work of studying the past remains a grave business. How could it be otherwise, when you’re reading dead people’s mail for a living? The trouble, though, is figuring out how we might make a game of it.

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