Or, Faux Victorians and the Lesson of Failed Play
Earlier this fall a Vox.com First Person column by Sarah A. Chrisman attracted a great deal of attention, much of it negative. In particular, it really ruffled historians’ feathers – and it’s not difficult to see why.
In the course of detailing her and her husband’s lives as “modern” Victorians, Chrisman argued that her family’s use of Victorian material culture (clothing, heating technology, modes of transportation) provided insight into the past far superior than any she could learn from “modern commentaries” – the class of writing the rest of us decadent, desperate contemporarianists know as history books.
Though phrased awkwardly, the historical epistemology that Chrisman articulated shares family resemblances with the pedagogy underwriting many kinds of public history, commercial as well as educational. (The idea that “touching” or “experiencing” artifacts and texts provides direct access to the past is a common trope in writing about, and advertising for, museums and historical sites, after all). Chrisman pushes this logic to an extreme, arguing that using period-specific material and cultural goods as exclusively as possible, and thereby constraining your thinking and even daily movements (literally in the case of her corsets) to those experienced by past peoples, facilitates a purer access to the past, uncontaminated by bias or errors introduced in the “game of ‘telephone’ ” of textual historical scholarship.
This is, to put it mildly, an approach with many difficulties. In a measured take at Slate, Rebecca Onion argues that Chrisman goes awry in an over-reliance on material goods as primary sources:
The “past” was not made up only of things. Like our own world, it was a web of social ties. These social ties extended into every corner of people’s lives, influencing the way people treated each other in intimate relationships; the way disease was passed and treated; the possibilities open to women, minorities, and the poor; the whirl of expectations, traditions, language, and community that made up everyday lives. Material objects like corsets or kerosene lamps were part of this complex web, but only a part.
As Onion notes, however much they use Victorian goods, the Chrismans’ will not be making historically “authentic” Victorian choices. Whether they want to admit it or not, the march of time since 1870 means that they live in a different social matrix. Context matters.
From this perspective, we might regard the Chrisman approach to the Victorian period as an example of failed play, at least of the sort that historical video games (among other forms of historical recreation) are attempting to encourage. In a manner similar to how the player of an Assasin’s Creed game breaks the historical accuracy of the fiction by mixing constant, unrestrained, and often comically graphic murder with their historical tourism, the Chrismans’ fail to account for how their choices – and their motivations – contextually differ from those available to people in the past. There’s no such thing as direct access to the past, no matter how expensively and carefully curated your environment is, or how period-accurate your slave-grown coffee maker or whale-oil kerosene lamp are.
This failure, however, suggests its opposite: that there are forms of play that could more productively engage with historical research. Like costume dramas and historical sites, video games have the potential to offer a more considered alternative to the fantasy of “living history,” Their baked-in artificial nature and obvious mediation, annoyances to those interested in “direct” experience, also serve to sidestep many of the pitfalls seen in other kinds of recreations or simulations, while simultaneously allow players (and creators) to engage with the question of context and choice.
Thus, the legibility of artifice and interpretative positioning can, perhaps counterintuitively, bring “history” (as opposed to “the past”) to life more effectively. Creating mechanics, designing environments, writing narratives that model choices and constraints historical actors may have faced – these are all necessarily active decisions, and indeed ones that can inform, and are informed by, scholarly research. By leading historians to think about how their theories and interpretations might be coherently modeled in an active simulation, and then engaged by players interacting with environments and systems making contingent choices, video games can contribute new insights to our active understanding of the past, and inform our future investigations of it.
But only if we’re willing to play the game of history – and forget playing at “the past.”