Gaming History

Growing up, I played my fair share of video games. As a matter of fact, my parents still have a tote full of my old consoles and video games from my childhood. Up until this week’s reading, including my childhood, I never thought of those games teaching history. Sure, you may learn some simple facts about westward expansion from Oregon Trail and I did learn what a Janissary is from Age of Empires but that was the extent of it for me. This week’s readings provided interesting arguments and perspectives on the use of gaming in history teaching.

The first article, Joshua Brown’s “From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies and Interaction in the Nineteenth and Twenty-first Centuries“, starts off with a great quote and discussion. He quotes Johan Hulzinga when he wrote “Historical understanding is like a vision, or rather like an evocation of images.” Brown then added that history really is a series of images yet the teaching of history remains textually based. I kept coming back to this statement throughout the rest of the readings. This argument works well for Digital History as a whole. One of the first things Dr. Robertson has told us is that the Digital is inherently visual. It is this important aspect that makes digital history such a diverse field. Even further, gaming is literally an infinite series of images that the end user interacts with. In this way, proponents of “Serious gaming” claim that it can articulate history in a richer format. While I can understand their position, I find myself more of a traditionalist. There is push back, in my mind, to the use of gaming.

I really liked Adam Chapman’s article “Privileging Form Over Content: Analysing Historical Videogames” as he articulated an important point when it comes to judging the didactic nature of video games. Chapman breaks down a medium into two parts, the content and the form. The content is what the medium is stating about history. That is fairly straight forward. The other part, the part that he says more attention should be given, is the form. The form of the medium is how it goes about providing the content to the end user. Chapman articulates that the majority of the critiques of historical didactic video games are of content. He makes a fantastic point when he states “Analysis on the basis of content alone almost invariably involves comparisons with historical narratives constructed and received in book form, which is often problematically understood as the only form capable of producing ‘proper’ history.” This highlights a major flaw in the critiquing process, myself included. Because the majority of history that I have learned has come from books (and some films), when I critique these games or the concept of gaming in general, it is against this traditional book monograph that gaming is compared. It is a fundamental flaw in my process. This is true in the field of Digital History in general. The use of maps, as I saw a few weeks ago in class, had people critiquing the maps because the argument and facts were not readily present. They compared it to their monograph reading experience but in turn did not devote as much time to interpreting or “reading” the map as they did the text. Perhaps this is my flaw? Maybe I need to spend more time engaged in these game to have a stronger base on which to form my opinion.

The final thought I have, comes from Trevor Owens piece “Games as Historical Scholarship.” This is a short article but in it Owen highlights a shortcoming with text. He states “The linearity of text helps make the past seem far more tidy than it actually was.” I personally feel that this is an important principle and one that students and scholars of history must always keep in the back of their mind. Serious gaming can bring this complexity to light that books and other static mediums are not equipped to do. The follow up question I have then is “Are the games a stand alone project or would they be used as supplemental to text etc.?” I am more comfortable with using games as an additive to other forms of history teaching than by themselves. This is possibly a bias on my own part that could be mitigated by more immersion in the gaming medium. If so, I am interested to see others reactions to the readings.

Gaming History
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