Theoretical Framework for Discussions on Time (pt.1)

The following is a very rough reflection on some of the ideas which I am working with in a greater Master’s Thesis project. I welcome constructive feedback and thoughts, so please leave a comment if you have something interesting to say or have any good questions.


As an historian, time is something that I often hear used as a measurement of distance, like space. It is not uncommon to hear of historical distance as a means of conceptualizing the understanding gap between history and historian. My interest within this project is not in discerning the nature of historical distance as a relationship of authority between historian and subject, but rather as a noted measurement. In my experience, where historical distance is noted, it is often done so with the implied understanding of time as something that can be utilized like space – it can be quantified in years as physical distance is in meters – yet it is often done so with the additional implication that time is not traversable. Time, in this instance of discussion, is a measurement of our reality and is treated as a physical measurement of that reality, albeit one that within which we have restricted mobility. The physical properties of reality function in such a way as to allow movement in three-dimensional space, however time is perceived as a much more limiting axis upon which we move. Because time is experienced by humans as solely a progression “forward” it is increasingly difficult to imagine traversing the axis of time in any other direction. It is this fundamental understanding of time which so intrigued me in my own studies, and it is this point with which I grapple in my own work. In order to unpack my own understandings of the nature of time and its relationship to us as historians, I will first examine some of the foundational texts upon which I have constructed my conceptions.

In his work, Future’s Past: on the Semantics of Historical Time, Reinhart Koselleck proposes his concept of “historical time”. Historical time is something that Koselleck wrestles with in much of his writing. For Koselleck, historical time is a term used to describe the manner in which humanity, in general, understood time – and perhaps more specifically – history. With an emphasis on straightforwardness over exacting precision, historical time can be summarized as the understanding of time as non-cyclical, with a future that is not a recycling of the past. To unpack this, we should also identify the other forms of time that Koselleck uses. Historical time, he argues, differentiates itself from the more commonly understood (and utilized) “natural time”. Natural time, Koselleck posits, is the comprehension and measurement of time via the identification and measurement of natural entities, be they the passage of celestial bodies, the changing of the seasons, or the lives of humans.

For Koselleck, the celestial basis for our understanding of time is inherently tied to the measure of time in chronology. Time measured by natural bodies falls victim of adopting the rhythmic and cyclical nature of those bodies. As time became a measure of the Earth’s rotation, then its revolution around the Sun, then perhaps the revolutions of the moon, the cycles of seasonal change, or the longevity of a human life, it is perceivable that these natural patterns – all of which occur in identifiable repeating instances – lend their own repetitive quality to the system used to measure them. Time under this system of selective repeating trends takes on the totalizing quality of repetition itself. Within this context, events of the past are, like the foundational understanding of naturally repeating phenomena that ground the entire construct of time, bound to repetition.

Historic time, then, is that understanding of time which breaks free from the bounds of repetition. Koselleck argues that this shift from a periodic to an historic time occurred in parallel with western society’s adoption of the concept of “progress”. With the conceptualization of progress came the need to contextualize the manner in which time passed, and more importantly, the relationship that the present had to the past and the future. The future was of particular importance to this shift in thinking. For Koselleck this new system offered a new future, and as John Zammito notes, “A future so radical in its openness and unpredictability [that it] annulled the present utility of past experience.” Koselleck uses Friedrich Perthes’ example of a familial living situation. A house has a child, parent, and grandchild all living under one roof. Before this shift in temporal thinking, all three people understood themselves to be living in the present, their lives occupying the same temporal location, now. The “now” in this situation is simply all of time, as the past and future are states of the present. After the shift to historic time, these three people can perceive themselves as belonging to separate generations – temporal classes – each of which occupy a different portion of time. The child is clearly younger than the parent, and so their experiences will reflect those of someone who is passing through time from a measurably different beginning. A similar thought can be applied to the relationship between the parent and grandparent. Understanding of temporal differences, then, suggest that the speed at which history is occurring is accelerating. This argument for acceleration fits nicely into the rhetoric of progress and the exponential growth of humanity.

Of key interest for me is Koselleck’s argument for the realization of the present as a temporal location. In a system which has an unpredictable future and a non-repeating past, the present ceases to retain its status as an all-encompassing location, and instead becomes the site of transition between the past and future. Koselleck states, “the divide between previous experience and coming expectation opened up, and the difference between past and present increased, so that lived time was experienced as a rupture, as a period of transition in which the new and the unexpected continually happened”


As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, please leave a comment. I don’t think I will answer questions or respond to comments directly, but I will most definitely take things into consideration as I continue to work through this.

Thanks for reading,

– Alex


Thoughts on Culture – pt.2 – Meaning in the Message

The following is a very rough reflection on some of the ideas which I am working with in a greater Master’s Thesis project. I welcome constructive feedback and thoughts, so please leave a comment if you have something interesting to say or have any good questions.

Within the context of my Thesis work, I am attempting to understand the nature and relationship of “culture” and the material. As a starting premise I would suggest that (select) construction projects of the NSDAP reflect the regime’s unique understanding of its own place within a broader historical framework, as well as the bearer of a unique and perceivable “culture”. My end goal here is to suggest that the structures created or proposed by the NSDAP imply that the National Socialists had a specific understanding of their own place in history, a history which itself was interpreted uniquely by the regime, and that through the construction of these structures there was an attempt to bridge the gap between the current regime and future iterations of itself. My project looks at the structures as architectural works within the context of the early-mid 20th century, the concept of future and the means by which ideas are transmitted though time, and the messages that are transmittable through mediums/time. It is on this last point that I am currently absorbed.

An Info Panel, Nuremberg, Germany.

An Info Panel, Nuremberg, Germany.

For my work, I am looking to better understand and explain the concept of cultural transmission via material mediums. To do this, we can (for this thought) presuppose that buildings can transmit or store ideas/messages. What I am interested in is the form in which these messages are imbued and then received, the traits and general ideas that make up the message. I seek to go beyond the obvious here, I am not suggesting that a building can have a message carved on its surface which directly records a message in text or image, or some other tangible means. I am looking for the ways in which a structure captures an idea in its very essence and is able to express this idea to an audience that is not comprised of its direct creators (By this I mean, the receivers of the message are not those who implanted the message originally, but they may share ideological or historical similarities with the message’s progenitors). This series of ideas/messages I am considering to constitute “culture”.

So finally we get to the point of this post, to determine if we can consider this transmission as “culture”, and what that implies.

This problem is one I have touched upon in my previous post, the issue of defining “culture” for my own uses. Perhaps, then, I should attempt to pin-down some of the thoughts that I consider to make up “culture”, or at least what I consider to be important for the sake of this particular argument.

If we consider the definition of culture which describes it as, “All that which is nonbiological and socially transmitted in a society, including artistic, social, ideological, and religious patterns of behavior, and the techniques for mastering the environment” then we are left with something that is, perhaps, too all-encompassing and grand to really suit the needs of this project. With this understanding, that which composes culture is likely to overlap across many different cultures, possibly even to the point where cultures share almost every aspect, save a small number of traits, with each other. Are these, then, the identifiers for unique culture?

I’ll end with my question for the day:

Can culture be measured by the attributes it does not share with similar cultures?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, please leave a comment. I don’t think I will answer questions or respond to comments directly, but I will most definitely take things into consideration as I continue to work through this.

Thanks for reading,

– Alex

Thoughts on Culture – pt.1 – What’s in a Name?

As a cautionary note, please be aware that this is a fairly rambley, stream-of-thought, my-internal-monologue style of thought

As I sit and write my Thesis, I am constantly having to backtrack and rethink what I am doing. This reexamination is not a result of my arguably (read: “definitely”) terrible lack of ability to spell, nor is it particularly a result of any primal urge to proof-read. Instead, I am regularly uncertain as to what my position is on the whole matter of “culture”, in which my current project deals heavily. The chapter I am currently writing seeks to examine the concept of culture within a National Socialist context. Perhaps it would be best to frame this thought within the greater work of my project.

My Thesis work looks to examine the relationship between time and cultural (for my purposes, “history”) and state-sponsored architectural works within the National Socialist regime. Specifically I want to suggest that the building projects of the National Socialists reflect their unique relationship to historical consciousness. My project covers three aspects of this relationship: the aesthetics of the early to mid 1900s, the National Socialists’ understanding of time, and the conceptions of culture then and now. Currently I am working on the latter of these points.

Back to my consternation. The primary issue I am currently having is wrangling with the concept of culture as a unique and definable thing. For my project I would like to put forth the idea that the ways in which the National Socialists understood themselves as existing within a specific historical ideal and expressed this idea through their architectural works denotes them as the holders of a very specific and uniquely National Socialist culture. I will have an entire chapter dedicated to arguing that the aesthetics of their architecture reinforce this argument (of which I am fairly confident in myself), as well as a chapter on the perceptions of time (which requires the completion of this thought to proceed). Where I am at odds is on the point of a “unique culture”. My problem here is that I myself, as an historian and a thinking assemblage of skin-and-fat, have a very (read: “VERY”) hard time believing that the term “culture” really implies anything worthy of its own word. My feelings on this subject, I have found, are exceedingly hard for me to communicate, particularly with anything beyond wild hand-gestures, grunts, and chirrups. This being said, I’m going to take a risk and try anyway.

I should preface this part of the discussion by first noting that I am coming at this from a very specific background: I am white, identify as a heterosexual male, and am from the higher-end of the lower-class of a western country. I am a university-educated history major who studies an extremely specific historical period (I pretty much exclusively study overtly depressing historical topics). In addition to this, I am also currently attempting to derive my thoughts from my own understandings, avoiding simple regurgitation of the ideas of other, more established thinkers. My reasoning for this is to establish a more raw base from which to examine my own thoughts before digging right into self-dissection. So when I approach this subject, I am at least acutely aware of where my thoughts are coming from.

I have a difficult time accepting the term “culture” as having any real meaning anymore. While I would like to be able to apply it as a label for the combination of sentiments and ideas that the group of people I am studying more-or-less have a consensus about, I find it increasingly difficult to detach the word from its inherently catch-all nature. I have heard the term culture applied to national, ethnic, religious, athletic, social, academic, virtual, distant, and recreational groups. Each time it appears to me to be a simple placeholder for “set of ideas and thoughts that some of these people accept or at least acknowledge as being accepted by others in the group.” Before we get to uppity about “but yes, that is how words work”, I understand that it is, by its nature as a word, a placeholder for an idea. Where I take issue is with the seeming lack of acknowledgment of this in the general use of the word. If we accept, let’s say, that Canadian culture is a thing that is real[1] then I as a Canadian citizen, as a person living in Canada, as someone whose family has lived in Canada for a period of time, should fall under the sway of “Canadian” culture. But what does this mean? To me, “Canadian” culture has such a varied and contradictory assortment of identifiers that it is exceedingly difficult to pin-point what constitutes a coherent narrative of “Canadian” culture. Is it what we see on the Heritage Minutes? What beer commercials promote? Our (apparently) unanimous love of hockey, Timmies, and all things reminiscent of Strange Brew? I’d like to note that the point I am trying to make here is not to lambaste Canadiana[2] but instead to point out the exclusive nature of identifying groups by the things that unite them, specifically when those things are not shared across the entire community they purport to represent.

Continuing this experiment wherein Canadian culture exists as depicted in commercials and stereotypes, can I be part of Canadian culture if I do not like hockey? What about those who like hockey, affordable coffee, and Rick Moranis, but are not from Canada, nor do they reside here? Arguably culture cannot be dictated by geography as this would leave the lingering question of diaspora culture. The scope of the word lends itself to abuse, allowing for such a malleable and all-inclusive definition as to render the word meaningless. There are, perhaps, more appropriate words out there to signify the idea that I have for culture. It has been suggested to me that “community” is perhaps a better label. My understanding of “community” is even less informed than that of culture. To remedy this, I have retrieved two of the versions of the Dictionary of Anthropology that I could get at my school’s library. what follows are the definitions for culture and community from each text.

  • The Anthropological Glossary[3]
    • Culture: “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society.”
    • Community: “a social group or area in which competition and other interpersonal relations exist; the smallest unit of society capable of independent existence.”
  • Dictionary of Anthropology[4]
    • Culture: “All that which is nonbiological and socially transmitted in a society, including artistic, social, ideological, and religious patterns of behavior, and the techniques for mastering the environment. The term culture is often used to indicate a social grouping that is smaller than a civilization but larger than an industry.”
    • Community: “Mutually dependent families living and working together in a given area and usually in face-to-face association.”

It would appear that where anthropology is concerned, community is largely a geographic concept, relating to the closeness of relationships. Now, arguably these definitions are dated (the books are from 50s and 80s) and do not take into account the pervasiveness of the internet and the ways in which it bridges geographical divides. This being said, I am still unsatisfied with the definition of community as I am more interested, not in the division of people into cultures or communities, but in the concept of culture as a thing which one can have, or be part of. If one can have “community”, I do not believe that it would be the appropriate word to define the concept I am dealing with.

The definitions of culture found in these texts also suffer from the focus on division of people rather than that which defines people (in addition to being pretty antiquated in their definitions). If you would permit me to jump around a bit here, I would like to propose another of my thoughts on the inherent meaning of culture. Remembering our scenario of a specific Canadian culture, we can argue that culture (if this is a facsimile of a “real” culture) is exclusive by-nature. The terms by which culture dictates inclusivity are inherently a response to what members dictate or perceive as that which lies outside of the group. I may not like hockey, but I like Rick Moranis and doughnuts so hey, I’m close enough. This act of acceptance (I find) belies a deeper reliance on the othering of those not deemed appropriate in their actions or beliefs to be part of the culture. When the terms of what constitutes “culture” are expanded to be more inclusive and avoid the issue of inclusive/exclusive it generally expands to such a state as to remove any meaning to the word.

I have found, in my studies and general milling about places, that the ways in which most people I interact with perceive culture through a fairly optimistic/positivist[5] lens, which lends itself to the inclusive understanding of culture that has a meaning and is important. The argument often devolves into a glass-half-full/empty scenario which tends to result in a lot of “well I guess everyone is right.” This is always an interesting conversation and generally helps me to work though my own ideas (which very often lean toward the more pessimistic understanding of things). Unfortunately, this is a problematic issue to have when attempting to argue a point that has two equal sides, but on which you fall pretty exclusively to one side. As I had mentioned above, I generally study some of the more morose historical topics. I say this, but realistically I should add the qualifier more overtly morose historical topics, as the vast summation of human history is pretty violent and awful, but generally we tend to avoid discussing that when we can.[6]

Well i am out of time for today, so perhaps I will wrap-up this post with a few summarizing questions which I am currently thinking about, and for which I have decided to ramble these past few paragraphs.

What is “culture” in the sense of a way of describing people? More specifically, is there such a thing as Canadian/American/German/French/Nazi/Liberal/Kayaking culture? If so, how is it defined? Is culture a definable idea? Bearing in-mind that this is an expression of one of my rough thoughts, is there something I am completely missing in my rambles above?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, please leave a comment. I don’t think I will answer questions or respond to comments directly, but I will most definitely take things into consideration as I continue to work through this thought.

Thanks for reading,

– Alex


1 – the existence of “real” is best left for another discussion.
2 – Strange Brew is a great movie!
3 – Pearson, Roger. Anthropological Glossary. Original ed. Malabar, Fla.: R.E. Krieger Pub., 1985. 54, 60.
4 – Winick, Charles. Dictionary of Anthropology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. 126, 144.
5 – I’m fairly certain I am conflating my ideas here. What I mean by this is a sense that things are a certain way, which is what has been said publicly, or is generally understood by most people, and which actively but not overtly attempts to promote a positive and upbeat interpretation of events while avoiding any discussion that the entire framework of understanding being used may depend on a rather grim or horrific principle.
6 – Read: “I am a pessimist”


I claim no rights to the cover image, which is from:

Tonight, on a very special Digital History

– Intro –

Act 1: The Introduction

As may be apparent from the bevy of blog-posts I have spent rambling on about games and the use of games in teaching, this very special episode of Constructed History will be a reflection on games and digital history.

Now, when I say “games” I am being fairly open about my interpretation of games for the purpose of this discussion. “Games” here could be video games, board games, interactive exhibitions, and books. What I am interested here is anything that requires problem solving or abstract thinking. I believe that games offer us a wonderful teaching tool, one that has the potential to enrich the teaching process.

– commercial break –

Act 2: Games!

Games offer us an interesting means of presenting a problem, a way of engaging with students and the public. Specifically games allow for the abstraction of ideas in ways unobtainable though conventional practices. Computer games, for example, allow human players to engage in simulation and experimentation through the manipulation of a computer-regulated environment. This environment could be as complex as a sandbox-style virtual landscape, to as simple as an image. The importance is that, given enough programming input, the player has an almost limitless avenue of options to explore. These kinds of games are particularly good at presenting grander concepts rather than “facts” and straightforward information. A game which offers limited interactivity in exchange for flaunting text or dates is failing to utilize the medium to its potential. This is not isolated to video games. Board games, card games, and any sort of game that is built around a series of rule-sets can produce abstract thinking, it all depends on the complexity of the rules and the way in which they are organized. Interactive exhibitions and geocashing-history are other examples of non-computer games which also function to derive abstract thinking and puzzle-solving from the player.

– Commercial Break –

Act 3: Why?

Why have I bothered to reexplain my position on games today? It is nearing the end of our time in HIST 5702X, a time to reflect on what we have covered and ask, “what did we miss?” …. “What I personally would have enjoyed seeing more of?”

I change the question here because I personally thought we covered a pretty wide array of topics in this semester’s class. We tackled everything from 3d models to big data. I think that, as a sampling of the Digital History gambit, our class had a good selection. I change the question to reflect my own interest. I would have loved to see more emphasis on games and gaming. Arguably this comes from my own interest in games (it does), but I also think that games should appear more in university lessons and should be an integral part of every historian’s teaching toolkit. I will give an example of why I think this.

I am a teaching assistant for an introductory European history class. The week our class was supposed to be discussing the causes of the First World War there was an error and we were not assigned any readings. Rather than present my students with a video or some dry lecture on the causes of the war I thought it would be much more interesting to have them discover the intricacies of the topic for themselves. Students were not informed before hand what was going to happen. When they arrived they were placed in groups, assigned countries, given the parameters of the game (disguised as a international conference) and told to secure the best possible deal for their nation, with the understanding that on the eve of the war they had existing obligations and goals. For the students it was a chance to put into action the information they had been learning about in a fun way. The games lasted roughly an hour, the end of which required each nation to declare its position in the world and whether or not it would go to war. Every simulation ended with war.

I could have easily have sat in front of my class and explained to them how difficult international politics are, have showed statistics on the war or the letters of the diplomats and rulers of the time, but this would never be as effective in giving the students the feeling of being caught in a diplomatic nightmare that experiencing the struggle could. The events never turned out quite as history did, but that was not the point. Students left with a better understanding of the complexities of the history, the grander ideas behind the topic, and a satisfactory feeling of having participated in something. This, above all else, is important for inspiring new generations of historians.

– commercial break –

Act 4: Conclusion

Games are definitely a major part of digital history, and perhaps this post has not really addressed the question of what is missing. Instead I would like to reaffirm my belief in the validity of games and the usefulness of games as a teaching tool, be they computer games or interactive exhibits, choose-your-own adventure books, or card games. Play games, think about them, abstract and ask big questions. These are some of the small ways we can help to improve and expand history as a field.

– roll credits –

– Alex

The Aviation Museum Archives are Run by the Nicest People in the World

Grandiose title aside, I had a wonderful time at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum doing some primary research. Last week I and some of my fellow HIST 5702X-ers went to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum to make use of their archives. My portion of our project relies heavily on primary sources, specifically images.

Being a Europeanist, this was my first real excursion to an archive, be it a small-scale facility, or a state-level institution. We were given a brief but informative tour of the collections we were using before being set loose. David, the gentleman helping us, was extremely friendly and was a wonderful source of information and assistance. My own work had me pouring over hundreds of images from the mid-to-late sixties, all of which focused on Air Canada’s promotional material. The whole experience was very helpful and allowed me to collect most, if not all of what I needed for the project. The next step is to compile it all and figure out how well it will work with our narrative. Thus-far I am pleased to see the project is progressing fairly well, although if my own experiences with the 3D rendering are indication of anything we may have some trouble actualizing our plans for a fully-functional beta.

– Alex

The Risks of Apps

So, in-line with our topic for this week I decided to take a look at the legal/privacy policy for the app Junaio, a 3D augmented reality app available on Android and Iproducts. My question going into this was “who owns the material submitted to this app?” Like many free apps / services there is an assumption that the free consumer usage likely comes at some hidden cost. By this I do not imply that the end-user will be charged a secret monetary fee, but rather that the developers will find some other means to make a profit off of their product’s use. Generally this is achieved through ad revenue, as is the case with the popular hand-held game Angry Birds. Junaio does not function on this in-product add principal (at least I could not find any ads during my 15 min rummage through the app).

So what does the profit means of the developer have to do with what happens to my material once submitted? Well, Junaio’s privacy policy states that any and all material provided by the user to the app is considered to be the semi-property of the developer. The exact text reads,

“By submitting Content to metaio, you hereby grant metaio a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sub-licensable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Services and metaio’s (and its successor’s) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Services (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.”

While I am all for reading the fine text when downloading apps to my devices, I do not think that, in this instance, the developer is insinuating that they will profit from our submissions. Having perused the developer’s website, including the privacy policy and that of the parent company Metiao I find it unlikely that this would be their primary source of revenue. Additionally I do not believe that the company is so insidious as to sell the user’s private information, as stated in Metaio’s privacy policy.

You may ask, why this little aside into the behind-the-scenes operations of an augmented reality app? I thought that, considering we will be relying heavily on free-use apps like Jenaio and Augment, we should be aware of the rules that govern the use of these programs. Ultimately these are profit-driven operations and as such should be examined when being used, especially if we are hoping to create works of digital history. While our current project is unlikely to garner any specific monetary acclaim, future endeavors by anyone in our class, or better yet anyone engaging in digital history, should be undertaken with the understanding that material submitted to free-use apps often comes with a finely spelled-out ownership clause.

TLDR: Always read the fine print whenever getting anything for free, especially if that free thing functions on a device that holds all of your personal information.

– Alex

Yay Discussion!

As my title suggests I’m super happy that people I don’t know are interested enough to have a chat with me. My last post discussed my thoughts on the realm of public history and my own attitudes towards the general practice. But alas, I have forgotten something, or rather, I failed to give public history credit where it is due!

A chum of mine from school said something today that made me really think about the nature of public history and engaging the average person with history. How could I have overlooked this: discussion. She noted that museums and other public spaces (which I have, admittedly been quick to dismiss) are becoming more and more places where the public can engage in a dialogue about history. Why did this not occur to me? Perhaps I suffer from a draconian outlook on things. Either way this idea really struck a chord with me. Some museums offer the public a place to discuss their own thoughts and experiences with historians, and as my friend noted, they allow people to ask questions freely and without too heavy an influence. Spectacular! I am all for this. I still stand by my personal approach to history, but I’ve got to admit when I’ve been hasty. I may have just been swayed by public history a bit.

You may not have convinced me to abandon traditional history yet, but heck if you haven’t given me something to think about!

– Alex

It's comfy up here, why not join me

Diagnosis: Not A Public Historian

Big whoop, right?

No really. I am going to write this piece with my hand exposed. I’ve got a pair of sevens, Jack-high: Not a public historian.

Idiom and metaphor aside, why does this matter?

Let me try to answer that in a roundabout way.

If I have argued anything over my last couple of posts it is that I am a proponent of form over content. I have dealt with this in relation to games and other specific instances of digital history but perhaps I should extrapolate on what I mean when I say content and form. I would argue that the way in which history is understood, the connections that we make as historians and the means by which we explore history as a practice is far more important than the subjects we explore. The subject matter, or content, is unimportant to the expression of history as a public space. What importance do “the facts” have when presenting history to the average person? Tonnes of importance is the answer I would think. “Facts” and the “truth” are what non-historians understand of our practice. We memorize events from the past and regurgitate them on command when needed. Is history a compendium of all human knowledge: my studies have taught me better. History is about ideas and interactions, about why people do things not what things people do. How does one explain the finer complexities of human interaction through plaques in a museum? I would argue that this is the big folly of public history: the failure to present history, in a philosophical form, to the public.

[This is where everyone begins to scribble down their hate-mail.]

Until now we have not had the means to explore these interactions. Plaques and displays are exceptionally limited in what they can do for us. Additionally public historians have been limited by the public’s lack of interest in the inner-workings of history in favor of the flashy veneer of historical “facts”. Digital history proposes a new way in which public historians can work their craft. On this matter I have already discussed in some small detail. It is the task of the public historian to present not the “facts”, but the means by which we explore history to the public. It is their job to find new ways of bridging the gap between the academic and the average. Until this is accomplished, museums and other public history spaces will continue to present interesting “truths” and historical “facts”.

What then is the job of the historian?

Nothing. Historians owe nothing. I recently read a very interesting blog post concerning the duty of historians. While I agree with much of what was said (particularly on the sadly waning engagement of the average person with anything, let alone history) I was concerned with the emphasis placed on an historical moral imperative to teach. I disagree with the idea that historians have a clerical duty as wielders of historical knowledge. Unlike public historians we are interested in “facts”, but insomuch as they can lead us to a better understanding of the greater complexities of history and human connections in the past. For me, history is a deeply personal exploration of ideas and thoughts. These are of interest to me, but I am under no illusions that they are mine to sermonize. These ideas are my own, sought, uncovered, taken, fermented, extrapolated, re-imagined, mine. History is the pursuit of a modern Arete. If the public demands my knowledge they can take it as I present it, complicated and blurry, in dire need of attention, but most of all, interpreted. History is not the practice of spelling out past events for everyone’s consumption, it is the pursuit of ideas through time for the enlightenment of the pursuer. You may read this and retch from the stench of academic arrogance, even find my rantings to be emblematic of a superiority complex often perceived within the academy. Sadly I fear that that is what most will read from this, but it is not my intent. I would love to share my knowledge with anyone who wants to listen, but I do not deem it a requirement of my profession to do so, nor do I think it appropriate to simplify history for mass-consumption. History is not something that can be effectively simplified without a critical loss of quality. There are no neat little boxes we can categorize history into to make it more accessible to the lay-person [stay tuned for a future post on this]. My thought is that such simplification does not benefit anyone. Instead what needs to be done is to raise the public’s understanding to a level that allows them to access this material and to formulate their own theories.

Such an ideal world we do not yet live in, but I have spent enough time around dedicated people working in the realm of public history to be content in knowing that this place is not so far away as we may think.

– Alex

I would like to thank my good chum Tyler for his participation as a sounding board and thought-provoker in writing this post.

P.S. The blog I referred to earlier was created by Andrew Bratcher of George Mason University. He is also designing an interactive game which looks super neat. Check it out here. I’m excited to see what other people, beyond my own cohort, are doing with games in history.

How Games Teach

I had a thought the other day about video games and their use as a teaching tool. Specifically I was thinking about how they can be used as a tool to teach history. My thought was this, “history is a much harder subject to express through video games than, let’s say, engineering, biology, or computer science (obviously, but maybe less so that we would like to think).” My reasoning is that where these disciplines can impart some relatively concrete ideas through video games and still have them be entertaining, historical games will always be plagued by a battle between content and form.

Let’s look at Minecraft. Why Minecraft? Well because besides being a spectacularly fun and ingenious game, it also has an enormous amount of potential as a teaching tool. Before I go further let me quickly summarize the game. Minecraft is a first-person adventure-survival-sandbox game originally for the PC but now found on a multitude of platforms. Imagine playing LEGO, but where the LEGO is life-sized, you are also LEGO, and this world has computer-generated environments, wildlife, and enemies. The basic premise of the game is to survive and build. The lack of objective is what makes this game so open for educational exploitation! (I will note that there was a goal added later on, but one can easily play without completing it: i.e. hunting down and slaying the End Dragon).

As an example of the usefulness of this game as a teaching tool, pretend we want to teach someone about currents, or networking, or circuits. The vanilla game comes with redstone, which is essentially wiring. With enough time and effort you can create complex systems of buttons and switches that power machines and gizmos. A friend of mine (an engineer to no surprise) created a functioning calculator using redstone and dirt. Additional mods allow for even more complex creations.

This may sound tedious, especially when the time it takes to create some of these contraptions is not measured in hours or minutes but days and weeks, but think of the results. I’ve definitely sunk several days into a creation, using trial and error, learning from my mistakes to create multi-floor elevators. Not even a primary component to a project, just an aside. In doing so I had to think about how circuits work, logic gates, power consumption (the mod I was using required this) and a bevy of other ideas with which I had never been formally trained and heck, ever really dealt with in the real world. This is coming form someone who stopped taking math and physics classes seven years ago because the basic level confused me to no end.

Minecraft is an exceptional tool for teaching content-based ideas. Does A + B = C? yes? no!? Trial and error to find out, fail if you do, that is half of the process. History is not a simple expression of content. there ideas, themes, conceptual frameworks that are difficult to present in such a straightforward method. If history were easy to put into video games Call of Duty would be acclaimed by historians.

The problem here, I think, is with the form rather than the content. How can we create games which allow for the exploration of historical concepts the way Minecraft allows the exploration of the natural world, physics, and science? Perhaps the issue is quantity of content?

Minecraft and its peers have their entire game designed with the manipulation of the world and of experimenting with things as the core concept. It is much harder to do this with history. The player would not simply be interacting with the environment, but also people who have free will. Creating an exploratory world inhabited by large numbers of free agents is complicated and beyond the realistic capabilities of today’s consumer hardware. Some games allow for detailed user-interaction but these instances are often limited. Mass Effect, for example, allowed for a massive number of story options but ultimately drove the plot to the same batch of endings. This is true for most first-person games. Even with a degree of choice the constraints of the game as a piece of software and programming require the narrative to be restricted to a handful of endings. This, to me, is simply a more complex version of the on-a-rail style of game, where players can chose their own story for the in-between moments but are required to always experience the key events in the same way. Not to say that this style of gaming is bad or even that it lacks creativity, far from it. My favorite game, Half Life, is exactly this style of play and through a creative story and interesting plot development it presents the player with an immersive experience, but one that is still formulated like a book: progression of ideas/events towards a singular conclusion.

What about history though? I would argue that the content is irrelevant for an historical game. The setting is not as important and the framework of the game. As I said previously, a game where the player could interact with numerous agents, and whose interactions would carry through to other entities within the game, would be wildly beneficial to the process of historical game creation. This would counteract the premise that most games hold, an idea which is contrary to the telling of good history I think, that the player is somehow uniquely different or better than the other agents that inhabit the world. The player is always stronger, tougher, faster, and more intelligent. These traits are usually countered by the multitude of enemies/obstacles rather than with quality of problems. History is not like this. Arguably one could say that many key historical figures had wealth or power at their disposal that allowed them to achieve greater things, or that certain people were able to rise to predominance due to inherent skills or traits, but this ultimately leads to an old-school telling of history as the story of “old white men.” If we want to engage with history at a closer level we need to deal with the average person and look at the interactions that regular folk had.

This is where storytelling through games because very problematic. How can you tell the story of a french peasant farmer during the 15th century without adequate historical source material? You don’t. Don’t try. Stop trying. Make it up. Allow the player to weave their own fiction story. The individual story is not important. Arguably what is important is the way it is created. Provide the framework for what we know is possible. As an example I present the game Europe 1400: the Guild. The historical accuracy of this game is not important. What is interesting is the way the player interacts. You play as a peasant who has just moved into the city in [insert country here], Europe. You become skilled in a trade and through successive generations lead your familial dynasty to greatness or ruin. The game allowed the player to create a fictional history of great families over the course of several hundred years. You could start as a banker and become emperor of you country through successful deals and the acquisition of wealth and lands. Conversely you could have one generation of poor health and the family could end in ruins, as was the case of many peoples in this era. While the emperor-route was the desired goal it was not the only way to end the game: lack of an heir was another.

The interactions you had in Europa did not really impact other entities within the game. These were largely generated by the computer to influence the difficulty and to ensure that your experience was fun, but it was an interesting concept. The technology to create an in-game agent society is emerging as you read this. Games like Middle Earth: Shadow over Mordor are using the kind of quasi-societal programming that would be useful in creating historical games. Shadows is limited to the use of the dynamic game element as a key enemy system, but in the future we could see it employed on a scale that encompassed every character in the game. Such a universe would mean that (hearkening back to the 15th century peasant theme) a dirty deal with an individual in one town may come back to haunt the player three towns over, the acceptance of one faith over another would shape the player’s position in the world as a whole.

So what the heck am I saying here?

Well, the basic gist of my thought is that our current level of technical development in relation to game production is still in an infantile stage for the creation of good and immersive historical games en-mass. Until then we will need to rely on clever historians and developers working together to exploit the existing frameworks we have. By manipulating the player’s understanding of the standard game’s framework there is opportunity to engage people in historical content through games. this being said the current construction and programming of games is not as conducive to the expression of historical ideas as it is for other disciplines, but with interesting developments popping up every day it will not be too long before we can start to see games which not only engage the public but also engage history effectively.

TLDR: We need some innovative thinkers to overcome the limits of today’s game constraints if we want to be able to use games to teach history in anything more than a cursory and novel manner.

– Alex