HIST 5702 X

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 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

Make it (public engagement in history) so!

Mr LaForge, Engage (the Public in History)!

I am all for interactivity in museums. I would (personally) argue that being able to engage with the subject matter is by far more interesting than simply reading about it. For example, let’s take a trip down memory lane, to the Canadian Museum of Nature circa 1998. There was a fossil-excavation exhibit where you could use some replica tools to search for dinosaur bones in a big pit of sand. There was an active beehive in the building where you could see the inner-workings of a hive and how the bees acted within. These two “exhibits” always fascinated me as a child because you could go beyond that initial cold textual interface of plaques and charts and actually get a feel for the stuff. Contrast this instance of the museum to today, what do we find? Grand skeletons and things that are visually stunning, but much of the interactivity has been lost. The dinosaurs, which are everyone’s favorite (right?), have been formalized in order to project that “world-class” feel that the new iteration of the museum is attempting to exude. The bees are gone, replaced by images and the occasional dead maquette. Where is the interactivity? Now mind you I understand that this anecdote focuses on something, perhaps, beyond the realm of public history but the problems are the same: how does an institution like a museum balance interactivity and engagement with the expression of information in such a way as to not detract from the exhibits in either peoples’ interest or their understanding?

*Enter AR stage left*

I think there is a lot of promise in the incorporation of augmented reality and museum exhibits. Let’s take the example of the ROM’s dinosaur exhibit as seen here. This idea is great. Imagine the fun younger people would have being able to see the dinosaurs move, being able to see what they look like with flesh! Heck, I want to go see this now and I’m apparently an adult! My only issue with this approach is the gimmicky nature of it. I imagine that the visual component is rather interesting the first time you see it but the use of AR here is not breaking any boundaries. Anyone who has seen Jurassic Park knows that you can show video of moving dinosaurs on a TV or projected screen, the use of tablet computers (I think) is more of a change in medium rather than some inspiring new approach to content. This being said I still think that many people would be drawn in by this fun new trick, but ultimately there is a need for something more profound and engaging, something that allows the public to get involved in the “public” history.

*Enter QRator stage right*

Here we go! This is engaging. Take the versatility of the tablet computer/super-phone and the fact that they are relatively widespread among museum patrons and what do you have? An opportunity to invite the public into each exhibit, allowing them to get involved in some way. Asking questions and making comments about exhibits may seem pretty mundane, and perhaps it reminds us of the folly of the ROM’s AR attempt in that commenting has been available for a while through other means (paper?). I would argue, alternatively, that this is not a matter of simply leaving comments, but of allowing patrons to experience each other’s opinions and thoughts selectively and in relative real-time. This may be a small start, but I think it is in the right direction.

The problem I am seeing here is that we seem to be hitting a wall in creativity. We are thinking of different ways to utilize this new technology, but these ideas are not new. For the most part they are more complex reiterations of old methods. TV or Tablet? Paper or Smartphone? Those creating and developing public exhibitions using new technology are perhaps bound by traditional ways of thinking, experiencing trepidation over what the public will and will not accept as innovative in historical expressions. We think interactive but not imaginative, interesting but not innovative. Ultimately it may be up to the up-and-coming historians and curators to think of engaging new ways of presenting history though new media. Who could be germinating the next big idea in our brainboxes? Probably not me, but maybe you!

– Alex

TLDR: Like using a Star Trek joke in your header, recent AR experiments are interesting but not innovative.

Corn-based Artifacts

In preparation for today’s post I, along with some of my classmates, adventured to the “Learning Lab” in our university’s library to visit our new 3D printers. I should start off by expanding on what exactly the “Learning Lab” is. The Learning Lab is a section of our university’s library that is focused on providing new, technologically-integrated means to approach studies. Basically it is a repository of neat gadgets that the average person couldn’t hope to afford to posses on their own. In addition to the 3D printers I will shortly discuss, the Lab also has several large, high-def TVs and game consoles as well as reading treadmills and assorted other gizmos to tinker with. The premise, as far as I understand, is to allow students the opportunity to use new technology in their studies without having to cover the costs of keeping up-to-date on the hardware.


The 3D printer is an example of a new piece of technology that most students could not afford. Coming in at around $2 000 a unit 3D printers are just beginning to appear as consumer products, but we are still a few years away from seeing a 3D printer in every home. So while I don’t think I can rationalize printing my own custom board game pieces yet, I can see a use for these machines as historical tools.

While I fully support the use of augmented reality in the presentation of historical objects and places, I think that there is definitely something gained from the tactile interaction with a physical object, something largely lacking in completely virtual recreations. 3D printers could, in theory, provide a useful supplement to virtual renderings. Imagine having the virtual image of an ancient coin. You could look at it from all angles thanks to the 3D rendering on your smart device, see the colour and shading of it and where the metal had been pressed, but you may not truly get a feel for its size or shape. Include a relatively inexpensive 3D printed replica of the coin and you have bridged the gap between representation and the real object. Obviously there are limitations to this process. A printed coin would not weigh the same nor be made of the same material and thusly would have a different texture, but the sizing could be extrapolated appropriately and so could the shape as well. This artificial totem could be incorporated into the virtual experience, enriching the overall process of identifying and learning about historical objects.

TLDR: Our school has a cool 3D printer and I can’t wait to put it to use engaging with history!

IMG_20140113_124658 IMG_20140113_124706

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more

A warm welcome to my fellow classmates and the 2.5 other people who may, through the eons of time, eventually unearth and read these words. This will be the first of (I hope) many posts, some of which will discuss my experiences working with my colleagues of HIST 5702 X, others will reflect on my own research, others still may simply relate to interesting topics I have come across in the daily goings on of an awkward grad student. Before getting into the nitty-gritty of my involvement with digital history, perhaps a short foray into my own interests as an historian.

As a historian I am interested in how people in the past understood their own place in time, specifically how they viewed themselves and their society in relation to their past and their future. I am also interested in the medium in which this temporal perception is expressed. These expressions can range from works of fiction to works of art. My own studies revolve around the latter. My early interest in this subject, however, stems from something a little more contemporary.

AoE Carthage

Age of Empires! The amount of time I have sunk into playing this game as a child (and still often do) is staggering. This was my first real experience with interactive, “digital” history.  I can, with a fair degree of certainty, say that Age of Empires and Indiana Jones are what first peaked my interest in history. Growing up these were the sorts of games I played. Some of the big ones were Age of Empires, Empire Earth, Company of Heroes: games where you could rewrite history as you saw fit were my prime choice. I was, like I imagine many other people were, interested in the realities of these events. I remember playing a particularly interesting mission in Age of Empires: Hannibal’s crossing the alps. I found it fascinating and craved more on the subject. Reading every book I found I quickly realized that many of these games had scenario editors wherein I could create my own campaigns. This tool, combined with the many books I had found at the library allowed me to attempt, with varying degrees of success, to recreate the histories I found on text in the game. This would be my first real stab at historical production/recreation.

HIST 5702 will not be my first encounter with digital history as a scholarly approach. Having previously taken two of Dr. Graham’s courses I have already come in contact with the rich and ever-expanding world of the digital humanities. My positive experience in these courses is largely the reason for my enrollment in the current instance of digital history.  Hearkening back to my days as an avid Age of Empires player I continue to be interested in mediums which present history via an alternative to text. Additionally, having a general lack of experience with the public historical approach to history, I am interested to see how new mediums are used and the processes that go into the creation of historical work outside the familiar realm of papers and presentations.

My own use of technology in my work is fairly in-depth. I am an avid user of Dropbox and Google Drive, as well as Instapaper, and Presi . I am very intrigued by the possibilities presented by Zotero, to which I have just been introduced. I think that this up coming semester will provide a lot of challenges to my default way of thinking about historical projects, however I am certain that the new tools I will receive and the means to use them will ultimately prove to be immeasurably beneficial to myself and the way I practice history.

TLDR: I’m very excited to be involved in this project and am looking forward to enriching my own understanding of the historical practice as well as learning from my classmates in the application of public history. Also, “Age of Empires.”

– Alex