digital history

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


History and Video Games: A Brief Thought

I am definitely one of those people who enjoys playing video games that have an historic theme or which are tentatively based in some historical period. Having overheard some of my friends’ discussions on the subject I began to think of how problematic these games can be for historians. To the average person games like Call of Duty appear as “historical” games, because they are largely (Infinity Ward’s “Modern Warfare debacle notwithstanding) set in our own observable past: primarily the Second World War and the Cold War. Likewise games like Company of Heroes, Day of Defeat, Age of Empires, Empire Earth, and the entire Total War series feature an interpreted historical setting as well. I have found that many people dislike the association between taking place in the past and being historical. Arguably these games do not really deal with history as academia understands it, but rather utilize the popularity of some of the more famous topics of historical study as a springboard from which to propel their game’s story. Call of Duty, for example, can exist entirely without the historical context. Replace Axis soldiers with aliens and the fields of Central Europe with some distant alien landscape and the game’s fundamental elements are unscathed. Same can be true for most of the games I have listed. These are not works of history but rather creative projects which use history as a means of enhancing the story-telling. There is a fear that these games distort the casual understanding of historical events. Call of Duty (I understand that I’m beginning to sound like a broken record but give me a chance) depicts the Second World War in very black-and-white terms, Allies good, Axis bad. There is not expression of the horrors of war, no levels that force the player to sit in a cold tent, no mini-games to stave off frostbite and shell-shock. Players simply advance and kill. Shoot people until you reach the next ledge, only then will you be secure in the fact that your saved game is slightly closer to your current position. What right do these games (which have easily surpassed film and television in sales and [maybe?] audience) have to misrepresent such important events?

I’ve painted for you a pretty cantankerous picture of video games and history, and honestly I often have this worry about games myself but recently I have begun to think about the positives of such mediums. What about those people who question the legitimacy of these games? What about those few who play Call of Duty and want to learn more about what’s going on in-game? I ask this because I’ve been there. I remember playing Age of Empires and wondering what the heck actually happened that inspired such a game. Realistically I first became interested in learning some of the relevant histories because I was an exceptionally un-creative child and wanted ideas for campaign editing. I remember taking out books on ancient Carthage, Rome, and, later, Medieval England. These books provided me with the information necessary to create interesting levels and campaigns with the in-game level editor. Wouldn’t you know it if the stuff wasn’t pretty interesting. These books were designed for someone my age (about 8-12) and were a stepping stone to some deeper learning later on.

So what am I rambling on about here? Basically I am not too worried about the misuse of history in video games. Sure Age of Empires isn’t historically accurate, and of course Call of Duty is a gross misrepresentation of the war, but perhaps some of the people who enjoy these titles as entertainment will take it upon themselves to look further into the bits that interested them. Maybe, just maybe they will continue down the path that this curiosity paves for them.

If I could tell my 12 year-old  self that I would be ranting about my experiences on Age of Empires to ones of tens of people on the internet I’m sure he would be impressed.

Here’s looking at you [me] kid!


– Alex

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