Roundtable on Theory and Practice

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[edit] A Roundtable on the Theory and Practice of Simulating History

Towards a Theory of Good-History-through-Good-Gaming for Historians and Educators

by Kevin Kee & Shawn Graham
With contributions by Marion Barfurth, Michel Blondeau, Mike Clare, Patrick Dunae, Andrew Large, John Lutz, and Chris Tan

This roundtable discussion took place during the summer of 2006 at a symposium organised by Kevin Kee and held in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario. Following the roundtable, the contributors to the discussion wrote out their thoughts, which were subsequently aggregated into the text below.

[edit] Introduction

What to do about the barbarians? The emperor has a problem. Barbarian farmers have been spotted along the borders of his domain. They haven’t crossed over yet, but when they do, it is sure to be a crisis. What can he do about it? He doesn’t have enough troops to launch any punitive raids… but maybe if he trades with them, they’d be happy to settle down outside his borders? Yes…. perhaps he’ll try that.

The emperor, in this case, is sitting at his computer, one of many players of the popular computer game, Civilization IV (Firaxis 2005). Playing the game, the ‘emperor’ has to learn how to balance many competing forces. How does he increase agricultural output so that his army can sweep across the plains of a far continent? Should he direct his people to concentrate on cultural activities – or should the state’s focus be on technology? How can he deal with the long-term fallout of that disastrous episode at diplomacy with his main rival?

Civilization IV lets the player guide any one of a number of cultures from the stone age to the space age. Other games sacrifice breadth for depth – Imperial Glory (Pyro Studios, 2005) for instance concentrates on the political and military world of Napoleonic Europe. These are commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) games. These are not self-consciously ‘educational’ games, and there are comparatively few successful games of similar sophistication designed with educational goals in mind. One notable exception is The Calm and The Storm, a World War II simulation (Muzzy Lane 2006) that relies on more than a (virtual) role of the dice to simulate the outcomes of your (i.e., you in the role of Churchill, Chamberlain, Roosevelt, Hitler…) decisions. Niall Ferguson recently reviewed this game in the New York Magazine and suggested that Gaming history is not a crass attempt to make the subject relevant to today’s kids. Rather it’s an attempt to revitalize history with the kind of technology that kids have pioneered. And why not? After all, the Game Boy generation is growing up. And, as they seek a deeper understanding of the world we live in, they may not turn first to the bookshelves. They may demand to play – or rather replay – the great game of history for themselves (Ferguson 2006).

There is no doubting that students learn something by playing the game. Van Eck recently argued that game playing – especially of good games – unconsciously incorporates what educational researches call ‘situated cognition’, that is, “learning that occurs in meaningful and relevant contexts”. Meaning and relevance are provided by the game (Van Eck 2006:18). But what? Do players learn ‘proper’ history and the historical method? Or do they learn mere ephemera, such as when one is Emperor, it is always wise to garrison troops on the periphery of the empire, or don’t fight a war on two fronts? As Van Eck argues, we need to be clear that “not all games are good for all learners and for all learning outcomes” (Van Eck 2006: 18). We cannot simply grab a COTS game and tell our students to go play. Civilization IV, for all of its breadth and complexity, will not teach history on its own. Sid Meiers, the creator of the Civilization franchise did not set out to create an educational game, in the sense that playing it would teach the player about ‘true’ history, an important consideration to be borne in mind. What he did do, however, was create a history-based game where the learning process itself was a significant part of the fun (situated cognition): “I want to make the distinction between education and learning. Education is typically boring but learning is very exciting. We like to introduce learning into a game without making it feel educational. In learning you decide what to learn – in education you are told what to learn.” (Sid Meiers quoted in Brake, 2002).

Within a half-year of being released, Civilization IV had sold over six million copies. When was the last time an academic work of historical research reached that size of an audience? What is truly novel about computerised games and simulation is this reach. If six million people are playing this computer game, which ostensibly has something to say about how history unfolds (Civilization IV has a heavy diffusionist / military model of cultural evolution) then it is incumbent that we as historians address how history may be learned from playing these games. Game players are not barbarians. They play these historically-themed games for the pleasure of exploring the question ‘what will happen next?’ (Carr, 2006 has drawn attention to the fact that, whatever else is embedded in the design of the game, what the players draw from the game is quite something else). Turned on its head, this question is the same one that motivates many historical inquiries: what happened then? Why did it happen? Playing a game, the player has to learn why things happen the way they do in order to play the game successfully. Gamers are but short steps away from becoming historians, if we can only discover the best way to express history through simulation. What research do we draw on as we study how we can accomplish this transformation? In this paper we therefore explore the works of authors whose ideas we think constitute the necessary foundation for constructing a theory of game-play for history education.

[edit] Simulation and Education

Academic interest in games is growing. PhD theses have been written on the value of incorporating commercial games into an educator’s repertoire (e.g. Squire 2004). In many instances however, the actual pedagogical value of playing the game is doubtful. As with the introduction of any new technology into the classroom, there is a period where the technology functions mostly as a ‘baby-sitting’ device (remember the introduction of the VCR into our classrooms?). That is, there is no distinguishing between the medium and the message (the medium is not the message). We become excited about new media, but forget to think about the content (Van Eck 2006:28). In this article, we are expressly concerned with content, and how that content is transmitted via computer gaming and simulation. While the computerisation of games is a novel development, games-in-education is an ancient phenomenon: “Games are… the most ancient and time-honored vehicle for education. They are the original educational technology, the natural one, having received the seal of approval of natural selection. We don’t see mother lions lecturing cubs at the chalkboard; we don’t see senior lions writing their memoirs for posterity. In light of this, the question, ‘Can games have educational value?’ becomes absurd… Game-playing is a vital educational function for any creature capable of learning” (Crawford 1982).

Tying insights into “constructionism” with conclusions drawn from other fields of study, literary theorist James Paul Gee has articulated a unifying theory of how simulations support learning, contending that these technologies enable students to experience new worlds, where they can develop resources for problem solving, and ultimately, view the environment as a design space that can be engaged and changed (Gee, 2003). According to Gee, simulations for learning should be designed so that a student thinks, acts and values like a professional: a simulation for physics learning, for example, should place the student in the role of a physicist. We also need to realise that not all computer games are alike. Games come in a huge variety of genres and sub-genres. We need to be aware of the differences in games, and where these different kinds of games may best align with our learning objectives (Van Eck 2006:22)

Gee’s research has focused on simulations of learning in math and science: as a result, his conclusions are of only limited use for simulations in the humanities. Science education emphasizes the acquisition of knowledge and practices of domains such as history, but where science education pushes a student to build knowledge, humanities education encourages students to problematize knowledge. Laws of physics may be discovered by a student simulating the role of a physicist, but the content of history is undiscoverable – a student can never go back to the past; s/he can only articulate and then question explanations of the past. Yet games would seem to be very good at problematizing knowledge. Playing games is a cyclical process of formulating hypothesis (“what happens if…?”) testing (“…I’ll try this…”) and revision (“…well, that didn’t work…!”). This is what is called cognitive disequilibrium, the process where the learners readjust their expectations in light of new information (resolution). Feedback in a game world is often immediate, allowing the cycle to begin again. “Games thrive as teaching tools when they create a continuous cycle of cognitive disequilibrium and resolution…while also allowing the player to be successful” (Van Eck 2006:20).

The problem then is how to create this virtuous circle for teaching history, its methods and its problems?

[edit] On whose shoulders do we stand?

Our research on computer simulations for history is connected to a broader movement addressing simulations for learning. Part of the rationale for using simulations or COTS in education stems from their appeal to twenty-first century youth: “digital natives” who have grown up with, and speak the language of, computers (Prensky, 2001). Recent findings in brain research also point to the potential of educational simulations. Drawing on these developments, theorists have advanced the notion of “constructionism” (Harel and Paper, 1991), contending that knowledge is not deposited by the teacher into the student – what has been termed “banking” (Freire and Bergman, 1970) – but rather constructed in the mind of the learner. Finally, there is the fact that the games industry has enormous impact in today’s culture (in some estimates, it is a market worth 10$ billion US, Van Eck 2006:17): as Ferguson (2006) says, the bookshelf and the single-authored authoritative tome may not be the first point of call for our students.

Games that have been designed by academics, with little grounding in theories of good gaming, are typically of the boring drill-and-response type. As academics, we run the risk of ruining what makes a good game, if we do not consult with professional game designers. At the same time, gamers are good at figuring out what makes a game ‘fun’, but will not make games that are paedagogically sound if we do not engage with each other. “The answer is not to privilege one arena over the other but to find the synergy between pedagogy and engagement” (Van Eck 2006:18). Commercial game designers do not set out to be historians. But interestingly, many students trained in history or the humanities have ended up becoming game designers (Don Daglow, Keynote address Future Play 2006 conference).

We can detect therefore some areas of overlap between ‘good history’ and ‘good gaming’ in our survey of literature we believe to be the foundation for developing a theory of good-history-through-gaming. Recently, we brought together historians, educators, and gamers to try to find Van Eck’s ‘synergies’, and to discuss the literature that each considered to be seminal for their own work in games and history. We wanted to join together our previously separate lines of inquiry, to understand one another’s disciplinary perspectives for research into simulations and games, and to explore the intersections between these perspectives. The resulting (free-wheeling and free-associating) conversation took place over two days. Here, we have collated the different contributions to gather our thoughts under (more-or-less) coherent headings, but have left the editing to a minimum to allow individual voices to retain their idiosyncrasies and individual approaches to teaching, gaming, and the past.

[edit] Dialogues

It might be disingenuous to try to divorce learning from teaching, but let us take the two separately if we can. How do so-called ‘digital natives’ learn?

Marion Barfurth: With regard to the more general question of ‘how we learn’, one strand of thought that has had an impact on me is captured in Bransford, Brown and Cocking’s 1999 How People Learn. This book captures and synthesizes the emerging science of learning also now more broadly referred to as The Learning Sciences. Rooted in contemporary constructivist and socio-constructivist learning theories, the Learning Sciences focus is on understanding how we learn and consequently what we should teach and how best to teach it. The book covers our scientific understanding of learning that includes memory and the structure of knowledge, problem solving and reasoning, regulatory processes that govern learning (metacognition), and how the culture and community play a role in learning. It includes a chapter that provides powerful examples from history, mathematics and science. The book thoroughly covers key research studies and provides a solid foundation on which to build a research design for innovative learning environments that foster conceptual understanding and change.

How we learn too depends on how we are taught. Salomon, Pea, Brown and Heath’s edited 1996 volume, Distributed Cognitions, is rooted in social constructivism, the notion of distribute cognitions is one in which knowledge is examined from a social perspective. This book examines the possibility that cognitions are situated and distributed rather than decontextualized tools and products of mind. In this theoretical framework, learning is viewed from a perspective of bits and pieces of knowledge coming from different sources (people and artifacts) that come together in different situated and context dependent rather than simply and in-the-head process. The chapters examine how all of these elements may be interconnected and play a role in cognition. The book presents four theoretical chapters and three case studies.

The usual metaphor for talking about different bits and pieces coming together, and for all things distributed, is of course ‘the network’. Feldman, Konold, and Coulter’s Network Science A decade later: The internet and classroom learning presents a literal working of that metaphor in learning. As a testbed for telecollaboration four network science curricula (BirdWatch, EnergyNet, Global Lab, and NGS Kids Network) were developed and implemented. Working in a context of distributed learning environments designed to support inquiry learning and develop scientific methods and understanding, this book reports on the evaluation of the projects and their impact on learning. Several case studies describe the process of integrating this innovative curriculum and pedagogy into real classroom settings. The evaluation methodology and results are reported throughout the book.

Networks and distributed learning can also be the bedrock for powerful simulations. In Mitchell Resnick’s 1994 Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams: Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds, Resnick describes a powerful computing environments that model both natural and unnatural phenomena (StarLogo). Resnick (Media Lab) designed and developed some of the most powerful simulations of highly active and changing phenomena. He has demonstrated how to use the power of computing for complex modeling. In doing so, he provided a proof of concept of the power of computing for simulating both simple and complex behaviours.

Shawn Graham: I’ve made much use of StarLogo’s successor, NetLogo (Wilensky 1999) in my own teaching and research. As far as teaching goes, I have not had my students build their own simulations themselves (although this is one of Netlogo’s goals), but I have let them play with others’ simulations. The element of play is extremely important for developing understanding, especially for complex phenomena where there are no simple cause and effects. Now, most models out there deal with physical or biological phenomena – the evolution of camouflage for instance. But in my own research, I’ve been able to use this agent-based modeling environment to understand the flow of ideas through the Roman Empire (Graham 2006). The power of the simulation allowed me to generate new ways of looking at archaeological materials that had seemingly been exhausted. I know we are talking about ‘learning’ in the context of students, but research is of course a way of learning too. The really lovely thing about Netlogo is that the code and its assumptions are written in a ‘near-english’ – with a bit of work, it is reasonably clear what the code is intended to do. That way, the assumptions of the researcher are laid bare – and that of course can make for excellent ‘teachable moments’. Hopefully right now, somewhere in the world, a student has read my paper and is now looking at my code, disputing my assumptions, and building a better simulation to argue that ‘Graham (2006) clearly did not take into account ….x’.

Patrick Dunae: Speaking of learning through simulation and never minding the digital native for the moment, I wanted to comment on the relationship history has to ‘heritage’. Raphael Samuel (1994) wrote the essays that comprise Theatres of Memory to answer British intellectuals who regarded the public’s interest in “heritage” as a symptom of national and intellectual decay. In the 1980s, British academic historians were especially critical of heritage theme parks, open-air museums, and historical re-enactments (that is, simulations of the historic past), all of which were enjoyed by the general public. Samuel, who founded the History Workshop movement at Ruskin College, Oxford, accused the critics of intellectual snobbery. He challenged their approach to “record-based history, with its famous names and dates, causes and effects, and progression from point to point” (p.437). “History has always been a hybrid form of knowledge syncretizing past and present, memory and myth, the written word and the spoken word,” Samuel said. History was a “promiscuous” mistress and was all the better for being so. In Theatres of Memory, Samuel is withering in his criticism of aesthetes and academics and their condescending attitude towards heritage, accusing it of ‘trivializing’ the past, a package holiday substitute for the real thing. He took aim at academic historians who continued “to give a privileged place to the written word, to hold the visual (and the verbal) in comparatively low esteem, and to regard imagery as a kind of trap.” Samuel suggested that historians who were intellectually “offended” by heritage were possibly offended by the “modernism and more specifically the postmodernism of heritage.” Samuel, of course, relished the postmodernity of heritage; indeed, it was the vitality of heritage that appealed to him. The activity of heritage, and the way it engaged the people, made it a legitimate kind of historical discourse for Samuel. “There is no reason to think that people are more passive when looking at old photographs or film footage, handing a museum exhibit, following a local history trail, or even buying a historical souvenir, than when reading a book,” he said. “The pleasures of the gaze –scopophilia, as it is disparagingly called – are different in kind form those of the written word but not necessarily less taxing on historical reflection and thought.” Academic historians who tend to disparage heritage and public history also tend to dismiss and sometimes denigrate digital history. Accordingly, historians who are excited by new digital technologies, endorse the postmodern character of simulated history, and are not averse to the idea of “playing with history” will find nourishment in Samuel’s Theatres of Memory.

As Lowenthal (1997) recognized, the public is drawn to the past for different reasons and reaches out to the past in myriad ways. Two American historians, Roy Rosenzweig (George Mason University) and David Thelen (Indiana University), reveal how the American public engages with history (Rosenzweig and Thelen: 1998). In a survey that borrows methodologies from the social sciences, the authors found that “ordinary people” in the United States were fascinated by the past, but they did not like History as the subject was taught in schools and colleges.

Rosenzweig and Thelen discovered that ordinary people engaged with the past in all sorts of ways. People did so by scrap-booking, compiling genealogies, collecting antiques, restoring vintage cars, visiting historic battlefields, and talking to elders. The authors discovered that Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans and White Americans valued different elements of the past in different ways; similarly, they found that age and gender were important variables in determining people’s history-related interests and activities. But nearly everyone in their sample of 1,500 Americans felt “more connected to the past” by visiting a museum or watching a movie or television program about the past than they did by studying history in school or college. Moreover, when asked their opinions on the “trustworthiness of sources of information about the past,” respondents overwhelmingly ranked museum curators and personal accounts from their grandparents above college History professors.

They concluded there was a need for new style of historical culture. Rosenzweig deduced that people want “to get as close to the [historical experience] as possible” and want “to use the past on their own terms.” Thelen suggested that academic historians move towards a “participatory culture” where participants “would explore whether things from the past were like or unlike the present,” where participants could see “the sources of [historical] change or continuity.” “By revisiting or reliving the past [participants] could reinterpret it as they unearthed new sources but also as they experienced new needs in the present,” Thelen wrote. The historical culture he envisioned “would be one with many levels, uses, points of access, recognitions.” The participatory culture Thelen envisions might readily be created in an immersive environment that simulates history. The historical experience that Rosenzweig imagines might also be created with digital technology. Rosenzweig’s most recent book, co-authored with Daniel J. Cohen and entitled Digital History (2005) describes some of these new technologies and the value of placing historical resources on the web. The historical simulations that I envision would engage History students and the general public on the web-based environment.

Simulation, networking, and participation then seem to be key concepts for good learning. What makes for good teaching in this digital age?

Mike Clare: I’d like to quote Douglas Adams here: “Humans are not proud of their ancestors, and rarely invite them round to dinner.” Adams’ unique worldview puts the work of historians and the teaching of history in an interesting light. If Adams’ answer to the great question of the meaning of life the universe and everything is true, then all we have done in the past does not make sense. To answer the fundamental question of the meaning of life Adams’ satirical work, the story line in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1980), put the question to the ultimate super computer that eventually spat out the answer “42”. It was an answer and a non- answer. If the answer is “42” and technology that got us to that answer, then what truly is the role and credibility of technology in the teaching of history? Although a work of fiction, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy raises some interesting questions about teaching history and the use of technology.

Patrick Dunae: I would like to mention David Lowenthal’s work again. Lowenthall is professor emeritus in the Department of Geography at University College, London. He contributed an essay on nostalgia to a collection of essays published by Manchester University Press in 1989, The Imagined Past. This collection was generally critical of the heritage industry in Britain. In fact, some of the academics who are represented in this collection are the historians Samuel had in mind when he wrote Theatres of Memory. But Lowenthal was never condescending of heritage or public history. He is, however, deeply interested in exploring the roots of our fascination with the past and understanding why we seek the presence of the past in so many different ways and places. These are major themes in his book, The Past of a Foreign Country, first published in 1985 and reprinted many times since. The title of the book is taken from the opening lines of L. P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between (1953): “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” In his book, Lowenthal considers the various vehicles we use to reach the past, vehicles that include historical scholarship, memory, preservation, rumination, and creative anachronisms. He defines history as a discipline that “explores and explains pasts grown ever more opaque over time,” and contrasts it with heritage, an activity that “clarifies pasts so as to infuse them with present purposes.” Lowenthal sees value in both history and heritage. His main point is that history is protean – that is, it is variable, versatile and takes many forms. And because it is protean, we need to approach it in a variety of ways. Lowenthal concludes by noting that the “past is integral to us all, individually and collectively.” The past is not “in a separate and foreign country; it is assimilated in ourselves, and resurrected into an ever-changing present.” I am intrigued by the concept of connecting a protean past with an ever-changing present. It’s a challenging concept and one that could readily be represented in applications involving simulated history.

Michel Blondeau: In a similar vein, Brian Quirt’s play, The Death of General Wolfe (1999), proves interesting for two reasons: for the approach the playwright takes and the subject matter that it covers. A concept rich, monologue-driven drama, it uses Benjamin West’s 1770 painting as the centerpiece from which to explore numerous themes. The well-crafted play has the audience traveling through history and myth, stories and facts – through the voices of a wide variety of present and past figures, both real and fictional.

It’s a lot to carry off and feels like it should be the starting point for something highly interactive – a game perhaps. It presents so many choices and builds so many possibilities; you feel you are being readied to participate in the discussion. Only, it is not interactive – it is a play, and you go home.

Mike Clare: The 1999 film Run Lola Run illustrates the same issues -it is the point of view we bring to study of history. Run Lola Run illustrates this point in a way that high school students could readily grasp. Point-of-view is something we do not seem to ask of technology and the teaching of history. Teachers are extremely good at doing this in the print medium but are those same brilliant lessons transferred to the digital medium?

Patrick Dunae: Point-of-view has begun to make an impact in the archives. Formerly a senior archivist in the National Archives of Canada and now professor of Archival Studies at the University of Manitoba, Terry Cook has written extensively on archival practice and theory. Ten years ago, in a seminal essay entitled “What is Past is Prologue” (1997) he anticipated a paradigm shift in the archival profession. With the advent of electronic data, archivists had to re-think how the acquired and preserved the collective memory of nations and individuals. He encouraged records-custodians to re-conceptualize traditional notions of archives and regard archival practice as a “process-oriented activity” rather than a “product-focused process.” He addresses the need for another paradigm shift in his more recent essay. He encourages archivists – and historians who rely on records that archivists have preserved – to consider their work from a postmodern perspective. In Cook’s view, the record is not fixed and immutable. “The record is now perceived as a mere trace of missing universes, as a kind of trick mirror distorting facts and past realities, reflecting the narrative intentions of its author and the receptivity of its contemporary audience as much its actual informational content,” he says. “The record thus becomes a cultural signifier, a mediated and ever-changing construction, not some empty template into which acts and facts are poured.” Endorsing the postmodern turn for archivists and historians, Cook cites Jean-Francois Lyotard’ s succinct remark. “Simplifying to the extreme,” Lyotard said, “I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.” (1979: xxiv) Historians who envision immersive simulated environments must likewise be incredulous of metanarratives (and Cook addresses these themes in his 2000 paper in Archival Science), since we will be creating scenarios that involve relative concepts and multiple historical meanings.

Andrew Large: The work of Alison Druin is apposite here; her and her team’s work have had the most influence on how I formulate my own model for working with children in intergenerational teams to design technologies for children to use. Her ‘Cooperative Inquiry’ model, set out in her 2002 ‘The Role of Children in the Design of New Technology’ demonstrates how children can play an active role from the outset in the design process – how their point of view is important. It convinced me of the need for adults to work closely with children if their aim is to produce technologies that other children will use effectively.

Going back a few years to Piaget and Inhelder (1969), I find here the broad thrust of an idea that helps me justify why it is necessary to study young information seekers as a community with cognitive abilities and affective needs that differ from those of adults, but also why young people themselves cannot be understood as a homogeneous community: it is necessary to explore the specific abilities and needs of children at the various developmental stages if we are to elaborate sophisticated user behaviour models.

Mike Clare: History teachers have, by the very nature of the subject we teach, thought we were teaching critical thinking. What we thought we were doing and what we were actually are doing sometimes do not mesh. Roland Case’s work with The Critical Thinking Constortium (TC2) at the University of British Columbia has taken the question of how do we systematically teach critical thinking in the class room and developed a series of strategies that give both teachers and students a framework to develop habits of mind and an historical empathy. The Consortium is attempting help kids truly become engaged in the art of doing history. This work should have an influence on how many digital simulations and games are designed. The work complements the idea of point-of-view and helps students recognize that a point-of-view can be valid and to know the difference between bias and an informed opinion.

Granatstein’s little red book Who Killed Canadian History? (1998) had a point-of-view that unjustly pilloried high school history teacher. Whether you agreed with Granatstein or not, the influence of this book was profound: Who Killed Canadian History? sparked a conversation. Jack Granatstein has subsequently changed or modified his original position but the conversation stimulated an interest in Canadian History in schools for a while. Pity the conversation is petering out. The Historica Foundation had the potential to have a profound influence on the teaching history in Canada. The YouthLinks’ program within the Historica umbrella was unique, and a golden opportunity to marry aspects of digital technology and the teaching of high school history. The pace of technological innovation out stripped the YouthLinks program. A lot of content and communication opportunities that YouthLinks wanted to expose students and teachers to, can now be done in learning management systems controlled by the subject teacher.

Historica has had difficulty in getting the message into the schools and getting teachers to adopt the technology. Teachers seem to treat Historica’s website like a book and not an interactive medium. YouthLinks has not become the ultimate tool in the Historica menu. The lack of uptake to YouthLinks is partly due to the reaction of teachers to technology. Historica was on the cusp of the digital evolution but was fighting a negative reaction to the implementation of technology in the classroom.

Michel Blondeau: If we look at what happens in other fields regarding implementation of technology – Red Burns’ early work at NYU’s Alternate Media Center, NYU, focused on designing solutions for seniors and the disabled. This work led directly to her founding the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, in 1979. The program aimed to take computer power out of the box, literally –encouraging computer design oriented solutions to specific problems. As part of the program, current MA students are encouraged to design and develop applications that take place outside of the traditional computer-and-monitor-set-up. The annual graduate show is extraordinary for the breadth and depth of distinct applications that are presented. According to the ITP’s website, “ITP is different. More than just a graduate school, ITP is a creative ecosystem ¬a living and interdependent flow of people, projects, ideas and applications all dedicated to exploring and expanding the ability of real people to use media to connect to one another and influence the world around them”. History needs such applied thinking!

Kevin Kee: Part of the problem might be that we don’t know what history is supposed to do any more. What happened to ‘history’? According to Jenkins (1991), history in the poststructuralist era explained: the past is gone; history is how a historian represents it, and those representations are determined according to what the historian considers important. In this new era, all of us can, and should become historians – we should tell our own stories. While Jenkins does not do enough to underscore the difference between history and literature (the former is built out of a defined dataset: the archives), he provides an intellectual foundation on which to build a pedagogy for learning history, in which the student is writer of history. Coincidentally, in simulations and games for learning, the student’s choices craft the narrative of her experience of history.

Shawn Graham: That’s a theme picked up by Nick Montfort (2003) in his “Twisty Little Passages”, where he calls interactive fiction ‘potential narratives’ – the story is created in the reading. The best known examples of interactive fiction tend to be text-adventures (Zork, Adventure), but the genre has more to it than that (Galatea (Short, 2000) for instance takes place in a single-room, where a statue comes to life; the story emerges from the statues interaction with the ‘player’). Montfort characterizes interactive fiction as:

Text-accepting, text-generating computer program; A potential narrative, that is, a system that produces narrative during interaction; A simulation of an environment or world; and A structure of rules within which an outcome is sought, also known as a game (Montfort: 2003: 23)

Related to interactive fiction are the ‘multiple-user dungeons’ (MUDs; also ‘object oriented MUDs’ abbreviated as ‘MOOs’- a MUD where you can make things), online worlds without the graphics. Led by Jeffrey Clark and Brian Slator, North Dakota State University’s Archaeology department use text-based interaction in a MOO to create the “Virtual Archaeologist Educational Environment” (2003), where students learn the methods of archaeology on a simulated excavation on the village of Like-a-fishhook. Being able to ‘adopt’ the persona of an archaeologist makes the experience so much richer than trying to learn methodology from a text-book.

Kevin Kee: Stepping into character is a key feature of immersion. The history game Civilization III, when used in schools (Squire and Barab: 2004), supported students in the replaying of history according to their identity and motivations: African-American students, for instance, directed their civilizations to invade Europe and enslave Caucasians. In the end, students were forced to learn history and geography (via encyclopedias and maps)) so that they could succeed in the game. Squire shows what games can do: provide opportunities for students to replay history, and in the process, craft new, and highly personal historical narratives. In addition, he reminds us that simulations can, and perhaps should be used in tandem with other (non-digital) tools.

John Lutz: Speaking of other tools – With the rapid development of computing power, the technology of presentation has finally caught up to a school and method of doing history which has gained popularity over the last thirty years and which has awaited the new media to fully take shape. Microhistory is an historical approach, partly method, partly theory, that at its most basic says that we can ask big questions in small places and in so doing find answers we did not see before. The microhistory approach has its origins in the work of French, German and Italian scholars. Its origins are most closely identified with Carlo Ginzburg, whose 1976 book The Cheese and the Worms, is still regarded as one of the best works of its kind.

Microhistory takes a range of forms from the more ethnographic to the statistical, but in its different manifestations believes that by reducing the scale of study, and increasing the magnification, details and patterns can be observed which are invisible at the macro level. Since knowledge is not scalable across large scales, explanations that seem to hold for large populations, often break down when you examine small populations. Since people ultimately experience life in small communities that (even in large cities we interact with relatively few individuals), explanations which do not work at the level of the individual, family, and community, are likely not describing causality at more abstract levels of observation. This new approach maps onto the digital dissemination technologies such as the internet and CDs particularly well. First of all, microhistory disrupts the long narratives of history and presents histories in episodes, often centred around an intriguing event with gripping stories associated with them. Although the approach allows the asking of general questions, it does not expect the answers to be applicable in other places, or times. There is a strong emphasis on context and the unique response of people in different circumstances to common pressures.

In the words of Homi Bhabha, (1994) the emphasis on the ‘event’ unsettles the usual academic practice “whereby incidents are seen as instances or examples of a more general, authoritative metalanguage. Indeed, a more productive discussion of the event is one that neither subsumes it into theory nor appropriates it by practice, but allows it to maintain its own performative authority and interrogates the conditions under which knowledges, image and discourse are socially and pedagogically authorized.”

Such events might be the famous conversation Ginzburg’s miller Mennochio had with the inquisition about how the earth and the heavens were like cheese riddled with worm holes which led to his execution for heresy; or Natalie Zemon Davis’ story of the “Return of Martin Guerre” (1983) who returns home after a long time at war to find that another man claiming to be him has taken his place. The internet lends itself to the “episodic” mode as opposed to the epic, and is more compatible with the reading practices of computer users.

When microhistories focus on an intriguing event, such as the murder of the Black man William Robinson on Salt Spring Island in 1868 (Lutz and Sandwell, 1997), they differ from the traditional narrative in that they often explore the event from different perspectives. The digital publications allow the interweaving of multiple narratives in ways that the book does not. Bringing a small community under study invariably reveals a network of relationships. The digital universe is in its nature networked and so it allows the presentation of networked social relationships in a way that print technology cannot.

Kevin Kee: It’s that same question of relationships and presentation with which Janet Murray opens her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace with a question: what would happen if we married the greatest narrative about the human condition (e.g. Hamlet) with the most advanced interactive technologies (a Holodeck)? Her answer: that with new technology we could place ourselves inside the characters of Hamlet, and see the world, not only through Hamlet’s eyes (as Shakespeare wrote the play) but through the eyes of the other characters. By seeing the story through these different points of view we could gain insight into the human condition. My “Cyber-Terrorism” crisis Web site (2002) was modeled on Murray’s seminal insights, and was an attempt to help the user explore multiple, contrasting points of view on a historical issue.

John Lutz: And that’s another key feature of microhistory, the way that it foregrounds the researcher. According to Giovanni Levi, “In micro-history … the researcher’s point of view becomes an intrinsic part of the account … The reader is involved in a sort of dialogue and participates in the whole process of constructing the historical argument” (Levi 1991: 110). The digital technologies lend themselves to this dialogue and the transparency of the research process. Instead of a simple footnote, one’s whole research database can be linked to ones microhistory. Instead of a monologue, the internet invites dialogue; in place of solitary research, the internet supports collaborative research and multiple voices. In place of a linear plot, the internet accommodates multiple, overlapping pathways of causation. It asks us to think about relationships. Even more fundamental, the computer and internet offers the opportunity for the reader to take some control of their reading experience. The form of the technology invites, even urges readers to problem solve in a way that the book does not.

Microhistory invites scholars to present the past in intriguing new ways and the new media allows the means to develop the potential and take full advantage of the multi-media, hypertextual and networked and interactive features of the media. Linking the method and the technology gives us new historical answers and makes the past more accessible and more fun.

Patrick Dunae: On the subject of linking method and technology, something we should consider is GIS. GIS is an acronym for geographical information systems; it is a method of analyzing and representing geographically-referenced information. In its simplest form, GIS is a way of linking attribute data and spatial data. Attribute data is information relating to people, events, and activities, while spatial data relates to points on the earth. Geographers, social scientists and resource industry professionals have been using GIS for many years, but the concept is not yet widely used by social historians. But now, thanks in part Anne Kelly Knowles, a geographer at Middlebury College in Vermont, GIS is being noticed by historians. She has written extensively in scholarly journals about the value of GIS to historians and how historians might “envision” history.

Her edited collection of essays (Knowles, 2002) demonstrates how GIS can be deployed by historians, including humanities-based historians. In her introduction to this sumptuously illustrated book, Knowles explains how GIS can represent and map changes across time. The contributors to the book, who include historical sociologists, geographers and environmental historians, show how historical maps can digitalized and georeferenced to create 3-D representations of time/space. This book is the first collection of essays to apply GIS methodologies to the study of history, and it offers some compelling reasons for historians to think spatially and digitally. The book is published by ESRI [Environmental Systems Research Institute], a company that is pre-eminent in the field of GIS mapping and modelling software. With this software, historians can create 3-D models of historical landscapes and build 3-D models of historical streets and cities. With GIS, we can populate historical places with historical data about the people who actually resided there. Using any number of computer-assisted design [CAD] applications, we can simulate the built environment. Soon, we will be able to construct the “lost landscapes” that William Thomas contemplates in his essay, “Computing and the Historical Imagination:” Extending historical GIS,” [historians] might attempt to recreate ‘lost landscapes’ in ways that fully allow readers to move and navigate through them. These four-dimensional models might restore buildings, roads, and dwellings to historic landscapes as well as the legal, economic, social, and religious geographies within them. Networks of information, finance, trade, and culture, might also find expression in these models. Readers might do more than query these datasets; they might interact with them too, taking on roles and following paths they could not predict but cannot ignore.

The interactive, simulated environment that Thomas envisions is close at hand, and it will probably be built with GIS technology. I eagerly await Knowles’ new work, a collaborative project with Amy Hillier, entitled Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship. Her new book will include “case study examples of how GIS can be used in historical research as well as critical essays that examine the opportunities and problems” GIS poses for historians. As far as this advocate can see, GIS offers more opportunities than challenges in creating digital environments where we can simulate history in a credible way.

If these are challenges we must face in teaching history, and in using multi-media, games and simulations, then what makes a good game?

Kevin Kee: Historical epistemologies (of which there are several) can be thought of as equal to the rule systems of games (Urrichio 2005:336). Granatstein’s emphasis on war history and patriotism equate well with first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty (Activision: 2003). Works such as Kennedy’s 1987 The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers convey a ‘history of progress’ epistemological sense, which translates into Civilization – type games. The Annales-school, with its emphasis on ‘deep history’ would seem to correspond well with ‘virtual worlds’-type games (Roma Victor (Red Bedlam, 2006), and other massively-multiplayer online environments). Great Canadian Mysteries in History (Lutz and Sandwell) presents a post-structuralist version of history in the way that documents are used to ‘solve’ the mystery. Peter Seixas (2000) identifies three possible epistemological options for the teaching of history:

“The Best Possible Story” “Disciplinary History” “Postmodern History”

History taught as the “Best Possible Story” is a single chronological narrative of Canada’s evolution which aims to provide young people with a common understanding and cohesive social purpose. The “Disciplinary History” model provides students with opportunities to evaluate competing accounts of the past, providing a better representation of the discipline of history as practiced by historians. “Postmodern History” is critical of the naïve assumptions of the “disciplinary” approach regarding the ability of historians to objectively construct accounts of the past, and of students to objectively assess these. The “Postmodern History” model advocates a teaching of history in which students move beyond an assessment of the merits of an historical argument to the criteria underlying the historian’s crafting of that argument, such as the decision to marshal or exclude evidence as it relates to the historian’s thesis. Seixas’ three options have provided me with a useful heuristic for evaluating the ways in which different digital media can communicate different kinds of history: I would argue that text is most effective for option linear narratives are effective tools for communicating option 1, but non-linear digital media are a better match for 2 and 3.

Chris Tan: Chris Crawford, a pioneer of early computer gaming design, became disillusioned with the direction of game development technology when it focused mainly on improved two-dimensional and three-dimensional graphics. He disappeared from game design in 1992 and thirteen years later reveals his focus: interactive storytelling (Steele, 2005). Storytelling is often considered the most widely appreciated aspect of learning history. Interactive storytelling promises to leverage the computer and engage the history student in a unique fashion. Crawford provides a comprehensive review of techniques and technology on interactive storytelling and similar genres, including his own inventions.

Michel Blondeau: Crawford’s personal website by the way ( contains much of his prodigious output. Crawford is currently in the process of producing an interactive storytelling technology that seeks to introduce a new approach to both software development and the underlying business models – ‘Storytronics’ ( In his description of what the software does regarding the creation of interactive storytelling, he makes the distinction between ‘branching narrative – lots of story, little interactivity’ and ‘narrative games – lots of interactivity, little story’. His own approach is not a ‘best of both worlds’ bridging but rather ‘a radically new paradigm’. Essentially, his software apparently will allow the player to fully immerse themselves in the story, and the computer-controlled characters will react dynamically to the player’s behaviour based on their own unique personalities (Crawford 2006).

Chris Tan: Continuing the theme of storytelling, there are the stories the game builders themselves tell about what they do. Grand Text Auto is “a group blog about interactive narrative, games, poetry, and art” (Flanagan et al, 2007) and it provides a dynamic survey on contemporary uses of the computer to provide interactive experiences. For over three years, the blog has provided a commentary on interactivity and gaming, balanced between academia and industry. The blog’s authors include Mateas and Stern, the authors of the seminal work Façade, a freely available interactive drama short, and Montfort, author of Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (2003). Discussions in the periodical involve interactivity of many sorts; the commentary on games generally deprecates action and graphics-based media for drama and text-based media.

Kevin Kee: The leading authority (arguably) on games for learning is James Gee. Gee contends that video games provide excellent models for learning. Drawing on cognitive psychology, Gee (2003) notes that good learning is situated within the world. Drawing on literary studies, he shows that good learning is tied to social practices. Drawing on education, and especially Papert (1996), he shows that good learning involves making connections to knowledge already acquired. Summing up, he contends that good video games provide excellent forums for learning because a player experiences the world in a new way; joins others and works with a new group; develops resources for problem solving; and views semiotic domains as design spaces that can be engaged and manipulated. I see this as central criteria for the development of history simulations for learning.

Another major commentator is Mark Prensky (2001), who occasionally emanates more heat than light. The effusive founder of “”, Prenksy coined the term “digital natives” for twenty-first students who have grown up surrounded by digital technologies, and “digital immigrants” for the late adopters who have come to digital technologies later in life, and who are in charge of the educational system. According to Prensky, schools must change, allowing students to guide their teachers in the adoption and use of technology, if they are to have any meaning to students.

Shawn Graham: I wonder at the term, ‘Digital Native’. In my experience working with high school students in a media literacy class, ‘Digital Wood Elf’ might be a better term: students are surrounded by digital technologies, immersed in them, but with a low level of critical apparatus for actually understanding these technologies, much less to use them with any degree of reflection. My students can use some technologies, but by no means all or even the ones that are currently all the rage. They certainly do not engage with them much beyond a superficial level. We need to consider the fact that ‘literacy’ is not simply mechanistic; it needs to be deep and students need to be able to read at multiple layers. Before we consider history education through digital technologies, to use the cliché, we need to be aware of the messages of the mediums. A good game – or rather, good playing – should encourage that kind of reflection.

Kevin Kee: One solution to the problem of using the computer, and specifically digital multimedia – which use rapidly evolving technologies – to understand and communicate the humanities is suggested by Rockwell and Mactavish (2004). For them, the answer lies in a methodology that includes both “thinking about” humanities computing through definitions, histories, examples and theoretical problems and “thinking with” multimedia, using computer technologies to explore and communicate ideas. Rockwell supplies the methodology for research on simulations and serious games for history: we must go beyond inquiring into simulations; we must also build them.

We must not forget that games and simulation are also about play bounded by rules in players’ experiences, a central concept according to the game designers and researchers Zimmerman and Salen (2004). In an attempt to find a middle ground between narratologists who have underlined the importance to user experience of game stories, and ludologists who have underlined the importance of rule-sets, Zimmerman and Salen show that a user’s experience of a game narrative emerges out of their play – the choices that they make within the limitations of the structures or rules of the game. As history game developers, we are not crafting narratives, but rather environments from which users can develop their own narrative experiences.

Chris Tan: On a superficial level, it is easy to dismiss the ‘play’ of games as dependent on the visual aspects, the use of the latest technologies. However, a counterpoint to this viewpoint is presented in The Escapist Magazine, edited by the historian J. Greer. A refreshing change from most computer gaming periodicals which emphasize action and visual realism, this weekly magazine covers game design, the gaming industry, gamer demographics and related perspective pieces. The magazine is generally accessible and rarely academic, and has featured notable contributors such as game designers Warren Spector and Greg Costikyan.

Patrick Dunae: Thinking of text adventures and narratives puts me in mind of Brian Moore’s The Great Victorian Collection (1975). Brian Moore’s novel concerns Anthony Maloney, a twenty-nine year old assistant professor in the History Department of McGill University. Returning from a scholarly conference at Berkeley, Maloney spends the night in a motel in Carmel, California. As he sleeps, he dreams about Victorian things. “To dream of Victoriana was not, given his background, an improbable conjunction,” we learn (p.3). Maloney’s doctoral dissertation dealt with Victorian aesthetics, and he spends much of his waking life researching and teaching Victorian art and architecture. When Maloney awakes the next morning, the motel parking has been transformed into a crowded, open-air market, with a maze of narrow lanes and aisles lined with stalls and exhibits. The stalls and aisles contain an extraordinary collection of Victorian artifacts, including objects d’art, ceramics, toys, furniture, and a crystal fountain that was the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Industrial machinery, marine equipment, and even a railway locomotive had become manifest on the motel parking lot, along with costermongers’ barrows, carriages, and bicycles. All of the artifacts are pristine; all of them are real, or virtually real. Art historians and museum curators, who arrive from London and New York to authentic the collection, conclude the artifacts are not replicas or copies. Rather, every object in the collection has somehow been “reproduced in a manner indistinguishable from its original.” While the experts cannot understand how this happened, they acknowledge that the collection represents “a truly astonishing feat of copying.” The principal character of this novel has simulated history and created a virtual environment that many of us would envy.

In some respects, Moore’s novel anticipates Julian Barnes’ England, England (1998). In Barnes’ novel, an entrepreneur acquires the Isle of Wight, where he constructs an elaborate, animated theme park that is a simulacrum of historical England. The developer hires a French post-modern theorist as a consultant. Evoking Derrida and Baudrillard, the consultant assures his client that “nowadays we prefer the replica to the original.” Why do we prefer reproductions? “To understand this,” the intellectual explains, “we must understand and confront our insecurity, our existential indecision, the profound atavistic fear we experience when we are face to face with the original.” It is “our intellectual duty,” he says, “to dismiss as sentimental and inherently fraudulent all yearnings for what is dubiously termed the ‘original.’ We must demand the replica, since the reality, the truth, the authenticity of the replica is the one we can possess, colonize, reorder….” (53, 55) In both novels, England, England and The Great Victorian Collection, we are introduced to immersive environments where history is simulated. Barnes is much more cynical than Moore and the environment he imagines is rather specious. In contrast, the simulacrum Moore has created has integrity and scholarly value. Both novels, however, offer some intriguing notions of how historical simulations might unfold. Both novels imagine an environment where the historical experience is “even better than the real thing”

Shawn Graham: The online virtual world of Second Life (Linden Labs: 2003) is sometimes billed as ‘even better than the real thing’. What is extremely interesting about this ‘game’ is that there are really no rules. There is nothing to ‘do’ in Second Life, except what you want to do (a fact that sometimes drives new users away). Educators have been flocking to this world in droves, because this lack of restrictions (game rules) allows them to create their own immersive simulacra, and to write their own rules (Rymaszewski et all 2007: 318-324).

Michel Blondeau: An early version of what might be called a ‘Second Life’- type environment was ‘Découverte de la Nouvelle France’, a history simulation program set in a small village in New France. Impressive for its simplicity and flexibility, it was designed as in-class and online program that appealed to both teachers and students. Balancing a blend of online communication tools and offline research and role-playing tasks, the virtual villagers of New France began building lives, weaving their own stories and linking their lives to local village history. As the volume of participants grew, the complexity of the lives of the villagers, their community interactions and later, the shape of the town also grew. Offered to select schools only, Découverte de la NouvelleFrance was designed by teacher and Les Technologies ÉVI founder, Jean-Yves Frechette. Découverte de la Nouvelle France was the first in a planned series that included the Manitoba Metis and the Acadiens, but sadly none of these programs were ever widely commercialized (nor is the Technologies ÉVI website still ‘live’; searching the Industry Canada Francocommunautés website brings up the only extant information about the 1998-1999 project).

I’d also like to point out ‘Pax Warrior’ (23 YYZee: 2004), which is an online education and training application set during the genocide in Rwanda – and a very good example of effective simulation design. In this ‘interactive history module’ featuring real events and characters (such as General Roméo Dallaire), the interactive experience is propelled by a highly compelling narrative and collective user behaviour. On the ‘virtual ground’ in Rwanda, every decision taken brings on new challenges – thrusting the participants into the simulated crisis as virtual witnesses take action in the unfolding interactive historical tragedy. It is a serious game.

Have this discussion then moved us towards a theory of good history through good gaming?

Shawn Graham & Kevin Kee: If we can summarize the contributions, a theory of good history through good gaming might encompass some of the following ideas. Good teaching seems to revolve around the idea of allowing the learner’s voice to emerge. Learning is something that is not passively received, but rather is actively created. ‘Heritage’ is that branch of history where the public actively seek to engage with the past through experiences and simulations. In the same way, many teachers are now trying to get learners to create their own engagements with the past through role-play and simulation. Good games have a role in this by providing player-learners the opportunities to create their own narratives. They get player-learners to focus on ‘microhistories’ which can then be used to explore ‘macro’ history. Game playing is episodic – but so too are the individual bits and pieces of history that eventually form the ‘longue durée’. Good game playing makes the player-learner reflect on his or her actions – it provides feedback – and encourages the player-learner to explore the ‘game space’ to discover alternatives. The rules of games can be made to fit the historical epistemology appropriate for the material or the goal of the teacher/designer. A good game should also let the player-learner change the rules from time to time. The teacher-designer is not crafting an historical narrative per se, but rather crafts the potential narrative(s) from which learners create their own experiences. These experiences will be richer and more personal than what the teacher-designer might believe that they were crafting in the first place.

After all, why read about ancient barbarian invasions when you can repulse them?

[i] The phrase, “even better than the real thing,” occurs in the title of a critical review of the novel. See E. Wall, “Even Better than the Real Thing:” Brian Moore’s The Great Victorian Collection,” Colby Quarterly, Vol. 34, no. 4 (1998), 303-314. The phrase is ubiquitous in the digital world of gaming. A review of a book by Mark Pesce, The Playful World: How Technology Is Transforming Our Imagination (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001) was entitled “Better than the real thing” in PC Magazine. Pesce is the co-inventor of the 3-D programming language VRML; he predicts that in twenty years, “gaming environments that resemble Star Trek’s holodeck won’t be wild ideas; they’ll be reality.” PC Magazine (4 September 2001).

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