Games as History?

I am not an avid user of games, and the last time I remember playing them was in elementary school, when I used Oregon Trail and Number Munchers. I had never considered games to be a form of serious history prior to doing this week’s readings, and learned quite a lot about how they can be used to engage people in the discipline.

In order to be effective, games need to be an immersive, authentic experience. They have to be visually interesting to engage the user, and games should provide users with a feeling that they are actually taking part in history. There should also be interactions with various characters within the game in order to provide a sense of exploration. Games should be open-ended, allowing users to choose between a variety of choices without having a specified outcome. This was one of the failures of the Lost Museum. The creators made a limited set of choices available to the users, which did not allow them to make any historical inferences or to come to their own conclusions. The Lost Museum allowed the choices of the designers to have more weight than those of the users,  which is not how serious historical games should operate. If users have more control than the creators, then they are able to interpret the primary sources and reach their own conclusions, which is the point of historical inquiry.

It is also important that not all historical games are created to interpret political or military history. Social and cultural history are equally important and can benefit from using games to engage students of history. The game Pox and the City is one example of this. Dealing with medical history, the creators also wanted to show social practices and customs and the differences between social classes. They were able to illustrate those differences through the clothes, furnishings of the rooms, foods offered on the dinner menus, other guests, and the topics of conversation in households of various social standing. Not only is this an ingenious way to highlight the differences between classes, but it also takes an incredible amount of time and energy to create these meticulous yet crucial details.

Games can be and are used as a pedagogical tool. Undergraduates or high schoolers can use games to teach them how to do research, and graduate students and researchers can use games to help them determine what to look for when going to the archives. At the most basic level, historical games require the users to read and interpret primary sources, which is a useful and necessary skill for any student regardless of discipline.

I am too much of a traditional academic to be fully persuaded by Trevor Owen’s article “Games as Historical Scholarship.” His points are valid, and indeed it does seem like games could potentially be a sound form of historical scholarship. I think that games could be used as a tool to supplement a monograph or journal article rather than a form of scholarship in and of itself. If historians are having a problem embracing the tools and topics we’ve covered already in this class, such as text mining, networking, and mapping, then I think that they would be even more hesitant to embrace games. Despite this week’s readings, I have a feeling that academia would not be fully supportive of using games as another form of serious scholarship.

Week 10 readings

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