No More Chocolate-covered Broccoli: Collaboration between Game Designers and Historians is Key
The following post is a short paper I wrote for a panel discussion on creating game experiences at Civil War historic sites. Our moderator suggested that we share our papers for further discussion and comment before the panel. Please join in the discussion, all comments and concerns are greatly appreciated! My postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent the New-York Historical Society’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
I used to be surprised that there weren’t more well-done games (both analog and digital) at museums and historical sites. Then I started working in museums and with game designers. Now I realize how much time and energy is required to create a game that is both fun and educational and how little time most museums have to manage or contribute to game development projects. That said, creating games that make history a more engaging and thoughtful experience is worth becoming a priority for museums and historical sites and well within their missions of preserving artifacts and educating the public. I speak from my experience as a game player, an Educator at the New-York Historical Society, and a contributor to the collaborative blog Play the Past, when I say that it’s imperative that we (as historians and educators) make efforts to collaborate with game designers to provide our audiences with meaningful, playful experiences.
While I’ve always been interested in playing games that use history as context (like many other young boys and girls I played the Civilization series and Pharaoh), professionally I’m interested in games that are designed to make players question what they know about their history and cultural heritage and that provide an opportunity to discuss sensitive issues. A few recently developed games that I believe do this successfully include Mission US’s Flight to Freedom, the Wellcome Collection’s High Tea, Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog, Sortasoft’s in-progress Meriwether: An American Epic, and the Newsies game at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum in the New-York Historical Society (come visit us!). These games are not chocolate-covered broccoli; they don’t try to trick people into learnings things. Instead, they are built in a way that learning about the game world (and its history – our history) is required and compels players to keep playing and learning more.
Playing and learning about these games has led me to the conclusion that historians can contribute to the process of designing a gaming experience by offering their expertise as they collaborate with game designers. The designers are, by virtue of the technological requirements in video game creation, collaborative, and they know how to work with other designers (but not necessarily historians). Historians will know the most crucial things to talk about, the most relevant (and interesting!) documents and artifacts to include, and hopefully the way to be responsible and respectful when representing other cultures or historically marginalized groups (unless the point of the game is to highlight the injustice of marginalization, as in Dog Eat Dog). But many game designers aren’t used to working with historians, so both parties should be prepared to learn a little about each other first! Josh DeBonis, Founder of SortaSoft LLC in Brooklyn (currently developing Meriwether, a fascinating game about the Lewis and Clark expedition) describes this in an interview I did for Play the Past:
Since we come from two different worlds, there was a bit of an adjustment period, in which we had to learn to think like an historian, and Barb had to learn to think like a game developer. We made sure to give each other feedback on our process to help facilitate this. As a game designer (and producer), much of my job is making snap decisions based on gut instinct, but that’s quite the opposite of Barb’s process, which relies on turning to primary documents for the answers.
So it’s not just the game designers that have to adjust to historians, we also have to adjust to game designers. Part of that is learning what makes games, as a medium, so special. In ethnographic interviews I’ve done with NYC-based game developers, all designers referenced the player’s ability to make meaningful choices as the thing that makes games unique. This can be challenging for historians because this means players must have the opportunity to fail or make choices that “alter” history – but at the same time, done well, this can be a boon to historical thinking. As I often teach at the N-YHS and while doing outreach in public schools, history isn’t what happened long ago, it’s the stories we tell about the past that are based on evidence. Games give the opportunity to teach those stories and how they’re interpreted, to explore possible eventualities, and to live out alternate histories. They’re a safe space to explore, to fail, to ask difficult questions. So as historians we shouldn’t be fearful of games offering alternate histories or being “completely” accurate, but instead we should make sure the game represents what that point in time would have been like, the complexity of humans and their interactions, and that it is culturally respectful and responsible. The way Flight to Freedom does this is by centering the game around one fictional slave girl’s life while using real experiences and stories to inform the choices that the player could make during the game. Flight to Freedom isn’t about a slave girl’s life story, it’s about the history of the Underground Railroad and the consequences of taking power over one’s future after being powerless for so long.
In addition to giving the opportunity to teach history in a fun, compelling way that encourages people to think more deeply about themselves and their cultural heritage, games also offer the opportunity to win new audiences. For example, according to research done by Eva Sandler for her M.S.Ed in Museum Education at Bank Street College, the majority of children she interviewed expressed a preference for touch-screen games over other exhibit types at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum in the New-York Historical Society (in fact, more than double for hands-on interactives!). For museums, games can also be a great way to teach people about artifacts and documents in your collection. In Flight to Freedom, the main character, Lucy, is illiterate and learns to read over time. Documents that she tries to read include advertisements in old fashion manuals and runaway slave announcements, which introduce players to primary source documents that historians use to interpret the past. In one of the Alexander Hamilton games at the DiMenna Children’s History Museum, students must collect coins in a short video game to melt and turn into U.S. coins. This is right next to a display case with real coins, which visitors do notice and comment on after playing the game. One boy mentioned that he enjoyed, “viewing the coins on display, and learning about how the United States system of currency changed” (Sandler 60). I would personally love to play a game about the Civil War that has players look through photos (or determine which photos have been edited pre-photoshop!), or that penalizes players for carrying too many things as a soldier (since weight was integral in keeping up with formation), or has the player discover objects that were discarded along a march. Including these documents and material culture as more than just a “backdrop” can both establish historical context into the gaming experience and inform people of the way that historians do history.*
Two main challenges in incorporating gaming experience into programs and classrooms are technological and time constraints. If you want to center a program or lesson plan around a game, you have to make sure that you have enough time to prepare people to play the game, play the game, and then reflect on their experience together. Trevor Owens and Marjee Chmiel wrote that the mantra “Less is More” is true concerning games used in classrooms. You also have to make sure that all the players can play the game on whatever devices they have or you’re giving them. If you want games to be used by teachers in public or private schools, it’s crucial to involve teachers in a discussion along the way, asking them how the game could meet learning standards and possible lesson plans that the museum or historical site could distribute to teachers along with copies of the game. For an on-site game experience, 3-5 minutes is a good amount of time for players to spend in one area without becoming fatigued or creating overly long lines. Now that the Museum of Modern Art is collecting video games, they are grappling with this issue of displaying games that take a long time to complete. At the DiMenna Children’s History Museum (DCHM), I notice that most visitors (or groups of visitors) play for about 3-5 minutes and then move onto other interactives or displays. This is perfect for the space we have and the age range the DCHM targets (8-14 year olds). For a longer gaming experience, visitors would have to be given a place to sit, or more touch screens would need to be available.
Another challenge in creating games for museum or historic sites is creating an experience that would work intergenerationally. Much of Eva Sandler’s research on the games in the DCHM revealed that children learned more (and enjoyed learning more) when playing games with their parents and grandparents:
Grandmother: I think that if you have curiosity as an adult you can enjoy anything that kids can enjoy.
Grandson: When we were at the Hamilton game…
Grandmother: Yeah when we were involved in that I thought it was great, because that was two generations involved in the same thing.
Grandson: We each knew something and we worked together. It made me want to come back (Sandler 63).
That isn’t to say that everyone enjoyed the fact that video games are featured in the museum. One mother that Eva Sandler interviewed mentioned:
The games are too distracting. There needs to be a stopping point for each game, otherwise you’ll be there all day. It’s very frustrating. To me, it’s not an experience to be had a history museum—they play games all the time at home. I want them to learn something (Sandler 65).
So yet another challenge for this list is to make sure that families or visitors have a choice to opt in or out of digital game playing, and to make sure that the games facilitate experiences that make it clear that people can learn from them and are not just a distraction. At this point, I think it’s important to remember that you cannot please everyone all of the time.
In order to create programs that are more interactive, narrative-driven, and grounded in the contingencies of history, Civil War sites (and other museums and historical sites) must start working with creative, professional game designers instead of asking programmers or digital media developers to create games. Professionals also need to make sure they build in enough funds and time for the game to be a truly collaborative effort – historians, game designers, programmers, digital media developers, and educators need to all work together and be on the same “page,” so to speak. Make sure that these are your priorities and the priorities of the game developers, too. Take a look at Sortasoft’s explicitly expressed goals in creating Meriwether:
- To teach players about the Lewis and Clark expedition’s cultural and historical significance.
- To demonstrate that a historical role-playing game can be a fun, immersive, and compelling learning experience.
- To trailblaze the methods that will best allow players to learn by playing historical role-playing games. The research into these methods will contribute to the field of computer-assisted learning by establishing a format upon which other games can be designed.
These are the types of goals that game designers and historians should talk about and aim to accomplish when creating games about historical events or sites. That isn’t to say that all historical games have to be role playing games or long experiences. Games like the Wellcome Collection’s High Tea demonstrate how well the history of trade and smuggling can be turned into a fun and (forgive me) addictive learning experience. Game designers and historians have to decide the best way to deliver different information together. For example, Meriwether seeks to teach players about the significance of an expedition, so players must manage resources and travel. High Tea aims to teach players about the opium trade and the British obsession with tea, so players must buy low and sell high to trade successfully. The Newsies game at the DCHM is meant to teach visitors the difficulties young children faced before labor laws were introduced, so players must carefully choose their papers, location, and manage their resources each day. If historians and game developers work closely together to determine what they want to teach their players and match that to a congenial gaming experience, then they can create games that compel players to keep playing and learning more.
*On that note, I believe it’s important to stress that games and virtual experiences do not diminish the importance of the site or artifacts represented. If anything, they make people more connected to the real place and more likely to visit in the future. Additionally, not everyone in the world will have the opportunity to visit every museum or site, so games and virtual experiences can help spread awareness of specific organizations to more people. I hope that our discussion does not get too caught up in the issue of Benjamin’s “aura,” because people must already believe that the original objects and sites cannot be diminished by virtual experiences in order to want to create digital gaming experiences. That is to say, there are many other challenges in creating historical games, so we must move past the obsession with originals and auras if we’re to make any progress.
[Image Source: "General Grant at City Point," Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print]