Games as Historical Scholarship
We talk a lot about how history is represented in games and about how games can be used to teach history, but I’d love to spark a conversation here about how games themselves can actually be a form of scholarship in their own right. That is, can we imagine getting to a point where a historian might compose a game or a simulation in the way they would write a journal article or a monograph.
If games can serve as a mode of journalism and are modes for persuasion, instruction and activism, then it makes sense to think through how they could be a mode for historical scholarship. I’ve previously suggested that “non-fiction games” are becoming an increasingly viable and valuable mode for communicating.
Here are three reasons I think this is something worth exploring. I would be curious to hear if you have comments on these points, or if you have other ideas for these.
Potential to reach broader audiences:
Many historians would like to write for broader audiences and the audiences for historical games are rather large. In particular, there are a lot of very wonky board games and historical simulations whose players I would imagine would be rather excited to play and critique games that historians would get involved in creating.
Potential to make explicit and operationalize models of change over time:
Historical writing, at least implicitly, involves articulating causal models for why something turned out the way it did. This is something games and simulations are particularly good at. If you design a game or simulation you have to be very explicit about what exactly causes what and how it does it. What would a better simulation of Detroit look like? What would a more authentic representation of Colonization look like? While we can (and will continue) to write about and comment on games I think there is a significant power to be leveraged in building games that represent and bring to the surface tensions and complexity in models. The ability to manipulate and toy with a whole set of interrelated assumptions is something that games have something to offer that text doesn’t and I think it’s something for us to explore.
Potential to get away from some of the inherent limitations of writing narratives:
When you write a book or an essay it has a beginning, middle and an end. Modes of communicating the past are not transparent or interchangeable. Linear narratives bring with them their own baggage as a mode of communication. The linearity of text helps make the past seem far more tidy than it actually was. One thing proceeds after another ignoring the contingency and complexity of how a range of forces converged and interacted to result in outcomes. In contrast, if you take a game like The Sims, each player is effectively composing his or her own narrative within the model and framework of the game. Instead of playing out a particular story, you are playing out a interconnected web of possibilities weighted and structured by theories of motivation and values. In short, by tinkering with and publishing these kinds of models historians could have access to another kind of tool for thought. One that can shore up some of the weaknesses inherent to writing itself.
There are significant barriers to making this a reality. It’s a mode of communication that historians are unfamiliar with, it’s a mode of communication that has it’s own steep learning curves. At the same time, I think for these three reasons it is also a valuable area to explore. In particular, given the availability of tools to mod existing games, I think there is a lot of possibility for historians to jump in and create works that comment on and critique some of the games that they might otherwise simply write about. What do you think? Oh, and if you think you have any good examples of games historians have been involved in that would fit this idea of “games as historical scholarship” please share them in the comments and give a brief explanation of what you think they accomplish.