Play as Hermeneutic: A Forgery Game for History Students

At last year’s THATcamp at the Center for History and New Media I helped facilitate  a mini-game jam. In an hour the 20 or so people that participated came up with 4-5 kinda cool ideas for humanities games. Each of the groups promised to post something about their game concept. As the session leader (read:me) failed to post I have no one to blame but myself.

With that said, I’ve been thinking about the game concept my group developed and I thought I would share it. If I remember right Bethany Nowviskie and Doug Knox were in my group, anyone else who was involved feel free to pipe up in the comments and I can add your name here. Further, if I am getting any of this wrong I would encourage anyone who was there to correct me.

Play as hermeneutic

Each of the game jam groups took very different approaches to games. We were particularly interested in the idea of  using games as hermeneutic tactics to interpret texts, objects and evidence. The idea behind this came from Ivanhoe, a game which Bethany had been involved in creating.

The central idea behind Ivanhoe is that students take turns making “interpretive moves.” Now, as we are frequently talking about games as video games on this blog, it is worth noting that this game, and the game we developed is really more like a parlor game, or something like pictionary. Just as you can learn a lot about a person from how they play those kinds of parlor games you can learn a lot about a text by creating a game as a tactic to further your understanding of it.

Ivanhoe the Game

Ivanhoe, was developed at UVA by Johanna Drucker, Jerome McGann, Bethany Nowviskie and others. I will quote at length from Jason Jones description of how he uses Ivanhoe to teach.  If you are already familiar with the game just skip ahead.

Students, working in groups of 3-5 (obviously no magic about those numbers), choose a text, and then take turns making a series of interpretative moves.  To make those moves, the students must take on a different identity, and the range of identities is quite large.  Maybe it’s a character in the text.  Maybe it’s an unseen editor, rewriting the text.  Maybe it’s a figure from real life.  (For example, if Hard Times were your text, maybe one person would be a factory owner, another a Chartist, etc.)  Maybe  you play the role of an actual critic who has published on this topic.  (“Hi, I’m Richard Altick, and I think . . . .”)

Once students have chosen their roles, the only constraint is that it needs to be clear that moves respond in some way to earlier moves–that is, one’s understanding of the text in question should evolve over the course of the game.

The way students set up the game is that they sign up for a free blog somewhere, and set up the permissions such that all members of the group can edit it.  (I usually ask to be set up as an editor, too.)  Students can make the blog readable only by themselves, by classmates, or by everyone.  Normally if they use a critic or other still living person, I ask them to make the blog private, to prevent self-googling issues.

Students make a pre-determined number of moves–say 4–over the course of a week, and then they collaboratively write a one-page paper about what they learned about the text from playing the game.  I also usually designate someone to serve as the coordinator, and encourage that person to keep track of how smoothly the process worked.  Finally, they usually make a brief presentation of their game to the rest of the class.

Ivanhoe is a kind of role playing game thats’ intent is both to act as a teaching tool, to prompt students to think about texts differently, but also as a hermeneutic tactic which can provide new insight and ways of understanding a text.

Taking Ivanhoe as a model we wanted to translate some of the ideas behind the game into the context of history.

Evidence and Loss

Our group decided to focus our game on helping players understand the nature of historical  evidence, and deal with loss and the limits of history.  The audience for this game is upper level undergraduate students or grad students in a history research methods course.

The goal is twofold.  First, to get students to grapple with the nature of historical interpretation.  Second, to prompt them to think about developing research questions that are  possible to answer.

Speak for Themselves/Forging History: Our Proposed Barely Game

  1. Start with a burning research question: It is a research seminar, so everyone should be trying to think of this sort of thing. Each student proposes a historical question they want to answer. Everything from what caused the civil war, to was Lincoln a racist, to how has the mini-mogue changed the history of music.
  2. Imagine the smoking gun of evidence: The next step is to think about what the most amazing piece of evidence to answer that question would be. Each student dreams up the smoking gun and jots it down. It might well be a letter where Lincoln confides in a friend, a transcript from a hearing which includes some key piece of expert testimony, a diary entry, a photograph, the DNA test from a hair follicle of the accused.
  3. Forge it: They then forge a bit of that document or object and bring it to class. Making a convincing forgery is not really the goal. The goal is just to get the key components that you think are relevant to your analysis.
  4. A different student interprets the forged document : At this point they pass their forgeries to a different student who then interprets it. The goal here is to have the student who receives the forgery to suggest what questions they could answer with it and to note what potential ambiguities would still need to be tracked down and explored.
  5. Reveal the forgers intent: The forger then explains what question they thought the document would allow them to answer and the group discusses how successful they were at identifying the features of their object which would be required to answer their question. If you want to assign a winner it would be the person whose intended question was the closest to the other players interpretation of their object.
  6. Going from there: Now even if you win, that thing does not exist. This becomes a chance for a writing prompt. Can you answer this question without this evidence? Where do you look when this doesn’t exist? Do you need to change the question to reflect the kinds of things that you know of?

Alternate Rule:
4.a One could also do this as something akin to Eat Poop U Cat, where people continue to translate the translation of the document’s historical question back into a document and back from document to question. I am not sure this would serve any particularly useful goal, but I would imagine that the game of telephone in here would be a good time.

Where does this get us?

Our group left the conversation about this quite excited. I am sure there are all kinds of folks who would be quick to say “That’s not a game.” There is a ton of excitement about games, and that generally means video games, but I think the broader idea of play, of parlour games, of barley games is actually a rich way for us to think about creating things like this that help us to hone our thinking.

So, what do you think of this game activity? Further, what do you think about the bigger idea of creating games as hermenutic devices?


  1. Sorry for the late response Trevor — crazy June. This is a fantastic idea for a game and one I’d like to try with my students in the coming year. One of the things that’s very difficult when conceptualizing serious games in history is the problem of representing the discipline in the core mechanics of the game. I submit that a meaningful simulation game–which I think Speak For Themselves / Forging History has legitimate claims to be–should defensibly represent reality in one or more ways. History games, I think, have a conceptually tougher time integrating the methodology of history into core mechanics that serious games in, say, science In a science/math class one could imagine a serious game where students need to calculate angles of re-entry in real-time to avoid their shuttle burning up, or patch a failing bridge to make it safe. These games would allow students to practice both the discipline and the content of their respective fields. In history, though, one of the main disicipline practices is reading, discussing, and interpreting texts. So far that has been very challenging to embody in the mechanics of a game that is of any interest to anyone (one could imagine, with a shudder, the conversation game, the critical reading game).

    Your proposed game is one of the few examples out there that bridges the gap. Students ARE playing a game where the core mechanics revolve around the discipline of history, content is included by necessity (one can’t ask the question and forge the evidence without knowing something about the episode/period/etc.) plus there is competition and creativity built in. This is a powerful proposition. I have played with prototypes of a history card game where students play text snippets, source cards, etc. What you have is far more elegant in its simplicity and depth. Thanks.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comment Jeremiah! I wholeheartedly agree that the mechanics of the practice are really difficult to turn into the mechanics of a game. Your idea for a card game is great, and I think dovetails quite nicely with Kevin’s ideas for Apples to Apples kinds of historical card games. What is so cool about Apples to Apples as a model for games is that it makes the evaluation part of the game subjective and nuanced. The tough part of making a good history game (not a game about the things that happened in the past but a game about the practice of history) is that I remain fundamentally skeptical about the possibility of procedural rules for evaluation. The Apples to Apples model gets us away from that.

      With that said, I think that there are some interesting opportunities to graft these kinds of experiences on to other games. Rob’s ideas about using the Civ Tech tree as a prompt for imagining other models for the history of science and tech has stuck with me as a great example of this kind of thing. Importantly, I think this kind of thing is a critical part of the “meta-game” that can surround games like Civ. At lest that is what I tried to argue here 🙂

      In a funny way, the document based question on an AP history test is actually a pretty good model for the kind of history game we want to see. You have a set of documents and your wits and you need to put together a compelling argument to respond to a question.

      I will be excited to hear your thoughts on an upcoming series of play the past posts I am drafting on Orson Scott Card’s book Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. I am trying to refine some ideas here about historical fiction and counterfactual thinking that might create opportunities to use play to get into the kind of thinking we care about.

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