History and Gaming

CWF just won an award from the AAM for its social history game for schoolchildren, “Betwixt Folly and Fate.” Congratulations to the staff who helped develop it. It’s a fine game, with users choosing to spend a day as one of four young characters, making choices about what to say to whom, and being rewarded with status points based on the completion of specified tasks in a timely fashion. It’s a good reflection of our recent interpretive priorities (hence the AAM award) but, presumably because we don’t have a multi-million dollar gaming budget, necessarily limited in scope.

But what if CWF, or any other museum, did have a multi-million dollar budget to develop a game? What would we do? I can think of three models: a macro-scale Atlantic World colonization game, like a more finely grained version of the Civilization series; a micro-scale social history game, or an 18th-century version of the Sims; or a first-person game (shooter or otherwise), set in the Rev War, say, in which a player might play as a Redcoat, a rebel, or a slave trying to escape or sign on with the crown.

These three types each represent assumptions about historical significance by privileging a perspective. They also correspond neatly to three major genres of historical writing (history of leadership; social history; biography). Because effects in the game need to be encoded, they would also require us to be explicit about our assumptions about how history unfolds: who are historical agents; how do micro decisions affect macro patterns; how do macro decisions affect micro events? We have a huge amount of data to work with that could inform any number of experiments in speculative history, for example, and that aren’t necessarily suitable for scholarship, or interpretation but that might well engage an audience in historical thinking (what if Peyton Randolph had done X?), as well as historiographical thinking (why doesn’t the game let me do Y?).

(incidentally, why isn’t there a Dickens game yet? How great would it be to run around the back alleys of 19th-century London? Grand Theft Carriage, anyone?)

It’s pretty easy to imagine how these games would unfold and, I think, easy to imagine that they would be entertaining both to design and to play. It’s more difficult to imagine more expansive, open-ended kinds of games, though there are a few people who have started to do just this in the context of teaching history, such as Rob MacDougall in his post on gaming as a couse subject. Rob also has a thoughtful post on the limitations and possibilities for history gaming, including a discussion of History Canada, itself a mod for Civilization.

Still, there are very few games that combine the enjoyment of exploring alternative cultures with the intense, immersive quality of the best games. An exception, and one of the most expansive thinkers about games in general is Jane McGonigal, who developed “World Without Oil,” a massive, collaborative thought expermient about a peak oil disaster. Fun (really)!

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