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With TechnologyPage 174
8. Making and Playing with Models: Using Rapid Prototyping to Explore the History and Technology of Stage Magic
At sites around the world, self-identified makers, crafters, hackers, “edupunks,” and DIY (do-it-yourself) fabricators are forming a community that is in the process of taking on all of the hallmarks of a new social movement. The campaign is probably best summed up by MAKE magazine: “we celebrate your right to tweak, hack, and bend any technology to your will.” MAKE is published by O’Reilly Media, whose motto is “spreading the knowledge of technology innovators.” In addition to MAKE, O’Reilly also publishes a popular series of books on hacking (e.g., Tom Igoe’s Making Things Talk) and hosts blogs and forums. Articles in MAKE profile prominent makers, crafters, and hackers and provide step-by-step instruction in building projects at a variety of skill levels. Themagazine also editorializes against practices like the copy restriction of software and media and the confiscation of Swiss army knives and multi-tools in airports, and in favor of the open source ethos and of products that invite users “to look inside and see the moving parts . . . make repairs and improvements, and even harvest components once the product ceases to be useful.”
O’Reilly sponsors a national meeting (the Maker Faire) and provides publicity for local hacker-artist groups like Dorkbot, which meets in about eighty cities worldwide, including Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. In addition to participating in real-world activities, community members are able to perform online in a variety of forums—including a do-it-yourself instruction website called Instructables—rehearsing core values of sharing and openness, resourcefulness, a can-do attitude, and a willingness Page 176to open the black box. If they wish, they can even buy T-shirts with slogans like “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” “re-use, re-cycle, re-make,” “hacking is not a crime!” and “Make: void your warranty, violate a user agreement, fry a circuit, blow a fuse, poke an eye out . . .” When President Barack Obama celebrated “the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things” in his 2009 inaugural address, O’Reilly immediately emblazoned the phrase on a T-shirt.
The maker community extends far outside the ambit of O’Reilly Media, of course, overlapping with many other interest groups. It includes a global network of hackerspaces, workshops operated by community members who wish to share ideas, tools, and techniques, and to work collaboratively on projects. It includes efforts to crowdsource the production of everything from automobiles to prosthetics. And, most relevant to the work we describe here, it includes groups of people dedicated to producing software (like the programming language Processing), hardware platforms (like Arduino), and computer-controlled machines that are able to print small 3D objects (like RepRap). We discuss all three of these technologies below. In each case, the designers and makers profess an ethic of open source, making tutorials, plans, software, and construction details freely available online.
The present conjuncture—of making as a new social movement, of easy-to-use and freely available platforms that invite modification, of detailed online instructions for doing just about anything—makes it almost costless for historians and other humanists to research, teach, learn, play, and experiment with new technologies. These include digital technologies, of course, the blogs, wikis, podcasts, games, immersive worlds, and social media described by other contributors to this volume. We argue that the time is right for humanists to play and experiment with technologies of material production, too.
Manufacturers have been at the center of innovation in material products for centuries, but the work of researchers such as Eric von Hippel suggests that the balance is shifting somewhat. As the cost of computers and software has fallen, it has become possible for individuals to acquire the equipment necessary to design complicated artifacts and electronics using computer-aided design (CAD) software, and to program simulations and test and measurement routines for prototypes. Some people are motivated to do this, because, as von Hippel notes, the only group that benefits directly from innovation are the users of a good or service. “All others (here lumped under the term Page 177‘manufacturers’) must sell innovation-related products or services to users, indirectly or directly, in order to profit from innovations.” There is thus a strong incentive for users to be able to innovate on their own behalf, and the result has been a gradual “democratization of innovation” as more and more users have become involved in improving the services and products that they rely on. Furthermore, von Hippel’s work shows that communities of user-innovators are much more likely than manufacturers to give away information about their own developments, creating a public good.
In a number of fields of design, this transition has already occurred. The widespread availability of very inexpensive laser and photo printers, the incorporation of desktop publication features into word processing software, and the free availability of photographs, fonts, and clip art make it possible for just about anyone with a modicum of equipment to produce a pamphlet, newsletter, poster, or booklet that has the same high quality as the professional products of two decades ago. There are even online tutorials to teach the fundamentals of vector illustration, coloring, photographic manipulation, kerning, and so on. This is not to say that professional graphic design has disappeared, merely that professional designers must now distinguish themselves in a sea of amateurs. Digital cameras and sites like Flickr have changed the landscape of photography; digital video cameras, blogs, and YouTube have changed journalism; and so on.
Techniques of material fabrication are taught professionally through apprenticeship, trade schools, art and design schools, and university programs. But here we are not primarily concerned with the training and accreditation of a carpenter, welder, industrial designer, or mechanical engineer. There are a handful of people in the humanities who already have a deep professional background in one or more kinds of fabrication. There are far more humanists, however, who cook, sew, repair and restore furniture or automobiles, paint with acrylics, do home renovations, build dollhouses or rockets or model ships, design jewelry, or practice any of a thousand other kinds of making as hobby or avocation. But there is very little evidence for any of this creative activity in their scholarly output. One of the legacies of professionalization is the idea that we have particular areas of “competence” that are certified by the training or licensing that we have undergone, and that we are not permitted to stray outside these boundaries in our teaching or research. Ridiculous! Barring a tiny number of situations that involve public health or safety, national security, or something of the sort, we can and should experiment with whatever techniques we find most congenial for learning and teaching. Whenever possible, we should encourage our students to do the same.
In the past few decades, the cost of commercial computer-controlled rapid prototyping and fabrication devices dropped precipitously. News Page 178articles from the early 1990s put the price of an entry-level commercial setup close to the million-dollar mark. By the turn of the millennium, an equivalent system could be had for about a tenth as much. Within the decade, 3D printer kits for home-built fabricators like RepRap or MakerBot could be purchased for $5,000 or less. Meanwhile, services like Shapeways provide low-cost on-demand 3D printing for individuals. As with the earlier case of desktop publishing, this democratization of innovation will certainly not lead to the demise of professional industrial design and manufacturing, but it will open up the space of material fabrication and customization to the masses.
Like some commercially available 3D printers, the RepRap works by precisely positioning a tiny bead of molten plastic. If you have never seen one in action, imagine a robot wielding a tiny hot-glue gun, building up a 3D object one layer at a time. An example can be seen in figure 8.1. Unlike the commercial alternatives, however, the creators of RepRap are on a mission. The ultimate goal of these do-it-yourself manufacturers is to create a science-fiction-inspired replicator: a device that can make anything, including all of its own component parts. Many of them imagine a world far beyond the limitations of present-day technology, when people will have “wealth without money.” When an appliance breaks, its owner will be able to scan the broken part and print a replacement. Whenever anyone needs something, they will be able to download free plans and print out a copy. When they are done with it, they will recycle the components to be used for something new. This imagined future is one of cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, mass customization, and democratized innovation. Some of the claims made on behalf of personal fabrication are extreme; that the practice will, for example, “bring down global capitalism, start a second industrial revolution and save the environment.”
Although we suspect that none of those things will actually come to pass, RepRaps are fun to play with and good to think with, and they beg to be understood in historical context. Two such contexts come to mind immediately: the industrial revolution and the birth of the personal computer in the 1970s. Both developments were stimulated by a rapidly changing landscape of costs and opportunities. During the industrial revolution, an unprecedented ability to harness and concentrate energy led to the growth of capital-intensive factories. The revolution in personal computing was stimulated, in part, by the availability of inexpensive electronic modules in the form of integrated circuits. In both cases, amateurs played a very important role in innovation. The information costs associated with innovation have also been very different at different times, and a historically nuanced understanding of manufacturing and innovation in the present moment willPage 179
have to take these changes into account, particularly as humanists become makers themselves.
We are interested in personal fabrication as historians, and we know that if we want to understand technical practices or material artifacts, we need to go beyond words to the things themselves. This is imperative because there are good reasons for believing that much technical and scientific knowledge is tacit and embodied, and thus learned only with difficulty (and not by reading). Peter Dear, writing about the technical tracts of the medieval and early modern periods, says:
The historian William Eamon, in his studies of such literature, has characterized these “technical recipe books” as a means whereby the “veil of mystery” that had hitherto surrounded the practical crafts was lifted, so that ordinary people could see that the craftsman was not possessed of some arcane wisdom, but simply had knowledge of a set of techniques that, in principle, anyone could apply. This is not a notion that should be taken for granted, however. Studies in recent decades of the ways in which expert knowledge is constituted and passed on suggest that practitioners do indeed possess skills that are communicated only with difficulty. Their practical knowledge is Page 180often unlearnable from the eviscerated accounts that appear in the pages of experimental papers (in the sciences) or technical manuals (in skilled craftwork in general). Thus, if Eamon is right, the growing sense that developed during the sixteenth century, as a consequence of printing and its uses, that practical craft knowledge (“know how”) can be reduced to straightforward rules of procedure that can be acquired readily from books, was to a large degree an illusion. If this is so, it is an illusion that we have inherited.
Historians, for the most part, have tended to ignore this problem of learning tacit knowledge, and continue to concentrate on the representational sources with which they are most comfortable, even at the cost of being excluded from a crucial understanding of their subject matter.
Beyond understanding personal fabrication in historical context, we believe that it can play a central role in a new, experimental approach to the practice of history. In our work, we combine elements of traditional historical methodology with a reflexive pedagogical approach inspired by recent work in science and technology studies, and the hands-on, critical making that characterizes experimental archaeology. We follow Cyrus Mody and David Kaiser, who argue that pedagogy is a “central analytic category,” not “merely as formalized classroom teaching techniques . . . but rather as the entire constellation of training exercises through which novices become working scientists and engineers.” (From this perspective, pedagogy is central to our own development as humanists, too.) Participation in the reproduction of a community of practitioners holds out the hope of learning “broadly similar values, norms, and self understandings . . . not (or not only) in the abstract, but as enacted through daily interactions within specific settings.”
A related path to tacit knowledge is through the critical, reflexive practices of making that characterize experimental archaeology. As John Coles noted in the early 1970s, many of the nineteenth-century founders of archaeology experimented with stone tools, reproducing artifacts as a way of understanding the conditions of their manufacture and use. Over time, the experimental method has become more widely used in the discipline, as researchers attempt to replicate earlier methods of growing crops; storing and preparing food; building houses; working with stone, wood, bone, antler, metals and other materials; and making paper, pottery, and musical instruments. We might ask, where is the experimental history to match this practice in archaeology?
There have been precedents, of course, in both research and teaching. Generations of intro physics students have followed in Galileo’s footsteps by attempting to determine the law of motion using an inclined plane. Page 181Historians of science have not always believed that Galileo performed the experiment that he reported, however. In the 1950s, Alexander Koyré described Galileo’s experiments as “completely worthless,” due to the “amazing and pitiful poverty of [his] experimental means.” This view was subsequently challenged by Thomas Settle, who rebuilt the apparatus “essentially as Galileo described it,” and recorded results in accordance with Galileo’s. A further refinement was later provided by Stillman Drake. The historian of physics Robert Crease writes:
By carefully studying a page of Galileo’s notebook, Drake concluded that Galileo actually had arrived at the law using the inclined-plane method, but by marking out the time in a way that seems to have taken advantage of his strong musical training. As a competent lute player, Galileo could keep a beat precisely; a good musician could easily tap out a rhythm more accurately than any water timer could measure. Drake determined that Galileo had set frets into the track of the inclined plane—moveable gut strings of the kind used on early string instruments. When a ball was rolled down the track and passed over a fret, he would hear a slight clicking noise. Galileo, in Drake’s speculative reconstruction, then adjusted the frets so that a ball released at the top struck the frets in a regular tempo—which for the typical song of the day was just over half a second per beat. Once Galileo had marked out fairly exact time intervals, thanks to his musical ear, all he would have to do would be to measure the distances between frets.
Contemporary researchers like H. Otto Sibum, Mel Usselman, and Peter Heering have greatly extended the use of reconstruction, experiment, and re-enactment in writing the history of science. Their work provides new ways of understanding laboratory practices and the development of instrumentation, and directs attention to the importance of sensation and perception, material culture, and performance. Bruno Latour famously argued that scientific knowledge becomes encapsulated in “black boxes”; remaking experimental apparatus provides one way of temporarily reversing that process. This kind of practice can also be brought into the classroom. At MIT, Jed Buchwald and Louis Bucciarelli offered a “historic experimentation” course where students did a close reading of primary sources from the history of physics, then attempted to reconstruct the apparatus described and to replicate the reported results. For a number of years, Anne McCants has been working with various colleagues to offer hands-on courses on subjects like ancient and medieval cooking, and spinning and weaving fabrics. Outside the academy, crafters and reenactors make chain mail, fire matchlock Page 182muskets, grow heirloom vegetables, take daguerreotypes, and engage with the material past in an almost unimaginable variety of other ways.
Barbie and Ken Play Penn and Teller
As an example of the utility of rapid prototyping and the experimental method, we present an extended case study related to Devon Elliott’s doctoral work on the history and technology of stage magic. Working together, we have created a number of historical illusions at model scale. These models serve as demonstration devices; have a playful, toy-like quality; and are pedagogically comparable to various kinds of other model-scale teaching tools, like scale mechanisms or crime scene dioramas. By re-creating magical apparatus on dollhouse scale we are able to address a number of research questions: What design decisions were due to the constraints of particular media? How can we use the material culture perspective to read the production of various artifacts, including antique originals, modern replicas, and cheap plastic knockoffs? What new variations can we devise? How do these variations relate to the modern practices of stage magic? How does the possibility of mass customization change the art of illusion? What does the repeatability of a particular illusion or effect tell us about the history of sensation or perception? How does our own engagement with fabrication change our experience of what is methodologically possible?
There are a number of different types of magical effects but here we concentrate on two icons of performance: levitation and vanishing. In the early nineteenth century, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin popularized an illusion known as la suspension éthéréenne (ethereal suspension) at his Soireés Fantastiques. The performer’s son was suspended under his arms by two braces and apparently given a dose of ether. After succumbing to the effects of the drug, one of the supports was removed, and yet the boy remained stationary on the other. His legs were then lifted and his body tilted horizontally to the floor, where it remained suspended unnaturally on a single support. Although Robert-Houdin’s performance appeared to defy the laws of nature, the fact that it required one visible support under his son’s arm was considered to be a technological weakness, especially when the method was published by Hoffmann in the popular press in the latter half of the nineteenth century. (In magicians’ terms, a suspension differs from a levitation by showing some means of visible support.)
Suspensions were not only a popular form of magical performance, but had been a part of English literary culture from the eighteenth century onward. Accounts of magical feats from India—and one in particular, Page 183which became known as the Indian Rope Trick—often took the form of suspensions. In that trick, a rope was cast into the air, where it remained as if attached to some invisible support. A boy climbed the rope and disappeared at the top. There was a commotion, and his dismembered limbs fell to the ground. Put into a basket, the remains of the boy were often restored, completing a death and resurrection performance. Although the trick was recounted in travelogues and other writings, the historian Peter Lamont has shown that such a performance likely never occurred, but was rather a literary construction, a legend. Even the Indian Rope Trick maintained a connection to the ground, however. Were it to be performed, attention would likely be drawn to the rope, and tracing the form of the rope would lead spectators to potential methods for accomplishing the feat. As a matter of practice, magicians and illusion designers strive to eliminate such weaknesses when designing effects. A stunt that appeared more magical would eliminate any visible means of support, and thus would appear to be a true levitation.
The first route to the performance of levitation came from suspension. The person to be levitated wore a harness hidden by clothing. The harness was attached at a single point to a rigid support hidden from the view of the audience by the bodies of the magician and the person levitated. Over time, magicians refined the performance to mask the support mechanism and draw attention away from it. The support was better fitted to the magician’s body. Even with refinements, the magician’s movements were limited by the need to hide the apparatus, and a stationary, physical prop on the stage was also often employed to hide the support. It was still a weakness of sorts. If a spectator accepted the idea that levitation required a hidden support, he or she only needed to study the form of the performance to deduce where the support must be.
Two of the premiere magicians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, John Nevil Maskelyne in England and Harry Kellar in America, both worked to improve the technology of levitation. Maskelyne was fortunate enough to have his own performance laboratory in the form of the Egyptian Hall stage. Continuously performing there, he could create and test new illusions that were improved iteratively and tailored to his venue. One of Maskelyne’s innovations was to introduce a “gooseneck,” an S-shaped bended form between body and support that allowed solid hoops to be passed over the levitated body, creating a more convincing impression of floating. Maskelyne’s other discovery was that thin threads on the stage were invisible to spectators. Each could support a small amount of weight, and when united, could lift a substantial load. Combining the gooseneck with a network of threads, Maskelyne revolutionized levitation, albeit in a Page 184form that was difficult to balance and tune and could not be easily moved from one venue to another.
In re-creating scale models of Maskelyne’s levitation, we wanted to work from a detailed description of the methods that he used to achieve his particular effect. Bruce Armstrong’s Encyclopedia of Suspensions and Levitations, published for magicians in 1976, is a good resource. Numerous methods are described along with drawings from earlier plans, and stage movements and performance details are given where available. We found that material characteristics such as rigidity and elasticity played a significant role in the believability of the levitation illusion at model scale. When Elliott printed a small gooseneck out of ABS on one of our MakerBots, it flexed when weighted, and the downward deflection of the levitating body was enough to spoil the illusion of floating. The original plans called for iron rod, one inch in diameter. To achieve a believable effect, we replaced the plastic support with a more rigid one made from a coat hanger. One of these levitation models can be seen in figure 8.2. The process of photographing our models also underlined the importance of stage lighting. An intense light from the wrong direction can cause the hidden support to cast telltale shadows.
Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stage magic drew on both technoscience—especially the class of effects that were previously known as “natural magic”—and spiritualism. The study of stage magic offers researchers one advantage that the study of spiritualistic phenomena does not: magicians often explained the secrets of their illusions somewhere. Methods were kept from audiences, of course, but shared among magicians in the form of books, journals, and plans that explained how to build the necessary apparatus. These directions guided a magician in constructing his (or much less frequently her) own device, but important details such as dimensions or materials were often unspecified, thus keeping part of the performance a secret. Only by making a device and experimenting with it could one eventually re-create the feat. Thus by building and performing illusions based on these incomplete plans, we are able to partially re-create the pedagogical context of stage magicians in this period. Later, a commercial manufacturing system allowed aspiring magicians to purchase apparatus for accomplishing illusions, and this appealed to an increasing number of amateurs, domestic performers who entertained family members in the home. These amateurs also had access to a growing DIY magic literature. As magical devices became commercialized, the hands-on, constructive element of magical practice was eliminated. The widespread availability of magical apparatus allowed a new breed of magicians to gain a prominent position in venues, like vaudeville, which drew a mass audience.
The other performer who worked to improve the technology of levitation was the American star Harry Kellar. Kellar visited London annually,Page 185
often accompanied by his chief mechanic, in order to study the new illusions that his rival Maskelyne was showing at Egyptian Hall. Kellar viewed Maskelyne’s levitation from the audience a number of times, but he was unable to discern its method. Finally he simply walked on stage during a performance, viewed the apparatus up close, then coerced one of Maskelyne’s assistants into explaining to him what he had just seen. Returning to the United States, he is rumored to have employed the Otis Elevator Company to help refine the idea and to make it work. The illusion went on to become a significant feature of Kellar’s show, featuring prominently on his playbills and advertising lithographs.
Maskelyne’s version of the levitation was precise and delicate, well-suited to a single venue but impractical for touring. Kellar refined the levitation so that it could be set up and dismantled readily at each venue that he played. (A poster advertising Kellar’s levitation appears in figure 8.3.) Since each stage had different dimensions and resources, Kellar’s version of levitation neededPage 186Page 187
to be adaptable and robust. When Kellar retired, he named Howard Thurston as his successor and passed a levitation apparatus on to him. Thurston continued to perform the levitation, created lengthier presentations for it, and eventually, to Kellar’s horror, invited witnesses from the audience on stage to view the levitation. The illusion that Thurston was showing to audience members was not Kellar’s final version of the levitation. He had continued to improve it for touring, eliminating the need to cut holes in the stage floor if none were already available or it was impossible to make such alterations. Dismayed by the direction that Thurston was taking, Kellar sold the improved levitation to Harry Blackstone. Other magicians imitated Kellar’s gall as well as his illusions. Carter the Great hired one of Thurston’s stagehands in order to learn the secret, and then wrote to Kellar to ask how to treat the lines in order to camouflage them on stage. Incensed, Kellar did not respond. Kellar’s secrets appeared in print in The Life and Mysteries of the Celebrated Dr. “Q” and a magic company in California advertised plans for the illusion, ensuring that it would continue to be performed as long as magic was popular on the stage. Installing, tuning, and using the apparatus was finicky, however, and the method went out of fashion. It is rarely seen today.
In re-creating models of the more elaborate levitations, we started with commercially available toys and used their measurements to determine the scale of other components. A levitation model scaled to a pair of commercial toys is shown in figure 8.4. The bodies of performers were particularly important in stage magic because the apparatus was often fitted to a particular person, limiting the number of other people who could use it. If a performer stopped working with a particular magician, her (or much less frequently his) replacement would have to have similar measurements and range of flexibility. The illusion designer Guy Jarrett used the dimensions of his own body as a basis for designing his apparatus, and discovered that hiding spaces could be made much smaller than previously thought. Audiences tended to assume that certain spaces were much too small to hold a person, which made illusions more convincing.
Our choice of toys also raised questions about the role of contemporary models in understanding historical events. Strict accuracy would suggest using a male magician with a female assistant, dressed in period costumes. The heyday of stage magic was also associated with stereotypical, exoticized, and frankly racist depictions of Asian peoples and culture: for example, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer Chung Ling Soo” was actually discovered upon his death in 1918 to be a New Yorker named William Ellsworth Robinson. We did not want to reproduce the gender roles or Orientalism of our historical actors unthinkingly, however, but rather to problematize them. So one of our model magicians looks roughly Mephistophelean, but willPage 188
be recognizable to some as a character of twenty-first-century fiction, and rather than working with a female model assistant, he levitates a block of wood and disappears a gender-indeterminate mummy inspired by cheesy horror movies. For other model magicians and assistants we used posable stick figures, anthropomorphic but lacking most other detail. Each choice is intended to provide entry points into further reflective discussion. What if we made Barbie the magician and Ken the assistant? What if a giant rabbit pulled a magician from a hat? And so on.
The process of building more elaborate models also foregrounded the importance of the stage itself as a venue for creating illusions. How did space, seating, lines of sight, viewing distance, or the prestige of the venue affect the perceptions of the audience? Stages were not entirely fixed: magicians might cut holes or traps to facilitate their methods. When Harry Blackstone toured, his stagehands were happy to use stages that Thurston had once performed on because Thurston’s people had already cut holes in the stage for the levitation wires. Stages also provided spaces to hide assistants and apparatus behind, below, and above the visible section. As we build more complicated models, we are drawn into the need to model the surrounding context of the stage, too. We substitute black thread for wires. In place of hydraulic lifts we use commercially available hobby gear-motors and servos. In place of human assistance, we use the open source Page 189microcontroller Arduino. Arduino has roughly the functionality of an early 1980s-era computer, but costs less than $50, fits into the space about the size of a deck of cards, and can be easily hooked up to sensors and actuators. We use Arduinos extensively in building interactive exhibits of all sorts. We can program an Arduino to turn on and off lights, draw and close curtains, play sound effects, raise and lower pieces of apparatus, and do just about anything else that we need to do to further an illusion. In addition to printing out custom plastic parts on a RepRap, we fabricate stage and apparatus from foamcore, peg board, masonite, lightweight woods like basswood and balsa, metal construction kits (e.g., VEX robotics), and other modeling materials. After building a prototype by hand, we have the option of laser scanning pieces to create a 3D model, and then milling out further versions with small CNC (computer numerator control) mills and lathes. Rapid prototyping allows us to iteratively improve stage and effects, in much the same way that Maskelyne was able to continually improve his own equipment and performances. In keeping with the open source ethos of the community, we also share ideas and improvements in blogs and forums and on sites like Thingiverse and Instructables.
A second type of illusion that we have re-created at model scale is the vanish. For centuries, magicians have vanished small objects such as coins and cork balls using sleight-of-hand. In the nineteenth century, magicians directed their attention toward vanishing the human body. Illusions such as Pepper’s Ghost used optics to make spectral images appear, transform, and disappear; other effects relied on carefully placed mirrors. In 1886, Buatier de Kolta performed L’escamotage d’une dame en personne vivante (the vanishing lady). A newspaper was unfolded on the stage and a chair placed on the newspaper. A woman sat down and was covered with a sheet. Her form could be seen through the sheet right up to the moment the magician pulled it away, when she apparently vanished. The trick was front-page news in London for a full month. Karen Beckman writes that “this spectacle of vanishing both reflects and refutes Victorian anxieties about female surplus, offering us important insights about Britain’s relationship not only with the early feminist movement but with domestic political issues of unemployment and the care of the poor.”
While rebuilding a simple vanishing cabinet, we encountered many familiar questions in somewhat altered form: choice of actors, staging, lighting, materials, mechanisms; directing attention and controlling lines of sight; hiding the gimmick; and so on. A photo sequence of the vanishing cabinet model appears in figure 8.5. Vanishing also raises epistemological questions. How do you communicate the idea that something is no longer present, especially when it really does remain but is unseen? An object (or person) is introducedPage 190
and made familiar. When it disappears, its absence has to be emphasized by what remains. As one builds and works with the models, one takes on roles of apparatus builder, magician, assistant, and audience member.
Spaces for Making and Playing
It is a sad fact that, in North America at least, most of the spaces available for graduate teaching and learning in the humanities are less suitable for hands-on making and experimenting than just about any kindergarten classroom in the country. We know that this kind of activity is crucial for child development, but is there any evidence that it is less crucial for people in other age groups? For at least a century, scholars like John Dewey, Jane Addams, and the members of the Bauhaus and the Foxfire projects have argued (in Page 191different ways, of course) that useful making and doing are an essential part of learning. This is not something new, it is something we seem condemned to repeat. Teachers or students who want to introduce hands-on work into the humanities often face an initial problem of finding suitable spaces to make things; to store tools, supplies, and work-in-progress; and to demonstrate final projects. Part of the challenge of playful learning is getting out of—and getting rid of—carpeted beige cubbyholes designed for office labor.
Making and playing with models is one part of our wider practice as researchers, teachers, and (perpetual) students. In classrooms and workshops we ask people to consider how history would be different if it were presented in the form of an appliance: we turn on a tap and water comes out; what if we could turn on a device and it “dispensed” history? How does our historical consciousness change when ideas are presented in the form of a toy, game, gadget, device, situation, or environment? How does our imaginative engagement with material culture allow us to communicate tacit knowledge or more sensuous understandings of the past? Allowed to brainstorm, students come up with delightful projects, some realizable and some pure fantasy. Public history graduate students at Western University in Ontario, for example, imagined
- Heritage knitting needles. Passed down within a family, they remember every pattern that they have been used to create. You might use them to knit a copy of the same blanket that your grandmother made for your mother when she was a baby.
- Reverse “babel fish.” Put this device in your ear, and everyone around you will appear to be speaking Old English. Rather than a translating device, this helps to communicate the idea that “the past is a foreign country.”
- Yelling documents. A bad-tempered microfilm reader that can correct you when you make an untenable interpretation of a source.
- Tangible spray. An aerosol that creates a cloud of mist. Reach into the cloud to feel the past. When it dissolves, you are left grasping thin air.
In our interactive exhibit design course, graduate students learn to create 3D representations by drafting with SketchUp and by scanning with laser or touch probe. They can then go on to materialize their designs in paper using a CNC cutter like the Craft Robo, in plastic with MakerBots, in wood or acrylic with a laser cutter, or in various media through subtractive machining. They can then combine these digital and physical objects with laptop computers and electronic components like Arduino to create museum exhibits that have interactive, tangible, or ambient components. In Page 192recent classes, students have created a working model of Sputnik, a simple robot that re-creates historic plays on a tabletop hockey game, and a wearable museum exhibit, among many other projects.
In the context of a public history graduate program, we have been fortunate to work with librarians, curators, K–12 teachers, and educational technology specialists who have access to different spaces and different mind-sets. We have also found a lot of enthusiasm in local communities of artists, crafters, and hackers. If you want to do something similar and are drawing blank stares in your own department, try working from the outside in: join a hackerspace or crafting group and start there. Or invite like-minded individuals to work with you in your garage, your basement, or your uncle’s barn. When you have something to share, put it online, blog or tweet about it, and show it to your colleagues, students, or classmates. Everyone is welcome in the DIY movement, and the most important thing that we tweak, hack, and bend to our will may be the process of learning itself. Remember, “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”
Generous support for this work was provided in part by SSHRC (Research Development Initiatives grants, 2005–7, 2009–11); by Image, Text, Sounds and Technology grants (2007–9, 2009–11); and by Western University (Fellowship in Teaching Innovation, 2005; Research Western, 2007–12).
1. Charles Tilly, Social Movements, 1768–2004 (Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2004). According to Tilly, a new social movement is characterized by the innovative synthesis of three things: a campaign; a repertoire of performances; and displays of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. Each of these is evident in the community of makers, widely construed. Makers also constitute a “recursive public” in the sense of Christopher M. Kelty, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008).
2. Tom Igoe, Making Things Talk (Sebastopol: O’Reilly, 2007). O’Reilly also published a companion magazine called CRAFT, now defunct, and regularly updates a site on craft projects, http://craftzine.com.
4. See the Dorkbot website, accessed July 31, 2012, http://dorkbot.org. Dorkbot also meets in Second Life.
5. Barack Obama, “President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” The White House Blog (January 21, 2009), accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/inaugural-address/. For the t-shirt, see http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2009/01/winner_make_the_risktakers_the_doer.html, accessed April 16, 2010.
6. See http://hackerspaces.org/wiki/, accessed April 16, 2010. Hackerspaces have already sprung up in many Canadian cities. See, for example, VHS in Vancouver, accessed July 31, 2012, http://vancouver.hackspace.ca/doku.php; THINK|HAUS in Hamilton, accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.thinkhaus.org/; Kwartzlab in Kitchener-Waterloo, Page 193accessed July 31, 2012, http://kwartzlab.ca/; unLab in London, accessed July 31, 2012, http://unlondon.ca; or hacklab.to in Toronto, accessed July 22, 2010, http://hacklab.to/. Elliott is a member of the London unLab.
7. For automobiles, see Local Motors, http://www.local-motors.com, accessed April 16, 2010; Chris Anderson, “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms are the New Bits,” Wired 18, no. 2 (February 2010), accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_newrevolution/; Joel Johnson, “Atoms are Not Bits; Wired is Not a Business Magazine,” Gizmodo (January 26, 2010), accessed July 31, 2012, http://gizmodo.com/5457461/atoms-are-not-bits-wired-is-not-a-business-magazine. For prosthetics, see The Open Prosthetics Project, http://openprosthetics.org, accessed April 16, 2010.
9. Steven Weber, The Success of Open Source (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005); Phillip Torrone, “Open Source Hardware, What is It? Here’s a Start . . . ,” MAKE: Blog (April 23, 2007).
10. For games, see chapters in this volume by Gouglas et al. (chapter 6), Graham (chapter 10), Kee and Graham (chapter 13), McCall (chapter 11), and Compeau and MacDougall (chapter 4); Levy and Dawson (chapter 3) and Dunae and Lutz (chapter 14) describe immersive worlds; the other contributors invoke a wide variety of other online and digital media.
11. Eric von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005); idem, The Sources of Innovation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); idem, “The Dominant Role of Users in the Scientific Instrument Innovation Process,” Research Policy 5, no. 3 (1976): 212–39.
12. von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation, 3. Of course, the same logic suggests that humanists will be best served by software that they create for themselves. Ramsay’s chapter in this volume provides a particularly striking example.
13. By comparison, the first widely available laser printer, the Apple LaserWriter, had a starting price around $7,000 in 1985. A MakerBot, a RepRap derivative kit, could be purchased in 2010 for U.S. $750 at http://makerbot.com, accessed April 16, 2010. Between the two of us, we have already built a RepRap and four MakerBots, have helped to build three or four other MakerBots, and have two more RepRaps under construction.
14. See Shapeways, accessed April 16, 2010, http://www.shapeways.com.
20. For the industrial revolution, see, for example, Anthony F. C. Wallace, Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the Early Industrial Revolution (New York: Page 194Knopf, 1978); Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002); Margaret C. Jacob and Larry Stewart, Practical Matter: Newton’s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire 1687–1851 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004); for personal computers, see Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, Computer: A History of the Information Age (New York: Basic, 1996); Paul E. Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003); Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
22. Michael S. Mahoney, “Reading a Machine,” Ms., Princeton University, 1996, accessed April 18, 2010, http://www.princeton.edu/~hos/h398/readmach/modeltfr.html.
25. For a related discussion, see Nowviskie’s chapter in this volume about the relationship between procedural work and interpretive work (chapter 7), and the important role of the agent that interprets and performs a given procedure. Nowviskie herself is an active member of a crafting community.
26. Cyrus Mody and David Kaiser, “Scientific Training and the Creation of Scientific Knowledge,” in The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies,3rd ed., ed. Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael Lynch, and Judy Wajcman (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008), 378.
27. John Coles, Archaeology by Experiment (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973); Daniel Ingersoll, John E. Yellen, and William Macdonald, eds., Experimental Archeology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977); Heather Margaret-Louise Miller, Archaeological Approaches to Technology (Amsterdam: Academic, 2007); Penny Cunningham, Julia Heeb, and Roeland Paardekooper, eds., Experiencing Archaeology by Experiment (Oxford: Oxbow, 2008). Some of our colleagues in archaeology practice experimental methods; some do not and have suggested to us that the subdiscipline is in decline. We do not know if that is the case, but if it is we observe that the fortunes of any particular method often have more to do with social factors than effectiveness. We would not be surprised to see the rise of a new generation of experimentalists.
29. H. Otto Sibum, “Experimental History of Science,” in Museums of Modern Science: Nobel Symposium 112, ed. Svante Lindqvist (Canton, Mass.: Science History Publications, 1999), 77–86; Melvyn C. Usselman, Alan J. Rocke, Christina Reinhart, and Kelly Foulser, “Restaging Liebig: A Study in the Replication of Experiments,” Annals of Science 62 (2005): 1–55; Peter Heering, “Regular Twists: Replicating Coulomb’s Wire-Torsion Experiments,” Physics in Perspective 8, no. 1 (March 2006): 52–63.Page 195
31. We have recently been in touch with Glen Bull, who is leading a project entitled Fab@School: A Digital Fabrication Laboratory for the Classroom, funded in 2010 for K–12 education. See http://www.digitalfabrication.org/ accessed July 25, 2010.
32. Jed Z. Buchwald and Louis Bucciarelli, “Historic Experimentation” (syllabus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1999), accessed April 16, 2010, http://www.aip.org/history/syllabi/experiments.htm.
33. See, for example, Anne McCants and Margo Collett, “Old Food: Ancient and Medieval Cooking” (syllabus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010); Anne McCants, Margo Collett, and Miranda Knutson, “The Distaff Arts: Medieval Clothing Technology” (syllabus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010); Lynda Morgenroth and Emily Hiestand, “Medieval Tech: The Vibrant ‘Old Ways’ of Historian Anne McCants,” in Soundings (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Spring 2010).
34. “Make Chainmail,” accessed April 18, 2010, http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Chainmail.
35. YouTube, accessed April 18, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KTS8PQ06Qo.
36. Seed Savers, accessed April 18, 2010, http://www.seedsavers.org/.
37. Daguerrre, accessed April 18, 2010, http://www.daguerre.org/.
39. Elliott is also a practicing magician and a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. He started performing as a child and has worked at a variety of venues, from birthday parties and street festivals to fairs and exhibitions.
40. For mechanical scale models, see the Kinematic Models for Design Digital Library, accessed April 19, 2010, http://kmoddl.library.cornell.edu/; for crime scene dioramas, see Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (New York: Monacelli, 2004); Thomas Mauriello with Ann Darby, The Dollhouse Murders: A Forensic Expert Investigates 6 Little Crimes (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pi, 2004).
41. For classification, see S. H. Sharpe and Todd Karr, Neo-Magic Artistry (Los Angeles: The Miracle Factory, 2000), which includes a reprint of Sharpe’s 1932 Neo Magic, 43–52; Dariel Fitzkee, The Trick Brain (San Rafael: San Rafael House, 1944), 21–31; Peter Lamont and Richard Wiseman, Magic in Theory: An Introduction to the Theoretical and Psychological Elements of Conjuring (England, Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire, 1999).
42. Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author and Conjurer, Lascelles Wraxall translation of Confidences d’un prestidigitateur (London: Chapman and Hall, 1860), accessed July 30, 2012, http://www.archive.org/details/memoirsofroberth00roberich; Angelo John Lewis Hoffmann, Modern Magic: A Practical Treatise on the Art of Conjuring (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1877), accessed July 30, 2010, http://www.archive.org/details/modernmagic00hoffgoog. Simon During, Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 129, describes this as “an illusion which provoked angry letters accusing Robert-Houdin of child abuse.”Page 196
44. Bruce Armstrong, ed., Encyclopedia of Suspensions and Levitations (Calgary: M. Hades International, 1976); Albert A. Hopkins, ed., and Henry Ridgely Evans, Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, Including Trick Photography (New York: Arno, 1977 ), 31–34; Jim Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003), 164. The illusion shown in figure 8.2 uses a variant of Maskelyne’s gooseneck.
45. Magicians themselves tend to think of the period from the 1880s to the 1930s as the golden age of stage magic—for example, see Milbourne Christopher and Maurine Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic, updated ed. (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006). A much wider perspective is provided by Noel Daniel, Mike Caveney, and Jim Steinmeyer, Magic, 1400s–1950s (Köln: Taschen, 2009).
46. Although Maskelyne did not found the stage, he was able to gain control of it and turn it into a venue known for magic. Egyptian Hall was originally established as a museum and exhibit hall, featuring an Egyptian collection.
48. Although spiritualists did describe how to hold séances, query spirits, attempt automatic writing and table rapping, and so on, they explained apparently magical phenomena by reference to spirits, with whom they claimed to be in contact. Spiritualists of the period, like Daniel Douglas Home, used levitation during séances. Peter Lamont, The First Psychic: The Peculiar Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard (London: Little, Brown, 2005).
49. Cf. Robert W. Snyder, “The Vaudeville Circuit: A Prehistory of the Mass Audience,” in Audiencemaking: How the Media Create the Audience, ed. James S. Ettema and D. Charles Whitney (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994), 215–31; Hoffmann’s was one early book that widely exposed the methods and diagrams of magical apparatus.
51. Marian Hannah Winter, The Theatre of Marvels, trans. Charles Meldon (New York: B. Blom, 1964). There are copies of the posters at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas and at the Library of Congress. The image shown here is from the Library of Congress, accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/var.0259/. It measures 46 cm x 34 cm and was published by the Strobridge Lithography Company of New York around 1894. For other digital copies, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/var.0258/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/var.1896/, accessed July 31 2012.
52. Guy E. Jarrett and Jim Steinmeyer, The Complete Jarrett (Burbank: Hahne, 2001 ); Armstrong; Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant. Armstrong includes a number of other performance details for the levitation: one of Howard Thurston’s scripts, music used by different performers during the act, comments from assistants who worked with the illusions, and so on.
55. Conlin Alexander, The Life and Mysteries of the Celebrated Dr. “Q” (Los Angeles: Alexander, 1921). Republished in Darryl Beckmann, The Life and Times of Alexander, The Man Who Knows, A Personal Scrapbook (Rolling Bay, WA: Rolling Bay Press, 1994).
56. It was revived in the 1990s by John Gaughan and Jim Steinmeyer, illusion builders and magic historians, and performed at an invitation-only gathering of elite magicians and magic historians in Los Angeles.Page 197
59. We note in passing that houses, spaceships, secret forts, and a variety of other kinds of environment may be purchased for many commercially available dolls and action figures. This situatedness of play with toys forms an important resource for us, and a direction for further research.
66. “The Maker’s Bill of Rights,” Make Magazine, accessed July 31, 2012, http://makezine.com/04/ownyourown/.
9. Contests for Meaning: Playing King Philip’s War in the Twenty-First Century
The historian Jill Lepore’s summation of King Philip’s War (1675–76)—a conflict many white Americans have never heard of—was again proven prescient in March 2010 when the Providence Journal in Rhode Island ran a seemingly improbable story about the plans of a small, Maryland-based board game publisher specializing in historical simulations to release a product based on this oft-overlooked episode in colonial New England history. King Philip was in fact Metacom, the Wampanoag sachem responsible for rallying the northeastern tribes in an ultimately failed attempt to resist increasingly aggressive colonial expansion; the widespread fighting that ensued, featuring scorched-earth tactics reminiscent of the European religious wars, engulfed four separate colonies and led to hundreds of Puritan and as many as five thousand Native American deaths, including that of Metacom himself. (So ferocious was the enmity that his severed hands were brought to the colonial seat of Plymouth for public display.)
The subsequent narration of the conflict was to be no less totalizing. None other than Increase Mather set the terms for how the war would be characterized in print: “That the Heathen people amongst whom we live, and whose Land the Lord God of our Fathers hath given to us for a rightfull Possession, have at sundry times been plotting mischievous devices against that part of the English Israel which is seated in these goings down of the Page 199Sun, no man that is an Inhabitant of any considerable standing can be ignorant.” These “mischievous devices” consisted in an unprecedented degree of coordination and common purpose among the native New England tribes, united by the charismatic person of Metacom. The two years of bitter warfare that resulted became instrumental in the construction of a nascent American identity, argues Lepore: “Not all colonists agreed about the causes of the war, or about how it should be waged, but most agreed about what was at stake: their lives, their land, and their sense of themselves.”
The war thus defined relations between colonists and natives for generations to come, not only in its immediate political, military, and economic ramifications, but also culturally and indeed textually, through histories like Mather’s and the outpouring of other writings that followed (Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is perhaps the most famous). The controversy I describe below will therefore be familiar to anyone who pays attention to ongoing projects of cultural identity formation and negotiation. Still, it is clear that the specific status of the artifact in question as a game was a major part of what was at issue, a new and (for some) needlessly cruel twist in the oft-contested histories of King Philip’s War (the name itself betrays the representational frames that quickly fell into place). Reaction to the Providence Journal story, which the vast majority of readers viewed online, was almost instantaneous. Native American groups were outraged, finding the notion of what was initially perceived to be a fun-for-the-whole-family treatment of the topic as gruesome as it was exploitative. John Poniske, the game’s designer (and a middle-school history teacher), and his publisher, Multi-Man Publishing, Inc., meanwhile maintained that they were simply interested in presenting the story of the conflict to a wider audience, and that the design was a fair and accurate portrayal of historical events based on appropriately studious research.
King Philip’s War (KPW) was published later in 2010 with some degree of reconciliation, Poniske with newfound sensitivities and the objectors acknowledging some of its educational potential (see figure 9.1). Its reception in the hobbyist community that was its target audience has ironically been lackluster, the consensus apparently being that it is a good but not great entry in the niche market for tabletop conflict simulations. (The average user rating on BoardGameGeek, the widely used hobbyist portal, is 7.01 out of 10 at the time of this writing, placing KPW well into the mid-list of the site’s rankings of thousands of published war games.) But why did the game arouse such passions in the first place? Does playing the past create expectations different from merely consuming it through books and film? What does the game as published actually teach us about King Philip’s War? And did it make a difference that it was a board game (with a paper map,Page 200
dice, and cardboard unit tokens) that was causing all of the fuss, instead of a high-end computer game with sophisticated graphics and sound effects?
The public controversy began on March 15, 2010, when the Providence Journal published a brief item by a staff writer titled “King Philip’s War No Game to Native Americans.” It described a title currently up for “pre-order” with Multi-Man Publishing (MMP), which operates via a subscription model, meaning one of its board games is printed only when it accrues a certain number of pledges. While short on details, the piece limned the contours of the debate that would follow. “Colonial players win by gathering points or eliminating King Philip and other Indian leaders. Indian players win by accumulating points or seizing the settlements of Boston and Plymouth,” the article explained. Statements from tribal historians from the Narragansett and Nipmuc were included, invoking racism and race war: “The message seems to be, it’s still OK to kill Indians.” Paula Peters of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe was quoted as saying that the game “seems to trivialize a very Page 201tragic event in our history.” Predictably perhaps, the terms of the discussion rapidly polarized: “Would we play a game called The Holocaust?” she added. Several statements are also included from the game’s designer, John Poniske, chief among them that he “immediately saw the gaming potential in the historical situation.” MMP’s Brian Youse is quoted to the effect that the game “tells a story that many people outside of New England don’t know.” By the end of the piece it also emerged that MMP is co-owned by former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
Several factors that shaped subsequent discussion are worth pointing out here. The brief description of the game itself, with its emphasis on collecting “points,” seemed to lend credence to the charge that it was trivializing or exploiting a troubled and tragic history. Poniske, meanwhile, comes across as more opportunistic than scholarly, seeing mainly good “gaming potential” in the material. Even the improbable detail regarding Schilling seemed calculated to reinforce the binary between hegemonic American mass culture and Native American traditions routinely relegated to the regalia of mascotry.
The article was quickly noticed in the gamer community, where it spawned a lively discussion on Internet forums such as BoardGameGeek and ConSimWorld. Reaction in these venues was predictable. “I don’t see any harm in drawing attention to history, especially one in this time period where more people should be made aware these events even happened” is representative of the more measured strain that, like MMP itself, simply saw the game as a vehicle for historical education packaged in a recreational format. Other responses immediately dialed the rhetoric to an extreme, with foaming accusations of “political correctness” run amok and defiant claims that the best response was to double-down and place an extra order to get the game printed all the sooner (the preorder cost was around $30). Poniske, who remained levelheaded throughout, took the opportunity to offer a more extended statement:
As a teacher I know that people have different styles of learning. I take advantage of all styles and I firmly believe that simulation-gaming (recreating conflict via cardboard and paper) can turn players into learners. King Philip’s War is a case in point. I did not intend to sensationalize anyone’s suffering—the exact opposite. I designed the game to present to the world OUTSIDE of New England a tremendous conflict between American natives and the Puritan colonists who encroached on their tribal lands. . . . I love gaming and I love learning. I combined the two so that I could inform and educate, AND perhaps entice players into digging further into details of the conflict. I would submit that the term “game” in and of itself assumes that the Page 202topic is trivialized. On the contrary. There is a world of simulation gaming that allows players insight into the past that they might never otherwise obtain.
The notion that conflict simulation gaming has the potential to offer worthwhile historical insights is one that is finding increasing traction in the literature. Philip Sabin, for example, professor in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, regularly uses games designed by himself and his students in his courses on military history. Ironically, as Sabin has argued, it is often the low-tech cardboard and paper-based games that provide a more nuanced experience. The computer games market is dominated by big-budget blockbuster productions: one does not play Call of Duty for any real insight into the Normandy landings, but students might very well turn to one of the many dozens of tabletop board games on the subject to help answer the question of why the Allies landed on the Cotentin peninsula and not somewhere else along the coast of France. Playing a game illustrates geography, distances, and variables related to such considerations as supply and the positioning of enemy forces more dynamically than a book or film. Playing a tabletop game in particular allows students to inspect the systems and processes that constitute the rules of the game, and thus its interpretation of the historical record. As Sabin notes, “Since I believe that designing simulations for oneself is a far better way of gaining insight into the dynamics of a real conflict than is simply playing someone else’s computer game on that subject, I see the much greater design accessibility of manual simulations as a major reason for their continued production and relevance.” Poniske and MMP’s claim that KPW offered a unique mode of engagement for illuminating this dark corner of New England history is therefore quite defensible, and Poniske has made a point of describing the game as a starting place rather than the final word on the topic.
Some objectors insisted that the game was nothing but an attempt to cash in. But while KPW was not going to make anyone rich (profit margins in this niche marketplace are generally slim), there were undeniably other motives at work. For instance, we can return to Poniske’s earlier comment that he saw “gaming potential” in the historical narrative. What can this mean? From the standpoint of military history and conflict simulation, the situation is indeed an interesting one, a classic case of asymmetrical warfare where an indigenous population confronts a militarily more powerful invader. This translates into different roles for each player and a richer range of decisions and strategies to explore. There was also a significant political layer to the conflict, with uneasy alliances between the New England colonies and the loyalty of various Native American tribes uncertain (the Mohawks,Page 203
for example, have the potential to join either side—historically they were hostile to Philip). Moreover, the topic had never before been “gamed”; in a hobby that still manages to publish more than one hundred new titles every year for its enthusiasts, the search for novelty amid the reservoir of actual historical events is a factor that cannot be underestimated. (It is not unusual for a long-time war gamer, or “grognard,” to have a couple of dozen Bulge, Waterloo, or Gettysburg games on his shelves.) To stumble across a conflict of such scope and import as King Philip’s War without other treatments of it already in gamers’ hands was thus indeed a coup.
Following the publication of the Providence Journal article, events began to unfold quickly. The key figure to emerge at this point was Julianne Jennings, who is a member of the Nottoway Tribal Community in Virginia and, at the time of the controversy, held an adjunct appointment in cultural anthropology at Rhode Island College. She became a leading spokesperson on behalf of the protest effort. On March 20 she organized a street protest in Providence, drawing around seventy-five attendees as well as additional media coverage in the local papers (see figure 9.2). Signs carried by the protesters read “Stop Playing the Genocide Game” and “Would a Holocaust Game Be OK?”
A Facebook group entitled “Stop the release of King Philip’s War game” also went online, and quickly garnered several hundred members. The Page 204description read: “Stopping the production of this game is our focus, but the broader goals are raising awareness of Indians’ continued existence. And the multiracial and multicultural nature of this existence, especially on the East Coast.” By this point it was clear that there was a communications gap. Keeping in mind that the game was not yet in print, the objectors were acting at most on the advertising samples posted on the MMP website (which, amid previews of the artwork and map, enticed prospective players with “a momentous example of New England frontier savagery”). Clearly, the vexed connotations of “savage” in this context were not uppermost in the mind of whoever wrote the advertising copy. Still, as one forum poster put it, “When most people hear the word ‘board game’ they think Monopoly, Risk, Clue, or disposable games based on movie franchises.” This point is worth underscoring: as others in this volume have addressed, the term “game” in the popular imagining is generally synonymous with exactly these sorts of trivial pursuits. Concepts such as “serious games” and “meaningful play” were not part of the discourse as conducted in the streets of Providence. (One could productively answer the rhetorical question about playing a Holocaust game with Brenda Brathwaite’s Train, for example.) Other gamers’ reactions ranged from a kind of earnest piety (insisting they played games merely out of a love of history) which, while no doubt sincere as far as it went, generally failed to acknowledge that at the end of the day one also played games about warfare and violence for, well, for want of a better word . . . fun. The piety was also inevitably coupled with a seemingly contradictory outrage, with numerous posters insisting that KPW was “just a game” and that the protestors should find a more urgent cause to which to devote themselves. Regardless, preorders saw a sharp uptick following the publicity, and KPW was quickly slotted into the MMP production queue. By August it was in gamers’ hands. So, what does it actually mean to play King Philip’s War?
Playing the Game
While doubtless appearing formidable to the uninitiated, KPW is a game of only low to middling complexity by the standards of the conflict simulation hobby. There are about a dozen pages of rules to absorb before beginning, and the game takes around three hours to play to completion. It is set on a map of historical New England featuring colonial settlements and native villages, as well as relevant geographical features such as rivers that affect the course of play. Each player has a number of 5/8-inch square cardboard tokens, called “counters,” representing companies of colonial soldiery and “war bands” of Native Americans. Counters are also included for prominent Page 205leaders on each side such as Metacom and Benjamin Church; other counters represent assets such as muskets or the presence of scouts or a lurking spy.
The game is structured by turns, each denoting a calendar season between 1675 and 1676, nine total. Each turn consists of a strict sequence of steps (“phases”) that must be completed in order. Since many readers will be unfamiliar with conflict simulations, it is worth reproducing the sequence of a turn in full in order to give a sense of the conduct of the game. I have added brief glosses to each.
- Church/Allied Indian Roll. To add interest, the key personage of Benjamin Church enters the game randomly, determined by a die roll. Once he does small groups of Native American fighters may join the settlers, also determined by a die roll. Church’s presence significantly boosts the military capacity of the colonial side, but no player knows exactly when he will come into play.
- English Reinforcements. New companies of soldiers appear to replace losses. Each colony contributes soldiers in accordance with its population, with Massachusetts having the most to field.
- Indian Diplomacy. Philip may attempt to convince additional tribes to join the war on his side. The outcome of these efforts is determined by his success in the game to that point, with a winning campaign spurring additional tribes to action. The powerful Mohawk nation is a special case whose allegiance is determined by a die roll; Philip may attempt to entice them to intervene on his behalf only to have them instead join with the colonists (as happened historically).
- Indian Reinforcements. Similar to phase 2 above; the Native American player places new groups of “warriors” on the map.
- Indian Movement. The settlements and villages on the map are connected by a network of trails and watercourses. Unlike a game such as chess, players may generally move as many of the units on their own side as they like each and every turn. Restrictions on the range and extent of movement are imposed by the terrain and by the presence of enemy forces.
- Indian Combat. Warfare in the game consists of both attacks against enemy combatants and attacks against villages or settlements. The process is described in more detail below. In order to reflect the operational tempo of a preindustrial military campaign waged in the wilderness, there are arbitrary limitations on the number of combats that can take place each turn.
- English Movement. Similar to above. Until Benjamin Church enters the game, the English are forbidden from moving along the waterways. Page 206
- English Combat. Similar to above. Note that the sequence of play dictates that the English player will usually occupy a reactive posture, responding to movement and combat on the part of the Native American player earlier in the turn.
- Winter Attrition. In the winter turn only, units are removed from play as a function of how many settlements or villages that player has lost to enemy activity.
- Check Victory Conditions. The game can end either upon conclusion of the final (ninth) turn, or by fulfilling certain specified criteria sooner, as described below. If neither player has won the game in the course of the turn and if there are still remaining turns to play, then the sequence is reset and the next turn begins.
It should be obvious that playing a game like KPW is a highly structured and regimented activity, the rigid sequence of play belying the chaos and uncertainty that attends any military conflict. But while the game does ensure that actions will occur in predictable patterns, chance and randomness are introduced through the vagaries of die rolls, which influence key events ranging from combat to the arrival of reinforcements. As with most conflict simulations, these die rolls are rarely straight heads or tails win or lose propositions. Instead, most tabletop conflict simulation is an exercise in Monte Carlo modeling, a Cold War technique in which the probabilities of complex events are distributed along a randomized spectrum influenced by relevant variables and inputs. While in chess a pawn can always take a queen in the correct circumstance, in a typical war game a smaller force attacking a larger one that is also ensconced on good defensive terrain (like a hilltop) may have only one chance in six of success. In this way a player can make reasonable judgments as to likely outcomes while still preserving the elements of fate and chance that are ineluctably an element of any military action (perhaps that small force has discovered a hidden trail around the back of the hill . . . etc.).
As a war game, armed conflict is obviously at the center of KPW and so it is worth a closer look at exactly how the game represents the fighting. Generally, combat is a function of the presence of opposing forces in adjoining spaces on the map. Each side performs a calculus of “strength points,” which are accumulated through the presence of soldiers or warriors, as well as leaders, fortifications, and muskets (for the Native Americans). Each side then rolls its own six-sided die simultaneously, and consults a “Combat Results Table” that cross-indexes the result of the die roll with its total number of strength points; the numerical result indicates the number of losses inflicted on the enemy and, depending on the proportion, the Page 207attacker either advances to claim the space or is rebuffed. If the die rolls from both sides happen to come out equal, however, then a special third die is consulted: a custom so-called Battle Die included with the game, whose six faces are occupied by pictographs with results like Ambush, Spy, Reinforcements, Massacre, Panic, and Guide. The effects vary: Ambush, for example, means that the combat is resolved sequentially rather than simultaneously, so one player may eliminate the other without loss. Spy and Guide both confer special abilities to that group of units, potentially aiding them in further actions. Massacre, oddly, has only the effect of providing one of the players with an additional unit of reinforcements, presumably an abstract representation of the response to an atrocity somewhere in the vicinity.
In addition to battles between rival units, both players may also utilize the combat procedure to attack unguarded English settlements and Native American villages with the objective of razing them. This is a key element of the game, as the number of settlements and villages destroyed is a variable in turn impacting the rate at which reinforcements are acquired, which tribes join Philip in his campaign (or drop out of it), how much each side suffers during the winter months, and finally, the determination of victory. (Historically, hundreds of settlements and villages were attacked by both sides during the war, with numerous unarmed inhabitants slaughtered.) While players can also win by razing the two major colonial settlements of Boston and Plymouth or capturing Philip and a second sachem, Canonchet, such outcomes are rare given competent play. Much of the game therefore consists of players waging a campaign of destruction against opposing settlements and villages, with the major strategic questions being how much effort to expend defending one’s own territory versus attacking the enemy’s, and to what extent to engage the military forces being fielded by the opposing side in an open battle (see figure 9.3).
So where (a reader might be forgiven for wondering) is the fun in all this? For all of the emphasis on violence, it is a very different kind of pleasure or satisfaction than one derives from a first-person shooter, where the real-time pace keeps the gamer on a constant stimulus-response treadmill, adrenalin and dopamine flooding bloodstream and brain stem. Playing KPW is a much more sedate experience; players are not going to shout or flinch or pump their fists in the air. Gameplay becomes about resource management and risk taking, features characteristic of a great many games of all types. But if the appeal to such classic ludic traits is to serve to remediate the game in the eyes of the skeptical, then it must also expose the potential downside of conflict simulation: for many players, I suspect, the semiotic particulars of the Puritan soldiery and Native American warriors, and the burning villages and settlements collectively recede as the physical components of the game becomePage 208
absorbed through familiarity. Players, it is true, are not deriving much vicarious pleasure from razing a village, an action operationalized in the game by nothing more visceral than a die roll, a chart look-up, and the placement of a marker counter. By the same token, however, the acceptance and inevitable absorption of the game’s semiotic field means that the historical particulars are to some extent supplanted by the more abstract strategy and decision making that comes to characterize the immersive experience of the game.
As a brief example to make the point, consider the role of muskets. Both the English and the Native American troop counters are illustrated with figures carrying firearms, implying their relative ubiquity, but the Native Americans also have the opportunity to acquire additional Musket counters as part of their reinforcements. During certain specified turns of the game these counters may be placed with any war band that is currently occupying a riverine or coastal space on the map, lending it an additional strength point in any combat situation in which it becomes embroiled. In gaming parlance this is “chrome,” a small detail meant to solidify the theme or atmosphere of the game. Here the muskets reflect the technology transfer that typically characterizes what would today be dubbed a “counterinsurgency operation” by the modern military. In fact, however, the Native American firearms trade was symptomatic of the extent to which the indigenous population Page 209had become imbricated in colonial economic systems, a reality reflected in the game by the mandate that the recipients of the muskets be in a waterside space conducive to commerce. By virtue of their +1 strength point bonus they confer, the Musket counters then function as a commodity token in the probabilistic economy of the game’s predominant subsystem, its combat procedures. Meanwhile, though, the awkward semiotic doubling that comes from placing the additional Musket marker on top of figures already depicted as carrying firearms perhaps serves to reveal the manner in which whole systems of economic relations are subsumed by the simple physical representations of the game—in this instance a cardboard token that (rather inelegantly) must either sit on top of the unit and thereby obscure it or else be placed underneath, where it may be overlooked in the heat of gameplay.
Airwaves and Wires
On March 27, less than two weeks after the onset of the public controversy, designer John Poniske and Julianne Jennings appeared together on air at the invitation of Spooky Southcoast, a paranormal-themed AM radio talk show hosted out of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. (The “spooky” connection was apparently the plethora of New England ghost stories spawned by the events of King Philip’s War.) This event was the culmination of what had by all accounts become a rather remarkable back-channel conversation among Poniske, the principals at MMP, and Jennings and others within the protest movement. Despite much of the public vitriol (whether aggrieved gamers going to the mat against political correctness or objectors insisting that the game was merely a pretense for race war) a genuine dialogue had begun between the two sides, with an honest exchange of communication and grudging respect for one another’s positions. One key point focused around the usage of the word “eliminated” in the description of the forthcoming game to describe the fate of Metacom and the Wampanoag. The concern was the implication that the native peoples were completely eradicated, with surviving tribal culture and communities rendered invisible by this textual representation. The language was revised by MMP as a result of that back-channel conversation. In the discussion that ensued on Spooky Southcoast, Jennings and Poniske engaged in a thoughtful, mutually respectful dialogue for nearly an hour. The concern over the effacement of present-day tribal community emerged as quite real: in the course of the discussion, Poniske himself freely acknowledged it never occurred to him to contact descendants of the original native population. “Many people think of history as static, [as] there being one history; there’s no such thing,” he concluded.Page 210
Despite this seemingly amicable outcome, the controversy had not yet run its course. On April 15 the Associated Press picked up the events with a story that was distributed globally. “Schilling pitches bloody board game,” read one headline, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that despite his nominal stake in MMP the major leaguer’s involvement with the design and production of the game was nil. More helpfully, the AP story noted that “the pushback to the game reflects a broader, continuing effort by Native American tribes to challenge images in society, whether they’re school logos bearing the likeness of scowling warriors or names of professional sports teams that they deem as offensive or connoting hostility.” Unlike the initial spate of reporting, it also manages to convey the genuine interest in history and simulation that motivated the game, as well as a conciliatory if somewhat resigned statement from Jennings: “We’re not going to stop this game from coming. . . . If we can’t stop it, why not try to contribute to the content?”
In the designer’s notes included in the rulebook to the published game, Poniske acknowledges the controversy, but adds that subsequent to the AP wire story attempts were made to contact tribal councils to arrange a demonstration of the game but to no avail: “It would appear that media hype has poisoned the opportunity for any possibility of further discussion,” he writes, but adds: “In publicizing King Philip’s War, perhaps we, MMP, native protesters and myself, will raise awareness and understanding of the continuing and vital native cultures in our country.” He also furnishes a bibliography for further reading, which includes Lepore’s book alongside others, as well as the PBS documentary We Shall Remain. But as statements from Jennings and other tribal authorities repeatedly made clear, the issue for them was as much the game itself as its contribution to the ongoing cascade of Westernized Native American representations. While King Philip’s War is an earnest effort to responsibly represent military and political aspects of the conflict and perhaps spur those who play it to further study, it ultimately fails to fully reconcile itself to the complexities of its own status as a representational artifact in a semiotic environment still charged nearly three and a half centuries after Increase Mather first put quill to parchment.
Contests and Meanings
If war games are to be taken seriously as educational as well as purely recreational pursuits, something that Poniske, Sabin, and others (including myself) advocate, then designers and publishers must become more attuned to the semiotics of their promotion and production. As the historians Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies have shown, even a topic as seemingly remote in Western contexts as the Eastern Front in World War II can Page 211function as a semiotically replete conduit for mythos, the heroic (read white and Westernized) Wehrmacht facing off against the anonymous hordes of the Red Menace. They convincingly argue that this particular narrative of the Eastern Front has become engrained in the popular imagination through a range of media, including memoirs by the German generals, pulp novels, comics, films, and, finally, tabletop war games. War gamers, themselves overwhelmingly white and male, tend to be impatient with such critiques: the debates quickly become polarized, or in Internet parlance “Godwinized.” There is a vociferous resistance to any suggestion that “history” is being sanitized or whitewashed out of deference to anything perceived as “political correctness.”
As Smelser and Davies acknowledge, selecting a certain sort of cover imagery for a war game or a book or a film poster does not make one a Nazi sympathizer; but it does indicate that one has unconsciously accepted a particular ideological construct of a historical event and, by dint of naturalizing it as “just an image” or “just a game,” allowed the representation to become a relay station for that ideology’s ongoing propagation. In the case of King Philip’s War, Lepore makes the point that narrativizations, images, and commemorations of the war have all fed the cultural economy of its ongoing representation, one that is dependent on technologies of inscription and representation that underwrite the dominant white frameworks for interpreting the past. The response on the part of some gamers to defiantly order an extra copy has everything to do with asserting authority over the means of cultural production (and having the disposable income at hand by which to do so). As Lepore writes, “If war is, at least in part, a contest for meaning, can it ever be a fair fight when only one side has access to those perfect instruments of empire, pens, paper, and printing press?”
Adding the D6 (the six-sided die) to this litany is perhaps a bit much, but that the game operates within Westernized frameworks of cultural production and consumption is undeniable. The artwork on the box depicts colonial soldiers but no Native American fighters. More tellingly perhaps, it inadvertently underscores the authority of textualized narratives of the conflict through the faded manuscript page presented as a backdrop to the cover art and, especially, the depiction of a quill pen and inkwell on the back cover beside a sheet of parchment with the words “King Philip’s War” (see figure 9.4). The history the game seeks to deliver is thus underwritten via exactly the instruments of empire Lepore enumerates. That the “natural” semiotic choice for lending a historical veneer to the game’s artwork turns out to be originally European contrivances for the transmission and codification of narrative merely reinforces the concerns of Native American spokespeople like Jennings that, regardless of intentions, the game cannot help but operate within Western frameworks of representation, truth, and authenticity. (ByPage 212
contrast, the Battle die described in the previous section, with its clip-art pictographs [see figure 9.3], is perhaps an absent-minded attempt at inclusion of an alternative sign system, tellingly as the harbinger of “chance” and “fate.”)
Conflict simulation gamers tend to be well educated, curious, and serious about their devotion to history. They buy books, compare notes, argue over interpretations, show up at lectures to wrestle academic historians to the mat, and sometimes even conduct original archival research on topics that interest them. There is no doubt that the publication of King Philip’s War succeeded in bringing attention to the conflict, and that it led some of those who bought the game to read further. Even without any additional study players of the game will have understood that at some point in the colonial New England past there was a bitter ethnic war characterized by the killing of noncombatant natives and settlers alike, the large-scale destruction of homes and property as a matter of organized military policy, and massacre and atrocity throughout the region. They will have understood that allegiances on both sides were fragile, that nationalized identities we now take for granted were still in their formative stages. And they will have doubtless grasped, even if unaware of the 2010 controversy, that they are skimming the surface of events vastly more nuanced and complex than ludic systems and procedures can represent. All of that is to the good. But history, as the saying Page 213goes, is written by the victors. In this case it is also undeniably being played by the victors. And that makes it a very delicate game indeed.
2. Increase Mather, A Brief History of the Warr with the Indians in New-England (Boston, John Foster, 1676), 9, Online Electronic Text Edition, http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1008&context=zeaamericanstudies.
5. Comment available at BoardGameGeek, accessed July 31, 2012, http://boardgamegeek.com/article/4777506 - 4777506.
6. “King Philip’s War,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://boardgamegeek.com/article/4778339 - 4778339.
9. Comment available online, accessed July 31, 2012, at http://boardgamegeek.com/article/4796597 - 4796597.
10. See especially chapter 6.
11. See [formerly http://playthisthing.com/train] (accessed November 19, 2012) for commentary on Train, a brilliant and emotionally shattering game that asks players to route railroad cars filled with prisoners to concentration camps.
13. A recording of the show is available at the Spooky Southcast archives, accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.spookysouthcoast.com/Archive/Archive2010.html.
16. See my blog essay “War, What is it Good For?” accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.playthepast.org/?p=1819.
20. This note is to acknowledge that I am credited as a playtester in the King Philip’s War rulebook. At a convention in January 2010, prior to the advent of the public controversy, I played the game a single time under Poniske’s supervision. I subsequently offered some brief feedback via email. This is the extent of my personal involvement with the design and production of KPW. For comments on drafts of this essay, I am grateful to Jennifer Guiliano and David Hughes.
10. Rolling Your Own: On Modding Commercial Games for Educational Goals
Members of online communities dedicated to the modification of commercial games debate and develop scenarios with fine attention to authenticity and realism, practices that we seek to cultivate in the students taking our history courses. While self-organized modding communities succeed at creating and playing history, the same activities, approached by educators, have not shown the same degree of success. In this chapter I explore why enthusiasts experience a high degree of success in their modifications, while formal classrooms do not—in this case, set in the context of an online, undergraduate, distance-education classroom.
The communities that make modifications to existing commercial games have created strong and vibrant subcultures in modern video gaming. Strictly speaking, “modding” refers to a change in the rules by which a game operates, but in a less rigorous definition can involve scenario building and the staging of pieces on the game board. Many game publishers, recognizing the importance of modding, now provide modification tools with the release of a game as part of their marketing strategy. They have also reaped the benefits: publishers have recruited talented individuals from these communities and given them jobs as game developers, hoping to make use of the creative ingenuity that the modders have shown. Jon Shafer, the lead designer of Civilization V, is one notable example of a former fan, now paid developer, of a popular game franchise.
Some academic studies of Civilization have critically addressed its narrative of technological progress and American exceptionalism, while others have concentrated on its anachronisms, its theoretical presentation of Page 215history, and its potential for implementation in classroom settings. I wish to focus attention on a different aspect of the Civilization franchise: on fan sites as loci for learning, which can inform the use of modifications in an online classroom.
In my pedagogical approach with my first-year undergraduate online classroom, I hoped to draw from a growing movement in which Civilization modifications are implemented to expand the possibilities for experience with history. Using the modification, I sought to enhance the engagement of my online distance learners with the material, and cultivate an improvement of their critical historical thinking skills. With the help of participants on Civfanatics, I created a scenario with one change in the rules of the original Civilization (making it a mod) to address a problem I was having in my fully online, first-year Introduction to Roman History class concerning causality and contingency in Roman politics. The carefully crafted scenario reflected the events of 69 c.e., the Year of the Four Emperors; I devised an assignment to accompany it, and delivered it to my students. Unfortunately, their response was less than ideal. Its lack of success is due partly to the “creepy treehouse” phenomenon, an urban legend in which treehouses are built with no other purpose but to lure children by appealing to their adolescent culture. In online learning, the “creepy treehouse” metaphor can be defined as the use of some aspect of social media, or of a “nontraditional” approach, that does not emerge naturally from the class dynamic but is imposed from the top and feels artificial to the participants. For instance, an instructor who “friends” students on a social network and requires every student to post three times a week to the class blog is transgressing into “their” space. This transgression imposes an unnatural behavior on the students, despite their familiarity and affinity for social networking and blogs.
In this chapter I explore why my experiment with modding and scenario building in an online classroom was unsuccessful and how it became a form of “creepy treehouse.” That experience compelled me to focus my attention on the fan sites themselves and the participants who helped me build my scenario. Like the game publishers who seek out expertise in fan communities, educators must utilize the natural environment of online fan communities as spaces in which historically motivated modifications can have a desirable level of involvement. When we create modifications of a commercial game, or “roll our own,” it is the aspect of creating it in public that might have the greatest educational impact. The nature of the fan sites promotes the kind of learning we labor to facilitate in our online classrooms; it is spontaneous and builds from the bottom up. It is also, notably, teaching without teachers.
The Year of the Four Emperors
The death of Nero in 68 c.e. launched the Roman Empire into a period of turmoil and civil war, as four emperors were declared in various parts of the empire in quick succession. The brief but brutal civil war lasted from April 68 to December 69. The students in my Introduction to Roman History class, an online distance-education course with approximately eighteen students, study Rome’s evolution from monarchy to republic to high empire, and so roughly one thousand years of history, compressed into twelve weeks of readings and discussion board conversations. When we got to the early empire (the period covering the Julio-Claudian and Flavian Dynasties, of which the Year of the Four Emperors represents the pivot point), the students struggled to engage with the period and to understand the complexity of the political changes. Vespasian, whose bid for power was backed by his troops, was the last of the four contenders to be declared emperor. In their attempt to understand the period, my students began to explain Vespasian’s success in pacifying the empire and consolidating his hold on Rome in terms of his later role as emperor: “Of course Vespasian would win the civil war because Vespasian was the emperor.” Unfortunately, the students were reversing the order of cause and effect in order to make sense of a confusing historical situation. As I discussed the period with them, I realized that part of the problem, aside from confusion of cause and effect, was a poor understanding of the realities of Mediterranean geography and the difficulties of communication in a preindustrial world, which requires factoring in the time it took for news to travel and how that time lag influenced the political dynamic.
I wanted my students to understand that due to the contingency of history, Vespasian’s eventual triumph was not foreordained, and that physical and political geography played a role in his success. In order to address the issue, I created a scenario using Civilization IV. The game contains software for setting up scenarios—what it calls the “world builder”—but I quickly became frustrated with this editing software. Though it is designed to allow the player to place all of the different pieces on the map, and to set up the starting positions for the game, many of its features are disabled by default, and cannot be unlocked until the player adds a line of code to the Civilization initialization file. The code information is not provided by the publisher in any of the game documentation, which prompted me to seek out a solution on Civilization fan sites. My search led me to the online modding community, and my post detailing the unlock code and its function is consistently the most visited post on my research blog.
As I became more excited about the possibilities of scenario building, I came to rely on fan sites for help, primarily Civfanatics. Civilization IV was Page 217built using XML to describe nearly every object in the game. By adjusting the information in the XML, the creator of a mod can change the names of leaders, cultures, and the like, or even create additional elements. Using similar code changes, the game calendar can be adjusted so that each turn represents a single day, week, or month. Ancillary information can be added to set the stage for the scenario when it opens, or prevent certain kinds of technology from ever being “discovered,” allowing a world without gunpowder, for instance. I was only able to find this information, and change it, with the help of participants in the online community.
Eventually, with the help of a user with the screen name “Carloquillo,” I created a working scenario of the Roman Empire of 69 c.e. In my mod, the player’s ultimate goal was to outmaneuver the other claimants to the throne, whether through political or military machinations. The Roman “Senate” would periodically examine the balance of power in Italy, and declare the most influential competitor “emperor”—thus simulating the ineffectualness of the Senate during this period. The scenario was not perfect—if put under the control of artificial intelligence, Vespasian would always convert to Judaism. I devised an assessment exercise for my online students, in which they would play through the scenario rather than write a final essay. At set intervals during gameplay, they would take a screenshot of the world map, and record a narrative of what was going on in their counterfactual history, taking on the role of historians. To conclude, they would identify and address the similarities and differences between the versions of “history” presented in the game with the available facts about the past. My hope was that in playing the scenario the students would begin to appreciate the difficulty of Vespasian’s initial position, his inability to act, and the magnitude of his accomplishment in managing and controlling such an enormous, heterogeneous territory, and by identifying anachronisms and oddities, better understand the important concepts of the period.
To this point, the students had been receptive of the modification, but my experiment broke down when I introduced the option of using the game as an alternative to the traditional history essay. A number of my online students had copies of Civilization IV, so I had offered the scenario to these students as an alternative, confirmed that some of them were playing it, and waited to see what would happen. While feedback on the scenario was positive—“this was a fun scenario, sir”—none took up the offer to play the game for credit; all chose to write standard essays. I should note that it was Page 218not mandatory for any of the students to play this scenario, nor did I try to teach students new to the game how to play it, or how to install the scenario. There were no technological impediments or learning curves related to gameplay to overcome.
I asked my students why they chose the essay over the game response assignment; each answer was evasive. I initially attributed this to the conservatism of students: they understood how essays function and how they are marked, but the unknown territory of playing a game and responding to it made them hesitant. My course was an “affinity space” for learning about Roman culture, a space where students had self-selected to come together in a group meant to explore Rome. That is, they had a displayed affinity for studying Roman culture, not one for playing a video game in order to learn from it. It is worth noting that my course description had not explicitly stated that game-based evaluations would be a component. If it had, perhaps I might have attracted students interested in playing a mod or game culture in general, or open to alternative assessment structures. More importantly, on reflection, I have realized that the fundamental conflict was that I sprung it on my students without any kind of preparation. Had I adequately prepared them, I might have overcome that conservatism. I might have carved out a new affinity space for this alternative assessment exercise. As it was, students were hesitant to fully commit to the game component because it was a kind of “creepy treehouse.” I selected the period to model, and chose a technology with which many students are familiar, but tried to impose a specific method of interaction that was unnatural. Another factor may be one of intimidation: I invited my students to play the scenario with myself as an opponent; none of the students accepted the offer. The strangeness of the assignment, when combined with the unnatural imposition of technology, created a barrier that the students did not try to, or could not, overcome.
All was not lost, however. My experiment may have failed with my students, but it exceeded beyond my expectations with the Civfanatics community. The thread I started on Civfanatics, asking for help, attracted the attention of fourteen other players (almost the same number of community members as students in my class). They helped me to build the scenario, asked questions about the period, and suggested ways of implementing the model that I hoped to achieve. The scenario that I uploaded was tested by them, and has since been downloaded nearly one thousand times. On the Civfanatics site, my role as a university instructor did not put me in any privileged position vis-à-vis the other participants; I was just one of many people who enjoyed the game. Though learning did occur as a result of my experiment in scenario building, it was in the context of an online community rather than in my classroom.
Assessing the Educational Value of Online Discussion Forums
The major learning management systems used by colleges and universities rely on “bulletin boards” and “discussion forums.” Students make posts and leave messages to comment on some topic. Posts are organized into threads that follow the conversation. Similarly, the Civfanatics community relies on posts and threads. Significantly, online courses rely on the instructor to keep the discussion flowing, to push it into the interesting areas, and to assess the students’ learning in the forums. While Civfanatics has “moderators” who monitor the discussions, their role is solely to make sure that topics are in the right place—to ensure that you do not post your wish list of features for Civilization IV in the area marked for scenario swapping, for instance. There is no authority within any discussion on Civfanatics. The order and authority present within a given thread is largely self-organized.
The literature of formal online learning can be informed through an exploration of these sites, and specifically through an assessment of the kinds of learning taking place in these self-organized forums. In the thread that I started, other contributors were extremely helpful in the creation of the modification of Civilization. There remains the question of the ability to learn history through such an interaction, however. What of history?
In the classes that I teach, when I assess a discussion forum, I am looking for posts that demonstrate an understanding of the material, that engage with others’ thoughts and comments, and that push the conversation forward. In truth, my rubric is not overly elaborate. A more rigorous rubric and approach is proposed by Sedef Uzuner in an article on discussion forums for online learning.
Uzuner makes a distinction between “educationally valuable talk” (EVT) and “educationally less valuable talk” (ELVT). He situates this distinction in the traditions of Lev Vygotsky’s 1934 insights concerning language, and how “knowledge building is created between/among people in their collaborative meaning-making through dialogue.” Uzuner’s approach therefore is firmly rooted in a constructivist approach to education. Uzuner suggests that EVT, in the context of discussion threads, is
a particular interactional pattern in online discussion threads characterized as dialogic exchanges whereby participants collaboratively display constructive, and at times, critical engagement with the ideas or key concepts that make up the topic of an online discussion, and build knowledge through reasoning, articulation, creativity, and reflection.
Uzuner illustrates EVT in a table, which I have reproduced below (table 10.1).Page 220
|Exploratory||EPL||Recognition of some confusion/curiosity or perplexity as a result of a problem/issue arising out of an experience/course readings; posing a problem and enticing others to take a step deeper into it||“I wonder . . .”|
“I am not sure if what the author suggests . . .”
“In the article X, the author said . . . This brought up a few questions in my mind.”
|Invitational||INVT||Inviting others to think together, to ponder, to engage by asking questions, requiring information, opinion, or approval||“Jane says . . . What do you think?”|
“Do you think . . . ?”
“The authors suggest . . . , no?”
|Argumentational||ARG||Expressing reasoning (with analogies, causal, inductive, and/or deductive reasoning, etc.) to trigger discussion||“If teachers . . . , then . . .”|
“Teaching is like . . .”
“X is important because . . .”
|Critical||CRT||Challenging or counter-challenging statements/ideas proposed by others OR playing devil’s advocate||“I agree that . . . However, . . .”|
|Heuristic||HE||Expressing discovery (similar to “Aha!” moments or expressions like “I found it!”); directing others’ attention to a newly discovered idea||“I did not know that there is a name for XXX. I think XXX is . . . Has anyone experienced that too?”|
|Reflective||REF||Examination of past events, practices (why/how they happened), or understandings in relation to formal content||“I’ve noticed that I had a tendency to . . . After reading X’s article, I’ve learned not to . . .”|
|Interpretive||INTP||Interpretation of formal content through opinions that are supported by relevant examples, facts, or evidence||“In my opinion X is . . . Y is a good example of why . . .”|
|Analytical||ANL||Interpretation of content through the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of others’ understanding||“The original question was . . . Joe said . . . Mary said . . . As for me . . .”|
|Informative||INF||Providing information from literature and relating it to course content/topic of discussion||“I read an article about X once and the author said . . . You can find more information about this in . . .”|
|Explanatory||EXPL||Chain of connected messages intended to explain/make clear OR statements serving to elaborate on the ideas suggested in previous posts||“I want to build on your comment that . . .”|
|Implicative||IMP||Assertions that call for action OR statements whereby participants formulate a proposal/decision about how to achieve a certain end based on the insights they gained from the course readings/discussions||“Teachers should/should not . . .”|
“X must not be forced . . .”
In contrast, ELVT is talk “that lacks substance in regards to critical and meaningful engagement with the formal content or ideas that are discussed in the posts of others in an online discussion.” Uzuner then provides examples of different kinds of EVT and ELVT, with eleven kinds of EVT and five kinds of ELVT. Uzuner’s second table is reproduced below (table 10.2).
What does Uzuner’s schema reveal when we use it to assess the learning taking place in the discussion forums on Civfanatics? I decided to assess the posts in the most-viewed scenario in the Civfanatics.com Civilization IV—Scenarios forum, which was created by then-fan, now Civ-employee, John Shafer, on a World War I scenario. Shafer’s scenario was first posted on May 6, 2006; at the time of the writing of this chapter, it had been viewed more than 94,000 times; the most recent post was on January 19, 2009. There are 311 posts in this thread. I read each post, and tallied the kinds of educationally valuable or less valuable talk that was occurring, as in tables 10.3 and 10.4.
A simple tally would suggest that the less educationally valuable talk carries the day, with 315 posts to the 137 of educationally valuable talk. But this
|Short posts that ONLY contain a statement of personal feelings (likes and dislikes)|
Short posts that ONLY contain appraisal (praising and thanking someone)
Questions or comments that add social presence to the discussion but do not contribute new information
|“I never liked math either”|
“Thank you for offering your insights into . . .”
“I have been to your country once and I visited X, Y, Z when I was there”
|Short posts that ONLY contain brief statements of agreement without elaboration|
Short posts that ONLY contain brief statements of disagreement without elaboration
|“Yes, I agree with you . . .”|
“I do not think so”
|Experiential||EXP||Posts that only contain personal experiences, narratives, descriptions that are not followed by reflection||“I did the same thing when I was teaching X.”|
“I did A, B, C. It was fun”
|Reproductional||REP||Repeating/reproducing the ideas mentioned/proposed in the previous posts without elaboration||“You are right, X is . . .” (followed by a sentence)|
|Miscellaneous||MIS||Opinions that seem to be off topic OR statements regarding technical problems/course logistics||“I am unable to open Jay’s file . . .”|
|Kinds of Valuable Talk||# of Instances|
|Kinds of Less Valuable Talk||# of Instances|
misses some important dynamics. The “miscellaneous” category captures two distinct kinds of posts—“how do I install this scenario / it didn’t work” queries, and more complex play-throughs of the scenario that report what exactly took place. These latter posts are actually quite valuable; because the scenario is a kind of simulation, each play-through records a different trajectory through all of the possible outcomes of the scenario. It is a kind of sweeping of the scenario-as-simulation’s “behavior space,” that is, the whole range of possible outcomes given these starting conditions (all of the possible behaviors for every combination of the simulation’s variables), and so provides important fodder for other kinds of educationally valuable talk. (Given the beneficial nature of these discussions, we could shuffle “miscellaneous” into educationally valuable talk, and dramatically tilt the balance of educationally less valuable to educationally valuable.)
The development of the forum follows a distinct trajectory. Shafer introduces it on May 6. A flurry of appreciative posts and “how do I . . . ” technical Page 223queries ensues for about fifty posts, followed by a second phase of play testing and reporting of bugs. Educationally valuable talk increases in this second phase as various individuals pick up on items in the play-throughs. By post 79, the conversation has turned to how to best represent the carnage as well as the social and strategic impact of trench warfare given the procedural rhetorics of the game. This phase continues for about another one hundred posts, and includes discussions of the real-world impact of the Russian Revolution on the war, and how this should best be simulated. There is a strong concern throughout these posts for verisimilitude and authenticity—but what constitutes authenticity is debated. A flame war, the online equivalent of a shouting match, erupts in post 92 on this very question, and is eventually quelled by Shafer, who notes in essence that this is just a game and is meant to be engaging. In post 103, another individual suggests modifications to the scenario, and actually begins another thread elsewhere on Civfanatics to improve and expand on Shafer’s work. In post 171, the author uses the scenario to leap into counterfactual history, and proposes quite a complex counterfactual based on his play-throughs of the scenario. By September 2006 most of the heat has gone out of the thread, and subsequent posts are again of the “how do I make this work” or the play-through variety. This continues until the thread goes dormant in January 2009.
Online Learning Is Social Learning: Who Talks to Whom?
The other aspect that needs to be considered besides the content of the posts, to give fullness to Uzuner’s approach and Vygotsky’s insight, is the social aspect. Who is talking to whom? From the perspective of an online instructor, it is important to be able to identify and foster the “catalysts” in any discussion forum. I mapped out the pattern of social interactions in the forum as a kind of network. If “DoctorG” addressed “JLocke,” then I connected the two individuals. If “Koba the Dread” posted a note recounting a play-through, I mapped that as a response to Shafer’s original post. If Shafer responded to “Koba the Dread” quoting “JLocke,” I connected all three together. The resulting network is more-or-less star shaped, with Shafer in the middle and everyone else radiating off as spokes. There are clumps of highly interconnected individuals, however, representing subconversations and discussions that developed in the forum (see figure 10.1). These clumps are important.
Using the Keyplayer program from Analytech I assessed the most central individuals in this network, that is, the individuals whose removal from the forum would result in a disrupted graph, or would “break” the conversation. Keyplayer reported that the removal of Shafer, “JLocke,” “DomPage 224
Pedro,” “Kitten of Chaos,” and “Koba the Dread” would cause this network to fragment almost completely. These individuals account for a majority of the educationally valuable posts made in the forum. This is quite interesting from the standpoint of an online educator, in that it suggests that we can determine from structure alone the individuals who are making the greatest contribution to the learning going on in a forum.
This was a forum without an official leader, or anyone acting in the role of “teacher.” The contrast with my own Year of the Four Emperors thread is striking. My thread began on May 16, 2006, and went stagnant by September. Fourteen individuals contributed, and noticeably, aside from my own initial post, there is (ironically) a large absence of EVT, unless you count the technical “how-to” posts I made and the play-through reports. As a social network, the graph is entirely centered on me with radial spokes (figure 10.2); no one is talking to each other, there are no clumps on the graph, justPage 225
responses to me and me alone. Why the difference? I think I once again created a “creepy treehouse.” It was all about me. I was also very up front about my identity and the use I wished to put the scenario, which made it more of a curiosity than a scenario that got people excited.
Rolling Your Own: Lessons Learned?
The most important lesson learned is that we, the instructors, should not be building and directing mods for history education; it should be the students. We should show them how the game works. Direct their attention to the procedural rhetorics of the game rules. Make them think about what “to simulate” actually means. Give them, or have them decide on, a historical scenario to model, and ask them to implement it in the game mechanics. Have them debate how to do this: What rules need to be changed? How Page 226do the rules impose a particular kind of expression of history? Build, and play-test, the resulting scenarios. What elements of the playing of the game behave as the students expected, and what elements surprise (like Vespasian’s conversion to Judaism in my own scenario)?
If, however, we undertake to “roll our own” scenarios, or otherwise use commercial video games like Civilization in our teaching, we need to approach the task more from the point of view of a fan, and less from the perspective of a teacher. Do not do as I did. Otherwise, we create artifacts that do not support the kind of response that we wish. Learning is obviously going on in the fan forums, and using tools like Uzuner’s typology is one way of assessing the kinds of learning taking place. The pattern of social interaction in fan forums, and their application to educational contexts, is equally intriguing. My conclusions here are, of course, preliminary; one would need to study a much greater number of the threads to see a fuller picture, and this is an area where text mining might be usefully employed.
Rather than fretting about how we can better reproduce real-world classroom interactions online, I am suggesting that we consider how we can reproduce the vitality of online fan forum discussions in our real-world and online settings, and more usefully employ game-based learning in fan forums in regular and online classrooms. And as we move forward with the integration of different kinds of analytical tools to support our assessment of class tools, we should give consideration to the way that the structure of these patterns of interaction correlate (or not!) with educational impact.
1. See, for instance, the discussion in William Uricchio, “Simulation, History, and Computer Games,” in Handbook of Computer Game Studies, ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005), 327–38.
2. See, for instance, Ethan Watrall, “Project Diary: Red Land/Black Land,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.playthepast.org/?p=403.
4. Open the ini file with MS Notepad. Find the line “CheatCode=0.” Change this to “CheatCode=chipotle.” Save the file but take care not to change the file extension. For more help on the world builder, see http://www.civfanatics.net/downloads/civ4/guides/WorldBuilderManual.zip.
5. See “Civilization IV World Builder Manual and Other Needful Things,” Electric Archaeology, accessed July 31, 2012, http://electricarchaeology.ca/2008/01/08/civilization-iv-world-builder-manual-other-needful-things/.
6. Which points to an underlying procedural rhetoric of the game, and how the game envisions the role of religion in society. This mechanic has largely been expunged from the fifth iteration of the game.Page 227
7. James Gee, “Semiotic Social Spaces and Affinity Spaces: From Age of Mythology to Today’s Schools,” in Beyond Communities of Practice: Language, Power and Social Context, ed. D. Barton and K. Tusting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 214–32.
12. “Scenario World War I,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=170090.
13. Shawn Graham, “Behaviour Space: Simulating Roman Social Life and Civil Violence,” Digital Studies / Le Champ Numérique 1,no. 2, (2009), accessed January 25, 2011, http://www.digitalstudies.org/ojs/index.php/digital_studies/article/view/172/214; idem, “Vespasian, Civ IV, and Intro to Roman Culture” (2007), accessed February 24, 2011, [formerly http://planetcivilization.gamespy.com/View.php?view=Articles.Detail&id=33]; idem, “Re-Playing History: The Year of the Four Emperors and Civilization IV,” accessed February 24, 2011, http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/hca/resources/detail/re_playing_history.
15. In post 99 on the “Scenario World War I” thread, accessed July 31, 2012, http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=170090&page=5, Shafer remarks that his goal is just so that people have fun playing the scenario. See also http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=111105 and http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=111488 from the same thread for a discussion by the modding community on the “Historiography of Civilization.”
16. If one is using an LMS (learning management system) such as WebCT or Moodle, there is a plug-in that will provide these sorts of metrics automatically on discussion board posts. See “SNA Diagrams,” Social Networks in Action, accessed July 31, 2012, http://research.uow.edu.au/learningnetworks/seeing/snapp/index.html.
17. Steven Borgatti, accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.analytictech.com.
18. The Year of the Four Emperors, accessed July 31, 2012, http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=171164.
19. See Kee and Graham in this volume, chapter 13.
11. Simulation Games and the Study of the Past: Classroom Guidelines
What does an effective use of a simulation game in a history class look like? For too many interested in the games and learning field, it is not entirely clear. While the theory delineating the potential of games as learning tools is growing steadily, discipline-specific practical applications are still too few and far between. Developing practical uses of games as learning tools requires two components: the formulation of discipline-specific theories and classroom-specific implementations. As an early offering in the area of practical uses for games, this chapter proposes a theory for effectively using simulation games in the history classroom, a theory developed through my training as a historian and experiences as a high school history teacher who uses simulation games. Subsequently, this theory is translated into practical guidelines for using simulations in a history class.
The Importance of Taking Risks
The practical guidelines offered here have emerged from a cyclical process over the last five years of designing, implementing, refining, and even sometimes wholly rejecting lessons involving simulation games. While simulation games offer compelling learning opportunities, they come with significant challenges. Success using simulation-based learning in these early stages of the medium progresses equally as much from learning what not to do as what to do. Philosophically, teachers learning to use simulation games as learning tools need to be willing to engage in play. We must take risks, Page 229wading into the chaos, navigating the mess, and implementing a sense of order and meaning that helps students learn how to study the past. We must be willing to make mistakes and accept failures, for learning from mistakes enables us to design ever more compelling and effective lessons about the study of the past.
How does this work in practice? Accepting several important principles can help empower teachers to experiment, take risks, and make mistakes. First, teachers must come to see themselves as the expert guides rather than the sources of all worthwhile information and arbiters of what is true or false. Second, history must be approached as a discipline that embodies a set of core skills, not solely or even primarily a set of content. Among these skills are the ability to analyze and evaluate evidence, sequence ideas, and form compelling written and oral arguments. Third, a main goal of history teachers is to create learning environments where students can engage interesting source materials, analyze them, and construct formal responses to them in written, oral, and digital media. In this context, so long as students are engaged and tasked to hone these skills, a simulation-based lesson will not truly be a failure even when there is room for improvement.
The Advantages of Simulation Games
There is good reason to take risks where simulations are involved. Simulation games provide educators powerful tools that offer particular strengths for teaching the authentic skills of a historian, not to mention familiarity with twenty-first-century media. Quite simply, the advantages of simulation games for promoting meaningful study of the past demand concrete and effective classroom applications. The first step to developing this argument is to ground the key terms. At its broadest, a simulation is a dynamic and, to some necessary extent, simplified representation of one or more real-world processes or systems. Into this category fall a great number of analog and digital models of biological, physical, and chemical processes and systems. There are also interactive trainers, whose primary function is to prepare participants to function effectively in real-world tasks: flight simulations, air traffic control simulations, and business simulations are some of the best known examples in this category. A game, on the other hand, to paraphrase the definition of Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, is a rule-based system in which players undergo a conflict or competition in an attempt to achieve a quantifiable goal, such as winning or losing. So, a simulation game is a game that functions as a dynamic model of one or more aspects of the real world. A number of commercial and nonprofit computer games fall into Page 230this category, strategy games that place the player in historical roles, ranging from traders and subsistence farmers, to rulers and generals. The commercial game Civilization, for example, tasks players with exploring and colonizing a digitally rendered landscape, while the free, browser-based Ayiti challenges players to manage a family’s economy in an impoverished country. These games, indeed all simulation games, invite players to explore and manipulate digital worlds defined by representations of real-world geography, structures, institutions, and inhabitants.
The educational advantages historical simulation games can offer may best be thought of as advantages of immersion and provocation. When playing a simulation, as opposed to using other forms of instruction, a learner can become immersed in a virtual representation of the past and, in doing so, be provoked to consider how and why humans lived, made choices, and acted the way they did in the past. These are insights about the systemic contexts in which people lived, which is really just another way of saying the networks of obligations, necessities, and desires that link individuals to the environment and to the rest of human society. It is all too easy for students and teachers to forget the fundamental realities of the past that shaped decisions and actions. People of the past acted in physical and spatial contexts, securing food, walking places, and working to obtain their basic needs and, ideally, gain some comforts. To look at it another way, they lived and acted, as do we all, as parts of systems. These past people were both influenced by and influenced the systems in which they lived and operated. When the study of the past is treated as simply a set of established facts and interpretations to be learned, it becomes far too easy to divorce the people of the past from their physical, spatial, and social systems and from reasonable considerations of cause and effect.
Simulation games can help bridge this conceptual divide between humans and their systemic contexts because the games themselves are interactive systems. The principle is straightforward: to analyze a system, use a roughly analogous, but simplified, model of the system, which is just what a simulation game is. The moving parts, as it were, of the game bear a closer analogy to the moving parts of the past than other representations of the past, whether speech, text, videos, images, or discussion. These simulations place student-players into dynamic models of the past where problems must be solved and challenges overcome. The players must make choices based on limited information and experience the effect of those choices on the game world and their assumed persona in it. Such simulation games provide a virtual systemic context, a source of experience that provides learners a rich frame of reference when considering the motives and actions of people in the past. They provide students with visual, interactive models and experiences, Page 231however vicarious, of how their own decisions influenced, for example, the success of a trade, the development of a culture, the creation of an empire, or the outcome of a battle.
Perhaps because simulations provide the opportunity to study systems from the inside as an active participant, they are also able to provoke students to raise deep and meaningful historical questions. Though no firm conclusions can be drawn without formal research, important considerations suggest simulation games may actually inspire more students to ask a variety of deep historical questions better than other forms of media. Why might this be the case? Consider that research clearly suggests students all too easily accept what they read in texts at face value. This is especially true when reading from a textbook. At the high school level, even the best student readers often have a tendency to read without offering the level of challenge and criticism required for a historian. To put it another way, they read for information rather than to discern a point of view. This habit can continue to be a problem with college readers. Without a high level of commitment to analyzing the information received and its source, it is exceedingly difficult to raise substantial questions about a text and its implications. If it is quite normal for students to accept most texts they read at face value, will they actively critique the ideas presented by their teachers in class? A simulation, on the other hand, may simply not be perceived as quite as authoritative a source of information. At the very least it is harder to treat a simulation as a text that must simply be read for facts. It may also be the case that, because simulation games provide immersive, rich audiovisual and tactile experiences with numerous opportunities for students to play and process at their own pace—including sidetracks—there may simply be more going on, for lack of a better phrase, to provoke questions in the time spent playing a simulation game than during a comparable amount of time reading a text or listening to a lecture. Perhaps, too, being put in the role of a decision maker causes a player to be more aware and more engaged in the historical environment presented by the game, and this leads to the formation of deep questions. Again, it will require substantial research to test these implications, but they are worth noting. At the very least, it can be said that simulations can be harnessed to inspire deep historical questioning.
It is worth noting that nowhere in this chapter is the use of simulation games advocated because they are fun. This is quite purposeful, but deserves an explanation. Certainly, simulations can be incredibly engaging, it is a good feeling when students are enjoying a lesson, and creating an educational atmosphere where students want to come to class is a worthy goal. Nevertheless, there are serious flaws with using the idea of fun as a criterion for effective lessons, particularly lessons involving simulation games. First, fun is both Page 232relative and broad in scope. Suppose a student was asked if her sessions playing, observing, and intensively critiquing a simulation game were fun. What should the student use for comparison when answering? Spending time with friends outside of school? Riding a roller coaster? Watching a movie? These all can be considered fun and arguably more fun than having to critique a game. Really, by the standards of fun playing a game without being required to take notes and present a critique is generally superior. The second problem is that fun is not equivalent to educationally valuable. Teachers know this. Exercises for developing effective analytical writing skills, for example, or researching arguments and advancing them in a logically compelling order, are highly valuable, yet no teacher—at least none I know of—asks their students if they would enjoy writing a paper, or whether they found the experience of writing a paper to be fun; it is simply beside the point. Finally, and this is a particularly important point, by no means does every student look forward to the idea of playing and critiquing a simulation game. Some find it highly intimidating; others prefer the lecture where they can more easily “check out” than in a simulation exercise. Certainly, simulation games can engage. They can hold attention, create intriguing and interesting situations, and provoke interesting questions and ideas. Where engagement is a desirable feature of a successful lesson, however, fun is not. Teachers who choose to use simulation games primarily because they are fun and expect to find all their students enthralled are both setting themselves up for disappointment and missing the point. Simulation games have compelling features as educational tools; whether they are fun is not at issue.
The Qualities of Effective Simulation Games
Despite the great potential of simulation games in history education, there is a significant caveat teachers must remember. Many of the most viable simulation games are commercial products designed to entertain, not teach, and this shapes their presentation of the past. Those that are not designed primarily for commercial purposes, on the other hand, may be particularly polemical in promoting their point of view. The teacher considering a game for classroom use needs to consider the characteristics that qualify a historically themed game as a simulation before using a game in class. Ultimately, though, the teacher must table the thornier theoretical issues of what features constitute a simulation and consider not whether a certain game is a simulation game, but how effective a simulation game it is.
By their very nature, simulation games will yield different outcomes each time they are played. Consequently, they should not be employed as static Page 233descriptors of factual details about the past. Valid simulation games need not, and indeed cannot, represent each and every detail of the past accurately. There are better tools available for such a task. Text or image, for example, is often better suited to illustrating, say, how a specific Roman city looked at one specific moment in time. The simulation game offers, on the other hand, a more-or-less broad model of how that Roman city functioned. Choose the learning tool based on the desired learning outcome. One cannot expect a simulation of a war to yield the same outcome as the war itself or a city builder to limit urban plans only to those found in the past. Broadly speaking, for the outcome to be the same as that in the past, the causes, including the decisions made, must be the same. If a simulation game is to allow players choice at all, there must be the possibility for outcomes that did not occur in the past.
So if it is not an exact digital reconstruction of the past, which incidentally is a physical and philosophical impossibility, what exactly makes a video game valid for classroom use as a simulation? Primarily this: its core gameplay must offer defensible explanations of historical causes and systems. The idea of a defensible explanation is important when handling simulations. Arguments accepted by one historian or generation of historians are often rejected by the next. When it comes to the critical elements of history, why and how things happen, there are no facts, only conventions. Conventions, in turn, are nothing more than arguments that have held up to criticism due to the strength of their explanatory power and the strength of the supporting evidence. There is always room for a historical convention to be undermined; indeed it is a time-honored tradition in history to challenge conventions. If this is true of the best arguments of historians, it is equally true of the interpretations of the past embedded in video games. To be considered a historical simulation, then, a game does not need to offer an interpretation that is perfect, whatever that might mean, but one that is reasonably based on the available evidence. Focusing on defensible arguments rather than correct arguments promotes the idea so critical for training flexible, creative thinkers, that when it comes to humans interpreting and making meaning of the past, there are far more shades of gray and maybes than certainties. Students need to be encouraged, therefore, to consider which models in a simulation can and cannot be sustained by historical evidence. So long as a game has enough historical merit in its core explanations that students will be challenged to critique its validity, it is worth consideration for classroom use. Indeed, inaccuracies in the game serve a useful function: they give students an opportunity to challenge, just as the accuracies give them a chance to support.
Once a game is selected for class that has the core defensible models, the next step is to begin considering the historical problems posed by the Page 234game in order to anticipate the types of resources and support students will need to analyze the game. These fall into two categories. The first category encompasses the historical issues modeled by gameplay itself. These are the problems agents in the past faced that are part of the simulation’s core play. They correspond to the content of a history course. The most important of these is generally how to assess and make trade-offs. A trade-off exists whenever there are multiple decisions the player can make, the decisions cannot all be satisfied simultaneously, and there is no clear-cut correct priority, but rather a variety of priorities that can shift depending on the goals of the player. Simulation games tend to revolve around this mechanic.
The second kind of problem is one of interpretation. These are the meta-level problems that must be considered when using simulation games effectively. If students are not asked to reflect on the accuracy of the models in the simulations they play, the teacher has simply replaced one authoritarian source of truth, whether a textbook, film, primary source, or the teacher, with another: the game. This will not do. The great strength of a foundation in history is that it imparts the skills to critique and question claims to the truth, not to accept others’ claims without substantiation. Hence, teachers should encourage students to consider the problems of interpretation in a game, not just the problems of content.
Identifying a game’s interpretation of the past is no more a natural exercise for most students than unearthing the bias of a primary source or the underlying assumptions of a modern author. Concrete guidelines, therefore, are needed to scaffold students as they examine a simulation’s interpretation. The following questions are at the core of uncovering any simulation’s point of view:
- What is the role of the player in the game world and what are the challenges the game world presents to the player?
- What actions can the player take or not take to overcome the challenges? What resources does the player have with which to overcome challenges?
- What are the trade-offs in the game when it comes to actions and the spending of resources?
- What strategies or actions lead to success or failure and how are success and failure measured in the game?
A game reveals its designer’s vision of the past by expressing success and failure in certain terms—a number of votes, an amount of money, a certain population size—and dictating the types of actions the player’s historical persona can take.
From Theory to Practice: A Classroom Case Study
Now that the theoretical value of simulation games as interpretations has been surveyed, it is time to demonstrate the theory by illustrating the practical steps needed to design and implement simulation-based lessons. In particular, the essential steps can be reduced to six:
- Select a game with defensible core gameplay.
- Select resources and design supplemental lessons that correspond to the historical problems posed by the game.
- Allocate time to train students to play.
- Arrange students and structure time to allow for observation notes.
- Provide opportunities for analytical exercises involving the game.
- Cap the experience with opportunities for reflection and for critique of the simulation.
The success of these steps requires that the teacher serves as an expert guide, actively monitoring students’ progress, posing questions, and offering assistance as needed.
The steps outlined above will be illustrated through reference to current practice in a 2010 unit on Roman history studied by two ninth-grade classes from Cincinnati Country Day School. As noted at the beginning of this chapter, the practices currently employed in these classes have emerged from several years of design, implementation, a mixture of successes and failures, and refinement. The steps are reasonably well tested and provide an effective starting structure for lessons involving simulations. The particular games will change, but the basic structure will remain serviceable for some time. Still, these steps are by no means the last word on the subject; more effective strategies will emerge in response to further classroom practice.
The year 2010 marked the fifth year implementing simulation-based lessons for the ninth-grade Roman history unit. The goal of this iteration was to build on smaller-scale past simulation game experiences and develop a more substantial implementation. Previous simulation game exercises in the class had served as supplemental critical thinking exercises. The students played the Battle of the Trebia in the game Rome: Total War, for example, read the accounts of the battle passed on by the ancient historians Polybius and Livy, and wrote critiques of the accuracy of the game based on these sources. By 2009 this had developed to the point where students could choose to play either Rome: Total War or CivCity: Rome and research and write a critical essay. While these were worthwhile exercises in historical methodology, they seemed to be only loosely connected to the rest of the unit on Roman Page 236history. The Hannibalic Wars were referenced in the class but, due to time constraints, not studied in any depth; the same could be said for Roman warfare and Roman city life. Essentially, students were exercising their skills as historians but not focusing on a topic that was in any way integral to this particular unit on Roman history. The goal of the 2010 implementation, then, was to integrate the simulations more completely into the unit. In other words, the unit was redesigned so that the topics in the simulation games were made central. This way the advantages of simulations to teach systems would be integral to the unit of study. There are many games available on Roman history, but not a great breadth of topics. Essentially, there are games that focus on Roman warfare and imperialism, and games that focus on Roman cities and the economy. Out of these, two games in particular were selected to serve as the core classroom simulations: Rome: Total War and CivCity: Rome.
Were these legitimate to use as classroom simulations? To determine this requires considering the core gameplay of each, the first step in designing any lesson based on simulation games. The Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War is a hybrid turn-based and real-time strategy game that runs on Windows-based PCs. In the turn-based campaign mode, the player assumes leadership over one of three aristocratic Roman factions: the Brutii, Julii, or Scipii—it is possible to play non-Roman factions, but this option was not extended to students for the class exercise. Each faction starts in control of two Italian cities. The player must manage the cities under her control, constructing buildings that add to the economy, happiness, and growth of the settlement. Additional buildings determine the types of military units that can be levied in the city. Using these cities as bases, the player conducts diplomacy with, and campaigns against, any number of ancient powers as she chooses. Campaigns are carried out on a stylized topographical map of the ancient Mediterranean world, where armies, spies, and diplomats are each represented as individual figures. The Senate of Rome, a faction controlled by the computer, also issues missions to the player; these missions consist of military actions, ranging from blockading ports to sacking enemy cities. When the player successfully completes missions in the time allotted, her family’s reputation within the Senate increases and family members can win key political offices. If the player ignores or fails to complete the Senate’s missions, she may be branded a rebel and forced into civil war against the Roman Senate.
When an army attempts to enter a space occupied by an enemy army or city, a battle ensues. These are conducted in real-time mode. In a pitched battle, the player begins by deploying his troops on one side of a battlefield with terrain ranging from deserts to trees and mountains. In a siege the Page 237deployment takes place around a settlement. Either way, the player knows nothing about the placements of the enemy army except that they will be deployed somewhere on the opposite side of the map. After deployment, the positions of the units in both armies are revealed, and the battle begins. Using his mouse, the player issues orders to individual units of infantry, cavalry, missile troops, and skirmishers. Units may march, wheel, change the depth and facing of their formations, attack, and retreat. Orders are not carried out instantaneously; for a unit to change formation, for example, the individual soldier models in the unit (ranging from 40 to 240 models per unit) must shuffle from their current positions into the new positions. Individual units will fight so long as their level of morale remains high enough. If subjected to enough casualties, harassment, or danger—real or perceived—a unit will rout and flee the field. Once all of the player’s or computer’s units are destroyed or in flight, the battle is over and the army with units remaining on the field is the winner.
There are certainly problems with the game’s accuracy, but this is true of all simulation games: being too simplistic in places, incorporating inaccurate details, and allowing the player an extreme level of control that a real Roman general would have traded his favorite warhorse to possess. Yet many of the core mechanics in the game, while not flawless, are historically defensible. The campaign mode illustrates in broad brushstrokes the historical constraints on Roman imperialism. Communication and travel are slow, too slow given the length of game time encompassed in each turn. The important part is that travel clearly takes time in the game as it should in the preindustrial world, particularly when the terrain is rough. Diplomats must journey to the cities of the player’s rivals to negotiate deals, or vice versa, reinforcing the idea that, in the ancient world, communication took place at the speed a human or animal walked. Playing the campaign mode, one gets the sense that a fair amount of financial management and planning was necessary to support Roman military campaigns—complementary to the historical reality that armies were expensive and required the flow of tax money.
The game also has a solid model of ancient battle. The unit types available are generally historically accurate, consisting of various forms of infantry, cavalry, and missile troops. The formations of light infantry and heavy infantry differ, as do those of light and heavy cavalry. As an added touch of realism, units move as groups of individuals, and it takes a fair amount of shuffling for a unit, once commanded, to change formation. The inclusion of morale as a critical factor on the battlefield is an especially nice touch. Each unit has a morale level and is rendered inoperative when that level dips too low. The idea that morale, not casualties, was the most critical factor in Page 238the outcome of ancient battles is an important component of understanding ancient war.
CivCity: Rome complements the military and imperial focus of Rome: Total War by concentrating on managing and supporting the lives of Roman city-dwellers. CivCity: Rome is a game of systems. As governor and city planner, the player manages and develops a Roman city. Food production, trade, water supplies, entertainment, defense, taxation, and a number of other aspects of urban life must be carefully managed to build a profitable, growing city. Essentially, the key task is to create a net revenue stream through trade and property taxes. Both require a sizeable and happy population, which in turn requires desirable housing within walking distance of a variety of goods and services. Houses begin as shacks and can evolve into villas when their inhabitants have nearby access to necessities and luxuries ranging from water and meat, to clothing, education, and entertainment. Access to water is provided by constructing a nearby well or cistern. All other products are provided by shops, each selling one type of good. As a house evolves it provides greater tax revenues.
The underlying economy of the game functions using what is sometimes called a daisy chain model: two or more buildings work in conjunction to produce a finished food product or item from raw materials. So, for example, wheat is grown on a wheat farm, ground into flour by a mill, and baked into bread. The digital inhabitants of houses within walking distance of the bakery will get their food there; access to the bakery, in turn, is one of the lower-level requirements for desirable housing. Surplus bread is stored in the city’s granaries and becomes part of the general food supply for the city. Trees from forests, to give a second example, are turned into lumber by lumber camps. Bed makers and cabinet makers construct their respective products from the lumber and sell them to the populace. Surplus goods of this sort are stored in the city’s warehouses. Trade occurs when the player constructs the necessary building chains to create, store, and trade goods abroad through a trade center or dockyard.
None of these endeavors will succeed, however, if the general population is not kept happy, a separate issue from catering to the desires of individual property dwellers. Measured on a scale from -100 to 100, the happiness of the population increases when enough inhabitants have access to sufficient food, housing, jobs, services, and amenities. Conversely, a lack of these lowers happiness. When the level of happiness is positive, the city will attract immigrants; negative happiness causes citizens to abandon the city.
CivCity has its share of flaws. The most egregious of these is the command economy. As one might expect from a city-building game, the player has the ultimate decisions about what is constructed, what is produced, and Page 239what is sold. Certainly, emperors and governors worked to secure grain supplies, provide entertainment, and maintain infrastructures for urban populations, but there was a sizeable market element at work in the economics of ancient cities. A second problem, though one more easily overlooked, is that buildings are constructed instantaneously without labor or supplies, though they do cost money. On a more general level, though, the core models are defensible. The idea, for example, that Roman cities were filled with consumers whose needs had to be satisfied to a certain level in order for the city to thrive is reasonable.
The general supply models are also reasonable. The principle that inhabitants in a city walked or used animals to transport goods is well reflected. Resources must be provided within walking distance of a house for the house’s inhabitants to benefit from it. Roads speed travel, making it easier for traders and consumers to obtain more goods more quickly. Furthermore, the principle that all products undergo a set of steps from raw material to finished good is also well represented. Overall, the illustration that the needs and wants of Roman urbanites had to be met for a city to be peaceful and prosperous is sound.
Both of these games contain some defensible explanations of human activity and, thus, were essentially suitable for the ninth-grade class. This all sounds very good on paper, but some educators examining these games might reasonably object that the criteria applied here are too forgiving. In a sense, one might concede, CivCity: Rome has a defensible economic model in that consumers’ needs are met by businesses that gain their products from manufacturers who extract raw materials from the environment, but only in a sense. This is a general model at best, some will say, and outweighed by the sense of a command economy presented by the game. Or, one might object, Rome: Total War has a reasonable battlefield model, but the fact that players can create hodgepodge armies composed of troop types from the republic fighting alongside troop types of the empire and players can personally govern cities as a family faction leader, not an agent of the government, is taking too many liberties.
Two considerations are critical in the rationale for using games such as these. First, history itself is not a static, perfected representation of the past. It is a set of meaningful and defensible interpretations. History students, therefore, are taught best when they are taught the skills and methods of the historian, not saturated with a list of events, causes, and effects already established by the authorities. The flaws in a game cannot be overlooked. Quite the contrary: large-scale flaws in a game provide excellent opportunities for students to practice their skills of criticism. If the only flaws in a game are subtle minutiae, students will not have any reasonable opportunity to offer Page 240critiques, the core of the historian’s practice. Better still, one person’s flaw is another person’s accurate portrayal. So, for example, while one student analyzing the game concluded that the command economy in CivCity: Rome is a fundamentally flawed model for the early empire, another focusing on the late third century noted that Diocletian fixed prices and even mandated that sons follow their fathers in the same professions. Second, the teacher must serve as the core resource and facilitator to make sure that the necessary kinds of criticism take place. If students do not, on their own, notice the command economy in the game or the unhistorical units, the teacher must pose questions and provide opportunities for students to engage in the necessary critiques.
Having established that these simulation games were suitable for classroom use, the next step was to determine the sorts of problems they pose. This would dictate the kinds of documentary evidence, support materials, and related learning activities that needed to be arranged. Problems of content in Rome: Total War include:
- how to overcome challenges posed by geography, limited resources, and personnel to develop a lasting empire;
- how to weigh economic, political, and military alternatives in the development of an empire and choose between competing goals;
- how to deploy and employ different troop types in battle to take advantage of terrain, maximize morale, and achieve military victories.
CivCity: Rome presents its own set of historical problems, including:
- how to organize city development so that city inhabitants receive the necessary supplies and materials to carry out their lives and professions;
- how to satisfy the subsistence needs, and higher-level desires of city inhabitants in economically effective ways;
- how to foster an effective manufacturing, trade, and supply network using preindustrial forms of production, transport, and communication.
As far as the problems of interpretation, they are nearly limitless. Any element of the games can be subjected to scrutiny.
To support the study of these content problems, a set of supplemental lectures, core readings, and other supporting media should be prepared corresponding to the key content areas in the simulations. In the case of these two simulations the lecture topics selected were an overview of Roman history, the constitution of the republic, the alliance system, aristocratic competition, urban planning, and daily life in cities. Excerpts of modern Page 241secondary source readings provided additional detail on each of these topics. In addition, a set of relevant ancient primary and secondary source excerpts was collected: the writings of Polybius and Livy, the letters of the governor Pliny, epitaphs for working women in cities, and the like. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to go into the details of gathering these resources, but it is worth noting that the Internet contains many if not all the original source materials needed for anything short of a professional-level analysis of these topics. Above all, students need to engage a variety of rich sources of evidence as they play. Although a chapter like this understandably focuses on the games, the time that should be spent studying these sources of evidence is a critical part of any simulation lesson.
With the content problems and supporting resources relatively set, the remaining learning objectives needed to be determined and the appropriate lessons designed to achieve those objectives. In the case of the Roman history unit, these learning objectives focused on several core skills critical to the discipline of history and, in some cases, future professional success in the world:
- practicing collaboration to solve problems;
- developing writing fluency through regular practice of written expression;
- forming meaningful historical questions about Roman history; thinking about the world of the Romans and how they behaved in it;
- conducting research based on the historical questions posed;
- composing a formal essay evaluating the accuracy of the interpretations in the simulations; checking the information in multiple sources against each other.
These are far from the only things of value students can learn while studying historical simulations, but they are a core set of highly important skills.
Learning objectives established, the next step was to plan for productive play and observation sessions that would lay the foundation for later research exercises. There are several basic steps in planning effective simulation experiences. The first, already mentioned, is selecting rich sources of evidence and supplemental resources. The others are:
- training students to play the game;
- forming play and observation teams;
- promoting and facilitating observation;
- fostering reflection and analysis.
It is important to trace the progression of experiments and reasoning that led to these steps, particularly the imperative to begin by training students well Page 242to play the game. Since the ultimate goal of history teachers is to get students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate, it can be very tempting to rush students learning a game and move them quickly into analysis. While I assumed, in my first uses of simulation games in the classroom, that students would need some time to become familiar with the game, I greatly underestimated the actual amount of time needed and tried to jump quickly into analysis—say, after forty-five minutes of exposure to the game. Time has demonstrated that rushing students through this training can undermine the effectiveness of the whole lesson. Resisting the temptation to hurry on to the analysis is critical. Students must be taught to play the game and given sufficient opportunity to do so before they are asked to analyze and evaluate the game’s models. The overall quality of the learning experience can be diminished greatly by shortchanging the time spent learning to play the simulation. It is all too often assumed that students under the age of, say, 25 are naturally disposed to playing video games. This is a suspect assumption at best, but certainly not the case with historical strategy games, the core genre for simulations. Some students simply do not play video games, and skill manipulating a cell phone, navigating a webpage, or communicating through Facebook is not the same thing. Many do play video games, but they are console games like Left 4 Dead and Modern Warfare, which emphasize fast reflexes, superior hand-eye coordination, and quick tactics rather than the slower-paced, managerial and strategic skills required by a historical strategy game.
Perhaps most importantly, it is decidedly not the case that students will be categorically so overjoyed to play a simulation game that they will throw themselves wholeheartedly into the task of learning to play. This will be true of some students at least. Some students would simply rather not play a simulation—though the same could be said about writing a paper. They find the experience offers unsettling challenges, requiring them to exercise a level of independence and problem solving to which they are unaccustomed, all the while concerned about how this activity translates into the grades they will earn in class. This is most often the case with the strongest traditional learners. Many, though hardly all, would rather sit through a traditional lecture because they know how to score well on tests and papers in that environment; conversely, a simulation game would challenge them to think in different ways. This is a major reason why they should play simulation games: to learn to think flexibly. Indeed, one of the values of a history education is to learn to challenge assumptions—others’ and one’s own; that includes assumptions about what forms of media can be subjected to historical analysis. Expect, however, that not all students will be enthusiastic. Under ordinary circumstances, though, how regularly does or even should a teacher ask for the consensus of the class on every single topic of study and Page 243assessment? Simulation games are well worth including in the classroom. If they are incorporated primarily for entertainment reasons, however, rather than for their relevant strengths as learning tools, the teacher is in for a disappointment.
Since the potential appeal of simulations does not guarantee students will wholeheartedly and easily learn to play, like any other skill in a class, playing a particular game must be taught. Although some video games have excellent built-in tutorials, it is sometimes more effective to bypass the tutorials and devote one or two classes to training students how to play directly. The scope of the tutorial relative to the gameplay the teacher wants to emphasize, the available class time, and the motivation of students to learn are the key factors when deciding whether to go with a game’s preexisting tutorials or to create a more tailored training experience. The tutorial in Rome: Total War, for example, spends a great deal of time focusing on the particulars of commanding armies in battles. If the emphasis in class will be on the higher strategic level of play, the tutorial may effectively be replaced by the teacher’s instruction. If the focus is on battlefield dynamics, on the other hand, the tutorial is a great tool to help learn the game. The basic principles of CivCity: Rome, on the other hand, can probably be relayed more efficiently by a teacher than by the game’s own tutorial. The bottom line, though, is that students need to learn the game fairly well to be able to critique it.
This principle has developed from the experiences of numerous classroom implementations, including the most recent lessons using Rome: Total War and CivCity: Rome. For various reasons—as I recall, the last-minute disappearance of a projector that would allow me to lead students by example through the early stages of the game—the students learned to play Rome: Total War through the tutorial. A number became bogged down by the battlefield component. Since they were not able to save their progress in the middle of the battle tutorial, these students effectively had to spend more than one class completing what ideally might have been a forty-five-minute tutorial. Ultimately, I had to provide a fair amount of additional support to help students become comfortable with playing the game, support that might well have been unnecessary had I directly trained students. In contrast, students received direct training in CivCity: Rome and were clearly far more comfortable with that game. There were assuredly other factors at work—there always are—but erring on the side of providing formal training, while not always essential, will tend to produce the most consistent results.
What does formal training look like in practice? The number of students, their ages, their abilities, and their levels of motivation will determine the feel of the classroom. It is best, however, to err on the side of creating a highly structured training environment; this will help keep more rambunctious Page 244students on task while also providing extra support for those who need reassurance. First, run the game on a computer that has a projected display. Start the game on the easiest setting and provide explicit instructions for playing the game. While it can be helpful to have students observe the game and take notes before playing along, most will not begin to learn how to play until they actually have to do so themselves. This can be accomplished in a structured fashion by having students follow along on their own computers and carry out the instructions executed by the teacher.
These instructions will vary from game to game and class to class, but there are some common elements. First, introduce students to the basic goals of the game. In Rome: Total War, the general goal is to complete the missions assigned by the Senate and, in general, expand one’s empire by capturing enemy territories. In CivCity: Rome, on the other hand, the general mission is to build a city that generates a positive revenue stream. It is not always immediately apparent to students what they should be doing in a game. Providing general goals keeps students focused on gameplay and enables them to play more independently. Second, instruct students in basic game mechanics and provide simple strategies for a successful start to the game. In Rome: Total War this means surveying the basics of building up cities, recruiting soldiers, maneuvering armies, and conducting sieges. In CivCity: Rome this means training students to identify and create the various daisy chains that support the economy and provide necessities to developing residential areas. Third, provide students with general problem-solving strategies and resources. These include their peers, web forums devoted to the game, and the game manual. If available, it can be particularly helpful to set up an online discussion forum using Moodle or some other online content management system so that students can ask and answer questions in a format that the whole class can see. Depending on the motivation of students, it does not hurt to incentivize or explicitly require posting questions and answers on the forum. The amount of time devoted to training will vary. With games of moderate complexity like Rome: Total War and CivCity: Rome, plan for about two hours of training. This can be portioned in different amounts of class and out-of-class time, as time and resources allow.
After students learn the basics of the game, they should shift into the observation phase. The goal of this phase is to create a lab-like environment in which students can observe how the simulation works and make notes accordingly. To this end, it is often a good idea to form teams of three for the observation phase rather than have students play the game individually, at least when play takes place during class time. In this kind of grouping one student plays the game while the other two take observation notes; after a certain amount of playtime, the team members exchange tasks. This kind Page 245of setup encourages the taking of effective notes and prevents an individual from getting too engrossed in the play to reflect; it is the method that was used most often in the Roman history unit. With most students, it is a good idea to stop classroom gameplay every twenty to thirty minutes and spend five minutes catching up on notes. Children and adults alike can easily get too engrossed in a game to stop and make notes without prompting. The point of the whole simulation exercise, however, is not for students to be entertained; it is for them to learn.
Providing guidelines can enhance the quality of observations. Sometimes this is just a matter of introducing the leading topics students should use to focus their notes. Some general examples suited for most simulation games include:
- the role of the player in the game world and the challenges the game world presents;
- the actions the player takes to overcome the challenges;
- the trade-offs in the game between competing actions and the spending of finite resources;
- the strategies and actions that lead to success or failure and the measurement of success and failure in the game.
Certain games, especially short web-based games, lend themselves to a system where the player records the choices she makes every turn, rationales for each choice, and the results of the choices. Rome: Total War and CivCity: Rome are complex enough, however, to justify taking regular pauses from the game even though students were generally arranged in trios of one player and two note takers. These pauses emphasize the need to observe and record the play experience.
After logging sufficient observations, more analytical tasks can be introduced. These can include problem-based learning style exercises inspired by student questions, explicit teacher instructions, or both. When analyzing Rome: Total War, for example, some students attempted to determine how far Roman armies could travel in a six-month game turn. They needed to develop problem-solving strategies to do so. With a bit of Socratic questioning on the teacher’s part, students began looking at online maps, making rough calculations of distances and times, and comparing them to historical data on troop marches. Other students were concerned with how winter affected the Roman army. They engaged in a series of experiments, looking at the supply costs for the armies in spring and in winter. These experiments all arose from students’ primary research questions and so only the students researching travel, for example, ran travel experiments in the game. Page 246Encouraged by the sight of students conducting experiments with Rome: Total War, however, inspired me to assign to the whole class some explicit analytical tasks concerning the game models in CivCity: Rome. For example:
- Diagram three food supply systems and product supply systems. Include each step in the chain.
- During play, you receive the message, “Sir, your granary is empty.” What does this mean? What steps must you take to thoroughly diagnose the problem? Draw a flow chart to indicate the potential problems and solutions.
The ability of simulation games to serve as foundations for problem-based learning (PBL) exercises is one of the more promising areas in need of development. Excellent PBL sessions can be created by posing inquiry tasks that require students to develop problem-solving plans. In future uses of these games, for example, students could be charged to:
- determine the scale of the city map in CivCity: Rome and based on this scale compare and evaluate the amount of farmland compared to the amount of civic space;
- determine the ratio of farms to people in the game and compare this to historical evidence for peasant societies;
- determine the scale of armies in RTW and, based on this scale, determine the accuracy of the map and the speed at which armies can travel in the game.
Exercises like these can hone problem-solving skills, increase students’ familiarity with game models, and generate some insights into the past at the same time.
Throughout the observation and analysis phases, students should study historical evidence and reflect regularly on their experiences in the game. The Country Day students used a blog to record observation notes, enter reflections on their gaming experiences, and pose questions about the interpretations of the games. The advantage of the blog system is it promoted the idea that the students are a learning community and that they can share and learn from one another.
Once the observation, analysis, and reflection components are completed, the historical resources studied, and lectures heard, it was time to undertake some form of formal research and written critique. In accordance with the great importance of developing students’ critical writing skills, my ninth-graders were tasked to research and write a formal critical essay Page 247about some aspect of the game. This was an exercise in forming meaningful questions, understanding how the game answers the questions, studying evidence, and constructing a formal analysis. First, students posted two or three historical questions raised by the game and discussed these in class. The questions ran an impressive gamut. For Rome: Total War:
- How did the Romans treat captured cities?
- What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman alliance system in Italy?
- How did distance and geography affect communications between the Senate and armies in the field? How did these factors affect diplomacy with other peoples?
- Did the Romans acquire an empire in self-defense or through active aggression?
- How were sieges conducted?
- What was the role of morale in battlefield victories and how did the Romans raise and maintain morale?
CivCity: Rome evoked these questions:
- How extensive was trade between private citizens in the Empire as opposed to government-sponsored trade?
- To what extent was the economy of the city controlled by the government?
- How important were public gardens, fountains, and other amenities to the happiness of an ancient city’s inhabitants?
- To what extent was the happiness of Roman citizens really a high priority for government officials?
- Where and how did Romans obtain their supplies for constructing cities, especially when suitable resources were not nearby?
- How critical a problem was fire in ancient cities and how did the Romans deal with firefighting?
Interestingly enough, one of the most common sources of frustration and most common historical questions raised by the game concerned the distances the inhabitants of CivCity: Rome were willing to walk to satisfy their needs. Many felt the radius the digital inhabitants were willing to travel was simply too limited and raised the question: how far could or would inhabitants of a Roman city have to travel to obtain the goods and services they wanted and needed?
The significance of these questions should not be underestimated. The students essentially came up with their own meaningful, high-level historical Page 248questions. Perhaps most striking, all of these questions have been the subjects of research and writing by professional historians; when presented with a game, these students were able to pose the kinds of questions that experts in the field do. Rather than be assigned a research question, every student was able to formulate a meaningful question for research.
The students then presented the questions in class that they wanted to investigate for their papers. I offered suggestions, as necessary, for avenues of investigation and sources of evidence. To promote the legitimacy of their authentic historical questions and encourage a spirit of collaboration, students were able to switch questions and pursue different lines of inquiry if a classmate presented a question they found more intriguing. Subsequently, they researched and wrote persuasive, evidence-based essays arguing how accurately the simulation portrayed the issues they chose to investigate. Google Books was the assigned research tool, though students were also encouraged to use primary and secondary source excerpts from their class readings. Google Books offers considerable advantages as a tool for teaching basic research. While the system does reduce the need to pore through library stacks, arguably that is not the core of research anyway. With large numbers of book excerpts available, students can pursue virtually any topic raised by the simulation. Nor are the students’ obligations to read and consider the evidence negated by the search tool. Any search can return large numbers of texts. This means students must practice scanning works to find those that are actually useful for the argument they are making—a core research skill. This also requires them to make sure they understand enough of the context surrounding the evidence, to avoid misrepresenting evidence.
These papers served as the primary form of assessment for the simulation units. The effectiveness of the exercise can only be demonstrated anecdotally, but several aspects of the papers the students wrote stood out from the typical ninth-grade persuasive essay assignments I have assigned over the decade. First, as noted earlier, the great variety of high-quality topics that the students pursued was impressive. This was both a function of the simulations’ ability to raise a variety of questions and the flexibility of the available research tools. For most of us, getting students to explore authentic, high-quality questions and construct formal answers based on historical research is a difficult task, indeed. One common solution is to get students to form their own questions. Asking students to form their own questions without sufficient grounding in the possibilities, however, can sometimes lead to the writing of reports rather than arguments, or the tackling of questions too large or too general to be appropriate for a class paper. Assigning a single question to the whole class, on the other hand, can ensure that the task students undertake is viable. But this kind of standardization has its Page 249costs; it removes the opportunity for students to form their own questions and pursue their own lines of inquiry. This has certainly been my experience over the years. These simulation papers were something different from the norm. They were varied and original. Indeed, some students chose to pursue the same question, but conducted their research and argumentation in strikingly different ways. In short, these papers were excellent models of the kind of work historians and history teachers should value.
At no point should it be understood that the use of simulation games in the classroom has reached anything approaching a pinnacle of effectiveness. There are many areas where further experimentation, in addition to formal research, is needed. The goal of using simulation games as a tool for studying, researching, and critiquing historical models was generally successful in this most recent implementation. Still there are important areas to expand on in the future. Two in particular stand out. First, exercises should be developed that require students to explore and learn the general content of the games more closely. It is critical to the use of historical simulation games to take them as interpretations and thus in need of corroboration from historical sources. For practical purposes, however, there are areas of well-established historical convention within these and other simulation games that the teacher can identify for students to learn while still maintaining the standard that the games are interpretations, not sources of truth. For example, it is reasonable for students to review, record, and be assessed on elements of content contained in the games such as, for example:
- What were the key components of a Roman army and their equipment?
- What were the different types of housing in a Roman city and how can each be accurately characterized?
- What are the geographic locations of the Romans, Greeks, Macedonians, Gauls, Carthaginians, and the like? What are the main topographical features of the regions each culture occupied?
- What were primary forms of entertainment in a Roman city?
Obtaining purely factual knowledge by itself, as opposed to honing higher-order analysis and evaluation skills, is an insufficient reason to justify the time and potential expense of a simulation. It does not follow, however, that teachers should pass up obvious opportunities to get students to learn core information as they engage in the simulation. Of course, care must be taken by the teacher to make sure that students are guided through the more and less accurate aspects of game content.
The second area for expansion is to discuss in more quantifiable terms with students the core mechanics that are at work in the games themselves. Page 250Theorists on the role of games in learning and popular culture increasingly stress the importance of procedural literacy: that those who wish to treat simulation games critically must be aware of the procedures—the algorithms and routines—that underlie them. The implementation outlined above treated the games as texts, which they certainly are, and focused on discussing the interpretations of these texts. The discussions, however, did not really address the fact that the games have quite precise, although sometimes simplistic, mathematical models underlying them and those models themselves are inherently subject to human bias, let alone miscalculation. Introducing the idea that these games contain quantifiable models that are, despite their quantification, far from perfectly accurate, is an important step along the way to learning to treat technology as a tool, not a deity. Topics like this could readily be addressed through general discussions of variables and their relations at a level reasonable for those with a basic knowledge of algebra. So, for example, students could outline what the main variables likely are in the battlefield model of Rome: Total War and how those variables likely interrelate, or something similar for the determination of property values in CivCity: Rome.
In closing, it is worth considering once again why many teachers, even those who have kept reading up to this point, still feel uncomfortable or outright skeptical of the idea of experimenting with simulations. This is probably particularly the case for those who teach public school curricula dictated by school boards, state standards, and high-stakes tests. Educators in these situations—and there are many—may rightly feel that they have little room to improvise, innovate, and experiment, little room to deviate in any significant way from traditional methods of instruction and the prescribed curriculum. To be fair, teaching in an independent school has provided me, like so many independent school teachers, with greater discretion in setting classroom curricula and pedagogical approaches than teachers have in many schools. Still, there are ways for teachers with less flexible curricula to incorporate simulation games effectively in the classroom. The options for simulations extend far beyond Rome: Total War and CivCity: Rome. There are simulations addressing a wide variety of topics and periods. There are also a host of freely available web-based simulations that address contemporary issues and require no more than a half hour to play. Those who cannot spend days away from a mandated curriculum can use these smaller-scale games to engage in more economically chunked critical-thinking exercises.
With so many options, large and small, let’s turn this primary objection on its head. The real question is, what are we teaching our students if we never improvise, innovate, and experiment; never deviate in any significant way from traditional methods of instruction and the prescribed curriculum? Page 251How can history teachers effectively prepare their students for the twenty-first century by suggesting that teachers are the sole source of authority; that learning is something that is received through oral and written texts alone; that historical interpretations can only be captured in letters, never in image and code? Simulation games can play an integral role in teaching history as a twenty-first-century discipline, when they are treated as some of the many forms of interpretation of the past, with special properties for representing the world, but no particular claim to truth. In practice this requires allowing simulations to pose problems and inspire authentic questions about the past that students can tackle.
A final thought: certainly, adopting this stance and pedagogy does require teachers with some confidence and skill in the methodologies of a historian. When a class shifts from the transmission of information to open-ended problem solving, there will be many times when the teacher simply does not have an answer on hand. This is the point; students need to learn, over time of course, to function as independent historians, not simply to rely on the closest source of authority for answers. Adopting this principle has the potential to open up a teacher’s history classes to engage in something far closer to the true inquiry of the professionals. There is much to be gained. In a world with so many competing claims to the truth, where vocal figures in politics, the media, entertainment, and religion offer versions of reality that are often in conflict and in need of critique, an educated person must be able to judge the validity not only of discrete facts, but of competing claims to historical truth. Students who are taught more than the chronology, or even the story of history, and learn to do history have the opportunity to acquire crucial skills of critique, analysis, and interpretation of human events. Students who learn that interpretations are not only ensconced in writing, but are embedded in videos, podcasts, mash-ups, and, yes, video games, can gain valuable tools for negotiating the modern world.
1. The seminal work in the field comes from James Paul Gee, and readers interested in learning about general games and learning theory should start with his books, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and Good Video Games and Good Learning (New York: Peter Lang, 2007). See also David Williamson Shaffer, How Computer Games Help Children Learn (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Important work has been done in the journals, and the following articles offer good points of introduction to the field: Rosemary Garris, Robert Ahlers, and James E. Driskell, “Games, Motivation, and Learning: A Research and Practice Model,” Simulation & Gaming 33 (2002): 441–67; Harold F. O’Neil, Richard Wainess, and Eva L. Baker, “Classification of Learning Page 252Outcomes: Evidence from the Computer Games Literature,” The Curriculum Journal 16 (2005): 455–74; Kurt Squire et al., “Design Principles of Next-Generation Digital Gaming for Education,” Educational Technology 43 (2003): 17–23; Susan McLester, “Game Plan,” Technology and Learning 26 (2005): 18–26; S. Tobias and J. Fletcher, “What Research Has to Say about Designing Computer Games for Learning,” Educational Technology 47 (2007): 20–29. For a counterpoint to these studies, see R. Clark, “Learning from Serious Games? Arguments, Evidence, and Research Suggestions,” Educational Technology 47 (2007): 56–59. Be sure to read Squire’s response to Clark in K. Squire, “Games, Learning, and Society: Building a Field,” Educational Technology 47 (2007): 51–55.
2. For some definitions, see S. Tobias and J. Fletcher, “What Research Has to Say about Designing Computer Games for Learning,” Educational Technology 47 (2007): 20–29; Christian Elverdam and Espen Aarseth, “Game Classification and Game Design: Construction through Critical Analysis,” Games and Culture 2 (2007): 3–22, accessed October 12, 2010, http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/2/1/3; Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), 422–58.
4. This can be compared to the established use of micro-worlds in science and mathematics education. On micro-worlds, see John Bransford et al., eds., How People Learn (Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999); Shaffer, 67–71; James M. Monaghan and John Clement, “Algorithms, Visualization, and Mental Models: High School Students’ Interactions with a Relative Motion Simulation,” Journal of Science Education and Technology 9 (2006): 311–25; Barbara White and John R. Frederiksen, “Inquiry, Modeling, and Metacognition: Making Science Accessible to All Students,” Cognition and Instruction 16 (1998): 3–118; Leslie P. Steffe and Heide G. Wiegel, “Cognitive Play and Mathematical Learning in Computer Microworlds,” Educational Studies in Mathematics 26 (1994): 111–34; Roxana Moreno et al., “The Case for Social Agency in Computer-Based Teaching: Do Students Learn More Deeply When They Interact with Animated Pedagogical Agents?” Cognition and Instruction 19 (2001): 177–213; Maria Kordaki, “The Effect of Tools of a Computer Microworld on Students’ Strategies Regarding the Concept of Conservation of Area,” Educational Studies in Mathematics 52 (2003): 177–209.
5. Samuel S. Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 63–88, details a seminal experiment in the difference between how students and professional historians read texts.
6. As recently as his interview for Kotaku Talk Radio on May 5, 2010, mp3 interview file, accessed July 31, 2012, http://kotaku.com/5531995/an-hour-of-sid-meier-brilliance-including-his-surprise-guitar-hero-regret. Sid Meier, the creator of the Civilization series, noted once again that he and his design teams focused on making an entertaining and engaging game first and added the historical research after the fact.
7. Richard E. Mayer, “Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule against Pure Discovery Learning?” American Psychologist 59 (2004): 14–19, is an excellent study suggesting that inquiry learning is most effective when the teacher remains an active presence in the activity.
8. Currently available through the online services Steam (store.steampowered.com), and Direct2Drive, accessed July 31, 2012, www.Direct2Drive.com; Amazon.com is an excellent source for hard copies.Page 253
9. These are not particularly controversial points in the field, but for some support of the general outlines here, one could examine John Rich and Graham Shipley, War and Society in the Roman World (London: Routledge, 1993); William V. Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome 327–70 B.C. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); Jeremiah McCall, The Cavalry of the Roman Republic (New York: Routledge, 2001); Adrian K. Goldsworthy, The Roman Army at War, 100 BC–AD 200 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996).
11. The reader might turn to the following books to start when considering the issues involving Roman cities: John E. Stambaugh, The Ancient Roman City (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988); Pierre Grimal, Roman Cities, trans. G. Michael Woloch (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983); Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).
13. Entries in Rich and Shipley cover most of these subjects. The groundbreaking works on communications between the Senate and field commanders and the motives for imperialism, respectively, are Arthur M. Eckstein, Senate and General: Individual Decision Making and Roman Foreign Relations 264–194 B.C. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), and Harris.Page 254