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Playing With History

Kevin Kee organized a neat little symposium called Playing with History. The first day of the conference was run as an unconference. For the second day, we had to submit papers (Sean Gouglas wrote the one I'm involved in) and then review them. The reviewers present the papers, not the authors. The Twitter hashtag was #pastplay .

Day 1 (April 29th, 2010)

One of the subtexts of the conference was that we were playing with the conference/symposium format itself. Some of the play included:

  • There was a confessional" where we are supposed to record a 2 minute answer to the question "what would we do if we could?" Alas, few of us did it, we were so busy.
  • Bill is taking pictures that will go up under a creative commons license.
  • We have a WordPress site that we are all supposed to post notes to.
  • There is a toys room with all sorts of stuff to try.
  • One day was organized as an unconference and one as a conference.

For the unconference I joined the following groups:


I joined a group discussing how we can assess history games. We spent a lot of time discussing what it is that one is assessing. A problem in history is how to describe historical thinking beyond just remembering facts (like dates and names.) If games are supposed to teach more complex competencies, what are those competencies such that one can design a game for them or assess a game (or assess learning through a game.)

The best model we came up with was that you ask students to create a game and the submitted game can then be assessed instead of a paper.

We talked about descriptions of historical thinking like that of

Here is my list of types of assessment and related issues that could be used to assess the games. This came out of the conversation:

  • Assessments around process - ss learn to talk about process of playing
  • Journaling - where students record their thoughts about the process of playing
  • Doubled interviews - interview one person, but ask them to bring a friend to keep them honest.
  • Give an oral exam after - This raises the issue of how to do a good oral exam?
  • Focus groups - probe participants about the process of playing.
  • Completing the game is something you can assess. Who wins and how?
  • Encourage discussions online and then evaluate the discussion.
  • Let students know what you are looking for in the way of higher-order skills and then ask them outright.
  • Ask students to game the game as a way of assessing the game.
  • You can do the standard, pre-test and post-test on content and compare.
  • Survey students about what they like.
  • Photo ethnography - have students journal their playing with a digital camera and study the photos.
  • Ask others to review your game and write up their comments.
  • Ask what kinds of questions are raised?

Issues that came up:

  • NSSE - problem of teachers and students agreeing to not bother each other.
  • Issue that students sometimes are conservative and don't want to learn differently. Games might provoke a negative reaction.
  • Peter Lee - research with kids - Lee takes pictures and asks students to organize the pictures in two different narratives. The discussions with kids indicates six levels of historical understanding
  • I found myself skeptical about the division of historical thinking into levels that can then be tested for.

Soft Fabric Construction

I then sat with Bethany who showed me how to build a simple soft-circuit fabric thing. Pictures coming. This is a very promising practice that we need more of. Many of the games are very male. We need to work with other traditions of fabrication and playing.

Dr. Kremlin’s Disc (DKD)

Bethany Nowviskie taught us to play her glass bead game. We decided to actually make the conference and its subject the theme of the beads. We place "beads" in chambers of a disk where the bead is a word. As soon as a bead is put adjacent to a filled chamber you have to explain the association. So, for example, I put a bead "Heraclitus" between a chamber with "time" on one side and "water" on the other as Heraclitus said you couldn't step in the same river twice. DKD is a game of associations and explaining associations. It was interesting the threads that came out when you have others associating. A thread of "losing" emerged - what do we lose with education and games?

Niagara 1812

Kevin Kee took out to play the ARG Niagara 1812 which will be out on iTunes soon. The game is a playful mystery tour of Niagara on the Lake. The idea is that people will download it and play it s a way of learning. I crashed it.

Day 2

Day 2 was organized around the papers and the act of doing. The idea is that the papers could be published as a collection on teaching history in games. In effect we were workshoping a book. We were supposed to think about gaps, themes, and overlaps.

AARGuing for the Masses (Seamus, Rockwell)

Ours (Sean and mine) was the first paper to be reviewed and discussed. How can we create educational AARGs? How can we make this form our own. We need to talk more about the development environment and the challenges of developing for humanists. In game design literature we tend to just do stuff without any methodology - we need more about methodology. One thing we should look for is "street sociability".

The big question was, "What is or is not special for AARGs and history?"

Our project appears to have started with the tools and worked towards history. This is partly because we are interested in storytelling not particular stories. Perhaps we should work the other way.

What are the original history games. Could places like Williamsburg or Upper Canada Village be considered a virtual reality or augmented reality simulations? How important to AARGs is "This is not a game?"

Are puzzles a problem with historical games? Games often hang on puzzles - is that an appropriate way to frame history?

Rolling your Own

This paper talked about failure in a gaming experiment. We assume that games for teaching will be fun. That is not the point - learning is the point. It is, as I have argued elsewhere, not play when you are forced to do it and therefore it is not a failure if the game isn't fun. There is something appropriate about failure and games. There is a long history of discussing failure in the digital humanities starting including a;view=text;rgn=main;idno=3336451.0003.201 paper by John Unsworth and stuff in Mc Carty? 'Humanities Computing. Of course, once we start building a lot of games then people will blame us for taking all the fun out of gaming.

We talked about the effect where there is a blurring of boundaries where social media (and games) get adapted for serious work. From the student's perspective it is creepy to have to meet the teacher in the treehouse.

If we ask students to design games as learning then we have to be honest that the audience is the instructor. There are ways to expand that audience.

We should think of pedagogical games as not just bounded by a course, but also open to larger communities. Who are we teaching? Can we think beyond the bounds of a course?

Teaching history in an age of pervasive computing: the case for games

This paper tackled a number of important issues from the epistemological (how are games themselves texts?) to metagaming (how important is the culture around games and constructing games?)

The epistemological issues are interesting to me. One issue is how much non-target related content needs to be introduced to teach history.

Steve Ramsay asked, if critical awareness is important, why would the construction of games be the best way to do it? Why not just talk about games?

This is not the first time games have been introduced to learning. In the sixties people developed and tried role playing games and other types of games. (I remember playing diplomacy in a history class in high school.) We need to be aware of the history of history games.

Playful Historical Thinking: ARGs and Pervasive History Play

One challenge is writing about an ARG is that, if the game hasn't been played, you can't reveal enough. This raised all sorts of interesting questions about writing about games and reviewing them. How do you write about a game without revealing things. Do publication systems move too slowly.

3-D Interactive Worlds as Educational Tools for Understanding Arctic Life

A paper about reconstructions that was quite neat. It raised questions about playful technologies and recreation as a way of doing history. How can we deploy making technologies to teach history (as opposed to crafts)? There is a level to which Augmented Reality Games are making everyday spaces strange, while historical reconstructions make spaces never experienced normal.

How do we deal with constraints in developing games and virtual spaces. Every project gets shaped by its environment from funding to ethical constraints.

Ludic Algorithms

Were Llul's machines interpretative tools? Do they warn us about the dangers of playful tools for interpretation?

The real goal of programming is communication between two people around methodology. Can you be surprised then by a machine?

"Experimenter's Regress" was brought up - first experiments (when something is studied for the first time) have uncertain outcomes. There is no objective knowledge yet to judge what the outcome of an experiment was. Check out Harry Collins, The Shape of Actions; What Humans and Machines Can Do.

Rapid Prototyping to Support Experimental History

This paper is about the maker community and how they rehearse values. The paper makes an important point about fabrication - that there is a lot of tacit knowledge that can't be taught through discourse about. The making and playing with things teaches that tacit knowledge.

We are seeing a shift to the democratization of fields like design. Desktop publishing changed things for the professional designers - now they have to distinguish themselves from the sea of amateurs not by the ability to do at all, but in other ways. Could the academy be democratized? Could we see learning go this way - where professional instructors find that they have distinguish themselves from amateurs on the net? On the other hand, what if we professionalize amateurism?

I'm struck by how the academy is responding to change by playing with different practices. We are playing with the conference, the paper, research practices and so on. As I mentioned at the top, this conference was playing with the conference. Now it seems we are playing with history, the discipline, as much as playing with history the subject.

Victorian SimCities: Playful technology on Google Earth

The interesting issue of the ethics and troubles one has when using students to build research content came up. Many have commented on the opportunities to use students to crowdsource things. Psychologists, some time ago, discovered that they could actually use their students in classes as research subjects, which led to ethical guidelines so as to avoid abuse. Now, we need to think about gaming ethics. Another issue is intellectual property. For some reflections on codes of ethics see, .

True Facts or False Facts–Which are More Authentic?

This was a great paper about an experiment where students were given a chance to create a historical hoax about the last American pirate. They had to learn about the authentic materials to be able to build a hoax. They also got to see first hand how people were fooled by their hoax. Again this raised an ethical issue as they got serious blow-back from people outside.

We talked about the transfer of knowledge and scepticism about received materials. A key thing we try to teach in history is how to evaluate claims by others, whether they are on twitter or in the archive. Is thinking critically about everything part of what we are teaching? Or do we want students to be critical of some things (and claims)?

A subtext is that there has always been criticism of how history is taught. We have all heard people claim that history (or any other subject) is poorly taught and therefore it is time to throw out the current system and reinvent it. We need a history of this criticism as a rhetoric.

Does History Have to Be Boring?

We talked about the Great Unsolved Mysteries of Canadian History. This project has finished its funding which means there is now a sustainability issue. A lot of people asked about updating the site with newer technologies. How does one find funding to maintain a site when funders want innovation?

The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with A Million Books

This paper looked at the hermeneutics of how people deal with too much information. "Screwmeneutics" was proposed as the name for a way of screwing around on the web that needs to be recognized. We had an interesting talk about the dangers of talking about screwing around.

The conversation took a playful turn when we overinterpreted Ramsay's paper to the effect that the paper was itself a game that was screwing with our minds. This seemed to astonish Ramsay which raises the question of whether we were interpreting Ramsay at all, or riffing off his paper by turning it on itself. All of this made the danger of play clear (for a moment.)

Another issue is whether libraries are already organized for serendipitous browsing of materials?

Playing with the Archive: Game mechanics and collection system

We discussed the problems of games in real libraries and museums. They cost a lot and can be expensive to run again. Can we celebrate the casual? Can we design games around the small and the primitive. Greenberg imagines games like Re Captcha? for the library.

We also discussed ethics and how they shift from museums to libraries.

An important distinction is the incentive of the play vs. the incentive of rewards. The karma points of Red and Blue reward participation, but they don't make the participation a game.

Are casual games a useful alternatives to complex AARGs for learning history? I think they are and for a variety of reasons:

  1. They are cheaper to develop. Few can develop more complex computer games.
  2. They are faster to play and can be replayed (in a way that AR Gs? can't.)

Playing with the Past

This paper was about museums and play. Museums tend to fall back on very conservative view of history. They seem designed to frame history as fixed and important. Do museums have an inferiority complex? Do they want to be serious? Why couldn't museums become sites for re-enactment learning and research?

Historical activity doesn't equal learning (or playfulness.)

This paper raised questions about what the point of museums is such that we have to create games to get people into them. Have museums become an end in themselves?

Why can't you just tell us?

Even though students (who are digital natives) show improved outcomes using virtual history assignments, many of them don't seem to like playing historical games. Why is this? Why do they want the answers rather than playing the game? Some reasons:

  • They feel knowledge is being hidden from them and that that doesn't give them control over their learning.
  • The digital is an site of play (not learning) for the digital natives. It feels like we instructors are slumming.
  • Many digital natives haven't actually thought that much about the digital. We overestimate how comfortable they are in the digital. They may actually be more comfortable with traditional classroom instruction as they know how to get the grades without thinking.
  • The creepy treehouse effect (see above)
  • It could be that our learning games are not really games.
  • It could be that we should not expect the learning games to be fun and therefore we shouldn't tell students they are going to have fun. This is like every other learning activity.

Simulation Games and the Study of the Past: Classroom Guidelines

The real value of the simulation is not fun, but the (semi)authentic experience of thinking historically. One of the things that struck me about Jeremiah's practice as I witnessed it over the conference is how a teacher can use games as a way of experimenting with their teaching. He designs games quickly and experiments with them.

Reflections (neat things I heard)

  • Bethany brought an iPad - the first I've played with. What we can do with it and whether it was just a fancy device for consumption were discussed.
  • Like a text, a game emphasizes some things and neglects others. We no longer believe in the book that will solve all philosophical questions, why should we believe in the game that does?
  • One of the challenges in creating historical games is that to make a game fun, you sometimes have to cut corners. Game design involves hiding the tedium and excessively difficult.
  • A simulation is like a collective memory project - it can gather the knowledge of a community.
  • Playing with the Past is an interesting book on history and nostalgia.

Games and Toys

  • Ayiti: The Cost of Life is a simulation game where you play a family in Haiti.
  • The Nethernet is the evolution of PMOG. You install a Firefox plugin that allows you to leave badges, rewards, and traps on other web pages for others to discover. You can use it to create tours of the web.
  • CraftROBO is a cutting printer which can be used for paper crafts. See Flickr on CraftROBO to see what people have done with it.
  • La Géode is a immersive theatre in Paris that looks like it is a state-of-the-art place for immersive experiences.
  • The Lost Museum is an interesting game in a recreated virtual version of the American Museum that is both about a historical museum and is now . See my blog entry.
  • Hole in the Wall is an interesting project that put computers into Indian villages for people to just play with. An alternative to the OLPC project.



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