Visualizing Alternatives to Prose: History, Games, Simulation, and Exploratory Play

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Encouraged by the good showing at the Games panel at AHA 2015 in NYC, I thought I’d share this panel abstract that I am working on for future conferences in which a robust discussion of history and play might be welcome. This is an evolving document certainly, but I look forward to developing it…

History and play. At first these might seem like disparate concepts, evocative of different sets of practices and values. Over the past several decades however, as media producers have continued to supply a stream of historically themed video game titles, and as digital historians have utilized information modeling software to devise novel ways of organizing and analyzing data, it has become apparent that history is no longer the exclusive domain of textual analysis or documentary representation, but an interactive process that can be made to resemble games and play. This capacity of digital software to simulate, order, and reorder data derived from historical sources according to user (player) input likewise suggests alternative ways of making sense of the past that goes beyond the creation of data repositories, or the limitations of static graphical/textual representation. Taking into consideration recent interdisciplinary work in the fields of history, digital humanities, game studies, and information science, this panel assembles a group of interdisciplinary historians who seek to examine the uses and implications of play as a theoretical and methodological approach to digital history.

Recent scholarly analyses of historically themed video games, both as representational texts and pedagogical tools, have provided an entry point for thinking about play and interactivity as a mode of historical engagement. Responding to the commercial success of mass market video games, historians and game studies scholars have sought to move beyond the usual issues of historical (in)accuracy (though critiques of this kind are perhaps well founded), and have begun to examine the ways in which digital simulation invites players to engage with, alter, and recreate the past. As media historian William Urrichio has noted, historically themed computer simulations seem to share postmodernist epistemological goals that seek to disrupt hegemonic systems of historical truth and representation by allowing the user of these technologies agency in constructing (playing) their own narrative. Not restricted to game forms, participants in this panel will examine how a variety of digital technologies, including data mapping and simulations, hypertext games, as well as the more common graphical simulations constitute new ways of creating historical narratives; narratives that take seriously empirical commitments of the historian’s discipline, but which also seek to order, and reorder narratives in ways that emphasize postmodernists contingency of historical knowledge.

Pressing the conception of play beyond familiar ideas of leisure and idle distraction, this panel will examine how digital technologies may be used to facilitate interactive engagements with the past that encourage experimentation, juxtaposition, (re)creativity and gameplay. Panel participants examine a variety of methods by which playfulness with digital tools may offer historians alternative ways of making sense of source texts (data), allowing us to glimpse our sources from different and unexpected angles, and to devise alternatives to linear narratives. This panel seeks to open a conversation about how play, broadly defined, might reveal new ways of creating and imagining our relationship with the past, and how historical play implicates issues of power, affect, representation, and identity.


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