Monday, March 5, 2012

Going Beyond the Textual in History

Photo by Andrew Mason
Because of my interest in both history and games, I'm always on the look-out for good writing or new takes on how to bring elements of the gaming world into the framework of historical inquiry.  Increasingly, I'm finding my best sources of this kind of reading from my Twitter stream, as was the case when Shawn Graham (@electricarchaeo) pointed me towards an article in the recent edition of the Canadian Game Studies Association journal, 'Loading…', titled 'Beyond the 'Historical' Simulation: Using Theories of History to Inform Scholarly Game Design'.  Tackling what they call 'gamic action', the authors of the paper look to use elements of 'procedural rhetoric' (a concept introduced by Ian Bogost in his work 'Persuasive Games') combined with 'valid and scholarly means' of constructing the past (modeled on the monograph or print article) to produce 'reasonably justified truths' compatible with current methodologies in use by many historians.    

I mention the article not because I found it to be a progressive example of innovative historical thinking on games, but rather the opposite.  Instead of offering a means by which games can be productively and thoughtfully incorporated into historical study, the authors present a reactionary stance that seeks to bind 'gamic action' within the tightly defined epistemological boundaries incorporated into textual modes of history.  While they do offer valid insight when it comes to analyzing the roles and pretenses games follow today with regards to claiming historical validation, the repeated insistence on bringing into alignment the modes of 'objective' history and playable games not only overlooks the complimentary nature of both in creating reasonably justified truths about the past (to borrow a central concern of the authors), but also ignores the more fundamental issue centered on student prosumption (production + consumption) of historical knowledge.

Photo by Caro's Lines
While the first objection stems from concern the authors profess regarding games ability to present historical 'truth' as exemplified by the monograph, the second objection goes to the core of a fundamental debate now occurring in the discipline of History.  Examining both these objections yields the insight that History must go beyond the textual when forming links outside the circumscribed boundaries current epistemologies demand.  This is not abandonment, it is augmentation.  Rather than take a simplistic, reductionist view of the interplay between history and games, it might suit both the Historian and the Student better to uncover the more nuanced and complex interoperability both spheres of knowledge possess.

Let's begin with what the authors define as the 'gamic mode'.
"A gamic mode of history is the construction of scholarly historical arguments as scholarly games, creating a relationship to commercial games analogous to that of non-fiction to fiction in literature. This enables scholars to convey their research in ways that go beyond the limits of textual monographs, digitized historical sources, and digital simulations." [3]
Thus the introduction of two parallel themes that run through the entire article- first, that scholarly historic arguments can be laid 1:1 over the gamic mode and, second, that this gives the gamic mode a source of truth to which other, commercial games cannot lay claim.  Simply put, the two worlds of textual history and games cannot coexist unless they are mirrors of each other, for to allow the possibility of transition between distinct spheres of knowledge would imply that truth is relative and the certified authority of the historian is no greater than the roll of a die or play of a card.  Students/players, in the 'commercial' and 'simulative' gamic modes, are empowered to both consume and produce knowledge on a level that is difficult for traditional Historians to acknowledge, much less accept.

This fear is clearly expressed by the authors when they claim that current methods of integrating games and history steer the debate away from expressing and elaborating "a disciplinary way of creating truth" and ultimately seek to transform the discipline by altering its epistemologies and limiting its empirical rigor.  Hence the following claim by the authors:
"This [steering of the debate] in turn limits scholarly debate by increasing ambiguity and opening reader response beyond the determination of whether or not the author has presented a reasonably justified truth." [5-6]
While that statement certainly seems ominous, the real source of angst is not the debate on epistemology, truth and empirical rigor conflating history and games supposedly brings about- it's the fact that the reader is apportioned a space of interpretation hereto held inviolate by certified authorities of the historical profession.  The gamic mode, as the authors see it currently being applied, allows the reader (note careful avoidance of the term 'player') to produce responses that go beyond consumption and simple affirmation or negation of the argument presented.  The reader, enabled to produce (or, more accurately, prosume) their own 'truths', can simply avoid the argument altogether.

Instead of dwelling on this point, let's put it in our back pocket as we survey other important parts of the authors argument.

One key concept that helps the authors align fidelity of the historical textual mode to the gamic mode is procedural rhetoric, a term first introduced and elaborated by Ian Bogost, defined in this context as:
"…the use of computational processes to persuasively and effectively convey an idea. What the author creates in procedural rhetoric is not the argument itself, but a series of general and specific rules through authoring code that a computer can then use to generate the argument (Bogost, 2007). This mirrors scholarly constructions of the past as history in two important ways. First is that the argument is not the past, but a representation of it created by authoring evidential and interpretive relationships that lead to conclusions. Second is that the scholarly historical argument itself consists of facts that are converted to evidence and arranged according to a set of rules for that particular argument via interpretation. The gamic mode of history is an application of procedural rhetoric that takes advantage of the processes inherent in scholarly evidential relationships to express these arguments as games.  While different in form the argument experienced by the player would contain the same series of procedural evidential relationships that work towards a verifiable conclusion with a reasonably justifiable truth attribute that they might have expected to find in a monograph of the same argument." [6]
By linking 'computational processes' to the way in which textual arguments are assembled, the authors hope to bring authoritative strength to their claim that the gamic mode and the textual historical argument can be one and the same.  However, this viewpoint hinges on the assumption that digital games possess an internal consistency of rules and play that allow the player to understand and predict cause/effect relationships in the gamic world.  This, unfortunately, is not the case.

Photo by Ken Goldberg
Digital games are, by their very nature, closed constructions whose operation the player cannot, on face, intrinsically know or predict without engaging first in a large degree of play.  Cause/effect relationships in digital games are determined by trial and error, inference, and the acknowledgment of a reward to indicate progress.  Yet the player can never be sure every corner of a digital game has been explored because many actions are obscured by the operation of code, which the player often cannot access and modify.  In fact, a digital game could be considered the exact opposite of a monograph, where the argument and sources used are clearly articulated.  But of course, this too simplifies the monographs presence, which is never really accounted for in the article.  For while citations are visible the documents behind those citations are not.  Alternatively, we know what the scholar selected but we don't know what they didn't select, or even the range of documents surveyed.  This is not a knock on professionalism, merely the idea that History in pursuit of objectivity nevertheless is guided, perhaps unknowingly, by subjective desires.

There is also the question of why the authors are so dedicated to digital gamic action, leaving the venerable tradition of manual board gaming to the relative wayside.  I find this trend currently common in many historic approaches towards utilizing games- but without straying too far from the question at hand, I would add that board games at least allow an alternative separate from the digital gamic mode to occur.  Board games are 'open' and the player does not have to continually press the boundaries of the world to figure out its meaning, a la digital.  Complete boundaries are defined and areas of ambiguity are not hidden but rather demarcated quite visibly in a manual design.  The player can dispense with the never-knowing and move straight to analysis and interpretation.  It should also be noted that the 'open' design of manual games allows players to assert their own interpretations of the events or model depicted, something the authors, as cited above, greatly disdain.

Player-Made Twilight Struggle Card
by Mark MacRae
To put it on even simpler terms- the main objection the authors have with current gamic modes is that they produce history for consumers, while the authors would much rather produce history for producers.  This approach, currently, is endemic in the historical discipline because historians, by and large, are used to being both the producers and consumers of their own product.  This is why the authors struggle so mightily to make equivalent a textual mode of history and a gamic mode of history, to make claims that this approach can, perhaps, go beyond the textual when, in fact, the very notion of equivalence negates this possibility.  Textual modes focus on producing knowledge through reading, while gamic modes focus on producing knowledge through play.  One allows simple consumption, the other complex prosumption.

Stalwart defense of the 'consumptive' textual mode can be further seen in the authors elaboration of Alan Munslow's three broad epistemological approaches to historical scholarship, those being construction, deconstruction and reconstruction.  Because deconstruction relies upon one's own experiences to form understanding of evidence and arguments presented, the authors reject such claims of historic inquiry because "to certain extent (deconstruction) means the past is unknowable and denies a corporate understanding of history."  Reconstruction is similarly disqualified as its primary exemplar, the computer simulation, asserts that collected facts of the past can be arranged and recreated to simulate the past as it actually happened- yet this involves subjective qualifiers and emphases that the authors stress "taxes the traditional historian's ideal of objective scholarship." 

This leaves construction as the preferred epistemological approach in producing an authoritative historical gamic mode.
"Constructionist history builds up knowledge of the past and expresses the past as history by both analyzing how and what individual pieces of evidence can do, and what conclusions about the actions of historical agents (be they individuals or corporate entities) can be established through evidence relationships. In this case, evidence itself is separate from a notion of historical fact, as the fact only becomes evidence based upon its relationship to the question at hand. The constructionist approach to history, while allowing almost any question to be asked, provides parameters around how the question can be answered." [7]
What gives construction the edge for the authors is that it neatly lays outs parameters establishing how 'almost any question…asked' can actually be answered.  Construction also goes hand-in-hand with the use of narrative to act as the communicator of historical truth.  Narrative as communicator of truth is so vitally important to the authors that they express fear in letting the student have input on interpretation outside of that directed by the Historian:
"Narrative is so closely tied to our understanding of action, and as history is the study of past action, that if the historian’s prose does not present a cohesive narrative to the reader, the reader then creates one. Therefore, the gamic mode of history needs to be able to utilize narrative in the same way." [8]
This is not 'meaningful' description.
 Photo by Phil Romans
Under this rationale, it becomes easy for the authors to question the role of any gamic mode in which the student/player becomes a nexus of interaction or interpretation of historical evidence.  Simulations and counter-factuals, the bread and butter of commercial games, are thus scorned by the authors because they allow the student/player to feel as though their actions create meaningful and accurate depictions of the past without utilizing "empirical, justified truths claims about the past."

The solution presented by the authors is Shadows of Utopia: Exploring the Thinking of Robert Owen, a digital game that lets players simulate "an argument about Robert Owen's thinking."  Placing questions of education and labor reform before the player expressed through puzzles and game-world exploration, Shadows of Utopia demonstrates the idealistic thinking of Robert Owen via player transformation of the game-world's 'lazy, foolish shadow-creatures who steal and rob' into real people who attain wealth and morals through factory work.  Mimicking the textual authenticator of citations, Shadows of Utopia provides in-game source documentation in a transparent manner, going so far as to link "sources and related interpretations to the game code, user interface, and aesthetic choices," although how this is accomplished is not specifically defined.

The authors conclude that efforts like Shadows of Utopia not only can "do all the things that the textual mode does" but also "add digital utilities that augment research in imaginative and useful ways." 

Now, to be clear and upfront, I think that Shadows of Utopia sounds like a fascinating attempt to bridge the epistemological gap between what we understand to be the practice of history with the act of play encountered in the gamic mode.  However, I'm not willing to burn all other existing and potential bridges from history to games as the authors of 'Beyond the Historical Simulation' have done.  For one thing, porting (to borrow a phrase from digital gaming) over the epistemological guidelines of textual monographs and journal articles to the gamic mode doesn't allow one to go beyond the textual mode- it merely extends that mode to gamic space without taking into account the unique epistemologies gamic space inherently possesses.  (The authors want to 'paper over' the gamic space, literally, with textual modes)  To make a simple point of comparison, a monograph does not seek reader input whereas a game, by its very nature, requires player input to be utilized.  When you read a journal article, you are passively absorbing knowledge.  When you play a game, you are actively absorbing knowledge.  The authors argument presented above seeks to appropriate player activity and channel it into passive knowledge absorption.

Instead of trying to simplify the conflation of history and games, perhaps it would be better to acknowledge their separate epistemological boundaries and formulate a way to negotiate knowledge handoffs between the two spheres.  Katie King in her recent work Networked Reenactments, points the way to just such a negotiation in her analysis of flexible knowledges and pastpresents displayed in commercially produced television reenactments.  Here we often see the interplay of several fields of knowledge, represented either by talking heads or physical actualization of knowledge epistemologies through representative involvement (i.e. having a Historian and Architect work together in recreating a Roman bath), set against the backdrop of a historical narrative that links the past to the present.  When you add in the viewer angle to reenactments, the demarcation of specialized knowledge becomes less and less viable as the flexible knowledges required to fulfill the reenactment demand greater mobility than tight epistemologies might otherwise demand.  Thus King notes,
"…it is especially important that reenactments are not a way to keep pasts and presents apart-or a way to keep authorities and alternative knowledges, metaphors and referents, materialities and abstractions, forms of academic expertise and cultural entertainment, or affects and cognitions separated, managed, or delimited by membership. Flexible knowledges, transdisciplinarities, new media, all plunge us into uncertainties, risk, collusion, and collaboration; all conditions that-as with responsibilities to multiple audiences from painfully limited authorships-we do not control and in which we are elemental "bits" in emergent reorganizations of knowledge economies and among altering evaluations." (17)
The uncertainty noted by King is what the authors of 'Beyond the Historical Simulation' wish to avoid, as it potentially invalidates the Historians authoritative position in knowledge making.  But, again, King notes this aversion in traditionally defined disciplines presented with flexible knowledges when she states, "intensively experienced affect is what signals movement across knowledge worlds, as well as what indicates cognitive and affiliative shifts across what counts as authoritative."

I have tried in previous posts (one on course design, another on modeling counterinsurgency) to indicate a way towards understanding how to use games in historical study that seeks to broaden the analytical framework beyond that of the textual, even though the textual is essential to analyzing games.  If games offer us nothing but interpretations of history, something I don't fully believe, there is still valuable cultural significance worthy of study in the act of play that brings about said interpretations.  How are cultural narratives sustained or modified in play?  Why do some historical 'truths' stick to the public consciousness, while others are perennially ignored?  How are certain conflicts or simulations modeled, and why would designers build games to emulate these processes?  How does a players analysis of the game, its play-design mechanics, impact how they approach replays or creating modifications?  (In particular I'm thinking of 'pacifist' play in Skyrim and even the creation of a '72 Summit Series card for Twilight Struggle)  

King offers a potent conceptual metaphor for analysis of games with her use of pastpresent- a player literally links the past to the present with their act of play- in addition to providing a framework though which diverse disciplines can interact on the subject of games through her analysis of flexible knowledges.  This is a good start- but as the 'Beyond the Historical Simulation' article makes clear, there are still many who are skeptical of such ventures.

Games are highly complex cultural artifacts that situate themselves on the borders of several disciplines, embodying fully the sort of reenactment potential for flexible knowledge discussed by King above.  While it might be nice to render the gamic mode under the auspices of textual epistemologies, these can only take us so far in our understanding on the interactions of both and perhaps limit us, arbitrarily, from expanding and utilizing historic knowledge in emerging 'posthumanities' approaches the study of games demand.  We can surely do better than advocate for the gamic mode to become backwards compatible with textual monographs.


  1. I wonder about the ability of history to actually follow Bogost's stuff and try to create a scenario where the player must follow historic events because procedurally there is nothing else that could work.

    For example, Axis and Allies: Pacific has pretty successfully recreated many aspects of WW2, though, not in order. The set up and procedural stuff you are allowed to do inside the procedures they placed in the game do not allow much deviation UNLESS you plan to use those events to your advantage. Axis and Allies is unique though.

    Then again, I don't know if History generally concerns itself with the process that created historical events over what the events were that occurred or were linked?

    I fear I have been obtuse but it seems like, "actually follow procedurality" is what the conclusion should be after reading this piece.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Nick.

    There is no doubt in my mind that History, in its current epistemological configuration, cannot be fully 'meshed' with Bogost's 'procedural rhetoric', as the authors I've critiqued attempted to do. One might through procedural rhetoric found in the gamic mode come to a 'fuzzy' conclusion that affirms arguments presented by historical monographs, your A&A: Pacific being a prime example, but this would still be more of an 'impression' than actual, qualified historical argumentation.

    There is also the issue that board games often utilize completely 'open' knowledge systems, something I didn't touch upon in my response above. I find more advantages than disadvantages, in terms of pedagogical utility, with using such 'open' systems, even though the historical situations they model were certainly not developed with 'perfect knowledge'.

    A big question for History is 'How' and not necessarily 'Why'- but I also believe this allows History some measure to utilize Games in exploring the intricacies of 'how'. My main objection to efforts so far is that Historians often seek to bring the gamic mode under the domain of historic certified knowledge making, when in fact this ignores that History and Games produce knowledge in very different ways. Procedural Rhetoric is a great step towards a compromising effort between the textual and gamic, as is Katie King's work and analysis in 'Networked Reenactments'. We need more exploratory efforts such as these if we are to make measurable progress in negotiating knowledge handoffs.

  3. I approach your post as a skeptic, but also as a person curious about the appeal of recent games -- selfishly so, that is, these games' appeal to my own sensibilities. In particular, I'm thinking of recent Euro tabletop games like Settlers and Dominion and of the genre of tabletop RPG's as a whole. In the end, I worry that history and games find themselves separated -- divorced, if I may -- because of the decidedly orthogonal goals of either, whatever those goals may be. But here and there, I also find myself pondering over an exposed connection between the two, however loose it may be -- a reason, say, for why certain games are made or even popularized at certain times and certain places, or, conversely, a manner by which games help us to author communal histories of various sorts.

    With regards to the former -- the Euro games -- I've indeed been wondering about the historical aspect of their appeal. For instance, why do I still find so much pleasure in a session of Dominion, even while all of my friends have grokked the process to such an extent that they always beat me, even while I myself have basically memorized the essential cards available to play with? Likewise, why, while so many people I know game the hell out of Settlers, beating the shit out of me in it, why do I accept the game's challenges readily, and with definite curiosity about the thematic elements of the game? That is, these two games are decidedly removed from much of real history, though their descriptions of the fantasy thereof certainly leaves much to think about. For instance, the fantasy of Settlers: finding a lush, unpopulated island to settle in; or the challenge of Dominion: competing with friends over agency and influence in a randomly-assorted playing field of Medieval (and, occasionally, fantastic) economics.

    As for tabletop RPG's, I have little to say. In fact, I have more questions that I want to ask, rather than themes to ponder over. For one, what do both user-generated content and emergent gameplay have to add to your declared (but potentially broken up) marriage of games and history? More fundamentally, what does the very desire to be, or at least to play as, a (fantastical) historical or (present-values-motivated) futuristic persona say about our thoughts, our motivations, our beliefs, our instincts, etc, as they play out in a flux of historical material?

    I'm not sure what else to add right now, aside from a quick nudge that maybe we need to talk about large varieties of games and gamers and gameplay. In the end, I suspect that a lot of a game's appeal to our sensibilities and gaming desires still has a lot to do with natural human inclinations to learn quickly, to progress easily, and to abandon once learning and progress are either done or stuck -- that is, Raph Koster's assessment in his Theory of Fun. But certainly, that initial appeal of a game's pattern to be discovered, be it narrative or thematic or otherwise, very frequently invites us to some sort of historical inquiry of not only the game's constitutive textual elements, but also those of the player's sensibility and of any emergent gameplay. The challenge, however, is the task of reining in so much of this past-present historical faculty and the ever-exponentially-propagating gaming one -- at least to the point that we can talk substantively about them without sounding either like total nutjobs or like flighty academic flakes.

  4. Thanks for responding with another great comment, Ishai.

    I think you've hit on something Historians interested in games can begin to tackle- that being the idea that certain games seem to 'catch-fire' in a cultural milieu, or people play games because they tap some sort of nostalgia or idealized version of the past. So, for example, perhaps people like playing Settlers of Catan because it, in some small degree, takes the player (USA specific) back to a sort of idealized fantasy akin to colonial America or the Oregon Trail. This may be a 'loose' connection, but I think there is enough there to merit some further investigation.

    I would add that even games like Dominion, a game that is decidedly not historical, utilize fantasy elements that are directly informed by a cultures sense of folktale heritage. It would be interesting to see how games like Dominion 'translate' to, say, Russian audiences and whether or not this 'foreign' audience even registers the cultural differences. I've tried to point, in a very preliminary manner, just this sort of ideal with my look at the '72 Summit Series card created by a Canadian fan of the board game Twilight Struggle. When you look at the card in the context of gameplay, it would appear almost useless as a game artifact yet it's historical context and attempt to act as a cultural marker of Canadian Cold War history makes it more than just a simple player modification. I strongly believe mods are a great way for Historians to 'break' into serious analysis of games.

    That's why I was happy to see you bring up Tabletop RPG's- in many ways this type of game is driven by player contributions. On Play the Past, Andrew Devenney started a series of posts centering on Tabletop RPG's and History, so I highly recommend you check that out. (

    You are correct that we need to more fully elaborate our understanding of play and fun and how these concepts can be tied to historical investigations- and do so in a way that is not marginalizing (i.e. not being seen as 'nutjobs' or 'flakes') yet also inclusive and open to multidisciplinary input. I think the Platform Series, begun by Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort, does a great job of demonstrating this kind of inter-disciplinary approach to platforms. 'Codename Revolution' especially does a fantastic job of brining in the idea of the social world and play. In the end, I see so much potential ground to be explored that I naturally cringe when Historians advocate de facto extensions of their epistemologies (colonizing as it were) into gamic space.

  5. I really enjoyed this post and agree with the epistemological issues you have raised. The main issue is indeed a category error, but I think not so much between gaming and history as distinct spheres of knowledge but of the distinction itself, in meaning and justification of knowledge and the resulting domain and method categorization e.g. objective, subjective, religious, history, logic, math, science, a priori, a posteriori etc. Let me extend games as a metaphor in my attempt to clarify what I mean.

    Imagine a game truly modeled after the whole universe, of that what is. The game can be played for any purpose we want and has 3 modes of play: we can play, AI agents or both. If the game in any mode or combination is played and replayed, also as gaming function (history), for a moment or how long we wish or need. Do we than not have the same epistemological issues as with a historical text? Has the game not become an artifact just like a history book to transcend knowledge, not only of that what is and true but also of human action?

    1. Thanks for the comments, Mahdi- I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

      I have a lot to agree with in your first statement regarding the 'false' distinction between knowledge spheres. I definitely envision a 'body of knowledge' that disciplines tap and shape to their own form and it would be far more helpful to see disciplines 'bridging the (imaginary?) gap' and reaching out to work in a transdisciplinary mode.

      Your second comment immediately made me think of the introduction in Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'. Kundera says that if, say, the French Revolution were replayed over and over, instead of being a single one-time event, the actions taken would become unbearably heavy as we would recognize the folly (but also joy) our actions will bring. In a sense, this is the issue History has with using games for serious study. By playing a game, recreating a scenario over and over, you are engaging in counter-factual play (and not the recreation of a single event or series of events over and over) but the interpretations and arguments espoused by Historical texts becomes unbearably heavy to the player as they negotiate playing the game. This is definitely a literary stretch, but the push-back I see some historians registering does make me think that games represent something 'heavy' in the unbearably 'light' Historical epistemological practice.

      Your second statement also goes to the core of 'real' vs. 'simulated' being. (I'm thinking here of Baudrillard and his 'Simulacra and Simulation') I would agree with your hypothetical above, that if we had a truly perfect 'simulative' game we could play the actions produced would be able to be analyzed with little to no complaint by Historians- but then this goes back to the complaint registered in the article I critiqued above, in that through play the real becomes separated from the simulative and 'truth' becomes even more illusionary. Maybe this is the tentative fear Historians have when approaching games for serious study- unless it can be locked down within tightly defined epistemologies, the very act of play makes 'Historical' truth become 'heavy' and illusionary.