I choose to write a short essay for this challenge. It can be downloaded as a word document here for easy viewing.
In response to the final challenge I have chosen to write a short essay detailing my own thought on what makes good digital history. I argue good digital history is the product of three factors. First, good history must be the basis of the any digital history production. Second, through knowledge of the digital platform’s features and mechanics allowing for the delivery of historical argumentation. Finally, “good history” must be seamlessly integration into the digital platform exploiting the alternative channels for argumentation provided by the platform.
The fundamental component constituting the “good” in these productions is the historiography behind the injected history. It is from these theoretical outlooks that we can gage whether the history being presented is good to begin with. For example, the classical if outdated outlook of Ranke would place little value on the experiments in contingency presented in games such as Crusader Kings 2 or Europe Universalis 4. From the perspective of Ranke, a “good” digital history would differ little from a narrative driven essay about how things were; games’ fundamental value of player agency would have to be sacrificed to tell some “good” history. I would recommend the Mountain for anyone seeking a game where the player has no agency. Alternatively, one could approach the historical lesson from the perspective of the Annales School; here arguments could be made about long term social development and the impact of geography. Such an argument could effectively be made through a strategy game in which the long term evolution of societies is explored.
To summarize, historiography determines whether the history in a digital project is good; this determination is subjective. The historical lessons must be grounded in some underlying framework by which evidence is collected, interpreted, and presented. One would struggle to find a good digital history which is not rooted in some epistemological tradition. For a modern example, Assassin’s Creed Unity could not be described as a “good” reinterpretation of French Revolution; no evidence is presented to support this counter narrative and no one would claim it to be history. However, a social historian could praise the game for presenting historically accurate accounts of the Third Estate experience of the revolution based on the art design and representation of the common class consistent with historical evidence. Memory focused historians could further view the game as an artifact or representation of modern awareness of the French Revolution. From this perspective, the game’s central player mechanics, press X to kill everything in a cool way, could be viewed as a modern memory shift glorifying violence ignoring the more problematic historical lessons of the Revolution about violence.
Good digital history requires historiography to guide platform selection. Different platforms offer different advantages in terms of available features and mechanics. As mentioned earlier, knowledge of available platform’s strength and having the ability to use them allows for effective history to be presented digitally. For example, look at the twine venue which has been revisited weekly in this class. As a platform, twine allows for the creation of complex narrative structures with give the player agency in determining their path. From the perspective of a historian, exploring alternative viewpoint narratives, contingency, and causation fit this platform best. Everything from a history of high politics to social history could be playfully presented on this platform. For example, World War 1 could be explored within Twine by placing the player in charge of a major power in the later 19th century; players could then be prompt to make various decisions exploring the “powder-keg” explanation for the war. Alternatively, a project such as the Medic game explored in class could be created to explore individual experiences of war.
Good digital history must exploit the various advantages of their chosen platform. Beyond Twine, there is a variety of options available to historian wishing to go digital with their history. Games are only one option. Critical analysis of different platforms, as conducted in week 4, can reveal the advantages of various platforms. Take for example the recently released game Never Alone. This side-scrolling, cartoonish, puzzle game is used to explore the Alaskan Native cultural lore. The social and oral history underlying this game is visually represented and developed further as part of the games narrative. The artistic presentation and the narrative development of the platform visually engage the player in a representation of Alaskan Native cultural. Mechanically, the game primary antagonist is the environment; a deeper understanding of the environment role in playing the culture should develop in an engaged player.
While Never Alone exploits the strength of a side-scrolling, cartoonish, puzzle game to present social history, many other gaming platforms are available. Whether navigating a text adventure or developing a civilization in a strategy game, gaming platforms have a multitude of teaching device, from representation to mechanics. Good digital history recognizes these strengths and exploits them. Games are of course not the only digital option. If player agency is not applicable to the desired lesson or experience, the digital realm offers a variety of option ranging from visual, audio-visual, audio, and non-interactive digital text. Many of these digital options compare to traditional education tools such as lectures or texts. Take for example the successful Crash Course series on Youtube which has provided a free historical education in American and World History. These digitized traditional lectures take advantage of the Youtube platform by being visually interesting prompting engagement while also democratizing historical understanding by being free and available to anyone with an internet contention.
With both game and non-game historical platforms, good digital history requires historians have some level of competence in the digital platform being utilized. A central lesson to this class has been the general developing of this competency within our utilized platforms. Whether it is the trials and tribulation of <> or uploading a map to a Minecraft server, some level of platform competency is needed. For a Twine based game the tools are very easy to learn, but can have a major impact of the effectiveness of a narratives presentation. One could build a history game on a platform equivalent of Assassin’s Creed, but the level of competency needed would be extremely high. As discussed in this class, platforms can often be borrowed through modding to tell compelling history; modding skills however are needed. Indie development is an area which historian could more readily emulate to present history.
Seamless integration of history and platform requires the historian to not lose the message in the process of digitization. For non-game digital projects the creator must ensure the purpose of the project is presented clearly or instructions as to how to engage the content are provided. The virtual Paul’s Cross Project is a strong example of a digital history project explaining their purpose and guiding the subject through the experience. For digital projects in the form of game, historian must be aware of their message being lost in the process of making the game. For example, if the creators of Never Alone were designing the game with the intention of having the player deeply engage the Alaskan Native social history, one could critique their game for leaving most of the historical content as external links to sources outside the game. A similar critique could be level against games which hide history as side-quest non-essentially to completing the game. The message can be lost if the history is marginalized by the game; the game Nothing to Hide is a strong example the message or argument being clear and not overshadowed by the game.
Seamless integration of the “good history” within suitable digital platforms is the final component of good digital history. This requires the history and underlying historiography be considered when selecting the platform. As detailed earlier, different platform structures provide different channels for argumentation. Good digital history requires historiography to guide platform selection. This process begins with good history as subjectively defined the historian. Knowledge of available digital platforms and competency are needed. Historians must then match history to platform and develop their project.