Choosing Your Own History: Scholars as Game Designers

AHA Session 191
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Beekman Parlor (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Pennee Bender, City University of New York, Graduate Center
Karl Jacoby, Columbia University

Session Abstract

Of all academic disciplines, History may be least-suited to serve as the basis for a game. Games, by definition, require player input and meaningful choices. But how can choices be made meaningful when the answers—the history—of those choices are already known? Moreover, how can historians rigorously engage with a narrative and interpretive framework that often reduces the thorny concept of contingency into a set of stark and unequivocal options? But, now that we find ourselves in the second decade of the twenty-first century, historians can no longer hold at arm’s length one of the most ubiquitous forms of media—especially one that is fast outpacing television and film as the format through which people “experience” the past. Indeed, in the last few years some historical scholars have played formative roles in developing significant game projects on historical themes and subjects. And, as the presentations in this formal session will discuss, in the course of working on history game projects these scholar-developers have discovered that they entered a two-way process in which their tasks of undertaking traditional historical research to inform the content and game-play design to imagine the past as a series of choices resulted in unforeseen changes in how they now think, write, and teach about the past.

Such a process is not without its hazards, and in this session three scholars who have worked on history games will discuss the opportunities and issues they confronted in a new, still-inchoate field of narrative and inquiry. Leah Potter, who has worked as historian and co-developer on three episodes of Mission US, a series of adventure games in which students play fictional young people swept up in pivotal moments in U.S. history, will discuss how the practice of developing games, and reanimating the past as a series of problems, choices, and consequences faced by ordinary men and women, enhances the larger practice of doing social history. Carlos Hernandez, lead writer of Meriwether, a forthcoming computer roleplaying game on Lewis and Clark, will consider the challenges of reconciling accurate documentation and envisioning of the story with a game format that entails branching narratives and numerous story arcs to allow players to create alternate histories of the Expedition. Mark Carnes, who created Reacting to the Past, a series of role-playing games informed by classic texts, will reflect on the intellectual effect and efficacy of role-playing pedagogies and their application to such immersive games that utilize the engagement of mimesis to interrogate the past.

The games that will be discussed all touch on aspects of American Indian history and engage players in a process of perspective-taking that is reminiscent of the structure and method of session commentator Karl Jacoby’s scholarship. He will be particularly attuned to the content, narrative, and analytical issues raised by the three presentations and will be able to provide critical insight into the game approach to doing history.

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