Academic journal article The Historian

Videogames as Tools for Social Science History

Academic journal article The Historian

Videogames as Tools for Social Science History

Article excerpt

"IT IS MY HOPE," wrote Adam Chapman, "that by now few deny that contemporary game series like Civilization or Assassin's Creed constitute history." (1) His assessment is a statement to the enthusiastic reception videogames have received among historians in recent times. Almost fifteen years after the formal establishment of game studies as a scholarly field, the medium has been regarded as a focal point for changes in contemporary historical writing and imagination. (2) Enthusiasts of both experimental historiography and popular history have shown a common desire to transcend the limits of the traditional monograph, to channel the participatory potential of the gaming genre to foster an active public, and to make use of the yet untapped expressive possibilities of the medium. Yet, albeit few may deny games the status of "history," precisely what kind of historiography they constitute is still a matter of contention. Videogames' capacity to address epistemological concerns and their relationship with traditional scholarship seem to be the questions in which the starkest differences arise. In this paper, I intend to present a review of this discussion, starting with a presentation of the institutional and philosophical challenges to traditional historiography that have inspired game scholars. I will then proceed to a practical definition of "scholarly games," and to an overview of previous attempts to conceive of, and utilize, videogames for scholarly purposes. Subsequently, I will address some limitations of the medium that have not been adequately addressed by existing scholarship, and provide a benchmark for how it can be better appropriated to suit the needs of historians.

In the field of game studies, some authors have commented on videogames' potential to live up to academic standards, becoming themselves a mode of scholarship. Dawn Spring has praised games' capacity--unique, according to her, among popular culture media--to adhere to scholarly standards, and has called attention to the similarities between the process of history writing and research and those of game design. (3) In parallel lines, Clyde et al. have advocated for a "gamic mode of history," a novel kind of historiography that presents its arguments as scholarly videogames, making use of the versatility of the software to overcome the limitations of the textual form. (4) Other authors, however, have taken issue with historians' adherence to traditional standards. Criticizing Clyde et al.'s idea of gamic mode, which he calls a "reactionary stance" to bind gaming within textual history's epistemological boundaries, Jeremy Antley argues for an "interoperability" between history and games, and states that the authors' concerns with the specificities of scholarly discourse stems from their fears, as professional historians, of being displaced as "certified authorities." (5) Contrary to Clyde et al., Antley does not take the participative nature of games as a threat to empirical and analytical rigor, but as its greatest asset: the opportunity to factor in the input of active "prosumers" (producers plus consumers) as opposed to the passive acquiescence of textual history readers. In similar lines, Thomas Apperley advocates a conception of history not as the search for truth, but as a collective, interpretive discipline, in which competing discourses can and should coexist. (6) This enthusiasm mirrors (if it is not a direct consequence of) the exponential growth in popularity of gaming and the concomitant urge by game-studies and public-history scholars to welcome new audiences. It is the new common sense, or so it seems, that the greatest strength of games and other popular culture media are the multiplicity of voices they attract. Thus, Uricchio cites the "roughly parallel development" of user empowerment and challenges to historians' authority. (7) Likewise, Jerome de Groot talks about consumers' sense of enfranchisement against institutional gatekeepers. …

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