It is still (just barely) Ada Lovelace Day, a day of blogging to celebrate women in science and technology. If you read this site, I presume I do not need to explain who Augusta Ada King, née Byron, Countess of Lovelace was, or why so many find her awesome. My subject instead is Ada’s mentor, Mary Somerville.
I am going to poach most of this post from Jay Clayton’s book, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. My apologies for the blatant steal. Clayton’s book is excellent, and you should read it if you are interested in Charles Dickens, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, steampunk, neo-Victorianism, The Difference Engine, Cryptonomicon, Richard Powers, postmodernism, consilience, the nineteenth century, the difference between the odd and the queer, or geekdom as a bridge between C.P. Snow’s two cultures. As I am interested in all of those things, I will post about the book again, I’m sure.
Back to Mary Somerville. Clayton writes:
Mary Somerville was once the First Lady of science. From her arrival in London in 1815 to her departure for the continent in 1838, where she spent the last thirty-four years of her life in obscurity, she blossomed into the most eminent female mathematician and astronomer in the world. Respected as an equal by English and French savants, she moved at the center of a London social world that included renowned poets, artists, scientists, and aristocrats. The woman who sat with the Pope on a sofa in the Vatican, attended the coronations of both George IV and Queen Victoria, stayed with General Lafayette in Paris, talked poetry with Ugo Foscolo and opera with Rossini, knew both James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, was intimate friends with Maria Edgeworth and Joanna Baillie, visited the studio of Turner, had her paintings praised by Hugh Blair and her feminism by John Stuart Mill, had an island named for her by the explorer Parry, was feted for a full week at Trinity College, Cambridge, by the entire science faculty, was the friend and colleague of Herschel, Babbage, and Faraday, introduced Charles Lyell to his future wife, and was the mentor of Ada Lovelace–this modest, shy, deeply generous person could say what few other women of the century could, that for nearly twenty years she was more illustrious for her scientific achievements than for her social position.
Somerville’s masterwork was On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, published in 1834. It is often described, unfairly, as “popular science.” Somerville did write clearly and fluidly, and she was interested in broadening the appeal of science, particularly to women, but it is not really accurate to distinguish professional and popular science in the undisciplined intellectual culture of the early nineteenth century. Somerville’s work belongs instead, Clayton argues, to a genre Richard Yeo called “metascientific commentary.” Somerville played a key role in defining and categorizing the physical sciences of the time, and she helped to forge a consensus that the physical sciences–astronomy, meteorology, optics, heat, sound, mineralogy, electricity, magnetism–were, at some level, one.
Somerville was also “a passionate reformer,” Clayton writes, “from her girlhood boycott of sugar to protest slavery in the West Indies to her advanced positions opposing religious bigotry and favoring animal rights.” (This is something we cannot say of Ada Lovelace. Irresistible as it always is to reimagine Ada as the ass-kicking steampunk poster girl, Angelina Jolie in corset and goggles, she was no crusader, nor a feminist in any modern sense of the term.) Somerville was also part of an intellectual circle called “the Analyticals,” Charles Babbage among them, who fought to reform and professionalize English science. It was in an admiring review of Somerville’s Connexion that William Whewell, patron saint of consilience, coined the new word “scientist” to describe this breed of professional experimenters.
But the very professionalization of science which Somerville helped inspire ultimately strengthened and formalized barriers to her participation. As professional, institutionally-supported science spread, Somerville’s achievements were retroactively defined as works of popularization rather than original interventions into scientific culture. The professional organizations that she helped to promote almost never admitted women. When the British Association for the Advancement of Science was formed in the 1830s, Somerville’s many admirers in the association repeatedly invited her to attend its public lectures and evening parties, but not its working meetings. She declined their invitations so delicately that her male friends could believe she agreed that women ought to be barred from real scientific work. ”The pattern of her entire life suggests otherwise,” Clayton writes. “No one in England was more eager to hear and discuss the latest scientific intelligence than Mary Somerville.”
Somerville left England in 1838 and lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity, though her works remained in print through multiple revised and even posthumous editions. The last pages of her memoir describe the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 1872, which she watched from her home in Naples at the age of 92, a keen-eyed scientific observer to the end. The only regrets she records are the knowledge that she would not live to see the full extirpation of slavery or the continued march of scientific progress. “Though far advanced in years,” Somerville wrote, “I take as lively an interest as ever in passing events. I regret that I shall not live to know the result of the expedition to determine the currents of the ocean, the distance of the earth from the sun determined by the transits of Venus, and the source of the most renowned of rivers.”
Ada Lovelace is cool, don’t get me wrong. But it has become difficult to see her clearly through the steam and the punks and the hey hey hey. She comes presoaked in alternate history and wishful thinking. Mary Somerville’s story is not quite as sui generis as Lovelace’s, but it should be no less important or impressive.
We need “a conception of history that registers the untimely,” Clayton writes. “Ways of responding to lost threads of the past, to forkings in history that seemed to have vanished with little trace, are crucial to the historical enterprise.” Off-centered, “untimely” figures like Somerville and Lovelace and Babbage, he says, hold the promise of prompting us “to think again about how the past and present interact. It is … a promise that Mary Somerville’s story redeems.”[Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]
One of the challenges in designing games or activities for education is the interface between a game’s subject and its mechanics. Picture if you will the classic computer game John Kerry Tax Invaders, released by the GOP during the 2004 election. The gameplay is identical to Space Invaders, but instead of a ship you control George Bush’s head, which shoots lasers at blocks inscribed with tax increases. The subject of this game was, I intuit, John Kerry’s perfidious plan to raise taxes. (If you play the game in 2010, I guess it represents an alternate history.) But the game play, the mechanics, is just moving from side to side and shooting descending blocks.
Jesper Juul calls the two layers of a game the rules and the fiction. The indie RPG community uses system and color in similar ways. Ian Bogost writes about procedures and contexts.* There are a hundred things to say about how these layers interact, but one of the most basic is this: When you begin to play a game, what you encounter first is its superficial subject matter–the fiction, the color. But the more you play, the more you interact with the mechanics beneath the surface. Ultimately, games become about whatever their mechanics or procedures are about.
(* I think Bogost, who is extremely smart and useful on these subjects, would actually argue that the two layers are much more interdependent than I’ve made them out to be here.)
Designing educational mechanics or procedures is a lot harder than shoehorning desired material into a game. It is almost never enough to slap an educational skin on an existing game or rule set, easy and tempting as that may be. Because the more you play, the more you play through the surface content of a game. If a game is going to teach anything long lasting, its lessons have to be embedded in its very mechanics and procedures, the stuff players manipulate and the actions they perform.
This is my critique of Civilization and similar games, much as I love them, as history-teaching tools. The more you play, the less you think about history, as you learn to interact directly with the game’s algorithms. (One solution to this is to have students design their own mods or simulations, so they can be the ones debating the procedural logics of history.)
The board game Monopoly was once a political critique of landlords and capitalists, designed by a Quaker woman named Lizzie Magie to illustrate the ideas of Henry George. But the game’s procedures contain no real critique of capitalism, and when the original context is forgotten, it is the procedures that remain.
Several tabletop roleplaying games in the 1990s tried to get away from the combat-heavy kill-all-monsters gameplay of their 1970s and 80s forebears. “This game is not just about combat,” their boosters promised. “You can use it to play out epic stories of intrigue, tragedy, and romance.” But the two hundred pages of rules they provided for simulating combat said otherwise. And even though tabletop gamers have a grand tradition of hacking, tweaking, and ignoring the rules, those two-hundred-page combat systems exerted a powerful gravitational pull.
Urgent Evoke is the massive multiplayer “save the world” game from the World Bank Institute and “too cool to be real she must be the escaped protagonist of a William Gibson novel” game designer Jane McGonigal. I signed up to play last week in a fit of enthusiasm about serious games and denial about time management. At one level, Evoke is about fostering social and entrepreneurial innovation in and for the developing world, and it is awesome and inspiring and energizing. But at the procedural, mechanical level, Evoke is also a Frankenstein’s mashup of Twitter, Facebook, and the whole social networking popularity contest that’s invaded every other corner of our lives. Play is, or at it least it felt this way to me, a frantic scramble for eyeballs. I feel old and codgery, but I had to quit after 48 hours.
The things I’m saying here have been around for some time, but “History Invaders” games (Scot Osterweil calls them “Grand Theft Calculus” games) keep coming down the pike. If public historians and history educators want to be serious about teaching with games and play, we have to inject ourselves deep into the game development process. We have to articulate what we think history and historical thinking are good for in the first place. And then we have to build outwards from the kinds of historical thinking we want to inculcate, creating games and activities whose fiddly bits are historical sources, whose moving parts are historical ideas themselves.[Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]
I do know that “who would win, a viking or a samurai?” is an inane question. Any time I’ve actually used counterfactuals in my teaching, I’ve tried to raise subtler issues. That said, “who would win”’s very inanity makes it an easy, grabby, natural conversation starter. I’ve had several conversations since Wednesday about vikings and samurai–more, certainly, than I’ve had about Tuesday’s post on history and narrative. I’ve even been pointed to a hilarious TV show called Deadliest Warrior, which devoted an entire episode to the great viking vs. samurai debate! And the wide range of people with whom I’ve had these conversations–from a 3-year-old to a professor of Asian history–suggests to me that even silly questions can scale to accommodate multiple levels of historical knowledge.
One thing I don’t love about the “who would win” question is the way it tilts the playing field towards military history and the history of technology–worthy subjects, but hardly the only histories worth talking about. It seems like alternate history almost always ends up using the old school, Boy’s Own flavors of history–military, political, technological. I talked about this in the coda to Gernsblack, which was a stab at alternate cultural history (with a crazy technological deus ex machina, I admit). This is going to sound like total name dropping–insufferable to people who know who she is, pointless and nerdy to people who don’t–but I had a great conversation once with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich about whether you could write alternate social history, alternate gender history, alternate material culture history, and so on. I think I almost had her sold on the idea, but I also think she is very good at humoring people.
So here’s another demonstration question, not much more complicated than “who would win?”
When and where would you rather have lived: 18th-century France, 15th-century China, 8th-century Ghana, or 1st-century Rome? What would your life there have been like?
Obviously you can swap in other times and places if you like. As with “who would win,” the question is deceptively deep. As soon as you start discussing it, you’re talking about social history, material culture, and the history of everyday life. One of the first things anyone considering this had better ask is, “What would I be? Can I be born a noble or a queen, or do I have to be some kind of peasant or slave?” And whatever the answer, now you’re talking about class and hierarchy. You’re also thinking comparatively. Whose lot was tougher: the poorest tenth of the world’s population before the industrial revolution or the poorest tenth today?
For a follow-up question you could ask: “if we asked the same question to somebody living in 18th-century France, 15th-century China, etc., what do you think they would answer?” Many of us living in the 21st century would probably choose on the basis of material comfort, and so find most earlier eras wanting. But would that be a universal choice across time? What other criteria might other times and cultures use? Are we certain that the sum total of human happiness has never been higher than it is in 2010?
This question’s grabbiness comes from the second-person pronoun–it’s not “which is better,” it’s “would you rather”–which pulls you in to imagine yourself in history. This is a staple of history at play. Think of reenactors, roleplayers, historical romance readers. It’s also almost totally illegitimate in serious history, much more so than counterfactuals. Niall Ferguson can edit a collection of alternate histories and it merely burnishes his hunky teledon credentials. But don’t hold your breath for the anthology about, say, Patricia Limerick at the Alamo or Tony Grafton’s fantasy life as a Renaissance magus. I’m not saying I really want to read that anthology, but I have no problem with leveraging the roleplay instinct for history teaching and fun.
If you’re getting the idea that what I mean by “playful” historical thinking is known by many as “bad” historical thinking, go to the head of the class.[Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]
Which is why I could use your input.
So I know that many of you are familiar with that thing that happens, that pattern recognition / apophenia / confirmation bias thing, when you're doing playful historical research, especially for an RPG you're playing or running or planning to run. You start flipping through books, and Google and Wikipedia, concocting some deranged historical theory, and then suddenly you start finding facts and evidence that are too perfect, that seem to confirm the very goofball theory you just yourself made up! princeofcairo has written a bunch of "how to" columns on the subject, Umberto Eco built a whole novel around it, and mgrasso seems to have it happen about once every three days.
What I'm trying to do is to concoct some kind of game, activity, or demonstration exercise for a group of, say, 6-12 academics that would in the space of 30 minutes or so let them have this experience themselves. Basically I want to turn sober professional historians into paranoid conspiracy theorists. Temporarily.
I thought about giving them a bunch of interesting and allusive historical sources and asking the group to come up with a theory connecting all of them, but I worry that if I choose the sources in advance it will seem like I'm stacking the deck, and they won't get that uncanny "nobody planned this and yet clearly somebody planned this" feeling. At the other extreme, I thought about hitting the Random Page link on Wikipedia a few times and asking them to connect all the things that come up--but the random pages on Wikipedia can be extremely random and farflung and it's quite possible they could not be connected. I also wonder if it would help to frame the exercise inside a mini-roleplaying game, but that's a level of artificiality that my audience just might not go for. Maybe I should just run a session of InSpectres?
Anyway, that's my current conundrum. And I know your playful historical kung fu is extremely advanced. Any ideas, suggestions, warnings, conjectures?
Let’s try a demonstration, before this series on history at play gets any more high-falutin’ and theoretical than it already is.
Here is an exercise in playful historical thinking, based on years of professional training and SSHRC-funded research. You can do it yourself, right now, although like most forms of play it will be more fun and rewarding if you involve a friend or two. Ready?
Here we have a viking and a samurai. Let’s say they had a fight. Who would win? Why?
And here’s the multiplayer version: Find someone who disagrees with you. Try to convince them, while they try to convince you. Find evidence that supports your answer.
Impressive, no? Your tax dollars at work, Canadians.
But seriously, that right there is one of the basic building blocks of playful historical thinking.
Take a counterfactual question–as far as I know, vikings never fought samurai–and have at it. You can enter this debate with any level of starting knowledge, arguing solely from the evidence in the pictures (that samurai looks pretty fierce, but the viking has his buddies with him). Yet there is no bottom to the amount of evidence you could gather or the complexity of the arguments you could marshal on either side. You could talk about military tactics or metalworking technology. You could research the agricultural potential of Scandinavia or the codification of Bushido. You could spin out a whole saga in which a Nihonese armada devastates the Vinlander entrepots at “Perleshavn” and vengeful Norsemen go a-viking into the Inland Sea.
Here’s another version of the counterfactual game, with some anachronism thrown in for good measure:
You are a Justice on the United States Supreme Court. Cases come before you involving matters that the framers of the Constitution did not and could not have foreseen. Make decisions on these cases based on your interpretation of what the framers, and later legislators, would have wanted. Explain your reasoning.
Notice that the question “what would happen” is often a more open, engaging conversation starter than “what did happen” or even “why did this happen.” The practice, so natural to historians, of arguing about what really did happen can seem foreign or nonsensical to students and other non-professionals. It takes considerable training and acculturation to learn how historians argue about the actual past, or why anyone would want to do so.
The standard objections to counterfactual history don’t faze me much. I’m not arguing for professional monographs on alternate history, I’m just saying that counterfactual thinking is a potentially fruitful kind of historical play that people already enjoy and engage in all the time. (Some arguments for counterfactual history don’t impress me much either, but that’s a different post.) It is not true that there is no way to judge or scrutinize counterfactual arguments. A teacher posing a counterfactual question to a class of students can still demand that they produce real-life evidence for their arguments, make analogies to actual history, and offer logical warrants for their claims. Plus we all have a highly developed sense of what is “realistic” or “plausible,” even when discussing outright fiction (cf the vigor with which fans critique the “realism” of Star Trek or what have you). The fact that we might disagree on what is “realistic,” or that real history itself is “implausible” at times, only ensures that we will have lots to talk about.[Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]
So, playful historical thinking. Where to start? I’m not really sure, but let’s get this out of the way:
“History is not the past,” writes Greg Dening, “It is the past transformed into something else: story.”
You can dress that up in narrative theory, making it an epistemological principle about how we experience the world. You can boil it down to an acronym and write an airport book for business travelers. You can rail against it as a pathology of the human mind. But I don’t think you can deny it. Histories are narratives. We make sense of the present by telling stories about the past.
Don’t want to go that far? How about this: Stories are memorable. To quote that airport book, which is really not bad: “Stories stick.” Our attention spans are woefully finite. There are more philosophies in heaven and earth than there are human brains to dream them. So our memes and ideas and beliefs are locked in a battle to survive and be passed on. In this Darwinian–or is Dawkinsian?–struggle, stories win. And histories that make good stories–those that have compelling characters, satisfying plots, cathartic lessons–have a powerful memetic advantage over those that don’t.
Hayden White says that our grounds for choosing one version of history over another are almost always aesthetic. Romance celebrates the triumph of the good after trials and tribulations. Satire delights in chance and folly. Tragedy laments the costs when irreconcilable values collide.
This seems to me a dirty secret of the so-called “history wars” over school curricula, museum displays, and other forms of public memory. We treat these like political battles–conservatives want this style of history, liberals want this one–but ultimately our attraction to one narrative or another derives from aesthetic grounds as much as anything else. We like that story. It feels right. It does something for us.
Old-fashioned master narratives about How We Got to Be So Awesome–what Peter Seixas calls “The Best Possible Story” approach to national history–are persistent to the extent that they offer satisfying stories, that they are dramatic, retellable, or memorable in some way. Deconstruct them all you want in the graduate seminar room, they still take root and replicate in elementary school textbooks, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, and on the History Channel. And critical counternarratives make their own aesthetic appeals too. Isn’t “agency,” the magic word of the new social history, at bottom an aesthetic or even a literary criterion? Agency means we want the protagonists of our stories to be protagonists, agents of their own destiny.
Among indie roleplaying game theorists (a thrice-marginal community: we play pen-and-paper roleplaying games (like Dungeons & Dragons), but favor small-press “indie” games (ie, not Dungeons & Dragons) and then, weirdest of all, we like to talk and think theoretically about how they work) there has been much talk of “deprotagonization,” which is what you call it when a game’s rules, referee, or other players prevent you from feeling like the protagonist of your own story. I’m struck by how closely descriptions of deprotagonization in gaming–nobody can quite pin down what it is, but everybody knows it’s bad–mirror discussions of agency in history.
But all of the above presumes a world of linear historical texts, like textbooks and movies and monographs. Do the same rules apply to historical games and play? I would say yes, in that aesthetic considerations are just as inescapable in the world of play. But the nature of those considerations may be different. In the world of historical texts, good stories win. What wins in the world of history games and play?
Fun. The history that is fun will win the day. If it’s also true, or useful, or responsible, great. If it’s false, frivolous, or irresponsible, that may be a problem. But for good or ill, fun is very hard to beat.
(Did I just use 600 words to say “play should be fun”? God, I despise myself sometimes. This is the problem with writing about these things in an academic register. I’m off to go play for real with my daughter…)[Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]
Though I am on parental leave this semester, I will try to wipe off the baby drool and other effluents for long enough to attend what I expect to be two very keen events: Great Lakes THATCamp, coming up this month, is a regional edition of the Humanities and Technology Camps launched by those magical Oompa Loompas at the Center for History and New Media. And then in April I will take whatever clever ideas I gather at THATCamp and try to pass them off as my own at Kevin Kee’s conference on Playing With Technology in History.
These user-generated “unconferences” work best when people use their blogs etc. to share some thoughts ahead of time. So here to start is the abstract I wrote for the latter conference with Tim Compeau, project manager for our SSHRC-funded research on “History At Play”:
Rob MacDougall and Timothy Compeau, “Playful Historical Thinking: ARGs and Pervasive History Play”
“Pervasive games,” also known as “alternate reality” or “augmented reality games” (ARGs), move play away from the computer screen and back to the physical world by overlaying game narratives and challenges onto encounters with real world people, places, and things. While the first such games were designed as promotions for commercial media such as computer games and films, designers and players were immediately intrigued by the genre’s potential for education and addressing real world problems. This paper reports on the authors’ SSHRC-funded effort to develop an ARG or pervasive game for history education—a game that uses history as its content, historical methods as its procedures, and museums, archives, and heritage sites as its playing spaces. We believe this emerging genre has great potential for teaching historical thinking and engaging popular audiences with history in the material world. But it remains to be seen if ARGs in their current form are scalable in terms of effort, impact, and cost. Ultimately, our experience may point away from highly-designed games as such and towards a kind of “playful historical thinking” as the way to foster more useful and lasting engagement with the pervasive presence of the past.
ARGs or pervasive games are interesting and fun–I’ve just signed up (*) for Jane McGonigal’s latest, the World Bank-funded “save the world” game EVOKE–but the thing I’d really like to talk about at both conferences is what I bring up in the last line of that abstract: “playful historical thinking.”Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]
The Kcymaerxthaere is a vast alternate universe created by Eames Demetrios, a California-based artist and filmmaker who began installing the plaques in 2003. The premise of the project is that the Kcymaerxthaere exists as its own parallel world, but its remnants are often visible in our own, “linear” world—intersections that Demetrios endeavors to commemorate by physically marking their presence.He has already installed over sixty of these faux historical markers, and hopes to increase that number to seventy by the year’s end. Most are in the United States (that is, Kymaerica), while others dot the globe, materializing in Singapore, Spain, Dubai, and Australia. This August, Demetrios even lowered a plaque onto the ocean floor, under forty-five feet of water in the Garvellach Islands of Scotland. In addition to the plaques, there are lectures, websites, travel guides (including Discover Kymaerica), and bus tours. … Demetrios calls the project “three-dimensional storytelling,” and says that he hopes to mark some two thousand sites before he is through.Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]
Jeremy Kalgreen’s Science! t-shirts are, obviously, awesome. It’s a sign of how much I’ve changed since the 1990s that I have not already ordered a closet of them. If another sign were needed, that is, besides kids, minivan, hair in places where there was no hair before… The key is the Magnus Pyke exclamation mark. Science (no exclamation mark) is a painstaking process consisting mainly of grant applications, faculty meetings, and washing out test tubes. But Science! is giant guitar-shredding robots, cloned T-rex burgers, and tri-breasted alien honeys. You see the difference?
I want a line of History! t-shirts.Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]
John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada is a beautiful book, and it makes an appealing argument which I would really like to be true. Canada, Saul argues, is not a British nation or a French nation but a Métis nation, profoundly if unconsciously shaped by Aboriginal ideas. Almost everything that is distinctive or admirable about Canadian society–modesty, pragmatism, respect for diversity, negotiation and compromise, a comfort with constant tension between individuals and groups–comes, he says, from Aboriginal roots.
Some raised their eyebrows at this argument. Some did considerably more than that. Not long after A Fair Country came out, I was at a fancy sort of dinner where I mentioned the book to a gravelly-voiced veteran reporter from one of Canada’s major newspapers. He was totally excellent–gruff, profane, and hilarious, my Platonic ideal of a gravelly-voiced veteran reporter. I said, “I don’t know that Saul proves his thesis, but it’s a really appealing argument.” He said, “If you can find six other Canadians that believe it, I’ll [eat my hat].” Except he didn’t say “eat”, “my”, or “hat”, and I did a laughing spit take that sprayed daikon sprouts and golden beet soup all over the assembled dignitaries.Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]