Reading Responses 9/27

What does it mean to write history in the digital medium? How can and should historians go about publishing their work digitally?

The readings this week look at these questions from two different angles: the creation of digital “journal articles,” and the workings of Wikipedia.

In terms of the first is Thomas’ terribly titled (because it so plainly demonstrates the humanist need to have a colon in their title) “Writing a Digital History Journal Article from Scratch: An Account,” and the guidelines for the AHR prize for best digital article. These writings both drive at the same question: how can one use the digital to ask a novel question? From the AHR guidelines:

“The AHR also seeks to promote scholarship that leverages digital tools and modalities to ask new questions about the past, and to enable new interpretations of the past, rather than merely adorning a presentation with multimedia features or materials.”

This is certainly a provocative challenge, but interestingly Thomas’ article hints at a further difficulty: given how ingrained the standard modes of historical inquiry are, could a professional readership realize that a different kind of question was being asked at all? Several times Thomas noted that readers had difficulty tracing an argument in his work, and he concluded by noting that “Until more digital scholarship is created, we will have few conventions or answers about ‘reading’ in the digital medium. Clearly, we will need to evolve the digital environment as we inhabit it.” While the best forms of digital history aspire to ask new questions, the audience must be able to find and understand these questions as well. Of course the only way to do this is to produce more and novel works of digital historical scholarship, and I was surprised to find a lack of discussion of design research this week: that is, the practice of designing and making something as an act of research. This is a common method in game studies, and I wonder to what extent it has been applied in history.

On the other hand were the pieces addressing Wikipedia. I particularly enjoyed Rosenzweig’s “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” even though I found myself anticipating many of his points. At first I was intrigued by his observation that because parts of Wikipedia can be downloaded and subjected to computation. In other words, one could search for instances of words or phrases, or look for places where these occur in the same article, and so on. This seems to be a means of fulfilling the AHR’s requirement of asking a novel question. Having access to the enormity of Wikipedia and being able to sort that data certainly has promise.

Indeed, Rosenzweig’s article could itself be claimed to be asking such a novel question, in that he is relying heavily on the fact that Wikipedia tracks the changes made to articles, the fact that users log-in with unique identifiers, and so on. While he focused largely on the fact that Wikipedia users are obsessed with facts (I was reminded of Umberto Eco’s claim that we make lists because we don’t want to die), I think the more useful conclusion to draw is that Wikipedia often tells us as much about who is editing it than anything else. Jon Udell’s video of the evolution of the “Heavy Metal Umlaut” Wikipedia article was a nice demonstration of this: the inordinate amount of detail paid to the brief note on Spinal Tap shows that film’s importance to the people editing the article. It is entirely possible that there are other instances of placing an umlaut over an unlikely letter in other cultural artifacts (Western or otherwise), but the editors were unaware of them.

I also wanted to express my ambivalence about the extent to which Udell’s work could be considered scholarly. It is certainly an invaluable piece of data, but I find myself echoing the critic of Thomas who asked, “where is the argument?” In this instance in seems the digital has created a new source more than a new work of scholarship.

Townsend’s brief article on the adoption of technology by historians was somewhat interesting but not entirely surprising; the breakdown was not unexpected. I did empathize with the subjects who pointed to the learning curve of new technology as a deterrent. I am pretty technologically savvy, and for me the time cost of learning a new tool is rarely worth the benefits of the tool. I quickly gave up on Zotero, but I quickly fell in love with Scrivener, a word processor that in some ways has far fewer features than Microsoft Word, but has powerful metadata tools that make notetaking and brainstorming much easier.

Lastly I wanted to mention O’Malley’s post on history and video games. I agreed with much of what he had to say, but I wanted to note that a lot of the questions he raises are why I am taking this class. He claims that video games “mistake imitating for being,” which is a fair point, but investigating how imitating happens is an important line of research. What does it mean for a game to be historical? My theory is that part of the answer lies in how the game represents history.

I also want to address his criticism of Call of Duty. He writes:

“I’m the first to agree that this isn’t really his­tory. It’s just a bunch of fan­tasy, and no amount of “accu­racy” in recre­at­ing, say, uni­form details or weapons tra­jec­tory would make it his­tory. Nobody makes a video game about the quar­ter­mas­ter divi­sion, but armies win and lose on logis­tics and sup­ply, and pol­i­tics and diplo­macy, and the work peo­ple do on the home­front. So I’d declare Call of Duty bad his­tory, incom­plete, or his­tory poorly taught.”

From a game design standpoint, the vision of a “good” history game that O’Malley is looking for is probably impossible. Even the most dedicated gamers can only work with a system that is so complex before they will give up in frustration, or be unable to learn enough to be able to play. The myriad interlocking systems O’Malley refers to are managed by countless people, there is no way one player could grasp all of that complexity in full. Games can never fully re-create something, either due to technical limitations (computational power, memory, table size) or human limitations (we are only so smart). Thus even the most advanced simulation must leave something out. A perfect re-creation of a thing is just that thing again.

Of course “leaving something out” is what procedural rhetoric and the simulation gap are all about. As Bogost claimed in last week’s readings, games can make use of procedural rhetoric to make arguments. And Thomas’ critics were looking for the argument in his work of digital scholarship. It seems to me that games are ideal candidates for historical scholarship. But who knows what the tenure committee will say.

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4 Responses to Reading Responses 9/27

  1. Hi Jason,

    I think that you are exactly right in questioning O’Malley’s apparent assertion that only exact representation can create a “good” historical game. An historical game shouldn’t be judged on “accuracy down to the buttons on the coats,” but on – as you say – our investigation of the representative form.

    Interestingly, some of the theory from oral history could apply here. Alessandro Portelli writes of oral sources: “The oral sources used in this essay are not always fully reliable in point of fact. Rather than being a weakness, this is, however, their strength: errors, inventions, and myths lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings.” [1] The same could be said about historical video games; perhaps they, too, can lead us “beyond facts” and give us insight into popular conceptualizations of history, the ways that the creators envision history as affecting the present, and the historical meanings that gamers uncover through these games.

    That said, I think that when O’Malley takes Call of Duty to task for its use of historical “augmentation” he could have been even more damning in his analysis. Some games use the “historical” mantle to cloak what is really just a storyline that propagandizes Western superiority, the importance of militarism, and the entrenchment of the existing mode of production. These are all charges that have been levied, at one time or another, against Call of Duty for example. In this sense, I agree with O’Malley that Call of Duty failed as an historical game, but not for any lack of “accuracy.” Instead, I believe that when we move “beyond facts” in the case of CoD, we find some malevolent undertones that betray any surface assertion of historicity.

    • jasonhistory says:

      Hi Lachlan,

      I do like the point about how games like Call of Duty reveal something about who made them, but the context in which they were made is critical as well. Call of Duty is a commercial product that costs (and brings in) millions of dollars, and its goal is to make money, not teach or engage with history. So it also tells us about what the market wanted when the game was in development. Does it matter if the goal was profit, not being historical?

      One of the main reasons I took this class was to get an idea of how one could evaluate whether or not a game is “historical.” It’s easy to find reasons that games are not historical, but what are the criteria that a game must meet? I am unsure of how to begin answering that question.

      Jason

  2. holtsware says:

    Jason,

    As I was working through this week’s readings and your post and could not but agree that games may prove a useful platform for future “digital histories.” Returning to the idea of scholarship in digital form though, I was wondering if you saw any development from Thomas’ obstacle of being able to “read” works of digital scholarship.

    He created the project in the early 2000s and wrote the article in 2007. The augmentation of our daily lives with digital technology has only grown since that time. In any given day, we “read” countless digital sources. We have learned to navigate vast amounts of data (stalk a friend’s Facebook account), navigate hypertext (blogging and Twitter come to mind) and orient ourselves on the Internet. If we can now “read” digital (which may mean a more in branching, tangental manner), why has the scholarship seemed to lag?

    Cheers

    • jasonhistory says:

      Honestly I am not too familiar with enough novel forms of digital scholarship to be able to say one way or the other. One work I know of is a book called “Expressive Processing,” by Noah Wardrip-Fruin at UC Santa Cruz. He put much of the book on his blog as he was writing it, soliciting comments and feedback along the way. In the final print version he often notes ideas that were suggested by readers of the blogs, or responds to those comments directly. The result is interesting but I don’t think such a project would meet the AHR’s prize standards.

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