On to the Next One

When I first started the course which I produced this blog for, I can certainly say I was a different person in a few regards. One particular aspect of this was my attitude towards alternative mediums as source material (digital, photography, film, oral history, etc.). Over the last few months, I’ve come to see the value in digital mediums in particular, even identifying with mediums I hadn’t originally linked to Digital Humanities–I’ll cover this further, later in this post.

SMARTPHONE

(Pictured above: one potential interpretation of how alternative reality can alter our understanding of the world around us.)

 

Lately, my class has begun talking of mediums which veer away from our ideas of conventional ‘history’ or ‘education’–. Some of the digital platforms which digital humanities scholars tend to incorporate or access simply reformat our current systems of understanding and presenting knowledge, such as Wikipedia as I explored in my previous post Wait, but Why?. Wikipedia simply reorganizes the encyclopedia format for faster access between articles and page. Yet, there are platforms which stray from our conventional understanding of knowledge production, preservation and access. As I mentioned in Game On, video games are one such example of this which challenge our understanding of how history is studied, made, and taught/explored. Other examples of this include alternative reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), writing programs such as Inklewriter, among other mediums.

Alternative reality in particular has been a topic which has come back to my attention in recent weeks. Over the course of the last few months, one such instance of it which we had covered was a software platform known as Aurasma at the time. Since then, it has been re-branded into HP Reveal. At the start of this semester I had questioned how such a technology would be even remotely relevant to the efforts of a digital humanities historian. I’ve been able to take away two major points which I felt needing addressing in this post:

  • Updating technology.
  • Grounding fact in the real world.

Perhaps one of the most universal truths members of any discipline must realize at one point or another in their careers is the nature of the world around them. With an ever-changing world, so to must the tools change to suit the world which they function in. Computers allowed accessed to lightning-fast calculations, film allowed for new forms of entertainment and tutoring, etc.. So to is history going through this presently through the form of digital humanities. The rise of mediums like AR, VR (to a lesser extent, Mixed Reality as well), video games, a variety of products and platforms put forth by google, and many, many more platforms have all collectively given historians new ways of engaging with their audiences. Video games and writing tools like Inklewriter have allowed historians to put their knowledge of the world to creative use in writing narratives to introduce students to different time periods and concepts. AR and VR have been used to give virtual tours to different environments in accompaniment to maps in a massive collaborative effort to allow our understanding of history become more accessible and widespread knowledge. Each of these goals are rather ambitious, but noble nonetheless to be pursued. Coming back to my initial emphasis of AR, HP Reveal demonstrates to historians the urgent need to remain up to date with the current methods of teaching, creating, and sharing forms of history in a world which is progressing as well.

 

Beyond this, alternate reality provides digital humanities historians with the opportunity to express and highlight the clear linkage between the subject matter discussed in their research and the real-world through physical means. Smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices are granting students and scholars to history alike the ability to create tours, references and other linkages to real-world locations and items through nothing more than QR codes and smartphone apps. Think of it sort of like having a teacher with you at all times on your request, but following your pace. The applications for this technology is surely not limited to these uses exclusively, but it’s a decent juncture to start at for now.

Johnston.

A photo of Johnston Hall, one of the various halls on my campus at the University of Guelph. 

So then what? Then historians have a duty to follow the route of digital humanities scholars. In other words, those working in DH have set a precedent which members of the social sciences and humanities may feel obligated or required to follow suit with, and rightfully so. While it is important to constantly question the changes which are made or suggested on a daily basis, it is equally important for historians to keep an open mind to such changes even if they challenge or alter the standard at which work is completed, measured or consumed. To younger readers of this post, this may be a moot point, yet to some of the older readers I know this post may pass by, I also recognize the necessity to make this distinction. In some cases, this distinction may need to be reversed. This is largely due to the fact that each generation as of the last century at least (and that’s an incredibly conservative estimate at that) has had groundbreaking technologies introduced which have altered our way of understanding the world. Think of things such as the internet. Our parents had the internet which in turn revolutionized the way in which we handled data and connections. Other notable events throughout history include the invention of the printing press, the invention of the first automobile, human access to flight, etc.. Each of these events has altered our understanding of the world around us and the methods at which we transfer and access information from one another. Just as our parents have struggled with the internet, my generation will have an ‘internet’ of our own which will challenge our understanding of the world around us too, and so on and so forth.

The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.

-Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States.

As for what the future holds, who knows? But as historians, our job is to remain current while bringing to light to the one thing which will always remain new–history which students and scholars have not yet come across. Perhaps it is a never-ending duty, but such is the nature of history.

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Game On

Currently I’m a bit under the weather, which has gotten me thinking about what I used to do when I was younger and ill. One tried and true philosophy my mother always advised me to do when sick was to take it easy and get some R&R, however that might be for me. Like some kids my age, that meant staying in bed and playing video games.

Game Boy Gulf War

A picture of a Game Boy which survived the Gulf War from 1990-1991 taken at Nintendo New York with Tetris loaded. Thankfully, none of my consoles received anything like the napalm treatment this device did while I was a kid.

At least, until the batteries ran out.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve since then come to refine my tastes in games. I’ve also developed the belief now that video games should impart some sort of knowledge, skill or lesson on the player, or the investment in might only be seen as mindless entertainment. This latter principle is acceptable for alternatively-scaled projects though, like Tetris or Slither which exist purely for the entertainment factor many enjoy on a daily basis. One such lesson or source of knowledge which gaming has expanded for me is my understanding and interest in history, using titles like Civilization 5Assassin’s Creed, and This War of Mine. While each of these games answers to a different calling, ranging in scope and goal, they provided immersive access to material I had previously felt otherwise completely inexperienced in. Even now, titles like Assassin’s Creed Origins and its Discovery Tour downloadable content are giving players access to digital tours of historic landmarks and events. This War of Mine teaches players about the political, economic and social climate of Bosnia amidst the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995) during the Bosnian War. Civilization as a series attempts to deliver players an experience of various civilizations and the ways in which they operate in a global and imperialist context. That being said, watching 6 archer units attack a city only to have a giant death robot didn’t offer too much to me in a historical sense.

SHINY

The stealth-based open world title Assassin’s Creed: Origins pictured above. 

If you’re familiar with my writing by now however, you know that I’m writing this post with a point and I’m not going to exclusively preach for historical video games of all kinds. And to praise each and every historically-based game created in this day and age as significant to the field of digital humanities would be far from where most stand on the matter, myself included. It’d also be a far cry from the truth. The matter of significance is contested on nearly all matters historians studies, and digital humanities only accentuates this idea with the usage of digital media. Only significant entries to this category So perhaps we should first develop a question worth asking before we (you, the readers, and myself) as historians attempt to address what is historically significant.

Wait but why?:

I addressed this earlier in my first post on here, but the purpose of a thesis and subsequently, a final paper, is to answer a ‘how’ or ‘why’ question typically. In other words, to indicate the purpose of the research while also answering a question. As such, video games can be measured under this standard as well. Simply asking something such as ‘wait, but why am I playing this’ or ‘wait, but why am I spending time on this’, or even ‘wait, but why does this matter to history’ are all important questions DH historians may ask. Video games can provide different avenues for exploration which text books might not perform as effectively, so there is clearly a market for the medium. Visual novels are one instance of this, which allow for players (and students) to make choice-based decisions in historically-grounded fiction.

Agency:

Perhaps one of the largest freedoms which video games grant players is the implementation of agency as a main character. This is also one of the major factors which separate the medium from its paper equivalent–novels and textbooks. If a game fails to meet this criteria, it can no longer be an experience the player has chosen for themselves. Instead, they are being guided in which case the ‘game’ has at that point become a lesson, tutorial or class in some sense. Tutorials do have their own merit, sure enough, but by no means should be dubbed as video games due to their lack of agency; agency is often something few students ever expect in classroom environments, and for good reason: tutorials are meant to guide students in a linear (and often causal) fashion.

Agency is a quality which gives purpose to games, but requires fiction in many cases in order to truly ‘give wings’ to players. As such, fabrication becomes a part of these titles just as much as the real and tangible. Which brings me to the second part of agency–While players need to have a degree of skepticism, whether it be an ocrum’s razor-styled approach, or simply further inquiry at every juncture presented to them. Players need to address these titles with the understanding of fiction–not everything a player may come across will be factually grounded or true, and thus should be fact checked on a need to know basis. I address this point later in my mention of 80 Days, but this point is necessary to make.

So where does that leave us now? Purpose, check. Agency, check.

Digital Medium:

As the name may suggest (video game), the program should be accessible from a digital medium. In other words, playing scrabble on a projector doesn’t count as a video game. Playing an app for scrabble would count.

Beyond this, the medium at which these titles are accessible by should go into the consideration when contemplating the significance of a title. For instance, Tetris may be seen as crucial to the history and development of the history of video games. However, part of this due to not only the history it stems from, but also the platforms and mediums it has become accessible on over the years. Consoles (handheld and TV consoles alike) along with smartphones have led to the popularization of the title, even leading to its implementation on platforms like Facebook and Steam. The significance of this has to do less with the availability of the product and more to do with whom might access the title. Titles exclusive to smartphones for instance might not be seen as significant from a digital medium standpoint.

Obvious points aside, this also determines if it would even be in the realm of DH.

Scope:

Does the project you’re accessing have a large scope, or is it addressing one specific point of history with little to no emphasis on it? Projects like Civilization 5 attempt to parody the known history of mankind, so as one might expect, it can be expected to be brief. For a cultural and imperial understanding of the world, the background information may be taken from Civilization 5 as contextual much like Wikipedia, but should be further researched beyond this. This is the point of a historical video game: to open the door for people to a specific topic.

In Summary:

By this point, we have criteria to ask if a video game is significant to the work of digital humanities scholars. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Medium (What is it display/ran on?)
  • Scope (the period of time covered and in what depth)
  • Purpose (why did someone create it and what good is it for you to study/play it?)
  • Agency (does the player have any kind of freedom in the game, and to what extent?)

Perhaps the question which should be posed then is: What purpose, scope and agency does the video game in question serve in context to history, and through what medium does it function?

Some excellent examples of works (from my perspective) which pass the above line of questioning include:

Papers, Please.

What appears to be inspired by Berlin during the Cold War, Papers, Please sets the player in charge of border patrol between many fictitious nations amid an array of political and domestic problems. Through this, the player must perform a wide array of tasks to find out if immigrants do, in fact, have their papers in order, so the player may then be able to afford paying for their family’s expenses. You can find it here.

80 Days

While this one may seem like an odd addition to the list, I wish to emphasis two points with its inclusion. First, 80 Days makes this list due to the level of technological realism based on the time period it addresses and thus gives understanding to players for this, as this is the main point of the game–to travel using said forms of transportation. ‘Technological realism” may seem like an odd phrase to incorporate for a game which includes strong degrees of steampunk fiction (even including hydrofoils, teleportation and other outlandish technology for the time period). My point of interest in 80 Days rather is the ways in which non-fictitious technology highlights the works of the international scene. Through trains, boats, camels, and various other forms of transport, the title highlights the boundaries between nations and how civilizations have come to surpass these on a historical scale. However, this ties in my point on agency–players should use their discretion when playing through fiction titles like 80 Days–the purpose of these titles is not necessarily to provide full lessons on history for students and players alike, but instead to open the door on the topic or to prompt further inquiry. Second, digital and visual novels such as 80 Days are an emerging field which seldom receive the spotlight they are due, yet often grant us a better understanding of history than most AAA titles ever would. Therefore, they should be no strangers to this list.

Assassin’s Creed II

While I do feel strange about officially including an Assassin’s Creed title on this list, the second installment to the series did a lot of justice for the scope of the project it addressed. Buildings received their own tours in the form of missions, often being interactive for players as well. Famous historical figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli, etc. also make appearances, each making reference to their own lives and what would normally be taking place in their lives in a given year. The game also includes an entry system which allows the player to learn about nearly aspect of the world around them, including the places, people, even services and how they came to be. As I’ve stated before, by no means do I advocate Assassin’s Creed II as a substitute or equivalent to classes and research. But for the amount of depth poured into the title, it certainly can be seen as a meaningful and significant contribution to history in video games for the sheer level of engagement it promotes from players. Seldom did I personally find the experience with my understanding of Medieval and Renaissance Italian history to end at simply playing Assassin’s Creed–I often found myself doing quick searches to fact check and expand my understanding of something. Guilty confession, but I even found myself picking up a few words in Italian thanks to the game’s way of incorporating Italian into the standard English dialogue. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed Revelations would see the adventure started in the second entry through to the end, expanding on the history first introduced in II.

ACB Collosseum

Pictured above is Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, the sequel to Assassin’s Creed II, which continued the exploration and adventure of the Italian Renaissance through the eyes of assassin Ezio Auditore. 

Of course, video games often have something for everyone. That’s the joy of them. And if there’s something I’ve missed on this list, then I’m sure there are still a few titles out there for you. After all, much like history itself, it’s a ‘choose your own adventure’ kind of topic, and should be treated as such.

Boldly Going Where Few Others Have Gone Before

When the Wright brothers created the first working heavier-than-air aircraft in 1903, they not only became inventors of a technology which would effectively shape the next century–they became pioneers of it too. This pioneering would shape the way people traveled, the livelihoods of those who would follow in their footsteps, even altering the way in which conflicts were fought.

Aircraft

(Picture above is one such example of this aircraft)

Perhaps one of the most exciting parts of working in the area of digital humanities or digital media is this same pioneering aspect of things. While not all contributions to the field might be as significant as the Wright brother’s in this instance, they still hold an equally important place in the field as a part of the pioneering process. Even tools such as alternative reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies fit the bill for this argument, provided they contribute to the field. They might not be significant to the context of your background or interests, yet they still establish the framework for future digital humanities scholars to work within or challenge.

That being said, I haven’t clearly established what is at stake. Simply put, when I discuss digital humanities with nearly anyone (even my peers in the field), I’m typically received with a skeptical look and a raised eyebrow or two. In other words, most aren’t quite sure what digital humanities is. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think too many people are either. I don’t blame them.

servers

(Credit: Microsoft’s Technet blog)

After receiving all sorts of skepticism that this field even exists, I’m occasionally asked if those I know who work in the field happen to work with servers as pictured above. Honestly? Some do. A previous discussion in one of my courses this semester better explained where this field may lay–digital humanities may be seen as a collaboration between a humanities discipline and digital media of some kind. Projects concerning a historian and a computer scientist might for instance fall into this category. This seemed straightforward enough. What seemed unclear however was the need for collaboration. By this definition, a collaboration seemed instrumental for work to be carried out in the field in any regard. True to this, my professor outlined the demand for certain computer scientists to join the field in whatever way they could as a means of creative work. As you can probably guess, it’s been a bit of a contested topic as of lately.

Even Wikipedia has its own variant on the definition, stating:

Digital humanities (DH) is an area of scholarly activity at the intersection of computing or digital technologies and the disciplines of the humanities. It includes the systematic use of digital resources in the humanities, as well as the reflection on their application. DH can be defined as new ways of doing scholarship that involve collaborative, trans-disciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching, and publishing. It brings digital tools and methods to the study of the humanities with the recognition that the printed word is no longer the main medium for knowledge production and distribution.

By no means should one take this as a standard as I’ve discussed in my previous post, Wait, but Why?, but it certainly contributes to the question: What is digital humanities?

This didn’t satisfy my question though. Did a digital humanities project require a collaboration by nature to fit into the field? Was the teamwork component really as crucial as I had been made to believe by some of my readings?

Perhaps I’ll never have a concrete answer to this question, but one thing was for certain–there were exceptions to this rule which could not be denied. For instance, librarians and archivists which digitized much of the work I can find on my university’s databases surely must fall into this category–they are pursuing the digitization of humanities as a means of extending and perfecting our access to knowledge in the areas of history, philosophy, English, etc. While not a direct collaboration to the field, they work answered to the same calling as all the rest seemed to–extending and refining our understanding of humanities by means of digital tools (in this case, databases).

 

But how?

Allow me to step back for a moment here. It’s simple enough to say what most fields focus on due to the history established behind them and their respective familiarity to the general masses. What follows is usually a plain enough understanding of how this is achieved. A biologist typically studies how cells, biology and biochemistry all work together. A computer scientist studies how computers work to some extent, and a psychiatrist studies how the brain or mind work. All of these things are rather intuitive– not simply based on the field, but by the history in which has been established in that field. Biologists such as Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur have established histories as pioneers in their respective sub-fields of biology, which has thereby made the discipline of biology better understood by establishing notoriety for the discipline. The same can be said (respectively of course) for contributors of computer science and psychiatry–by establishing a history, a field gains notoriety and thereby becomes familiar to the general public. Digital humanities as a field is currently in the development process of this, gaining notoriety as contributions are made to it.

Digital humanities has however, proven to me that nearly any method fitting the above criteria might fit in. A database, an app, AR and VR, websites, text analysis services such as Voyant, etc. I’d argue this may be one of the greatest parts of being a part of a pioneering field, in whatever capacity you can. On a closing note, while I’m far from a full fledged published author in the field of digital humanities, working and studying within the field may perhaps be one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had in my university career. And who knows? The foundation work done tomorrow in this field may inevitably alter the ways in which we address knowledge access, even changing institutions such as libraries and colleges from the ground up in principle.

Then again, it could just be another Wednesday.

Wait, but Why?

Sitting in a university lecture hall in what would have been my fourth year last year, I found my professor at the time had an odd fascination with film history. Despite the course itself focusing largely on 20th century history as a whole, and not the creation, history and legacy of film history through the era, his lectures were some of the most engaging in my university career. Perhaps the most engaging part of them were the point he kept addressing. As he put it, whenever we (his students) came across a new source, medium, or whatever it might be in our lives–be it professional, academic or even recreational, we should always make the effort of interrogating it under every standard we can. In far more simple terms, “Wait, but why?

That brings me to the purpose of this post. If you’ve already adopted my professor’s mantra, then you likely are wondering what the point of this post is. The answer: to ask that exact question.

When I started this blog, I had simply done so to satisfy a course requirement as any sensible student would. This was probably one of the more intriguing ways to go about it, but nonetheless I had an assignment to finish. However, as I began to write this post and complete the accompanying research for it, I found the above question to be one of the most motivating tools at my disposal as a historian. Partially due to the curiosity it stemmed from, and additionally due to the inquiry it prompted. In other words, it was rewarding in itself to complete research. And thus, this blog gained a purpose for me beyond a grade–to investigate digital history using a variety of digital tools and to verify and challenge the integrity of said tools.

One such instance in which I found myself asking the above question (wait, but why?) was last week. Tasked with investigating Wikipedia for a variety of reasons, I thought the site a bit trivial to my purposes. I had wondered why I had needed to investigate a site often discounted and discredited in academia, especially with its ability to be edited on a whim. Of course, as I would discover, this was far from the truth.

As a digital tool, Wikipedia seems to be one of the tools which functions contrary to what nearly everyone I’ve talked to thinks or expects of it. While I might not necessarily dispel any and all misconceptions regarding the website in one simple post, this has only highlighted the need to carry out the investigative work many historians carry out on a daily basis.

Sifting through Wikipedia, I was greeted with a variety of features which I’ll attempt to sort through below.

The Sandbox:

If you’re ever unsure of how to create a page or what it may look like when published, each user of the online encyclopedia has access to a personal sandbox which isn’t displayed to anyone else on the site. It’s a way in which users can judge their own submissions without actually submitting them. Plus, it grants practice with the visual or text editors to new users.

Editting Pages:

While many people are under the belief that any user who wishes to do so can edit any page on the digital encyclopedia they feel, this is far from the truth. When I had first attempted to complete a series of edits for the purposes of my course, I realized quite quickly that most users would be barred from any sort of edits on a wide variety of pages. This is mostly due to Wikipedia‘s Protection Policy, which bars new accounts (among others) from editing certain pages by placing protection on controversial or heavily monitored pages. For instance, the World War II page bars all users with less than semi-protection from editing it, as the page is typically heavily monitored and rather well documented. These sorts of pages are quite common on larger or well-documented topics, but are not limited purely to these subjects. Controversial matters such as a celebrity’s page shortly after their death or political pages are prone to protection policies being placed on them to prevent anyone who wanted to ruin a page in some sense.

Citations:

This gets down to the purpose of a Wikipedia page–partially to gain a brief understanding of the page, then to follow it up with cited material on the matter. Rather than establish a bias with the user, Wikipedia has a consistent trend of remaining unbiased or neutral on each of its pages, allowing readers to make their own judgement based on external research.

So What’s the Point then?

Wikipedia might not be the place to go to inform your bias if you’ve already established it on a topic. But it is an effective digital tool due to its up-to-date, impartial and properly-cited pages. If this sounds like something you might want to take advantage of, it might be time for you too to look up the online encyclopedia and reconsider its validity–whether it be academia or what not. It serves as a example for readers to begin to put the tools provided to them on trial, but by no means should be the only place which readers remain.

Library

A picture of the library at the University of Guelph.

 

Academia is certainly something I’m sure many in academic institutions find challenging to progress through, often pushing many into boxes they find themselves limited to. One of these such boundaries I know my peers have felt limited by is our access to source material, either through the library (pictured above) or through our online databases which grant limited access when used. However, as I’ve learned and attempted to highlight in this post, digital tools such as Wikipedia are resources which should not necessarily be discouraged in the context of research pursuits, but seen as further tools of inquiry, allowing for further engagement with a variety of topics. In some instances even, they surpass their paper copy equivalents in a variety of ways. Wikipedia for instance promotes up-to-date, unbiased, and cross referenced material at nearly every turn, which more often than not is easily accessible at the click of a button. Libraries instead struggle as they lack effective methods of cross referencing.

Needless to say, I’m a fan of the digital approach.