Making History Personal

Teacher’s Creed

For a game that includes magical apples, secret world controlling cults, and time-traveling pseudo-science, the Assassin’s Creed games are aesthetically very accurate. The digital recreations of ancient cities, outfits, and buildings are shockingly authentic and detailed. Although the historical figures and events in the game differ from their real-world counterparts, the setting has been commended by many for its historical accuracy. Assassin’s Creed Unity, for instance, recreated the layout of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame. According to The Verge, Caroline Miousse, an artist for Ubisoft, spent two years recreating the cathedral and modeling it down to the brick. It isn’t a perfect reconstruction, but it’s very close. Soon, Ubisoft plans to release a VR tour of the game and teased it in the video below.

Games, even games that are closer to science fiction than historical fiction, can be a great teacher. Many who play the Assassin’s Creed games walk away with a little more knowledge about history. If they paid attention to their surroundings as they played, they saw the beauty of a place they might never have a chance to visit. If that’s true for a video game about saving the world from the Knights Templar, then how much more success would a game like Tecumseh Lies Here have?

Tecumseh Lies Here (TLH) was designed to teach and help a student learn about a historical event and how to research that event. Part digital, part tabletop roleplaying, and part travel and exploration, TLH is an immersive experience that encourages the student to reason and learn in ways they otherwise wouldn’t. Frankly, if the educator has the time and means, it is the perfect game for teaching. Compeau and his associates were able to adapt the game to the different groups of students and the situations in which they found themselves. Incorporating Twitter, YouTube, and texting into museum visits and hunting through archives, allowed the student to learn history and how to be a historian. If it wasn’t for the sheer difficulty and amount of work that goes into setting up the game, it would be worth allowing all students to participate.

The unfortunate fact is that augmented reality games of that complexity and magnitude are unfeasible for most schools. However, at the speed that technology is advancing and its usefulness in the teaching process, teachers need to find ways to incorporate digital media into their classrooms in ways that are fun and memorable. Although assigning Assassin’s Creed might not work, there are plenty of other historical games. Teachers might be able to use games like these to introduce or supplement a lesson. Youtube videos like the one above and VR tours like the on Ubisoft is planning on making will allow students close looks at historically important locations. There’s even the possibility that teachers can create miniture TLHs for their classroom by having the students play a game, create videos, post on a class forum, and research in the school library.

Making History Personal

On Ebooks: Nice, but nothing really new

I remember and dreaded the day that ebooks would get rid of books. Surely this was the end of actual reading! Sone then, I have found my fears unfounded.

I was right, and I was wrong. Ebooks are a part of the book market, holding about a third of books sold now. I can understand this. It’s so much easier, and sometimes cheaper, to have an ebook instead of a physical book. When going on vacation, there is only so much room for books allowed, and carrying 25+ can be tiring. Ebooks, you can have thousands of books. I don’t want to wait to get a book physically when I can buy it and start reading it instantly. If I don’t like it, I can usually return it for a refund just as easily.

On the other hand, there’s just something about a physical book in hand, the smell, weight, and feel of it. They get worn and damaged after countless rereadings. You can tell when a book has been loved and read, as opposed to one that had been forgotten on a shelf. Ebooks don’t give you that, not in the same way. You can bookmark a page, and highlight text, sure, but you have to get to the page for it to matter. You can’t write notes in the margins, circle a word and put highlighter everywhere, bleeding through the page. Physical books are permanent in ways that ebooks can never be.

There is less memory and worse attention spans involved with reading anything on an ebook, or any form of electronics, really. Physical books force kids to pay more and better attention to what is being read because they are not getting as much stimulation from a paper page of text from a screen of text. Read online for fun and the experience, read physical books for memory and recall.
Ebooks depend on electricity, and the internet, and money. I mean, sure, you can get them free at the library, same as physical books, but there are different sets and levels of costs to ebooks than physical books. Books don’t need so much money, and they are always available.

No matter what, people need to read to learn and grow. It is how they get that material that is changing, with the internet and ebooks and everything, paper is becoming something that is less needed and therefore more of a preference. There will always be those who prefer paper, while others hold to electronics as the future of the written word, what is most likely to happen will be a mixture of both, using both mediums to reach the widest range of people with less of a cost than what the same spread of information would have costed earlier.

Making History Personal

Ready Player One

In this week’s reading, the in depth look at the ARG “Tecumseh Lies Here” reveals how to effectively use gaming as a narrative in history. Unlike a typical video game that tends to take the Hollywood approach by making things exciting instead of historically accurate, the creators took painstaking details in order to build a game that sticks to the history, yet while in a subversive timeline. By partnering with the University of Western Ontario, Compeau and MacDougall was able to integrate the universities’s collections into the game, while not relying on corporate sponsorship that allows editors to revise the game for better sales.

This approach cannot be understated in a world of smart devices and the stereotype of historical knowledge being important dates. Indeed, by focusing on an interactive adventure to engage learning and participation offers a better platform compared to the typical lecture hall setting. Critics may reject these measures, but “edutainment” software like Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium’s “The Oregon Trail” has left a cultural impact along with imparting the knowledge of challenges faced by early American pioneers. Additionally, with computer gaming allowing the use of modding, historically correct games with attention to detail can be realized by developers similar to Compeau and MacDougall. The mod Europa Barbarorum for the historical game Rome: Total War completely engrosses the player by use of historical maps, detailed historical records regarding Roman society, historically correct models, and even as far as translating unit speech into proper Latin and Greek. While “Tecumseh Lies Still” obviously took a straight educational path, the integration of interactive entertainment and history provides exciting opportunities for new pedagogue techniques in the classroom. From a personal perspective, the game “The Ides of March – The Roman Republic Game” is a similar concept to “Tecumseh” except with a subversive timeline set after the assassination of Julius Caesar. I was fortunate to experience this in lieu of a final exam in an undergraduate course at Appalachian. This offered a thoroughly engaging exercise that was able to capture the chaos of Roman politics during the Republic significantly better than typical final exam fodder in forms of essay and multiple choice questions.

Making History Personal

History Games

The Bannockburn visitor’s center is on an open field. Looking out from the visitors center, to the south the field curves gently down into the Bannock Burn. In the north, there is the town, and St. Ninian’s church, and beyond St. Ninian’s there is Stirling Castle, high on a hill.

It is not Gettysburg, which has been marked by every faction as an ongoing battle over the memory of the American Civil War. It is not the beaches at Normandy, still marked by concrete bunkers. Its only markers are a statue of Robert the Bruce, and a memorial rotunda.

File:Battlefield at Bannockburn - - 1538216.jpg

But, despite the lack of material, I remember this battlefield, and this visit. Because it taught the history with a game. After going through the museum, we were brought into a circular room, with a table on the centerpiece. The terrain of the battlefield was molded onto that table, and projected from above were banners of each of the lords leading troops on the battlefield. There, each of the people was given command of a few banners. It was my family, and as I remember one other. Archers, Infantry, Knights, and the Scottish side got Schiltrons. In that battle, my team was fairly passive, and so I ended up taking general command. In the battle itself, the English drove forward, smashing across the bridge on the Bannock Burn under the cover of a withering hail of arrows. While the Scottish defenders held, the battle was won, as a single unit of archers pounded Robert the Bruce’s formation until the man fell, riddled by clothyard shafts.

Unlike most battlefields, where we tell the stories of those long dead, there, we created a story of our own. A clearly ahistoric one, given that the Scottish suffered from a divided command, while the English were driven forward in a single minded assault, but a personal story. In reality, the English lost, decisively, and Scotland would remain its own country for centuries more.

Similarly, in Tecumseh Lies Here, the game is ahistoric. The setup, a shadowy conspiracy leading them to race through books and around historic sites is a staple of cyberpunk and television shows. However, at the same time, the key element of the game, getting participants to learn history by actually doing history, is something that has real, genuine educational value. However, it has its limitations. Especially the amount of work that goes into making a single shot experience. Throughout Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall’s account of the game, the piece that keeps cropping up is just how much work went into the experience, and how little success they had in adapting an ARG into something that could be replicated in classrooms across Ontario, let alone beyond it. The solution they found, turning it into a augmented reality experience, lacks the interactivity to really be called a game, at least in my opinion.

Offering more promise in crafting games to teach history are the Niagara and Queenston 1812 experiences. Rather than going into a comprehensive ARG, the games are smaller experiences, using digital technology to enhance physical locations, specifically allowing historic sites to put far more documentation and manuscripts into the hands of the people at the site than would be possible with conventional tools. How effective these AR tools are in actually teaching history, or creating historically engaged people is still questionable.

Overall, the position of games in teaching history is still open to contention. I believe the future is not so much in using games to teach the processes and methods of history, as it is in making history personal. Whether that be through a self contained experience as at Bannockburn, or the more open designs of Niagara and Queenston, games offer the ability to not just experience history as a passive observer, but to engage with the events, and tell the story on the player’s terms.

Making History Personal

Choose Your Avatar

As I have grown in my professional and personal life, I have become an advocate for inquiry based learning. The key to inquiry based learning is that it makes the education process personal for everyone. Learning, education, and class material has the reputation of being a burden, or just not fun. I’m sure we all remember as students in school, no matter what grade, being told to read something and us dragging our feet the entire way through. We may have actually enjoyed the book, but being told what to read and what to get from it took all joy away from us. The projects and activities that have the most success in schools are the ones where students ask their own questions and find the answers for themselves. Students normally put much more effort into this because the learning is from their own desire and personal imagination. Going further into the 21st century, we can further serve our students’ educational growth by combining their imagination with technology and digital tools. This concept doesn’t just stop in the classroom, though: it can be implemented throughout all field of history. 

“We are not limited by the technology, only by our imaginations.”

Kee, Kevin, Eric Poitras, and Timothy Compeau. “History All Around Us: Toward Best Practices for Augmented Reality for History.” In Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History.

I have been fortunate enough to travel in the United States and globally to visit many historical sites. Out of all of these travels, my favorite experiences have been the ones that put me in the middle of the history and let me choose my own experience. The museum and educational center of Mount Vernon has a digital program for viewers called Be Washington: It’s Your Turn to Lead. My friend and I listened to historical actors like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson give us their opinion based on primary sources and then made our own decisions on situations like aiding France in the French Revolution before seeing how Washington’s decision played out in real life. Like Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall noted about their own historical game, this “inculcates historical thinking skills, such as grasping different perspectives and recognizing the biases inherent in primary sources.” Games like Be Washington and Tecumseh Lies Here are the key to bridging students to history because it allows them to make history a personal learning experience. 

If inquiry-based learning is the key to making history enjoyable for younger audiences, what’s to stop us from applying this same logic to other platforms of history, especially public history? Just like students, visitors to historic sites often complain that the historical material seems impersonal and frankly, non engaging. In Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, the authors encourage these sites to go against the traditional structure of herding a mass of quiet and unengaged visitors from room to room listening to a script. The most successful sites offer ways for visitors to chart their own visit, going from room to room and examining things of their own interest. Augmented reality apps like Niagara 1812 and Queenston 1812 serve as a similar gateway to making history personal. I can say from experience that these programs really do enhance a visit. During my visit to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, I was given a small set of headphones and a tablet. After I decided which room engaged me most, the tablet offered historical explanations on certain artifacts, or even allowed me to “erase” the modern enhancements of the room so I could see what it would have looked like when Queen Victoria resided there.  Of course, these programs, experiences, and games take an incredible amount of time and funding. The creators of Tecumseh Lies Here even changed their program into an “untextbook” because they recognized the amount of work required was not applicable for public school teachers. However, history can easily blend to inquiry-based learning with the help of technology. Many history teachers are creating digital escape rooms for their students to complete. Other sites are creating small scale versions of Niagara 1812 and Queenston 1812. The connection? All of these professionals know that the way to reach people in the field of history is to make it accessible and engaging – characteristics easily achieved with digital tools.

Making History Personal

History x AR

Augmented reality is defined as adding digital elements to the real and physical world (not full immersion from it- i.e. virtual reality), changing the experience, and making it more personal- accessible. Many forms of public engagement by museums, historical institutions, and other instances beyond the historical field all seem to converge on the matter of accessibility. The implications of accessibility include reframing information in a way that appeals to multiple learning styles, perspectives, and forms of education. Combining these efforts with technology and social media leads to augmented reality.

The game Tecumseh Lies Here developed and played at Public History program at the University of Western Ontario fits within this definition. But the immersion of the game for its developers and players went beyond that of common examples of AR- such as the app Snapchat or the mobile game Pokemon Go. With such deep story line complexities and efforts- those involved can only seem to report that in order to understand, “you had to be there.”

 What makes this interesting, in my opinion, is that the ways the developers (professors and graduates) augmented history for the players were not technically advanced or sophisticated by any means. The websites and passwords undoubtedly took some tech savvy, but the way that social media, email, video, and texting were involved- anyone could develop content on those platforms with enough time. Many people use social media now, and those who have attended an academic institution have likely had to complete a video or two for an assignment, lesson, or other reason.

Therefore, the level of immersion, success, and satisfaction of Here Lies Tecumseh- provides an exemplary example of to what degree history can be augmented for accessibility without sophisticated technology and software. The primary problems show up with time, success, and feedback, and (ironically) demographic.

In Here Lies Tecumseh, classes, free time, and essentially lives were put on hold for over a month to develop, provide, and solve puzzles and problems. Surely, one reason this happened was because of the “doing history” purpose of the game, and the intricacies of mimicking historical work. And the only reason it worked was due to those involved- dedicated professors, paid graduates, and young adult players who mostly already identified as gamers. For the example of AR history, was is only so immersive because of the conditions outlined above? And can museums and other public history institutions hope to develop that level of immersion for the general public when that implies massive diversity?

If they use marketing segmentation techniques, I believe they could at least challenge the experience of Here Lies Tecumseh over time. Museums seeking to provide AR elements could gather demographic information on users and skew the AR elements toward the most prominent segment. If there was more than one major segment, they could develop and label different routes or experiences for users to choose from. This idea would certainly be a long-time project and likely constantly evolving, but it seems like one possibility in search of immersion through augmented reality.