Final Blog :'( – Noah Thomas

On week four I did my blog post about The Geography of Slavery in Virginia and Freedom on the Move websites. I felt both these sites were outdated, especially Geography, and were very clumsy to navigate. Windows were popping up everywhere, they weren’t very intuitive, the visual element was often very stunted. But I think it’s really interesting the potential of these sites, of creating an interactive format for representing history. Recently I’ve been getting into Fernand Braudel and the Annales School of history, Braudel is concerned with total history, representing the everyday structure of life, that which is often seen as banal but is the true weight of history. The structure of life, which is repeated daily, is to be contrasted with events, which are taken to be unique: those moments that usually make up written histories. Event history fits neatly, as a narrative creation, into the written text. Braudel was often criticized as bringing together a massive expanse of unnecessary factoids by his opponents– as a history obsessive, reading Braudel is incredibly entertaining. You gain a sense of the time, six pages will be dedicated to how people sat differently between cultures and how that changed over time, 45 pages will be spent discussing wheat production and how its changes altered the realities of Europeans. It’s history for the construction of context. 

This history works good in the written form for historians. People who are most interested in slowly constructing a contextual moving picture in their mind of the times and places that interest them, out of which they can draw significances. I think any historical-minded person can relate to the utter frustration of people misusing history, unaware of the historical context required to actually understand the events they’re discussing. For students, a sense of context is perhaps the element of being a historian hardest to attain. Having a good head on your shoulders is all well and good for learning historical methods and skills, and for memorizing the sequences of events. But context is all hard work, a knowledge (and sense) of context requires time with the history. Familiarity means constant visitation. Our main tool– the book– is not necessarily THE platform that establishes a good sense of context, in each book a historian indeed improves or strengthens this understanding, but it’s ACROSS books, within the historians mind, that this broader understanding is constructed. Each book’s information here are simply points of nexus. 

For a pedagogy of history, whether it’s teaching k-12 or college students who are required to take a few courses in the subject, getting across context is very difficult. I think it’s because you’re asking a level of commitment that only the history obsessed has: sitting for hours a day with texts, that to other people are very, very boring. But that isn’t to say at all that this isn’t an intuitive process, the fact that a sense of context is constructed in the mind, with experience, immediately signifies it’s an intuitive process. It’s a problem with the medium. Mulling over an array of books allows the reader to slowly fill in the myriad tiny details of what, say, 16th century Florence looked like if you were a woodworker. Books like those Braudel provide a big leap to filling such a picture, but to a nonhistorian, it would be easy to be frustrated or bored, not knowing the importance of or what to do with these details.

I’m going to propose video games as a solution. As the art of video games come to mature, more are experimenting with mechanics and design to explore what often is attacked for not being ‘gamelike’ enough. In other words, a medium of a truly interactive visual world transcends our understanding of a game in the traditional sense of Mario. A recent example of such a game is Ancestors: The Human Kind Odyssey (2019), which is set 10 million years ago. The player controls a clan of our human ancestors, who need to fulfill their basic needs and survive the predators and environment that our human ancestors faced. Clan members have certain traits, and judging by which ones die, certain traits are genetically passed on, through the 8 million year evolution of the game. Along the way your clan develops culture based on their environmental interactions. Ancestors is less of a game and more of an interactive experience, intuitively learning the lessons that paleoanthropologists have come to understand about our prehistoric origins. Indeed, the director delved into books in the field to best create the game. 

Imagine a game with a similar, contextual, interactive world with an incredibly rich, dense historic setting. Any player would find understanding the material life and structure of this world as intuitively as stepping through their own societies. The panoramic of human difference between times and places would be as intuitive as taking it in with one’s own eyes. This would also represent the scope of our subject: what is parahistoric is necessary for any proper historical representation (demography, geography, sociology, etc), which would have to figure into making any rich world. Narratively such a game could position the player anywhere within a setting, and have any setting depending on how ambitious the developers are.  

As a reflection of the class… I wouldn’t have sought out a class on the history of slavery. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how interesting this history is. I have to admit to an unconscious understanding, or feeling, of this history. Like it’s detached from the history of our country– it’s a part of it, it happened, but detached. This is interesting now reflecting on this unconscious feeling, I think it’s something you necessarily get from the way this subject was taught to us in k-12. American history has always been so incredibly boring to me, and really that’s just because the narrative I’ve understood to be American history is so incredibly boring compared to the richness of actual history, which American libraries aren’t afraid to steer away from when representing a place like Russia or the crimes of British Colonialism. Slavery is part and parcel of so much of what I find interesting: the development of Capitalism, how a strong and dominant nation like ours got into that position, contradictions in ideologies like Liberalism (the true sense of that term, not the democrat-republican sense), etc. It has been enlightening. I guess it was inevitable that one day as an American I’d stumble into the truly interesting light of this nation’s history, and not the… propaganda I’ve learned as a child. I didn’t expect that to come in a Digital History class, but here I am. Prof. Andrella has been instrumental in this, not only with the design of the class and the texts she’s given, but that she is just a good teacher. She’s a better teacher than many I’ve had that have been teaching longer than she’s been in school. I hope she sticks with it, students need good teachers. 🙂

One thought on “Final Blog :'( – Noah Thomas

  1. I enjoyed reading about your interest and revisions to the week on website comparison, specifically the prospects of what these websites could offer if they were redesigned. I have some familiarity with Braudel and I think this was an excellent connection that should make us think deeper about the possibilities of digital history. I always find it interesting that history pedagogy *usually* reduces the past into a series of key people, events, places. However I do think that when people really enjoy history, it’s usually the germane day-to-day “what life was like” type of narrative. I think Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States provided one of the strongest pushes to make public consumers of history rethink what they were taught about the past… Perhaps it is time that we also think about how digital humanities can build stronger bonds between the past and consumers of information. I think your solution/example using video games is a strong inquiry into the potential of making historical experiences interactive. Augmented reality via gaming is a growing area of inquiry to digital humanists. If you are interested in pursuing this topic further, there is a whole group of gaming folks who discuss these kinds of topics at MSU. I also encourage you to join the emailing list for Digital Humanities at MSU:

    I also really appreciated your reflections about this course and your thoughts about the “detachment of slavery from United States history. I think that was a great way of summarizing it. Thank you for all of your kind words about this course. I deeply appreciated your contributions this semester and the profound perspective that you brought to this material. I wish you the best of luck on your future endeavors!

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