Games and The Internet

Parsing how the past is used online and in video games.

Games and The InternetWhat is History For?

Facebook and the Value of Forgetting

Several years ago, I became good friends with a woman who had been abused by her previous partner. Abuse is shockingly common; her experience is not all that unusual. She confessed to me that she would wake up bolt-upright at 3am, shaking from night terrors. Things that would remind her—even just a little—of her previous partner would send her into a tailspin. Even saying his name could overwhelm her and give her a full-blown panic attack.

Her story is, sadly, not that unusual. But what made her experience particularly bad was that she had an exceptional memory—something approaching either what psychologists term an Eidetic memory or Hyperthymesia, where one can easily recall with great precision images and events from your past. Being able to remember everything from where you put your keys to the little wrinkles around your first child’s eyes may sound like a dream, but for her, the experience was a waking nightmare.

For her, counselling and therapy helped her to eventually make the memories—if ever present—less intrusive in her daily life. It allowed her, if not to forget per se, to choose what to remember on any given moment.

And perhaps ironically, that is one of the chief ways in which we, as a society, use history: we use it in order to decide what to remember and what to forget. (more…)

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Games and The Internet

How to be an historian on the internet without losing your mind: Reddit

This is the first in an open-ended series on finding and engaging with new audiences on the internet. If you have experience working with or presenting content through new venues on the internet, please get in touch! Your perspective would be welcome on The Public Medievalist!

A map of the internet, created by Randall Monroe of

The internet is a wild place. It’s a marvel of our era, a place where we are “capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man” which we then use “to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.” This quote succinctly illustrates the beautiful potential of the internet, as well as its inherent silliness and toxicity. It comes from one of the most interesting– in all senses of the word– sites on the internet: (more…)

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Games and The Internet

Banished: The Medieval Game that Isn’t

One of the most venerable genres of computer games is the city-building simulator. SimCity is the great-granddaddy of them all, of course, and many kids in my generation wasted plenty of recess hours hunched over a computer program which, somehow, managed to make urban planning and civic zoning fun.

SimCity’s breakout success made its makers at Maxis a household name among many gamers. And Maxis went on to launch a number of sequels (though the shambolic failure of the most recent iteration has threatened to derail its future), as well as a number of other Sim-games (SimEarth, SimLife, SimAnt, SimFarm). Other companies also took up the mantle, often asking their players to build cities in exciting historical locales: Pharaoh for ancient Egypt, Caesar for Rome, Tropico for the 20th-century Caribbean, and the Anno series had titles set in 1701, 1404 and 2070.

The remarkable thing about the gameplay of SimCity was its lack of external conflict. In short, by contrast with the vast majority of games then and now, there were no bad guys to shoot, no race cars to overtake, no bosses to defeat, no princesses to save. The fundamental challenge was in creating a perfectly-balanced system, where each of the metaphorical gears would run in time with all the others. That is, until this guy showed up to ruin everything:

By contrast, city-Sims set in the Middle Ages typically restored the external conflict. Medieval cities, it seems, were less interesting as whirring, dynamic urban centers, and more interesting as fortifications against plundering hordes. The successful Stronghold franchise is a testament to this trend, where, in only the medieval context, the city-sim was replaced by the castle-sim.

And so it was no small interest that I recently began playing Banished.

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Fantasy vs. RealityGames and The Internet

It’s What You Do With It That Counts: Factual accuracy and mechanical accuracy in Crusader Kings II

Guest post from Robert Houghton. Robert mainly researches urban and episcopal history in Italy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and also has a strong interest in the portrayal of the Middle Ages in the media. He currently works at the University of St Andrews and as a research consultant for Paradox Interactive.

 A few weeks ago, Paul posted about the mechanics of historical computer games and how it’s more important to have accurate mechanics than it is to have accurate facts. I’d like to elaborate on this with the example of Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings II, a game which I have had the pleasure of working on since January 2013. (more…)

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Games and The Internet

Playing with the Middle Ages

For those of you who didn’t grow up on a steady, square-eyed diet of Mario and/or Sonic, the world of video games may seem alien. The stereotypes about games, and gamers, are legion, but the most pervasive one that exist is that games are fluff entertainment, pure mindless escapism. Sure, there may be more-edifying ones worthy for the classroom like Oregon Trail or SimCity, but the vast majority of the contemporary game-scape is as vapid as a ten-year-old playing Call of Duty or as sad as a Farmville addict. Certainly no place for the thinking medievalist.

Thankfully, if that ever was the case, it certainly is not so any longer. Leaving aside for the moment that the games industry has long surpassed the film industry as the most popular entertainment industry, over the past five years there has been a remarkable renaissance in the world of gaming, one that historians should pay careful attention to.

The past five years has shown two things. First has been an incredible diversification in terms of the games which have been released. This has been due to two things: (1) the development of far easier game-building tools, which has significantly lowered the expertise bar necessary to develop a game, and (2) the distribution of games over the internet through platforms like Steam, which lowered the cost for distributing a game. Suddenly, you didn’t need to have the resources of Blizzard or EA to make a game, and you didn’t need million-dollar sales to turn a profit.

This has resulted in a massive fragmentation of the market. Sure, there are still the annual standbys; each year shows another iteration of Battlefield or Fifa, and World of Warcraft continues to devour people whole. But along the way there has been a new outcropping of smaller, “indie” games. These games tend towards the niche, the experimental, the novel, telling stories that appeal for smaller audiences, and appealing to entirely new ones. Minecraft has taken this brave new world of gaming by storm, but it is far from the only one.

The second thing that has occurred over the past five years is that people have begun to take games seriously. Previously, games magazines were almost entirely devoted to reviews and industry hype, and some certainly still are (I’m looking at you, PCGamer). But others have arisen which discuss games not only in this surface-level, but delve into the bigger questions of games as an emerging art form which has the potential to tell stories in ways our other arts cannot. Like the innovative indie games that have come out in tandem with them, they are online-only affairs: The Escapist, Rock Paper Shotgun, and Extra Credits.

Extra Credits is a weekly video series written by game designer James Portnow, and presented by animator Daniel Floyd, with a rotating cast of artists. It has a fast-paced, humorous style, but underneath an often-silly veneer lies a compelling, often highly intellectual examination of the world of games. But, and this is where their great success lies, their discussions always remain as accessible as the games they are discussing. It’s the first rule of games—one which academia could do well to adopt: if people can’t play, you’ve lost.

The reason why I give special mention to Extra Credits is due to an episode that they just released which discusses concepts immediately relevant to the world of public medievalism: historical video games.

Here is the episode in question. Watch it. I’ll wait.

Done? Great.

In their discussion of whether it is possible to learn from games, they argue that it boils down to one question:

“Is the point of history to learn dates, names and facts? Or to learn from history, and to understand the struggles of people in the past so that we may better make decisions in our lives today. If you believe the value of history is in the former, then the value of historical games are questionable at best. But if you believe it to be the latter, well then historical games may well be one of the best ways to learn history.”

Now, I tend to think there are other, more compelling reasons that history is valuable (outlined here and here for a start) than it can inform our decision-making process, but they make a compelling argument. History is definitely not about names and dates, and games can be remarkable tools for learning. This is because games, by their very nature, require the player to make choices—often hard choices. This is so central to the nature of games that legendary game designer Sid Meier (who created Civilization and a myriad of other classics) is often attributed with having defined good games as “a series of interesting choices”.

The Extra Credits team get it right: the power of these games is their ability to place the player within the shoes of an historical person and, if done well, force them to see through their eyes in some small way, and to make the difficult choices that were presented to them. Every good historical game is an exercise in role-playing.

And, moreover, they also get it right in that games—like films before them—have focused too much on the accuracy of minute historical details (possibly because there was until relatively recently a focus on those details among film critics and historical film scholars). Instead, games, like films, would be better served by delving more deeply into the worldview of the people they are portraying. Not an easy task, even for an historian.

He will pay for this in time.

The goal in games, as they rightly put, is mechanical accuracy. In a conference presentation I gave a few years ago, I lambasted medieval-historical strategy games for their mechanics. The Civilization series, for example, is predicated on the rather-perverse views that 1) technology is always good, 2) the goal of any civilization is to conquer (through one means or another) all others, 3) that history is shaped primarily by the great men and women at the heads of civilizations and 4) cultures have been static from the dawn of history through the present day. These are mechanics central to the game, and without which it wouldn’t work– at least in the way it does. This last one can lead to the bizarrely amusing scenario of Gandhi and George Washington facing off with armies of giant robots in the year 2030. And certainly I would not expect any reasonable player of Civilization to think that leaders of civilizations are undying totemic figures that are both timeless and omnipotent (as they seem to be in the game). But it would be a very interesting question to see whether players of this game tend to take more stock in a presentist view of history—where, as in the game—all roads inevitably lead towards technological progress and our current age.

So, as we come to grips with this new medium, I would implore any of you interested in them to think more deeply about games. Do not make the mistake that historians originally did with films and focus on the surface-level mistakes. Instead, look under the hood at the game mechanics, and try to see how they might be shaping people’s ideas about the past.

Tell me—what are your favourite medieval games? And what do their mechanics say about the past?

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Games and The Internet

A Bestiary of Political Animals: Medievalists on Facebook

by Dr. Alaric Hall

Note: This article was originally unintentionally truncated due to a track-changes error. Below is the full Director’s Cut.

Some weeks, especially when I’m teaching, I don’t so much as glance at Facebook, but out here in ResearchLeaveLand, Facebook becomes a seductive distraction from actually getting work done. However, I’ve started to think it’s having a more interesting, and profound, effect on my scholarship than that.

In academia, personal and professional identities tend to be closely intertwined, and Facebook now seems to be their social network of choice. LinkedIn has never taken off among my academic friends, nor have the discussion pages of taken off. I’d rather be using a non-evil, open-source alternative like Diaspora or Friendica, but for now, if you want to make friends with a medievalist, Facebook is probably where you go.

Medievalists aren’t that used to thinking about their research as an extension of their personal politics. Despite some noble exceptions, medievalists have a heritage of ignoring critical theory and seldom explicitly address politics in their research or teaching (and when they do, it’s mostly feminism, which is fine, but hardly everything).* But I have an anecdotal sense that Facebook is having a role in politicising medievalists’ academic identities in ways we never expected when we signed up to it—or to studying the medieval past.

Not that I really know much about Facebook…

Obviously there’s loads of proper research on the social consequences of Facebook—on how far it promotes enlightenment, or freedom, or joy, or groupthink, or oppression, or envy—which I won’t attempt to touch on here. And maybe my experience of Facebook is unusual. But I guess some things about putting a bunch of academics on Facebook are almost inevitable: you can get instant, expert help with research problems; you can ask if anyone can send you that article in Another Journal Too Expensive for My Library to Subscribe to Studies. You agonise about whether to befriend your students before graduation day; you get distracted from your research.

But more surprisingly, yet more profoundly: Facebook means that I know a lot more about my colleagues than I used to.

I don’t particularly mean the people in my department, who I know by their words and deeds from day to day—in three dimensions, as it were. I mean my colleagues out there in the Republic of Letters: the people ‘in my field’, whether lecturers, postgrads, or the amateurs who get the starring role in Carolyn Dinshaw’s How Soon is Now?. Before Facebook, I mostly knew these folks only from the articles and books they published, or from bumping into them now and again at conferences or in the British Library.

If you’re having a chat with someone at a conference, you’re probably going to talk about your research or last year’s teaching load. Should you somehow discover that one of you thinks that meat is murder while the other’s reaching for a ham sandwich, a mutual desire for self-preservation will probably kick in and before you know it you’ll be discussing cutbacks in research funding. You can co-write an article with someone and never have the slightest idea of their views on gay marriage, global warming, unionisation, or electoral reform.

A couple of years of Facebook acquaintance pretty inevitably changes that—even if it’s just that you start to notice what gets people clicking the ‘like’ button. You could never say that Facebook gives you a three-dimensional sense of someone; but a shift from a one-dimensional acquaintance to a two-dimensional one is still quite a big change.

I’ll give a straightforward example of how getting to know people on Facebook affected my work: it’s helped me recognise how the conservative politics which brought me to academic medieval studies back in my teens still in some ways shape my research. But then I want to think about some more subtle effects that Facebook may be having on medievalists’ academic identities: changing how well we know each other’s politics changes how we work more generally.

Do elves vote UKIP?

Nigel Farange: An Elf or a Troll?
Nigel Farange: An Elf or a Troll?

A year or so after I joined Facebook, I started getting friend requests from people I’d never met or had met fleetingly at some conference. These people weren’t professional academics, but had nonetheless read and even enjoyed my intractable monograph on early medieval traditional beliefs.

Okay, I mean on elves.

These folk are often thoughtful and serious neo-pagans or historical re-enactors and I’m honoured that they wanted to get to know me. At the same time, some of these folks who I’ve got to e-know also turn out, among all the common ground, to have some political commitments I’m really uncomfortable with: mostly nationalism, with a politics that in my view at best abets racism or bigotry and at worst simply is racist. (BTW, if this is my view of your Facebook feed, I will have told you!) I’m not saying all the neo-pagans or historical re-enactors I know have these views, but there’s a trend; in England, a key attraction of the Anglo-Saxon or Viking past is presumably that it can be imagined to underpin a white, often patriarchal, English identity. Were it not for Facebook, I would have no idea about this—or little enough that I could ignore it.

I don’t think my scholarship is bad, nor that it’s my right to control what people make of it. And English people who are attracted to nationalisms which embrace martial masculinity or oppose Britain’s cultural diversity are generally themselves reacting to oppressions—things like thirty years of growing inequality—or to the cynical, self-interested, divide-and-conquer demagoguery of the likes of Nigel Farrage or Paul Dacre. But their opinions still push me to reflect on the reasons why I, as a white, male teenager in the Tory-voting Home Counties who was looking to find an identity to one side of the mainstream, got into medieval studies myself—and I certainly shouldn’t be so surprised that I’ve wound up asking research questions that appeal to white English masculine identities.

This doesn’t mean I should turn from scholarship to writing op-eds with footnotes. But in becoming aware of how my research has previously been constrained by one politics, I have the chance to develop research which questions and challenges those constraints. I’m a long way from working out quite what that means, ut my decision to research the use and abuse of medieval and folkloric ideas in Iceland after the 2008 financial crisis has partly been a deliberate step towards rethinking the cultural frameworks that have defined my scholarly career so far. Facebook had a direct role in changing my research agenda.

Medievalists are political animals

You’d have to have buried your head pretty deep in the Leopold von Ranke back catalogue to have missed postmodernism entirely; we all know the culture(s) in which we live shape our work, and that the closest we may come to objectivity may be to try to be self-aware and to make our assumptions explicit. Even Peter Burke’s appealing dictum, that historians should take ‘an approach to the past which asks present-minded questions but refuses to give present-minded answers’ might be on the optimistic side. But we are seldom open about political alignments or implications in our scholarly writing. The fact that Chris Wickham is a Real-Life Marxist is occasionally mentioned in the same tone that you might whisper that one of your friends works for MI5; but at least in my corner of the world, it generally still feels a bit declassé for medievalists to have open political commitments in their scholarship, as Kathryn Maude’s recent piece on this emphasises.

But the better we know each other, the more we can see that we’re inside politics, which makes me wonder whether, as we start to get used to seeing our colleagues as political animals, we’ll become more accepting of politics as part of our own academic personas. My impression is that through Facebook, dispersed networks of scholars are unwittingly building networks of trust (and also distrust), enabling them to talk to people in their field (sometimes online, sometimes in person) about problems like bullying by their employers or sexual harassment. You’d be fairly unlikely to be open about this if all you knew about someone was that they were an expert in, say, ninth-century Sicilian fortification. These networks are more likely to lead to real-life action within academia. One little example is that my rage at seeing some academics saying on Facebook that they’ve vandalised Wikipedia inspired me to a blogpost about Wikipedia’s merits that seems, in turn, to have changed some of my colleagues’ views.

Rightly or wrongly, I think of Facebook as our (more socially inclusive) version of the eighteenth-century European coffee-houses which were the nodal points in modernity’s new ‘public sphere’ as Jürgen Habermas imagined it in his The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Probably 95% of the time, those eighteenth-century coffee-guzzlers were just off their heads on caffeine, laughing at the eighteenth-century equivalent of each other’s compromising selfies. But the other 5%, they were reading newspapers to each other, arguing about them, and, however improbably, forging a new politics. They even had a part in Europe’s yet more improbable shift from monarchy to what we call democracy. Right now, I’d be willing to settle for a bit more support for the free-access publishing: for carrying through the so-called ‘academic spring’. But change is afoot in medieval studies. And I like it.



* Not that engaging with critical theory is everything: I know some people in other fields whose research and teaching seems profoundly politicised but whose real-life commitment to these politics turns out to be about as stout as a jellyfish.

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