This week my HIST2809 students are encountering digital history, as part of their ‘Historian’s Craft’ class (an introduction to various tools & methods). As part of the upcoming assignment, I’m having them run some history websites through Voyant, as a way of sussing out how these websites craft a particular historical consciousness. Each week, there’s a two-hour lecture and one hour of tutorial where the students lead discussions given the lecture & assigned readings. For this week, I want the students to explore different flavours of Digital History – here are the readings:
- “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History” The Journal of American History. 95 (2008). http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/issues/952/interchange/index.html
- van Dijck, J. (2010). Search engines and the production of academic knowledge. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 13(6), 574 -592. doi:10.1177/1367877910376582
- Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “The Remaking of Reading: Text Mining and the Digital Humanities”
- Graham, Shawn and Rob Blades Mining the Open Web with ‘Looted Heritage’. http://electricarchaeology.ca/2012/06/08/mining-the-open-web-with-looted-heritage-draft/
- Kee, K., S. Graham, et al, “Towards a Theory of Good History through Good Gaming”. Canadian Historical Review 90. No.2 (2009): 303-326. http://bit.ly/gRpbnj
“Possible discussion questions: How is digital history different? In ten years, will there still be something called ‘digital history’ or will we all history be digital? Is there space for writing history through games or simulations? How should historians cope with that? What kind of logical fallacies would such approaches be open to?”
To help the TAs bring the students up to speed with using Voyant, I’ve suggested to them that they might find it fun/interesting/useful/annoying to run one of those papers through Voyant. Here’s a link to the ‘Interchange’ article, loaded into Voyant:
The TAs could put that up on the screen, click on various words in the word cloud, to see how the word is used over the course of a single article (though in this case, there are several academics speaking, so the patterns are in part author-related). Click on ‘scholarship’ in the word cloud, and you get a graph of its usage on the right – the highest point is clickable (‘segment six’). Click on that, and the relevant bit of text appears in the middle, as Bill Turkel talks about the extent to which historical scholarship should be free. On the bottom left, if you click on ‘words in the entire corpus’, you can select ‘access’ and ‘scholarship’, which will put both of them on the graph
( http://voyant-tools.org/tool/TypeFrequenciesChart/?corpus=1363622350848.367&docIdType=d1363579550728.b646f3e3-65d1-2347-c580-5e5c0985e6d0%3Ascholarship&docIdType=d1363579550728.b646f3e3-65d1-2347-c580-5e5c0985e6d0%3Aaccess&stopList=stop.en.taporware.txt&mode=document&limit=2 )
and you’ll see that the two words move in perfect tandem, so the discussion in here is all about digital tools opening access to scholarship – except in segment 8. The question would then become, why?
….so by doing this exercise, the students should get a sense of how looking at macroscopic patterns involves jumping back to the close reading we’re normally familiar with, then back out again, in an iterative process, generating new questions all along the way. An hour is a short period of time, really, but I think this would be a valuable exercise.
(I have of course made screen capture videos walking the students through the various knobs and dials of Voyant. This is a required course here at Carleton. 95 students are enrolled. 35 come to every lecture. Approximately 50 come to the tutorials. Roughly half the class never comes…. in protest that it’s a requirement? apathy? thinking they know how to write an essay so what could I possibly teach them? That’s a question for another day, but I’m fairly certain that the next assignment, as it requires careful use of Voyant, is going to be a helluva surprise for that fraction.”
At my university, we’ve been asked to consider discipline-specific language for new tenure & promotion guidelines. I’ve been writing a response to our chair, and I thought, in keeping with how I regard this problem, it would be a good idea to share these thoughts.
The 1.4 edition of the Journal of Digital Humanities wrestles with the problem of evaluating digital scholarship for tenure http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/volumes/ (or download as pdf: http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/files/jdh_1_4.pdf )
Moving Goalposts & Scholarship as Processes
As far as discipline specific guidelines are concerned, from my perspective, is the problem that the goalposts are always going to be shifting. What was fairly technically demanding becomes easier with time, and so the focus shifts from ‘can we do x’ to ‘what are the implications of x for y’, or as Bethany Nowviskie put it, a shift from 18th century ‘Lunaticks‘ who lay the groundwork for 19th century science and industrialization. Another problem is that in digital work, the lone scholar is very much the outlier. To achieve anything worthwhile takes a team – and who gets to be first author does not necessarily reflect the way the work was divied up or undertaken. We should resist trying to shoehorn digital work into boxes meant for a different medium. Nowiskie writes,
“The danger here … is that T&P committees faced with the work of a digital humanities scholar will instigate a search for print equivalencies — aiming to map every project that is presented to them, to some other completed, unary and generally privately-created object (like an article, an edition, or a monograph). That mapping would be hard enough in cases where it is actually appropriate “
She goes on to say,
“…the new responsibility of tenure and promotion committees [is] to assess quality in digital humanities work — not in terms of product or output — but as embodied in an evolving and continuous series of transformative processes.”
This was the gist of Bill Turkel’s address to the Underhill Graduate Students Colloquium on ‘doing history in real time’ – that the unique value, in an increasingly digital world, of formal academic knowledge is not about things per se, but rather about method. You can look up any fact in the world in seconds. But learning how to think, how to query, how to judge between competing stories – that’s what we bring. That then is the problem for assessing digital work as part of tenure and promotion: how does this work change the process?
That suggests a hierarchy too, of importance. Merely putting things online, while important, is not necessarily transformative unless that kind of material has never been digitized before. Then the conversation also becomes about how that work was done, the decisions made, the relationship between the digital object and the physical one. I have a student working on a project, for instance, to put together an online exhibition related to Black History in Canada. This is important, but the exhibition itself is not transformative. The real scholarship, the real transformation, happens when she starts exploring those materials through text analysis, putting a macroscopic lens on the whole corpus of materials that she has collected.
Digital Work is Public Work
The other important point about process is that digital work always (99.9 times out of 100; my early agent modeling work had no internet presence, for instance) has a public, outward looking face. Platforms like blogs allow for public engagement with our work – so digital work is a kind of public humanities. The structure of the internet, of how its algorithmns find and construct knowledge and serve that up to us via Google, is such that work that is valuable and of interest creates a bigger noise in a positive feedback loop. The best digital work is done in public. ‘Public’ should not be a dirty word along the lines of ‘popular’. The internet looks different to each person who goes online (and our algorithmns make sure that each person sees a personalized internet, because that’s how one makes money online), so hits on a blog post are not random meaningless clicks but rather an engagement with a broader community. As far as academic blogging goes, that broader community is other academics and students. Print journals & peer reviewed articles are just one way of engaging with our chosen communities. With post-publication models of peer review like Digital Humanities Now and the Journal of Digital Humanities (models that are making inroads in other disciplines), we should treat these on an equal footing with the more familiar models. I’d argue that post-publication peer review is a greater indicator of significance and value that a regular, two blind reviewers into print model.
I’d like to see language then that regarded digital work, or work in media other than print, on an equal footing with the more familiar forms. That is, as things that do not have equivalencies to what we traditionally expect and thus must be taken on their own terms. I appreciate that I’m pretty much the only person in this department that any of this might apply to, for the time being. I would hate to see my work on topic modeling though get considered as ‘service’. Figuring out how to apply natural language processing to vast corpi of historical materials, figuring out the ways the code force particular worldviews, hide others, and writing all of this up as a ‘how-to’ guide is indeed research. It’s akin to figuring out how gene-sequencing works, its limitations, etc, which needs to be well understood before a biologist can use it to link modern humans to Neanderthals. We understand both of those activities as research, in biology, but we’d only understand the second as research if the example was the limits, potentials of topic modeling / discourses in the political thought of the 18th century. I bring this up, because of Sean Takats experience at George Mason:
Project Management & Project Outputs
In that particular case, Takats was also managing major development projects to develop various tools and approaches. He writes,
” I want to focus on the committee’s disregard for project management, because it’s here I think that we find evidence of a much broader communication breakdown between DH and just-H, despite the best efforts to develop reasonable standards for evaluating digital scholarship. Although the committee’s letter effectively excludes “project management” from consideration as research, I would argue that it’s actually the cornerstone of all successful research. It’s project management that transforms a dissertation prospectus into a thesis, and it’s certainly project management that shepherds a monograph from proposal to published book. Fellow humanists, I have some news for you: you’re all project managers, even if you only direct a staff of one.”
Which leads me to my next point. Digital work creates all sorts of outputs, that are of use at many different stages to other researchers. These outputs should be considered as valuable publications in their own right. An agent based simulation of emergent social structures in the early Iron Age makes an argument in code about how the Roman world worked. If I published a discussion of the results of such a model, that is fine; but if I don’t make that code available for someone else to critique, extend, or transform, I am being academically dishonest. The time it takes to build a model that works, is valid, that simulates something important, and the process it takes to build such a model, is considerable. The data that such a model produces is valuable for others looking to re-build a model of the same phenomena in another platform (which is crucial to validating the truth-content of models). All of these sorts of outputs can be made available online in digital archives built for the purpose of long term storage. The number of times such models are downloaded or discussed online can often be measured; these measures should also be taken into account as a kind of citation (see http://figshare.com/authors/Shawn_Graham/97736 ).
Experimentation and Risk Taking
Finally, I think that work that is experimental, that discusses what didn’t work, should be recognized and celebrated. Todd Presner writes, (http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-4/how-to-evaluate-digital-scholarship-by-todd-presner/ )
” Digital projects in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Arts share with experimental practices in the Sciences a willingness to be open about iteration and negative results. As such, experimentation and trial-and-error are inherent parts of digital research and must be recognized to carry risk. The processes of experimentation can be documented and prove to be essential in the long-term development process of an idea or project. White papers, sets of best practices, new design environments, and publications can result from such projects and these should be considered in the review process. Experimentation and risk-taking in scholarship represent the best of what the university, in all its many disciplines, has to offer society. To treat scholarship that takes on risk and the challenge of experimentation as an activity of secondary (or no) value for promotion and advancement, can only serve to reduce innovation, reward mediocrity, and retard the development of research.”
One of my blog posts, ‘How I Lost the Crowd‘, discusses how my one project got hacked. That piece was read by some 400 people shortly after it was posted – and it later found its way into various digital history syllabi ( for instance here. This post has been read over 700 times in the past 10 months. Failing in public is where research and teaching are the same side of the same coin (he said, to mangle a metaphor).
So what should one look for?
Work that is transformative; where multi-authored work is valued as much as the single-author opus; work that is outward facing and is recognized by others through linking, reposting, sharing (and other so-called ‘alt-metrics; cf http://impactstory.org/ for one attempt to pull these all together); data-as-publication; code-as-publication; experiments and risktaking and open discussion of what does and what does not work; software development & project management should be recognized as research; and any work that lays the groundwork for others to see further – the humble ‘how to’ (our lunatick moment; see for instance http://programminghistorian.org ).
For explicit guidelines on how to evaluate digital work, see Rockwell, http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-4/short-guide-to-evaluation-of-digital-work-by-geoffrey-rockwell/
Considering any digital work, Rockwell suggests the following questions:
- Is it accessible to the community of study?
- Did the creator get competitive funding? Have they tried to apply?
- Have there been any expert consultations? Has this been shown to others for expert opinion?
- Has the work been reviewed? Can it be submitted for peer review? (things like Digital Humanities Now, & JDH are crucial here)
- Has the work been presented at conferences?
- Have papers or reports about the project been published? (whether online or print, born-digital or otherwise is not the issue here)
- Do others link to it? Does it link out well?
- If it is an instructional project, has it been assessed appropriately?
- Is there a deposit plan? Will it be accessible over the longer term? Will the library take it?
I’m not saying that we should build this checklist into any tenure and promotion language; rather I’m offering it here to suggest that any such language, if it broadly considers such things, will probably be ok, in the hopes of finding an acceptable middle ground between the box-tickers and the non-boxtickers. Rockwell offers some best practices for carrying out digital work, that speak to these questions:
- Appropriate content (What was digitized?)
- Digitization to archival standards (Are images saved to museum or archival standards?)
- Encoding (Does it use appropriate markup like XML or follow TEI guidelines?)
- Enrichment (Has the data been annotated, linked, and structured appropriately?)
- Technical Design (Is the delivery system robust, appropriate, and documented?)
- Interface Design and Usability (Is it designed to take advantage of the medium? Has the interface been assessed? Has it been tested? Is it accessible to its intended audience?)
- Online Publishing (Is it published from a reliable provider? Is it published under a digital imprint?)
- Demonstration (Has it been shown to others?)
- Linking (Does it connect well with other projects?)
- Learning (Is it used in a course? Does it support pedagogical objectives? Has it been assessed?)
This is of course a thinking-out-loud exercise, and will no doubt change. Thoughts?
I’m addressing the Underhill Graduate Students’ Colloquium tomorrow, here in the history department at Carleton U. Below are my slides for ‘Living the Life Electric: On Becoming a Digital Humanist’
update March 7: here are my speaking notes. These give a rough sense of what I intend to talk about at various points. Bolded titles are the titles of slides. Not every slide is listed, as some speak more or less for themselves.
I wanted to be an archaeologist - I graduated in 2002.
‘Digital Humanities’ wasn’t coined until 2004.
It emerges from ‘humanities computing’, which has been around since the 1940s.
In fact, computing wouldn’t be the way it is today without the Humanities, and the Jesuit, Father Busa.
Eastern Canada’s Only Stamped Brick Specialist -Roman archaeology
Eastern Canada’s only Stamped Brick Specialist, probably
….things were pretty lean in 2003…
Life from a suitcase
Comin’ Home Again
Youth development grant to study cultural heritage of my home township
Also a small teaching excavation based in Shawville
Which led to a teaching gig at the local high school.
A Year of Living Secondarily
What was it about my academic work that I really enjoyed?
Possibilities of Simulation
Random Chances and the virtues of ‘What the Hell’
Meanwhile, I enter business – 3 different startups, one of which has survived (so far!)
Heritage education – learned how to install my own software, LMS
Trying to monetize the information I uncovered in my cultural heritage study
Coronation Hall Cider Mills
What are the digital humanities – think about it: modern computers were developed in order to allow us to map, forecast, the consequences of massive annihilation and death. Simulation is rooted in the desire to predict future death counts. My interest emerged from trying to simulate my own understandings of the past, to understand the unintended consequences of my understandings, to put some sort of order on the necessarily incomplete materials I was looking at. I call it ‘practical necromancy’
Do your work in public blog was originally intended to chronicle my work on simulation, but it has become very much the driver of my online identity, the calling card that others see when they intersect my work – and because it’s been up for so long, with a sustained focus, it creates a very strong signal which our algorithms, Google, pick up. This is how academics can push the public discourse: interfere with the world’s extended mind, their entangled consciousness of cyberspace & meatspace.
Allows you to develop your ideas
Forces you to write in small chunks
Exposes your work to potential audiences
My blog posts have been cited in others’ academic monographs
Has improved the readership of my published work
A quarter million page reads over the last six years.
My book: maybe 40 copies, if I’m lucky.
Basic Word Counts
digital 1082 research 650 university 577 experience 499 library 393 humanities 386
History: 177 times
Broadly, not useful or surprising. But consider the structure of word use…
Group 1: gives you a sense of technical skills, but for the most part not the kinds of analyses that one would use that for. That’s an important distinction. The analysis should drive the skill set, not the other way around (a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail)
Group 2: European centres!
Group 3: Canada!
Job adverts – to – topics. Six broad groups based on how the adverts share particular discourses. Gives a sense of where academic departments think this field is going. If I’d done this according to individual researcher’s blogs, or the ‘about’ pages for different centres, you’d get a very different picture – game studies, for instance.
Important point: I wanted to show you how you can begin to approach large masses of material, and extract insights, suss out, underlying structures of ideas. This is going to be big in the future, as more and more data about our every waking moment gets recorded. Google Glass? It’s not about the user: it’s about everything the user sees, which’ll get recorded in the googleplex. Governments. Marketers. University Administrations. Learn to extract signals from this noise, and you’ll never go hungry again.
Keep in mind that in 1994 I wrote that the internet would never be useful for academics. My ability to predict the future is thus suspect.
So how to join this brave new world? Twitter, etc.
In this case, the two mode network of jobs to top consituent topics provides much more clarity than the graph I posted at the end of part 2, the one-mode jobs-to-jobs via shared topics. I used the java gui for MALLET, which arranges the output in a very nice hyperlinked folder, which you may explore here. You can grab the CSV and the Gephi files from this directory.
If we look at simple word frequencies in the 2012 job advertisement documents for Digital Humanities, we find these top words and raw frequency counts:
(I’ve deleted ‘digital’ and ‘humanities’ from this list).
If job advertisements are a way of signalling what an institution hopes the future will hold, one gets the sense that the focus of digital humanities work will be on projects, on research, in conjunction with libraries. But we can extract more nuance, using network analysis. You can feed the texts into Voyant’s ‘RezoViz’ tool, which extracts paired nouns in each document.
This can be outputted as a .net file, and then imported into Gephi. The resulting graph has 1461 nodes, and 20649 edges. Of course, there are some duplicates (like ‘US’ and ‘United States’), but this is only meant to be rough and ready, ‘generative‘, as it were (and note also that a network visualization is not necessary for the analysis. So no spaghetti balls. What’s important are the metrics). What I’d like to find out are what concepts are doing the heavy lifting in these job advertisements? What is the hidden structure of the future of digital humanities, as evidenced by job advertisements in the English speaking world?
My suspicion is that ‘modularity’ aka ‘community detection’, and ‘betweeness centrality’, are going to be the key metrics for figuring this out. Modularity groups nodes on the basis of shared similar local patternings of ties (or, to put it another way, it decomposes the global network into maximal subnetworks). Seth Long recently did some network analysis on the Unabomber’s manifesto, and lucidly explains why betweeness centrality is a useful metric for understanding semantic meaning: ”A word with high betweenness centrality is a word through which many meanings in a text circulate.” In other words, the heavy lifters.
So let’s peer into the future.
I ended up with about 15 groups. The first three groups by modularity account for 75% of the nodes, and 80% of the ties. These are the groups where the action lies. So let’s look at words with the highest betweenness centrality scores for those first three groups.
The first group
METS (Metadata encoding and transmission standard)
‘University’ is not surprising, and not useful. So let us discard it and bring in the next highest word:
This one group by modularity also has all of the highest betweenness centrality scores – and it reads like a laundry list of the skills a budding DH practitioner must hold. The US, and New York would seem to be the centre of the world, too.
If we take the next ten words, we get:
MODS (Netadata Object Description Schema)
CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources)
University of Alberta
Again, skills and places figure – in Canada, U of A appears. So far, the impression is that DH is all about text, markup, and metadata. Our favorite programming languages are python and ruby. We use php, xhtml, xml, and drupal (plain-jane vanilla html eventually turns up in the list, but it’s buried very, very deep.).
So that’s an impression of the first group. (Remembering that groups are defined by patterns of similarity in their linkages).
The Second Group
The next group looks like this:
Department of Digital Humanities
Department of History
“digital humanities” is probably not helpful, so let’s eliminate that and go one more down: “US”. Indeed, let’s take a look at the next ten, too:
Head of School
Faculty of Humanities
University of Amsterdam
Here, we’re dealing very much with a UK, Ireland, and European focus. The ‘BCE’ is telling, for it suggests an archaeological focus in there, somewhere (unless this is some new DH acronym of which I’m not aware; I’m assuming ‘before the common era’).
The Third Group
In the final group we’ll consider here, we find a strong Canadian focus:
CRC (Canada Research Chair)
TEI (Text Encoding Initiative)
Canada Research Chair
Digital Humanities Summer Institute
University of Victoria
Since we’ve got some duplication in here, let’s look at the next ten:
ETCL (Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory, U Victoria)
University of Waterloo
DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute)
Faculty of Arts
‘Canada Research Chairs’ are well-funded government appointments, and so give an indication of where the state would like to see some research. Victoria continually punches above its weight, with look ins from Waterloo and Concordia.
So what have we learned? Well, despite the efforts of the digital history community, ‘digital humanities’ is still largely a literary endeavor – although it’s quite possible that a lot of the marking up that these job advertisements might envision could be of historical documents. Invest in some python skills (see Programming Historian). My friends in government tell me that if you can data mine, you’ll be set for life, as the government is looking for those skills. (Alright, that didn’t come out in this analysis at all, but he’s looking over my shoulder right now).
Finally – London, Dublin, New York, Edmonton, Victoria, Waterloo, Montreal – these seem to be the geographic hotspots. Speaking of temperature, Victoria has the nicest weather. Go there, young student!
Or come to Carleton and study with me. We’ve got tunnels.
update March 4th: jobs-topics-dh as a network graph IN the analysis above, I’ve generated a network using Voyant’s RezoViz tool. Today, I topic modelled all of the texts looking for 10 topics. So a slightly different approach. I turned the resulting document composition (ie doc 1 is 44% topic 1, 22% topic 4, 10% topic 3, etc) into a two mode graph, job advert to top two constituent topics. I then turned this into a 1 mode graph where job adverts are tied to other job adverts based on topic composition. Then I ran modularity, and found 3 groups by modularity; edges are percent composition by topics discerned through topic modeling.Nodes are ‘betweenness centrality’. Most between? George Mason University. I’m not sure what ‘betweenness centrality’ means though in this context, yet.
Makes for interesting clusters of job adverts. Topic model results to be discussed tomorrow.
2012 was a good year for hirings in the digital humanities. See for yourself at this archive of DH jobs: http://jobs.lofhm.org/ Now: what do these job adverts tell us, if you’re a graduate student trying to find your way?
Next week, I’m speaking to the Underhill Graduate Students’ Colloquium at Carleton University on ‘Living the life electric: becoming a digital humanist’. It’s broadly autobiographical in that I’ll talk about my own idiosyncratic path into this field.
That’s quite the point: there’s no firm/accepted/typical/you-ought-to-do X recipe for becoming a digital humanist. You have to find your own way, though the growing body of courses, books, journals, blog-o-sphere and twitterverse certainly makes a huge difference.
But in the interests of providing perhaps a more satisfying answer, I’ll try my hand at data mining those job posts (some 150 of them) using Voyant and MALLET to see what augurs for the future of the field.
Feel free to explore the corpus uploaded into Voyant. In any graphs you produce, January is on the left, December is on the right. If you spot anything interesting/curious, let me know.
And, because word counts are amazing:
I’m to speak at the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education conference at Carleton in May; I’m one of the keynotes. I’ve never done a keynote before… I have a great fear of bringing coals to Newcastle, as it were. Pressed for a title and an abstract, this is what I’ve come up with (for good or ill):
Some Assembly Required
Every day, another university signs up to participate in Udacity, Coursera, or another of the monster MOOCs. Every day, another job posting makes ‘digital humanities’ a requirement. These two trends are not unrelated. Canadians have been at the forefront of massively open online courses, and in work that has come to be known as ‘digital humanities’, long before the current mania. In this talk, I want to tease apart the strands and histories that conflate these two trends. I want to look at how a perspective grounded in the digital humanities (whatever they are) is not just the latest trend, but rather a prism with a deep history through which we can refract our teaching and learning, and where MOOCs can be transmogrified into good pedagogy. Some assembly is required, and in neither trend can humans be replaced. Rather, the technology requires a humanities perspective in order for it to achieve its greatest potentials.
I’d be happy to hear people’s thoughts on this – inverting the normal order of thing, soliciting comments before the paper…
Partly as a result of speaking at this conference (and also a wedding to attend that week) I won’t be able to hit a graduate student conference on the digital humanities happening one building over.
I’m playing with p3d.in to host some three dimensional models I’ve been making with 123D Catch. These are models that I have been using in conjunction with Junaio to create augmented reality pop-up books (and other things; more on that anon). Putting these 3d objects onto a webpage (or heaven forbid, a pdf) has been strangely much more complicated and time-consuming. P3d.in then serves a very useful purpose then!
Below are two models that I made using 123D catch. The first is the end of a log recovered from anaerobic conditions at the bottom of the Ottawa River (which is very, very deep in places). The Ottawa was used as a conduit for floating timber from its enormous watershed to markets in the US and the UK for nearly two hundred years. Millions of logs floated down annually…. so there’s a lot of money sitting down there. A local company, Log’s End, has been recovering these old growth logs and turning them into high-end wide plank flooring. They can’t use the ends of the logs as they are usually quite damaged, so my father picked some up and gave them to me, knowing my interest in all things stamped. This one carries an S within a V, which dates it to the time and timber limits of J.R. Booth I believe.
And here we have one of the models that my students made last year from the Mesoamerican materials conserved at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (soon-to-be-repurposed as the Museum of Canadian History; what will happen to these awkward materials that no longer fit the new mandate?)
Incidentally, I’ve now embedded these in a Neatline exhibition I am building:
(originally posted at #HIST3812, my course blog for this term’s History3812: Gaming and Simulations for Historians, at Carleton University).
I play because I enjoy video games, obviously, but I also get something else out of it. Games are a ‘lively art’; they are an expressive art, and the artistry lies in encoding rules (descriptions) about how the world works at some microlevel: and then watching how this artistry is further expressed in the unintended consequences of those rules, their intersections, their cancellations, causing new phenomena to emerge.
This strikes me as the most profound use of humanities computation out there. Physicists tell us that the world is made of itty bitty things that interact in particular ways. In which case, everything else is emergent: including history. I’m not saying that there are ‘laws’ of human action; but we do live in this universe. So, if I can understand some small part of the way life was lived in the past, I can model that understanding, and explore the unintended outcomes of that understanding… and go back to the beginning and model those.
I grew up with the video game industry. Adventure? I played that. We had a vic-20 . If you wanted to play a game, you had to type it in yourself. There used to be a magaine (Compute!) that would have all of the code printed within, along with screenshots. Snake, Tank Wars – yep. My older brother would type, and I would read the individual letters (and spaces, and characters) out. After about a week, we’d have a game.
And there would be bugs. O lord, there were bugs.
When we could afford games, we’d buy text adventures from Infocom. In high school, my older brother programmed a quiz game as his history project for the year. Gosh, we were cool. But it was! Here we were, making the machine do things.
As the years went on, I stopped programming my own games. Graphics & technology had moved too fast. In college, we used to play Doom (in a darkened room, with the computer wired to the stereo. Beer often figured). We played SimCity. We played the original Civilization.
These are the games that framed my interactions with computers. Then, after I finished my PhD, I returned to programming when I realized that I could use the incredible artificial intelligences, the simulation engines, of modern games, to do research. To enhance my teaching.
I got into Agent Based Modeling, using the Netlogo platform. This turned my career around: I ceased to be a run-of-the-mill materials specialist (Roman archaeology), and became this new thing, a ‘digital humanist’. Turns out, I’m now an expert on simulation and history.
And it’s all down to the fact that I’m a crappy player of games. I get more out of opening the hood, looking at how the thing works. Civilization IV and V are incredible simulation engines. So: what kinds of history are appropriate to simulate? What kinds of questions can we ask? That’s what I’m looking forward to exploring with you (and of course, seeing what you come up with in your final projects).
But maybe a more fruitful question to start with, in the context of the final project of this course, is, ‘what is the strangest game you’ve ever played?’
What made it strange? Was it the content, the mechanics, the interface?
I played one once where you had to draw the platform with crayons, and then the physics engine would take over. The point was to try to get a ball to roll up to a star. Draw a teeter-totter under the star, and perhaps the ball would fall on it, shooting the star up to fall down on the ball, for instance. A neat way of interacting with the underlying physics of game engines.
I’d encourage everyone to think differently about what the games might be. For instance, I could imagine a game that shows real-time documents (grabbed from a database), and you have to dive into it, following the connected discourses (procedurally generated using topic models and network graphing software to find these – and if this makes no sense to you, take a quick peek at the Programming Historian) within it to free the voices trapped within…
This is why I play. Because it makes me think differently about the materials I encounter.
Tomorrow in my HIST3812 I want to get students thinking about the kinds of history that might be appropriate to embody in a game or simulation, and the experience of such games. Inspired by something we did at THATCamp Great Lakes, I’ve taken a deck of cards and divided it into ‘historiography (hearts)’, ‘genre (spades)’, and ‘aesthetic (clubs)’. Here’s the prompt for the exercise:
“I will give you cards from three different decks:
- historiography (Hearts)
- genre (Spades)
- aesthetic (Clubs)
Look at your cards. In your groups, brainstorm a quick idea for a game using those cards. If, after five minutes, you’ve hit a blank, you may exchange one card, and one card only. Note that nothing is being said about mechanics…
(what you come up with today is not necessarily what you have to go with for the term. This is just meant to get you thinking.)
|Historiography (Hearts)||Genre (Spades)||Aesthetics (Clubs)|
|1 – Comparative||1 – ARG||1 or A – sensation|
|2 – Cultural||2 – Platformer||2 or K – fantasy|
|3 – Oral||3 – Shooter||3 or Q – narrative|
|4 – Economic||4 – Action-adventure||4 or J – challenge|
|5 – Environmental||5 or 10 – Adventure||5 or 10 – fellowship|
|6 – World||6 or J – RPG||6 or 9 – discovery|
|7 – Family||7 or Q – Simulation||7 – submission|
|8 – Gender||8 or K – Strategy||8 – expression|
|9 – Religious||9 – Casual|
|10 – Intellectual||A – Serious|
|J – Labour|
|Q – Marxist|
|K – Microhistory|
|A – Public|