Playing With History

At the end of April two dozen historians gathered at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario for a conference called Playing With Technology in History. The organizing idea of the two-day meeting was that if we take a more playful approach to the teaching, learning, and the production of historical knowledge, new ways of thinking about the past may emerge. The three most prominent themes evident during the conference were historical gaming (so-called „serious games„), mobile history, and physical computing in the humanities (see an earlier post in this blog on that topic). As a participant in the conference, I spent a fair amount of time wondering how all the “play” we talked about can be connected to the serious purposes of teaching and learning about the past. I’m a believer that there are direct connections, but I also am hard-headed enough to insist that those connections be made explicit through data (qualitative or quantitative) that demonstrate how certain kinds of learning takes place during or as a result of play. It also remains to be seen whether a more playful approach to the construction of historical knowledge will have tangible results. At a minimum, however, it seems to me that if historians are willing to be a little more playful, we are more likely to engage a wider audience for our work.

Another question that emerged from the discussions over the two days of the conference was how much technical skill historians might be expected to have to engage in the sort of fairly sophisticated „play“ on display at the meeting. Most, but surely not all, of the participants had above average tech skills and so much of what was said and done in the meeting was relatively easy for them. As we all know, tech-savvy historians are still a minority in the profession, but with each passing year the new historians joining the professional ranks do so with ever greater levels of technical skill.

Perhaps the most interesting paper draft delivered at the conference came not from a historian, but from a professor English–Steve Ramsey of the University of Nebraska. Ramsey’s paper, „What do you do with a million books?“ proposes: „There are so many books. There is so little time. Your ethical obligation is neither to read them all nor to pretend that you have read them all, but to understand each path through the vast archive as an important moment in the world’s duration—as an invitation to community, relationship, and play.“ Focusing on the path rather than the destination is certainly a challenge for those of us trained in more traditional research methods, but given the swelling flood of humanities content online, we may well have to heed Ramsey’s argument. All the drafts of the papers, which one day soon will appear in a book tentatively titled Past Play, are available on the conference website. A discussion with the conference organizers can be heard on the Digital Campus podcast.

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