Digital Interpretation – changing the rules

Just in time for my thesis’ debate on affective interpretation, the excellent Steve Poole’s write up of Ghosts in the Garden,  Ghosts in the Garden: locative gameplay and
historical interpretation from below is published in International Journal of Heritage Studies. It starts of very well, by describing three ways in which digital technology has been used: “as an augmented guidebook and information resource, as a tool for enhanced simulation, and (less frequently) as a tool for changing the rules by which we construct and define historical knowledge [my emphasis] at heritage sites.” I’m feeling a little ground down by the limited scope of that my work has ended up with , which I think (I hope) is normal at this stage of the process, so it was refreshing to feel Steve’s sense of ambition.

So how does Steve propose that we use digital technology to change the rules? Well, he says it better than me, but its worth pointing out that its the ludic nature of digital story-telling that enables this rule-change: “Yet what most sets historical analysis apart from other forms of enquiry in the arts and social sciences is the fragmentary nature of the evidence around which historians build interpretative frameworks, the material irretrievability of past events (and people), and the inevitability of supposition, argument and disagreement. Construction, in other words, is as necessary a concept to historians as reconstruction. Accepting that history is a practice in which knowledge is crafted from often incomplete evidence challenges the authoritative basis on which explanation is conventionally built. Arguably, moreover, presenting the process of making history as
a craft rather than the knitting together of a series of factual certainties offers the heritage industry an opportunity to engage audiences in dialogue with the past.”

So games enable players to contruct their own understanding of history? Well I’m not entirely sure that’s the perception of the players. Ghosts in the Garden was running just as I was starting out on my own “choose you own PhD adventure”, and with the kind help of Steve’s collaborators on the project, Splash and Ripple, I surveyed a small but decent sample of visitors. I recall being particularly disappointed by responses to the question about whether their choices had changed the story. I’m forcing myself not to look at the data from my Chawton project yet, but I member taking my lunch while two participants discussed the survey at the next table. I’d asked a similar question, and these two discussed their answer. They concluded that (despite the narrative atoms they experienced, and the order they experienced them in being a lot less structured than the stories of Ghosts in the Garden), because the facts were historic there were immutable. They hadn’t changed the story with their choices, because they couldn’t change history.

Does it matter that (most) users don’t know that they are constructing the story through their choices? I don’t know. When I started out on this research, I thought it was important. Now I’m less sure.

Moving on, there’s a new reference I’ve not caught before, but which I know I must track down and read (Costikyan, G. 2006. “I Have No Words and I Must Design: Towards a Critical Vocabulary for Games.” In The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, edited by K. Salen and E. Zimmerman, 192–211. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.) if only to add it to the post popular topic on this blog (yawn): Ludology vs. Narratology.

There’s a more interesting one (Gottlieb, O. 2016. “Who Really Said What? Mobile Historical Situated Documentary as Liminal Learning Space.” Gamevironments 5: 237–257) which I must also check out.

Steve goes into great details on the construction of Ghosts in the Garden, most of which I already knew, but its good to have it in a form I can reference. I did like this revelation though, making a comparison I hadn’t though of before: “The Ghosts in the Garden approach to heritage interpretation adapts some elements of first-person computer games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honour; most notably in its attempt to subjectively immerse visitors in a past reality in which they are called upon to make decisions that impact upon outcomes.”

The most important bit though, was this:

“The process by which we might identify and evaluate alternative narratives ‘from below’, in other words, in a space from which they have been traditionally excluded, was more important to the project’s purpose than using technological gadgetry to retell familiar tales about elite social space. Inevitably, it was difficult to make such a methodology clear to public participants at the start. It was reasoned however, that the intrusion of a clearly ‘inauthentic’ Time Radio as a device through which ghostly voices from the past directly addressed a modern audience, was a sufficient indication that the experience was built as much around an imaginative world as a historically
accurate one. While it was important to the project that its narratives were based on researched archival evidence, the stories did not carry the consequential gravitas of those used in World War battle games and there was little danger of any factual inaccuracies compromising public understanding of its objectives”

He goes on the mention the Splash and Ripple project at Bodiam that i had a little to do with, and which I though was let down by the lack of exactly the sort of “History from Below” that Steve provides. (Though I don’t want to be too critical of that project – I heard recently that a team from Historic Royal Palaces had checked it out before their Lost Palace project.) And he finished with one final quote which I KNOW will make it into my thesis  – because I’ve just pasted it in:

affective interpretation that privileges emotion, personal response and feeling as essential components of heritage can be a source of conflict amongst audiences for whom dispassionate factual rigour is essential to the understanding of history.

Its a great read, and a very helpful paper.

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