The problems with game-based history

I’m still enjoying Eric Champion’s Critical Gaming: Interactive history and virtual heritage. I wanted to write today about his chapter four, which lots at the problems of learning history through games. There’s all sorts of things I like in here, and only one thing I take a different view on.

The first thing I like is that he quotes this blog, from Thomas Grip. Especially this line:

It is very common that you change a story like this depending on your audience. If the people listening do not seem impressed by the hero’s strength, you add more details, more events, descriptions and dialog. Your goal when telling the story is not be give an exact replication of how the story was told to you. What you are trying to do is to copy the impact the story had on you and any change you can do in order to accomplish this is a valid one.

Stories, Champion agrees “work independently” of facts. But that’s a challenge for games:

If you wish the audience to see a deeper truth beyond the words (of, say, a historical text), what are you aiming for and how do you know whether the audience has understood the meaning the the designer has attempted to convey?

A very good warning. He also quotes Tynan Sylvester, about how the story is actually always in the player’s head, whatever cues the game designer might create. Having set out these and other problems with games as pedagogy, he of course suggests ways in which game mechanics might be helpful in learning:

  • Using games discursively, a group can play a game and then discuss it afterwards
  • Student’s can emulate the performative aspect of games, roleplaying game characters
  • He discusses thesis-based kikset visualisation machines, simulations of cities or empires with students can mod to see the impact of decisions on the virtual “history”. (Champion mentions that Historian Neil Ferguson doesn’t think much of the likes of Civilisation, but does endorse the Making History series.
  • Games can be designed to use real or interpreted media – I’m think here of the Versailles 1685 art references. Champion conflates this with game mechanics used in VR in actual places, and mentions the work of CHESS.
  • Champion also gove numerous examples of building computer game mechanics into the physical word, objects in a real sand-pit with RFID tags that can like on virtual media, for example. Or moving tokens about an a phyiscal table that allows access to Point of View cameras on  actor’s (or in the example he gives, reindeer’s) heads.

There’s only one point I take issue with. Drawing from this blog, he says:

Playing in a digitally simulated world can leave the feeling that the virtual world’s entire causal mechanics rotate around the player

…as thought that’s a Bad Thing. Which I guess it might be if you are primarily seeking immersion or presence, as the VR guys call it. But in fact I’m coming to the conclusion that that feeling (which I’ve dubbed in a couple of presentations “the Apotheosis Moment”) is something special about games, which in a way, I’m trying to recreate in physical cultural heritage environments.

Champion returns to the idea later in the chapter challenging readers with the question “how can a god or a character with extraordinary powers communicate and interact meaningfully with NPCs?” He goes on to answer his own question with ten suggestions:

  • Ritual “we could allow actors a myriad of actions, as long as their behaviour and actions acheived the right results, or their decisions were made at the right time or place”;
  • Memetic Cause and Effect: Guns, Germs and Steel – Champion cites Dawkin’s meme model of cultural transmission (which earns him a million points from me) here;
  • Counterfactual Histories “while fascinating from the ‘what if’ scenario point of view, it is not likely to be a worthwhile avenue for virtual heritage environments as players would concentrate on creating imaginative fictions rather than uncovering historical knowledge or different cultural perspectives”;
  • Progress Through Truth-finding – like many adventure games (and the movie Groundhog Day), keep being forced to replay the scene until you do the right thing to move on;
  • Reversed Time Travel – Champions argues that most games’ chronological narratives move forwards in time, but archaeologists uncovering of the past is about thinking backwards in time. Some games, like Her Story and Gone Home use that technique;
  • Virtual Words Augmented with Historical or Current Media – again , like Versailles 1685;
  • Role-playing without Affecting History  – take on the roles of ancillary characters, to witness the historical figure take action;
  • Observe the Character Development of NPCs – similar to above but not playing a role in the scene, rather “becoming the self-appointed scribes of history”;
  • Extrapolate Clues from NPC Dialogue; and,
  • Mimic NPCs – Champion’s “Reverse Cultural Turing Test” as mentioned in a previous post.

Fundamentally the biggest problem of recreating the past through game design is that we weren’t there. “…we may be to gain a good idea of explorers from their diaries and records of their encounters either by the records of the explorers themselves or by the documentation of their associates. However, diaries, records, tax statements, paintings, photographs, and artefacts will not give us a complete picture of how people actually behaved, and the full range of conscious and subconscious motives and desires.”

Despite all these problems, Champion doesn’t believe we should stop trying to explore history though games. Indeed he argues that some of the limitations that games might have, working with them allows us to experiment with history in ways we might not have considered, and maybe, just maybe gain insights that we might have missed. Which is just as well, as he has written a whole book on the subject.

A final thought I’m having as I re-read this post. Champion’s  book is about creating virtual environments, but there’s some interesting philosophy here that historical re-enactors and costumed interpreters might also benefit from.

Narratives in social science

I ought to watch out for the literature rabbit holes I can fall down. After my last foray into narratives and sociology, I got sucked into another work that was only tangentially about what I’m studying. This one though did at least have a few quotable quotes I might want to use later.

Brian Alleyne kicks off his Narrative Networks; Storied Approaches in a Digital Age by asking (on page 2) “What is narrative?”

“Narrative, in its simplest sense, consists of a series of connected events, and a particular way in which theses events are told. The first element is the story, and the second element is the narrative discourse… It follows from this that a story can be rendered through different narrative discourses”

He goes on (page 40) to reference “Jerome Bruner (1986; 1991) [who] has argued that humans make sense of the world in two fundamental ways, in two cognitive modes: paradigmatic and narrative. In the Paradigmatic mode the human mind recognises elements as belonging to two categories in a classifying operation.So in this cognitive mode, when we encounter an object, we seek to map it onto already existing classificatory schemes pf objects, trying to work out what kind of object it is. […] For Bruner this mode of cognition is most characteristic of science.
“In the the narrative mode of cognition we seek to connect people and events into a temporally coherent whole. The passage of time is important in this mode.As Paul Ricoeur (1984) argies, some sense of the passage of time is quite fundamental to how humans understand themselves and the world around them. The narrative mode of cognition is one with organises ideas and experiences into stories and is seen to contrast with the paradigmatic, scientific mode in that it operates in an emotive or emotional and expressive register as opposed to the rational register of paradigmatic cognition. These ideas are obviously abstract ideal models of cognition and cannot always be easily separated from one another in seeking to account for how people go about making sense of the the world.”

So it can the argued that a label in a museum or cultural heritage site, which categorizes an object, can’t connect the visitor emotionally to that object, unless they bring a story with them. But a purely story led interpretation of a site or collection can’t help the visitor understand it.

Later on in the book (page 92)he touches upon the Narrative Paradox “The fundamental issue here is that however defined, narrative text is characterised by a coherence that links human, and non-human agents, their actions, experiences and other happenings into a temporal chain – the following of which leads us to some kind of conclusion. The problem here for thinking about “hypertext narrative” lies in the very nature of hypermedia: unless the author of a hypertext network deliberately imposes a narrative structure on that collection of texts, the collection will have a degree of openness which militates against narrative coherence” using classic text adventure games Zork and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as examples he concludes “Interactive fiction therefore sacrifices the open-ended possibilities of hypertext in order to maintain some degree of narrative coherence.”

He also summarises the Narratology/Ludology debate, on page 93 and later (pages 116-121. As a gamer and a narrativist, he offers a balanced view, citing many ways in which games are not narratives but also pointing out that “Narratology has been part of the videogame designer’s toolkit from the start (Crawford, 2003; Rollings & Adams, 2003; Ryan, 2001; Salen and Zimmerman, 2010). Many computer are based on the three-act narrative structure of situation, conflict and resolution, that that same structure being repeated as the player moves through the game.”

In his debate on whether games can be analyzed narratively, he looks specifically (page 119) at history themed games like my old favourite Civilization: “In order to make these games worth playing narrativity has to be be balanced with playability, which means departing from the tight emplotment of historical that is at the core of historical narrative.”

Does any of this leave me any more enlightened? Not particularly, but I enjoyed reading it.

Kernels and Satellites

Last week I reminded myself that I hadn’t sought out Cohen and Shires’ Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction, which had been referenced in an article on game narrative. It was low down my list of priorities, mainly because it was written in 1988 – which feels like ancient history in citation terms. That shows in chapter one, where defining “narrative” as recounting “a story, a series of events in a temporal sequence,” the authors explain that:

our culture depends upon numerous types of narrative: novels, short stories, films, television shows myths, anecdotes, songs, music videos, comics, paintings, advertisements, essays, biographies, and news accounts.

Games aren’t mentioned, and I guess that’s no surprise, given that in 1988 computer games were still a relatively youthful medium, and the audience for games were relatively youthful too. The investment of Hollywood amounts of money in game narratives was still a twinkle in programmers eyes. If they looked at games at all back then, the authors might well have consciously excluded them from their analysis, because, the central premise of their book is “the events making up a story are only available to us through telling”, which might (arguably) exclude the procedurally generated narratives that most games provide.

But one of their ideas does have some relevance to game narratives. The article I looked at last week made reference to this passage (page 54):

From the vantage point of a completed sequence, events function either as kernels or as satellites. Kernel events raise possibilities of succeeding or alternative events – what we can call, taking the term rather literally, “eventuality.” They initiate, increase, or conclude an uncertainty, so they advance or outline a sequence of transformations. Satellite events, on the other hand, amplify or fill in the outline of a sequence by maintaining, retarding, or prolonging the kernel events they accompany or surround.

In game narrative terms this is a neat summary of how games work as a storytelling medium. In more scripted games such as Red Dead Redemption, the sequence of Kernals is quite rigid, and the satellites are optional or even (in the case of games like Skyrim) procedurally generated. I remember nearing the end of RDR: I’d helped John Marston, the character the game had been following, to track down and (mostly) kill his old buddies from the gang he had run with, and confront his old boss, who throw himself off a mountain. Marston had been given back his farm, and wife and child, and the game challenges had become less about death and destruction, and more about production and family life – rounding up cattle and and the like. Then a blicking icon had appeared on the game map, telling me that I was ready to play the nest kernel event.

I didn’t want to, I knew the game was nearing the end, and having discovered Marston’s life story, I knew it wouldn’t end well. I wanted to prolong the rural idyll of farming, hearth and home. So I found satellite quests to prolong the current kernel. I became obsessed with beaver hunting, promising myself I wouldn’t play on to the next kernal event until I’d found the five beaverskins a crazy glider pilot Marston had met in Mexico needed for his glue. I spent days and days hunting beaver. It became a running joke with my wife.

But after shooting the first two, it seemed the beavers had gone into hiding. There was beaver drought, it seemed, by every river in the gameworld – and yes I did try every one. So with a heavy heart, I turned John Marston back towards his fate. Damn, was I emotionally engaged.

But even in purely procedural games, the idea of kernels and satellites works. As Tynan Sylvester points out, in a game like The Sims, the narrative is reliant on the interpretation of the player:

This story was co-authored between the player and the game. The game simulated some simple event (attraction between redhead and roommate), and the player ascribed meaning to it (jealousy and frustration) the same way he might have for the Michotte balls, even though that emotion was not actually in the simulation. The next part of the story was cued by him when he orchestrated the murder. The game simulated the logistics of firey deaths, but the sense of sorrow and revenge was, again, ascribed completely by the player. Most of this story is apophenia – present of the Player Model, absent from the Game Model.

While not talking about games, Cohen and Shires manage to predict how the random calculations of a procedural game can become an emotionally engaging story:

While kernels may appear to function as primary events and satellites as secondary ones, satellites are as important as kernels to a story sequence. Furthermore, an event’s status as a kernel or satellite depends entirely upon a particular sequence and not on the event itself, which does not possess the ability to advance or amplify a transformation on its own. An event acquires its kernel or satellite function for a given sequence through its placement in the sequence, because the sequence is what sets the events in relation to each other.

I like to play Civilization, which is an example of unscripted, procedural game. Some games are more satisfying than others, when the random generation of events becomes, in my mind, the thrilling story a plucky little nation that could. Sometimes, despite my best efforts to manage my nascent state “events, dear boy, events” conspire to make the game boring – but the advantage of procedural games is that if its boring, you can start again. Well designed procedural games are the ones that keep you restarting because of the all the great narratives you’ve discovered on previous plays. Ones that are consistently boring don’t get restarted, they get turned off.

The challenge for cultural heritage sites is that they can’t be restarted, so a purely procedural approach of interactive narrative would not be constructive. Some degree of scripting – the selection and ordering of narrative kernals is required.


Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee)’s concept of flow has had a couple of mentions in recent posts, so I thought I ought to catch up on it. Back when I was doing my MA I read a lot about it in relation to museum learning (mostly in Hooper-Greenhill’s primer The Educational Role of the Museum), but some of that was written twenty years ago, so I thought I ought to get up to date. I’m pleased to report that according to his 2009 co-authored paper the basic concepts are still intact, so here goes:

Some years ago, I had a Mac Classic, a black and white 9 inch display all in one computer. I’d bought it with money from the very first Student Loan scheme in the UK. (I’d saved up in advance of going to University and I had a job reading Tarot Cards and doing the I Ching on a premium rate telephone service, so I didn’t need the money to live on.) It’s role was chiefly to write my dissertation on, but “all work and no-play, etc” so I also bought a copy of Sid Meier’s Civilisation. I recall one evening I looked at the clock on a “school night” and saw it was 10.45, so I said to myself “fifteen minutes on Civ, then bedtime”. So I sat down to play a couple of turns, and  I noticed something had gone wrong with the electric light – rather than its warm yellow glow, it was a colder blue. I turned around a saw daylight through the window. It was dawn.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is flow.

Back in the sixties. studying the creative process, Csikszentmihalyi watched an artist at work, and noticed that when everything was going well, “the artist persisted single-mindedly, disregarding hunger, fatigue and discomfort.” He called this intrinsic motivation, and described the activity as autotelic (auto=self, telos=goal). We went on to investigate why people like rock-climbers do what they do, for no apparent (or rather extrinsic) reward. Many of the the people he worked with described feeling as though they were being carried along by the activity, and so the word flow was coined.

He set out two conditions for flow: “a sense that one is engaging challenges at a level appropriate to one’s capacities”; and, “clear proximal goals and immediate feedback about the progress that is being made.”

Let’s pause there. I recall very strongly from my MA reading back in 1999/2000 the first of those two conditions – the matching of challenge and ability. I don’t recall so well the thing about feedback. Is that a failure of my recollection, or does the museum literature I was reading stress one and downplay the other? I’ll have to go back and check. I do feel safe to say that while heritage interpretation might offer challenges to meet the level of visitors’ capacities, it may not be as good at offering proximal goals and immediate feedback, except sometimes with personal conversation, for example, in live interpretation.

Given those conditions, Csikszentmihalyi sets out what flow looks like:

  • Intense and focussed concentration on what one is doing at the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • Loss of awareness of oneself as a social actor
  • A sense that one can in principle deal with the situation because one knows how to respond to whatever happens next
  • Distortion of temporal experience (typically a sense that time has passed faster than normal)
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process.

If challenge and capability don’t balance, or if neither are high enough, Csikszentmihalyi suggest a range of other emotional states occurs, and set out in this handy diagram (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model. Csikszentmihalyi, M., Finding Flow, 1997

Csikszentmihalyi points out that the goal and feedback structures of sports and games can make flow more likely, but any activity can  create flow, which makes me think of the Buddhist term mindfulness, which can come about through as mundane an activity as raking gravel.

I think I’ll be returning to flow as I go forward. It seems to be something that games can get very right, just as Civilisation did for me twenty years ago, but based on the evidence that I’ve never popped into a heritage site for just fifteen minutes and come out six hours later, interpretation still has a lot to learn.