NCPH 2015

NCPH 2015, Nashville

Proof I actually attended NCPH. From Saturday. Photo by Liz Catte.
Proof I actually attended NCPH. From Saturday. Photo by Liz Catte.

I had a good conference. I reunited with tons of friends and colleagues, met many more, and met some folks I hope to work with in the future. Putting in 12+ hours days then driving home to Murfreesboro was pretty miserable, but I’d do it again.

Or at least I’d do it again for the WVU social. No kidding, it felt like NCPH was one big MTSU and WVU reunion, especially at the poster session. Either way, I’d definitely wear red pants again.

Working Group Reflections:

First, I’d like to thank Mary Rizzo and Abby Perkiss for organizing such a quality session. We all talked for over two hours and received some amazing audience comments, questions, and feedback. All working group participants shared some excellent — and quite diverse — insight into play. Here is the Storify (from Mary and Abby).

I personally gained some great insight into the definition and functionality of play.

Scott Eberle and the "play wall." Photo by Cecelia Moore.
Scott Eberle and the “play wall.” Photo by Cecelia Moore.

Defining play. Scott Eberle had some great things to say about play is a process with many phases, such as anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, and poise. It may or may not be cyclical, depending on the context, but the important thing is that play is not a simple on-off switch. Play also has (at least) four key characteristics: (1) voluntary, (2) social, (3) fun, and (4) rule making/breaking. There was a lot of discussion about play v. playfulness and wonder v. wonderment, but that seemed a bit too abstract at this point in the discussion.

Empathy and It’s Challenges: I’ve argued before (and do in my dissertation) that historical empathy is key to good museum practice, especially when interpreting difficult subjects. But Andrew Urban offered some interesting challenges on two fronts: (1) what is the point of pursuing empathy and play? And (2) does play have to be fun? I responded at the working group somewhat, but below are some more in depth thoughts. In response…

  • I would say that historical empathy almost always leads to deeper understanding, historical thinking, and immersion. Historical empathy brings better understanding to distant groups, driving interpretation away from simple, laziness (such as labeling all Nazis as simply “evil”)
  • Emotional engagement in museums leads to more memorable experiences (just think of the Holocaust Museum). Contingencies of the past come more into focus once you understand both cognitive and affective components of the historical actor’s mindset.
  • Historical empathy also helps visitors reach out to the powerless through imagination. Museums know (and talk) a lot about those in power; it takes creativity to get at the powerless.
  • Finally, play definitely need not be fun, but it needs to be engaging. There’s a ton of literature on serious games — some are crap (like those for training), but some are rad (like this one about elections and gerrymandering).

Letting Go. An audience member used this phrase to explain how they see public historians approaching play. It resonated with me. Public historians must ‘let go’ and be willing to play; we must engage our audiences to do the same. I like the idea of stealing this shared authority term (from Benjamin Filene, Bill Adair, and Laura Koloski) in order to simplify how public historians think about play. But, more than anything, the working group convinced me that play is really darn complicated. We had at least a dozen perspectives in that room, and our discussion easily could have gone another six hours. I’d like to hear of more examples in the next year.

Some (minor) Criticisms of NCPH 2015:

  • Not a single presentation on sports and public history… but the public historians interested in sports are out there. I spoke with at least five people other than myself who do that work.
  • There was a lot of discussion of being a “public history activists,” but little acknowledgement of other history-activists. There was also little explanation of how to make the move from yelling on Twitter to making real legislative, legal change. I am most familiar with those in Appalachian History (and Studies), and public historians could probably learn a lot from this field and others (like African American and LGBT historians).
  • Almost constant discussion of audience and community engagement but very little discussion of how to find out what your audience wants and thinks — and nothing about visitor studies except for complaints about the short NPS surveys.

Personal Goals for AASLH 2015 and NCPH 2016:

  1. Successfully present at AASLH in Louisville. I helped organize a panel with Barbara Franco (Seminary Ridge Museum) that addresses the incorporation of visitor feedback and user-generated information into exhibition presentations as a part of the interpretation. The other panelists are Peter Miele (Seminary Ridge, Education Coordinator) and John Rudy (Park Ranger & Interpretive Trainer, NPS).I am excited because the panel was advised to “be sure that your panelists leave plenty of time for questions and answers in the session and are prepared for pushback about the usefulness of collecting this type of information from visitors.”
  2. Propose a panel or working group for NCPH 2016 about sports and public history. I have some leads on potential co-conveners or co-panelists.
  3. Possibly propose a panel for NCPH 2016 about visitor studies. So much discussion in 2015 about audience, so little about organized, systemic visitor studies.
  4. Invitation from 2013 for in-game memorial of a man who passed away in real life.
    Invitation from 2013 for in-game memorial of a man who passed away in real life.

    Write more about video games. Next on the docket will be a historical review of Valiant Hearts: The Great War and a blog post about digital historic preservation and memorialization in MMOs.

Can entertaining video games be used to teach history?

You load up the game and the first thing you hear is ominous music, a dark tune with a marching beat. The game’s title screen scrolls incrementally up your computer monitor, with Papers, Please displayed in a font meant to remind you of Cyrillic script. You start a new game and are presented with a brief introduction:

Congratulations. The October labor lottery is complete. Your name was pulled. For immediate placement, report to the Ministry of Admission at Grestin Border Checkpoint. An apartment will be provided for you and your family in East Grestin. Expect a Class-8 dwelling.


Over the first few days of work you learn a bit more about your situation. The year is 1982 and you are a citizen of Arstotzka. You brought your family with you, and you are the only one employed. Your job consists of sitting in a booth surrounded by fences and armed guards, calling upon the next person in line, and checking the validity of their papers. The goal of the game is to approve all people with valid papers and deny all those with something wrong, such as an expired passport or mismatched identification numbers.

You are given a salary at the end of each day based on how many people you process. If you are good at the game, you earn enough to pay for rent, food, and to heat your apartment. If you are a bit slow, members of your family will get sick and die. Also, you are fined for making errors. Compounding your problem is that many events are outside of your control. For example, sometimes a terrorist attack shuts down the border for the day, cutting into your pay and further endangering your family. Border guards will offer you cash to detain more immigrants. Border-crossers will offer you cash (and often a bit more) to be accepted into the country.

I argue that Papers, Please is one of the only games on the market that can actually be used to effectively teach history. At this point, I see at least three strengths in Papers, Please.

(1) There are no good guys or bad guys in Papers, Please. The game presents the player with serious ethical, political, moral, and personal problems in a simple-yet-complex form, something that other games tend to gloss over or oversimplify as a “good versus evil” trope. The Arstotzka state detains and executes people, while the resistance employs suicide bomber tactics. It is very similar to the toxic environment seen in memoirs from Cold War Eastern Europe, a place with many villains, few heroes, and even fewer “correct” solutions to daily problems.[1]

(2) By situating the player in a fictional place, Papers, Please avoids the problems of the player encountering “historical inaccuracies.” Even though you work in the fictional land of Arstotzka, it is strongly implied that you are in the middle of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. When a game is set in a real historical environment, players are quick to catch onto things that “are not right.”

For example, in the game Civilization (all five of them), the player takes on the role of a ruler of a historical civilization with the goal of becoming the greatest empire in the world (determined by their diplomatic, scientific, cultural, or military might). Each civilization has their own traits in an effort to simulate the real past, so for instance Queen Elizabeth will rapidly expand around the globe and Bismarck will emphasize military and industry. However, every Civilization player knows one thing: Gandhi will drop an atomic bomb on you the first chance he gets. Original game programmers made a mistake. Intending to set Gandhi’s stat for being warlike to zero, they accidentally set it to the maximum. Over the years, players came to expect Gandhi as a warlike invader in the game, so game sequels kept Gandhi’s traits as such, keeping the inside joke intact. Obviously, real-life Gandhi would be appalled by his digital behavior, and players in part chuckle at his expense. With an example such as this, players can easily become detached from the game’s historical atmosphere and thus the moment of historical thinking is lost.

In contrast, a fictional universe serves as an allegory or satirical world, and players are not going to criticize a fictional history as being inaccurate (except in the case of well-established canons like Star Wars or Middle-Earth). With a fictional world, the impetus is upon the player to make the connection to real life. In other words, game creator Lucas Pope does not simply state “Arstotzka is a Soviet bloc country”; it is up to the player to make that connection.[2]

(3) Papers, Please is an excellent facilitator of historical empathy.[3] You are given just enough historical context to understand your present situation. The player is vaguely told there was a war between Arstotzka and your neighbors, Arstotzka annexed the city where you work, and most of the rest of the world views your country as a land of fascism. Most importantly though, players are encouraged to develop an affective connection to the character you embody, and players accomplish this through simply playing the game.

You, the player, are the lived experience. Rather than read, listen, or view a the experience, you do all of that at once.  Given enough time in the game world, the player understands the lived experience of the faceless checkpoint guard character. On day one you only need to worry about two documents, but by day twenty you must worry about dozens. This slows you down; this cuts into your pay; and this causes your family hardship. Through the game’s other characters, you see these problems were likely faced by anyone involved in attempts to assert sovereignty over human movement and political borders. The player begins to understand and engage the hardship, the problems, and the difficult decisions a checkpoint guard had to make every day, hour, and minute of their life. This final point is historical empathy, a very difficult thing to achieve in a classroom or museum that I believe can be achieved with an independent, retro-style video game.

[1] Timothy Garton Ash, The File: A Personal History (New York: Vintage Books, 1997). Milan Kundera, The Joke (New York: HarperCollins, 1967). Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003).

[2] According to the game’s creator Lucas Pope, Arstotzka’s government is based on Oceania from George Orwell’s 1984. The checkpoint at which the player works is inspired by the checkpoints separating East and West Berlin during the Cold War, such as the infamous “Checkpoint Charlie.”

[3] I prefer Jason Endcott’s definition of historical empathy: “the process of students’ cognitive and affective engagement with historical figures to better understand and contextualize their lived experiences, decisions, or actions.” Historical empathy requires three interrelated and interdependent factors: historical contextualization, perspective taking, and affective connection. For more, see Jason Endacott and Sarah Brooks, “An Updated. Theoretical and Practical Model for Promoting Historical Empathy,” Social Studies Research and Practice 8 (2013), 41-58.