Forgotten Spaces of Norrath: Why We Need a History of Digital Spaces

For the past few weeks, Atlas Obscura writer Eric Grundhauser has been publishing pieces entitled “Forgotten Wonders of the Digital World.” First, he took readers on a nostalgic tour throughout Azeroth — the digital world of World of Warcraft (WoW). A few weeks later, he guided readers through the odd digital space of Second Life. Grundhauser’s articles capture the beauty of digital abandonment and to explore the aesthetic appeal of the forgotten spaces of these worlds, places that were one bustling and active that now lay dormant and largely forgotten by many.

Another game with a similar, yet distinct, story is Everquest II. Eric found zones in WoW to be “abandoned” when their population was about twenty. The most populated single zone in EQ2 as of this writing is the Phantom Sea. This past Saturday night, there were 34 characters there.

Honestly, I have played a lot of Everquest and Everquest II. I picked up EQ in 2001 at the behest of my friend and future college roommate. Fast forward to 2004 and there I was, buying a very expensive laptop I couldn’t afford explicitly to play the sequel — EQ2. I was there when the digital doors opened in November 2004. Most recently, I returned in January after a three year hiatus, and this return has me thinking a lot about the power of place, nostalgia, and preservation in digital worlds.

A Map of Norrath, the Earth of Everquest and Everquest II
A Map of Norrath, the Earth of Everquest and Everquest II

The Game

The world of EQ2 is Norrath, the same as EQ. One big difference though — EQ2 is set several hundred years after EQ in a time after Norrath’s moon exploded, effectively causing an apocalypse and drastically changing the world. As you would imagine, cities that were once massive and opulent are now shrunken and ruined; sweeping plains are now pockmarked with craters; and entire races of peoples were completely wiped out.

The current state of EQ2 is, in a way, similar to the in-game story. At one point, EQ2 boasted hundreds of thousands of players. Cities and chat channels bustled with activity. But today, the world is desolate. At any given point, at least 95% of Norrath is completely empty. Much of the world is in ruin — both in terms of story and player population — and many places that were once spectacular and powerful are now decrepit, forgotten, and abandoned by former residents.[1]

In order to tell the story of abandoned Norrath, I traveled throughout the world on one Saturday evening and early night.[2] I took screenshots of the biggest cities, noting their population, and I “photographed” other locales only if they were empty, meaning I was the only visitor at the time.

The Locales

In EQ2, player gathering points shift, but one of the most populated areas in Norrath historically has been Qeynos (usually either the Harbor or North Qeynos). People gathered here by the hundred to trade, travel, or just to chat.

North Qeynos -- View of the Qeynos Claymore statue and Qeynos Castle, NPCs seen in foreground
North Qeynos — View of the Qeynos Claymore statue and Qeynos Castle, NPCs seen in foreground

Just outside of the Qeynos gates is the bridge to Antonica, a sprawling verdant countryside. Ten years ago, this would be a player’s first encounter with rural Norrath. The area is huge, easily taking fifteen minutes to traverse. This bridge is where I left one of my original characters I have since abandoned.

Qeynos bridge -- Qeynos Castle is on the left, and the beginning of Antonica on the right
Qeynos bridge — Qeynos Castle is on the left, and the beginning of Antonica on the right

Formerly across the continent, now across an ocean, lies Qeynos’s evil twin Freeport. This was once the place where the so-called “evil” races (like ogres and trolls) began their adventure. Just like Qeynos, this was once a gathering point and, just like Qeynos, Freeport sits largely empty.

Freeport at night
Freeport at night in EQ2

I went to Kelethin, the Elven city in the trees and one of four starting cities. This city has fond memories for me personally, being where I started my primary characters in both EQ and EQ2. Way back in original EQ, people would gather in Kelethin to trade by the hundred. Last time I was there in EQ2, a search resulted in seven people either in Kelethin or the surrounding forest area.

A view of Kelethin in EQ2
A view of Kelethin in EQ2

The Enchanted Lands houses an original favorite of mine, the goblin stronghold of Runnyeye. EQ2 developers brought players back to Runnyeye with a revamp about five years ago, but that too lays dormant now. See that tiny hole in the hill? That’s Runnyeye, a very small door in a big world with an even bigger adventure and story on the other side.

The entrance to the Runnyeye dungeon within the Enchanted Lands
The entrance to the Runnyeye dungeon within the Enchanted Lands

Norrath is full of other forgotten “doors.” Players might turn a corner, and suddenly there appears a door in the mountains to an undead keep, or a haunted mansion, or even a beehive full of…angry bee-people.

Inside the Tower of the Draftling
Inside the Tower of the Draftling

Stormhold was one of the first dungeons many people encountered. Rather unassuming.

The entrance to Stormhold
The entrance to Stormhold

A bit later, people would encounter this grand stronghold in the far reaches of Zek. This is Deathfist Citadel, another dungeon long forgotten. Also, Deathfist Citadel appeared in one of the first promotional videos for EQ2 way back in 2004.

Deathfist Citadel
Deathfist Citadel

Much later in the game, people would encounter this door in the far reaches of Everfrost. This door would lead you to Permafrost, a forgotten and rather hidden dungeon housing frost giants and the ghost of an ice dragon.

The door to Permafrost
The door to Permafrost
Permafrost Keep
Permafrost Keep

What does it mean?

“It’s not the end of the world at all, it’s only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

This quote is from On the Beach by Nevil Shute. In it, Shute’s characters live with an intense sense of foreboding — the know they are going to die. A nuclear war annihilated the rest of life on Earth, and fallout clouds slowly drift toward the protagonists. Some cling to the slim hope of finding safety, some hope to escape, and some look for salvation; but most simply move forward and try to understand how to live in a world that hasn’t got long to live itself.

But Earth and Norrath have one big difference — Norrath will not “get along all right without us.” If we go, then Norrath will cease to exist as well. In a digital world, there is no hope for preservation, only nostalgia and memory. There’s no renovating an old house or peeling back layers of wallpaper to reveal the past; what’s lost is lost and only recoverable through other media. The player is constrained by rules set by the rule-masters, the creators, owners, and effective gods of the world.

The destruction and permanent changes to old locales have a negative effect on players. When I made Kiranos in November 2004, I began on the Isle of Refuge tutorial zone before taking a boat to my character’s first home — the Willow Wood within the city of Qeynos. Today though, Willow Wood does not exist. Further, the door to the zone is locked behind a guard.

The door to Willow Wood
The door to Willow Wood

While it may seem dramatic, seeing the doors to Willow Wood shuttered is an oddly painful moment. Every now and then, I just want to go to the place where I started this silly game. The urge is to unbarracade the doors and set about to recovering the past. But that’s just not possible.

What the hell? Where’s the Public History?

So what does all of this mean in terms of public history? Like I said in my last post, public historians need to consider the importance of digital worlds to “real life” individuals.

I also think public historians could work for these companies by helping document their past. Some game companies —  like Blizzard and Daybreak —  should start considering publicly the importance of preservation. These games are old enough now that legitimate company histories could be written. For example, Everquest is entering its sixteenth year and third different developer. As far as I know, nobody is collecting player stories, company history, or anything else related to the game (beyond wikis about quests and loot). Also, some of Everquest’s most popular efforts are, in a way, public history projects (in the form of progression servers). The player base is very much so in tune with the past, why not try to tap into that even more?

Why couldn’t Daybreak Entertainment publish, market, and sell with the help of public historians, for example:

  • reissues of Laura Karpman’s original EQ2 soundtrack;
  • an book of concept and in-game art selected by a curator;
  • reprints of different maps throughout the life of EQ and EQ2;
  • oral histories of various players, including certain celebrities who play(ed) if there’s an interest;
  • insider corporate history, similar to stories included in The Everquest Companion;
  • or perhaps even an in-game tour of the live game or of a curated “exploration-only” servers.

For video game players, MMO fans, and anyone else interested in digital space —  slow down a little bit. Take in your surroundings more often. Travel back to forgotten lands and empty spaces. These empty digital lands still have a story to tell, even if they are behind a locked door.

The (in-game) abandoned city of New Tunaria
The (in-game) abandoned city of New Tunaria

[1] There are many technical reasons other than population to explain why nobody goes to most places in Norrath anymore. The game has changed. Players can trade with one another from anywhere in the world, so there are no centralized gathering locations. Global channels remove the need for congregating for grouping. Mercenaries remove the necessity of grouping with friends. And guild halls segregate friend groups away from one another.

[2] I was on my character Kiranos on the Unrest server. I played from about 8pm to about midnight CST.

Goodman and Ribbitribbit: How MMO Communities Memorialize

“Death is difficult under any circumstance. The death of a friend you only knew via the internet is something that this generation is just learning how to deal with.” — Matthew Miller, in an article posted on, 6/25/2013

At NCPH 2015, I participated in the working group about play organized by Mary Rizzo and Abby Perkiss. It got me thinking a lot about gaming, virtual worlds, and how digital space relates to fundamental aspects of public history. Specifically, I am interested in how real people create digital memorials in virtual space. There are similarities between “real-world” memorials and those in “virtual” worlds, and digital memorials generally serve a similar purpose to their “real” counterparts. But simply assuming they are one and the same ignores that digital spaces have distinct social norms, communities, and culture. These are important to recognize and understand.

Shrine of the Fallen Warrior, World of Warcraft
Shrine of the Fallen Warrior, World of Warcraft

While digital games may not affect our lives as much as “real life,” it is important to remember that millions of people play these games for lengthy periods of time. The most popular of these games, World of Warcraft (WoW), has around 10 million subscribers — and the game is entering its eleventh year of existence. Dozens of other games with persistent worlds also exist today with millions more individuals playing these games collectively. Digital, in-game events can have a great effect on the lived realities of the “real life” individuals. People identify closely with their digital identities (also known as an avatar or character). Some identify more closely than others, and there is a growing body of literature on the phenomenon of digital identity.[1]

An example of a player character, from Everquest II

Before I go any further, I should outline a few parameters. The games I am talking about are massively multiplayer online role playing games, or MMOs. In these games, the player takes on the role of a player-created character (PCs) and enters a world with tens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of other PCs. The gaming world is a persistent place, populated with diverse environments, buildings, homes, and so on. The world is also populated by non-player characters, or NPCs, which are controlled by the game’s artificial intelligence and serve many purposes. Finally, while every game is controlled in part by the community of players, ultimate controls lies with the company who creates, owns, and manages the game.

MMO Memorials

I am particularly interested in the overlap between real and digital space. A cascade of questions emerge: what happens to a digital presence when the real person is no longer around? Specifically, what happens in MMO communities when people die? How do their in-game friends react? How does the company react? Thousands of books exist about memorials, mourning, monuments, and other “real life” ways of honoring the recently departed. But what of the digital life? What does memorializing looking like in a society of people who have never met, seen one another, or (in some cases) even heard each other’s voices?

Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons

A prominent example comes from a famous person in this world — Gary Gygax, a creator of popular pen and paper game Dungeons and Dragons. Gygax died in 2008. Today, players of the game Dungeons and Dragons Online (D&D Online) can still complete quests narrated to them by Gygax. In 2010, a rumor spread throughout the D&D Online community that Gygax’s voiceovers were to be removed from the game. Fans reacted with significant outrage. One online comment read “I cannot bear this change. You can remove the dice descriptions, you can nerf everything, you can change all the UI you want, but you cannot remove Gary Gygax’s voice.”

The Gygax examples raises more specific questions: what does it mean for the memory of Gygax that his voice is still readily accessible in an online world he, in a way, helped create? Why did players react so outraged when rumors began? Are his voiceovers considered a memorial? How does Gygax’s voice help players understand the digital and “real” lives? And what about memorializing people who are not known to the entire community? So many questions arise within these digital worlds, and only within the past few years are scholars considering the possibilities raised by digital worlds and the connection between living people and their digital characters.

As a quick note…this short post is not meant to be any attempt at an exhaustive list of digital memorials, but simply an effort to understand the meaning, purpose, and characteristics of such memorials through a series of examples.

Spontaneous Memorials

In-game community-run funerals for real-life people are relatively common in MMOs. A recent example is when Final Fantasy XIV gathered in-game to quietly pay their respects to a fellow player whose health was failing.

Sean Smith, aka Vile Rat in EVE Online
Sean Smith, aka Vile Rat in EVE Online

Another example — and likely the most well known — comes from EVE Online and the death of well-known player Vile Rat (Sean Smith in “real life”). Smith was an employee of the US Foreign Service and one of four Americans who died in the 2012 Benghazi attack on the US Consulate. Since, EVE Online players have renamed dozens of locales and held memorials in Vile Rat/Sean Smith’s honor. Smith’s former in-game colleagues actually crossed into the “real world” to memorialize, holding a benefit for Smith’s family and ultimately raising $127,000 toward his children’s college fund.

Goodman/Frank Campbell & Ultima Online
Invitation from 2013 for in-game memorial of a man who passed away in real life.
Invitation from 2013 for in-game memorial service for Goodman, real name Frank Campbell

One memorial is rather unique in its spontaneous organization and long-term resilience — the Goodman Memorial on the Atlantic shard of Ultima Online (UO).

Goodman — real name Frank Campbell — managed a rune library in game (don’t worry about what a rune library is). His rune library required a great deal of upkeep, including regular building maintenance, “rent” payment, and community relations, much like a “real world” library. Goodman/Campbell died on August 30, 2005. Upon his death, Goodman’s UO friends, in effect, embarked upon a digital historic preservation project. They took over maintenance of the rune library and converted the roof into a memorial rose garden. In the garden, players leave objects and sign books with their memories of Goodman/Campbell’s life. In addition, every year on August 30 (or thereabout), players meet on a nearby beach for an in-game memorial service to remember Goodman and others who have passed. The 2010 service is on Youtube.

Over the 18 years of UO’s  existence, many other players have died. The community and company recognizes this: the largest UO community forum site — Stratics — has an entire subforum dedicated to player memorials.

Ribbitribbit & Everquest II

Another spontaneous example comes from Everquest II (EQ2) and the story of Ribbitribbit — a character played by a six year old boy. The boy’s mother posted on the EQ2 forums asking that the community help Ribbitribbit decorate his house, because that was the thing he enjoyed most in-game and he honestly did not have much longer to live.

Individuals from across multiple EQ2 servers came together — about 360 in total — to decorate this home. While some SOE employees joined in the cause, this effort was entirely player and community driven. For some more details on the efforts of this group (named the Lillipad Jungle and later the Fairy Godfroggers), there’s a great write up on Engadget. The family of Ribbitribbit also posted a series of videos documenting the boy’s reactions to his newly decorated home.

EQ2 players gathered while building Ribbitribbit’s home

Since these events in 2012, people gathered annually on Ribbitribbit Day (March 9) to, as an organizer put it, “celebrate not only Ribbitribbitt, but all the friends we have lost along our adventures. And we want to celebrate the friendships we have made that are still going strong. Myrose, Ribbitribbitt’s mother, and I would like to invite you to this celebration.”

Company Memorials: The Example of Blizzard Entertainment

WoWPost(Ezra)In many ways, digital memorials allow for new ways of remembrance, such as moments where gaming companies memorialize their employees and players of their game (or consumers of their product, if you want to get cynical). Probably the most famous examples comes from the story of Ezra Chatterton and World of Warcraft (WoW), a game developed by Blizzard Entertainment.

Ezra was a boy from California who had brain cancer. In 2007, the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted Ezra’s wish to visit the Blizzard offices, where Ezra worked with developers to create a new in-game material, including an NPC named Ahab Wheathoof and a new quest “Kyle’s Gone Missing!”

Ezra passed away in October 2008. There were two responses to Ezra’s passing: one from the community and another from Blizzard. In the days after the news became public, thousands of players traveled to the rarely visited area explicitly to complete “Kyle’s Gone Missing!” as a tribute. Blizzard followed with their own tribute the following year, permanently changing the name of an in-game NPC from Elder Proudhorn to Elder Ezra Wheathoof.

Players gather at the Shrine of the Fallen Warrior around the spirit Koiter
Players gather at the Shrine of the Fallen Warrior around the spirit Koiter

This continued a long-standing Blizzard memorialization tradition, as Blizzard has a unique connection to such tragedy and memorials. One of their own, Blizzard employee Michael Koiter, died during the game’s development. A location in game, The Shrine of the Fallen Warrior, is a monument to Koiter, and it has occasionally been a location of other spontaneous memorials. A few years before Ezra’s story, developers named an NPC (Caylee Dak) after a player (Dak Krause) who died of leukemia. There are far, far more than these memorials in the WoW universe.

More Company Memorials

Wynthyst Memorial in Ebonhawke Cemetery, Guild Wars 2

Other game developers have also built monuments to fallen players, most notably ArenaNet in their game Guild Wars 2. About a year ago, an active community member died, and ArenaNet created a new grave in an in-game cemetery. Further, the online wiki she helped curate became a place of spontaneous remembrance. ArenaNet memorialized another player just this month when they added a second in-game memorial, this time creating a new NPC in honor of a female player who tragically died during childbirth.

20-sided die, in-game item from EQ2, memorial to Gary Gygax

Numerous companies also memorialized the aforementioned Gary Gygax in a multitude of ways beyond the preservation of his D&D Online voice. EQ2 introduced an item, the Stone of Gygax, that players can place within their homes; UO created and named a new room within a pre-existing dungeon after Gygax; and D&D Online also created a digital shrine within a pre-existing “tomb.” Many other games, including WoW, explicitly mentioned Gygax in their official notes and mourned his passing.

Dying Worlds & A Call for Preservation?

Virtually every MMO contains a memorial in some way. I’d like to mention three more: Star Wars Galaxies had the Freeman Memorial, a room dedicated to the memory of an SOE employee, and City of Heroes had the tutorial NPC Coyote, named after a person who suddenly passed and went by the forum name of Kiyotee; and Warhammer Online players organized in-game memorials after well-known player Sugbis died while actually playing the game.

The three examples in the preceding paragraph have one thing in common: none of these online worlds exist any longer. The Star Wars Galaxies digital world shut down forever on December 15, 2011; City of Heroes on November 30, 2012; and Warhammer Online on December 18, 2013. A memorial in physical space is generally assumed to exist in perpetuity, but digital memorials are ephemeral by the very nature of online video games. This ephemeral nature is best exemplified by the three examples in the preceding paragraph. All that’s left of each memorial is a wiki page, player memories, and a few videos.

A vigil for Leonard Nimoy held in the game Star Trek Online
A vigil for Leonard Nimoy held in the game Star Trek Online shortly after his death in February 2015

Unlike the “real world,” it is impossible for individuals to control the digital space of MMOs. They can petition game companies to create memorials, beg for an extension the life of the game servers, or attempt to create semi-legal player-run servers…but ultimately gaming companies exclusively control the digital world. Even games with the most detailed levels of digital property ownership are still ultimately controlled by the game company, and when the company decides a game world is to be shut down… then it simply shuts down.

I see it as rather sad — possibly even tragic — that these worlds get shut down permanently. Digital memorials contribute to how individuals make sense of their digital and “real-world” lives. A company shuts down a game and it takes down its intellectual property, but it also takes with it memories, stories, and these memorials with it. These stories and memories mean a great deal to people. Without the digital space, then all that’s left is memory. As evidence of the power of these memories, there are still several very active online forums dedicated to the memory of MMO communities even though what brought them together — the MMO itself — has been dead for years.

University of Michigan, Computer and Video Game Archive
University of Michigan, Computer and Video Game Archive

So what can public historians do? I think we need to start thinking of ways to document, archive, and preserve these moments. There are many roadblocks to preserving, for example, the digital world of City of Heroes. For one, NCSOFT still owns the intellectual property rights. I understand that securing the rights to any game would be a huge hurdle for any archive to overcome…but I also imagine that educational fair-use arguments could open some doors. Another huge problem is technical. MMOs require both a client computer and servers, and most places with archival or preservation aspirations simple do not have the technical budget or expertise to maintain such a project. Some former developers have suggested releasing client-side “exploration-only” versions of dead games, but still — game companies hold all the power here.

That said, a number of archives do a very good job of preserving other video games, such as The Strong, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas. At least one scholar has called upon the Library of Congress. It would take a lot of effort, but an institution such as these could organize an MMO preservation project. For all I know, at least one of these institutions may already be on the path. I hope they are, because MMOs are more than just games to some; they have become places of commemoration, remembrance, and even mourning. These are places where people making meaning for their real lives as well as the digital, and I believe that scholars of memory, memorials, and public history should take note.


[1] For example, see Nike Yee, The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us — and How They Dont’ (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); and Jim Blaskovich and Jeremy Bailenson, Infinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of Our Virtual Lives (New York: William Morrow, 2011).

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.