Playing With History

We began our first year as DH Fellows in a seminar where we were asked to choose a project from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s 20th anniversary site, and develop an Omeka exhibit that tells the history of that project. The Lost Museum, an early online game developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, immediately caught my attention. The Lost Museum allows users to move through a virtual recreation of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, destroyed by an unsolved arson attack in 1865, while investigating potential suspects and learning about 19th century social, political, and cultural history (to learn more, visit the exhibit). A professor assigned this game in a class I took as undergraduate, and I remember discussing the project not just for its historical content, but as a historical artifact itself. It has been updated since then, but still maintains the characteristics of an early internet website: playful, creative, and idiosyncratic. Developing this exhibit has allowed me to explore the early days of digital humanities projects, and the direction the RRCHNM has gone in since then.

The emergence of new media gave rise to a small but ambitious group of scholars who imagined nontraditional ways of presenting their work to the public. And that’s what it really seemed to be about—gaining a wide, public audience. Of course, students and teachers were also important to this work, as can be seen through the Center’s first project, Who Built America? Other academics would continue to read and publish articles and books, and would benefit from the many database and source-driven digital humanities projects to come. But, for a rather brief moment, the popular appeal of gaming and dynamic storytelling seemed to be the next frontier for presenting historical scholarship. The crew that developed The Lost Museum—a mix of academics and programmers from the American Social History Project at CUNY and the very new Center for History and New Media at GMU—recognized and explored these potentials.

Since these early days, however, there has been a relative absence of gaming from the digital humanities landscape. Gaming is able to extend the immersive narrative forms of earlier new media, particularly documentary film. The exploratory structure of gaming can not only lead to deeper engagement with the historical content, but also the process of doing historical work. However, these projects take a long time (the seed of The Lost Museum started in 1994 and the project wasn’t completed until 2005) as they require a highly collaborative group of people with the skill, time, and money to see a project through. The formation of digital humanities centers during this period were an attempt to balance this always-shifting equation of skill, time, and money. And in many cases, and certainly the case at CHNM, projects often built the center while the center built the project. So why, then, haven’t we see more creative output from these centers?

Working on this exhibit helped me to understand how much funding opportunities forced many digital humanists and the Centers they worked for to be more pragmatic about what they could do and how long it would take them to do it. This is not to diminish the work of Centers. The projects and tools that the CHNM has created over the last two decades are engaging and useful, and have helped to define the state of digital humanities today. And there are many other Centers across the world doing similarly influential work. To funders, a game is simply riskier than a content management system, or a database-driven project. At least in the case of The Lost Museum, gaming projects tend to take on a life of their own and require a high level of flexibility. And, once completed, the question remains: will anyone want to play it? However, as someone interested in digital humanities and popular culture, it doesn’t seem right to confine my subjects to the pages of a monograph, or even the rows and columns of a content management system. In the case of The Lost Museum, the elements of the story effectively begged to be made into a game—a real historical mystery (investigative) set inside of a museum (immersive) that contained artifacts and oddities (interactive). If people could no longer visit P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, visiting the virtual space was the next best thing.

Lately, it appears that DH scholars are reflecting on where DH has come since these early days and where it might be going. Promisingly, The NEH has started to fund more gaming projects, which suggests a possible shift towards more creative projects in DH’s future. It also appears that a general nostalgia for the 1990s has set in. The playful, dynamic, DIY-style of early internet design does not seem as anachronistic today as it might have five years ago. Instead, it seems fun, and familiar, and maybe a little comforting. And although this 90s nostalgia could be a passing fad, it could also be something worth nurturing. With the CMS takeover of the Internet, more DH gaming projects could possibly offer an escape not only for users, but for creators as well.

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