Video games and learning: waste of time, or valuable tool?


In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee challenges the assertion that video games are a “waste of time” by discussing the potential of good video games to encourage deeper forms of learning and enjoyment of players.  According to Gee the best video games echo the best theories of learning in education, encouraging active and critical learning, rather than basic “skill-and-drill” methods of instruction (4).  The games Gee refers to specifically offer players the chance to take on a virtual persona and navigate a complex and interactive world.

Gee Video Games

These games allow for learning in the contexts of the following principles of learning, situated cognition, New Literacy Studies, and connectionism.  Situated cognition maintains that learning “is fully embodied in (situated within) a material, social, and cultural world,” and is more than just what happens inside the human mind.  New Literacy Studies reiterates the sentiment that learning goes beyond the constraints of the mind, and includes “social and cultural practices with economic, historical, and political implications.”  Connectionism insists that humans are adept at recognizing patterns and learn best when they can link abstract principles to actual experience (9).

According to, education, learning and thinking, are inherently social processes.  We read and interpret different works depending on the social community with which we identify.  Becoming a “gamer” includes more than simply learning to play the game.  Often it leads players to online information, connecting the individual to a larger community of people, or affinity group, with the same interests and similar “identities.”

He describes gaming as a semiotic domain or “an area or set of activities where people think, act, and value in certain ways” (19).  Semiotic domains, gaming for instance, contain “languages” with which participants must become “literate.”  According to Gee video games can encourage players to engage in active rather than passive learning as the new player begins to navigate the game design.   Players are able to try on a new personas, act out and explore their values, and solve problems as they arise within the games.  When a player reaches a certain level of understanding of a game they can start to think reflectively about the games parts and begin to critique it or make innovations.

Gee does not argue for the use of video games in classroom instruction, or that players always learn valuable content.  Rather, his point is that well-made video games, though difficult to learn and master, can encourage active and critical learning in a way that players find enjoyable; they illustrate sound principles of learning that the education system should consider.  Players do not have to get it done quickly and get it right the first time, rather they are free to explore, hypothesize and learn from experience.

It is worth noting that Gee’s discussion of video games does not focus on content or related issues of misogyny in gaming culture, for instance.   While he argues video games are neither inherently good or evil, the importance of community in learning indicates a need to investigate the effects on individuals of potential exclusion by the community.  It would be interesting to hear Gee’s thoughts on the effects of misogyny encountered by female gamers within the “affinity group” of their semiotic domain.

Two games: 1066 & Jamestown


“The 1066 Game gets you right in amongst the battles, allowing you to directly control every barrage of arrows, cavalry charge and defensive stand taken by your armies. Mini-games add to the tension of issuing commands, and a distinctive portrayal of medieval warfare is delivered by the striking visual and dramatic animation.” –So says one of the game’s sites.

If you don’t know the history of the Battle of Hastings, watch this or this.

1066 purports to be a historical portrayal of the battle, but I’m confused how powerful the taunting tactic is in this game. I lost twice because my men kept being berated by insults such as “OOZING PUS WOUND” or “ILL-BORN FEN RAT!” My archers really couldn’t really defend against such a foul-mouthed offense.

Did it make me think about military strategy back then? Sure. Did it make me finally look up what the Battle of Hastings was? Yep. But, was the game fun to play? Not really, because it’s bit cumbersome and inconsistently balanced. I would attempt to move some of my men, and then the computer I was playing would fire off some arrows, some insults, and then even move some men–all while I couldn’t do anything. Bloody frustrating, that is. Cool animations though.


The Jamestown Online Adventure gives a “choose your own adventure” style of learning about how colonization works. According to its own descriptor page, “[i]n 1606, some 105 adventurers set off from England to try and establish the first permanent English colony in the New World. They settled in what is now the state of Virginia and called their colony first James Fort, and then James Towne, in honor of James I, the King of England. The early years of the colony were nearly a total disaster.”

I like how you learn about geography, how the land was being carved up, and where it would might be best to try to live along the coast–or not. No matter what choices you choose, you get a report telling you how you would’ve fared, and then explanations about how it really was under the headings “now we know.” I wish the window/viewer for the game was bigger so that the text was easier to read, especially for the report when the text gets heavy and historical. (Hopefully we could prevent the tl;dr tendency.)

Jamestown is finite compared to 1066, so if I had to choose between the two I would choose the sodding archers and the enemy’s archaic put-downs. Both taught me a bit more about history though, so both score points in my book for that.


There is an Einstein Quote, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The two games I researched were Cotton Millionaire and Argument Wars and both these games engage the player with simple versions of complex issues, economics and civics respectively, for the purpose of growing understanding.

Cotton Millionaire

Screenshot (7)

It’s the beginning of the industrial revolution and you’re the advisor to a businessman with some money to invest; you have the opportunity to make a fortune. The framing of the advisor is mentioned once and then abandoned; perhaps because it is a tool for inclusivity: only white men were owners at this point, but anyone can be an advisor. There is a single avatar, a blonde-ish white man, and despite the inclusive language (and by inclusive I mean carefully politically correct) at the end of the game, if you fail, you go to debtor’s prison when the avatar is incarcerated.

Screenshot (9)

This game is of a very simple construction. It consists of four choice points and the value of the choices are carefully weighted so that it is almost impossible to not make it to the end of the game. I had to purposefully choose what I knew to be the worst choices to get tossed in jail in only three turns.

I have one major complaint about the construction of the game itself and that is there a semiotic shift between the first and second turns. In turn 1, you select a map location and it tells you about your choice before you pick it; this is not the case in later turns which I found irritating but having read some more of Gee, interesting. I understand the first turn, having presented the goals of the game, they then present you with information relating to the options and you make the choice and then it is explained why this was or was not a good choice.

Screenshot (8)

In the later turns you just have to guess and to me this is counterintuitive of what the goal of the game seems to be. Especially considering the frame that you are the advisor to the industrialist, the goal would be to use your knowledge to make good decisions, the later turns where you are guessing and then find out if you guessed right is, to me, gambling and not constructive game-play.

Argument Wars

Screenshot (3)

The point of Argument Wars is to teach students both about the constitution and how to construct cohesive arguments. Play is dictated by connecting ideas to the key argument of the case. I played a case about the 4th Amendment so the ideas were all related to illegal search (probable cause, warrants, the special circumstances of a school) and the rights of minors.

Screenshot (5)

As you make your arguments, the Judge tells you how you are doing and awards points based on how relevant your argument is to the case at hand – and in some cases, how well you can construct a sentence based on that argument. You have options populated by the computer, you just have to choose.

Screenshot (6)

While some parts of the game are abrasive – the ridiculous posturing of the avatars and especially the music – it is actually quite well designed. The game play is consistent, the objectives are clear, and you have the option of retrying the case on the other side. As a legal game, that is I think the most important aspect, being able to see and argue both sides of an issue. The screen at the end of the game that tells you if you’ve won or lost the trial also tells you how the actual case turned out.

Both of these games have their flaws and neither is, to my knowledge, directed at any age group outside of school, but the simplicity makes engaging with the ideas presented both fun and informative. It is especially the secondary benefit of Argument Wars, the construction of supported arguments that I like best because to win at one thing, it requires building a skill in another.



There’s an App for That, But Why?

Stories from Main Street and The Will to Adorn are projects created by the Smithsonian Institution that are very different in subject matter and in execution but which share the element of encouraging members of particular marginalized groups to contribute their own stories to the endeavors. Both projects have websites and accompanying apps for mobile devices, and it is in these mobile apps where the two projects are most similar.

The Stories from Main Street website and app are offshoots of the Smithsonian

Stories from Main Street Website
Stories from Main Street Website

Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program. MoMS works to bring the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibitions to cultural institutions serving the small towns (defined as having an average population of 8,000 people) of rural America. The Smithsonian staff envisions that their programs help to bring together the residents of such towns to share their stories with each other, fostering community pride. The MoMS website allows people from anywhere in the country to contribute photos, videos, audio recordings, and written stories pertaining to their experiences in rural America and to experience the content contributed by participants.

The Will to Adorn project, begun in 2010 by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, “explores the diversity of African American identities as expressed through the cultural aesthetics and traditional arts of the body, dress and adornment.” The project appears to have culminated with an exhibit, demonstrations, workshops, performances, hands-on visitor participation activities, and daily fashion shows at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival held on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The website seeks to provide an explanation of the questions and goals addressed by the project and provides some sample photo and video content, but it does not offer a means of exploring the full content of the project.

Will to Adorn Website
Will to Adorn Website

While both websites are rather celebratory in the sense of bringing to prominence topics that have generally been excluded from mainstream historical and cultural practice, the projects and websites are very different in tone. Unlike Stories from Main Street, Will to Adorn projects itself as a scholarly endeavor, with researchers actively seeking to distill meaning from the evidence that they gather through the project. Whereas I did not find any user participatory element on the Will to Adorn website, collecting user content and allowing site visitors to explore it is the raison d’etre for Stories from Main Street, which to me has a very haphazard feel to it. Specific geographic location at the level of the town is also an important aspect of the Stories from Main Street content whereas local geography does not appear to figure significantly into the Will to Adorn website.

Main Screens of Both Apps Compared
Main Screens of Both Apps Compared

Despite the stark differences between the two websites, the mobile apps for these projects are actually quite similar. Both apps allow the user to record their own stories related to the topic of the project and also to listen to stories that other people have contributed. Aside from imagery, presentation-wise, the apps are pretty much identical. The Stories from Main Street app was built using Roundware, which bills itself as “an open-source, participatory, location-aware audio platform” that does pretty much exactly what both of these apps do in term of recording audio, being able to add some metadata, uploading content, and being able to select, to a certain extent, the content that will be streamed to the listener. Will to Adorn most certainly was also built using Roundware, but I did not see a credit for it in the app.

Recording content to contribute is (theoretically) easy with these apps. Start by pressing the “Add a Story” button on the main page. On Stories from Main Street, you then have a choice of six general topics from which to choose- Life in Your Community, Sports – Hometown Teams, Music – New Harmonies, Food – Key Ingredients, Work – The Way We Worked, and Travel – Journey Stories. You then identify yourself as a man, woman, boy, or girl, and finally you are asked to choose one specific question (from a provided list of four to six questions) about the subject you selected. Doing so brings you to the recording page, where your question is displayed for you at the top. When you’re ready, press the record button (I recommend the large button at the bottom; I had trouble with the smaller buttons in the middle of the page) and there will be a three second countdown. Then you will have a minute and a half to discuss your chosen question. When you’re done, press stop, and you will then have the option of listening to what you recorded, rerecording it, and uploading it (or you can exit the recording section without posting by hitting the cancel button at the top of the screen, which takes you back out to the main menu).

Stories from Main Street - Screens to Add Story
Stories from Main Street – Screens to Add Story

I chickened out at the point of actually uploading content. I’m not from a small town, and although I did record an answer to one of the Travel section questions, I was afraid of sounding like I was an Easterner mocking something from Midwestern culture that I don’t understand. I gather that the app uses your phone’s GPS to attach location information to your recording when you upload it, which is curious, because geography is such an important part of the Stories from Main Street website and a person may be inspired to record something about their town while away from home or conversely may wish to talk about a small town they’ve visited before from the comfort of their own home, which means the content may have an inaccurate geolocation if it’s based solely on the location of the phone at the moment of recording. On the website, users are able to type in the appropriate location for their content.

Will to Adorn - Some Metadata Choices
Will to Adorn – Some Metadata Choices

Will to Adorn works similarly to Stories from Main Street, although the metadata Will to Adorn collects is a bit more nuanced. After pressing “Add a Story,” the app asks for your age (15-19, 60+, and then each decade in between). They ask for gender, but in addition to the expected male and female, there are also options for “trans” (with an asterisk that goes unexplained) and “other” (which could mean all sorts of things). You then select from one of six broad geographic areas (Alaska and Hawaii I guess have to content themselves with being from the West). Will to Adorn only gives you the choice of a total of five questions to answer. However, and this is kind of key, once I made all of these selections, the screen looked like it was going to send me to a recording screen similar to Stories from Main Street. Nope.

Will to Adorn Recording Screen - Um... Do not get your eyes checked.  The screen is indeed all black.
Will to Adorn Recording Screen – Um… Do not get your eyes checked. The screen is indeed all black.

Black empty screen of doom. I have to presume that the app was tested before it was released, so maybe it’s just not compatible with my iPhone 6, because not being able to record on an app whose whole purpose is to be able to record is rather a problem. And I was more willing to answer and submit to this site (“What are you wearing?” seems like a mostly harmless question). At any rate, images on the Will to Adorn website show recording pages nearly identical to those in the Stories from Main Street app, although you may get up to two minutes to discuss your clothing choices. Website text also indicates that you can attach photos to your story submission too, but the app does not show user images anywhere, and I did not see on the website either the archive of user submissions or a way to record and upload stories so I cannot verify this aspect of the app’s functionality.

In terms of the listening aspect of these apps, after pressing the “Listen” button on the main page and waiting for what seemed like a rather long period of time in both apps for content to load, the app will start playing recordings from the collection. Stories from Main Street defaults to the recordings in the “Life In Your Community” section. Users can flag the content, like it, or if you’re inspired to record your own story, there’s a record button there too.

Listening Screens - Both Apps
Listening Screens – Both Apps

The user does have the option to choose to a certain extent which stories they will hear on the app. On Stories from Main Street, the “Modify” button at the top of the screen allows you to select one of the six content areas and to further narrow down by what specific question(s) you want to hear about. The “Refine” button in the same spot on Will to Adorn allows the user to narrow by age, gender, region, and specific question. No audio played for the first two questions that I selected to listen to on Stories from Main Street, so perhaps no one has actually contributed stories related to those particular topics, but I did have success on my third try. Interestingly enough, on the sports section, there were more question options to listen to than there were to record on your own. And in the Travel section, the “favorite journey” answers were mostly about going to a large city rather than a small town.

I’m not sure that anyone’s actively curating the user responses. There was a recording on the Stories from Main Street app that I heard where some kids were messing around doing a recording and one of them used a slur. In another one, a young man discussed how he and his friends as teenagers would go to the river, drink moonshine, get high, and watch alligators. One snippet was simply “[town name] sucks.” And a recording I heard on Will to Adorn started out as a heartfelt commentary about a certain style of dress but then suddenly turned into a profanity-laden tirade on the subject. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of not wanting to censor what people say or if the Smithsonian is just relying on the community to use that flag button to police the content. There also doesn’t actually appear to be very much content to curate on either site. According to the Stories from Main Street website, there are 519 contributions in the archive. Will to Adorn appears to have far fewer stories than that, as I heard much of the content at least twice while listening to the stories.

While some of the stories contained in the Stories from Main Street and Will to Adorn archives are genuinely interesting, honestly, I really don’t get the point with either of these apps. The stories are snippets of two minutes or less that are for the most part divorced of context. Neither app displays any metadata about the audio that’s playing, so if particular facts are known about the contributor of a recording, the listener won’t have that information. And the contributors don’t always give you much information in their recordings. For example, if a person opens up their recording in Stories from Main Street with “In my town…,” well, which town? How would I know that if the subject doesn’t actually say it in their recording? Assuming the geolocation attached to the recording is correct (an issue with Stories from Main Street that I discussed earlier), the listener doesn’t know what it is and doesn’t have a great way of determining if the speaker is talking about life in Boise, Birmingham, or Burlington (and Wikipedia tells me that there is a Burlington in 24 of the U.S. states!).  Maybe I’m missing the forest for the trees, but I’m a details kind of person.

Many of the recordings on Will to Adorn sound like they were made at the Folklife Festival, and the participants there were generally asked by volunteers about their name, age, and location and were sometimes asked to elaborate on their responses. But the following is the extent of one non-Folklife Festival story on Will to Adorn: “How I feel when I have it on—it makes me feel beautiful.” Have WHAT on? Disembodied from all context, this particular snippet doesn’t seem to me to add much to the conversation about creating meaning and forging identity through one’s attire.

Another interesting context issue with Will to Adorn concerns race. The project as explained on the Will to Adorn website specifically concerns how African Americans express themselves through dress and other adornment. The app invites anyone to contribute their story, which is perfectly fine. But the app does not provide a way to self-identify by race or ethnic/cultural background unless you choose to speak to that issue in your recording. So I guess I don’t understand how any user contributions added to the project’s database from the app could be marshaled as evidence for the original conception of the project.

Context for these stories aside, I also just don’t understand not why “there’s an app for that” but rather why the public would download either of these apps and use them over and over again. Sure, one’s smartphone provides a really convenient way to record very short stories, but I don’t really see much of a reason for an individual to do this more than once or twice. There is no essential tie to a physical place for either of these apps that would prompt a user to open up the app and learn something about that location through the project’s content. There could have been on Stories from Main Street, but there’s no way on the app to search for a particular location to find content related to a place where you happen to be or might be interested in knowing more about. Stories from Main Street does provide a link to the project’s website on the main page (Will to Adorn does not) where visitors can search for audio on a map. Similarly, given the limited amount of content in these collections, I’m not sure why anyone would use the listen function on either app more than a couple times, particularly on Will to Adorn. I’m not saying that the effort to collect and share people’s thoughts on these apps is uninteresting and completely devoid of value, I’m just struggling to see why someone might keep these apps on their phones and use them more than a very few times.

What do you think? How might these apps be improved to increase their current interest and/or enduring value? Without a great deal of context, what can we learn about the subject matter of the projects by listening to these recording snippets?



Dude, Where’s My History?: A Look at Historical Mapping Interfaces

The advent of digital technology allowed a greater exchange of knowledge and ideas to enter homes at an astonishing new level. This change brought information and services straight to users that before may have required someone to actually leave their home to seek it. The advancement of mobile computing technology furthered the trend of information coming directly to people but without restricting its access in one physical place. Many cultural heritage institutions have noticed these changes and adapted to become not only places that house information, but resources that increasingly push it directly to their patrons wherever they may be. The affordances of this new media also allow institutions to bring their materials into geographic space, adding another layer of interpretation and context while bringing to the public’s attention that history is all around us.

Histories of the National Mall

One site that takes advantage of mobile application and a spatial understanding of history is Histories of the National Mall created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media run using our old pal, Omeka. Taking their own advice from their report Mobile for Museums, the site is device independent, made to run on a web browser allowing for use across desktop, laptop, and mobile and is not a native downloadable app that needs tailoring for each device. As the title indicates, the site is an interface for learning about the histories of the national mall through maps, explorations (short examinations based on questions people might have about the mall), people, and past events. Most of these sections can be filtered into different historical periods. Some of my favorite sections, and much to my chagrin,  are the great explorations of unmade designs of the national monuments. There are also a number of scavenger hunts that send you to a specific part of the mall and have images of places for you to find. Once you find the images, you tap or click them and can read or listen to more about it.

Histories of the National Mall Map

The key feature of this site is the map, which has over 300 points containing historical information, audio, video, images, and documents. The user can filter by each of those categories as well as by place and event. As stated above, the site is web browser based and largely looks the same when using on a desktop/laptop or a mobile device. Using GPS, Histories of the National Mall centers the map on the user’s coordinates and locates them within historical context. What is good about the map is that there are no set way to explore the points, you can wander around and discover new facts and events that shaped the environment all around. This allows the user to set their own narrative in a serendipitous combination of explorations.


Aris Games

While Histories of the National Mall is a ready made site, Aris Games is both an open source application to create geographically based games and a mobile app to play the games. The back end is not the scary coding or programming that some in the cultural heritage sector may fear, but a simple interface so even those without the technical skills can make the games with the infrastructure invisible to them. One downside to the Aris created games not encountered in the mall histories site is that the mobile app is only available on Apple products and has a much more limited audience because of it.


The Aris editor interface to create is simple but it is by no means easy to understand without first reading the manual or viewing the helpful video tutorials on certain topics. It is important to understand the different elements (especially non-obvious ones such as scenes, plaques, and locks) and how they function so you can create a working game. The games are largely tours or explorations of certain areas. Building a game is based on creating “scenes” or different scenarios that the user can encounter as they travel around. You can make conversations for the user to have at each location that can lead them further into the game. All of the features you create can be mapped to a certain location to create an exploratory geographic environment. This feature is unfortunately cumbersome to use as the only way to find your points is through precise GPS coordinates or by dragging the point to where you want with no way to search for your general location so you can get there quicker. Also there is no way to see how your game will look in app without having and opening the app. Since I have an Android device, I needed to borrow an iPhone to do this. Despite these drawbacks, Aris editor is a good way to make games without requiring programming experience.

Aris Editor

Playing the games is fairly simple but, as mentioned above, does require downloading their Apple based app. Inside the app you can play any number of games created with the editor. You can either find  games based on your geographic location, sort by popularity, or search for a specific title. Aris provides a demo that will give you a good overview of what it is like to play these games (avert your eyes if you dislike semi-obsolete media):

Overall, National Histories of the Mall and Aris Games are good examples of the creative ways spatial history and mobile technology can work together to engage the public. By embracing this new trend and the ubiquity of mobile phones, institutions will add layers of meaning, attract a wider audience than before, and bring content out from behind closed doors.


Mobile Interface Theory: New Frontiers for Art Projects & Historical Learning

Jason Farman, in his book Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media (2012), explores how mobile media has changed / is changing how people interact with their worlds. Farman first establishes a theoretical framework of embodiment and sensory-inscription—which I interpret respectively (and simplistically) as space in direct relation to our lived experience and how we read the world. His approach to mobile communication, gaming, storytelling, and performance art all spins out of these ideas.


(Dr. Farman is on Twitter–betcha didn’t expect that…)

One of the quotes that distilled his big idea the most for me about all those things came in his fifth chapter: “Mobile technologies have transformed the categories of synchronous ‘presence’ and asynchronous ‘absence’ into simply a social proprioception of ‘continual co-presence’” (108). If we attempt to define proprioception as the recognition of one’s multiplicity in a place (physically and virtually simultaneously), I believe we can better begin to understand how to appreciate the possibilities of a mobile interface that can enhance our experience of places (physical and virtual). If we can see ourselves in relation to other things in the world that we cannot literally see, what does that mean for the things we interact with digitally via a mobile interface?
If “space is produced as a multiplicity of perception and inscription,” and “our mobile devices produce spaces that are experienced as a collaboration between information, representation, and materiality” then critically examining how all of that converges should help us better understand our current era (13). Farman is quick to point out, however, that technological obsolescence must be acknowledged as a limiting factor in these discussions, but these questions will most likely stay with us as long as most of us have some kind of mobile information device. Because we probably won’t do away with our phones anytime soon, and because we are still generally concerned with cultural progress, the ideas and questions raised in his book are worth considering.
Farman uses Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” in order to illustrate how “movement forward (progress) is a storm that leaves a trail of wreckage in its wake (obsolescence)” (136). And because Farman is interested in space he points to how digital environments will also become part of that technological wreckage once users feel as if the connections or incentives of a digital environment have “slowed or plateaued.”


(Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus and Walter Benjamin… I was expecting something more like a Gustav Dore illustration, but that’s cool.)

Farman’s invocation of Benjamin (which also a favorite passage of mine) made me also reflect on the other examples of mobile media practices he cited throughout his book that seemed to keep storytelling alive, or digitally dig up history. For example, how can we as conscientious citizens continue to interrogate power structures such as corporations or the military/police, while at the same time using products or methods created by them? The art project San Francisco ←→ Baghdad readjusts Americans’ geography while also acknowledging fallen soldiers, which resonates with critical thought about war and imperialism (49). Another favorite project of mine listed in the book is Streetmuseum, because of its ability to exploit the notion of “implacement” as a profound learning experience for students and citizens (check out the powerful image and caption on page 41).
If that kind of technological engagement found with Streetmuseum can be amplified, and perhaps gameified, I think there is great learning potential there. Similarly, [murmur], or something similar to it, seems like it could continue to proliferate as a historical community project—or, a fictional mystery based on local history?
Because computing truly is pervasive for most of us nowadays, it behooves us to explore and challenge the new meanings that are produced by our collective and historical interactions. Studying how information visualization interacts with locative media will continue to produce new ways to play with and critique the convergence of material and virtual spaces. I look forward to hearing about those kind of new projects.

Exploring a New Frontier: Cultural Institutions and Digital Space

Courtesy of Public History Ryan Gosling on Tumblr.

When I worked at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, an African American history museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, my favorite artifact to point out in our permanent exhibit was a piece of wall reading “White” and “Colored” that once resided over the water fountain of a public building in the city. Often visitors found this odd, until I shared why it was my favorite: location. This piece of wall, removed from its original location and placed in an African American history museum, held great meaning. It no longer represented the power of segregation to judge worth or place, and its new location represented a victory of civil rights and equity. For me, that artifact provided a constant reminder as to the importance of place in interpreting meaning.

While the museum had just started to engage audiences through mobile interface when I moved to the Washington, D.C. area,  there were already serious discussions about the influence of environment and location, and what approaching different types of spaces would mean for the institution’s future. Would our collections still hold priority? Could we use mobile interface to keep the material culture of the museum present and relevant to our audience? Will future generations still want to come to a physical building and view in person artifacts like that piece of wall that held such importance for me? The digital revolution and growing importance of mobile spaces often presented daunting challenges; however, these challenges would hold the key to how we, as public historians, shaped our institution’s trajectory.

Many other museums have in fact embraced the mobile tech revolution and harnessed its most promising advantages, expanding their presence inside and outside the walls of the exhibition space. As Jason Farman addresses in his book Mobile Interface Theory, we are experiencing a cultural shift in computing in that what was once geographically fixed is now mobile. Thanks to the widespread use of the Internet, this means that museums themselves are no longer fully geographically fixed, but mobile. This is equal parts a kind of mind-blowing, a little frightening, and really cool. While the theory behind all of this is complex and fascinating, I’m more interested in the practical implications of our newfound permeability of space.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s study of Mobile for Museums has documented several ways cultural institutions can connect using a mobile interface. Museums use mobile both to draw people into their physical spaces, and to connect with audiences in a larger geographical context. Mobile is used to interact with individuals, both imparting more knowledge than could be absorbed in a single museum visit and gathering information about the individual’s stories, experiences, and memories. Utilizing digital space, of course, has significant implications for the curation of history.

The Cleveland Historical Project for example, has utilized mobile, app-based interaction to step outside of its physical institutional space to engage in a dynamic, multi-layered curatorial and interpretational process. Cleveland Historical pulls together several different layers of meaning to interpret stories in a particular place and time: images, sound, video, text, and geolocation. The last feature in particular “allows the present physical context of the region to become part of the interpretive frame, transforming the landscape into a laboratory for informal learning.” (Tebeau, 26) Their primary innovation is allowing oral history to work on different levels, to interact with location and connect with a broader context.

Basing this project in the mobile interface also allows for, indeed demands, a more collaborative, community based approach to public history. This represents a larger paradigm shift for all institutions that choose to pursue utilization of mobile space. Mobile interfaces allow greater access to the crevices of history, so to speak, making room for more than the broad historical narratives many traditional exhibitions command. By allowing historical interpretation to reach beyond the brick and mortar bounds of the museum, audiences can experience added layers that are at times difficult to communicate in a traditional exhibition or presentation. However, use of digital space also comes with a loosening of interpretive control. By allowing more access for the audience to experience historical narrative, they also gain access to influence historical narrative.

This is a quite a sea change, and as demonstrated by my above recollections, not always a welcome one. John Russick, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Chicago History Museum, addresses the discomfort of many public historians with the implications of digital spaces and mobile interfaces inside and outside their institutions. Russick tackles all of the questions we dealt with at my old museum in his article, acknowledging that the answers are not always easy to find or to address. However, he asserts that just by asking these questions, museums can do the necessary work of changing with one’s audience, learning from them what things, stories, and approaches are important to a place. Change is very rarely easy, but it is almost always necessary. By engaging material culture, oral history, and historical narrative in more collaborative and interactive space, cultural institutions can find their place in this newly expanded environment.

Pop Up Archive

Do you have spoken-word audio files in need of tagging, transcription and preservation?  Trying to start a podcast or share your oral histories online?  If so, then Pop Up Archive may be the answer for you.  With Pop Up Archive, simply upload your files and then sit back while they automatically apply tags, and transcribe the audio, making it searchable down to the second.  It generally takes Pop Up about the length of the recording to create a transcript, so a 30 minute recording should take about a half-hour to process.  Pop Up allows users to edit the generated transcripts and their suggested tags.


Use of Pop Up Archive requires signing up for a plan depending on how many hours of audio you will be processing a month.  There are personal plans, including a free option, and business plans.  The free plan provides one hour of audio processing each month and only basic transcripts for the first two minutes of your audio files, but premium transcripts can be ordered for $22 per hour.  Premium transcripts are more accurate and are created using software designed for broadcast and oral history recordings.  So far Pop Up can only process English language recordings, but their hope is to support Spanish soon

Another service option is a customizable enterprise plan.   This is useful if you have a collection of audio files that need to be uploaded once, rather than the need for recurring uploads.  Pop Up Archive receives its support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, 500 Startups, and Bloomberg Beta.

Users include journalists, media companies, and historians.  One major project using Pop Up Archive for support is the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, a joint project of WFMT Chicago, the Chicago History Museum and the Library of Congress.  Pop Up Archive provided a customized project plan for the staff of the Studs Terkel Radio Archive and is transcribing the digitized audio files.  Terkel was on the radio at WFMT Chicago for almost 50 years and interviewed approximately 5,000 influential and famous people.  At this point the project’s website only contains information until the more than 9,000 hours of interviews can be digitized by the Library of Congress and transcribed by Pop Up Archive.

Studs terkel

Until the website is complete, materials from the Terkel Archive can be accessed through Pop Up along with other materials from Pop Up Archives public collections.   Users can also choose to “Explore” and browse for audio content by tag, creator, interviewer, interviewee, host, guest, and other categories and enjoy all the content made public by Pop Ups users.

Perhaps I Need to Rethink My Day Job Transcribing Oral History….

In the HiPSTAS (High Performance Sound Technologies for Analysis and Scholarship) grant proposal, the authors express the hope that participants in their program “will understand better how to ‘imagine what they don’t know.’” The readings for this week make clear that the practice of oral history could be and probably should be so much more than it has been heretofore envisioned and practiced, where, at least in my conception of the subject, a historian interviews a bunch of people about a particular topic, has their tapes transcribed, produces a book or a documentary using some of the material in the recordings, and then files the tapes away in a box (possibly in an archive and maybe even with some cataloging) that is likely never to see the light of day again.

In terms of “doing” oral history, the two most conventional readings in this regard are Doug Boyd’s “Designing an Oral History Project” and Kara Van Malssen’s “Digital Video Preservation and Oral History.” Boyd points out that there’s a lot for the historian to think about beyond just the questions that will be asked of a subject when designing an oral history project, and both authors urge the practitioner to think holistically about the project ahead of time, to include not only pre-production and the point of capture, but also considering the entire lifecycle of the project, including editing, archival storage, and future access. “Early choices you make in a project will affect later opportunities,” notes Boyd. “Decisions have consequences.”

While Van Malssen’s discussion of video formats looks forward towards the future and considers issues of preservation of recordings, Jonathan Sterne instead looks backwards at the history of the currently ubiquitous MP3 audio format to examine how decisions going back at least 100 years have had implications for the specifications of this particular format, which reference, sometimes for no better reason than this is how it’s done now so let’s stick with it, specifications from other earlier formats. Stern argues that “encoded in every MP3 are whole worlds of possible and impossible sound and whole histories of sonic practices.” (2)

Particularly important in Sterne’s work is the notion of “format theory,” which I think boils down to the choice of format is not benign because “Format denotes a whole range of decisions that affect the look, feel, experience, and workings of a medium. It also names a set of rules according to which a technology can operate.” (7) The assumptions and specifications engendered in each format affect the user’s/listener’s experience of and relationship with the media, and thus in Sterne’s view, it is important to understand how the format mediates the material.

In “Oral History and the Digital Revolution,” Michael Frisch offers an example that I think illustrates the idea of format theory and provides a basis for redefining what we even think oral history is. Frisch’s work illustrates that the audio and videocassette format of oral history recordings have had a profound effect on accessing these resources and understanding the content of these tapes as well. An assumption of oral history practice is that linear analog tapes are a pain to work with and therefore transcoding if you will the content of the recordings from audio or video to text by means of transcription is the best and fastest way for a researcher to access and engage with the content of a recording, to the point that transcription is viewed as an essential procedure. Frisch argues, however, that a great deal of meaning is lost in the translation of sound into text. “Meaning inheres in context and setting, in gesture, in tone, in body language, in expression, in pauses, in performed skills and movements. To the extent we are restricted to text and transcription, we will never locate such moments and meaning, much less have the chance to study, reflect on, learn from, and share them.” (2)

Digital formats, however, offer new possibilities for oral historians. Using timecodes, annotation, and other metadata linked to content, it is easy to quickly dive into digitized materials directly at any point of particular interest in the recording. Thus the recording itself rather than the inherently different experience of a transcript of it becomes the object of study and in Frisch’s words “put[s] the oral back in oral history.” By studying the recording directly, the researcher can engage in what Nancy Davenport, cited in the HiPSTAS proposal, refers to as “deep listening” or “listening for content, in note, performance, mood, texture, and technology.” This additional information beyond the content of the recording in its strict, text-based sense may allow the researcher to gain new insight into the meaning of what has been recorded.

Ethnographer Wendy Hsu seeks to move away from the digital text as object of study paradigm however and “shift the focus of the digital from a subject to a method of research” by combining various quantitative, data-oriented computational analysis techniques with traditional qualitative ethnographic methods including direct observation and interviews to identify, document, and consider the meaning of patterns and processes related to her subject matter, which is musicians of the Asian diaspora. The data-generated patterns uncovered by the quantitative means inform questions that can be further explored qualitatively. Some of the methods she has employed in her work include mapping the geographic locations of bands’ fans by scraping location information from the bands’ MySpace friends’ pages, analyzing non-song sounds in song recordings to learn about the context of the creation of the recording, and using spectrograms to visually analyze stylistic qualities of music.

So how might historians apply similar “doing digital” techniques to their own work with audio and video artifacts? That is very much an open question and one that I’m not sure the readings answered very well. However, one of the stated aims of the HiPSTAS project is to bring together archivists/librarians, scholars, and computer scientists in an effort to create new tools to facilitate the study of sound recordings by means such as clustering, classification, and visualization. Archives are already storing quite a bit of oral history recordings that go unlistened to or unwatched, a valuable resource that Frisch notes goes “largely untapped.” And the HiPSTAS team makes a pretty good point that if researchers don’t start using existing audio collections, then repositories won’t have much incentive to keep storing the old recordings, let alone augment their collections with new materials, so it really is imperative for history scholars to find means to unlock the potential of these audio resources.

There was really a lot going on in these readings and I feel like I barely scratched the surface here of the many issues that the various authors raised. Returning to where I began this though, the readings did really challenge my perception of what exactly oral history is. It isn’t just about interviews or even necessarily the spoken word. A wide variety of preserved audio such as musical performances, ambient sound, speeches, poetry readings, and the telling of stories that have been passed through generations by way of oral tradition can reveal valuable information about the past (or present-day) life and culture. All sorts of sound-based documents could serve as potential primary source material given useful means of incorporating the information they provide or could reveal into one’s historical analyses. This may well be a bit of a “duh” to everyone else, but I guess that’s something that I just had never really considered before. Now I’m trying to imagine what else I don’t know.

What other issues did this week’s readings raise for you regarding the possibilities and potentials brought about by digital means and methods as applied to oral or audio history?


Audacity & Soundcloud = free & easy

Basically, these two digital audio tools are the best (that you can get for free).

Audacity Screen Shot

Audacity is a free open source digital audio editor made by a couple of dudes at Carnegie Mellon 15 years ago. It has been downloaded since then by at least 76.5 million people, and supports over 30 languages. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

It looks scary at first, but I was surprised how easy it was to use and how well supported it is with its own wiki and more. You can record directly into the program, drag and drop other audio files, and make multiple tracks. You must then export from Audacity to use elsewhere because the program uses its own unique file type within the software.

In my limited experience, I’ve found the Audacity Wiki super helpful. Most of what you are wondering about has already been answered, or categorized so that you can even anticipate/explore other issues/options.

You can also watch videos/screencasts like this one to help you with improving vocal qualities by exploring normalizing, noise removal, compression, equalization, and hard limiting.

And now, a little about SoundCloud. Originally founded in Stockholm, but headquartered in Berlin, SoundCloud is privately held company that allows users to upload, share, or listen to recordings for free up to a point. (SoundCloud gives you 170 free minutes of uploads.)

As you can see by this paragon of an example, SoundCloud also allows you to embed an image with your uploaded material. A lot of money has been poured into development, and so it has other cool features like concurrent play with site navigation. You most likely have seen this player recently embedded in sites or linked to on Facebook. Distinctive features include how easy it is to share or embed, as well as it waveform comment section.

If you are starting out with audio editing and sharing, these two tools have made themselves the go-to options because their simplicity and ubiquity.