Challenges and Promises of Interactive History

One of the strongest features of digital media is that it can be interactive. This can significantly help with user engagement, compared to traditional media. However, as this week’s articles show us, there are still many questions and potential pitfalls along with the benefits.

First, let’s look at Hanussek’s review of museum apps. He looked at the companion apps that the British Museum and the Louvre had put out, since there had been little analysis of these types of apps. Unfortunately, his experiences weren’t great. The Louvre app’s GPS function didn’t work, and he couldn’t access the audio tours, either. With the British Museum, there wasn’t a GPS function at all, and the layout was quite poor. These result paint a dire picture. The Louvre and British Museum are some of the most renowned museums in the world. If these institutions’ apps were so lacking, it doesn’t bode well for other museums. A bad app reflects poorly on the institution, and suggests that the museums aren’t keeping up with technological changes. In the worst case, a bad app canbe worse than no app at all, since it can lead to frustration that will color the entire visit.

Maybe you need a secret password to find this hidden hallway?

Russik’s article shows a different take on history-based apps. The Chicago History Museum is developing an Augmented Reality (AR) app that can display historical images from the museums’ collections in related locations across the city. This article sheds some light on the questions about how physical collections can stay relevant in the digital world. Because preservation is often central to collections, expanding access can be a tricky thing. AR apps aren’t new, and they present an interesting opportunity to connect collections with digital spaces. However, Russik also points out that these apps could be used to identify shortcomings in collections. For example, museums could find that they have a large gap in their collections from a certain neighborhood, and try to fix that situation. In this way, organizations can use digital tools to make their collections more relevant than ever before.

Next, let’s look at some of the most interactive digital media: games. First, we have Mir and our own Professor Owen’s look at Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization. As the name implies, the game takes place during the colonization of the Americas, and allows the player to play as one of the major colonizing powers in this time. However, Owens and Mir looked at the other people in the game: indigenous Americans. Native Americans are unplayable by default, showing that the game is focusing only on one side of this era’s story. However, using game modifications to play as them reveals that this bias goes even deeper. Native American cities are borderline useless, even famous urban centers like Tenochtitlan. Many of the unique traits that they get are actually beneficial only to colonizers. Furthermore, as native populations become educated, they become white and indistinguishable from colonists, reflected in a change of their in-game model. Despite these hard-coded biases, the game also shies away from controversial topics like slavery and the spread of European diseases that decimated indigenous populations.

Is this the 18th century? Native Americans literally become white as they become educated.

All of this reveals a lot about the game’s viewpoint. It is one thing to focus on colonizers; after all, it’s the name of the game. However, the game’s handling of native cultures portrays the natives as “othered” people who are unable to participate in many basic aspects of the game. However, by simultaneously hiding the dirtier aspects of colonialism, the game is also avoiding telling the whole story of colonialism. As Owens and Mir say, the game might actually not be offensive enough, because it sanitizes a very dirty era of history. All of this shows that games’ perspectives on their subject matter are important. Whether consciously or not, games can reflect their creators’ biases, and because games are so interactive, these biases can become more relevant to the player.

Keeping with video games, we’ll look at the creation behind a game, with the grant request for Walden. This proposal for a game is based on Henry David Thoreau’s life, allowing the player to experience his philosophies first hand. It gets pretty into the nitty-gritty of game design, so we’ll focus on the themes behind the game. The proposal shows how the themes a game has can shape its development. For example, Thoreau’s theme of self-reliance is reflected by the player having to live off the land and obtain food. This kind of experience is only really possible in a digital setting like a game, so it shows how digital experiences can immerse the user into their themes. However, the detail that the grant has also shows some of the potential difficulties. If a group has no digital experience, a video game presents a daunting task with everything that has to go into it.

This game shows Thoreau’s themes through its gameplay. Image from

Finally, let’s look at the last two chapters of Critical Play. Chapter 7 looks at critical computer games. These differ quite significantly from the previous games we’ve seen here. Though both Colonization and Walden have themes behind them, these critical computer games are usually much more focused on their themes. This can vary from the question of control that a player has to current events, like the Darfur Crisis. Furthermore, these games can even cross into reality, like Bilal’s Domestic Tension. These types of games are also usually more diverse than mainstream games, both in who creates them and who is depicted in them. These “serious games” help answer the question of how games and digital media in general can have an impact on important issues in the real world.

In the final chapter of Critical Play, Flanagan lays out an entirely new model of game design. She criticizes traditional iterative design as being too closed-off and not reflective of critical theory. The “critical play” design model is more focused on diversity of play styles and diversity of audiences, as well as incorporating innovation in designs. As a conclusion to the book, Flanagan notes the importance of play, and the potential for it to get people to think on important issues as an inherently subversive space.

There’s a lot of topics we covered today, so what are your thoughts? How can museums use digital media effectively, with apps or with their collections? How can video games approach the mixing of digital media and important issues?

3 Replies to “Challenges and Promises of Interactive History”

  1. Hi Shaan! Thank you for sharing such a great summary of the readings. I’ve definitely had my share of frustrations with museum apps as well as websites that aren’t compatible for mobile devices. Although I haven’t used them as much for the GPS function like the ones described in Hansek’s article, I’ve found that doing tasks for museums like completing surveys online can be frustrating when the interface doesn’t run as smoothly as I would expect. Especially as audience expectations for quality of digital resources, it seems like the energy and expense toward building an app with a single-use purpose would be better spent toward other elements of the visitor’s experience.

  2. Hey Shaan! Thanks for this overview of some of this week’s readings!

    After using the Will to Adorn website and app, I found Hanussek’s writings very useful to frame that experience. I especially think that the idea of a website or app reflecting the professionalism of a museum or program is increasingly significant in a world that requires the use of technology; if an institution with as many resources (or seemingly so to the outside world) as the Smithsonian can’t maintain a website or app, what should viewers think about the rest of their work within the museum, exhibitions, etc.? Maybe that’s just a PR issue, but I think museums and other institutions are going to find they need to dedicate greater resources to the creation and upkeep of their online work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *