Print Project Proposal

Look Away, Video Land: Is historical accuracy more important than playing another action Game?

The American Civil War is the one topic than never goes away. Several books and articles are published each year detailing and reassessing pivotal battles, biographies, and recent discoveries.[1] From Douglas Southhall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants to James and Walter Kennedy’s controversial The South was Right! the historiography is static yet ever changing. As contemporary audiences study and learn about the Civil War, it is important to consider this generation’s familiarity with, and exposure to technology. Many individuals have become techno-savvy, owners of IPods, laptop computers, and possess a comfort level with the Digital.[2]

While historians debate how to reach this new audience, we should note that video game creators moved beyond these considerations years ago. Real time action is often portrayed from the “shooter’s perspective,” although more sophisticated play takes into account various camera angles, overhead perspectives, maps, and the ability to give battle from the Confederate or Federal point of view. Historically accurate conflicts, troop movements, and terrain add to the realism. We can argue that video games based on fact have become an extension of learning. In this way, some gamers get their first exposure to history while others work on their problem solving skills – with adventure and shooting thrown into the mix.

In less than 2 months, we will remember and contemplate what occurred 150 years ago.  The start of this bloody conflict, and the ensuing four years, left more than 620,000 dead, thousands wounded, produced countless numbers of widows, and orphans, and changed a nation.  In creating this proposal, I would draw on recent postings from Wikipedia and Gamespot, reviews from game manufacturers, as well as sites pertaining to Civil War culture and the study’s historiography. Are players learning about the Civil War as they interact with the games? Are they already versed with the topic and play because of that fact?  Is historical accuracy more important than the ability to blow things up; is that period in history secondary to another shooter game? Understanding these points will show the enormous impact that the war had, and continues to have on our culture.











[1] David G. Smith, “Clear the Valley: The Shenandoah Valley and the Genesis of the Gettysburg Campaign,” Journal of Military History 74 # 4 (October 2010). Smith argues that Robert E. Lee needed to clear the Valley of occupying Union forces and he hoped to accomplish this by attacking the North.

[2] “Parents Beware: Your Toddlers are Tech Savvy,” Tech.Blorge, accessed 6 February2008:

What Can We Learn about Video Games from those who change the rules?

Granted, this is a strange way to begin analyzing this subject, but it seemed like a reasonable question. Trevor Owens, formerly with the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University certainly thought so.  He took Sid Meier’s popular game Civilization – both praised as an educational tool and criticized for promoting Eurocentrism – and studied the problematic issues in interpreting this game by examining the ways in which gamers modify play and how they approached the history of science, technology and knowledge represented in the game. Owens discovered that Civilization modders (gamers who modify the game) use reason and argument rather than their intuition for developing historical models. Community members value a form of historical accuracy, they prize subtlety and nuance in models for science within the game, and they communicate through civil consensus building.

Instead of mining information from interviews, surveys, or questionnaires, Owens used message boards and forums to explore discussions about science and technology in the Civilization games. He keyed in on two specific game communities: the CivFanatics and Apolyton web sites.  The two groups provided a way to discuss game play and work collectively on modifying projects.

He then focused on how game modders were working with the system of civilization commonly known as the “tech tree.” Owens’ examination included a single thread discussion allowing him to record the objectives and considerations that Civilization game modifiers pursued and discussed.  From the Apolyton site, four main points emerged in the modders’ philosophies and values. They established a desire to increase historical accuracy in the game. They assessed how game mechanics mirror socio-historical behavior. They introduced distinctive changes to make the game more factual. They held their discussions by consensus building.

Unique to this game is a “science advisor” who provides potential cultural progressions and technologies. Players decide on a research agenda, generate research points and acquire technologies yielding game play advantages. Gamers create the research points by assigning a portion of their civilizations taxes to research. More points are earned if citizens are turned into scientists and buildings constructed which produce additional research points.

Most revealing was one gamer’s reason for modifying the game. Simply put, the gradual progression of human learning and advancement cannot be summarized into 100 unrelated milestones and a player is unrealistically limited to doing one thing at a time. In this example, historical accuracy and authenticity helped better reflect this gamer’s concept of the past.  Additional posters finessed how Civilization could be altered to reflect their understanding of how knowledge, science, and technology:

Technology should be affected by what the player does in the sense that if he builds a lot of ships, his shipbuilding technology should go up, and if he stops making ships, the technology deteriorates. Maybe technology level could be a property of a population whereas scientific knowledge is the proper of the whole civilization?[1]

The shipbuilding argument explains this gamer’s line of reasoning that a specific technology should develop additional expertise with that technology. His idea settled a perceived problem from a previous posting, namely that rudimentary scientific and applied technical skills are modeled in the same way.

Instead of examining the flaws in Civilization’s representation of the history of science, game modders looked at this as an opportunity to consider their own understanding of technology and science.  Changes within the paradigm of a “See the game, play the game” mindset allowed players to discuss historic fact. Along the way, they developed the methods and courtesies of scholarly conversation. Modders replayed history; they constructed, critiqued, proposed, and developed real simulations for understanding historical events.[2] Civilization was designed to be altered and changed. Owens’ presentation illustrated that a positive discourse, accuracy, and consensus building can occur within the worldly confines of digital imagination and can help engage both the public and students in a valuable process of developing and refining their understanding of science and its role in society. A true win, win scenario for all.

[1] Trevor Owens, “Modding the History of Science: Values at Play in Modder Discussions of Sid Meier’s Civilization,” accessed 4 April, 2011,

[2] Hayden White, Metahistory:  The historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.


Omeka, Good and Bad

The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University is well known for producing high quality on-line teaching modules, designing and developing applications, and bringing history to a worldwide audience. It should be no surprise that this group of web designers and developers would roll out Omeka, a platform for publishing on line collections and exhibits. In cooperation with the Minnesota Historical Society, Omeka allows scholars to publish essays, or collaborate with others in creating digital scholarship. Museums can build on line exhibits or educators can develop lesson plans with an archive of primary sources. Students, librarians, archivists – the list of possible users who can benefit from this service goes on.

Sign up is easy and free with 500 MBs of storage space. Omeka’s help page contains more than 20 links, from managing your web sites and accounts to social bookmarking, all with the goal of helping users through initial setup phases. Examples of this site’s capabilities are striking in content and amazing in scope. Unfortunately, the ease at which a magician can perform his magic is not always apparent. Directions on creating a simple page, web site or archive, or managing themes and plugins are vague. It took me several attempts to simply download photographs, and this after having to delete several previous pages and start over again. The same thing happened when trying to download brief snippets of two oral histories.

Site creators assume that all users possess certain skills. I have designed web sites which included audio commentary, video links, and source references for history classes. While I readily admit that I am not the sharpest knife in the fork drawer, Omeka proved more irritating than helpful.  Available help via email is slow at best and not something to depend on for immediate assistance. Don’t get me wrong. This is an excellent site for educators, archivists, librarians, and curators; its power to inform and educate the masses is unparalleled. Regrettably, for me, Omeka is not easy to navigate. Seriously, how about an “Omeka for Dummies,” for the casual user trying to document or create on this innovative site? The potential is endless – but not for everyone.