Digital Project Reflection: Washington on the Frontier

Here it is!

Washington on the Frontier now takes users from Washington’s first foray into the wilderness of the Ohio country in 1753 to his retirement from leadership of the Virginia Regiment in 1758. Each stop on the journey is marked by a map point. Each map point, which selected or reached by clicking through, displays an image relevant to the events that occurred at that map point, a title including the year, and between 100 and 120 words of text describing the events. There are seventeen map points and one introductory page, for a total of eighteen “slides.” Individual reading speeds will impact the time it takes to read through the entire StoryMap but the feedback I have received indicates that it does not take an onerous amount of time to read through everything.

The one issue I was unable to resolve to my satisfaction was the text background: the limits of the StoryMapJS program mean that my options for the background on which the text is displayed are 1) nothing, which sometimes makes portions of the text difficult to read against the map; 2) an image, which made it more difficult to read the text and sometimes cut off too much of the map; or 3) color, which proved difficult to adjust to a satisfactory hue that would allow the text to be clearly read while not interfering with the layout of the rest of the page.

The majority of my difficulties came from locating good images and from writing the text: I tried to avoid writing text that would involve significant scrolling, as that would break the alignment of the image and the text with the map point. This meant I had to work to condense large amounts of information into a very small amount of words. The result is that some of the entries are missing details which I would have preferred to leave in had the space been available. However, the core historical facts are all present and the narrative still holds together.

The StoryMapJS program is relatively intuitive and easy to use, but I have encountered some issues. For one, the program works best when the points on the map are all in a relatively linear formation, rather than bouncing around from place to place. This meant that I had to cut some elements of Washington’s story from the presentation because their inclusion would disrupt the flow of the StoryMap. For instance, Washington traveled to Boston in 1757 to meet with Lord Loudon, the British commander-in-chief in North America. Such a tangent away from the line between Lake Eire and the Virginia coast formed by the majority of the map points. In the end I decided to err on the side of streamlining the process from the technical aspect and cut the Boston journey from the map. The oftentimes competing imperatives created by the technical limitations of the digital tool and the full richness of the historical account being presented via that tool were on full display during the creation of Washington on the Frontier.

The StoryMapJS program offers the chance to do interesting digital history projects in a format that is easy for users to navigate. The spatial component allows for presentations that help users understand history as not just happening over time, but also over space.

The Programming Historian

The Programming Historian is a website which publishes “novice-friendly, peer-reviewed tutorials” designed to help teach historians “digital tools, techniques, and workflows.” It is aimed at helping historians who identify as “technologically illiterate” to become programming historians. If you’re a historian and you want to know how to set up an Omeka site, or edit an oral history using Audacity, then The Programming Historian is a place to learn how and where to get started.

Over half of the lessons have been translated into Spanish. If you speak French, you’re out of luck at the moment.

Clicking on the English-language portal presents us with three options: we can Learn, we can Teach, or we can Contribute. Learn takes us to the lessons and Contribute provides links to pages with information for those interested in writing a lesson or becoming one of the reviewers. Teach has little beyond a link to provide feedback on ways to make the lessons better suited to being used as teaching tools. We’re going to Learn today.

Clicking on learn brings up all the lessons that you can access. There are 78 lessons available in English, which is quite a few to browse through.

The Programming Historian provides a few ways to organize the lessons to make it easier to find what you’re looking for. At the top, you can click on buttons to display all the tutorials that are tagged with one of five categories: Acquire, Transform, Analyze, Present, and Sustain. 30 lessons fall under the category of Transform, making that the largest of the five categories.

The next way to sort the lessons is by more specific criteria: for example, you can click to see all the lessons tagged with “Web Scraping” (only 6) or lessons that have to do with the  programming language Python (19 lessons – second only to “Data Management”).

Finally, you can sort the lessons by their publication date or by their difficulty. Lessons are given a difficulty – Low, Medium, or High. These difficulty lessons appear to be assigned based on the difficulty of the subject matter covered by the lesson, not the difficulty of using the lessons to learn the programming tool.

Here’s half of the lessons tagged with “Digital Publishing”

Let’s click on the lesson “Up and Running with”. This is a lesson designed to help historians set up their own content on

The lesson is all text and images – no video or audio. The lesson reads like a longer version of one of our digital tool reviews, featuring walkthroughs of how to use the digital tool. When I say “longer,” I do mean significantly longer – here is the table of contents for the lesson:

And here is what the content of the lesson looks like:

The lessons all seem well-written and informative. However, they are not infallible: several lessons have notifications that reviewers have caught inaccurate information. Rectifying these errors is dependent on the website administrators contacting the authors and then having the authors correct the mistakes in their lessons.

Overall The Programming Historian seems to be a very helpful resource for any historian looking to expand their technical skills.

Digital Project Draft: Young Washington on the Frontier

My StoryMap project is titled “Young Washington on the Frontier.” It walks visitors through Washington’s early 20s, from his commission as an officer in the Virginia militia and travel into the frontier of colonial North America in 1753 to his resignation from the Virginia militia after the successful conclusion of the Forbes Campaign in 1758.

The points in the StoryMap have been set up, though a few more might be added. Images have been found for most of the points, but image research continues to fill in the remaining gaps and determine sourcing for some images. The text in the points is still in the first draft stage.

The project in its current form does not do a lot of education. However, once the text has been fully completed, the StoryMap will walk visitors through Washington’s early military career and the pivotal role he played in the French and Indian War – the conflict that set the stage for American independence. Visitors will get to see Washington’s journeys not just as words on a page, but in a visual format that emphasizes the immense distances that George Washington had traveled when he was still in the beginnings of his adult life. Visitors will also learn information about Washington that they likely had not known, since Washington tends to emerge fully-formed onto the scene of American history with his appointment to command of the Continental Army in 1775.

What remains to be done:

  • Complete image research – this will require some additional searching for relevant and usable images but the majority of the StoryMap points have images associated with them.
  • Complete text writing – this will take slightly longer. The text in its current form is a very rough draft. However, I have a full outline for the text that simply needs to be converted from bullet-points to full sentences. This will take some time but I’m confident it can be finished with a few days of concentrated effort.

Uncritical Play: When Games Shy Away From Difficult History

Bear with me here, this one takes some setup.

There is a board game company called GMT Games. They make incredibly high-quality games about historic (and some modern-day) subjects. Most of their games are the sort of thing that require some considerable prior investment, because they come in massive boxes with reams of paper about rules and Examples of Play and different setups and possible optional rules. But if you’ve ever thought “boy, I wish I could play a high-quality board game that models the collapse of Roman rule in Britain in the 4th and 5th centuries,” then boy do I have good news for you.

GMT has a program called the P500, where they will announce a new board game and then let people place pre-orders. When a game gets 500 orders, only then does it go into production. This allows GMT to perform a sort of crowd-testing to see whether a game has enough of an audience to justify the expense of production. A while ago they announced a game called Scramble for Africa.

If your first thought was “oof, that’s going to require to delicate touches,” then congratulations! You put more thought into it than GMT Games did. Scramble for Africa was basically Carcassone but with the fun, light-hearted theme of European colonial exploration and exploitation of Africa. What could go wrong?

Last Sunday (April 7) GMT announced they were pulling the game and refunding all existing pre-orders. This article provides a good summary of the whole debacle and this follow-up article walks through some of the broader analysis. The game in its presented form was doomed from the outset because it attempted to take a complex and brutal history of exploitation and conquest and boil it down to an economic game of worker placement and card play. Scramble for Africa took a serious subject and presented a means of experiencing it through gameplay that did not strike the proper tone.

In Critical Play: Radical Game Design, Mary Flanagan writes:

“Serious games are among the most challenging games to design. These play spaces must retain all the elements that make a game enjoyable while effectively communicating their message. Either component can be lost in the attempt the manifest the other, resulting in a game that is dull and didactic, or entertaining but hollow. In the worst case, the results are both dull and hollow.” (pg. 249)

Scramble for Africa did not fail as a serious game. Its failure was that it never attempted to be a serious game in the first place. It shied away from engaging in the difficult history that it was modeling.

So now let’s bring in Sid Meier’s Colonization.

Technically it’s Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization, since the game is essentially an official mod of the game Civilization IV created by the developers and released as a standalone game. For our purposes we will follow the lead established by Rebecca Mir and History and New Media’s own Trevor Owens in their piece “Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization” and call it Sid Meier’s Colonization. This is in many ways a longer, more academic version of the WarGameHQ articles I linked to above, discussing the problematic aspects of a video game instead of a board game.

Sid Meier’s Colonization models the European colonization of the Americas, but in the same whitewashed way that Scramble for Africa modeled its titular subject. Mir and Owens take exception to the absence of such pivotal institutions and factors as disease and slavery, and the limitations placed on the player:

“Colonization has a strict and problematic win condition: players must be a colonial power, must rebel against their motherland, and must fight in a war for independence. Instead of reaching terms of peace with the homeland, or paying the homeland for freedom, players are thus compelled to reenact the colonial history of the United States of America…In forcing the player to relive the American colonial experience, Colonization systematically denies the player a series of interesting choices and opportunities to create a radically different past. Removing the players’ ability to dramatically change the past locks them into the ideological model of the game and limits their interpretations.”

If Sid Meier’s Colonization was an attempt to make what Flanagan calls a “serious game” about the colonization of the Americas, it would have been a failure. A key element of serious games is that they provide something above and beyond enjoyment, such as “meditative play.” Sid Meier’s Colonization offers no way to meditate on the horrific actions that gameplay such as “put a Native worker in a school to upgrade them into a Colonist” represents. Players can make decisions about whether to expand at the expense of Native Americans but they cannot win the game without breaking from the mother country in a violent revolution. Players without historical knowledge are left with an offensive version of colonial history that whitewashes the horrors that it does not fully omit.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given the makeup of the people responsible for making triple-A (the biggest, most expensive, top-tier) games like the Civilization series. Flanagan reports that “computer games are still perceived as an area created by and for white men” and that “commercial, masculine computer artifacts have taken pride of place in contemporary culture.” (pg. 224-225) Non-diverse game design teams will make games that reflect their understanding of history, and their conceptions of what is necessary to include in a game (“masculine” exploits such as city-building, land development, and war-making) and what can be cut as too messy or too difficult to model in the game’s code (disease, slavery, two-way cultural exchange, women).

Both Scramble for Africa and Sid Meier’s Colonization are examples of what I call “uncritical play.” These games choose to cherry-pick historical moments and leave the complicated and messy parts on the cutting-room floor. A game that attempts to be serious under Flanagan’s definition and fails might be a more admirable effort than a game that shy away from the reality of the history they choose to model. Flanagan tells us that “games may provide the safest outlet available for exploring devastating problems and conflicts,” (pg. 249) but only if the time and effort is put into making them depict those problems and conflicts completely and honestly. Mir and Owens conclude on a similar note:

“In the end, if there is something regrettable about the game in its current state, it is that it is not offensive enough. While the game lets you do some rather evil things, those evil things are nevertheless sanitized versions of the events that actually took place in reality.”

Digital Project Proposal: StoryMap-ing Young George Washington

In the most generally known narrative of American history, George Washington appears on the stage of world events fully formed. Washington strides into history as the tall, dignified adult who assumes command of the Continental Army and directs the victorious war for American independence. This same imposing figure then guides the newly launched state of ship safely through its first years of operation as President, before relinquishing power in the ultimate gesture of republican virtue and retiring to Mount Vernon. With the exception of the story of the cherry tree, perhaps now more famous as a tall tale than as historical truth, Washington’s youth is essentially nonexistent. The Father of the Country is always that, the older, mature figure in the room – never the young son.

But decades before Washington showed up to the Continental Congress to take the offered position as military leader of the fight against the British empire, his early 20s were spent acting as an agent of that same empire. In 1753, when he was only 21, Washington embarked on a harrowing frontier journey to attempt to force a diplomatic resolution to a long-running dispute between Britain and France over the poorly mapped, sparsely settled Ohio River Valley. A year later, at age 22, Washington was a colonel of militia charged with forcibly evicting the French from a fort at the site of modern-day Pittsburgh – a mission which sparked a world war and created the conditions that would spark the American Revolution two decades later. Washington’s younger years are little known to the general public, despite their fantastic and adventure-filled nature.

For my digital project, I propose to bring those adventures to life in a digital visual medium. Specifically, I would use the StoryMap program developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab. StoryMap allows users to create narratives using location, images, and movement. By using points dropped onto a map in a certain order, a StoryMap moves a viewer through the story spatially, not just temporally. Each point contains both text and images, providing snapshots of connected moments in history.

I would propose to use StoryMap to retrace Washington’s early 20s on the colonial frontier, specifically immediately prior to and during the French and Indian War. This would move viewers through portions of modern-day Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, as Washington traveled on land and water across a space where imperial ambition, colonial expansion, and Native American relations collided to form a crucible of massive historic significance. In this project I will be able to draw on my previous experience using StoryMap, but deliver a better-quality project by using the practices we have been discussing in class. I will also be able to draw on my knowledge of the time period, which is my historical focus. The end result will be an easily accessible and understandable digital presentation that will help more people learn about the incredible story of Young George Washington.