Reflections on “Maroons of North America Viewshare”

If you ever were interested in slave resistance in North America then check out the Maroons of North America Viewshare! Here you can find information about the location, history, size and more of maroon communities in what once constituted the thirteen colonies. If there is a particular state or time period you are interested in, this Viewshare makes finding maroons within those specifications easy.

Creating the Maroons of North America Viewshare was an interesting learning experience for me. I had never attempted to make a historical argument outside of a standard paper format. Using the visual representations of Viewshare to make my point clearly and smoothly posed a unique challenge. Through this experience I learned that not just the historical facts matter in this medium, but also stylistic elements, such as which views to use, and what the first thing visitors to the Viewshare see should be. Beyond these more abstract ideas, I also learned more about maroon communities themselves, particularly what time periods and locations they were most common in. I also learned about the geographical environment maroon communities favored: swamps and rivers which allowed them to remain mobile and hidden. At a more practical level through this project I learned how to use Viewshare, a program that I can see myself using again in my history career.

Like any project, Maroons of North America had its failures along with its successes. My first draft of the Viewshare was a little clunky. I had not realized that I could hide certain fields, so I used the same fields that I used to build the timeline and map to populate fields in my description. Since the timeline called for oddly specific dates (it augmented the dates to exact times, and if none were give the time was midnight on the day selected) it did not make as much sense for the broad and approximate dates I was working with. To remedy this I realized I could hide those specific dates and create fields with general dates, so instead of June 4th, 1775, 12:00, I could just say during the summer of 1775. The same was true of locations. Some of the locations I was discussing were swamps or other places that were incompatible locations for Viewshare’s geolocation program, so I instead used nearby towns. This also looked odd in my description so I hid those fields and made a field that used the location I truly meant, something like “Four Hole Swamp” instead of the town next to the swamp. On the side of success, the biggest success I feel like I had were the way the map and timeline worked together to provide a quick way of gathering significant information about maroons. When a visitor to this Viewshare sees the sheer prevalence of maroons on the timeline or map it has the potential to make a powerful impact.

Please feel free to explore my project, and let me know what you think!

 

1066 Game: A Less Then Perfect Mixture of Fun and History

What should a educational game about history seek to accomplish? The obvious answer is to be fun for its intended audience and teach them about history in an engaging way. 1066 makes a valiant effort in both areas, but falls short of being a success. 

The first thing to do when playing 1066 is to look at the tutorial; this game is not exactly intuitive. After carefully reading through the instructions you still might find yourself a little lost, but its better then nothing. Since the game is so difficult and complicated, I suggest you select the easiest game difficulty. The game is divided into three separate battles, one as the Vikings, one as the English, and one as the Normans. In each battle you take the role of that factions leader: Harold II, William the Bastard, and Harald Hardrada. The battles start with historical context: what events led up the battle and who was involved. This information is brief, but it is both text and audio, making it easily digestible for the player. The voice of the narrator really helps to set the tone of the game. After the narration is over you can choose your army composition, but I have found that the composition they provide you seems to be the best (at least for a beginner like me!).The actual game play takes place in an interesting graphical format. At the bottom of the screen is a map representing the two armies, divided into units of several hundred men. The top of the screen is a side view of the battlefield, with your units represented by troops of soldiers. In battle you maneuver your soldiers around the battle field, engaging in enemies, taunting them, or firing arrows. Each of these actions starts a mini-game. Some of these mini-games can be amusing, such as typing out a specific insult as fast as you can like “Rump-fed Chicken!” Other mini-games can quickly become tedious, such as hitting arrow keys at specific times, or pressing the space bar repeatedly to power up a charge. Perhaps the most difficult, yet rewarding mini-game is trying to fire arrows. With little instruction on how to do this properly, it took me awhile to figure out how to accurately launch arrows, an essential part of the game. Luckily in the first two battles everything is rather simple, you lack cavalry (which is very situational), or many archers. The final battle has a complex army composition and interesting terrain features that change the flow of battle. As you play through the game you may find yourself questioning the accuracy of the game mechanics. I ended up shouting the enemy army into surrendering several times!

Your soldiers ability to fight is derived from a dumbed-down version of guitar heroThe intended audience for this games appears to be both students and interested members of the public. Since the game is hosted on the website of a “publicly-owned, commercially-funded public service broadcaster,” their interested viewers most likely make up many of the players of 1066. This game does some things very well to appeal to this audience: it has cool graphics, is not over involved with historical text, and does a good job at creating an interesting atmosphere. At the same time it has a number of weaknesses, such as complicated and frustrating game-play. Some of these issues are common problems for educational games, such as that to truly be engaging a game has to focus more on the game play and less on the history. With a game as time consuming as 1066, the ratio of history taught to time spent is skewed. In the end you learn relatively little about 1066, instead you mainly learn about military concepts for medieval battles. This reveals one of the larger issues with historical games. For a game to truly teach us about history it needs to follow a relatively linear format; the more choice a player is given, the less accurate the game is. A game without much choice is not very interesting. Many games try to make up for this by allowing choice telling you what really happened at the end, but this does not completely solve the problem. The gamer is no longer encouraged to innovate when their goal is to match a certain set of events. So instead I think that for a historical game to truly succeed it needs to focus on general concepts that fit the time period it is teaching about (in this case, military tactics of 1066), not actual events. Still though, this game is a step in the right direction to teach interested people about history. It is surprisingly fun for a flash game, and while it may teach little about history, many students would be playing video games without history instead, so it is better then nothing. 

 

Project Draft: Maroons of North America

http://viewshare.org/views/nb32221a/maroons-of-north-america/

The Maroons of North America Viewshare draft is up and running. This project helps to reveal an often forgotten part of American history, maroonage. Maroon communities were villages, camps, towns, or wandering bands of escaped slaves that lived both on the periphery, and in times of war, in the midst of white society. Through the different “views” available in Viewshare this project not only provides information about maroons in general, but also provides information about specific maroon communities, their fates, and the responses of white society. Using Viewshare’s timeline, the durability and frequency of maroon communities is shown. The timeline also makes it easy to observe that maroons took advantage of times of war, such as the American Revolution, to seek their own freedom. Using Viewshare’s map, this project shows that maroons were not something foreign or distant, but instead found in places that are now adjacent to major population centers, such as Savannah or Charleston. With all of these elements combined, this project hopes to expand the narrative of early America to include a shadow society that was constantly at war with a powerful white society.

This project currently only has eleven maroon societies included, but this will soon change. For the final project this number will at least doubled. The information on each maroon community will also be expanded when possible. For those maroon communities which little is known about, the text will be supplemented by general information about maroons.

Feel free to explore this working version of Maroons of North America, and let me know what you think!

A True Social Science: Review of “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books”

Imagine being able to examine how certain aspects of culture have changed over two hundred years. This is what Michel, et. al. argue is not only possible, but can be done in just a few seconds. The methodology employed by Michel, et. al. in “Quantitative Analysis” has the potential to redraw the landscape of social sciences completely. Michel, et. al. do something truly amazing, they use the processing power of computers to observe, what they claim to be, changing cultural trajectories. To do this they examine the frequency of words in the millions of digitized books they have available to them. The context the words are found in does not matter at all, the genres of the books is not even considered, just the frequency of the words themselves. Michel, et. al. call their new field “Culturomics.”

The format of “Quantitative Analysis” will be unfamiliar to most historians because it was published in a scientific magazine and conforms to the standards of a science publication. As such, it begins by laying out the methodology and some of the more basic mathematics employed. What emerges as the most significant point from this segment is that they are employing what they estimate to be approximately 4% of books ever published, over 5 million books containing over 500 billion words. Most of these books are concentrated in recent years, with the number gradually declining as their publication date gets earlier.

Millions of Books!

The first assertion made by the authors using this vast corpus is that cultural changes guide the linguistics we use. They illustrate this using the frequency of the word slavery, which expectedly rises around the civil war. This can be carried out in reverse to use changes in linguistics in the corpus to make arguments about changes in culture.

The authors also examine the frequency that a year, such as 1951 occurs in books, and use the data they find to make the assertion that the past rapidly fades from collective memory. Along the same lines the authors also examined the time it took for an invention to become widely discussed and argue that now more than ever do people rapidly accept technological innovation. The authors then apply similar examinations to people to trace how they remain in public memory.

Perhaps the most fascinating segment of the article deals with the use of the corpus to detect censorship. First the authors set out to examine whether the cultural impact is noticeable when someone is censored. By observing the frequency of names of censored individuals the authors observe that particularly for politicians (and less so for historians), censorship resulted in a sharp decline in the appearance of their name (what the authors would call cultural impact). The authors then moved to examining whether one could detect censorship without foreknowledge of if someone was censored. Using statistical comparisons on Germany during Nazi censorship the authors found they were easily able to see censorship. The ability to detect censorship without the censorship itself being recorded has the potential to be an extremely useful tool for historians.

The authors also use their corpus to estimate the size of the English language and attempt to explain why dictionaries fail to include many words. They even examine the frequency at which new words emerge and other words die out. One of the more interesting points they make in their discussion of lexicon is that irregularities in the English language often result in new words being used, such as Americans moving from saying sneaked to snuck. While this is not as useful to historians the authors assert that lexicographers will find this extremely useful.

As you would expect, the authors think “culturomics” should be applied to more than just books. According to them, “culturomics” can be applied to manuscripts, art, and more in the future. They also see “culturomics” as being useful to both social sciences and humanities. While there is a disagreement whether history is a social science or humanity, “culturomics” certainly has a potential use. Using a statistically significant sampling size, historians now have the ability to make sweeping examinations of cultural changes for society as a whole.

Still, there are a number of issues with “culturomics.” In reality you are not examining cultural changes of the entire culture, just of the literate elite. At the same time the information acquired is devoid of all contexts, so historians may make erroneous conclusions or connections. An example of this would be a historian attempting to see the significance of a speech, and after seeing a change in culture that corresponds with the speech connecting the two, while in reality the change observed was caused by something different. Also the massive size of the corpus being examined brings its own limitations. Only sweeping generalizations can be made. If your examination is limited to a certain group or place “culturomics” would be of little help. Sweeping generalizations of all the speakers of a certain language have little usefulness and are more likely to be misleading.

Do you think “culturomics” is a useful method? Do you think this is a tool for historians, or other disciplines? Do you agree with the pitfalls I pointed out? Do you see any other potential pitfalls for using this method? I think the potential of bringing quantitative analysis to history has merit, but we are still a long way from finding a truly useful way of doing so. Historians will also most likely be resistant to quantitative analysis, especially with the presence of the postmodernist critique of scientific rationality. Hopefully one day history and mathematics and science will work together to create a more robust and nuanced field.

If you would like to see the full dataset of 2 billion “culturomic” trajectories go to: www.culturomics.org, or you can just use google n-gram.

“Show and Tell” Post: Hidden Agenda, A Game With A Clear Agenda

Alright, so before I launch into what Hidden Agenda is, I will let you know how to get the game. Since publishers no longer carry this game it is free. You can download it at this website along with some instructions: http://www.hotud.org/component/content/article/46-simulation/20195

You can also get it from the developer himself. All you need to do is send him an e-mail saying that you will donate to one of a number of charities with a focus in South America. I doubt any of you will do that, but it gives you some information on what kind of person made this game. Now once you have downloaded the game you are going to need a program called dosbox to run it, probably. You can find that here: http://www.dosbox.com/download.php?main=1

Essentially, if you want to play the game, you first install dosbox, and unzip the Hidden Agenda file. Then in the Hidden Agenda folder you will find a file called Agenda, drag and drop that into the icon for dosbox you will now see on your desktop. Now you should be running Hidden Agenda. If that seems far to complicated for you, you could just read what I have to say about it here.

The first thing I would like to point out, is that to download this game I had you go to a website that styles itself as a museum for video games. The reason I point this out is because I would like to ask an open ended question to you about the present and future utility of video games as historical sources. Some video games are played by several million people and have the ability to either reflect sentiments, or alter peoples understanding of the world around them. An easy example can be found by looking at the glut of games that now depict Americans in a war with Russia. With Russia being the old bag guy and showing some regional aggression now this could reflect something of how Americans perceive Russia. What do you all think about video games one day being a source for historians?

Now the second thing I would like to discuss is the game itself. The State department actually bought a single copy, pirated it, and then sent several hundred copies of it to diplomats. In addition to being a potential source, this game has a very clear argument. If you play it you will see what I am referring to.  Essentially the game places you as the leader of a fictional South American country, Chimerica. The game creator had witnesses violence and corruption in South America first hand. As the leader of this country you are given a number of policies you can set, and you are also presented with a number of crises. As you play through you will find you are being pulled several different directions. You may want to be the benevolent ruler of the people, but a strong military, the CIA, and more will all force you to weigh your decisions carefully. When I play through I usually get on the military’s and CIA’s bad sides, and then die in a bloody coup. If you want, play through it and let me know if you have a different experience. Anyways, the argument is that with all these different pressures, stability is out of reach for many South American countries, and the United States is certainly not helping anything.

As you can guess, the main reason why I bring this up is to present video games as not just  a primary source, but also as a secondary source. I think video games can be a good way of presenting historical arguments to students and the general public alike. Consider that the American Army pays for a video game to boost recruitment and provides it for free and that the history channel had games for major battles during WWII. This is a powerful medium. Let me know what you think about video games as potential historical texts!

Here are a few interesting links regarding the game:

An interview with the creator: http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/forum/fall03/ha.html

The website regarding the game the creator maintains: http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/proj/sw/games/hidden-agenda.html