Reflections on an interesting semester

As hard as it is to believe, another semester’s already come and gone. I’ve loved having this class with y’all! I enjoyed our discussions in class, as well as seeing your insights on our blog and how your projects have developed. I’ve also enjoyed the work that I’ve done, which has felt very helpful in developing as an academic and a professional historian.

I already know that some of what I learned here will be useful to me over the summer. My internship will involve working with digital collections, so I’ll definitely give what we talked about a second look as I prepare for that. This past year has shown us how important digital history is, so I’m sure I will be referring back to my notes for this class more often in the future.

This project has also taught me a lot. I have always enjoyed historical video games, and I’ve stuck with the Civilization series since I was in elementary school. However, I’d never really considered them in an academically historic way. Doing this project has given me a new view on how these games portray history, and how they have a lot of improvements that could still be made.

First, though, this project taught me about scope. I started out considering four games, since I had no idea how much I’d be able to write about each one. It wasn’t until I’d started my work that I realized just how in-depth a proper study should be, and that was when I trimmed down my project to just one game. I’ll try to be more considerate of this next time, since this kind of overestimation could have bigger consequences if I’m doing something like applying for a grant.

My research was a lot different than for other academic papers I’ve done in the past. Part of it was opening up the game and playing it, with an eye out for specific aspects of gameplay. I also went into the game having read several essays and papers, and I kept their findings and conclusions in mind as I played the game. I found myself surprised at how even basic aspects of gameplay could be seen in a different light with the analytical perspective I had, and how often I had just glossed over some things as “just part of the game” in the past.

My findings are in the poster below, and in the paper itself, so I’ll be brief with them. I was again surprised by how many shortcomings there were that I hadn’t considered in the past. At launch, the game was arguably less representative of indigenous cultures than the very first game in the series, released 25 years ago! However, I also noted the potential for change, especially with the move towards digital games that aren’t tied to a physical disk. Everything is becoming more mutable, and even core elements of gameplay can be updated to be better representative.

In the end, my findings were overall pretty negative. I will still play and enjoy this game, but this project has given me a lot to think about how historical games represent indigenous groups and their history. There are many ways that things could change for the better, but change doesn’t always come fast, and some things may not change until the eventual Civilization VII, whenever that may be. The question of how fans feel about the game’s representation of indigenous groups is one that I wasn’t able to answer, unfortunately, since I just didn’t have the time to ask it. Maybe I can save that for a future study. Overall, this study has shown me how history and digital media can be intertwined, and how important proper representation of history is.

I feel like I will remember this class for a long time going forward. What I learned is sure to be useful in the increasingly digital world of history that I hope to join. I’m proud of my project, and I’d like to consider how I can take it to the next step going forward. In general, I’m excited for the next steps of my path in history, and I hope to see many of you in person next semester! Thank you for being part of this class, and thank you to Trevor for teaching this course!

Playing Native: Indigenous Peoples’ Representation in Civilization VI

Since my last post about my project, it’s gone through some pretty big changes. I’ve dramatically narrowed the scope: I found that it would be more insightful to only cover one game, Civilization VI, in depth than several games in passing. In addition, rather than examining the vague concept of imperialism, I chose to specifically focus on depictions of indigenous groups. Since these groups have often been the subject of misrepresentation, I thought it would be interesting to see exactly how they have been treated in Civilization.

My project goes through a few wide categories. First, I looked at indigenous representation in the civilizations you could pick from. My findings were surprising. At launch, the only playable Native American group was the Aztecs. What’s more, they were only playable if you had pre-ordered the game. For everyone else, they were available 90 days after launch. This means that, if you did not order the game ahead of time, you had zero playable Native American civilization, as well as only one sub-Saharan African civilization, while Europe had eight inclusions! Since launch, downloadable content has been released that adds more Native American groups, but this brings its own issues of having to pay in order to access more representation.

A map of representation in Civilization 6, from 2019. Just look at how crowded Europe is in contrast to the rest of the world. Image from Reddit, by an unknown user:

But what about the indigenous people that you can’t play as? Civilization VI has two options for them. The first, tribal villages, appear as mere features on the map. You send a unit onto them, and they give you a gift, before disappearing. This representation plays into stereotypes of the “helpful native”, like the Wampanoag helping colonists at Plymouth. The fact that these tribes just disappear after helping you almost seems like a parody of the erasure of natives in history.

Then come the barbarians, who represent another big stereotype about indigenous groups: the hostile savage. These barbarians are uniformly hostile to everybody. They will attack anyone who they see and pillage towns. There are only two ways to deal with them. First is to wipe out their units with your own military and raze their outpost to the group, to prevent more from spawning. The second is to send an Apostle unit with the Heathen Conversion ability, who can convert all barbarians next to them to your civilization. Thus, Civilization presents the two choices that many colonial powers gave to indigenous groups: convert and assimilate, or die.

Finally, the very gameplay itself is hostile to many indigenous groups’ history. The technology and civic trees that represent development are extremely Eurocentric. Everybody must research technologies like Feudalism and The Enlightenment. Possibly most egregiously, you must develop Colonialism to advance into the Modern Era. Even civilizations that famously resisted colonization, like Ethiopia and India under Gandhi, must develop the very ideology that they opposed.

An example of the civic tree in the Medieval Era. Feudalism, Medieval Faires, and a Reformed Church were all mostly European inventions, but here, all civilizations must develop them.

Lastly is the general style of gameplay that the game encourages. Players are encouraged to always expand. Expansion brings more resources, more science, more culture, more of everything. The penalties on expansion are minor and easily overcome. By doing this, the game basically encourages the player to think with an imperialistic mindset. The world exists to be exploited. This runs counter to how many indigenous groups acted. In fact, the headman of the Poundmaker Cree First Nation even opposed the inclusion of the Cree in Civilization VI because it would force this ideology on a group that has been its victim in real life.

This research was very interesting to conduct. The Civilization series has had millions of players. Its representation of indigenous people is often celebrated, but reveals some deep-seated issues with the game. From how indigenous people are represented to how the player plays the game, there are many improvements that the series could make. By doing so, the game can live up to its promise of accurately depicting civilizations from around the world.

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?

Taking a Look at some Digital Archives

As historians, we are indebted to archives. These stores of documents are essential for our research, and archivists’ hard work organizing them helps make our job go much more smoothly. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in the past year, archives can be disrupted. When we can’t go to these places in person, our ability to research can be greatly hindered. Enter digital archives. The ability to go through years of documents from our own homes is a tremendous aid to historians. Today, we’ll be looking at two examples of digital archives, the September 11 Digital Archive and the Rosetti Archive, to see how we can best use these valuable resources.

September 11 Digital Archive

The September 11 Digital Archive has over 70,000 items in its collection. In 2003, it was accepted by the Library of Congress into its permanent collection. The archive runs off of Omeka, showing that platform’s powerful potential. It allows and is primarily based on user submissions, which can be text, images, audio, or video. You can browse the collection either through individual items or through certain collections, or by searching for a topic using the bar at the top.

3518 pages! That’s a lot of stuff to look through.

When you click on the “items” tab, it will let you look at all 70,000 publicly available items. You can sort by date added, title, or creator, out of which the date added will probably be most useful. Then, click on any item to view it in more detail.

For example, with this article, we can see a copy of the article, accessible by clicking on the image at the top. On the site itself, information about the object is available, like a description, date of creation, a source, any collections the item belongs to, and who submitted the item. Notably missing, however, is the date the item was submitted to the archive, which could be a useful thing to know.

However, some items on here are a little less useful, like this item titled “Home Depot.” To be honest, I have no idea what this “item” is supposed to be, or why it’s here. The submitter says that they were a police officer at the time of the attacks, and that they were referred to this site by TV, but there is almost no other information here. There are many other “items” like this, and I’m not sure whether they’ve been broken by some update to the site, or whether they have always been like this. There are also items that seem to have very little to do with the purpose of the archive, like this article about corruption in the Jamaica Tourism Board. Openness can be very useful for archives, but these examples show some of the potential risks of too much openness with submissions.

Overall, this is a very interesting archive. It is very publicly-oriented, for better or worse. On the upside, it allows a staggeringly large collection, collected from all walks of life. A scholar studying 9/11 would be able to find thousands of people’s feelings, images, and videos of the event and its consequences. The downside of this public focus is that there may be a lot of dubiously relevant material to search through. For a publicly-focused archive like this, there may be more moderation needed, to ensure that items are useful and relevant. That balance between relevance and openness is a tricky one to maintain.

Rossetti Archive

The Rossetti Archive is quite a bit different. It focuses on the work of one person, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a painter, designer, writer, and translator in 19th century England. This archive has been completed since 2009, after nine years of production. It is part of the NINES project, a collection of 19th century British and American literature and culture. You can browse the collection through certain indexes or through a search engine, and there is also a bibliographical list of scholarly sources connected to Rossetti, as well as related works that provide context for his time period.

Clicking on the “exhibits and objects” tab will show you the main indexes that the collection is organized by, such as books, pictures, manuscripts, and more. The related texts and other artists are also useful in providing context to Rossetti’s work, life, and time period.

Looking at the poem index as an example, there is text on the left that elaborates on Rossetti’s poetry, and on the right, the collection of his poems. By default, the poems are alphabetical, but you can sort them chronologically, too.

On this poem’s page, we see scholarly commentary on the left. This explains the poem and its context, including useful hyperlinks to related material in the archive. On the right side, we have more information on the poem, like its date of creation, a bibliography, and what type of poem it is.

Clicking on the image in the top left will take you to the text of the poem, located in a full text transcription of a book on Rossetti. The archive also contains images of each page, but unfortunately, it looks like the plugin they used to allow you to view those pages is no longer supported.

Overall, this archive is very well put together. The collection on its own is impressive, especially with the wealth of surrounding sources that are also available on the site. What puts it over the top for me is the scholarly commentary on most items in the archive, which helps explain the items even for those who know very little about the subject (like me, to be honest). The main flaw I found was the outdated plugin that makes it difficult to find images of some items. Even then, it appeared to only be limited to images of poems or manuscripts, and Rossetti’s artwork is still visible. It is still a reminder of the importance of maintenance to digital projects. One other consideration is whether the archive could have more of a public focus, like allowing comments on items.

These two archives are quite different from one another. The September 11 archive is very open and broad, while the Rossetti is tightly focused. What do you think about these? Is there a place for both? Should the September 11 Archive tighten up a bit, or should the Rossetti Archive involve the public more?

Tracing Immigrant Communities’ History

America is a nation of immigrants. We’ve all heard it, and for most of the population, it’s true. Tracking down one’s heritage is practically a national pastime, trying to find out which ancestor walked through Ellis Island from where. Sites like and 23andMe are very popular. But for some communities, like my own Pakistani heritage, this can be difficult, for a variety of reasons. Our communities are often young in the United States; for example, my parents were the first people in my family to come here, just two years before I was born. There just isn’t much history to look up.

I thought about this, and had an idea. What if, rather than looking at the history of a single family, we looked at the history of an entire community of immigrants? This could start out with a site for one group; for example, Pakistanis in Texas. The site could then display relevant information: perhaps a map of where Pakistanis ended up, a graph showing the change in immigration numbers over time, or a short entry of the first recorded immigrant in that group. There could be a section for users to submit their own stories, with a short text, image, or video of them or their parents coming to America for the first time.

The Humanities Truck’s COVID-19 Project provides a good idea of what the map could look like.

This project could be useful for a variety of people. Members of the community themselves may want to learn more about their history, or they may want to contribute and let others know about their community. Many immigrants are proud of their journey, and want to share their experiences. Other people who want to learn about the diverse nature of the United States could also benefit from this project. Researchers could also potentially use the site as a source of data. In addition, if the project does well, it could be expanded to other states or immigrant groups, broadening the reach of the project.

To source this project, census records and immigration records would likely be the primary sources, as these are usually the most reliable sources of information on immigrants. However, the communities themselves would also be excellent sources. Many immigrant communities have their own newspapers or magazines that could be of great use. In addition, users themselves could also submit their own contributions. In terms of technical work, mapping programs could be used to display information about the communities’ locations. Digital text analysis could help trawl through massive loads of immigration records.

However, there are some challenges in this idea. Number one is privacy. Since many of these immigrant communities are relatively new, showing information like immigrant’s names could affect people right now. For that reason, it would be best to anonymize the data, saying, for example, that 110 Pakistanis entered Texas this year instead of having their names. If a user wants to volunteer their story with their name, some kind of release form would probably be needed. Scale is also a big question. Even with digital text analysis, there are a lot of records to go through, and a smaller scale may be necessary, depending on the resources available to the project.