“Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego?” And Historical Memory

I did not play many video games growing up, save for when my brother let me join in some Mario Kart or Goldeneye. And though we have not gotten to the point in the semester where video games are on the agenda, just the concept of video games as part of digital history struck me a few weeks ago. So in brainstorming and trying to find a print project that would not only reflect our lessons in Digital History but would also relate to me on a personal level, suddenly Carmen Sandiego popped into my head. Now I’m sure others have seen the television show, but what I would propose for my print project is doing an historical analysis of the computer game “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?” Later in the semester, several historical internet games will be demonstrated. This Carmen Sandiego game, which I did play as a child, falls into a similar category as “The Jamestown Experiment” or “Cotton Millionaire”, especially as it has a direct correlation with history.

 

“Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?” has various chronological levels (“missions”), marking specific periods in world history. The game provides guides such as “Anne Tiquity” to help the player search for clues, talk to other characters, and interact with the level to find where Carmen’s henchmen are hiding. While this game undoubtedly influenced my interest in history and bolstered my knowledge of random and at times useless facts, what appeals to me in this print project is analyzing how exactly the game is organized and constructed.

 

Specifically, this Carmen Sandiego game interacts with historiography and memory in fundamental ways. On a superficial level, I would analyze what historical moments and peoples were chosen to represent specific eras in the past. For instance, the player jumps from Mali in 1324 as Mansa Musa is preparing for Hajj to 1454 with the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. In each level, the various “tasks” a player must accomplish (such as matching corresponding kimono colors to the seasons in Japan, circa 1015) hold specific historical meaning for what was deemed representative of that particular society.

 

On a deeper historical level, I would also like to analyze the application of race, gender, and stereotypes in the characterizations of the people and descriptions of the environment in the missions. The missions take the player to the United States, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Though one could claim the game to be representative, other elements in the layers of the game may reveal a Western bias, racist stereotypes, or an imbalance of gender ratios. Who are the female historical characters being depicted? Who are the “non-white” males? How do their characters speak and how is the tone of their voice? The wording of their answers? Despite the fact “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego” gives the appearance of being unbiased, a closer analysis of the game may reveal much different results.

 

Furthermore, I would seek to answer questions relating to topics we have discussed in class, such as accessibility and the democratization of history online (or in game form). What children are playing this game? What repercussions might it have on their historical worldview? What are the pros and cons of the existence of such a game? What is valued as “history” in this game, and do children notice that and accept it? In addition to my love for this game as a child, I believe this sort of analysis in a print project could yield an important understanding of the way historical memory is transferred between generations. Children learn American and world history in their schools, yet supplemental materials such as this game have a drastic impact on their concept of history as well.

Brown, Introduction and Personas

The introduction to Dan Brown’s “Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning” focuses on the significance of design documents.  These documents are important for three reasons: consistency, traceability and accountability, and insight.  A particular document Brown focuses on is deliverables, a stand-alone document that provides context about a particular idea in the larger project.

Within a deliverable, the design team can use diagrams as a way of focusing on one particular part of the project.  These diagrams cannot stand alone, they only serve as anchors that can be shared between deliverables as a way of providing context, reference points and continuity.  A key piece of these design diagrams are personas (chapter 3).  Personas are used to assist with the design process by creating an imagined target audience and trying to figure out what issues they might have and how to solve them.  Creating personas are a part of Brown’s larger goal of this book, looking at understanding the domain, stating the problem and solving the problem.

What must be considered when creating these personas?  Brown has four criteria: activities, detail, breadth and stakeholders.  Design teams must keep these things in mind at all times to create accurate and effective personas.  If they create unrealistic scenarios, they will be ill-prepared to handle the challenges that do arise.

There are three layers to creating a persona: establishing requirements, elaborating relationships and making ‘em human.  Each of these layers adds more depth and individualism to the personas created.  The first layer is the most basic information including names, sources, and distinguishing features and characteristics of each persona.  From this level, more detailed information is attached, such as scenarios, quotes, photos and even personal backgrounds.  The more detailed and organized the personas are, the more helpful they can be to a design team in achieving prioritization, validation and completeness.

When applying this to the humanities, what unique challenges do you think we face?  With history, it is a subjective field for everybody so how can we know that the personas we are creating are an accurate reflection of the target audience when there are so many possibilities as to what they might think?  How do we measure when we think we are close enough?

 

Print Proposal

For my print project, I would like to analyze blogs or forums for the show “the Pacific” on the HBO website.  Primarily, I would like to find out how much of it references academic work or the primary sources the series was based on.  The show focuses on three main characters who were real soldiers and two of them lived through the war to write memoirs.  I would be interested to see what bloggers are more interested in, the veterans perspectives or the academics’ perspectives.

More generally, I would be looking at what topics are the most popular for the show’s blog.  What do people want to talk about?  Is there a space for WWII veterans themselves to share their stories?  I know there is a section for viewers to share about their grandparents, parents, uncles, etc. experience but is there a space, anywhere on the website where veterans can tell their stories?  If so, is there a space for people to comment on the footage or information they are shown?

In looking at the comments, I would like to look at how much dialogue is taking place between bloggers.  Are people responding individually with no expectation of a response or are they reaching out in response to another post?  What is the purpose of this blog?  How is it fostering discussion of WWII?

The series cannot cover every aspect of the war so looking for comments that critique the show would be interesting.  What parts are they critiquing? Why? What grounds are they opposing a part of the show on?  Having two grandfathers who were in the Pacific, the show portrayed the brutalities they experienced.  There was not one homogenous experience, I acknowledge that, but I would be curious to see if there are any stories shared that contradict the events the show portrayed.

Studying the personality of the bloggers is of interest to me as well.  How do people identify themselves?  In a few of the posts, people identify themselves as history majors or having an interest in history.  How many people do that?  Are there any posts where people identify as not having been that interested in history or this part of history but were brought in by the show?  Many people speak of their families’ veterans with pride, how many people put that in the beginning of their post?

Overall, I would like to evaluate how the post is used to create dialogue about WWII in the Pacific.  Do people talk primarily about the show or do they bring in personal stories to contribute to the existing narrative?  History series have been very successful on HBO, what is it that keeps drawing people in?  Why do people go to the HBO forum to share their stories that they may not have shared or learned about if they had not seen the show?

Print Project Proposal – Evaluating Sequential Art

As discussed in class, sequential art may have some limitations in conveying meaningful historical narratives. Daniel J. Staley advocates the use of sequential art as a means of communication between professional historians, arguing through his own representation of German history that images, when arranged in a specific design, can present substantive accounts of history without the supplement of text. Allowing the viewer to discern connections between the images to piece together a larger narrative is, as Staley believes, a viable method of interpreting history.

However, Staley’s own example of sequential art (as well as his visual thesis) is a bit convoluted – and perhaps even lost – within his representation of German history.  Does this confusion stem from the method of sequential art itself, or has Staley just given us a bad example?

For my print project, I propose an evaluation of Staley’s example of sequential art among our own history department here at American University. Staley’s example online does not leave any room for other historians to comment and/or question his use of sequential art. It would be interesting to discover what our own faculty has to say about Staley’s method. For example, faculty would be prompted to answer questions such as: have they ever used sequential art to teach their own students about a certain historical topic? What is their position on using visual imagery without the support of text? Do they agree that Staley’s representation of German history is effective in conveying a meaningful historical narrative?

A second phase of this project would be to assess a new attempt at sequential art. I believe one of the most effective methods of using visual imagery is in showing a changing landscape. A sequence of images could be created to portray how a certain area has been developed, appropriated and/or exhausted over time. Some examples could include showcasing industrialization under Stalin in Soviet Russia, highlighting the emergence of electrical lines in rural America, or displaying the increase of violence throughout the Vietnam War. A second evaluation with the American University faculty comparing this new visual sequence with Staley’s representation of German history may allow us to figure out whether or not sequential art is truly a meaningful method of interpreting history.

Telephone, Telegraph, Internet: New Technology, Same Complaints?

I grew up in Waterloo, Ontario, home to the headquarters of “Research in Motion” – the maker of the venerable Blackberry. In a city where a large proportion of the population worked for RIM, including many friends of mine, I encountered a unique phenomenon. Although the Blackberry has lost much of its luster in the past year, it was not too long ago referred to as the “Crackberry,” denoting the fact that its users were often addicted to the device.

Despite the rabid addiction many of my friends had, I would often hear a growing number of common complaints – not about the device itself, but about the effect it was having on their lives.. Mainly, that with 24/7 email connectivity many people felt that they were pressured to work outside of normal work hours; that they could never truly leave work at the office; that the ability to be reached on the device at any time infringed on their privacy and sense of “down time.”

 
Although we think that we live in an age of cutting edge communications technology that has no historic parallel, this is a false assumption. Previous communication methods such as the telegraph and telephone revolutionized the world then just as thoroughly as the Internet does our world today. I would be interested to discover whether during the advent of the telegraph and telephone people had the same sort of concerns with the introduction of those technologies into their daily lives as we do today. Did some become “addicted” to using the telegraph to communicate? Did society lament that the ability to communicate through the telephone was diminishing our social mores and written communication skills? Did businessmen complain that with a telephone at home their bosses could reach them during off-work hours and that this increased their level of stress?
 

I intend to sort through historical newspaper articles to see what the general public was talking about with the introduction of each subsequent technology. Using digital tools such as “The Online Corpus of Time Magazine” I will be able to organize such a wealth of newspaper articles and mine them for keywords related to my subject of study. Once an appropriate sampling of articles have been obtained, I intend to use digital tools such as “Wordle” to see what types of words people were using to describe these new communications technology.

 

The purpose of this project is to make use of new digital analysis tools in order to help us understand how people in the past reacted to new communications technologies.