Thursday, December 22, 2016

Playing with history: the problem with historical gaming and education

I love games. Board games, card games, computer games - I'll try all of 'em. I didn't grow up in a particularly game-y house, so the recent growth in popularity of tabletop gaming - up 20% in the past year, according to research quoted by the Guardian newspaper - has been really exciting for me. 

Reproduction of a lithograph by T.A. Steinlen (from Wellcome Images, operated by Wellcome Trust)

As a medievalist, I am a particular fan of historical games, especially those set in the Middle Ages. There is something about immersing yourself in a medieval game-world that really makes the period come alive. Examples of these kinds of games are:
  • The battle-simulation game Lion Rampant.
  • The board game Lancaster (set in England in 1413).
  • The computer game Crusader Kings (which has a sequel, Crusader Kings II).
  • The videogame series Assassin's Creed (variously set during the Third Crusade, the late fifteenth-century in Italy, and Ottoman-era Constantinople).
  • The board game Bruges (takes place in mercantile fifteenth-century Belgium).
  • The medieval version of the ubiquitous Sims franchise, The Sims Medieval.

My interest in these kinds of historical games is part of the reason why I attended an event hosted by Blackwell's bookshop in Edinburgh called 'Gaming with History'. A collaboration between academics and games developers, the evening asked the following of panellists:
  • How does the games industry make use of history?
  • What role does it play in shaping historical knowledge? 
  • How can it be interacted with?
I learned quite a bit about how historical games are created in order to strike a balance between gaming and history. Creators will often look to the specific history of a period for help constructing the game's rules. I even found out that board games were used in centuries past to train the military. 

The latter part of the event focused on the use of historical games in education. There are LOADS of games out there that claim to be or have been used in some kind of educational context; this list, on Jeremiah McCall's website, gives a pretty good idea of the number of educational historical games out there. The benefit of games for learning has been discussed for a long time - one 1992 article reviewed 67 studies dating as far back as 1963 looking at whether games help students to learn (they conclude that "subject matter areas where very specific content can be targeted are more likely to show beneficial effects for gaming"). The panel (and the audience) at 'Gaming with History' were certainly in favour of games being used to make the study of history more interesting.

But therein lies the problem. Most of the historical games we have (especially the medieval ones) tell particular stories - of Europe, of white people, of men. Alternative narratives are often excluded from these games. Now this isn't necessarily a problem in and of itself (gaming has long been recognised as a less diverse cultural medium) but when we are using those same games to educate young people, this lack of diversity becomes more of an issue. Statutory guidance for the English National Curriculum - that determines what is taught in schools - states: 
"History helps pupils to understand the complexity of people’s lives, the process of change, the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time." (my emphasis)
If the games we use in education never feature women or people of colour, or, worse, routinely present certain groups of people negatively (e.g. Muslims in the Crusade-era games) this is perpetuating a dangerously homogeneous and one-sided view of history that isn't meeting that guidance. In short, the lack of diversity in historical games is a problem.

Some might point out that the lack of diversity in games simply reflects the historical past - game creators are using the research produced by historians. While it is important for the academic study of history to be diverse (which, to its credit, it is increasingly doing), I'm not sure historical-accuracy is an excuse that works for gaming. I've written, in the past, about how contemporary historical romances set in the medieval period change elements of the past to make it more palatable for modern readers (e.g. they ensure the heroine is at least 16 years old before she gets married). Why, then, could historical games not do the same - adapt their historical settings to make them more diverse? Gamers have long enjoyed 'fantasy' wargaming scenarios, where historically anachronistic combatants battle each other (Caesar vs. Richard the Lionheart, anyone?). So why not extend that fantasy to include women, people of colour, those with disabilities, LGBT+ people? Why not make games a place where alternative histories can be told? 

What seems more likely, to me, is that rather than history not being diverse, it is the modern world of gaming that lacks diversity. The sexism entrenched in gaming was highlighted in 2014 by #Gamergate and its fall-out, but it's clear that gaming (in the UK at least) is still dominated by white men, who live (and learn) predominantly in North America and Europe. As ever, when it comes to history, the choices of whose story to tell reveals much more about the modern world than the past. 

I should point out that at the 'Gaming with History' event some people in the audience approached me afterwards to suggest historical games that do focus on the experiences of women and minorities. A few to mention include:
  • Night Witches which tells the true story of an all-female Soviet night-bomber regiment in World War Two.
  • Steal Away Jordan, a role-playing game about slavery and "the social and psychological implications of life in a society where people can be property".
  • any game by Emily Care Boss who has created some brilliant games about love and dating (and there's a medieval variation for Under My Skin called 'Ere Camlann).

So why not try one of these games next time you want to play a historical game? Because history (including the Middle Ages) is full of incredible, fascinating, game-worthy women and it's about time we made time for their stories.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Being a #seriousacademic - research and social media

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to a group of PhD students about academic blogging. This summer, I realised I had been blogging for five years, since I was a PhD student myself. While I'm not by any means an expert, I have managed to gather quite a few do and do nots around blogging about research.

Preparing for that session, I realised that while there was a whole load of helpful information out there on blogging, there wasn't really any one resource that gathered it together, particularly from the perspective of a PhD student starting out blogging for the first time. So, here's the information I gave those students (who may or may not have found it helpful). Feel free to use this yourselves if you're doing something similar for students or colleagues (crediting the resource creators, of course).

Why should I blog about my research?

Blogging or otherwise talking online about research has been a hot topic this year. At the start of August there was a Twitterstorm about being a #serious academic, after this Guardian article was published criticising academic blogging as not serious.

The article said: 
Surely the dedication I show in the lab, and the subsequent data I collect, should speak for itself. I do not – and should not – have to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher. Can’t we save the showing off for where it’s really needed, in the dreaded grant applications?
The (anonymous) author may have had a point, but many MANY others have talked eloquently and persuasively about their #serious and #notsoserious reasons for blogging and tweeting about their research (e.g. Rachel Moss, History, University of OxfordThe Tattooed Professor aka Kevin Gannon, Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, and Stirlingretail aka Leigh Sparks, the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling). 

For me, there are three reasons why talking about research online is helpful.
  1. Recognition – it gets your name out there and associates you with a particular research topic (useful for job applications and conference invitations). It can also draw attention to your publications (altmetrics can show where people have accessed your papers from a Facebook post, for example).
  2. Networking – it’s much easier to connect with other researchers if they know you exist and what you do.
  3. It’s a fundamental part of academic research – public engagement/outreach is a core part of research and something you’ll need to demonstrate in an academic career. Making a pre-publication version of your journal articles publicly available is also important to meet REF (Research Excellence Framework) guidance in the UK. 

What kind of social media should I use? 

  • Blogging – blogs are a great place to hash out ideas, review books, talk about teaching, and to store those ideas that don’t fit in your thesis. Longer posts mean you can explore a topic in greater depth. Common academic blog sites include: Wordpress, Blogger, Tumblr, Medium.
  • Twitter – there's a huge academic community on Twitter - look for relevant hashtags (e.g. #medievaltwitter or #twitterstorian) and follow other researchers. Twitter is, of course, very short form (140 characters) and is more helpful for pointing to longer pieces.
  • or LinkedIn – A sort of professional social network, this can be a place to post longer, more formal publications, but you can also publish or link to your blog posts here. 
Whatever you use, make sure you connect up your social media (so Tweet about your blog posts, consider including your Twitter feed on your blog site).

Getting started

What to include in your posts

You can blog about many things (teaching, an event, a book review). These tips are helpful for thinking about what to write about.

Getting people to read your blog

  • Don’t worry if you’re not getting tons of hits. These will build up as you develop your online network, and you’ll get a lot of lurkers – I’ve had people come up to me at conferences in the past to say they’ve enjoyed my blog posts, but they’ve never commented!
  • Use your analytics. Twitter, Wordpress, Blogger will all tell you who is viewing your blog, when, and how they accessed it. Use these to get more views for your blog (for example, if most people read your blog in the evening, think about publishing a new blog post then).
  • Put your Twitter handle and blog site url on your conference slides – it means people are more likely to mention you when they tweet your presentation and you can follow up on connections afterwards.
  • Include a link to your blog in your email signature.

Finally, here are five things I wish I'd known when I started blogging. These are the main things that I wish I had thought about when I started blogging five years ago. Every blogger will have a different list, but here are mine. 

  1. Think about your blog title and Twitter handle – will it still work in 5 years when you’re researching something completely different? Top tip: if dr[yourname] is available on gmail or Twitter GRAB IT NOW.
  2. If you want to get an audience for social media, you need to post regularly. Don’t underestimate the time commitment (and don’t let it get in the way of other stuff you’re doing). Plan what you might write about for the next 6 months – are there any events you’re attending that you can write about? If you’re not sure you can devote regular time to blogging, why not set up a group blog to split the work? Collaborative blogs can produce a lot of content – multi-author posts are better for a shared purpose (i.e. research centre or project). On a related note, you can contribute guest posts for blogs with bigger audiences – some will commission posts on particular topics. You can often cross-publish on your own blog, and gain more readers.
  3. You don’t have to separate your personal and public profiles online (unless you want to). I tried to do both, but found I neglected my public research profile, Now, I use Twitter for research and general chat, Facebook for friends and family, and blogging for research. You can also use a pseudonym (e.g. the Tattooed Professor, The Thesis Whisperer) but think about how you want to use your blog (i.e. if you want others to know what you do professionally if you don’t include your name this won’t work). But, bear in mind your digital footprintIf you’ve never done it, Google yourself this afternoon and look at what comes up. Is it what you want to come up? What would you like colleagues, interview panels, and other researchers to see?
  4. Read other blogs to get a sense of what you want from your own. What kind of blog is it? What do you like about its content and style? What don’t you like? What is the blog’s purpose and audience?
  5. Writing for the web is different to academic writing. The posts where I copied and pasted my thesis content were the least interesting and the least read. You’ll need to rework your academic writing considerably, removing any jargon, and bearing in mind that readers will need introducing to unfamiliar texts, theories, and jargon. 
Good luck with your blogging!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

“like medieval times”: Being modern in the Middle Ages

Crusaders and Saracens Battle,
Boulogne sur Mer BM, MS 142, f. 153v (detail)

On Sunday 9 October, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton engaged in a second Presidential debate. Deflecting a question about his sexual assault of women, Trump said:

You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have -- and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times.
It’s clear, from Donald Trump’s comments, that what he’s calling ‘medieval’ – ISIS chopping off heads, drowning people, wars, horrible sights – is, for him, associated with or located in the modern Middle East.

Two days prior to the Presidential debate, I gave a talk to mark the launch of my book Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). This book, which originated with my doctoral research, compares the way that romantic relationships between Christians and Muslims, East and West, are described in popular fourteenth-century and twenty-first century British romance stories. In it, I talk extensively about the labelling of the modern East as medieval and how this is problematic.

There’s been plenty of discussion on Twitter (search for #medievaltwitter) and elsewhere about the problems with associating the modern East with the medieval where 'medieval' is understood to mean backwards, barbaric, or anti-modern. This isn’t a new discourse either: Fred Robinson pointed this out back in 1984.

But given that this association of the East and the medieval keeps coming up, I wanted to share three of my concluding thoughts from that talk (and from the book) to give a more nuanced view on this kind of rhetoric.

1.                  Sameness endures

In my book, I look at how romantic and sexual relationships between people who (given the backdrop of conflict in each period) should not be romantically involved. So, a Harlequin Mills & Boon sheikh and a North American woman, for instance, or a Saracen sultan and a Christian princess. I discovered that despite 700 years of textual history, multiple genres and forms, divergent audiences and different contexts, when it comes to sex and romance, a desire for sameness rather than difference persists.

While the audiences of both medieval and modern romance might enjoy the way these texts play with ideas of difference, the possibility of significantly breaking cross-cultural, interracial or interreligious boundaries is never really considered. In order for a romantic relationship to be successful in these stories, the two characters have to be of the same religion or ethnicity.

2.                  The fact that there are similarities between the two textual genres challenges the binary association of East/medieval and West/modern

On the one hand, Harlequin Mills & Boon novels exploit the Orientalist association of the east and the medieval in order to define themselves (i.e. the west) as having modern values in contrast to the ‘backwards’ medievalism of the east. On the other hand, the modern solutions proposed to deal with the medieval east are rooted in a romance tradition from the actual Middle Ages – changing your religious or ethnic identity so that you and your romantic partner are the same. While these are presented in twenty-first-century romance novels as modernizing, western values, their effect -- to create the sameness required for the romantic relationship to happen -- is distinctly not modern: in fact, it is medieval. 

In a special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, John Dagenais and Margaret Rich Greer wrote
perhaps the most common use of The Middle Ages is as one of the hiding places (along with the nearly always brutish nature of the colonized native) which Europe finds in which to tuck away some of the violence of imperialism. By insisting on the brutality of its medieval past, it distances itself and others from the violence of its present: “we used to be like that” (i.e. “we aren’t anymore”). (p. 444, n. 2)
The argument of my book -- that we in the West are indeed ‘still like that’, or, to put it as Trump did that we are still ‘like medieval times’ -- is a riposte to the ‘us and them’ way of thinking central to Orientalist discourses. 

‘Disentangling the layers’ (to borrow a phrase from Lisa Lampert-Weissig) of history and discourse in Orientalist romance fiction -- figuring out what is and what is not medieval -- offers a chance to rethink our relationship to the past and encourages a more sophisticated and open conversation about the perceived differences between East and West, rather than a simple repetition of the kinds of prejudices perpetuated by Donald Trump. Pointing out that western modern romance stories use strategies lifted from medieval romance challenges the labelling of the east as medieval (i.e. barbaric) because it shows that the west is medieval too.

3.                  It is important to engage with medieval history and texts.

Viewed from the somewhat simplistic perspective of medieval/bad, modern/good, it might seem that the continued relevance of the medieval to modern popular culture is negative and unwelcome: a millstone around the neck of modernity. But, the very act of exposing the relationship between the two periods shows that the study of medieval history and culture is relevant and important for the twenty-first century.

When you show how medieval texts underpin modern ones (as I did with these romances), it reminds us that medieval studies is so important today. Many have mourned the marginalised position of medieval studies in education. However, it seems to me that studies like this one, showing how we can see modern texts differently because we’ve looked at them alongside medieval ones, are precisely what we need in order to answer the kind of question Trump’s comment poses: ‘Are we actually “like medieval times”?’

In other words, in order to really get a full idea of what’s going on with this modern political rhetoric, we really need to find out what “medieval times” were actually like.


If you're interested in reading more scholarship on this topic, I created a free online reading list to accompany my talk.