Playing History

Games have, as Gee puts it, a “problem of content.” Putting overt academic content into games often dominates play, making it a much less pleasurable and engaging experience. Some games, however, pull off the opposite trick. They make academic content feel as joyful and exciting as play! I want to understand what makes the latter group of games work the way they do.

To find out, I chose to deeply investigate a single game that successfully makes academic content playable. Ars Magica is a tabletop role-playing game set in the thirteenth century. While it contains fantastic elements such as wizards and dragons, players often debate the history, theology and philosophy of the period as part of play. I wanted to know whether this was “pseudo-history,” or whether Ars Magica players were developing meaningful historical literacy through their playful engagement with the thirteenth century. If so, I could then begin to examine the game design techniques, texts, group practices, and technological supports that made it happen.

I collaborated with the historian Kaitlin Heller to perform participant observation of one particularly historically engaged Ars Magica group. We observed group members referring to medieval bestiaries, arguing the theology of re-baptism, and investigating the kin structure of medieval Scandinavia. Players used primary sources, conducted library and online research, and critically analyzed their findings. These behaviors were particularly interesting because the majority of participants reported that they did not like history. These historically engaged behaviors were instead perceived by them to be part of the game.

The group did not focus on what they called “details” – facts and dates. They were often willing to distort these details in the pursuit of fun, particularly when integrating the supernatural elements of the game. Instead, they emphasized social history. They were concerned with social roles, historical and economic processes, gender relations and more. Knowledge of social history served as a source of power; players who could justify their in-game desires historically were much more likely to achieve them during play. Research, therefore, became a game-like activity, instead of tainting the game-play with the specter of “boring” history.

Our initial results suggest ways that other games can make academic content engaging and playful, even for players who claim to dislike the domain in question. However, there is more to be learned from the observations and interviews we conducted. I look forward to continuing to analyze the data, with a particular focus on how the group used technology, resolved interpersonal and narrative conflicts, and integrated history into character creation. I also hope to extend my observations to other groups, and to the Ars Magica community online.

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