Monthly Archives: December 2014

Ozymandias’ Round Tower

Do you read a lot of poetry? Neither do I. However, despite my general apathy towards the art form as a whole I do have a few favourite poems, one of them being (as you may have guessed from the title) Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, a poem which warns of the futility of trying to preserve one’s legacy. At first, this may seem to be an odd choice for a historian: after all, if all attempts to preserve the past are doomed to fail from the get go, what ramifications does this have for the discipline of history and the much vaunted ‘heritage industry’?

However, rather than being a critique of preservation in general, I see Ozymandias as a critique of a particular type of preservation, namely the sort of top-down, establishment-driven history which, until fairly recently, was seen as the norm by professional historians, and indeed the population in general. It is this topic which I’ll be discussing discuss in this week’s post, but before I do, permit me a tangent and let me tell you a story about my home village, and the events which changed it forever…

I live in a small, Cheshire village called Cuddington. It is, for the most part, unremarkable, and until recently its only real distinguishing feature was the Round Tower Lodge, a sandstone tower which was the only remnant of a gate lodge to Vale Royal Abbey. I say ‘until recently’, because earlier this year a motorist crashed into it, and it had to be torn down.

Now, this is where you’d probably expect the story to end. As sad as it was to lose a local landmark, and one which ties into a pretty interesting period of English history, it’s only real value was aesthetic. That, and it was a handy way to tell people new to the area where they should turn off the A556. But, overall, the destruction of the Round Tower was hardly an earth shattering event, and in the grand scheme of things it would have been entirely understandable if, after the initial shock, everyone had moved on.

What actually happened was an immediate campaign to rebuild the Round Tower and, from what I understand at the time of writing, I’m glad to say that the Tower is being rebuilt. Yes, it wasn’t a particularly useful feature of the village; yes there are probably similar and better examples of that style of architecture elsewhere in the country; and yes it is easier to see at the A556 junction now it’s gone.

But whichever way you cut it, the Round Tower was an important part of the village’s identity. It’s the crest of one of the local primary schools, the village newsletter is named after it, and, as I said before, it’s the first thing most people see when they come to Cuddington. As such, failing to rebuild the Round Tower would have been to take away the village’s cultural heritage, and whilst it might not be on the same scale as destroying the Great Wall of China, it is still inexcusable.

To return to my original point, this is the sort of heritage and history I don’t think Ozymandias is criticising. Heritage which is driven by grassroots activism, and which is a genuine expression of local culture and sentiments, is (for the most part) a good thing, as unlike the statue in Shelley’s poem, the Round Tower and the hundreds of similar buildings and monuments across the country, actually have a meaning and identity outside of the legacy they are supposed to represent and commemorate. One of the reasons I chose to read public history, and not just history, at master’s level is I believe historians need to see the public as their partners, rather than an audience to be lectured; and that any historical account should focus on the experiences people who have lived through it, and the interpretations of the people who continue to live with the legacy of the past, rather than have the historian force their own interpretation on them.

For too long a certain group of historians were allowed to force their (very narrow) interpretation of history on the people, and it is this attitude towards commemoration I believe Shelley was attacking in Ozymandias. For years, the idea that only ‘Great Men’ mattered in history was allowed to rule, and as I said in a previous post those ‘Great Men’ tended to be white, middle class, heterosexuals, just like the people who were writing the history.

However, this situation is beginning to change, and I think it has less to do with the social and cultural revolutions of the 60s, and more to do with the fact that, at their core, all these historical accounts are entirely hollow. Not hollow in the sense that they had no factual basis. As much as I disagree with ‘grand narrative’ historians I’d never say they made up their interpretations. What I mean is that, aside from the ideology these accounts are meant to reinforce, they have no meaning, as they aren’t genuine expressions of a lived experience.

Rather, they are what an elite want the rest of the population to think the past was like. Whilst you can fool all the people for some of the time, eventually people will start to ask questions, and when they do they will soon see through the paper thin veneer of ‘historical objectivity’ surrounding these accounts and see them for what they are: highly subjective accounts written from a privileged point of view and which reinforce a particular set of cultural and social norms, rather than one which reflects anything close to a historical reality.

Certainly there are situations where local sentiment is not necessarily the best guide to what should and shouldn’t be persevered, and there is a case to be made for professionals ignoring popular opinion. However, if historians want to create an account of history which will truly stand the test of time, we need to see the public as active partners rather than a passive audience, and use their experiences and interpretations of the past as the basis of their accounts. Otherwise, people will simply stop listening, and our interpretations will be left to fall apart like so many statues in the desert.

History and Video Games Part Two: The Immersion Factor

In my last post, I talked about one of the main benefits video games have for the study of history. If you want to read the full blog you can find it here, but in brief I argued that video games can be used to pique people’s interest in an era or topic, and the in-game interfaces can be used to deliver the information in a quick and accessible manner. However, this week I’m going to expand on a theme I raised at the end of the last post, as whilst I do believe video games are a useful tool for promoting ‘tangential learning’, for historians to see them simply in these terms is to miss the true strength of video games, namely their interactive and immersive nature, and if historians can learn to properly harness this, they can achieve a level of emotional understanding which no book, film or podcast could ever hope of matching.

Anyone who has ever played a video game with even the most basic of storylines will tell you just how immersive video games can be. This isn’t to say other media can’t be immersive, far from it. As I said in my post ‘Lies, Damned Lies and History’, one of the reasons I love The Simpsons is the fact that it blends humour with tragedy and drama so effortlessly, and books like The Grapes of Wrath, Johnny Got His Gun and The Heart of the Matter all made me care deeply about the plights of their central characters, to the point where I found myself getting genuinely happy, upset or angry about what happened to them, even after I’d finished reading the book.

However, video games can create an emotional connection unlike any other medium. For all its considerable faults, Heavy Rain made me feel the panic and desperation felt by a parent who has lost their child, and one scene in particular had me wincing all the way through (if you were wondering, it’s the one where you make the dad cut his finger off). Similarly, whilst my aforementioned enjoyment of the Assassins’ Creed series may have had more to do with the free-running action and the, well, assassination bits of the game, the narrative played a pretty big role as well; as even in the case of Assassin’s Creed 3, which stars arguably the most boring protagonist in the history of the medium, I found myself caring about the characters, and wanting to find out more about them.

These are just two personal examples, and they don’t even begin to touch on the new and innovative ways game developers are creating an emotional connection between the player and the game. Whilst I haven’t played it myself, I’ve read numerous articles which wax lyrical Thomas Was Alone, a game in which you control a series of shapes, and if a developer can make people genuinely care about the well-being of a rectangle, imagine the possibilities this holds for the study of history.

I’ve said it numerous times before, but it bears repeating: I don’t believe we can ever truly understand how people experienced the past, because their experiences will always be filtered through our own beliefs, preconceptions and experiences. However, at the same time I think it’s important to try and generate some understanding of how the past was different from the present and furthermore why this was the case, as this level of empathy (for want of a better word) will make us reflect more carefully on our assessments of the past.

This, then, is why video games are such valuable tools for historians, as their interactivity means players almost intuitively forge an emotional connection with the character they are playing. As such they starts to see the game’s world as their character would and, to a degree, feel as the character would. Admittedly, video games have the same problem as any other medium, in that the gamer’s life experiences affect how they experience the game. But I would argue that the immersive nature of games means they feel an emotional understanding greater than if they had read a book about it, or watched a film about it, and as such if this level of emotional understanding can be harnessed by historians, we can study the past in a way which also allows us, to a degree, to empathise with its actors.  .

“But Tom,” I hear the strawmen cry, “are you saying that we should have video games about the Holocaust? Or the bombing of Hiroshima? Isn’t that disrespectful?” Firstly, no, it’s not disrespectful. If art forms such as books, films and music can talk about these issues, why can’t video games? If we agree that the essence of art is to make use reflect on or gain an understanding of “the human condition”, the interactive element of video games means they are better placed than any other medium to do just that, since they create a direct bond between the player and the character; and if anyone’s going to try and argue that it’s because video games “aren’t art”, that shows their own ignorance of the medium.

More importantly, the fact is that such an argument is moot, as there are already mainstream games which do cover complex, and often controversial, topics. Whilst recent entries in the series play more like parodies of themselves, the first few Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games covered some pretty heavy ground, such as the alienating and disaffecting experience of modern war; and the causes and effects of increasing political and cultural tension between the Middle East and the West.

Hell, in the closing scene of the first game it simulated the effects of a nuclear explosion which, because it’s a first person shooter, you witness the devastation first hand. In recent years, CoD has received a lot of (often justified) flack, and has a reputation for being played by some of the worst examples of humanity. However, I don’t know anyone who’s played Modern Warfare who doesn’t remember those closing moments of the game and, more importantly, who wasn’t affected by it on some level, and I for one have and probably never will, come across a more stark and bleak imaging of the slow, drawn out death caused by nuclear fall-out.

So there we are, historians should stop writing books and start making video games. I’m joking, of course, but I still think historians should be more willing to work with video game publishers. If we work together we can create games which entertain the player whilst also making them think, not just in the sense that they learn new information, but that they also gain a deeper level of emotional understanding of the past, and I think that’s a possibility which deserves serious consideration.