Monthly Archives: January 2016

Just another case of his-story?

It used to be the case that history was the story of upper class white men, written by upper class white men, for upper class white men. Whilst that might be a bit of a generalisation, the fundamental point remains that until fairly recently (by which I mean the 1960s, ish) if you were a woman, of an ethnic minority, or from a working class background, chances are slim that you’d be represented in any historical narrative at all, much less represented in a fair way. Today the situation is somewhat different, or at least I thought it was until the other day, when I read an article which said that of the previous year’s ten bestselling history books, only two were written by women.

At first, I thought that this couldn’t possibly be right: after all, at university the gender balance of my lecturers was more or less 50/50. However, just one glance at my bookshelf was enough for me to conclude that the article might have had a point, and the SJW inside me couldn’t help but wince when I came to the realisation that the number of male authors clearly outweighed the number of females. Admittedly, this evidence is anecdotal and entirely unrepresentative, but it did make me wonder whether the fact history books are so predominantly written by men poses a problem for the study of history in both an academic and general sense.

I don’t think it does for two reasons, the first of which is that the article assumes that books are the main way in which most people engage with history. Certainly, it would be churlish to ignore the fact that a lot of people do read history books. But in terms of the general public’s day to day engagement with history, I’m willing to bet that television is by far and away their preferred medium, and when it comes to television historians, the ratio between men and women is far more balanced.

Before writing this, I tried to name as many television historians as I could off the top of my head. Names such as Lucy Worsley, Suzannah Lipscombe, Mary Beard and Bettany Hughes sprung to mind almost immediately, but I had to think a while before I could come up with a relevant male television historian. Obviously, this is not to say that there aren’t any relevant male television historians, and like my bookshelf survey, it is purely conjecture. However, what my experiment does demonstrate is that the fact more history books are written by men than women does not necessarily translate into female historians receiving less representation in other public media; and if anything, it suggests the opposite is true.

However, even if we assume that books, and not television, are the primary way the public engage with history, I don’t believe that the disparity between the number of books written by men and the number written by women will last for long. According to a report published by UCAS in January 2015, women are 36% more likely to apply to go to university than men, and whilst it is true that the number of people applying does not necessarily correspond to the number of people who are admitted, a UCAS report for university admissions in 2014 showed that 58,000 more women went to university than men. Even if after university most of these students pursue careers outside academia, the chances are that female lecturers and professors will be far more prominent in university history departments of the future; and whilst it may take a few years before the effects fully kick in, the increasing prominence of women within university history departments will, in turn, lead to more best-selling history books being written by women.

All of this is to say nothing of the increasing prominence of women within museums and schools, two media which I would argue engage far more people with history than books do. I guess the main question left to answer is why this is an issue I felt needed addressing in the first place, and the simple answer is that I believe diversity can only be good for history as a discipline. As I said at the beginning of this post, for too long the study of history was restricted to study of rich, white men, which is such a tiny slither of human existence it’d be like trying to appreciate the Bayeux Tapestry through a keyhole. The more history is written by people of different genders, of different ethnicities, and of different social backgrounds, the more varied and nuanced our understanding of history becomes, not just in the sense that we get to learn about new topics or themes, but also in that we gain new perspectives on stories we thought had nothing new to say. The fact is that everyone with a professional or personal interest in history gains from having more books written by women, and the fact that female historians are prominent in other public media is a promising sign for the future.


All things fade?

Recently, I started reading Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. I’m only forty-odd pages into it, but from even the slim amount of the book I’ve read so far I can say that anyone with an interest in that period, or modern world history in general, should read it. It was whilst reading Black Earth that I began to reflect on my visit to Poland a few months ago, and a question that struck me during my visit to Auschwitz, and which has stuck with me ever since.


It goes without saying that my visit to Auschwitz was an incredibly harrowing experience, and it’s a place that I think everyone should visit at some point in their lives. Just, and permit me a tangent here, if you do go to Auschwitz, or Dachau, or any other site where millions of people were killed, do me a favour: don’t barge people out of the way to take photographs of the crematoria, or pose in front of the buildings, or take selfies, or any act of similarly twattish behaviour. Show some basic respect to the memories of those who were killed, and don’t treat a visit to Auschwitz like you would a trip to the park.


Ironically, it was whilst watching this behaviour that I started to think about the question which will form the basis of the blog, and the more I thought about it, the more it started to worry me. My question is this: one day, will people see the Holocaust as just another part of history? I should probably explain what I mean by that, lest I come across as flippant. I don’t mean that people will stop visiting Auschwitz or other former concentration camps, nor do I mean that school pupils will no longer be taught about the Holocaust. What I mean is that I began to fear that the Holocaust would lose the direct emotional resonance, and universal moral significance, which it has today; and furthermore, if people feel comfortable taking selfies in front of gas chambers, could it be argued that it already has?


After all, there are plenty of examples of genocide and mass crimes against humanity which have occurred in the past, but which do not evoke the same universal outrage as the Holocaust. Take, for example, the United States’ policy towards Native American Indians in the nineteenth century. Even if you don’t consider it genocide, by any modern standards the policy of the ‘Indian Removal’ was morally repugnant, involving the mass slaughter of thousands of Native American Indians, and the forced migration of thousands, more, whose land was stolen from them and who were then forced to live on reservations, often thousands of miles away from their homeland.


We don’t even have to look that far into European history to see an example of genocide. During the Bosnian War of 1992- 1995, Bosnian-Serb forces carried out a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing, including the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995; and in this case, those responsible were found guilty of genocide. However, whenever a politician arises who argues for extreme solutions to the (and I hate to use this word) ‘issue’ of immigration, we don’t call them a mini-Milosevic, or say that we can’t let another Indian Removal happen again. We usually refer to Hitler and the Holocaust. This is what I mean when I say the Holocaust has a universal moral relevance and emotional resonance: we only have to mention it, and people instantly understand the immorality and inhumanity of what is being proposed.


So, will the Holocaust ever lose this impact? I don’t think so, and I think this for a few reasons. The first is that, in Britain at least, World War Two is so deeply embedded in our national culture as the time Britain ‘stood up for what’s right’, that any discussion of World War Two will involve the discussion of why we went to war, and as such the Holocaust. Even if you think this interpretation of history is bunkum (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this perspective is an oversimplification at best) I still feel it is a relevant point. World War Two is arguably the last (and, depending on your point of view, only) time that Britain acted as a definitive force for good, and as long as this remains the popular narrative for Britain’s involvement in World War Two, I still feel the Holocaust will retain its emotive resonance.


Secondly, and to bring this post back to where we started, the fact that people can still go and visit concentration camps is another reason why I feel the direct moral relevance of the Holocaust will not be lost on future generations. The realisation when you visit places such as Auschwitz or Dachau that this is actually the place where millions of people were killed gives you some sense of a connection to the past, and a greater understanding of the scale of the horrors that occurred there. Admittedly, the fact that people do clearly see visits to sites such as Auschwitz as an opportunity for selfies is somewhat troubling, but as long as places such as Auschwitz remain I believe they will still allow people to fully appreciate the cruelty and savagery of the Holocaust.


Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, is the fact that so much first hand testimony has been produced by Holocaust survivors. As I argued in a post last year, figures can only tell you so much about the horrors of events such as the Holocaust, and no matter how skilled a historian is at constructing a narrative, theirs can never have the same emotional impact as the stories of those who experienced the Holocaust first hand. The works of people like Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl convey the real human cost of the Holocaust, not just in the sense of the men and women who were killed, or the nature of the suffering they endured, but also the long term impact the memory of the Holocaust had on those who survived. It’s for the same reason I believe oral history projects such as Gideon Greif’s interviews with former Sonderkommandos, are so important, as without these sources, we would lose sight of the true cost of the Holocaust.


It’s for similar reasons I feel that World War One will never lose its emotional resonance. Even though we in the twenty first century have devised even more horrific ways to kill each other since then, reading Goodbye to All That or All Quiet on the Western Front is still a harrowing experience, not just because of the stark portrayal of the brutalities of trench warfare, but also because these books captured that profound sense of loss that permeated throughout the later stages of the war: not just loss in terms of physical loss, but loss in the sense that, no matter what the outcome, the world would never be the same again.


I guess the final question would be, why did this idea worry me in the first place? Perhaps it has something to do with the issue I myself raised at the beginning, namely that if we can let the memory of a genocide as horrific as the Holocaust fade away, then more recent genocides, such as those in Rwanda or Bosnia, will lose their moral resonance as well, and we will be unable to learn from the lessons of history. Whatever the reason, I felt it was an issue worth addressing, as I believe the emotional and moral resonance of the Holocaust is something we cannot afford to lose.

How to videogame history

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Rather than launch into a long winded explanation about why I haven’t written one of these blogs since May last year, followed by some vague promise to write them more regularly, I’m just going to jump right back in at the deep end and write a blog which I meant to write as part of the ‘History and videogame’ series of posts I started last year, but never got round to continuing, let alone finishing. So without further ado, here we go.


As I’m sure you’ll all be surprised to hear, I watch a lot of stuff on YouTube. I say a lot of stuff, but in truth I usually end up watching the same sorts of videos, and one well to which I regularly return is the YouTube channel of videogame critic/journalist, Jim Sterling. One of his regular features are his ‘Squirty Plays’, where Jim will play the first half an hour or so of a game and give you his first impressions of said game, and one of his ‘Squirty Plays’ which will stick in my mind from now until the day I shuffle off my mortal coil, is his play through of Playing History 2: Slave Trade.


The video can be watched here, and it really does have to be seen to be believed. I have to assume that the game was made in good faith by game developers who really did just want to make a video game teaching children about the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, but I don’t think I’ve seen a more inadvertently offensive… anything in my life. From the awful, hideous chariacatures of African tribesmen, to the weird time travelling mouse that follows you around, the game is a masterclass in how not to teach sensitive subject matter to children. This is, of course, to say nothing of the piece de resistance of the play through: the slave Tetris mini-game. Seriously, I’m not making this up. Watch the video if you don’t believe me.


Admittedly, I haven’t played the game. Perhaps after you’ve played slave Tetris the game turns into Spec Ops: The Line meets Tell Tale’s The Walking Dead, but somehow I highly doubt it. From watching Jim’s ‘Squirty Play’, however, I have come up with a list of things to do, or perhaps more pertinently not to do, when trying to make a history-related video game, so here it is.


Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, do your research. When we’re first introduced to our protagonist, Tim, we are informed that he was bought by the captain who (and I quote) “shipped me to England to serve as his slave”. Judging by the clothes and the general aesthetics, I am presuming that the game is set in the eighteenth century. If this is the case, there is one slight issue with the game’s initial premise: slavery was never ‘legal’ in England and Wales.


Up until that point, the issue of slavery in England had been decided by common law, and whilst in some cases judges had come to the conclusion that you could legally hold someone as a slave in England, there was no Parliamentary law supporting it. Furthermore, in Somersett’s case of 1772 the judge, Lord Mansfield, declared that no one could legally be held as a slave whilst on English soil, so if the game is set in the late 1700s, or early 1800s, this further complicates the situation.


Now, some of you might think I’m being pedantic, and trying to pick holes for the sake of it, or even worse trying to down play the horrors of slavery, but I’m not. To tell, or even to imply to children that slavery was just as common at home as it was in the colonies is not only historically inaccurate, but also ignores what was, to me, one of the most reprehensible elements of the Transatlantic slave trade: namely, the fact that the same MPs and public figures who proudly talked of English liberty and freedom, were often the same people who reduced millions and millions of Africans to a life of backbreaking servitude. There has arguably never been a more glaring moral double standard in the history of Britain than our stance on slavery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and to me this is just as important for a lesson for children to learn as the fact that slavery was cruel, unjust and inhumane.


Secondly, maintain a consistent tone. I’d go into more detail on this, but I don’t have the time or the energy to list all the examples of where the game gets the tone so wrong it’s awful, but I’ll start with the mouse. As Jim himself points out, the mouse (whose name I don’t care to look up) seems to find a weird sense of joy in the situation, making comments such as “Our journey [to Africa to BUY SLAVES!!] is going to be an exciting one!”. Indeed, the dialogue as a whole seems to consistently miss the tone of the subject matter, veering from dribbling inanity to humour which is both not funny and completely out of place, leaving you confused as to exactly what the developers were trying to achieve.


This is to say nothing of the mini-games. At one point the mouse gives you a pair of goggles which allow you to see people/objects which have fallen through the time-space continuum, prompting a mini-game where you spot the differences between modern day and eighteenth century slavery. Again, this is done with what I presume are good intentions, but the goggles are so out of place, and mesh so poorly with the world the developers are trying to create, that they actively distract from the message they’re trying to impart. It also goes without saying that the mini-game is utter dreck, but that’s beside the point. There are more examples of this which I could discuss (again, slave Tetris) but to be honest Jim does a pretty good job of covering them, so I don’t want to repeat him.


However, I think there is one thing the game does well, and that is the use of dialogue choice to create an emotional connection. As I’ve said in a lot of my previous blog posts, whilst we can never know what it was like to have lived in the past, to me all good history should try and create a sense of empathy with the people involved; and in my opinion the best way to do this in video games is through choice in dialogue.


Why? Because it gives the story you’re playing through a sense of meaning and importance. You get some idea would have meant to have to make that decision in real life, even if your understanding is somewhat artificial in nature as you get to walk away from it. However, if the game is done right, when you do walk away from the game you come to an ever greater level of understanding, namely the realisation that, unlike you, the people who made those decisions had to live with them. For an absolutely excellent example of this, play Tell Tale’s The Walking Dead, a video game which creates, through dialogue, such a strong connection between you and the two protagonists (Lee and Clementine) that it damn near made me cry when I played it. Admittedly, Playing History is not The Walking Dead, but I at least appreciate the idea the developers had.


So there we are, three key points on how to make a kind of OK history video game: do your research; know your tone and stick to it; and focus on dialogue not action. Some of you might think I’m being harsh on this game, considering it’s for kids, but to me the fact it’s for kids isn’t an excuse. Most adults know when they’re being told something that isn’t 100% accurate, and have the ability to remedy that fault: children, on the other hand, do not; and if anything, the fact that a game is for children is all the more reason to make sure you make the best video game you possibly can.