History in video games #1: Bioshock Infinite

A few months ago, whilst writing two posts about the potential video games have for the study of history, I came to the sudden realisation that I hadn’t played  a proper, narrative-driven video game for a while. First world problems, eh?. Anyway, for the past month or so I’ve been trying to catch up with some video games which, for various reasons, I’d meant to play but never got round to. After starting my epic quest by playing The Last of Us, a game which proves that anyone still arguing that video games can’t be emotionally engaging is so out of touch they could be the replacement for Dippy the Dinosaur in the Natural History Museum; I moved onto Bioshock, Infinite, a game which I feel demonstrates how historians can use video games to explore big ideas and topics, as even if Infinite itself falls a bit short in this regard, it still offers some useful pointers.

First, a brief plot summary for anyone who hasn’t played the game, and yes, there will be spoilers. You play as Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent who is tasked with finding and retrieving a girl called Elizabeth from a tyrannical religious zealot named Father Comstock, the ruler of the floating city of Columbia, who is later revealed to be (SPOILER, SPOLIER, SPOILER) DeWitt from a different time line.

Already, you might have guessed my main problem with Infinite: it feels like two games awkwardly merged into one. Whilst the first portion of the game is relatively realistic and (pardon the pun) grounded for a game set in a floating city, halfway through there’s a massive tonal shift, and all of a sudden you’re ripping open time portals and fighting flying ghost women. This being a history blog and all, I’m going to be talking mainly about the first part of the game, because whilst Infinite does go a bit Slaughterhouse-Five towards the end, the game explores several themes and issues which make it worth playing for any historian.

Firstly, Infinite is an interesting exploration of the concept of American exceptionalism, i.e. the idea that America is qualitatively different, and better, than other nations. The point is hinted at by the fact that Booker was involved in the Wounded Knee Massacre, the concept and backstory of Columbia elaborate upon this theme. First established in 1893 as part of the Chicago World’s Fair, the U.S. government later decided to send the city round the world to showcase America’s superiority. However, during the Boxer Rebellion in 1901 the city bombed Beijing as retaliation for the Chinese Army taking American citizens hostage, and in 1902 the city seceded from the Union and floated away.

I don’t feel I need to go into much detail about how a flying city is symbolic of exceptionalism, beyond reiterating the fact that it’s a city floating 20,000 feet above every other nation. This message is further reinforced by the dictator of Columbia Father Comstock, who routinely refers to the fact that the citizens of Columbia are the only ones upholding “true American values”, and describes the America they left behind solely in terms of its corruption and moral decay.

Indeed towards the end of the game, in one timeline Columbia has waged war on the United States itself, an act which cements Columbia’s legacy as the defining symbol of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism and superiority are themes which run throughout the city of Columbia, and whilst sometimes the game can be a little overzealous in the way it presents these ideas, overall they’re pretty well done.

Another running theme in Infinite is discrimination. For one thing, Columbia is clearly a racist society. Black people are little more than slaves, and any non-white person who has achieved any position of social eminence are treated with suspicion; and there are moments were the racial tension is made startlingly apparent, such as the scene at the fair where you’re asked to throw a baseball at an interracial couple.

However, whilst Infinite touches on the issue of racism, it never really explores it any depth. In my opinion, this is because the issue racial discrimination is subsumed within an exploration of the wider concept of social discrimination. Whilst black people are discriminated against in Columbia, they are just one of many groups who form an underclass which is routinely discriminated against, and exploited as a source of labour, and I found that Infinite explored the concept of social discrimination incredibly well.

As I said in the introduction, Booker DeWitt was formerly employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, an organisation which specialised in strikebreaking and infiltrating unions so as to undermine the labour movement; and as the plot unfolds you begin to see how deep the social divisions in Columbia really are. I was initially going to say that the section which really highlighted this issue for me was the Shantytown district. To describe the area as ‘bleak’ would be an understatement: it is a living hell, pure and simple, full of starving families and broken workers.

However, whilst it is a vivid and engaging depiction of what it must be like to live in grim underclass environment, it’s so desperate to drive home the message that it comes off looking a bit forced. For example, to get to Shantytown you literally go down in an elevator, and whilst I get why they included the area and was glad they did, it still felt like the writers were nudging you in the back going “eh, eh, do you get it?!”  Rather, for me the most impressive exploration of social discrimination in Infinite is the background exposition delivered whilst you’re walking around the Finkton workhouse and the surrounding district.

When you first arrive in Finkton, you are greeted by projector reels talking about how some men are like lions, in that they were born to breed, and others were born like cows, in that they were born to work. Whilst walking through the district you are bombarded by lectures from the factory owner, Jeremiah Fink, one of which argues that a sixteen hour working day is necessary so that the lower classes don’t booze and whore their way to an early grave; and another explaining that the reason the factory pays their workers in tokens which can only be redeemed at the company store is to ensure the workers get a fair deal, rather than a means of further oppressing their workers. Similarly, a large portion of this part of the game is set in the ‘Good Time Club’, which is in reality a prison-cum-torture house for labour activists and political dissidents, all of which serves to expose just how deep various prejudices run through the city, and the casual way in which discrimination, exploitation and violence are accepted by the populace.

Which leads me to my final point. What I found most impressive about the game was its exploration of the latent violence in autocratic societies at both the top and the bottom strata.

Pretty soon after arriving in the city, you’re attacked by the police and military, who believe you are a false prophet come to destroy the equilibrium, and in this context the violence makes complete sense. Autocratic societies aren’t usually that laissez faire when it comes to dealing with dissidents, so the idea that Columbia’s government would use everything at their disposal to stop you isn’t beyond the Pale.

However, when (after a series of events I have neither the time nor the energy to explain) you do inspire the aforementioned revolution, you not only get to see the devastation and violence you have caused, but the rebels you inspired then start hunting you down. Admittedly, the reason they do so is less to do with the truism that all revolutions eventually turn on their leaders and more to do with the whole “alternate reality” thing, but it’s still an interesting point. Amongst any oppressed people or groups, there is a capacity for relentless, indiscriminate, and some would argue mindless, violence; and whilst the level of violence in Infinite has been decried by people who argue it undermines the game’s central narrative, to me it perfectly reinforces it.

So there you go, that’s Bioshock Infinite. Apologies for the fact that this post is so long, but Infinte raises a lot of interesting points. As I said in my introduction, Infinite is far from perfect but, as an idea of how historians can use video games to present historical topics, themes and issues to a general audience, I think Infinite has a lot to teach us.

To study a monster

Never let it be said that I’m not ahead of the curve when it comes to history books. A mere four years after it was first published this week I finished reading All Hell Let Loose, Max Hastings’ epic tome about World War Two, and all in all, it’s pretty good. Is it, as the cover jacket states, an “everyman’s story” of World War Two? Not quite. But, as a comprehensive account of World War Two, All Hell Let Loose is a damn fine book, and anyone who has any interest in World War Two, or indeed modern history in general, should give it a read.

Whilst reading All Hell Let Loose, I began to consider an issue which I’d meant to discuss in last week’s post but never got round to: the tendency to frame certain historical figures or regimes as “monsters”. The fact that this past Tuesday was Holocaust Memorial Day makes the discussion of this issue even more pertinent, as whilst the atrocities of the Nazis should be condemned, and the memory of those who suffered under their regime should never be forgotten, framing the Nazis, or indeed any similar regime, as “monsters” is at best counterproductive, and at worst dangerous.

World War Two is unique amongst modern (and arguably all) conflicts in that on a surface level, it appears to have been a war between two sides which can clearly be labelled “good” and “evil”. Of course, this analysis folds under even the slightest scrutiny. If we were on the “good” side, why were we allied with Stalin, whose regime was responsible for the deaths of between 20 million and 40 million Soviet citizens? If we were one of the “good” guys, why did our bombing campaigns focus on areas with large concentrations of civilians such as Dresden, Berlin and Hamburg? And, of course, if the Allies represented the forces of good, why was America the first nation to use the atomic bomb?

Nonetheless, “good” versus “evil” is how World War Two has been framed in the popular consciousness, and as a result we seem to have developed a tendency to see the Nazis and Imperial Japanese not merely as tyrannical and barbaric, but as “monsters” whose evils which can never be fully explained. Now, let me be clear, both regimes deserve to be condemned totally and unequivocally, and we should never forget their crimes against humanity, lest history repeat itself. However, whilst it is incredibly easy to frame the Nazis and Japanese as “monsters”, doing so teaches us nothing, and actually makes it harder to learn from that period of history.

The first problem with describing a historical figure as a “monster” is that it implies they cannot, and can never, be understood. Whether the implication is intentional or not is irrelevant. The fact is that by describing someone as a “monster”, you are suggesting that this person is a uniquely evil being, an historical anomaly who came into this world without warning and in defiance of all laws and reason.

The problem with this is that no human is somehow “uniquely evil”. Everyone is, to some degree, a product of their environment, and as such framing Hitler, Hirohito or any of history’s litany of despots and dictators as inherently evil hamstrings our ability to analyse the political, social and cultural forces which allowed them to rise to positions of power, and increase the chances that the past could happen again.

If there is one thing we should have learned from history, it’s that all tyrants and autocrats are born of similar circumstances. The list is pretty familiar but it bears repeating: a faltering economy and widespread unemployment; a media and popular culture which encourages fear of outsiders and ‘undesirables’; disillusionment with politics; distrust of academia and ‘elites’. All of these things are common to the rise of totalitarian states, but by framing dictators as “monsters” whose rise to power had nothing to do with their historical environment, we trick ourselves into believing that a Hitler, Stalin or Mao could never happen again, and as such ignore parallels between the past and the present.

However, there is another reason why I believe designating certain regimes or people as “monsters” is something to be avoided. As I just argued, any dictator is the product of their environment. However, rather than analysing the cultural, social and political circumstances of their rise to power, some people instead choose to argue that tyrants are the inevitable product of a brutal and barbaric psyche, which is common to their racial or ethnic group. The implication of this view is pretty clear. If (for example) Hitler was a product of a barbaric psyche shared by all Germans, then it is entirely possible, and arguably inevitable, that this same psyche could produce another Hitler; and it’s this mind-set which allows atrocities such as the Holocaust to happen, as the belief that certain groups are permanently “evil” makes it all the easier to justify their elimination.

For this reason, more than any other, I believe we need to stop talking about historical “monsters”. Yes, there are societies and individuals who have committed acts which can be described as “monstrous”. But they were not themselves “monsters”, they were people; and their acts were not the reflection of any inherent racial psyche, but the result of a variety of causes. History has shown what happens when we designate monsters which need to be conquered, and the sooner we stop doing so, the sooner we can put an end to the unnecessary death and suffering which continues to affect so many.

I need a hero?

To paraphrase the popular saying, hindsight is a prick. I should have learned by now to stop making promises about future posts, especially in 2015, a year which is particularly well served in terms of significant anniversaries and commemorations, and as such a never ending stream of controversies and talking points. This week’s post was meant to be a continuation of a topic started in my last post, namely how historians can stimulate the public’s interest in history, but it isn’t. Instead, that post has the honour of joining the ever expanding list of posts I like to think of as my rainy day fund, and this week I’m going to talk about a not at all controversial topic, namely how the debate surrounding the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death debate which has arisen regarding Churchill’s legacy illustrates the wider issue hero worship poses to the study of history.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or on the fifth moon of Jupiter, you’ll be aware that there’s been a fair bit of controversy surrounding the commemoration of Winston Churchill’s death fifty years ago. Depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall on, Churchill was either the greatest Prime Minister who ever lived; or a misogynistic, racist charlatan who’s legacy has been overstated to a ludicrous degree. To be honest, this post isn’t really going to talk much about Churchill’s legacy, partly due to the fact that I don’t feel I’ve studied his life in enough detail to make what I would consider a well-rounded and balanced assessment, but mainly because I’m using it as an example to skewer the received wisdom that argues Britain doesn’t have the same cult of hero worship that is found in other countries.

Yes, as a nation we have plenty of sacred cows, the only difference is that that unlike the countries we usually associate with hero worship (the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea, you get the idea) ours tend to graze in fields on both sides of the political … farm. Whilst commentators on the left love to mock the almost saint-like reverence papers such as The Daily Mail have for figures such as Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, they’re quick to fly off the handle when anyone dares to suggest that Tony Benn might not have been the saint they believe him to be.

Anyway, I can’t help but feel that I’m losing sight of my original question: why is hero worship so detrimental to the study of history? The first and most obvious point is that designating certain historical figures as beyond criticism, reproach or mockery, ignores the fact that history as a discipline it is an ongoing, and probably never ending, debate.

The great thing about history is that there is no objectively “correct” interpretation of history. Yes, there are certain sources of data and information which are more objective than others, but beyond this there is no “right” answer to the question “was Churchill a great Prime Minister?”, as the answer varies according to what you consider the definition of “great” to be. Debate is the lifeblood of history, and for anyone on the left or the right to try and quash this by creating hero cults around the people and movements they personally find inspiring or important is inexcusable.

Secondly, as I’ve argued in a previous post trying to present any historical figure as an infallible hero in order to try and protect their legacy can actually be counter-productive. At the heart of all good history is a sense of empathy. If our audience identifies with, or at the very least has an understanding of, the people we’re trying to talk to them about, they’re more likely to want to learn more about them, because they see them as people rather than abstract historical concepts; and the best way to generate empathy is to present your subject warts and all. Our flaws are what makes us human, and for somebody to reach greatness after overcoming their shortcomings, or even to be great in spite of them, is a far more resonant and insightful story than one about somebody who starts off perfect and carries on being perfectly perfect forever more.

A good example of this is The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. As a comprehensive list of his achievements the book is unparalleled, but as a candid insight and critical, personal reflection on his life it’s severely lacking. Whilst reading the book, it became apparent pretty early on that I’d learn nothing from it that I couldn’t have done from Wikipedia or a five minute Google search, and as such I found my interest in the book dwindled to the point where I almost entirely lost interest.

Compare this to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and you immediately see the difference between an autobiography which is a glorified list, and an autobiography which is an honest reflection on the author’s life. To put it simply, Malcolm X admits that he wasn’t perfect. He talks openly about his time with the Nation of Islam, and he discusses how his belief in black supremacy and black supremacy led him to do things that, with hindsight, he regretted.

However, he doesn’t do this as a means of excusing his past mistakes, but rather he uses these discussions to illustrate how his past mistakes influenced him in his later life, and also as a means to dissuade others from following the same path he did. Because he was willing to talk openly about his past mistakes, rather than glossing over them or omitting them, I found it easier to empathise with Malcolm X as a person, and as such began to understand why he acted as he did and believed what he did, even if I felt his explanation didn’t justify his actions or beliefs.

However, my main issue with hero worship is that it misses what I feel to be the heart of history: the experience of everyday people. The other day I was reading Studs Terkel’s Working (which you should all read by the way) and found a quote which illustrated this point perfectly. So, on that note I’ll conclude, and hand you over to Bill Talcott:

“The problem with history is that it’s written about college professors about a lot of great men. That’s not what history is. History’s a hell of a lot of little people getting together and deciding they want a better life for their kids”.

In Bruges, and historians’ expectations

I can’t remember exactly when it was, but about two months ago I came to the sudden realisation that there were loads of films I needed to see. It was a jolting experience, kind of like when Neo pops the red pill in his mouth in The Matrix and wakes up in that tank of weird goo with the tube in his back, except slightly more profound. To stretch an already tortured metaphor even further, like Neo I decided to act on my new found awareness, i.e. watch some of them, and last week I decided to watch In Bruges.

If you haven’t seen In Bruges yet, go and watch it. Now. It’s hard to sum up exactly what sort of film In Bruges is without doing it a massive disservice, but it’s essentially a dark-comedy/action film about two assassins (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) who are sent by their boss (Ralph Fiennes) to (you guessed it) Bruges, after a hit goes terribly wrong. Aside from its dark sense of humour and three amazing performances by Gleeson, Farrell and Fiennes, what I loved about In Bruges as a historian are the scenes in the early stages of the film where an enthusiastic Gleeson drags an increasingly bored Farrell around church after church, and museum after museum.

After all, it’s an experience we can all relate to. If we aren’t the person being forced to visit the Hat Museum or the Lawnmower Museum, we’re the ones doing the forcing. Usually, at some point in the argument, we’ll resort to the tried and tested argument: “aren’t you interested in learning more about your/another country’s culture and history?” The wording might be different, but the core message is the same: not being interested in history is a bad thing, and you should hang your head in shame.

As a historian, I encounter this attitude a lot, and to be honest I’ve probably been guilty of it myself at times. But when you stop and think about it, is it necessarily right to expect everyone to be interested in history? One of the guest speakers during my MA course made a pretty good point when he argued that we don’t expect people to be interested in or have a detailed knowledge physics, biology or maths, even though all of those things are (in the long run) probably more important than history.

So why do we focus on history? I think it’s partly due to two factors, the first of which is the point I made in my post about The Simpsons that people see history as a means of achieving a sense of national unity; and the second is the old truism that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That said, I have no definite answer. What I have come to believe, however, is that whilst historians should always try and engage people with history, at the same time we should stop expecting people to be interested in history; as whilst I understand some of the motivations behind it, by expecting people to be interested in history, you run the risk of trying to force them to be interested, and that is never a healthy thing.

It seems obvious point, but it’s incredibly easy to overlook just how much of difference wanting to go to a museum, gallery or heritage site makes to a visitor’s experience. People who go to a museum because they want to go there will usually have a far more engaging and intellectually stimulating experience than someone who has gone under duress. The fact that they are already invested in the history of the site means they are far more open to learning from it on a personal and factual level; or, to put it more simply, the fact they want to learn means they will learn.

Of course, this isn’t to say that people who go to a museum because they have to will necessarily get nothing out of the experience. Speaking purely from my own experience, I can think of a few places I’ve visited to having not really wanted to, but which have turned out to be informative, and sometimes even interesting, experiences. Nonetheless, someone who is forced to go to a museum or heritage site will not have the same experience as someone who goes there out to their own interest, as they are not in the same emotional state. Even if they do enjoy their visit, at best their reaction will be more along the lines of “that was surprisingly good” than “that changed me as a person”. It’s only a positive experience in the sense that it wasn’t a negative one, and whilst this is obviously better than if they vowed never to step foot in a museum again, the idea that somebody would enjoy a museum only because it wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be isn’t exactly a heartening one.

However, that isn’t the real problem. The real issue is that forcing people to be interested in history risks turning people who aren’t interested in studying history into people who actively dislike it. I don’t feel it’s a point that needs much further elaboration, but think about how many people you know were put off reading books by English class, and it’s the same with history. The fact is that forcing people to study and engage with history will not make their appreciation for it grow. At best, they will accept they have to and get on with it, and at worst they’ll hate it, and start to question its uses and worth as a discipline.

History is important, of course it is, and as historians it’s our job to convince as many people as possible that studying history and visiting heritage sites are worthwhile and interesting experiences.  But at the same time we should not necessarily expect people to be interested in it, and we should definitely not force people to be. Instead, we should focus on presenting history in a way that makes people want to study it further, an issue which I’ll discuss in the next post.

Keeping the ‘story’ in ‘history’

As we march boldly onward into 2015 and the second year of the centenary of World War One, I thought it only fitting to start reading some more books about the topic, starting with Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, an unflinching polemic about the injustices of military tribunals during the aforementioned conflict. Truth be told, my decision to read Paths of Glory was motivated less by historical considerations and more by the fact that I wanted to see whether the film (which I watched about a month ago) was an accurate adaptation, and call me a heretic but I think the film might have been a bit better. Whilst the film may have strayed slightly from the book plot wise, it stayed true to its grim and downbeat tone; it fleshed out the characters to make them more like actual people and less like plot devices; and any added or altered scenes actually managed to enhance its overall message i.e. military justice is often anything but.

Anyway, whilst as I’m sure you’d all love to hear my opinions on movie adaptations of famous books I’ve gone slightly off-track. Whilst reading Paths of Glory, I began to think about the importance of narrative in the study of history, a topic which seems pretty uncontroversial to a member of the general public, but which can cause huge debate amongst academic historians, some of whom see narrative history as a black mark against their discipline.

That last claim may sound hyperbolic, but it’s true nonetheless. There are historians who would argue narrative history is bad history. Their argument is based on two assumptions: firstly, that historians should be objective, and secondly that all narratives are unreliable, as they are simply one person’s interpretation of what happened. Therefore, for a historian to incorporate narrative into their analysis is to produce a subjective interpretation rather than an objective account of what actually happened, and that as such all historical accounts should solely be an analysis of quantifiable data such as GDP figures or census records.

That is something of a simplification, but you get the drift. Whilst I can see why some historians would argue against narrative history, at the same time I entirely disagree with them. Ignoring the fact that it’s impossible to arrive at anything close to resembling an “objective account of history”, to argue against narrative history is to essentially argue against human nature. After all, narrative is how we make sense of our daily lives. When someone asks us how we’ve been, we don’t just tell them about things which can be considered “objectively true”. Hell, most of the time we don’t even tell it in chronological order. We tell our story it in a way which makes thematic sense.

To use a hypothetical example, imagine you’re talking to someone who’s just got a new job which they’re really excited about. Chances are that they’ll frame the job offer as a logical end point, rather than as a random occurrence: for example, they’ll talk at length about how the job is a reward for their effort at university or in a previous job, but not particularly dwell on the dozens of similar jobs they applied for but which they failed to get. That isn’t a criticism of anyone who’s done that by the way. It’s merely an example of how we all narrativise our lives on a daily basis, in order to demonstrate both the ridiculousness of expecting a historian to stop narrativising the past; and the fact that reading an un-narrativised account of the past would be an experience which would be at the very least dry, if not noticeably jarring.

More than this, however, historians who would see the study of history reduced simply to an analysis of statistics and data ignore the fact that statistics are meaningless without context. On their own, statistics are numbers, and nothing more. They can’t tell us what the past was like in anything but the most basic sense, and as such can never hope to teach us anything meaningful about it. By framing them within a narrative context, however, these numbers are given meaning, both in the sense that they can be used to reinforce whatever point the narrative is trying to make and in the fact that the narrative makes the numbers seem more tangible, as they become part of a story about a real past experienced by real people.

Indeed, the real importance of narrative history is the fact that some of the most important issues in history cannot be measured. How can a statistical study convey the nature of social upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution? Or the dehumanising barbarity of slavery? How can data ever communicate the fear and paranoia of living in a totalitarian regime? Or the joy when that regime finally falls? The simply answer is that they can’t. These are the elements of history which are impossible to quantify but which are vital to our understanding of the past. Not only do they give statistics context, they create a connection between the audience and the people and events they are reading about, which in turn gives the narrative a level of meaning no amount of data could ever create.

Admittedly, it can be argued that, as we can never truly understand what it was like to live in the past, all historical narratives will be somewhat anachronistic, and that is a fair point. However, as historians we cannot afford to reduce history to statistical analysis. To do so would not only make the study of history incredibly dull, but it would strip our discipline of its ability to educate people in a way which is also emotionally resonant.

Why you should visit … The Clink.

Looking back over the past year, it’s fair to say that 2014 was a pretty good year for anyone interested in history. As well as a slew of quality historical dramas (with Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick standing out as particularly brilliant), there were documentaries to satisfy pretty much all tastes, ranging from the history of science fiction to the history of dancing. Even more hearteningly, the programming and events produced as part of the World War One centenary commemorations were nuanced and thoughtful pieces which considered both the immediate and the wider effects of the conflict, and which managed to respect the lives that were lost without tipping over into kow-towing reverence, even if there were some more controversial moments.

If this were a more organised blog, I’d have put together a top five/ten/million things of the past year, and a corresponding bottom five/ten/you get the point list to go with it. But I haven’t. Instead, this post is going to be a review of a museum that I think all you culture vultures and history… hyenas would enjoy, and as you’ve probably guessed from the title that place is The Clink prison museum in Southwark.

Before I begin, a little background is probably necessary. The Clink prison was established in 1144, and is generally considered to be one of the first prisons in England. It was originally owned and controlled by the Bishop of Winchester who, from 1127, held jurisdiction over the “Liberty of the Bishop of Westminster”, otherwise known simply as the “Liberty of the Clink”. As such, the Clink housed a variety of inmates, from prostitutes to debtors, from thieves and murderers to heretics and dissidents, and remained an active prison until c.1780.

Already, you may have surmised one of the things I loved about The Clink is that it showed how its history relates to a variety of other important historical themes and developments, such as religious and political reform, the changing perceptions of public and personal morality and the role of women in society. Indeed, if it weren’t for the décor at times it’s easy to forget that The Clink is a prison museum, and I mean that in a good way.

It would have been very easy for The Clink to have gone for the “gross out factor”, and simply created an eerie atmosphere in order to try and convey to visitors how unpleasant and gruesome life was in a medieval/early modern prison. However, whilst the museum is incredibly effective in creating a genuinely unnerving atmosphere, the fact that The Clink’s exhibits explore how its prisoners were representative of wider themes and issues, rather than focusing just on the conditions of their incarceration, means that The Clink is less a prison museum and more a microcosm of six hundred years of English cultural, social and political history.

Indeed, another aspect of The Clink that I found particularly interesting was the fact that there was a heavy emphasis on the personal stories of the men and women who were imprisoned there. Throughout the museum you can read about the lives of a variety of inmates, including a woman who was wrongfully imprisoned for prostitution; a dissenting priest; and a nobleman called Henry Broncker, also known as ‘The Ratman’. In and of themselves, these stories serve as a case study of a particular issue or theme. However, when considered as a whole they provide an interesting study of how both the systems and concepts of justice have developed over time in England and Britain, and as such The Clink is a shining example of how ‘bottom up’ history can often be far more illuminating than the ‘top down’, grand narratives of days past.

Last, but by no means least, I like the fact that The Clink has interactive exhibits. This is a purely personal preference, and I can understand why people feel that interactive exhibits are a gimmick. I, however, feel that being able to pick up a set of iron shackles, chains or a sword, adds something to a museum’s atmosphere and makes it a more interesting experience if nothing else, and for that reason alone I feel it’s something that The Clink should be praised for.

That said, The Clink does have some flaws. Whilst overall the museum does a very good job in framing the history of The Clink in a wider context, for me the ‘Torture Room’ left something to be desired. On the one hand, it does attempt to address the moral and ethical issues associated with torture. On one of the walls there is a panel which presents the visitor with five scenarios, and asks them in which situations they feel the use of torture would be justified.

However, the problem for me is that all of the five examples came from, at the very latest, the early modern period. To a certain extent I can understand why. Since the prison was closed in 1780, to include more modern examples could be considered anachronistic. However, I believe the fact that the examples are chosen from historical periods so remote from our own means that the visitor sees the scenarios as purely hypothetical and as such see torture as an abstract concept rather than a historical, and indeed present, reality.

This problem is made worse by the way in which the various torture devices are displayed. Whilst the information panels do attempt to frame them in a wider context, for the most part they serve only to make the visitor wince and go “ouch”, rather than reflect on the cultural and social meaning of these devices, and on the issues surrounding corporal punishment, which further undermines the themes it is trying to make the visitor consider, and the message it is trying to convey.

I also would have liked there to have been a greater focus on how the history of The Clink links into current debates regarding the penal system. Whilst the museum does have a few panels about nineteenth century prison reform, and particularly how the horrors of The Clink convinced many people that prison reform was long overdue, it would have been nice to have seen The Clink do like The Workhouse, Southwell did, and use the history of The Clink to challenge our current perceptions of concepts such as justice, and attitudes towards questions such as how criminals should be punished, and indeed what constitutes a crime.

In summary, The Clink is definitely worth a visit. If the last few paragraphs seem overly negative, it’s simply because they didn’t match the standards set by the rest of the museum, and overall The Clink stands as an example of how the history one building can be used as a means to present a panorama of historical topics.

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.

Video Games and History Part One: Permit me a tangent

As I’m sure you all know, Assassin’s Creed: Unity came out last week, and if you didn’t know before, you do now. I haven’t played the game myself yet, and judging by early critical coverage of the game I don’t think that’s a situation which is going to change any time soon. From the reviews I’ve read so far, Unity is a glitchy, bug-ridden mess of a game, and as someone who loves the Assassin’s Creed games (yes, even Assassin’s Creed 3), the fact that Unity has so spectacularly failed to live up to expectations is something of a disappointment. However, whilst I’m sure you’d all love to hear my arguments as to why Assassin’s Creed is one of the best video game series of all time, you didn’t come here to read about video games. What I am going to do is use the Assassin’s Creed games as examples of the ways in which video games can be used by historians, the first of which is as a tool for ‘tangential learning’.

I first came across the concept of ‘tangential learning’ in an episode of Extra Credits, a web series which examines various elements of video game design and also the social and cultural issues surrounding video games as a medium. The episode can be found here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlQrTHrwyxQ) and it goes into a lot more detail about the term, but put simply it means that video games can be used to introduce people to topics and issues which they may not have heard of before in a way that encourages them to learn more about them.

Speaking purely from my own personal experience, this point is one hundred percent correct. When I was playing Assassin’s Creed 2, I’d often find myself pausing the game to find out more about the characters I was interacting with, the various buildings I was climbing up, or the various high-profile figures I was turning into living pin cushions. More often than not, these specific searches soon became far broader, and so what started out as a quick search about, for example whether Rodrigo Borgia became Pope in the year the game said he did or not would turn into a study of the entire Borgia family and their various acts of villainy. Admittedly, a lot of the time these searches began as fact checking exercises, but the fact that the game made me want to check these facts in the first place demonstrates the potential video games have as a learning tool.

Admittedly, this can also be said of historical fiction in any medium, so why are video games more useful than films, books or television? In my opinion, their main advantage over competing mediums is the fact that, unlike a book or a film, video games can use in-game menus and interfaces to deliver information directly to the player. To a certain extent, games have always done this, but until fairly recently the amount of background information developers could provide was limited by the fact that it all had to fit onto a physical disc. However, this is no longer the case. All seventh (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii) and eight generation (PS4, Xbox One, Wii U) consoles have inbuilt internet connections, which means that, in theory, this extra information can be stored in one central database, rather than on the disc, and that as such, all developers have to do is find a way of linking this database to an onscreen interface in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.

Imagine how amazing that would be. To use another example from Assassin’s Creed 2, the way I see it you could be casually chatting to Leonardo Da Vinci, when a prompt would come up asking you if you wanted to learn more about him. By doing nothing more than clicking a button, you would be taken to a page which told you Da Vinci’s life story and contained links to related pages, for example ‘Renaissance art’ or ‘Florentine politics in the fifteenth century’. Hell, if game publishers can get the right people to write the content and the right copyright clearances these in-game encyclopaedias could be damn good ones. You could have a page with reproductions of Da Vinci’s entire canon, art complete with expert commentary on its influences and cultural significance, or a page dedicated to his inventions with historians and scientists giving their opinions on whether they could have ever worked.

This shouldn’t be too hard either. Whilst I’m no expert in video game development, if it’s possible for game developers and publishers to create interfaces which take the player to an in-game store where they can buy extra levels and costumes, surely the same technology can be used to take the player to an in-game encyclopaedia, and I’m sure that actual game developers could find a way to incorporate these features in a way that doesn’t necessarily need to take the player out of the game.

I had originally planned to talk about a second way in which I feel video games can be used to enhance the study of history, but as this post is already too long I’ll do it as a separate post instead. For now, I’ll end by saying that as a tool for ‘tangential learning’ video games have no equal, as since pretty much every console is connected to the internet, it is now possible to create centralised databases holding lots of information which can be accessed by anyone playing the game. Furthermore, the fact games are interactive means players become far more invested in the experience they are having, and as such they are more likely to want to learn more about the world it takes place in, and indeed interactivity is a theme which I’ll return to next time.

‘That’ Sainsbury’s advert and The Guardian

Unless you live under a rock on the third moon of Saturn, you probably know that last week Sainsbury’s launched their Christmas advertising campaign with a three and a half minute ad/mini-movie about the famous (or should that be infamous?) Christmas Truce of 1914. I get the sense that a lot of you already think you know where this is going so let me stop you right there and say that no, this post isn’t going to be about my opinions on the advert.  Rather, I’m going to write about an article written for The Guardian by Ally Fogg (link at the bottom of the post), because whilst a lot of historians have been quick to criticise Gove et al’s jingoistic approach to the commemoration of World War One, it’s worth remembering that left-wing commentators aren’t above reproach, and that they can make some historically dubious comments themselves.

I’ll start off by admitting that Fogg does make some valid criticisms about the advert, specifically the paragraph which argues the advert strips the symbols and imagery we associate with World War One of their cultural, historical and emotional meaning, and turns them into commodities which can be used to sell products. Indeed, when I first heard about the advert my first reaction was disbelief bordering on anger that an image as powerful and significant as the Christmas Truce could be used simply to hawk chocolate, and to a certain extent I still feel that way.

However, when I watched the advert on YouTube (and whilst I normally hate the idea of “extended” or “full” adverts, you really do have to watch the three and a half minute version) my opinion changed somewhat because, Sainsbury’s logo aside, the advert is really well done. All Quiet on the Western Front it is not, but the advert manages to capture the stages of the troops’ emotional journey perfectly: their misery before the Truce; their first cautious steps out of the trenches; their uncontrolled joy during the Truce; their sad realisation that, inevitably, the fighting must resume have to resume the fighting; and finally, a shared moment of optimism inspired by the fact that, even in the midst of war, they were able to see their enemies as friends, and treat them as fellow human beings.

Which is where my first problem lies with Fogg’s article: his claim that the advert makes the war seem beautiful. Again, his criticisms are somewhat valid and there are some bits of the advert which are morally questionable, such as the shot of a robin perched peacefully on the barbed wire. But ask yourself this, why is the story of the Christmas Truce so poignant and memorable? Why do we tell it to generations after generations of children? It is because it is a symbol of the fact that, even in our darkest moments, we are all capable of acts of shared kindness and humanity.

At its heart, the story of the Christmas Truce is a story about the beauty and resilience of the human spirit in the face of hopelessness and adversity, and the story of the Truce is beautiful because it played out against a backdrop of horror and senseless brutality. As such, for anyone to argue that a portrayal of the Truce is “too optimistic” or “undermines the brutality of the war” is horse’s bunkum, and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of why the Truce is so culturally resonant.

The second problem I have with his article is his opinion that the advert is akin to a Christmas advert in which a “Jewish child and disabled child in Auschwitz swap gifts for Christmas and Hanukah on the way to the gas chambers”. This assertion is predicated upon his assertion that trench warfare and the Holocaust were, morally speaking, the same, and it is such a flawed comparison that words fail me.

Yes, trench warfare was inhumane, and his comparison of World War One to the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima is an interesting one. But come on. Are you really going to try and argue that trench warfare is in any way comparable to the Nazi’s campaign of genocide and organised mass slaughter? If you are, you either have a neck with more brass in it than a church altar, or you have a complete and utter lack of historical perspective, and how anyone can have the nerve to say a Christmas advert depicting the Christmas Truce is disrespectful before going on to compare it to a Christmas advert set in a Nazi concentration camp is beyond me.

However, my main problem with the article is that it is, at times, staggeringly anachronistic, in particular his statement that, “those in the trenches never understood what they were giving their lives for, beyond a vague commitment to king and country”. I will say that this statement is probably somewhat true of those soldiers who joined towards the end of the war: after all, it’s unlikely Sassoon published his Declaration Against the War out of boredom.

But to say that this is how troops felt at the beginning of the war is to project our modern interpretations of World War One (i.e. that it was a futile waste of life fought by people who didn’t know what they were doing) onto people who, most likely, went out knowing exactly why they were fighting. The men who fought in World War One genuinely believed in King, God and Country and they saw the Germans as a force which threatened those things. They did not fight because they’d been duped or tricked by wily General Kitchener, and to argue they did does a disservice to their memory.

Of course, for me to say this is also anachronistic. We can never really know why anyone from the past did the things they did unless we manage to become friends with a man/alien in a flying Police Box. But for someone to so blatantly try and present their opinions of World War One as those of the soldiers who fought in it, as Fogg did in his article, is inexcusable. It’s this approach that makes it so easy for people to dismiss out of hand the idea that religion was the driving force behind some of the most important reform movements of the Victorian era since, hey, religion isn’t that important today, so how could it ever have been important; or for people to claim that the failure of the Miner’s Strike proves socialism will never work. Anachronism is the enemy of good history, and for all its good points, Ally Fogg’s article perpetuates the false belief that our modern interpretation of the war was shared by those who fought in it.

Here’s a link to the original article: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/13/sainsburys-christmas-ad-first-world-war