If I can’t dance I don’t want to study your revolution.

This week the gang from #hist5702x began discussing the possibilities of digital storytelling. By comparing video games with mediums like hypertext fiction and AR, we began to to ask questions about the kinds of narratives structures that digital technology enables, and the purposes that those narratives are best able to serve.

The pedagogical possibilities of technology have not gone unnoticed. Historians and educators have often turned to technology to teach students about the past. Unfortunately, lofty educational goals can sometimes trump the sense of fun and play that makes video games so popular in the first place. That is doubly unfortunate. Not only does it produce a shoddy game; it also misses an opportunity to inculcate a sense of play when engaging with the past.

We don’t wanna do that. As Public Historians, I think it is especially incumbent upon us to nurture a sense of fun when we talk about the past. This approach may not be suitable for all historical subjects, but where it is appropriate, thinking playfully about the past can be a valuable type of historical thinking.

Fortunately, studying history and having fun are not mutually exclusive enterprises. Technology can serve a pedagogical purpose, and arguably does so best, when it preserves a sense of playfulness.

Take “_____ Lies Here,” a game developed as a prequel for a larger AR project on the War of 1812. Taking place during a conference at Brock University in the summer of 2011, the game used QR codes to direct participants to a series of amusingly irreverent “historical plaques.” By presenting participants with a variety of conflicting perspectives on the war (American, British, or Aboriginal), the game encouraged a sort of historical thinking, tongue firmly in cheek. Take this one:

On June 22, 1813, Laura Secord (1775-1868) set out from near this spot to warn British forces of a sneak American attack. Secord walked a difficult and circuitous route, traveling over 30 km behind enemy lines with only a gift-wrapped box of assorted mints and chocolates for sustenance. Thanks to her warning, the Americans were routed. “I thought only of the Empire,” declared the modest heroine, “and how I hate that bitch Dolly Madison.”

Not every audience would be receptive to this kind of “history.” Being limited to conference attendees meant this game could be playful in a sense that, say, the Ontario Heritage Trust would find difficult.

Still, I would argue that the lesson is transferable. Technology can teach valuable historical lessons. It can also be wonderfully playful. Finding creative ways to accomplish both objectives is no easy task, but for those of us who are passionate about sharing the past, doing so will be well worth the effort.

Maybe I will study that revolution after all.

-Jesse / @jesseroberts0n