Archive for March, 2009

Wikipedia, the True Killer App

Posted in Digital Innovation on March 31st, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – Comments Off

Despite having killed more people than Jack the Ripper, Wikipedia appears unsated and has struck down yet another hapless victim.  While I’m sure Bill Gates has bigger things on his mind, the death of Encarta isn’t exactly the case of a youth struck down in the prime of life, but rather the gentle ushering of a terminal patient to a better place.  There was much talk on the part of the World Book’s Paul Kobasa for collaborating with Wikipedia during Wikimania 2006, but it seems that Web 2.0 has introduced yet another new model, best typified by CRPGs (but a staple of almost every video game), of killing your enemies and taking their stuff.  Now that Encarta is out of the way, I’d recommend Wikipedia take a breather before performing the coup de grace against the ailing Brittanica, maybe it could spend some quality time attending to the final rites of its sickly second cousin?

Ricoeur, Ricoeur Everywhere and not a Drop of Significance

Posted in Academia, Digital Innovation on March 31st, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – Comments Off

That’s the problem with reading about hermeneutics, as soon as you start, everything in your life becomes a piece of some gargantuan puzzle. That must be why so few people study hermeneutics—admirable self-denial. Or maybe it’s because they’re too busy watching a cat in a Kleenex box on YouTube.

I just finished reading Michael Wesch’s essay on learning in new media environments and there was a part that really startled me, because I was just referring to the perlocutionary act.  While I was looking at different mediums, the “classroom medium” that Wesch so tellingly describes is also heavy with perlocutionary statement:

The “message” of this environment is that to learn is to acquire information, that information is scarce and hard to find (that’s why you have to come to this room to get it), that you should trust authority for good information, and that good information is beyond discussion (that’s why the chairs don’t move or turn toward one another). In short, it tells students to trust authority and follow along.”

In the classes I’ve taught, I’ve focused on systems-based explanations for history, as much out of necessity (It’s hard to integrate environmental systems into historical study unless you systematize the latter) as out of training (You can’t create digital historical media unless you reduce the historical data to systems-compatible units) or theoretical support. Testing this method of teaching is not so easy but I’ve found that by giving the students two points in a historical system and asking them to connect these points and give examples for their connections, they end up demonstrating a high level of theoretical understanding grounded in fact.

Wesch hits on another point that confronts the academy every day:

Nothing good will come of these technologies if we do not first confront the crisis of significance and bring relevance back into education. In some ways these technologies act as magnifiers. If we fail to address the crisis of significance, the technologies will only magnify the problem by allowing students to tune out more easily and completely. With total and constant access to their entire network of friends, we might as well be walking into the food court in the student union and trying to hold their attention. On the other hand, if we work with students to find and address problems that are real and significant to them, they can then leverage the networked information environment in ways that will help them achieve the “knowledge-ability” we hope for them.”

I think there’s a systemic bias whenever we create software or databases and its roots are in the object-oriented nature of the knowledge as it appears once we’ve transformed it into code or database entry. In a sense, there doesn’t need to be a Free Software Movement, because all data points are equal in the eyes of the machine. The Wikipedia page on episode 213 of the Simpsons is, from the created external standpoint of the software processing and presenting the data on-screen, fundamentally the same as the Wikipedia page on, say, Frederick Douglass, even though we would all agree (I hope) that the latter is actually more significant than the former. Likewise, in my own work using databases to track Medieval Chinese political geography, the entry for the capital of the empire is fundamentally the same as the entry for the smallest market-town. Without ever acknowledging this foundational aspect of digital information (And especially web-based digital information) we see it reflected on our browsers every day. Given that every website is the same in that one is not required to read it, it becomes evaluated in a consumerist manner, with an emphasis on interactivity and aesthetics.  It’s the true marketplace of ideas, and all of us are forced to admit that even the finest digital humanities projects don’t have the interactive or aesthetic value of the top sites on the Internet or, when they do, they have wrestled the most important parts of the genie back into the bottle (With expected results), so that students prefer to spend their time in university on Facebook rather than browsing the demographic records of Darbyshire.

So, because professors aren’t as comfortable with the digital medium as they are with the textual, they grapple with the distracting bane presented by the ubiquitous laptop (With expected results).  The real damage is when these same students enter post-graduate life and realize they need to scramble to learn a host of digital tools that only exist, when they do, as end products in their undergraduate existence.  The good news for scholars is that the dialectic continues and, assumably, once data literacy catches up with textual literacy among humanities scholars, there

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Posted in Art, Digital Innovation on March 19th, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – Comments Off

Bigger than Andre, badder than the entire WWF

Bigger than Andre, badder than the entire WWF

Remember back when Knife Party was just a tag on a San Francisco sidewalk (or maybe that was Monkey Knife Fight…  you always forget to document the street art until years later…) and not an awesome piece of digital media deriding the Neocon war machine with a British accent?  Giant Media had its roots in the same subversiveness and now it’s spawned into an entire industry suitable for philately, sovietology and, um, trying to figure out just how much of Andre the Giant’s face can be shown and still be considered original work.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the whole Obey thing.  But Shepard Fairey has come a long way from quoting Heidegger (without mentioning phusis, which in my mind is a sign of a rank amateur) to critique conspicuous consumption, and now wrangles with the arbiter of all news factoids for his modification of a press photo of Obama into an emblem of the proletariat’s addiction to propaganda, or maybe it’s hope.

A quick perusal of der Wiki shows the morass of trying to distinguish what constitutes derivative work from copyrighted sources using laws written before modern methods of transformation existed.  Somehow, the illuminati over at Google got it right, along with Duchamp.  Of course, Duchamp did it before you could sell Mona Lisa skateboards, so maybe the courts would look differently at the issue today, but first Duchamp would have to give up being an artist and start being the second-most ironic capitalist of the post-modern era.

Animation as Tetrad

Posted in Academia, Art, Digital Innovation on March 17th, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – Comments Off

I’ve been struggling lately trying to figure out what I mean by animation and how it relates to cartoons, games, diagrams and Edward Tufte.  There is, I think, a thread that links strategy gaming to the representation of people (or their bubble-enshrouded thoughts) as abstracted collections of lines and filled spaces that focus on process.  That’s the whole point of my theoretical Animated Clearinghouse of Verbs and Processes that you can see in all its Youtube glory at  Animated Ancient China II.  But if we’re just talking about filled spaces and lines, well there should be no difference between these two princesses:

Queen Kristie from Sveden

Queen Kristie from Sveden

But we inherently know that the princess on the left is somehow different from the princess on the right.  We have all manner of details of the princess on the left, most notably that she was tricky from day one and that she had a proclivity for killing famous French philosophers, and know very little about the one on the right.  But beyond that intuitive sense of difference and to some scheme for describing how cartoons like Sleeping Beauty are media for the relaying of particular types of knowledge and somehow including within that media the video games that make up so much of modern life requires serious analysis.  I’m not a media studies kind of person, but I am a fan of MacLuhan and his concept of the tetrad, wherein one attempts to define the basic characteristics of a particular medium and its suitability for knowledge transmission.  To whit, I propose the Animation Tetrad:

g3207 g3208

So, Aurora, like a doughty space marine from Bughunter,  isn’t so interesting and valuable on its own, but as part of a non-lingual process for relaying knowledge.   Now, the knowledge being passed along in Bughunter isn’t as complex as the process for refining uranium for use in a nuclear reactor to create electricity, but it does share the same abstraction regarding details of individual objects with a focus on the system itself.  Ultimately, as we grow more comfortable with the creation of animations, we move away, according to this tetrad, from those pesky words, and move toward complex non-lingual communication of knowledge.  Imagine if Einstein had been exposed to that simple, 45-second Areva commercial (Probably a better scenario than exposure to Bughunter, we can all be sure) and I think the possibilities for complex theory and practice (known as praxis) relayed with little or no actual text becomes more and more possible.  As a historian, I recognize that this has happened before, especially in the use of art to relay religious truths to a laity illiterate in Latin.  Wikipedia boasts of articles in dozens of languages, but animation allows for an escape from the constraints of the vernacular (Possibly, with an institution of a new vernacular based on symbology that may one day become so complex that it constitutes a language that would need just as much training to understand as those that it replaces, hence the reversing characteristic in the tetrad).  So the next time you’re playing Rome: Total War, maybe you should think of it as Rossetta Stone for learning the animated language of knowledge transfer.  How’s that for ruining your gaming experience?

The Strategy Game as Digital Humanities Document, Part III

Posted in Academia, Digital Innovation, Games on March 11th, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – Comments Off

The actual forms of interaction between the elements of a game are, for the most part, the realm of the designer. A player can only be interactive within a gameworld, in whatever manner made available in the creation of the software. While this has changed in recent times with open-source gaming as well as toolsets for modifying proprietary games, the most common experience of a player will be the game as envisioned by the designer. Civilization is an engrossing game, but it uses some very old anthropoligical ideas… notions that societies tend to develop along technological lines of descent… nineteenth-century view of social politics, where different cultures are merely variations on a theme that naturally seem to evolve toward the European and Western.” The end result of highly-engineered games can, surprisingly, be highly-limited worldviews.

In comparison, “Bunten’s philosophy was that complex games could be based on surprisingly few rules” and Seven Cities still, in its simplicity, provides much more opportunity for the player to influence the dialectic, and therefore produce more varied synthetic worldviews. Wilson acknowledges the importance of this even in the modern, multi-billion dollar game industry: “the withdrawal to low-cost development brings aesthetic and commercial constraints and opportunities”. It may be an issue of semiotic flexibility, wherein the relatively low level of symbols but high level of manipulability allows for more interaction, thus “integrating the meta-theoretical functions within the discourse itself”. All games are, by definition, autopoietic—meaning that they affect themselves through use. But the allopoietic / autopoietic dichotomy should be viewed as a spectrum and not a binary situation, and the strategy game is more than simply syntactically autopoietic, but is actually semantically autopoietic, allowing for the user to make meaningful, dynamic changes within the document.

The Landscape

Since these games have little in the way of characters, the landscape itself needed to be as compelling as the AI and the mechanics. One of the most impressive features of Seven Cities was that it could create, dynamically, a whole new world using geological and cultural models that are, notably, never referenced. In Civilization the importance is more than novel: “The Civ games teach us that geography is destiny.” Long before Guns, Germs and Steel, players of Civilization knew that if your society, by chance, began their game isolated from other societies, it could be disasterous.

The tiled nature of games such as Civilization hearkened back to the “wargames on which it was based… dominated by a hexagonal board.” The maps were huge and detailed but, by design, not so large as to be overwhelming. This was not the case with Seven Cities: “You are sitting there with a 3 ½ inch window on this 12 by 20 foot world. That’s big.” Berry’s purpose in creating such a massive gameworld was to reinforce the emotional impact of such a large and unknown world. Too little attention has been given by game designers and, similarly, by creators of all digital humanities media on the informative nature of mass. ‘Overwhelming the viewer’ is seen as a problem to be fixed rather than a piece of knowledge to be nurtured.

Artificial Intelligence

Specifically, it is not the actors within a game that need to, somehow, act in a compelling manner, but rather the game itself: “A computer game did not have to be colorful, or fast, or complicated to be successful; it had only to act, in some basic, rudimentary way, human.” This is accomplished through algorithms:

I don’t mean a clever solution to a problem, no—what computers are really good at is taking a brute force solution to a problem and running a billion times on something. Basically, solving small problems in a predictable way is something that computers really really excel at, and that drives people nuts. That’s the reason why spreadsheets were the first killer app for personal computers.

Games, like the digital humanities media they resemble, such as digital atlases and socio-cultural simulations, are the demonstration of knowledge related to humanity. If they appear machinelike, then they either lose their informative power or, worse, they teach the viewer that society X or person Y is a machine.

One of the most innovative ways, therefore, to pass along knowledge about morally complex issues is to craft situations wherein the player ends up in situations demonstrating the motivation for historical oppressors. In short: What does it mean when we end up being the bad guy? Berry was clear on this: “I don’t want to preach to the player what is right and wrong… Seven Cities is a process type game… Life doesn’t have ends and wins and things like that. It has processes that you go through…” This was, by all accounts, one of the goals of Seven Cities, to show the intense pressure on Spanish explorers to conquer the native populations and pillage. The realpolitick nature of Civilization is just as clear:

It takes only a few turns of Civ play for me to turn into a combination of Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft. The people—busily hammering, digging and marching on the screen—appear in my thoughts, if at all, only as refractory, ungrateful dolts to be manipulated when possible and sacrificed when necessary. Citizens often riot in Civ world, and when they do I feel nothing but betrayal and contempt. Didn’t I just give you a cathedral just 12 turns ago? Can’t you see that I am in an arms race with Zululand just now?

In doing so, the self-reflective (And, therefore, the responsible player from a dialectical sense) acknowledges, “Perhaps this says something more about ourselves than we’d care to admit.” It should be noted that the designer has written all the rules and the player must act within them, but the environment in which games are marketed—competitive and valuable—ensures that the player’s desires are targetted. Ultimately, though, the player does not have to take any role demanded by the designer, as the player has the power to turn the game off at any moment. The ability, then, of an interactive experience to coax a player into the role of oppressor and oppressed could perhaps afford more understanding than a simple linear explanation.

More than appearing intelligent, a game must appear simply alive. The environmental details of life receive the most obvious benefit from the performance of modern hardware and software:

What is it that computers are good at? Let’s think about that. What is it that the CPU really can get us? Computers are fantastic as simulation. They’re very good at modeling things. That’s a good thing for us, because games by and large tend to be simulated models of problems, simulated mathematical situations. There’s a reason why mathematicians like to break down games in order to figure out the math behind them.


Already, if you play a contemporary game, odds are very good that the trees you see in that game are not all modeled by hand. Odds are they were generated by a computer using an algorithm, using middleware, products such as NatFX and SpeedTree, for example.

But the creation of realistic physics and fractally-produced trees only reinforces how limited such conceptions of life are.

Seven Cities provided a purposefully clumsy interaction between player and digital representation of native peoples to reinforce the fact that, “You are an alien in an alien world… You share no common language.” In that way, the simple game on 64k was providing an accurate, ‘living’ environment. This lack of language and interaction between outsider and indiginous community drew the attention of later critics as well as contemporary reviewers, who noted: “you don’t share a language… the potential for missed cues on both sides is enormous.” It was a very small detail that required little in the way of processing power while improving playability. Another, small reminder of the life a player had in Berry’s masterpiece was that “It sufficiently captured the sense of panic that comes from being lost in the wilderness and running out of supplies.”

The living world of Civilization is more of an ongoing social conversation. The game itself becomes the study of history from the perspective: “If an enlightened leader had been in charge of Sumeria or Great Zimbabwe—if we, that is, had been in charge—could sheer wisdom and goodwill have shattered the cycle of shortage, war, and collapse?” The answer is apparent from an analysis of the rules of the game: as long as you focus a command economy on improving your infrastructure, military and technology along Western lines, you can break that cycle. Sumeria and Great Zimbabwe can win, as long as they become the United States. Nowhere is the argument made that a society or culture is more than a logo placed on a social product of unilinear cultural evolution.

As a digital humanities scholar envisions building an interactive historical world similar to a historic strategy game, the aspect of gameplay becomes problematic. But for historical strategy games, there is already in existence the concept of cooperative opposition, in contrast to competitive opposition. Growth and interplay in gaming can be a cooperative process, again in a dialectic fashion, between artificial intelligence and the player:

the deadly dance between Russian and German forces in Eastern Front was as cooperative as conflicting; a realistic war “drama” was created only when both opponents acted properly in concert. Indeed, the nagging problem with the Eastern Front was that the Russians did not cooperate on repeated play: they didn’t get better, as the player wished they would.

The analogy Myers uses is that of a dance partner who refuses to learn the most complex steps and therefore limits the enjoyment. Ryan describes the same process: “The ludic pleasure of deciphering the logic of the system – what game designers call reverse engineering- cannot be separated from the narrative pleasure of watching the story unfold. Without playing skills, the player would be unable to create interesting stories.” High-level synthetic understanding will, likely, never appear in commercially-produced entertainment software. It requires too much time spent on academic subjects and, more importantly, it requires too much investment with the same piece of software. Gaming companies want their customers to buy new software, and thus we can assume a constant level of planned intellectual obselescence to mirror planned technical obselescence.  One break with this model comes from the community of users that play these games, with their attempts to build historical realism into older game engines.

The Strategy Game as Digital Humanities Document, Part II

Posted in Academia, Digital Innovation, Games on March 9th, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – Comments Off


Seven Cities of Gold, as with many EA products at the time, was known for its high-quality interface and the ease of use it afforded. Management of assets within the game, as well as the movement across the map and the map itself, were presented in an abstracted form wherein logistical and environmental versimilitude were considered secondary to a concept known as playability. This could be translated as simplicity or elegance. Game designer Chris Crawford believed that, “popularity—perhaps even art—lay in creating a realistic human interface between player and game.” The “friendly interface design” of Seven Cities afforded an ability to interact with a complex landscape and social environment with nothing more than a joystick and a machine less powerful than a modern cellphone.

The drawbacks are apparent: Rather than the vast multitude of environments present within North America and South America, there exists in Seven Cities only swamp, desert, mountains, plains, forests and rivers. Likewise, rather than the thousands of native cultures, there is only a crude continuum of representative cultures: Hunter-Gatherer, Farming, Pueblo, Aztec and Inca. There are no Mayans in the New World of Seven Cities and, perhaps more importantly, we do not know if they were left out because of disk space or design.

The benefits require more explanation. Besides the technological achievement of cramming such an ambitious project into such meager technology, there is another, more subtle achievement: Suspension of disbelief. Danielle Berry, the designer of Seven Cities, demanded that, “Wherever possible decisions be entered into the computer by ‘doing’ rather than ‘telling’” The result of this pared-down interface was that the player expended less conscious thought regarding the environment (Both social and physical) and more on the interaction with that environment. That there was only one terrain to cover the different wetlands, swamps and bogs did not reduce but instead accentuated the experience of the player. Any representation of the world will need to make such sacrifices, and in buidling a historical media in the digital humanities, the question associated with such a decision is how that omission is used, and not whether an omission will occur.

Seven Cities of Gold map interface

Seven Cities of Gold map interface

The Static Database

The world and rules of Civilization are of much larger scope than those of Seven Cities. Rather than simply the Age of Discovery, the broad scope of Civilization ranges from 4000BCE to the present (And a half-century beyond). The gameplay of Civilization takes place on a sort of large-scale grid using what are known as ’tiled graphics’: “Images are designed and drawn within these screens according to rigidly defined, rectangular format. These images are graphed, plotted, translated, stored, and eventually reproduced as electronic pixels.” The use of tiles affords these large-scale games, with their dynamic and semi-dynamic worlds, a way of introducing manageable elements for gameplay. Each tile represents a piece of terrain or a unit which could be a city, a diplomat or a military air wing. The tiles are rated on various attributes and the interaction between tiles is mapped out by the designer, commonly in the form of a table or algorithm.

This mass-production of elements within a game, each resembling another, can crudely be described as object-oriented without too much damage being done to the term. By creating interaction tables and classes of elements, the game designer has “a vastly increased number of static details in these components, requiring a greater variety of dynamic choices from the human player.” This process allows for an exponential return on the part of player interaction. A modern game, in comparison to Seven Cities, tracks enormous amounts of landscape and logistical data, each with myriad attributes affording, assumably, a more realistic simulation of the environment.

The Runtime—or Persistance—Database

On top of the static database sits the runtime database of a game: “The line drawing in a coloring book versus the color added to it” The runtime database tracks changes to the environment and actors within it—whether the simplistic kind of changes available in Seven Cities, such as the discovery of a great lake or contact with an Aztec city, or the drastic changes available in Civilization, which can include modification of the landscape or the loss of entire armies. “Computer screens are dynamic—but mutable… They change—not only through time, but over time. Their shape changes from player to player, from playing to playing.” Tracking these changes requires enormous amounts of resources. Maintaining these changes—a condition known as persistance—is so cost-prohibitive that it is little used in any modern game. In sharp contrast is Seven Cities, designed to run on a computer with no hard-drive and barely any RAM: “Unlike most strategy-adventure games… which load the player with numerous economic and logistical decisions, it only used four commodities to model the constraints and opportunities facing the Conquistadors” This is another benefit of low-detail environments: the lessened resource cost of tracking and maintaining the changes of those environments.

That the interactions in the game world are only capable within set (though dynamic) parameters is ignored in gaming, where the goal is suspension of disbelief. However, this should be explicit in a digital humanities document which “has to expose its subjective status and operation.” Only in this way can we, as Anderson argues, move beyond the stereotype of knowledge presentation and embrace these non-standard forms of learning and teaching. In this, the strategy gaming environment provides the perfect example of techne versus poiesis and is, in a primitive way, the ‘garden’ versus the old-line narrative view of history. By integrating lessons from artificial life and simulation in a scaled-down manner that preferences humanities and spatial information, it truly does move away from“beauty, truth, mimesis, taste and form” and toward the “emergent, autopoietic, generative, iterative, algorithmic, speculative”. This develops the most striking knowledge-presentation dynamic: when a player is given the freedom to perform in a certain manner but doesn’t, because it is too difficult or too nuanced. What current digital humanities project can claim to evoke what is all too common in a game like Seven Cities or Civilization: a player may want to be a humanitarian leader that enlightens the masses and seeks non-violent solutions, but finds the sacrifices too onerous and resorts to cruel subjugation of a weaker state and its people. Modelling the deep historical processes that drive societies and historical actors is only possible if scholars model the social and historical pressures.

Play as dialectical process

Despite the linear nature of Seven Cities and Civilization, they are primarily what are known as “sandbox” games. The design of the game “provides players with the tools to amuse themselves” so that the player determines the goals of their playing. As opposed to interactive adventures, where each scene is a puzzle that needs to be solved or opponent that needs to be defeated, sandbox games allow for what approaches full latitude. This proves to be a problem with people who are coming from the perspective of the audience as well as with designers who consider the player to be an audience.

But exposure to non-linear pieces of information in historic strategy games is “where history’s complications set in. You don’t have to make peace with the Native Americans. You can kill them, and steal their resources. You can even eradicate them… You have that freedom, and if you are equipped with enough ships and men, you can be very successful…” from which Thomas’s analysis is that ” It mourns their genocide, and by putting us in their boots, we are invited to mourn, too.” But who is to guarantee that the player makes that analysis? What’s to say the analysis will not, instead, be disgust at weakness and a sense of cultural superiority? Unlike obviously fantastical games involving widescale, physically impossible carnage, the “magic circle” that separates games from reality, and in the case of historic strategy games, separates games from the player’s understanding of historic processes, is incomplete or even nonexistant.

Some of Bunten’s elements of a successful game are that: “You should be able to personalize your game… keep the features down” so that players “could concentrate on human psychology” as opposed to technological flash. Along with: “The computer-age truism, garbage in-garbage out, is certainly best kept in mind. The software only displays the historical sophistication of its framers.” This is not quite accurate. Player interaction within a gameworld is mediated by the rules of the game but these rules are only so good as the rulemaker and the player, who combine to create a unique instance—each time somehow different than the last and different, even if only slightly, from all other experiences with such sandbox games. It is not only the historical sophistication of the framer, but also the historical sophistication of the framed, which is itself informed by the playing of the game, producing a long-term dialectical feedback loop that can either reveal or reinforce, depending on the design of the game.

The Strategy Game as Digital Humanities Document, Part I

Posted in Academia, Digital Innovation, Games on March 8th, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – 10 Comments

The growing field of historical GIS has led to a concurrent growth in the use of spatially-oriented digital humanities data that is not, necessarily, GIS. The difference between the Ann Knowles edited Past Time, Past Place:GIS for History and the recent Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, demonstrates this shift from just trying to fit GIS into historical research to using spatial techniques to present and analyze data without necessarily entering into GIS. As academics begin to move away from scientifically-oriented GIS methodology toward spatially and digitally aware, but humanities-oriented, spatial methodology, a host of best practices can be gleaned from a similar source of spatially-aware, humanities-oriented knowledge presentation: historical computer strategy games. The packaging of knowledge in these map-based historic games can inform current attempts to create national historic GIS, cultural atlases and dynamic historic world simulations. The logical growth of digital historic media into something more than passive representation of data requires a framework on which to be built and the design of strategy games, with their focus on interactivity, could provide that framework. To analyze multimedia gaming (hereafter referred to simply as gaming) for its particular benefits and drawbacks, one must focus on the centrality of the active manipulator that is the player.

Within the young field of gaming analysis, large-scale historic strategy games, such as Civilization and The Seven Cities of Gold, have received scant attention. The situation has little changed since David Myers remarked that, “aside from review articles in popular literature, there is little critical analysis of computer game structure or form.” Some attention has been given to gaming, but that attention focuses on the more visceral style found on consoles such as the Xbox or Playstation. The results have been disheartening, and highly complicated political, diplomatic and resource-allocation systems present in historic strategy games have been ignored by researchers who define gaming as first-person, visceral and, most importantly, easy for researchers to study given their resemblance to film and television. While the popularity and scope of, say, the Grand Theft Auto franchise deserves attention, it has only broad similarities to the slow-pace and large scale of historic strategy games.

A historic strategy game in the sense presented here in this paper can be defined in one of three ways. The first is best described by Marie-Laure Ryan:

Simulation games create a dynamic model of a complex entity, such as a city (Simcity), an empire (Caesar), or a family (The Sims). An emergent process, the global evolution of this entity is the product of an algorithm that computes the interrelated consequences of the actions of many individual agents and continually feeds this output back into its own engine… In keeping with its conception of life as a story that is constantly being written by the interaction between individuals and their environment… Characters are like objects: they too offer opportunities for actions by other characters… The object of the game is not to win, since life never runs out of problems to be solved, but to manage the life of the characters as successfully as possible according to cultural standards (make them rich), or to the player’s personal idea of dramatic development (for instance, create interpersonal conflicts and situations leading to catastrophic events).

The second is that it is more of an analytical than emotional exercise, with the player’s avatar not appearing as an individual but as some kind of political state entity. Classically, they are presented in an overhead view, with a variety of natural and man-made resources for the player to accumulate and manipulate. The game is presented as having multiple concurrent phases, so that one is concerned with the military, diplomatic, economic and agricultural variabilities of a state simultaneously. A final, more compact definition is the colloquial ’4X Game’. This term refers to the fourfold goal of the player’s state entity: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. While modern incarnations provide more nuance than that, they are—no pun intended—an extrapolation of this design.

These games, the most well-known being Civilization, but also, Rome:Total War and Europa Universalis, are already being treated by the lay public as academic digital media. And, like much popular academic media of questionable accuracy, “The question takes on real importance when we realize that some games have reached more people than any 50 or 100 scholarly treatises or textbooks combined.” Analysis of the mechanics and popularity of historic strategy games reveals not only best practices that could be integrated in digital humanities projects, but also an uncomfortably clear understanding of historical processes as they are viewed by the lay public.

It was the 1984 game, The Seven Cities of Gold, a hit at its time, for which the term “edutainment” was created. The player explored the continents of North America and South America, interacting with its indiginous people the 15th and 16th centuries. The game was created without any attempts by groups to audit its view of such a long-examined and long-questioned period. The absence of any historical scholars taking part in the creation of these games would prove to be a trend, and yet, “the interactive quality of such simulated histories can make them diabolically absorbing… even the most bookish, sophisticated player can find them shaping his or her understanding of the ancient past.” The home computer technology of the time allowed a robust 64 kilobytes of memory to simulate the New World and sold 150,000 copies.

In comparison, the cost to create a game has increased by a factor of twenty-two in the last twelve years, while the data created has increased between 40 and 150 times that. The world of Seven Cities took up 64k, while NASA World Wind, a modern 3D application, has a total data store of 6.4 terabytes. These games, of which Seven Cities of Gold can be seen as an early example and Civilization II can be seen as a middle-period example, have grown and developed without any consensus view as to what data should be shown, how it should be shown or even if there is any responsibility for a company to consider historical processual accuracy in the design of its games.

The standards for a different map-based type of digital media, GIS, were developed by the Federal Interagency coordinating Committee on Digital Cartography (FICCDC) in 1983 (a year before the release of Seven Cities) to bring some semblance of order to the varied digital mapping solutions in use by government agencies. Despite this centralized authority and long dialog, the GIS solutions by the early nineties were varied and unsophisticated. In comparison, strategy games had grown complex, popular and economically successful. They did so with no central authority guiding the historical accuracy that defined the games except, perhaps, “that naive faith—central to both Marxism and Christianity—that humanity is meant to get history right.” Naturally, you cannot expect a segment of the entertainment industry to institute rigorous standards for historical accuracy, but the historical accuracy of these games proved to be their selling point. So, the audience demanded adherence to historical accuracy or, at least, adherence to some system of historiography that seemed accurate, even if, on review, it demonstrated little historical sophistication.

In Progress

Posted in Art on March 3rd, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – Comments Off


If you’ve stumbled upon this site and you don’t document your code in Middle High German, then you’ll probably be confused.  I hope to have everything together in a week or so, and then I’ll start putting out more text than interesting pictures.

Inchoate, HA!

Posted in Art on March 1st, 2009 by Elijah Meeks – 1 Comment