Friday, September 11, 2020
September 11, 2020: History through Games: History Adventures
[One of the most consistent through-lines in my life as an AmericanStudier, from my own childhood through my experiences with my sons, has been games, both board/card and video. So this week I’ll analyze a handful of games that offer complex lessons about our past, leading up to a Guest Post on the wonderful Reacting to the Past pedagogical games!]
On the interactive digital book series that extends one of my favorite genres to new audiences, media, and identities.
While I’ve written a great deal over the years about books that defined my childhood, I’ve somehow never had the chance to talk about Choose Your Own Adventure books. Over my many years of reading CYOA books I must have checked out (literally, from the Cville public libraries) most of the original series, and over my years as a parent I’ve had the chance to share many of those classics (along with the new Choose Your Own Adventure card games) with the boys. We’ve also discovered and enjoyed a couple newer CYOA book series that engage more directly with American history: the You Choose Interactive History Adventure books, which include this truly thoughtful Salem Witch Trials text (one of the best representations of the Salem Witch Trials I’ve seen in any medium); and, to extend the focus of an earlier post in the series, the Oregon Trail Interactive History Adventure books, which are based at least as much on the video game as on that historical topic. Those new, overtly historical CYOAs really exemplify the power of this form of interactive storytelling for drawing readers into seemingly distant settings and histories.
21st century interactive storytelling has of course gone far beyond books and card games (to take nothing whatsoever away from those two wonderful forms), and a new digital book series, History Adventures, World of Characters, utilizes the technologies of digital media to extend and amplify those CYOA elements and effects. (Full disclosure: I first learned about History Adventures when one of its team, Zack Gutin, reached out to me to see if I was interested in writing about them—the boys and I subsequently had a chance to read and play some of the series, and we found them very well done; I’m not receiving any compensation for writing about them, and the books themselves are free.) Created by Spencer Striker, a Digital Media Design professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, History Adventures is a free, open-access series that combines text and animated storytelling and uses branching paths to bring the CYOA format to a series of representative characters (five in the initial, April 2020 version 1.1, with more to come) and stories across 150 years of world history (1750-1900, with again more eras to come).
We had a chance to try out all five initial characters and stories, and were particularly struck and engaged by the story of Agent 355, a Revolutionary War spy who works with the famous Culper Spy Ring against the British. My younger son created an extensive project on the Culper Ring for a 5th grade Revolutionary War unit a couple years back, and he both testified to the authenticity of the History Adventures portrayal and felt that he continued to learn through the experience of playing as a figure within those histories. My older son is a born storyteller and artist, and was particularly drawn in by the interplay between the animations and graphics and the text and story choices. I liked all those things too, but what I liked most was the diversity of all five initial characters, including Agent 355 (a Muslim and African American young woman). While of course the “You” that is the protagonist of Choose Your Own Adventure books could always be as diverse as the audience, I do have to say that in many (if not all) of the illustrations (at least in the original series), those unnamed main characters were depicted as white. That’s no more representative of the world and our histories than it is of 20th and 21st century readers, and it’s very nice to see an interactive storytelling form depict our histories and world in all their foundational, compelling diversity.
Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other historical games you’d highlight?