Picking on someone our own size

Friends of the blog will know that I have long been skeptical of historical video game projects. One of several critiques is that our budgets are just too small to compete in the cultural marketplace with the likes of EA and Activision. I understand that we’re not in direct and open competition with those companies for our students’ attention and that, if necessary, we have other means of compelling attention, especially in the context of the classroom. I’m also not saying anything about the pedagogical value of those games once students are made to play them, nor am I talking about casual games for Facebook and other platforms, which I’ll admit present a more level playing field for digital humanities. Caveats aside, I still see no getting around the fact that when students and others look at the video games and virtual environments we develop, they can’t help but compare the production values and game play to things they’re seeing on Xbox.

Consider these figures:

How can we possibly keep up?

Now consider that Foursquare, the wildly popular place-based social network has to date received a total of $1.35 million in venture funding. Again, Foursquare built a thriving social network, one of Silicon Valley’s hottest companies, for little more than what’s available to individual applicants through IMLS’s National Leadership Grants program. Try building a top video game for $1.35M.

That’s a number we can match, and the reason why, for my money, I’ll be sticking to the web and mobile space and giving history video games a pass.

[Thanks to Leslie Madsen-Brooks for the email that inspired this rant.]

Briefly Noted for February 10, 2009

Jessica Pritchard of the American Historical Association blog reports on a panel at last month’s annual meeting that asked what it takes to be a public historian. Entitled “Perspectives on Public History: What Knowledge, Skills, and Experiences are Essential for the Public History Professional?” the panel was chaired by George Mason’s own Spencer Crew.

Going back a bit to the December issue of Code4Lib Journal, Dale Askey considers why librarians are reluctant to release their code and suggests some strategies for stemming their reluctance. I have to say I sympathize completely with my colleagues in the library; I think the entire Omeka team will agree with me that putting yourself out there in open source project is no easy feat of psychology.

The Bowery Boys, hosts of the excellent NYC History podcast, give us The History of New York City in Video Games, a thoroughgoing look of how New York has been pictured by game designers from the Brooklyn of the original Super Mario Brothers to the five boroughs of Grand Theft Auto IV’s “Liberty City.”

John Slater, Creative Director of Mozilla, rightly notes that, however unlikely, t-shirts are important to the success of open source software. In his T-Shirt History of Mozilla, Slater shows us 50 designs dating back to late 1990s.


Because it’s neither unintentional nor unconventional nor amateur, this may not belong here on Found History. But the new movie 300 is definitely historical, and it has managed to capture the fancy of widespread segments of the public, including movie critics, gamers, and many of my History 100 students. Very loosely based on Herodotus, 300 tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae and the three hundred Spartans who stood against the invading Persian armies of Xerxes. Its combination of ancient history, video game visuals, and ultra violence appears to be extremely appealing: in slightly different proportions, HBO’s popular series Rome shares the same three traits.

It seems to me that digital historians are well poised to capitalize on these new trends. Well, maybe not the violence, but we should be able to figure out something to do with the ancient history and gamer graphics.

Have a look for yourself

Late Update (3/20/07): Neal Stephenson, author of Snowcrash and the incomparable Baroque Cycle, has a great op-ed about 300 and the politics of sci-fi and historical fiction in this Sunday’s New York Times. Thanks to Roy for the tip.

Virtual Apple

For those of us who grew up with an Apple II computer in the home, Virtual Apple provides a timesucking trip down memory lane. Dedicated to “preserving a generation of Apple 2 disks,” Virtual Apple emulates old Apple 2 games in your web browser. Ironically, because they’re powered by Active X, the games only work in Internet Explorer for Windows, though the site operators promise Firefox compatible (i.e. Mac) versions soon. For now just boot up in Parallels, and see how rusty your Lode Runner skills have grown.

More History of Gaming

Friday it was t-shirts. Today it’s playing cards:

Quartet Over the past 30 years, video games have become an integral part of our culture, and the video game industry has become a multi-billion dollar business. Follow the journey of video games from the first console to the present gear.

So says Cybereye, the Austrian firm that wants to help you on this journey with a set of “Quartet”—German for “Go Fish”—cards imprinted with pictures, dates, and tech specs of classic gaming consoles.

Silly Geeky

Another quick one for the weekend: Game Set Watch—an “alt.video game weblog”—gives us the Top 10 Silliest Computer Mag Covers in History. Note that this isn’t a casual effort. It is the product of a long term commitment to collecting and cultural history. “Game Mag Weaseling” columnist Kevin Gifford combed though his personal collection of more than 2500 computer magazines to arrive at the ten kitchiest covers from the “classic era” of home computing, the 1970s and 80s. “Who’s silliest” may not be the kind of question scholars would ask of this corpus or this period, but Gifford’s careful consideration of the past and his meticulous attention to the sources certainly qualify his efforts as history.

"Geek List"—History Board Games

BoardGameGeek.com users debate the question, “What are the best games that teach History?” Visit their self-styled Geek List for an expanding, annotated inventory of commercial history-themed board games. Highlights include the expected—Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage; 1776: The Game of the American Revolutionary War; The Napoleonic Wars; and Battle Cry: The Exciting Civil War Battle Field Game—and the unlikely—Maharaja; Thirty Years War: Europe in Agony, 1618-1648; and Pax Britannica.

Late Update (7/6/07): It looks like the link I posted earlier has died. Fortunately, boardgamegeek.com is full of other history-themed geek lists, for example Games to teach WWII history and Games in the History Classroom.

Profiles in Courage

In Mario Through the Years, GameDaily offers readers a several-thousand-word biography of Mario, twenty-six year veteran of Nintendo gaming, star of more than 100 games, and stalwart defender of Pauline’s virtue against Donkey Kong’s relentless advances.