Towards Games as Scholarship

There was a point in my graduate school career when I stopped playing games entirely. "If I start Civilization, I'll never stop," I told myself, and so got in the habit of avoiding games in order to keep up with the all-encompassing workload. The only time I picked up games were when I was learning to code. I started dabbling in Python, and, to put tutorials to the test, I began making RPGs for my daughter. At that point, it was "You are a cat. Do you attack the mean dog with your (1) Claws, or (2) Sword?"-type stuff, but completely engrossing to make. It took me back to the days of writing choice-based games in BASIC during computer class on the Apple IIe. Lately--largely after playing Meg Jayanth's 80 Days far too much this summer--I've begun thinking about games in academia. In particular: how can games BE scholarship?  I made a Twine game about a time-traveling cat for my daughter (draft here), a short satirical take on satyr plays, and some Twine works for classes. But fun as they are, these didn't really DO very much. I've seen some fantastic Interactive Non-Fiction out there, and I've been reading and researching games-as-scholarship. The best I've seen is Play the Past. Games have an untapped potential to communicate vital information and experience to students AND fellow academics. I'm currently writing a text-based game for the M'Devial Game Jam that I hope begins to address this potential.  In the game,working title "An Anchoress' Tale," you are a twelfth century woman taking a vow to become an Anchoress, a type of religious practice where women sealed themselves in tiny rooms to live the rest of their lives in prayer, poverty, and isolation.  You will have to navigate the difficult systems of lay devotion, church hierarchy, and medieval society. While it won't advance a deeply significant argument (there has been plenty of good scholarship on Anchoresses), it should clearly communicate a few key points:
  • That medieval devotional practices were more complex than is generally represented. This is a point I always make as a scholar: history is always more nuanced than our narratives give credit for. Most of the events of the game come from historical examples, so it should illustrate the wide range of experiences an anchoress could have.
  • To break down the binary between religion and society, or isolation and community. Even though the rhetoric of Anchorites was about divorcing oneself  from society in one of the most extreme ways possible, these women were often deeply integrated into their local communities.
  • To show how HARD this life was! Anchoresses were not subject to any local authorities. You will have to judge what you think is sin and how to achieve penance while maintaining a balance between the key statistics of piety and health, humility and reputation.
  • To acknowledge that medieval Christianity offered a much richer and robust variety of religious experience than we tend to associate with the period.
Playing this should be a kind of embodied scholarship that could communicate context and aspects of historiography to students and non-specialists in the field.  And it'll include footnotes (which will be toggle-able), so there's that. After that, I'll be thrilled to get back to a project that's been on my mind for a while, a Twine critical edition and game of George Foster's 185o guide New-York by Gas Light because who doesn't want to play through the nightlife of 1840s New York?  
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D3plus and Theatre History

After reading Anastasia Salter's ProfHacker post on D3plus visualizations, I was intrigued by D3's ability to create creative, interactive visualizations.  I've been thinking about exploring other paths to visualizing my genre data beyond network graphs, and this seemed like an intuitive, clear approach.  After adopting the example she recommended, I created the following graph of genres at rival New York theatres in the 1839-1840 season: The Bowery Theatre and The Park Theatre (see this post for another view of the data). Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 1.59.13 PM   As in a network graph, the size of the nodes within the bubbles represents the number of productions of each genre for that theatre.  While it does not show connections between theatres, it can help give us a sense of the generic fingerprint of each theatre. The result isn't earthshattering, but a) it's more intuitive and effective than a bar chart, b) I did it in about 30 minutes, so c) it's looking like a great gateway drug to the rest of D3! For a more complete and interactive graph, see the code that I adapted from this D3plus example.
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A Network Perspective on Male/Female Co-Stars in New York City Theatre (1839)

Following my previous post, which looked at Genre Networks in five antebellum New York City theatres, I have started working on a graph of actors and actresses through August-December 1839.  Using the same theatres (The Park, the Bowery, The National, The National (at Niblo’s), and the Chatham), I built a different graph that attempts to measure what actors appeared with what actresses.  I am interested in finding out how connected prominent actresses were to the male stars of the period and vice/versa.  The idea for this project began while I was transcribing Odell and noticing that there was a high number of theatrical couples appearing together onstage.  I was curious to see if having a husband/wife team onstage was an significant draw, so I recorded how often husband/wife pairs were present in productions compared to those same actors appearing with someone else.

From the data that I have used, the answer is highly variable.  What I did find, however, suggests that a look at actor networks in the period can provide insight into the lives of performers that might be more obscure if we only looked at the data on a close basis.  This is what I love about digital humanities work: it has the potential to provide a wider perspective that one might not otherwise notice on the day-by-day scale.  However, as many people will say, “distant reading” is not an end-product, but a means to indicate directions for further work.  In making this graph, I found some great clues that I look forward to researching in detail.

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Genre Networks in Antebellum NYC Theatres

When I first saw Gephi (in a talk by Micki Kaufman on Kissinger), it completely blew my mind. Like many, I was wowed by the pretty graphs. There were shapes, colors, and who doesn’t like to see a lot of important-looking circles connected by all sorts of lines? Although I had little to no experience in Digital Humanities, I wanted to do that. Badly. And I did: I found out the first rule of gephi: it’s easy to make a pretty visualization that signifies almost nothing.

Well, there was a dissertation to finish, work to pursue, and a million distractions, so, while I concentrated on Digital Pedagogy, I never quite got back to Network Analysis for a while. Now, after a lot of reading in Network Theory, Social Network Analysis, and experimenting with software, I am beginning to use network visualization for good. This is the beginning of a research/visualization project that I’m working on currently to answer some historical questions about nineteenth-century New York theatre.

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Theatre Etiquette (1833)

I’m a big fan of nineteenth-century etiquette manuals but few of them take the time to describe an etiquette of going to the theatre, so I was overjoyed to come across The Gentleman and Lady’s Book of Politeness and Propriety of Deportment, Dedicated to the Youth of Both Sexes (translated from the 6th Paris edition) from the Two Nerdy History Girls blog post on “the fine art of walking city streets in the 19th century” from the same book.  Along with sections on the usual repertoire of c19 advice (dining, receiving visitors, conversation, carriage of the body, letter-writing, hosting, etc.), there is a rather lengthy section on home and public amusements, including parties, parlor games, concerts, and theatre.  According to the editors, the book is faithfully translated so as to remain true to French culture, part of the theatre advice seems distinctly American, with a reminder of how class was reformed in theatre audiences during the early 1830s. Continue reading