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 itch.io 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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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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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

Helen Jewett, or Notes on Procrasto-Reading

When I have WAY too much to do, I tend to do one of three things: 1) clean the apartment, 2) play Minecraft (more on that in another post), 3) rummage about in the 1830s.  Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of the latter.  I have an enduring fascination with the Bowery Theatre, having written about it previously.  One of the city’s longest-living theatres, it opened in the 1820s and lasted for about a century.  In its heyday of the 1830s, the theatre, located just below Canal St. on the Bowery, was a focal point of New York culture.  Historians like to talk about the theatre (nicknamed “the Slaughterhouse” due probably to its high degree of “Blood and Thunder” melodrama) as a place dominated by local roughs with coarse tastes.    And while some elite contemporaries agreed, it was still a fabulously decorated, fine-looking establishment.

Which brings me to my current research on brothel life in the 1830s and the famous murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute at a nearby brothel who was known to be an avid reader, theatregoer, and patron of the Bowery.  Her case is well-written about in Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett.  At the time, Jewett’s murder on April 10th 1836 was front-page news, and many of her letters to a young lover were printed in the days after her trial, more for their emotional outpouring than lurid details as one might expect from a woman of her status in society.  According to the New York Herald, 20 April 1836, actors at the Bowery recited her letters to each other during rehearsal as if it were grand drama.  Which begs the question: what show were the Bowery actors rehearsing at that time?

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What are Women Doing on Dime Novel Covers?

Nineteenth-Century readers poured over Dime Novels, Penny Dreadfuls, and other cheap magazines.  With most great novels of the period appearing serially in illustrated publications, vast amounts of people were used to reading with pictures.  And there’s nothing more appealing to vast amounts of people than cheap fiction!  Who can look at something like this cover from a January issue of Frank Leslie’s Boy’s and Girl’s Weekly and NOT feel a tinge of excitement (ok, don’t answer that — but I love it!).  (image, btw from the excellent Stanford Dime Novels Collection–browse and you shall be rewarded).  It’s a completely unsupported hunch, but I wonder if this doesn’t also have a lot to say about melodramatic acting in the period.  I am particularly drawn to the wide open eyes, the looks of horror, exaggerated body language, and, of course, deadly snake, part constrictor/part viper).

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When I was rushing to find this image to print for a class, I came across the website’s page to browse their extensive collection by type of image.  It was quick work to find “Animals-Snake” (of which there were 33) to find what I was looking for, which made me wonder what other kinds of patterns were afoot among their extensive collection, which includes more than 8,000 images.

In learning how to visualize data, I’ve started crunching the numbers of their image categories to look for what trends we can find in popular fiction of the time, based on the site’s extensive efforts at categorization.
Out of a total of 2,365 images, here is a quick graph showing what actions women are doing in the collection’s dime novel covers (Click to enlarge):

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The obvious numbers jump out first: women are depicted most often (in descending order) as: observing, frightened, being rescued by men, and socializing with men.  If there’s any doubt that by and large this selection of publications is gender normative, it’s obvious that women tend to either be represented  in situations that require male protection.  However, the smaller categories are fascinating on further analysis.  Women are often bearing weapons, attacking men, directing others, menacing others, etc.  Perhaps while they are passive at the margins, there is evidence to suggest that readers had a definite appetite for depictions of women in a variety of active (and deadly) actions?

 

Also of interest to me is the difference in how women and how girls are depicted in the data.  Here, girls follow similar overall patterns in that they observe and are frightened, but they also seem to quite frequently be depicted abducting children!

 

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