Sunday, October 5, 2014


This entry is more more about history than gaming itself, but the two often intersect and when they do, fireworks are not an uncommon byproduct. I've been following a number of conversations and blog posts regarding historical campaigns and related topics in history and I see a lot of anger and angst from all sides. I am not particularly interested in the specific arguments anyone is making but rather why people choose to dig their heels in and become so enraged over the subject because my experience of history as a student in college was completely the opposite of this. The flame wars and tears are not at all what I encountered and certainly not why I continue to love history as a subject. 

I should probably start by saying I am by no means an expert. I have an undergrad degree in history which doesn't entitle me to much in this sort of conversation. Never went to graduate school or entered a PhD program, though I was given the chance to teach history to English as a Second Language students as part of my own degree and that was quite rewarding (and I was working under an instructor so it wasn't like I was head of the class or anything). The history department at my school was wonderful. It had a great mix of professors from a range of viewpoints. There are different schools of thought in history and it was nice to have exposure to a variety of them. They were all passionate but there was never the anger and frustration I see so much of online. And one of the most common answers they gave to our harder questions was "I don't know, let me look into that." That last bit was quite important. 

That isn't to say there were not heated debates or arguments, but they were generally the exception and recognized as getting in the way rather than helping analysis. I remember seeing two professors clash over the meaning of an ancient Greek word in the History office. It was funny because that sort of thing rarely occurred and they both became obsessed with finding the answer. I think importantly though,when they did find the answer, the person who had been incorrect didn't change course or try to recast the argument in his favor, he acknowledged that he had been wrong. 

For me the thing about history that I love is it lets you asks all kinds of questions about the past. That is really the starting point in any history paper, asking a question and trying to find an answer. What I don't know about the past is what makes it so fascinating to me. That I might be wrong in my assumptions makes it exciting to investigate. And that willingness to acknowledge what you don't know and where you can be wrong, even if you think you know the answer, is important. Now this isn't some sort of statement about how we don't really know anything, so every idea is dandy (I found most history professors to strongly reject that kind of thinking) rather it is about letting go of your ego and the need to be the smartest person in the room. You only become smart about history when you know where your weaknesses are and what you need to learn. At least, that is how I came to view it from my experience as a student. 

I imagine some folks may be reading this and thinking I am weighing in on some debate about female warriors in history or whether HARN gets medieval life right. I am not. I have zero interest in those arguments. What interests me is the angst around them, the certainty both sides seem to bring to the debate and the way they invest so much emotion in the conclusions. If history made me that angry, I wouldn't bother with it. 

And just to be clear on that debate, I don't know the answer at all. I never had much interest in military history and was never intrigued one way or the other. I have some notions based on what I do know about history of the times and places under discussion but would honestly need to go back and do the research, get myself up do date on the latest articles on the topic. And while I love HARN and I do like the Medieval period, I was always much more interested in the Ancient Mediterranean and the Middle East. I would need to review my HARN books before wading into that particular discussion (and again that seems like time better spent learning about something that interests me). 

But I wonder why gamers in particular have such an intense relationship with history online, why so many discussions in gaming hinge on some question about history. It just seems so counter-productive to me. Like folks are using history as a bludgeoning instrument to score points. I would rather see people admit what they don't know. I am sure some of the folks are genuine experts and speak from a legitimate place of authority but a lot of them seem to be people like me, former history students who probably should be wary of adorning themselves with the 'expert' mantle. When I see a lot of these kinds of debates my first thought is 'boy do I have a lot to bone up on and re-learn'. 

This isn't to say I regard myself as unable to speak on the subject. If it is an area of history I studied a lot and understand, I will happily comment on it. I wrote a previous blog entry on Approaching History in Gaming and I tried to give a mini-lesson on historiography because that was a subject that held a lot of interest for me and I felt people would benefit from knowing more about it. But if someone pointed out where I got something wrong or pointed to an alternative viewpoint I wouldn't freak out, it wouldn't trouble me that in the years since I left college, I muddled some of the details of historiography (though I did review my copy of Iggers before writing that post just to guard against that a bit). 

I am genuinely interested in other peoples thoughts here (even if they think I am way off base) so feel free to comment. 

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