Playing in the Past

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Nongamers can explore cyberhistory through a different kind of portal: Second Life. In this virtual fantasy world, a user creates an “avatar”—an alter ego—through which to explore invented virtual realities. Among them is Virtual Harlem (secondlife.com), conceived by Bryan Carter, an associate professor of literature at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. Begun as Carter’s doctoral project, Virtual Harlem enables its visitors to walk the streets of New York during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Avatars can enter buildings, enjoy chance encounters with period characters, and participate in critical events that defined a key period of African American history.

“Unlike history games, which have some sort of objective and usually an ending,” Carter explains, Virtual Harlem is a “graphical social-networking environment,” which is open-ended and can accommodate all sorts of creative exploration. He cites a visitor to Virtual Harlem who ended up producing and posting an animated film of Billie Holiday performing the famous song “Strange Fruit” at the Cotton Club. It’s unlikely that Holiday ever performed there, of course. She certainly wasn’t a patron either, because the Cotton Club only admitted whites for much of its history. But the fact that the event is fictional and only imagined in cyberspace doesn’t detract from its value as a learning tool for his students, says Carter. “It brings up so many different conversations—about Holiday, the song, history, cultural representations, and lynching. It’s just a beautiful example of what’s possible in Virtual Harlem.”

So what’s the future for playing in the past? Although legions of military history games fill the marketplace, games that involve math, science, and technology are far more ubiquitous than those using computer-based history experiences. “History is a field that is slow to change,” observes Owens, particularly at the college level. Although a few academic historians such as Ferguson welcome game playing as a way to explore history, most others have reservations about the approach.

Owens remains optimistic. His website (playinghistory.org) tracks historical games. “In the last year,” he reports, “more than 20,000 educators have visited the site to explore the subject.”