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Digital History Review

Playing in the Past

June 2024
4min read

Cyberhistory, in the form of alternate reality games (ARGs), offers a sometimes controversial but often engaging means of bringing the past alive

Three years ago a tattooed, half-naked bodybuilder crashed a Boston conference to announce . . . something having to do with the Smithsonian’s Luce Foundation Center for American Art. For those in the know, his (temporary) tattoos depicted art objects from the center’s collection, the first of many clues in a new scavenger-hunt type of game based on the center’s collection of art and artifacts.

Called Ghosts of a Chance, it explored the leading-edge world of alternate reality games (ARGs): Internet-based, mobile-phone-enabled games that blend real-world sites and situations with fictional plotlines and characters. The game’s plotline revolved around two young 19th-century curators possessed by spirits. “The narrative was steeped in history,” explains designer John Maccabee, whose San Francisco–based company CityMystery created Ghosts. “I drew from many texts, including my favorite mainstay, Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of the American People.”

Maccabee acknowledges that the ARGs’ blending of fiction with reality makes such games unreliable as sources of fact. “They do, however, use everything at hand to advance knowledge,” he said, “so they’re a great resource to introduce students and adults to history.”

Ghosts of a Chance proved successful enough to open the door to a much more ambitious ARG called Pheon (, which the center launched last fall. Like its predecessor, Pheon requires players to complete tasks, create or document objects, and post evidence online to move ahead. Part of the goal is to engage people—particularly young people—with American art, says Georgina Goodlander, who oversees the center’s game projects. Players receive clues on the Internet and through their cell phones, which steer them to the center’s collection to identify artifacts that can help them solve the puzzles. In Ghosts of a Chance, players learned the history of items in the collection, explored the social and cultural contexts in which they were created, and analyzed the material and physical conditions through which they were constructed. “It wasn’t just to teach people about particular objects, but more to show that there’s always a story—a context—behind every one,” explains Goodlander.

She believes that ARGs and other computer-based games also have the potential to make valuable contributions to museums and other scholarly research efforts. For example, Pheon asks its players to snap a picture of “a useful tree” and post it to the website with information about it. Game players may be unaware, but they are thereby contributing to a massive online effort called the Encyclopedia of Life, a multi-institutional collaboration that is creating a digital archive of every species on Earth.

The game is an example of curatorial “crowdsourcing,” an online phenomenon in which virtually anyone can become a museum contributor. Such crowdsourcing projects at several historical collections have enabled curators to gather valuable information on obscure artifacts in their collections, as well as to compile item keywords.

Crowdsourcing also serves broader curatorial purposes. The Minnesota History Center’s MN150 wiki project asks, “What person, place, thing, or event originating in Minnesota do you think has transformed our state, our country, or the world?” The 1,200 or so unedited answers are compiled on the center’s website (; the best 150 found their way into an exhibit and book.

A more familiar form of computer play involving history is the strategy game. In such games as Civilization, players compete to build virtual empires, juggling all the factors that have led to the rise and fall of great city-states and nations.

“The core value of a game like Civilization is not that you learn about different technological advances or about various world wonders. The core value is that you are entertaining a model for how the history of the world works,” says Trevor Owens, a digital archivist at the Library of Congress. He admits that Civilization oversimplifies the effect of historical forces, but he believes that it still delivers important educational value: “The game challenges players to think about the relationship between world religions, natural resources, technological advances, and conflict.”

Many history games require counterfactual thinking, entertaining the “what ifs” of history, which Owens considers a mixed blessing. “Most end up allowing players to change history,” he continued, which irritates those historians who think that history education should focus on what actually occurred, not on speculating about alternative scenarios.

Harvard University’s Niall Ferguson is one prominent historian who has no problem exploring “what ifs.” He has written about empires and has two sons, so he’s quite familiar with military history games. Several years ago he wrote a magazine article that lambasted most World War II strategy games because they “reduce the war to a crapshoot.” But Ferguson came across a game that contained a rich mix of factual content and nuanced speculative possibilities that were far closer to the actual conditions of history. He became so infatuated with it that he became an adviser to the game’s developer, Muzzy Lane Software, and played a role in creating its recently released Making History II: The War of the World (

Ferguson believes that a well-conceived history game has the power to engage an audience more deeply than other popular history genres. “The key difference is that players are learning actively instead of passively being told things by an authority figure,” he says.

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 (, 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 ( tracks historical games. “In the last year,” he reports, “more than 20,000 educators have visited the site to explore the subject.”

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