A Few More Site Ideas For Playing History: This Time From Mega Man

One more round of site theme ideas. I think I might really like this round. Do folks like these more or less then the last batch? I did not fill in all the content for these, just a few boxes and headings to give a sense of the concept. Each of them would take a bit more work. These are generated out of cut up shots from mega man, so I would be mushing and chewing on those original images a bit, but I thought I would share these.

Darwin, History, and Visualizations

Two weeks ago our Creating History in New Media class had a great chance to chat with historian David Staley about his book Computers Visualization and History and Scott McCloud‘s book Understanding Comics. New media provides some exciting places to take conversations about visualizations in history, but one of my other take-a-ways from the conversation was that there are a lot of places to talk about historical visualizations in old media.

I know that I said it’s not about pictures, but for those of you interested in pictures there are some neat projects that you can look to. To (quite literally) illustrate the point, here are a few examples of some of some dead tree picture based visualizations.

Children’s Picture Books

Below is a shot from Peter Sis’ The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin. Each page of the book places the primary content of the story in the center circle and frames. The picture below isn’t the best example but it does a good job demonstrating the way the side stories leaf into the center image to express different parts of a related story. Over the last thirty years or so critics and artists have developed several different works that explore how picture books work. Folks interested visually communicating history might do well to borrow from their work.

Science Comics

The Sandwalk Adventures

As I mentioned, alongside Computers Visualization and History our class also read Understanding Comics. It is worth mentioning that comics themselves are becoming a compelling medium for visually communicating history. In my own area of interest, the History of Science, Jim Ottaviani and Jay Hosler have developed some fantastic examples of what you can do with comics. Below is a page from a great book about Darwin’s ear ticks by Hosler. 

Photos of Legos With Currency

Ok it doesn’t really fit, but it’s awesome-ness outweighed its misfit-ness, so here it is.

So, why have I pulled together these images? To demonstrate that there are already communities of comic and picture book artists interested in presenting historical information to young and old alike, many of who are doing a bang up job. There is enough material out there to just focus in on a single figure like darwin and see different examples from these fields. If historians want to think more about developing picture based visualizations they would do well to try folding in insights form these different communities.

Science Grows On Trees: The History of Science and Technology Acording to Video Games

I think historians and sociologists of science might be surprised to learn that video game designers spend a considerable amount of time and energy building playable models of the history of science and technology. In game design circles these systems are commonly referred to as “Technology Trees“. Below is an example of one of these trees from Civilization ll.

The tree provides a guide to the relationships between individual intellectual discoveries. Each box represents a single potential discovery, the other items inside that box are the benefits that technology provides.  The blue and red lines chart out lines for perquisite advances. For example, to discover writing a player needs to first discover an Alphabet. Once the player discovers writing they can start training diplomat units and building libraries in their cities. If they have also already developed a code of laws they can start to research literacy, which would allow them to build the great library world wonder.

Tech trees are a part of a variety of games. For example see Bob Bates book Game Design.

Bob Bates, Game Design, 2004, p.50

In game design tech trees provide a powerful way to create a wide range of player strategies. Scholars might find the sort of technological progressivism at the heart of this mechanic a bit discomforting, but that aside, its an interesting way to play with the history of science and technology. In many cases the trees are quite sophisticated. We can think about them in three parts; the input the system requires for advancement, how the different kinds of knowledge relate to each other, what those different pieces of knowledge contribute to game play. I will pick these apart for the earlier example from Civilization ll.

In Civilization players invest a portion of their Tax income into science and luxuries while holding onto the rest for spending on infrastructure or to weather future financial hard times. Players can also assign representative amounts of citizens in their cities to work as scientists. Both their scientists, and the funding allocated to science generate research points. The player then decides which advancement to study. Each turn the player racks up research points that are then contributed toward the advancement they’re exploring. When the player gets enough points they acquire the advancement and the benefits (new units, new buildings, new forms of government, and world wonders) it provides.

The system in Civilization is quite sophisticated, and there are other similarly sophisticated systems in different games. I think they are worth thinking about more for a few reasons. First, the chart I used in this post did not come from a game company. Civilization has a vibrant user community, one of whom created this document. Scholars working on the public understanding of science frequently bemoan how little the public understands about how science and science policy works. These games are compelling enough to get players working on mapping and thinking about this kind of knowledge. There is a chance for game designers, historians and sociologists could think about these sort of models together, I think each might get something out of it. Scholars could provide interesting ideas for modeling the history of science and technology, and designers might be able to provide gamers demands for more athuentic experiences in their games.

Visualization and History: Hint, It's Not About Pictures

If your into history and computers, and looking for a mildly trippy read, break open a bottle of wine and spend three of four hours reading through David Staley’s Computers Visualization and History. Staley’s central, somewhat provocative, contention is that there is nothing natural or automatic about historians choice to communicate through writing. Like some scientists, historians could assemble evidence and communicate through visualizations. I think he is largely right about the value visualizations offer to historians, but I don’t think the most useful visualizations are going to be pictures or 3D models. In my opinion, the most promising places for visualization is visualizing texts.

[openbook booknumber=”0765610949″]

In the introduction Staley argues that “the impact of the computer has been as a graphics tool more than as a processor of words.” I think the real issue here is not about processing words or creating graphics. As far as I’m concerned the fundamental power of new media, computers first and foremost, is the manipulative leverage provided by databases. I don’t claim to take credit for this notion, at the moment I am thinking primarily of Lev Manovich’s book The Language of New Media.

If you have a chance to read both Manovich and Staley against each other I think you’ll see some interesting parallels in what they are excited about. Where Staley sees the liberating power of visualization,  Manovich sees the liberating potential of the database. Both graphic representation and databases offers a chance to escape the linearity of texts.

You don’t need to go much further than Wordle to see how powerful basic visualizations of texts can be. If your looking for something a bit more juicy and substantive take a look at Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees. Once you’ve seen Moretti graph the rise and fall of literary genres, and map out locations in stories to demonstrate megatrends in the history of British Literature, I am sure that you’ll be convinced of the largely untapped potential for these sorts of visualizations of texts. If you want to experiemnt yourself try doing some searches through Mark Davies Time Magizine Courpus and make some visualizations of them with Swivel.

Information technology allows us to manipulate linear texts, to search them, to parse them, to count frequency and relationships between words. In short, to take the linearity out of the text and stretch and visualize it for any number of reasons. At least at this point, that search and indexical stuff is something that really only works on texts.  I think Staly is right about visualization, but the funny part is that the most exciting vistas that historical visualization are probably going to be texts.