PastPlay as the Digital Humanities

9780472035953I was invited to review Kevin Kee’s new edited volume Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology for the current issue of The American Historian. The author agreement allows one to post the “manuscript” version of this kind of thing to one’s personal website, so it’s shared here to that end. As I note, I think the concept of play at the heart of the volume is of potential interest for defining a perspective on play as something that defines the ever-nebulous digital humanities. 

Play can and should be a core part of both historical research and the teaching of history. This is the central argument the historian Kevin Kee frames around the fifteen essays gathered together in Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology.

The thesis of this collection emerges by stringing together the titles of the four sections of the book. Historians should be 1) teaching and learning history, 2) playfully, 3) with technology, 4) by building. Teaching and Learning History includes four cases studies of historical educational games. Playfully focuses on how play, or what author Stephen Ramsay calls the “Hermeneutics of Screwing Around,” can function as part of the practice of research and writing. With Technology explores board games, 3D printing, and simulation computer games as instruments for teaching history and engaging in historical scholarship. Finally, By Building provides four essays that argue that making things, from historical hoaxes to digital models of Victorian homes, can be powerful tools for historical inquiry. The Playfully section of Pastplay includes three essays that argue that play itself is an instrument for learning about the past. William J. Turkel and Devon Elliot connect work with 3D printing and fabrication with the value that historians of science have found in re-creating historical experiments. Ramsay argues for the value of serendipitous “screwing around” as a response to the massive scale of source material offered by millions of digitized books. Bethany Nowviskie explores a medieval device that served as a “mechanical aid to hermeneutics and interpretive problem solving” as inspiration for how humanists might make use of digital technologies (p. 140).

Pastplay focuses more on teaching and learning than it does historical scholarship, and as a result, the book is somewhat thin on addressing how play can and should be a component of historical inquiry. From my perspective, the most valuable contribution of Pastplay isn’t really articulated in the text. The book offers a framework for defining the ever-nebulous digital humanities. Many of the contributors are leading thinkers in the digital humanities, and their ideas about the playful use of technology to experiment, dabble, and explore the past offer insight into digital humanities epistemology. Often simply described as the application of computing technologies to humanistic inquiry, the playful hermeneutics described here, and the implication that there is no substantive difference between student learners and historians as perpetual learners, allow us to pin down what is different and significant about how these digital humanists approach the understanding of the past.

Pastplay is a book about teaching history, but the most intriguing parts of it deal primarily with historiography and method. In this respect, I might have liked to see two separate books: one focused on the educational possibilities of play and the other on how playful approaches to building models and exploring texts can provide value to the practices of historical research. While I’m still not entirely sure where this book belongs on my bookshelf, or what kind of course for which it is best suited, I am glad to know it is in my collection.

2 thoughts on “PastPlay as the Digital Humanities

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