Cool Stuff Week

 Where to Start? On Research Questions in The Digital Humanities

This article considers methods for developing research questions in the field of digital humanities, and attempts to answer the question of whether a research question should be posed first, and then a digital tool should be found that can display the answer to that question, or if a tool used in digital humanities (giphy, etc) should be decided upon, and then a research topic that can be best answered through that tool should be chosen. The author of the article, Trevor Owens, states his belief that a research question should be the first aspect of a project to be developed, as it is the reference point around which any project is based. He also states that research questions often change as a project progresses, implying that choosing a research question based on a specific tool would be ineffective since the question is likely to change along the way. He goes on to suggest that digital humanities tools can be instrumental in invalidating research questions, and are, therefore, an integral part of the research process, not the element around which a research project should be based.

How to Get a Digital Humanities Project Off the Ground

This article evaluates potential first steps in the process of beginning a digital humanities project. The author, Paige Morgan, like Trevor Owens, states that research questions are subject to change, so graduate students doing these projects should avoid trying to connect them to their dissertations. The author also suggests identifying any potential issues early on in order to avoid them stopping a project in its tracks after substantial time has been put into research, as well as to do the proper research to insure that there are no similar projects. If there are, that does not necessarily the end of a project, as they can take different approaches and end up with varying results. On that note, Morgan also suggests to individually take varying approaches, including experimenting with different platforms. The one point on which Morgan seems conflicted is whether to make a digital humanities project that is in process public in order to gain feedback due to the risk of plagiarism.

You Got the Documents. Now What?

In this article, author Jonathan Stray identifies the best methods for extracting data from documents. He states that the first step in doing this is to take paper documents and turn them into digital documents, thus making them easier to share and analyze. It is also emphasized that  they must be converted into text documents, as pdf’s and images are not good for much more than reading on a screen. Thus, it is important to remember that digital tools used for analyzing data are not compatible with pdf’s. Throughout the article, Stray repeatedly highlights the stark contrast between documents and data. Additionally, the point is accentuated that, whenever possible, data analysis should be automated, and not manual. In order to make that easier, Stray recommends gaining familiarity with the many functions various tools used in analyzing and visualizing data. The tools suggested by the author are Overview and DocumentCloud, which he states should be used for publication.


Twine is a digital program that allows users to create interactive stories. As demonstrated by the samples of games (I played ‘Sewer Diamond War of 3096 Reenactment’ and ‘Happiness Simulator’) and it is basically like using an interactive flowchart with if/then questions. Twine is something that could be potentially used for displaying, though not necessarily analyzing, data.

Physical Computing

An Arduino is a type of small computer that can be programmed in order to create interactive museum exhibits while remaining unseen by visitors. Unlike larger computers used to program exhibits, which can run a few thousand dollars, Arduino starts at just $30. A major benefit of Arduino seems to be its compatibility with numerous types of exhibits, as it is cited as having been used in science exhibits relating to brain usage and the weight of human compared to dinosaurs, as well as art exhibits that can move independently or interact with visitors, blurring the lines “between art and robotics.’ In addition to creating cutting edge exhibits inexpensively, Alicia M. Gibbs’ article states the Arduino can be instrumental in improving the preservation process, as exhibits can be saved digitally.

3D Printing

“Please Feel the Museum: The Emergence of 3D Printing and Scanning” discusses the fact that the advent of 3D printing art and objects can be cost effective for museums creating exhibits, as 3D printed replicas of objects can be created that visitors can touch and otherwise interact with. However, the article expands beyond museums, stating that 3D printing can be instrumental in teaching in a hands-on manner, which can be beneficial considering the extent to which ‘interactive’ learning occurs in front of a screen. The article also implies that 3D printing can protect museum objects, as visitors will often photograph them in order to examine them more closely later on. However, with 3D replicas of museum collections, visitors can examine objects as closely as possible while still in the museum. 3D printing can also teach professionals to look more closely at objects and artwork, as creating a 3D replica is achieved through photogrammetry, which involve photographing the objects from every possible angle. Mistakes and missed angles in a final product can spur further analysis of the objects. Additionally, the ability to make replicas of museum collections through 3D printing can allow the same object to be displayed to the public at different museums simultaneously.
In “Harvard’s 3D-Printing Archaeologists Fix Ancient Artifacts,” author Joseph Flaherty discusses the practice of photomodelling, through which sculpture fragments can be photographed and recreated through 3D printing. This technology can not only essentially revive art and objects from the dead, but can also potentially be used in fields such as forensics. The Smithsonian’s online 3D art exhibit allows for close examination of museum objects from the comfort of any computer. The 3D models available on the website show the color, texture, and imperfections of objects, and can be turned, adjusted, and scrutinized at any angle. This could be a major step for research, as grant money could potentially be saved through students being able to review items in the collections of far away museums and institutions from home.


1.) How effective would a 3D exhibit in a museum really be? Would people be less likely to want to visit if 3D replicas of objects are being displayed rather than the originals?

2.) Would having 3D interactive exhibits available online (such as the Smithsonian) reduce actual visitation to museums?

3.) How could 3D printing and Arduinos help historic house museums and other historic sites?

4.) Can interactive exhibits or Arduinos survive in the long run? After their novelty has worn off, will they still be as interesting or valuable as art and other objects from the past?

Class 3/29, The Place of Video Games in Digital History

Privileging Form Over Content by Adam Chapman got a little repetitive, I think (not in a bad way, he just reiterated his main points over and over again), so I’ll try not to just go paragraph by paragraph to avoid over-repeating myself and him.

Chapman begins his article by saying that he hopes most historians are at least at the point where they can accept certain historical fiction games (He name-drops “Civilization” and “Assassin’s Creed” as examples) as being at least historical in some way. Chapman believes that video games should not be analyzed strictly by how historically accurate or inaccurate their content or narrative are, but how video games as a medium, or tool, can be used to teach. It is important, he says, that people try not to separate the “story” from the “game,” because the nature of video games make it impossible to understand each section independently from the other. Just focusing on content ignores the part the player has in the video game process, which is seeing historical problems/situations, analyzing those situations, and then choosing an action in-game based on that personal analysis. Because of this, how the game presents the narrative and allows players to interact with the narrative must also be studied.

Chapman uses past treatment of historical films as an example of the importance of joint narrative-form study. He states that when people criticized the content of historical film, they more often than not criticized it against historical documents rather than by its own standard. He argues that this is wholly problematic because it reinforces the idea that the only correct kind of history is the history written down in books, rather than the idea that books are simply one way to display history. In what I thought was a useful explanation, Chapman points out that the difference between a history book vs a history video game is “history as it can be written” vs “history as it can be played.”

I should mention that although Chapman implies that comparing historical tools is useless and limits opportunities for “collaboration,” his next sections seem much more biased in the pro-video game field than pro-teaching-medium-equality. He goes into how the “feeling” of history can often be more educationally informative than specific historical details, and having players play through historical situations helps comprehension more than simply telling people how things were. History taught through video games can also be taught without the requirement for players to already have an understanding of historical concepts, like many books and, specifically, college courses might. Chapman then goes into a little detail of how developers combine historical detail and algorithm to present a historical experience for players. He ends by saying that many of the people reading the article no doubt already agree with him, and that there should be a call to action for creating a better way to analyze games by form and not just by content.

Being Historical by Gilles Roy

Roy asks the question of where the popular historical video game theme of “creating history” fits into the common definition of “history.” More specifically, Roy wonders what happens when players take a subject like history, commonly thought of as being a record of set past events, and juxtapose themselves, or fictional representations of themselves, into it. Like Chapman, Roy name-drops Assassin’s Creed and Civilization as examples, where players get at least theoretical direct control over how the game’s world is shaped (as a side note: I say “theoretical” just because of how the game mechanics between the two titles differ, the sentiment is the same). Roy also name-drops real-life reenactment and LARP group Society for Creative Anachronism (fun fact, I have attended one of their weekend events!) as an example of the far reach and variety of historical gaming. Roy asserts that historical games allow players to “be historical” rather than just “learn history.”

Roy goes into brief detail of the history of the presentation of history. This transformation went from a want to describe the best feats by Greeks and not-Greeks, to trying to document the causes behind specific national conflicts, to more patriotic fantastical, ideal origin stories by the Romans. Roy states that this is around the time that the split between history as truth and history as political narrative popped up. “Popular history,” which Roy says games seem rely on because it focuses more on entertainment and narrative than education, falls somewhere between this split. Like Chapman, Roy also notes the importance of studying games as a medium, though while I used the words “medium” and “form” interchangeably in the summation of Chapman’s article Roy uses them definitively by saying that games are a medium and the way they communicate this “popular history” is the form they take. The specific “form” Roy then focuses on is the strategy game, which as noted comes in many different forms and has been around long before video games were invented. Roy compares two different genres of modern strategy games, the historical strategy and the space conquest, by saying that the genres share the theme of “continuity of the historical process.”

Roy then goes into an explanation of strategy game mechanics and themes, with helpful visual aids. I personally appreciate this part because although I’m familiar with different types of “progression trees” in game mechanics, they usually focused on what new powers my character would get rather than what new technology my settlement invented. Roy asserts that the game mechanics represented in the strategy games (“explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate”) are themes that have driven human progression throughout history, albeit very simplified versions of them. Therefore, these types of strategy games, which allow the player an integral part of shaping history, aren’t really rewriting our understanding of history so much as allowing players into the “historical process.”

History as it can be played by Jamie Taylor aka PastPlayer

The third of the traditional articles begins by reinforcing the idea that video games, despite (past, I think) popular belief, can be useful for other things besides quick entertainment. As Taylor states right in the first paragraph, “games allow for learning by stealth.” The versatility of video games is allowing more “serious” topics to be presented in what many used to think was an non-serious medium, which means more in-depth, less childish narratives can be produced. This also means daunting or too serious topics (like history) can be presented in more accessible ways. Taylor then actually quotes Chapman’s article from above to demonstrate how historical legitimacy of games like, again, Civilization and Assassin’s Creed.

While Chapman and Roy seem focused on making the argument that the mechanics and form of a game have to be focused on when analyzed, Taylor seems to be focused on actually analyzing (at least to some degree). Chapman and Roy brought up the argument that playing through a game helps a player gain an understanding of the historical process, but Taylor brings forward arguments that the amount of interactivity and choice a player runs the risk of making the historical back drop of the game just be a historical back drop. The reality of game development means that there will always be parameters in the game that the players cannot escape, limiting the amount of actual decision making or genuine learning about the historical process they receive. On the other hand, sometimes the parameters are so broad that players can choose to do something totally unrealistic or unhistorical, therefore entirely breaking the historical process. This is all assuming, Taylor points out as well, that the game even puts effort into historical accuracy or process.

Taylor quickly counters his own arguments, quoting Chapman once again by saying that one shouldn’t judge the historical validity of video games based on the standards of traditional history. Are video games less “history” just because a player can choose to mod the game so that they have a Steampunk empire with airships instead of reenacting the American Civil War? Taylor points out that if video games share a portion of historical narrative tropes that traditional history does, it should be considered “history.” From here, Taylor goes into the different types of historical narratives potentially available to consumers that reinforces both Chapman and Roy’s call for collaborative narrative efforts. Taylor ends by pointing out that regardless of anyone’s opinion on video games as history, video games definitely provide a way to “engage” with the past. The sheer popularity and spread of different types of digital games has literally changed the way people learn, and that in some ways games might be a more effective method of teaching history because of it.

Surviving History by Rachel N. Ponce

This seems to be a “choose your own adventure game,” so I will play through it and then comment.

(I lasted a little over two months)

It is a “choose your own,” very reminiscent of the physical books I used to read when I was younger. As opposed to more popular choice-based games such as RPGs like the Mass Effect or Dishonored series, this is able to pack a lot of historical information, such as specific dates, city and street names, people, and real-world events into each page. The trade-off of supplying so much information, besides the limited choices the player is given at the end of each page, is that the pages become dense and run the risk of losing player interest or patience. The graphics in the game were also broken on my browser, which is not typically a thing that needs to be constantly worried about in a self-contained, published game. With that being said, there were a few times I think I could feel at least a fraction of the helplessness the character did in treating others. I had no idea what proper medication in the 1700s was, or how to treat anything, or what the “right” choice was, so every time I made a decision whether or not to help another character I had a little bit of an internal battle.

While I don’t feel particularly educated by this game, I think that it would be hard to argue against the fact that this game has a realistic historical narrative that gives at least a little insight on how doctors were viewed in the 1700s, or lived their lives.

Why Mechanics Must Be Both Good and Accurate by Extra Credits

This video focuses on two questions: How accurate should historical games be, and can they be used as educational tools?

These questions were definitely touched upon in the three articles we read to some degree, but I think this video states the answer in a way more easily understood. Chapman, Roy, and Taylor all agree that video game narratives can’t be studied in a metaphorical vacuum, and that the mechanics of video games and how players interact with games have to be addressed to be able to completely analyze, I guess, the historical validity of the game. They assert that player interactivity allows for better understanding of the historical process. This video would agree to that statement, but rather than calling it an understanding of the “historical process,” it says that players are able to learn from themes of the past. Players learn that their decisions matter in how the “future” is shaped in within the game, and allows players a chance to learn from their mistakes, which is something the narrator believes is important about the study of history in general.

The narrator also points out a problem that Taylor mentioned in game development, which is that the “historical” part of the game often ends up being reduced to some arbitrary backdrop. While Taylor states that this sometimes come from giving the player too much freedom to do what they want in general (creating a kingdom in Civilization that literally only focuses on mining and nothing else, for example), the narrator of this video suggests that this problem comes from making all the tiny details of the background very historically accurate, then giving the player very historically inaccurate options to take (allowing players control over the development of every single character in a strategy game, even if those character options are realistic). This creates an inauthentic feeling, according to the narrator, because it stops the player from being forced to manage their people based on more realistic unpredictable risks and starts allowing players to just make all of their characters exactly the way that will most quickly advance them through the game. The narrator ends by asking for a call of historical games in other genres besides strategy and RPG-shooters.


1.1) Sure, games can certainly be historical and can give insight into historical themes (I know just from readings in past classes that some high school teachers are using Sid Meier’s civilization to try to explain the spread of Rome), but is it realistic to think that “traditional” history classes could be taught through video games? In other words, do you think it will be possible to teach a class on a subject as tricky and complicated as WWII, or the Cold War, or the American Civil War, etc, using games as the teaching tool as often as we use books?

1.2) Would it be more realistic to think that video games as a medium are better at broader concepts rather than more nuanced detail like dates and specific names and places? “Surviving History” was a fun little game, and I remember how I thought it was funny that marrying a doctor is considered by many to be a good thing in modern USA, but in the game it was something that gave the main character’s father in law pause. I remember that the game took place in Philadelphia and that yellow fever killed a lot of people very quickly. But I can’t actually remember the other doctor’s name, or the exact year the game took place, or the street names that the game took time to tell me.

2) Does the level of player freedom act as a legitimate advantage or disadvantage to the historical value of a game? Assuming one is making a game to be more educational than entertaining, would it be better to limit player freedom to give them a more “traditional” narrative and historical lesson, or broaden player freedom so that they can experience, as the authors have suggested, the “historical process?”

3) In all three articles, “Civilization” and “Assassin’s Creed” were referenced by name as examples of historical games. These games, specifically, were created for entertainment purposes. This makes the authors’ argument about analyzing their game mechanics as well as their story a little moot, considering the games weren’t created to be analyzed by academics at all. With the growing hype about the potential of using video games for teaching history, do you think that upcoming games should strive for historical accuracy? In other words: now that gaming developers are under the spotlight of academics as well as casual consumers, are they under obligation to deliver a more realistic product? Are they under obligation to create a product that can stand up to scrutiny in both narrative and mechanics?

GIS and Spatial History: Uses and Limitations

The first reading for this week, “Making a Map with QGIS” covered how to install and use QGIS. QGIS is a geographic information system that allows users to add different types of data using different types of “layers.” The article focused a lot on the frustrations that users face when trying to create a project using QGIS. The author described the program as a “general mapping tool” which does not automatically carry out functions without explicit instructions from the user. For anyone who has used QGIS “general” does not seem like the right word, as the user can easily be overwhelmed by the amount of functions on the screen. The symbols representing these functions do not seem to exist elsewhere, so the program requires lots of trial and error.
One of the reasons that first-time users often get frustrated is that QGIS does not automatically display a map. The user can choose the type of map they would like to use (like google maps) and then layer geographic and social data on top of that map. The author argues that by pulling in this information yourself and creating from scratch exactly what you are trying to display is why QGIS is such a powerful tool. This is because QGIS is not just used for geographic analysis. The user can analyze “people, commodities, ideas, political power…” and then relate that information to geographic space.
The next reading on the same site called “Linking and Styling Data with QGIS” walked the reader through how to make meaning out of data the user chooses to put into the program. “The challenge lies in finding (or creating) the data you need, as well as making different sets of data work with each other.” The author shows the user how to relate census information (population by U.S. counties) to the geographic information imported into the program in “Making a Map with QGIS.” It is the user’s responsibility to pull in all relevant information, but also to delete irrelevant information within the data (in this case, population by state). Through this process, the user not only places data in geographic space, but makes sense of it visually. Because the author of both these articles focused so much on the difficulties of using QGIS, it makes the reader hesitant to try a program like this. Having to “haul” oneself up the learning curve of QGIS sounds painful (it totally is).
“What is Spatial History?” by Richard White ( The Middle Ground Richard White) covers the way that historians have used and resisted digital history to study spatial history. White does not see spatial history as a major “turn” in the way that history is practiced, he just sees it as a new way to do history. While he may not see it as a turn, the early examples of data visualization of space seem to come from the same time that environmental history as we know it today became popular. William Cronon (White’s first example) is considered one of the pioneers of environmental history and White himself has frequently fallen into this category throughout his career. While not all of White’s examples in the article can be tied to environmental history, these two methods seem to be coming out of the same historical moment.

White argues that spatial history differs from traditional history in a few important ways. Spatial history is more collaborative. It often requires collaboration between historians, students, GIS specialists, and computer scientists. There is also a focus on visualization rather than text and it relies much more heavily on digital history. He says the most important difference is the “focus conceptually on space.” White then defines the ways that space can be studied, based on the work of a philosopher in “The Production of Space.” According to the philosopher, there is a difference between spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space. Spatial practice “involves the segregation of certain kinds of constructed spaces and their linkages through human movement.” Representations of space are things created by people like architects or surveyors that try to shape how people live and move. Representational space is the space that overlaps physical space but has symbolic meaning to people and shapes the way they live, like a church.

White argues that what ties all of these spatial constructions together is movement. This is why spatial studies cannot rely on maps and text alone. Text and maps are static while movement is not. Another issue that White brings up is that historians like GIS because it allows historians to make sense of historical maps using modern mapping systems and conceptions of space. While GIS can help to reveal something on the original map that was not obvious before, some historians have been resistant to this use of GIS as the construction of space has not been consisted across time or between cultures. White also points out that there is a difference between what he calls “absolute physical space” and “relational space.” This is particularly interesting for those working on the walking tours as physical space would be something measurable, like distance. Relational space could be anything from time of day the person was traveling, traffic, or mode of transportation. By creating a walking tour, we know the mode of transportation (and if it were scheduled, the time of day) and in a way are constructing space in relation to historic spaces.

White’s final point is what he considers most important. To him, visualization and spatial history is a means of doing research, not a way to display information discovered elsewhere. Creating these projects is a way to come up with new questions and see relationships that may not have been revealed using other methods. Spatial history is there to support research, not be the research itself. The final reading was a spatial history project that White worked on with some of his students. The project “Western Railroads and Eastern Capital” seemed to be a mix between a project created with GIS and a network project. It was not the easiest project to understand based just on the visualization, but the description showed that the project was intended to analyze how running a railroad in the west was tied to friends, families and investors in the east.

Discussion Questions:

Why does the author of “Making a Map in QGIS” differentiate geographic data from the social data tied to the maps (like census data from individual states)?

While the social data is not inherently geographic, how is the author understanding how the data is categorized if not by geographic (or constructed geographic, like state boundaries) space?

Do you see a strong connection between spatial history and environmental history? If spatial history is just a tool for writing traditional history, where do the other projects in the article fit?

Do you see any problems with using “modern space and mapping conventions” to georeference historical 2D maps? What potential problems or limitations could a user trying to overlay these maps run into?

Did you find the visualizations in Western Railroads and Eastern Capital” difficult to read? How helpful was the descriptive information accompanying the visualization?


Comment below introducing yourself to the course.

  • What are your interests and your career goals, and what do you hope to get out of the course?
  • What history-related skills (research, writing, analysis, historiography, etc) do you feel you do well, and what history skills would you like to improve on?
  • What digital skills (searching, using databases, learning new software, organizing files, watching cat videos, etc) do you feel you do well, and what digital skills would you like to improve on?

ETA: You do NOT need to use your real name to comment unless you choose to.  If you use your Albany email to comment, I’ll be able to recognize you and we’ll talk about usernames in class.