Social Games and Lessons for the Past and Future

In July of 2011, I began playing a game called Glitch.

At that point, it was in the last couple of months of private beta testing. Glitch was but one of many massively multiplayer games, but noticeably unorthodox in its approach; rather than focusing on combat or even conflict, Glitch emphasized exploration, crafting, and social interactions (in many ways, a comparable experience to the popular Animal Crossing series).

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But even the setting stood out as strange. Player characters were cartoonish humanoid creatures that existed in the shared dreams of eleven giants. The game appropriately operated on dream logic–eggs didn’t come from chickens. They came from trees, if you were polite and petted them first. Chickens, on the other hand, would give you grain when you squeezed them. As for milk, that came from butterflies, after giving them a nice massage.

But Glitch, as strange and clever as it was, never achieved a large enough audience to be sustainable. In December of 2012, a little over a year after its initial release, the game permanently shut down. The game’s creator, Stewart Butterfield, moved onto other projects–before Glitch, he had cofounded Flickr, and afterwards he would go on to create Slack. But in comparison to those huge successes, Glitch seemed to be an unfortunate dead-end. Unfortunately, the technology of the game straddled an uncomfortable line between Web 1.0 and 2.0 that severely limited it. Designed in Flash, the game was playable only in a web browser, and could not be easily extended to the rapidly expanding mobile sphere.

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I bring Glitch up this week, as our public history course considers social media sites, for two reasons. First, the game’s untimely demise corresponds with surprisingly thorough elements of preservation and memorialization. When the game went dark in 2012, it did not vanish entirely from the web. Instead, the creators chose to maintain a portion of the game’s data, including profiles of all the players at the time of closure and the game’s encyclopedia of items, skills, and achievements. Moreover, the developers released the majority of the game’s art and code into the public domain (Two different projects have since attempted to bring back a playable version of the game).

This, in a way, encourages the persistence of memory about the game, despite its relatively short lifespan. Players can look back at screenshots they had taken in-game, peruse the badges they had earned, and even reread the final posts on the website’s forums before the end. In many ways, this memorialization is a collaborative effort between the developers and the players, with the developers having the final say in terms of maintaining the content, but choosing to share authority by providing spaces for players to express their thoughts in the final days of the game.

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Second, the unconventional design of Glitch challenges us to consider alternative and experimental ways to bring history to the public. Along with the turn to mobile technology, games and recreational apps have crossed over into all levels of society. The interactivity of these experiences makes them particularly promising for not just teaching history, but making it meaningful and relatable to the user. Of course, I recognize that I’m using the example of a game that failed, but the niche audience of Glitch also found it to be particularly resonant, indicating a real investment into the experience.

Perhaps an even more history-adjacent example is A Tale in the Desert, another non-traditional massively multiplayer game set in ancient Egypt. The game emphasizes social interaction, with much of the experience revolving around gathering resources and building complicated structures that are often only possible with the help of many other users. But it’s also particularly inaccessible and arcane, and the historical setting often takes a backseat to gameplay mechanics.

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Ultimately, though, both games indicate a possibility space that’s wide-open. One problem with limiting ourselves to focusing on purely functional social networking sites, tools, and apps is that history content can serve a fairly small and self-selecting audience. Integrating it into a gameplay experience offers an way to engage broader audiences and help people to reconsider history in a new light.

But such a goal also comes with distinct challenges. How do you gamify history, when by definition the events have already occurred? Does allowing interactions that veer into the counterfactual deepen knowledge or only confuse the player? How do we capture the essential experience of a historical figure, population, or era and translate that to a modern player (particularly without marginalizing or trivializing difficult history)?

These are some questions I’ve been considering recently, but I certainly haven’t arrived at conclusive answers. It’s something I’ll have to continue to wrestle with, as I think about future projects.

In the meantime, I just wish I could still play Glitch.

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One thought on “Social Games and Lessons for the Past and Future”

  1. Have you ever heard of MissionUS (http://www.mission-us.org/)? It’s a website/online game designed as a teaching aid for middle school classrooms, that I think answers some of your questions about gamifying history. The site uses five different characters who the player has to guide through periods of US history. By using fictional characters, MissionUS avoids interactions that might veer into the counterfactual, as you put it, because where real historical characters appear, their actions can follow the historical record. I haven’t played all the games myself, but the characters and narratives, and time periods are diverse: Revolutionary Boston, slavery in 1840s Kentucky, the Northern Cheyenne in 1866, Jewish Russian immigrants in early 20th century New York, and farmers in Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma. The game is expanding as they have funding to, in order to include more diverse narratives. Admittedly, it’s designed for students and the graphics aren’t great (and I’m also not a gamer and know very little about it), but I wonder if this might be an example of one way to answer some of the questions you raised?

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