Taking Video Games Seriously

Saturday, April 17, 2021, 1:30 PM - 2:00 PM

Type: Roundtable Discussion

Tags: Digital History; Media and Communications; Teaching and Pedagogy


This roundtable aims to encourage Americanists to engage with U.S. history-themed video games. Gaming is the biggest media industry in the United States, generating nearly $45 billion in revenue annually—even more than Hollywood. Yet U.S.-history themed video games have not drawn the same level of critical analysis from Americanists as cinema. This roundtable calls for Americanists to take video games seriously. The conversation will grapple with issues such as critical analysis of historical video games, the history of video games as a medium, teaching with video games, and questions of representation and authenticity in historical video games, among others.

Session Participants

Chair: Robert D. Whitaker, Collin College
Robert Whitaker is a Visiting Assistant Professor and Research Fellow with The Waggonner Center at Louisiana Tech University. His research and teaching focuses on the histories of empire, globalization, information, and international crime and policing. Robert’s work has been supported by grants from the Mellon Foundation, the Council for European Studies, Phi Alpha Theta History Honors Society, and the Louisiana Board of Regents. His current project, “Policing Globalization,” studies the relationship between the British Empire and international police organizations, such as Interpol. In addition to this research, Robert is a founding member of the academic society Britain and the World, which developed the journal Britain and the World and the Britain and the World book series with Palgrave Macmillan. He is also the creator and presenter of History Respawned, a YouTube and podcast series that considers historical content in video games. The show promotes interest in history among gamers and encourages historians to consider games as a pedagogical tool.

Panelist: Jonathan S. Jones, George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, Pennsylvania State University
Jonathan S. Jones is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Binghamton University, and, beginning in August 2020, an assistant professor in the Department of History at the Virginia Military Institute. He is a historian of the 19th century United States, specializing in the Civil War era, gender, and the history of medicine. Jones is currently preparing a book manuscript on opiate addiction in the Civil War’s aftermath—America’s original opioid crisis—derived from his dissertation. He has published widely on this topic, with work forthcoming in academic venues such as the Journal of the Civil War Era (June 2020 issue) and several edited volumes. Jones has presented on the history of opioid addiction at numerous scholarly conferences, nationally-prominent museums, and local historical societies. He has also written about the history of opioid addiction for popular audiences in The Conversation, Nursing Clio, the Houston Chronicle, and Undark Magazine, among others. Jones’s research has been supported by more than a dozen fellowships and grants at institutions including The Huntington Library, Yale University, Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Jones will defend his dissertation—entitled “‘A Mind Prostrate’: Opiate Addiction in the Civil War’s Aftermath”— in May 2020. He is a first-generation student hailing from the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area, where he taught high school history prior to graduate school. He obtained his M.A. in 2013 from Texas Christian University, and his B.A. in 2011 from Dallas Baptist University. Jones is an avid gamer and has written about the portrayal of the Civil War and Jim Crow in the blockbuster game Red Dead Redemption 2 for Slate.

Panelist: Jeffrey C. Lawler, California State University, Long Beach
Jeff Lawler is Co-Director of The Center for the History of Video Games and Critical Play at California State University, Long Beach. The Center is a playable archive that serves students and scholars as a place for research and connecting individuals from a variety of backgrounds and scholarly interests.

He has taught and explored a variety of pedagogical approaches over his 20 years of teaching at CSULB, where he works as a Full-Time Lecturer. His teaching integrates games as a form of historical pedagogy in a variety of classrooms and skill levels, offering his students an opportunity to explore narrative creation in a non-traditional, yet methodologically appropriate way. The creation.. of History 306 (Playing the Past) explores in more detail the history and representation of history within video games. Jeff also teaches a course at the Digital Humanities Scholarly Institute at the University of Victoria titled “Engaging Play/Playing to Engage: Teaching and Learning through Creating Games in the College Humanities Classroom.” This class explores how to incorporate games at the University level and how to create a curriculum that can engage games discourse and game creation.

Jeff’s current research includes “Gaming the Past: Video Games and Historical Literacy in the College Classroom” Chapter in Return to the Interactive Past: The Interplay of Video Games and Histories. Sidestone Press, which will be published in February 2020. He is also in talks and working on a book proposal with Broadview Press to create a course book to be used in University classrooms. This book will … how students can use games to explore various historical ideas such as agency, teleology, and representation. Additionally, he is working on a paper and presenting his ideas at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association on how video games use objects and buildings to create distance and familiarity with the past titled “Historical Environment as Aged Icon in Video Games.” Other work explores masculinity within Western themed video games and even more recently, he has left Dutch and his gang to ride freely and document the overwrought tension between the sublime and deadly in RDR2.

Panelist: Anne Ladyem McDivitt, The University of Alabama
Anne Ladyem McDivitt is the Digital Humanities Librarian for the University of Alabama Libraries. She assists faculty and graduate students in creating digital projects at the University, as well as facilitating digital pedagogy in the form of tools and workshops. Her personal research is on the history of the video game industry in the 1970s and 1980s, with a particular interest in gender. She received her PhD in History with a minor in Digital History from George Mason University and her MA in Public History from the University of Central Florida. In her free time, she plays video games and co-hosts a podcast about video games, anime, and manga. You can follow her on Twitter @anneladyem or on her blog at anneladyem.com

Panelist: Sean Smith, California State University, Long Beach
Sean Smith is a twenty-two year fulltime lecturer of US history and Co-Director of the CSULB Center for the History of Video Games and Critical Play at California State University, Long Beach who’s current research explores video games, digital history, and digital pedagogy. The Center is entering its third full year of development and acts as a collaborative, interdisciplinary space where researchers, students and a community of gamers at CSULB engage in the critical study and teaching of video games and their impact in and on culture. Games occupy an essential place in the contemporary media ecology and our students’ lives, and they are necessary objects of critical and historical analysis. The Center also fosters games pedagogy and games research amongst our history students and in our honors program. Through the center, he hopes to develop productive interactions between disciplines, students, scholars, gamers, and the general public.

Along with his work developing the center, the past 5 or 6 years he has seen him integrate game development and analysis into his U.S. history survey courses and develop and teaching History 306 Playing the Past: Video Games and public memory a class that explores the interpretations and historical representations present in both Independent and AAA video games. He is currently developing another course that explores the history of the video game industry and computing and gaming technologies. This summer he is teaching a class, about games use in humanities classrooms to other university scholars at the Digital Summer Institute and the University of Victoria

Along with his teaching work, he has just completed a co-authored chapter for an edited volume, “Gaming the Past: Video Games and Historical Literacy in the College Classroom for The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage, and Video Games to be published in Summer 2020. He has written and presented several articles about the history of the home console video games and the rise of toxic masculinity in gaming culture including "John Romero is Going to Make You His B*tch!:" 90s PC Gaming, Masculinity and the Rise of the Rockstar Developer,” "Sega Does What Nintendon't: Manufacturing Masculinity through the Home Console Market," and "Playing Within and Without Quarters: the Home Gaming Console and the Rise of Women Gamers.” And he has written about and presented on the importance and value of integrating video game analysis into history curriculum.

More recently he's killed a minotaur, influenced an Athenian election and was reunited with his Spartan family in an attempt to separate the historical and mythological in Assassin’s Creed “Odyssey.”

Panelist: Esther Wright, Digital History, Cardiff University
Dr. Esther Wright is an Early Career Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick. Her research considers Rockstar Games, particularly the company’s negotiation and representation of 20th century U.S. History in games like L.A. Noire (2011) and the Red Dead Redemption franchise (2010-2018). Her work also explores the way that promotional materials for historical video games can be read as digital sites at which game developers perform the role of historian, and manage expectations for historical “authenticity”, arguing for the importance of critically examining paratextual and well as textual representations of the past. Her academic work has been published in Rethinking History and Kinephanos: Journal of Media Studies and Popular Culture, and will be featured in a forthcoming special issue of the European Journal of American Studies. She has been a guest on podcasts such as History Respawned and Back Story, invited to discuss her work on Rockstar Games and Red Dead Redemption, and has been published on popular criticism sites such as History Extra and Bullet Points Monthly. She is also a Visiting Lecturer in Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, and an associate tutor in History at the University of Warwick. She has taught U.S. history and culture, representations of history in contemporary video games and visual media, and practical and theoretical perspectives on the Creative Industries in the U.K. and globally.