historical simulations, cont. (60)

Sat, 11 Feb 89 16:32:39 EST

Humanist Mailing List, Vol. 2, No. 592. Saturday, 11 Feb 1989.

Date: Sat, 11 Feb 89 10:47 EST
From: Martin Ryle <RYLE@URVAX.BITNET>
Subject: historical simulations

In response to Connie Crosby's inquiry about historical simulation.
I find that historical simulations that are based upon manipulation of
quantities of things like economic production, religious intensity, foreign
trade, bureaucratic development, and literacy indeed fall more into the realm
of sociology or anthropology than history. Certainly, these simulations may
be quite interesting and enlightening to the historian, but they are, I think,
fundamentally unhistorical.
The discipline of history focuses on the particular, on a given time
and place and on the particular evidence that remains from that time and place.
Not since Toynbee, perhaps, has the notion of seeking the general "laws" of
historical development been considered a reasonable goal of historical research.
We toilers in the dusty archives tend to agree, I think, that history offers
little direct insight into what happens in the future, for the particular
circumstances that we study are most unlikely ever to recur. Perhaps those who
write and read histories gain an unusual sense of the variety of crises and of
responses that are possible in the human experience, but they are not likely to
bet their professional reputations on the particular crises and responses that
may occur tomorrow.
I am currently writing historical game simulations that are based upon
the documents that normally are considered historical sources. I have done one
on the Russian revolutions of 1917, and I am plotting another on the rise of
Stalin to political power. My approach has been to present a paragraph or two
of text that is true to the sources and then ask the player what happens next.
A historically accurate response leads to more text that is verifiable. An
answer that deviates from the sources draws text that describes what might have
been had that answer been correct. The player may, at the cost of a wretched
score, pursue the "what if" line to improbable conclusions (such as Lenin
becoming a wealthy corporate lawyer in NYC). To achieve a high score, the
player must pursue the historically accurate line to the Bolshevik victory.
The game may be criticized on pedigogical grounds for encouraging
students to confuse what happened with what might have happened, but my own
classes seem to have no problem recognizing the difference when they have
completed play. Some historians may blanch at the notion of pursuing the the
will-o-the-wisp of "what if," but I suspect that the question of what if lurks
somewhere in the heart of every researcher.
Incidentally, one of the most creative and thoughtful of those who
create the quantitative, anthropological sort of simulations is Steven Heuston,
who works out of Kent, Washington, and will soon be doing graduate work in
anthropology in California. He has done one on medieval Spain, another on
the Incas and a third on the ancient Mediterranean basin. They are elegant,
sophisticated efforts, based largely on the historical record. But they do
ignore, perforce, the behavior of the historical actors who made their
decisions without knowing how they would come out.

Martin Ryle, Professor of History
University of Richmond, Virginia 23173
bitnet: Ryle@urvax