History as interactive narrative!? Why not?

Posted on February 22, 2008 by


After developing an annotated bibliography of digital history resources this past fall, over  Christmas break I finally took the time to read Digital History (Cohen and Rosenzweig). I enjoyed it Marie-Laure Ryan's Narrative as Virtual Realitygreatly! However, after having read this book, I was left curious as to why Janet Murray (Hamlet on the Holodeck) had only received mention on one page, and Marie-Laure Ryan (Narrative as Virtual Reality) was not mentioned at all. Considering all of the critics of the Web as a platform for the delivery of historical material and what little I had read from Murray and Ryan, I thought that there might be something to be said about history incorporating some of their philosophies. Then, taking into consideration some of the things said by digital historian Edward L. Ayers, I also began examining some of the points made by Espen J. Arseth (Cybertext) and other interactive narrative and immersion authors. One thing led to another, and I soon found myself on Amazon.com’s “Listmanias” and “So you’d like to” lists looking at many other books that focused on interactive narrative (and expanding my bibliography of resources).

So, could digital history incorporate some of the philosophies of interactive narrative? I believe it is certainly possible, and, considering the attention spans that we have developed as “digital surfers” (in our “microwave society”), I think that the incorporation of some of these theories would be preferred. After all, the central purpose of authors of interactive narrative and history are often the same; typically having an inherent need to convey perspective (Meadows 3). In fact, I think that Ayers might agree. In one online article Ayers notes that historians have an “inherent need to tell the story more effectively,” and that the Web offers a new and more influential platform for delivery of their stories. “History exists in symbiosis with large amounts of diverse evidence – [historians] need materials to explore and adequate ways to convey what we find” (Ayers, par. 5).

As historians, after having mulled through so many different resources, we begin to develop a picture (or some might say a “virtual movie” of collective events) within our heads. It makes sense to us and we get so excited about it that we want to convey that excitement to our audience. Most of all (at least this is something that I believe), we hope that the audience will understand and appreciate the enlightened perspective that we have to offer. Writing books and articles, we make the effort to put forward our theories about the mass of resource material, but I think we are often left a little empty, not totally convinced that the written word was enough to convey our passion for the material (and the excitement we are left with in the wake of our historical “epiphany”). Does this mean that the simple written word just doesn’t do the trick any longer? It might be the case for some of us. However, for others, there may also be the need to (in addition to the need to convey our perspective in written form) convey an artistic or visual perspective. With the tools of the Web at our disposal, I think that historians can more effectively make their point, and finally add color to those aforementioned “virtual movies” in our heads.

Posted in: Digital History