Decolonising Literary Canons and Fostering Multiperspectivity through Fiction: why Nella Larsen’s “Passing” should be used in history education

Giulia Verdini Reviews ,
Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ was first published in 1929. The title refers to the practice of “racial passing” which meant crossing the colour line between blacks and whites: the attempt to claim recognition in a different racial group than the one people belonged to was a quite common practice in the US of the 1920s. 

Background

The novel belongs to the heyday of the African American literature in the 1920s: after the disillusionment of World War I and in a milieu of racial segregation, the black community stood out and developed its art through the motif of "Négritude". Intellectuals of the New Negro Movement claimed their roots and did their best to represent their ethnicity: what followed is what is known as the Harlem Renaissance, which gave voice to a new African American consciousness. Passing reflects upon African Americans' crisis of identity in a white environment and their need to retrieve their ethnicity, but at the same time it also calls into question the very notion of race, which is represented more as something ambiguous rather than a defining feature. It depicts the complicated intersection of race, gender and social class, and the clashes between personal freedom and social obligations.

The epigraph

The reading of the novel begins with its epigraph. Before diving into a story, the reader is confronted with a short poem. Passing’s epigraph is an original paratextual element and it is an allographic epigraph as it was written by Countée Cullen, one of the most representative authors of the Harlem Renaissance. The short poem introduces the theme of Africa, the meaning of roots and ethnicity: the speaker asks himself "What is Africa to me?", a question which guides the poem and its ongoing reflections. The original, full-length poem is part of a collection, Color, published in 1925. The decision of omitting the original title of the poem, Heritage, hints at an understanding of the act passing as a loss rather than a gain, in particular the loss of heritage - the title of which the poem appearing in Passing is deprived of.

Plot

The story is set in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City. The plot revolves around two African American women who see each other again after a long time. Irene Redfield is the mother of two sons and the wife of a black husband: as he is too dark to pass, she occasionally passes as white when she is alone. She is passing as white when she meets her old friend Clare Kendry: the two women pretended to be white to enter a Chicago hotel and enjoy the sunny day on its rooftop. Clare immediately recognises her friend and her ethnicity, but Irene cannot the same. From the novel’s opening, race is slippery and terribly unstable.

Irene learns that Clare is currently living her life mostly as a white person and that she is married to a rich, white husband who is unaware of her racial roots. Irene would like to avoid further engagement with Clare, but she is too intrigued by her: eventually, the two women dangerously resume their childhood friendship.

Despite being a novel, the narrative is built as in a theatrical piece, where chapters can be understood as different acts and characters constantly perform a role and act as actors of comic yet dangerous scenes - until Clare Kendry dies, leaning backward in a window, in the final act. Whether she fell accidentally, committed suicide or was pushed by Irene or someone else, is up to the reader’s imagination and interpretation.

And so is the question of whether the theatrical piece is a tragedy or a farce.

Crossing the colour line: a tool of convenience?

Why would an African American pass as white? Making a political statement? Defying white supremacy? Or more simply, gaining a better social position?

People were undeniably passing as white in order to obtain something better, something that they would never get by 'staying black': crossing the colour line meant being eligible for a well paying job, living in a fancier neighbourhood, being allowed in whites-only environments, enjoying a multitude of privileges. 

The character of Clare Kendry embodies a different perspective on the practice of crossing racial boundaries. In the novel, passing is framed through Clare’s sense of playfulness. Her life is a theatrical piece and she is the protagonist on the stage, performing whatever identity she needs or wants to perform. Whilst Irene comes to wish she had not been born black, Clare does not take race seriously: she doesn't feel burdened by the yoke of race as Irene does. Clare plays with her own identity and laughs at danger.

After her father’s death, his bigot aunts treated Clare like a servant and forbade her from seeing or even talking about 'Negroes' - this is how African Americans are referred to in the novel. She was consequently also forbidden from revealing the truth about her race. But what is the truth about her race? Throughout the novel, Irene’s black perspective reminds the reader of how white Clare is. When she says that she desperately wants to see Negroes and be with them again, she is somehow acknowledging her belonging to another world - and she sounds irremediably white. She does not want to socialize with blacks because of racial belonging and solidarity, rather for the sake of excitement. Clare did not hate being black, nor she hated being white. On the contrary, she loved being both.

Passing was generally perceived as the required practice to gain opportunities for personal advancement, and it was consequently often dramatized as a mere class question. Larsen frees herself from the conventions around the theme of passing and its sole interconnectedness with climbing social classes. Passing is a tool of convenience, but for Clare it is not merely driven by material ambition. The term ‘passing’ itself usually refers to passing for white, whilst it is never used to mean ‘passing for black’: Clare is the one character that enables this shift in meaning, as she rather dreams of inhabiting different social classes at the same time and she is not concerned about moral implications. Moreover, here the focus is not on how the person passing is perceived by whites, but on how he or she is perceived by blacks. 

The novel revels in this ambiguity and does not clearly take a position: passing is a symbol of gain and loss at the same time - gaining respectability but also losing any bound with your ethnicity. The character of Clare suggests that race is something that can be manipulated and also acquired: the narrative ultimately perceives race not as a matter of identity but of performativity. By questioning the meaning of belonging and the idea of loyalty to a race, the narrative raises a problem of representation but more than anything disrupts the conventional way of thinking of them.

Decolonising literary canons

The theme of passing was a very recurring topic in American popular literature since the mid-19th century. Most of the fiction available was written by white men and told the story of an unfortunate black girl born from a tragic event. This girl was usually compelled to pretend to be white for her entire life; an aristocrat would fall in love with her beauty and marry her unaware of her racial status, but he would eventually find out or the girl would just confess. In the end, the girl usually dies of fever - but also of deep internal suffering, discomfort and social uneasiness. This regular path of the novel contributed to the creation of the leitmotif of what is known as the tragic mulatta figure”, a stock character in early African American literature. These types of accounts highlighted the feeling of social exclusion of the ‘Negro girls’, as this exhaustion would be the main reason for depression and suicide.

Nella Larsen’s novel portrays passing as a choice, and not as a constriction. Furthermore, the act of passing is neither condemned nor praised. There is no real judgement: the reader is enabled to make his/her own statement. This is reinforced by the unexplained death of Clare: it is the reader’s duty to make sense of what he has read and understand the conclusion of the novel as an act of crime, fate or suicide.

Clare Kendry’s character does not correspond to the tragic mulatto figure: she is a provocateur and a manipulator. Ultimately, she is a performer. Passing successfully for her means having no restraints. She is never hiding, but “stepping always on the edge of danger” (Larsen, 1). Does her race doom her to an already written fate?

The theatrical piece might have the form of a tragedy, but turns out to be a farce. Clare is not scared and does not demand pity, her death is not the consequence of her fear. Clare dies because fatalism must be at the core of Larsen’s work: the author acknowledges the literary tradition and yet breaks the boundaries, canons and limits. On the surface, the novel seems to conform to the stereotype of the mulatta figure. Nevertheless, the narrative resists the conventions of the genre and gives innovative treatment to a very worn racial subject.

How does the novel help decolonise history and why should it be included in history education?

The novel can be used in history education to teach the history of African Americans and to tackle the issues of race, social boundaries and belonging. More specifically, the novel deeply engages with the question: “where does race reside?” and suggests different plausible yet equally incomplete answers - blood, emotion, ancestry. The concept of race is ultimately understood as a function of science as much as of law and politics. It is primarily a function of history and as such, it has been subject to Western biases.

The novel should be included in the curriculum as

  • it is written by and focuses on a black woman, but more broadly on the lived experiences of African American people in the 1920s;
  • it promotes multiperspectivity via the two characters of Clare and Irene;
  • it reflects on the meaning of race and racial belonging;
  • it decentres hegemony established by colonisation and westernisation by challenging Western constructs;
  • it offers a new perspective on the practice of passing and disrupts the concept of identity;
  • it can be read by students, adults and young adults;
  • it questions how narrative history has privileged one version of the story and dismantles systems that privilege certain widely accepted narratives over others.

From fictional characters to historical accounts

Passing is a work of fiction, but it is also the telling of a world that truly existed, the world where its author lived. The fact that Nella Larsen has a lot in common with the character of Clare comes as no surprise. Larsen’s parents were Danish immigrants- her father specifically originated from the Danish West Indies and died when she was young. Her mother remarried, but her new family members disregarded her heritage and the ties that bound them. Furthermore, Larsen grew up in the vice district of Chicago, where there were very rigid boundaries between blacks and whites. 

For history educators who are interested in using the author’s life story, more information about Nella Larsen can be found here.

Specifications about the book:

  • Date of first publication: the book was originally published in April 1929 - USA;
  • Genre: Novel;
  • Sub-Genre: African American;
  • Age Range: Adult and Young Adult Literature;
  • Suggested edition: Chemeketa Press, 2018.

Bibliography and Suggested Readings

Larsen, Nella. Passing. Chemeketa Press, American Voices Collection. 2018.

Rafia Zafar, “Black Modernism.” In The Cambridge History of American Literature. 1st ed. Vol. 6. Cambridge University Press, 2002. 348-352.

Wertheim, Bonnie. Nella Larsen - A Harlem Renaissance-era writer whose heritage informed her modernist take on the topic of race. The New York Times.

Book review: An almost forgotten European War

Joke Van der Leeuw-Roord Reviews ,

This year it is 150 year ago that the German Empire was founded on 18 January 1871 during an improvised and sober proclamation ceremony in Versailles. The authors Hermann Pölking and Linn Sackarnd describe in their book Der Bruderkrieg 1870/71, Deutsche und Franzosen, how reluctant the Prussian King William I was to receive this imperial crown, and that he only, after much discussion, agreed on ‘Emperor of the German Realm’ as title instead of on ‘German Emperor’. They also demonstrate that, despite the military victory of the troops representing the different German States, creating a united German Empire was not a step applauded by all other monarchs, with Ludwig II of Bavaria particularly reluctant. Only after considerable concessions, which are still the basis of the present-day Bavarian exceptionalism, did the King agree that Bavaria would become part of the Empire. Only ten days later an armistice was agreed in the war between Germany and France.

This war began in the summer of 1870, when both Prussia and France had interests in fighting a war against each other and believed that an easy victory would be at hand. The authors demonstrate, contrary to the common myth, that it was certainly not only Bismarck who orchestrated the beginning of the war. Many within the political and military leadership and public opinion leaders from both countries welcomed an aggressive and violent competition. What followed was a savage war, which led to the death of approximately 200.000 soldiers and left many more wounded and deformed. 

This sizable and rich publication goes deep into the political developments during the war. The French Emperor Napoleon III surrendered quite early in the war and became a – well nurtured – prisoner of war, and left France without a legal counterpart for the Germans. The new French Government of National Defence, based in Tours, was not considered as representative for the whole country by the Germans. This fact contributed considerably to the continuation of the war, as did the German demands for Alsace and parts of Lorraine as war booties. 

The many bigger and smaller battles and the sieges of Metz and Strasbourg are described in too much detail for my taste. Unfortunately, such detailed descriptions also rarely go with situation maps, which could certainly have enlightened this poor reader. But what makes the book really interesting –  and useful for school education – are the many ego documents (or personal life story sources) of soldiers and civilians giving insights in the state of warfare in 1870 and their social consequences. While the German High Command found, as high noblemen, suitable headquarters in Versailles, their troops continued fighting and struggled with a lack of appropriate shelter, clean clothing and food. Many quotations from letters make the reader aware of how difficult the situation was for ordinary French and German soldiers and often even for their officers. The French civic population fell victim to the military violence but even more through the food and goods requisitions by both the occupying and defending armies. Despite the suffering of the ordinary people, the French population continued to stand behind their leaders and supported their decision to keep fighting.

A special feature of this war was the fact that the combatants made prisoners of war, basically for the first time. This happened at both sides but most prisoners of war were made among the French troops. Almost 400.000 of them were interned in Germany, often under very difficult circumstances. In the end of the war soldiers fled across the French borders and almost 100.000 were interned in Switzerland and more than 5000 ended up in Belgium. The International Committee of the Red Cross created a special tracing agency for these prisoners of war.

This publication offers a genuine cross-border narrative, despite the fact that both authors are German. It uncovers the story of a war, mostly mentioned as a minor conflict, which was in fact the prologue and final rehearsal for the First World War. For those who read German, a really good read!

Hermann Pölking-Eiken and Linn Sackarnd, Der Bruderkrieg, Deutsche und Franzosen 1870/71 (2020) (686 pages). Available also as a film documentary in three parts by ARTE. 

Hardcopy 38,00 €; eBook (PDF) 29,99 € eBook (EPUB) 29,99 €

Joke van der Leeuw-Roord founded EuroClio in 1992, and since then she has acquired recognition as an international expert on innovative and trans-national history, heritage and citizenship education. Currently, Joke van der Leeuw-Roord is special advisor for EuroClio. 

 

Video Game Review: Red Dead Redemption II

Anna Ivanova Reviews , ,

Setting the scene(-ry)

Red Dead Redemption II (Rockstar games – 2018) is a one of a kind western game where you can discover a variety of landscapes of America in the year 1899 on the back of a horse. Halfway through the story you can make one of the most wonderful rides possible in a game. Starting at the east coast of a fictional America, you ride inland on a horse with no name, heading home, crossing different kinds of landscapes. You cross little industrial towns and big empty plains, and ride on wooden paths through the swamps, along endless railroads and through the foothills of the mighty mountains in the north. This decor is one of the main characters in the story of Arthur Morgan, key figure in Red Dead Redemption II (RDR2). This moment in time symbolizes the closure of the era of the Wild West. There is no more frontier and every corner of this new continent is mapped. You can clearly feel the transformation from the age of the lawless into the incorporated industrial States. Arthur Morgan, as an outlaw and member of the Van der Linde gang, is one of the last in his profession. As a player, you have to deal with the disadvantages of being a gunslinger at the dawn of modern times.

The creators of RDR2 designed a landscape as a parallel universe of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, but implemented countless analogies with the real geography and history. There are, for example, references to the Philippine–American War, the ruins of the Civil War, the gold fever, the difficulties surrounding the Indian reservations and the German migration wave (the most famous family within this wave has to be the Trump family). Therefore, the game has two strong assets: a rich narrative and a gorgeous decor. The latter is certainly interesting for the use in the classroom.

 

An open world

The game has a relatively large map that is roughly comparable to different regions in the United States. The story of Morgan starts in the north, where the snowy mountain ranges lie and you can encounter a wandering pack of wolves or a grizzly bear. If you descend to the south later in the game, you end up on the large steppes where long railway lines cross and bison herds roam. Visit the south of the map that looks like Louisiana and go into the bayou for a crocodile hunt. In the east lies the large harbour city Saint-Denis which is comparable to a mixture of New Orleans and New York around the turn of the century. You can spot trams and visit barbers, factories, dinner shows, saloons, restaurants and Parisian flower gardens. You will also notice the French influence throughout the city. Saint-Denis is an interesting contrast to the wide-open plains and valleys where you can wander about.

RDR2 is an open world game (or sandbox game) in which you can step out of the main storyline of Morgan and his gang at all times and explore the area on your own. This aspect is an added value for using the game in the classroom. For example, you can give the students a comparison task in which they have to investigate different elements of daily life anno 1899. After all, a lot of European history curricula deal with subjects like modern imperialism, industrialisation and the associated social consequences, plantations, migrations, and so on. Just make sure that the students can move freely through the game and make decisions of their own. You can also use the game as a kick starter for a discussion about games as secondary sources.

 

A (hi-)story

The other aspect for which the game is praised, is the rich narrative of the main character gunslinger Arthur Morgan and his position in a gang of outlaws. Despite the lively storyline, this aspect is less suitable to play with your students. It is, after all, a story of violence and multiple confrontations with other gangs, bounty hunters and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency - none of which are resolved peacefully. The Pinkertons still exists as a private detective agency and were originally founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a response to the large number of gangs at the Midwest frontier. They had to track down these itinerant gangs that were guilty of train, postal and bank robberies in these widespread areas.

Occasional episodes based on historical facts occur during the story of Arthur Morgan. With a well-chosen selection of chapters, you should be able to play these episodes with your students and relate them to elements of American history or explore the game's historicity together. Examples of these historical facts during the game are the encounters with the Suffragettes, a group of women fighting for equal rights, and the chapter in which Morgan is part of a slave revolution on a Caribbean island. This refers to the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and is a nice intermezzo during the game that mostly takes place in The States.

Red Dead Redemption II is a game for PC, Playstation and Xbox and a wonderful window to the geography and history of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. As it is an open world game, I advise you to wonder around with your students and experience the last days of the Wild West and the dawn of the United States in modern times.

 

Written by Daan van Leeuwen

Daan van Leeuwen is a teacher educator at the InHolland University of Applied Sciences Rotterdam (The Netherlands), teacher, historian and editor at Kleio, the magazine of the Dutch association of history teachers. He has written several articles on the use of games in the classroom.

 

Title: Red Dead Redemption II
Author: Rockstar games
Year of publication: 2018
Language: English
System Requirements:  PC, Playstation, Xbox
Average Play Time: 6 hours
Cost: € 34.99

How can Assassin’s Creed be used in History Education?

Fani Partsafyllidou Reviews ,

The stunning landscape of Ancient cities in Assassin’s Creed is too good to be neglected by the educational community.

What is Assassin's Creed?

Some of you might ask: ‘Assassin's Creed? A game full of blood, weapons, and beheadings?’

An action-adventure game, Assassin's Creed, was released in 2007. Having gained remarkable popularity, as it now counts 95 million players and it is one of the most successful games of all time, it kept improving its virtual world making it more and more detailed and sophisticated. Ubisoft, the developer company, decided to recreate entire ancient cities, street by street, to offer a fascinating world to the players, and hired a team of historians to do so.

Exploring Ancient cities

The final product was so captivating and informative that raised the question: How can this 3D, interactive depiction of ancient cities help education? Then, the discovery tour was created: a version of the game in which you can explore the cities, statues, and customs shown in the game without the gameplay.

Your character can walk, ride a horse, or fly on an eagle to see the city. Each time she reaches a station of the tour, you can listen to a short narration of a historical fact and you can view a relevant artefact. There is an abundance of information to unravel. The Ancient Egypt tour includes 75 tours, of various epochs, locations, and topics.

Is it accurate?

The game is accurate in instances that we have historical knowledge over what happened. In instances where the historical accounts are incomplete or contrasting, the mythological or artistic element takes over. The tour acknowledges this fact in ‘Behind the Scenes’ stations, where it is explained which parts of the game are historical fiction, and which parts are accurate. Some adjustments had to be made to support the gameplay as well, for example there are many statues and monuments to make navigation easier. Overall, the creators describe it as ‘not an accurate, but an authentic experience’.

Is it informative?

The player absorbs historical details just by exploring the city, such as

  • The people: demographics, the proportions of the population regarding age and gender
  • clothes of the time
  • the presence of horses and other animals in the streets
  • a variety of shops and work stations with products of the time
  • the materials used for the roads and buildings
  • the architecture.

Historians, experts, and universities worked together to provide these details. Moreover, the tour provides a series small lessons that the users can hear when they visit the respective place.

Abstract time period

The simulation of the city does not reflect a specific date, which means that some parts may be of an earlier and some of a later date. That falls under the issue of our historical knowledge, as mentioned above. Since we do not have complete city plans for the ancient world, the researchers combined in the same city plan the bits of information that are available, even if they are asynchronous.

Listening to Dead Languages

An astonishing aspect in Discovery Tours is that the player hears ancient languages spoken by actors. This is a truly unique experience. To produce the sound of Ancient Egyptian, a team of linguists, Egyptologists, and dialogue coaches worked together. The dialogues are fictional and based on Egyptian Grammar.

Things change in Ptolemaic Alexandria, where walking around the player hears Ancient Greek dialogues. The language and grammar is Ancient Greek, and Greek actors were chosen for the narration, providing a modern Greek pronunciation.  Some of the dialogues I overheard from my surroundings while exploring the city were jokes about mother-in-laws, gossiping about someone’s clothes, and comments on yesterday’s wrestling game. For half an hour, Ancient Greek came to life.

Keep in mind

Video games as a way to teach History are not meant to replace reading, they are meant to inspire students to actually read. As such, Discovery Tours of Assassin's Creed are a perfect tool to attract the interest of the students about the explored time and place, and arouse curiosity to learn more.

You can buy it here. Make sure to check the system requirements first.

Podcast review: Lies my teacher told me

Cecilia Biaggi Reviews

Lies my teacher told me - a podcast series from Historian Priya Atwal

The first episode of this podcast series starts with Dr Priya Atwal making it clear that she is not accusing teachers of lying to their students, but that she is going to investigate how and why national history is still written and taught via textbooks in the classroom, despite growing globalisation and availability of digital resources. Dr Atwal, a young Teaching Fellow in Modern South Asian History at King’s College in London, explains that she borrowed the title for this podcast series, released in January 2020, from a 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by sociologist James Loewen, who briefly intervenes during the first episode. Although catchy, such title is certainly a bit misleading even for those who are familiar with Loewen’s work: in fact, despite Dr Atwal’ stated intention to focus on textbooks, a variety of aspects of history teaching receive major attention.

''Lebanese teachers tell that the national history curriculum ignores the civil war that raged across the country from the mid-seventies until 1990, in an attempt to keep out of the classroom the divisions and tensions that still persist within society''

In order to create legitimate expectations, it would be more honest and accurate to say that these podcasts give an overview of the main problems associated with history teaching in various national contexts, spanning from the political role of the subject to the practicalities of delivering instruction. Rather accessible from a content point of view, these five podcasts of fourteen minutes each will certainly be of interest to history teachers and educators: not only will they learn about their peers’ experience in other countries, but they will also find reflections on common challenges, and useful tips.

The episode called All is Revision serves as a sort of introduction to the series, and it is, unfortunately, the most difficult to follow, also because no transcripts of the podcasts are provided. The English is clear, but the host speaks rather fast. Moreover, during the episode, several school teachers and academics intervene to answer Dr Atwal’s questions, to talk about their personal experience or to generally comment on various aspects of history teaching: too many people talking and too many topics involved for a fourteen minutes podcast. The good news is that it is not strictly necessary to understand everything that is being said in the first episode to access and enjoy the content of the following four podcasts, which centre on history teaching in Lebanon, India and Pakistan, Japan, and Northern Ireland.

Across the four episodes, different examples of teaching strategies and tools are offered after an explanation of the state of history instruction in the country. For example, Lebanese teachers tell that the national history curriculum ignores the civil war that raged across the country from the mid-seventies until 1990, in an attempt to keep out of the classroom the divisions and tensions that still persist within society. However, this undermines pupils’ ability to understand the present situation, and fails to engage them in the subject. Thus, some teachers add to the official narrative by designing their own units on the civil war based on various sources, and even by inviting to their classes representatives of different ethnicities and sectors of society. Even without the support of educational authorities, teachers may find ways to present a multiperspective and inclusive historical narrative to their students.

Although the realities described in the four podcasts may seem very distant to people in countries that have not recently been affected by partition, civil war and aggressive nationalism, each of these episodes offers food for thought to history teachers worldwide, who will certainly find at least some of the described situations relatable. For example, not only India but also several western countries tend to prioritise the study of mathematics and science over humanities, while Northern Ireland can offer an example to all divided societies of how history can promote reconciliation and common values.

In conclusion, the real value of these podcasts lies not simply in the stories told, but also in the questions that they prompt: what purpose does history serve in today’s world? Should controversy be ignored, or is history teaching instrumental to foster peace within societies and between neighbouring communities? How can we include the voices of groups overlooked in school textbooks and make history truly representative of our communities? These and similar questions will encourage history teachers to think critically about their and their subject’s role, making them more aware of their power and responsibility in all societies.

Lies my teacher told me - a podcast series from Historian Priya Atwal

Video Game Review: Valiant Hearts, The Great War

Elias Stouraitis Reviews , , ,

The content of the game

“Valiant Hearts, The Great War” was constructed by Ubisoft in 2014 as a remembrance of 100 years since the beginning of the First World War. The game team received several data from that period, such as letters written by enlisted soldiers or first-hand accounts of the war to create a historically accurate game. The game designers narrate the story of four individuals through the First World War (1914 – 1918). It is a combination between an adventure and puzzle game through which participants solve problems and act in that period. You play as if you are the four different characters of the game and you follow their journey. Players enjoy playing each character for approximately 90 minutes. There is only one singular experience and you cannot replay it in order to win or collect more items. 

Even if the game has comic-style art and characters, Valiant Hearts deals with some serious subjects, such as soldiers’ reactions the surviving during the war. The game aims to provide different perspectives derived from the four game persons. Karl is a German farmer who lives with a French wife, Marie, and their young son. He gets deported from France to fight for Germany. Emile is Karl’s father-in-law and he takes care of his daughter and his grandson while Karl is at war, but he is drafted to fight for France. Freddie is an American who joins France in the fight against Germany as a revenge towards the death of his wife. Anna is a Belgian student who sets off to the frontlines of war to find her father and she becomes a war nurse. Additionally, there is another character, Walt, the obedient dog who joins each of the characters in the game and it helps the characters. The gameplay seems simple due to the fact that there are puzzles that help you to move or to get things. On the other hand, some part of the games contains battlefields where you have to react as if you were in the war. Each game scene involves narrators’ explanation, information about the historical period and various historical items laying around.

Cognitive dimension

“Valiant Heart” adopts the historical theme of World War I with a critical approach through the presentation of the different perspectives of four personalities. The most interesting thing in this game is that players come in touch not only with personalities on the battlefield but with the societies and they feel and survive during war. The game generates empathy with civilians and soldiers and at the same time emotions to players, such as cruelty and anguish. The game shows the position of all sides of World War I and contextualizes the historical dimension. The game shows as well professional soldiers and civilians who were forced to go to war. On the other hand, people stay at home and find solutions to survive or go to war to learn more about their relatives. There are stereotypes in the game such as the female nurses, but these are not at the stake. The cartoon aesthetic may create several questions about the people of that time and the environment because it seems like a comic rather than real people. The game creators decided to leverage 2D representations so as to be more friendly for gamers and there is no cruelty from that point. As such, the war is represented by a critical stance and there are not the well-known conflicts in this kind of games. Gamers understand the different parties during this war and portray civilian characters and victims.

Significance for history educators

The game can be used by history educators in secondary education due to the fact that the game presents the World War I from comic perspective and there are emotions that students have to handle with their teachers. The good thing is that there are no cruelty scenes that would create negative sentiments to students. The approach of the war is critical, and this helps teachers to discuss the different perspectives and parties of the war. The most important thing is that the game does not emphasize on the idea of the battlefields and this means that students will manage to play and feel like people who experience this war and around it. For sure, students will be able to enhance critical thinking (survival of victims, refugees, families and so on). The cartoon aesthetic portrays the horrors of war less crudely, but teachers should discuss this sort of representation at the beginning and at the end of the game. Students understand through their immersion to the game characters that war, and human suffering is not a game. It is a priority for teachers to have PCs in the schools because it would be easier to use it. Students will not find it difficult playing it as there is a guidance at the beginning of the game and during gameplay and additionally, they must answer specific challenges. Teachers may leverage it so as each student play each character and, in the end,, they will discuss their conclusions. Additionally, teacher may separate students to different teams and each one plays a different character and then they will discuss the different perspectives.

 

Written by Elias Stouraitis

Elias Stouraitis is currently a PhD Candidate in Digital History at the Faculty of Historical Survey, History Didactics and New Technologies, Department of History and Informatics, Ionian University in Greece. He completed his undergraduate studies in History and Archaeology at the University of Athens in Greece and undertook a master’s degree in modern Greek History at the University of Athens. He teaches History and Greek Language at private education in Greece. He has worked as a Research Project Manager regarding Digital Technology in Education, Social Inclusion, History and Culture. He has been awarded a grant from the Japanese Nippon Foundation SYLFF (Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund) for his innovative and strategic abilities in research leadership and an award by Common Ground Community ‘The Learner’ for his experienced skills in Education. His main research interests are Digital History, Historical Culture, Digital Games, Design of Educational Software. He is passionate about new Creative Projects and specialized in Digital Tools and Methods.

 

Title: Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Author: Ubisoft
Year of publication: 2014
Language: English
System Requirements:  PC
Average Play Time: 6 hours
Cost: € 14.99

One-day free offer: Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour

Fani Partsafyllidou Reviews

Can Assassin's Creed be used in History Education? Some of you might ask:

-Assassin's Creed? A game full of blood, weapons, and beheadings?

-What is Assassin's Creed?

An action-adventure game, Assassin's Creed, was released in 2007. Having gained remarkable popularity, as it now counts 95 million players and it is one of the most successful games of all time, it kept improving its virtual world making it more and more detailed and sophisticated. Ubisoft, the developer company, decided to recreate entire ancient cities, street by street, to offer a fascinating world to the players, and hired a team of historians to do so.

The final product was so captivating and informative that raised the question: How can this 3D, interactive depiction of ancient cities help education? Then, the discovery tour was created: a version of the game in which you can explore the cities, statues, and customs shown in the game without the gameplay.

Your character can walk, ride a horse, or fly on an eagle to see the city. Each time she reaches a station of the tour, you can listen to a short narration of a historical fact and you can view a relevant artefact. There is an abundance of information to unravel. The Ancient Egypt tour includes 75 tours, of various epochs, locations, and topics.

The methodology behind this massive effort deserves its own article. However, it could be summarised in the following way. The game is accurate in instances that we have historical knowledge over what happened. In instances where the historical accounts are incomplete or contrasting, the mythological or artistic element takes over. The tour acknowledges this fact, and explains which parts of the game are historical fiction, and which parts are accurate.

The good news is that just for today, until May 21st 2020, Ubisoft offers the Discovery Tours of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece for free! This is not a trial, so you will get to keep the game as long as you want. Just make sure that your PC can handle it, as it requires a lot of free space and a high vRAM. Give it a go, and if you use it in the classroom send us feedback with your experience at secretariat@euroclio.eu

Video Game Review: Crusader Kings II

Following our in-depth article Can video games improve history education?, EuroClio will publish reviews of games that can be of use in the classroom. First up, Crusader Kings II!

Setting the Scene

It is August 7th, anno domini 936. You are Dirk of the House of Gerulfing, Duke of West Frisia. Despite your venerable age of 69 years, you remain sharp-witted and fit. You are doted on by your much younger second wife, the 21-year old Gerberga. Together you raise your 16-year old son (also named Dirk), who is growing into a well-mannered, if shy and overweight, young man. Your ruler, the ambitious Otto I, King of the Germans, gives little thought to your backwater lands. All the better, you think, as you are much more interested in promoting local trade instead of war. But dark clouds are on the horizon, as once again the kings of Europe prepare to fight over the legacy of Charlemagne’s empire.

The Game

The story of Dirk Gerulfing is just one of possible millions in the grand strategy game Crusader Kings II, developed by Stockholm-based developer Paradox Interactive. First released to modest sales and critical reception in 2012, it has since become one of the most successful historical strategy games of all time, selling one million copies by 2014, and continuing to perform strongly in the years since thanks to support from its developers.

The secret to Crusader Kings II’s success is likely the uniqueness of the game itself. There is no shortage of games set in the Medieval Ages, but whereas the overwhelming majority focus on putting the player in the role of a knight swinging swords or a general leading armies, Crusader Kings II instead takes a much more human approach. It has no written plot, no set objectives, and even the player character has no “chosen one” status. Crusader Kings II aims to be a holistic representation of medieval life, and its exactly this flexibility which can make the game valuable to educators.

How is it Played?

At its heart, Crusader Kings is a dynastic simulator – the player takes control of a single individual, usually a nobleman or noblewoman. and guides them through life. They do this by reacting to events, as well as the actions of other, computer-controlled individuals in the world around them. There is no way to “win” the game outside of a player’s own goals, and the player can only “lose” if their character lacks an heir or their last piece of land is taken.

Both the fun and the potential for learning come from how the player chooses to interact with the world around them. For example, a player in the position of Duke of Burgundy decides he wants to become the King of France. To do this, the player arranges a marriage between his son and the King’s daughter, only for the player’s son to declare that he is becoming a monk and breaking off the marriage. The player then is left with other options – does he fabricate a claim to the throne and have other nobles push for it to be recognized? Does he start a secret plot to arrange a rebellion? Or does he instead try to become good friends with the King, hoping the friendship is repaid later?

Historical Context

The gameplay of Crusader Kings II has been described with terms like “sandbox” or “emergent storytelling,” but both are ultimately grounded in the game’s representation of the medieval world. The standard game covers a time period stretching from 936 to 1453, while expansions can push the start date back to 769. Geographically, the map includes not only all of Europe, but also Northern and Eastern Africa, the Middle East, India, and Central Asia.

For this reason, students using the game in an educational context are not given a strictly Eurocentric perspective – a player can be part of the Islamic world, pagan Lithuania, or Buddhist Sri Lanka with almost as much detail as that given to Catholic Europe. Furthermore, the social and cultural elements driving the game also means the interactions with these cultures are not just warfare. For example, players and computers alike are rewarded if they follow Christian virtues if they are Catholic, or if they go on hajj as Muslims, among many other options. Through this, the game naturally weaves learning about cultures and religions into its gameplay, instead of simply presenting the information on the page of a textbook.

Nevertheless, the game does have its limitations in representation. It is impossible to play in the role of a peasant, or even lesser notables like a town merchant or baron. The game’s focus on the upper nobility limits playable characters to the ranks of “count” and above, with equivalents in other cultures. Players and educators should be aware of this bias as while the game provides a unique social-cultural angle unseen in other titles, it is largely limited to the elite.

In the Classroom

An obvious concern when it comes to using video games as an educational tool is the feasibility of running the game in the first place. Fortunately, Crusader Kings II, is neither technically demanding nor very expensive. Now being almost eight years old, the game should have little trouble running on almost any computer built in the past decade. Furthermore, the developers are aware of the game’s popularity among history educators and have implemented a policy through which it can be provided for free or very discounted to schools that contact them.

Another concern is the game’s suitability for students in terms of its content. Though Crusader Kings II has a PEGI rating of 12+, the game discusses mature subjects which may not be suitable for younger students. Though it does not feature graphic violence or sexual content, it is discussed indirectly through text. For this reason, Crusader Kings II is best fit for, at minimum, students in secondary school. Given similarities in subject matter, students who are expected to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth would likely have the maturity and skills to enjoy Crusader Kings II as a supplemental educational tool.

Crusader Kings II provides a unique experience not only among other video games, but also as an interactive tool with which to provide greater context for students about the medieval world. The word “context” is key – the game does not provide a retelling of exact historical events, but rather creates a system in which medieval life is shown to the player through the people, geography, faiths, and cultures of the medieval world. This is both a limitation and one of the game’s greatest strengths, as it provides a fun and intuitive way of teaching students about the underlying factors which influenced medieval history across the globe.

As for a practical example of how to implement a game like Crusader Kings II in a classroom, Paradox Interactive provides an example from one of their other titles. In 2010, the University of California began using the Second World War simulator Hearts of Iron II to help undergraduate students understand the geopolitics in an interactive manner. The program received good reviews from both students and teachers, crucially engaging even students who otherwise do not play video games.

Conclusion

As the modern classroom integrates more multimedia approaches to complement teaching, video games provide a clear avenue of expansion for enhancing student engagement and interest in the material being taught. Those interested in teaching medieval history will find a great tool in Crusader Kings II not only for its attention to historical detail and wide scope of covered topics, but also its easy accessibility both technically and financially through collaboration with its developers.

 

Adrian Piecyk is a graduate of the University of Toronto, holding a Masters degree in Eastern European and Russian Affairs and a Bachelors of History. Though his research interests primarily cover Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, his fascination with medieval life has made him a long-time fan of Crusader Kings II, and he hopes this review may inspire you to try the game for yourself. Adrian can be reached directly through email (adrian.piecyk@outlook.com), or over LinkedIn. 

GetBadNews: an online game on Fake News

Fani Partsafyllidou Reviews ,

GetBadNews is a small and fun online game in which you try to gain as many followers you can by spreading FakeNews on Twitter.

Developed by researchers at Cambridge University and DROG, a Netherlands-based platform against disinformation, GetBadNews has an important educational value. Not only does it raise awareness on the Fake News topic, it also demonstrates the most common practices.

The player dives into the basics of Fake news, one could say 'Fake News 101'. According to GetBadNews, these are: impersonation, emotion, polarization, conspiracy, discredit, and trolling.

It is an overall small game, as it takes approximately 20 mins to complete it. This means that it cannot be used as a main resource, but it is an excellent warm-up to open the discussion in the classroom. You can give it a try here.

Find more information on the concept and the methodology here 

Have you used GetBadNews in your lessons? Share your lesson plan with us.

Podcast review: History Behind the Headlines

Helen Snelson Reviews ,

History Behind the Headlines - a podcast series from journalist David Keys

David Keys is a journalist based in London who works extensively with historical topics. He has researched the context to more than 70 conflicts and crises around the world. He aims to be as objective and comprehensive as possible in his portrayal of the past and is producing a rolling series of podcasts that may be very useful for history and civics teacher in the EuroClio network. They may also be useful to older / higher attaining students studying specific topics in class. David argues that the conflicts and crises of today have political, cultural and psychological roots that go back into the past. It therefore follows that we can get a better global and political understanding of current conflicts and crises via learning about how they have evolved.

At the time of writing, there are four episodes available. Each is 15 minutes long, making them perfect for busy teachers to listen to while doing the washing up, walking the dog, commuting to school. They are also the right length to engage older students, without them feeling overwhelmed. The topics covered so far range across four continents and are about: Israel and Palestine, Mexico's drug war, Kashmir and Scotland. They are in a lecture style and although the English is very clear, it is fair to say you need to listen carefully as the subject matter is complex and covered in some depth, even in a short time. It is very helpful that transcripts are provided. If using these with students the transcipts could be used for highlighting key concepts, people, organisations and events that are needed to understand the topic. Students could be asked to construct a timeline of events and changes to help them to process all the information.

These podcasts are, of course, an interpretation of past events. David Keys has chosen to cover a large sweep of time in his 15 minute recordings. This means that there is a lot of factual information, making them excellent for overview work and for identifying areas for future study. David Keys is not concerned with evaluating different opinions and interpretations of key events and it could be that teachers and/or students could take one part of a recording and then focus on the different debates that surround an event. For example, students could investigate what is meant by the term: "Europeanisation of Scottish culture, education and law."

Even though the key purpose is to give a grand sweep of factual information, there are points where a clear opinion is given. For example, at the start of the episode on Kashmir: "India's continued abrogation of normal human rights in Kashmir - the only Muslim-majority region in India – is compromising the world's biggest democracy's relationship with several other key geopolitical players – including Turkey, China, Malaysia and potentially the European Union." An activity for students could be to identify the places in a podcast where there is a firm opinion given.

Further discussion that could be had with students about interpreting the past, can be done by using the fact that a 15 minute podcast covering content over a sweep of time has, by definition, to involve some tough choices about what to leave out, and that those choices shape the interpretation that emerges. For example, in the episode on Israel and Palestine he gives a short quote from the Balfour Declaration of 1917: "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. This is short due to time constraints, and it is interesting to note how this has shaped the interpretation as the longer quote from the Balfour Declaration is: "His Majesty's government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." The lengthier quote, which has to be selected out of a short podcast, does lead to a rather different perspective on the controversial Balfour Declaration. It is useful to bring students' attention to this aspect of the creation of interpretations. Intrepretations are made by deliberate choice, but sometimes that choice is driven by very practical concerns (what fits into a coherent 15 mins, in this case), rather than any thought of political manipulation. It can help students to understand that all history is interpretation, as it is, by definition, a selection from a vast past.

The podcast series is available on a number of streaming services, including Listennotes and Apple.

Written by Helen Snelson, EuroClio Ambassador