Press Start to Begin: How Historians Can Apply Their Work in a Non-Academic Setting

By Gianna May

Academics tend to view video games as a medium for play, but as a historian, I see them as a way to facilitate education and experience history in a new way. Often, they can be quite successful in providing an immersive, interactive experience. This spring I had the pleasure of participating in and applying video game creation to Historians and the Food System, a research seminar developed by the University of New Mexico History Department as a pilot course for the AHA-Mellon Foundation Career Diversity Project. This was a testing ground for graduate students looking to apply historical training outside of the academy and included class visits, guest mentors, and a semester-long project connected to a research client, the Sustainability Studies Program at UNM. My project explored how to best apply my research in a video game format.

While the course structure was relatively loose, we students shared a common goal: to produce research relevant to a campus farm project tentatively titled “Flagship Farm.” Each of us had our own focus—from school lunches to mapping a food landscape—but every research project presented a real-world evaluation and framework for a potential university-sponsored farm. In addition to regular blog posts discussing the state of our research and interesting aspects of our project, we also presented a final report to the Sustainability Studies program explaining why its organization—and others like it—need historians on their team.

Guest mentors participated in the course as well to discuss how a historian could benefit their field. Presenters ranged from Edible Santa Fe magazine editor Sarah Wentzel-Fisher to the chair of the Hubbell House Alliance Board, Flora Sánchez; descriptions of how historians fit into their ranks differed accordingly, and that variability proved extremely beneficial to us students. While not every project appealed to everyone, the diversity of presentations demonstrated demand for historians in the wider job market, when placement in narrowly academic positions are scarce. Further, such visits introduced the class to potential internships and resume-building projects, opening doors that might otherwise have remained unknown.

My academic work for the course consisted of researching medicinal uses of herbs in New Mexico. Out of this research, I created two short, history-based video games that applied that research and explored what my skills as a historian added to such a medium. The first game, The Lavender Cure, conveys historical and educational information about medicinal plants. The player starts the game as Nina, a young girl in a present-day small town on a quest for lavender to cure her sick Aunt Marygold. Throughout gameplay, Nina learns about the medicinal properties of lavender. Significantly, lavender, to Aunt Marygold, can heal spiritually as well as physically. As it stands, the game is only a conceptual demo, but future iterations could explore other herbs and introduce players to the practice of curanderismo (traditional Mexican folk healing).

The game also seeks to allow players to explore a question informed by my own historical research: why some people still use traditional forms of healing in spite of access to prescribed medication. This query, as well as historical concepts such as change over time, help provide a more complex gaming experience. By embodying characters such as Nina who consider issues of tradition and change, players are encouraged to think as historians do and implement historical habits of mind in their character’s choices.

My second game, while similar in its educational intent, also featured aspects that sought raise player awareness of a current environmental issue and functioned as a resource for the Sustainability Studies Program. The Buzz is a mobile game that teaches players about bees, debunks misconceptions, and aggregates bee-related information through crowdsourcing efforts. The game is GPS-based, so as players walk around UNM, they can interact with in-game features. Sustainability Studies wanted to use this game to gather information about bees on campus and educate players. As a result, The Buzz illustrates a larger theme for Historians and the Food System: how historians and employers can work together for the useful application of historical knowledge.

Throughout the semester, this field course provided a venue to apply skills learned as a historian in unusual settings and encouraged us to consider both the historical trend of sustainable food systems and its present-day implications. The field-based experience and internship provided immediate application of the Career Diversity initiative’s mission: to demonstrate how skills learned as a historian apply to an array of career paths. The internships and project-based opportunities in influential, non-academic positions increased our awareness of career opportunities for historians while also providing marketable skills. The guest mentors encouraged the sustainability of this knowledge and provided a way to apply these skills after the semester’s end.

This framework easily applies to other non-academic projects and forms of employment and even though the seminar is over, the internships introduced provide a venue for future development. Interested? Just press start to begin.

giannaGianna May is a master’s student in history at the University of New Mexico. Her research currently focuses on 20th-century reproductive health in the West and its interaction with professional and traditional health care. She is the graduate assistant for the Center for the Southwest and designs education-based video games.

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