Some quick comments on a recent article in Wired titled, Why a Famous Counterfactual Historian Loves Making History With Games.  The article was about historian Niall Ferguson’s use of war/civilization-type games as tools for exploring “counterfactual” history–i.e. what might have been.  My comments are bulleted.

“…you develop a Mandlebrotian appreciation of chaos dynamics — how a single change can take a stable situation and sent it spiraling all to hell, or vice versa.”

  • Games give us “a Mandelbrotian appreciation of chaos dynamics.”  I think that’s the first time I’ve seen Mandelbrot used as an adjective!
“The power of counterfactual thinking is that forces us to step outside of our comfort zones. When we think about historical events, we have 20/20 hindsight — so we forget how confusing and uncertain they were at the time.”

  • It may be true that “counterfactual thinking” can help us see uncertainty, but it is certainly not unique to counterfactual thinking. Understanding that things could have been otherwise is at the heart of most constructivist scholarship, whether history, sociology, or otherwise. Next, seeing the uncertainty in historical situations by avoiding the application of our privileged, present perspective is a basic rule of historical method–i.e. avoid “presentism.” Finally, anyone who has actually studied history–i.e. done historical research, not just read history books–would know that we DO NOT have 20/20 hindsight. Sure, we have the benefit of hindsight; we have a position that is privileged compared to the historical actors we study, allowing us a wider perspective and understanding than they could have had. However, that does not mean that we have 20/20 hindsight. Figuring out what happened is still tough.

“When we play with sims, they knock us off our pedestals — because crazy things usually happen we don’t predict.”

  • This I can agree with to some extent. I like the notion that games/simulations can help to interject a level of “risk” in our thinking about history that we may not have otherwise had. As long as we use these games as tools to help us think better, not as tools to give us “the answer,” I think they can be valuable. 

“The United States used to be champions at this sort of strategic thinking, Ferguson notes, until Iraq came along. Much of America’s failures in Iraq have been due to the overly rosy predictions of administration heads. They didn’t have the healthy respect for chaos that was the original animating genius of conservatism — the thinkers like Edmund Burke, who distrusted aggressive tinkering with economies, states or cultures, because they shuddered to think of what genies might be unleashed.”

  • Wow…there’s a lot going on here. First, we have the assertion that the U.S. used to do war-gaming but gave it up with Iraq.  That is just patently false.  The U.S. games more now than even.  Second, this is a very nostalgic argument.  Is he longing for the “good ol’ days” of RAND war-gaming in the 1950s and 1960s?  Does he really think that even the best war-games during that era are as powerful or useful as the desktop games of today?  Finally, it is very interesting to see gaming, chaos, and conservatism explicitly linked here.  Following this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, it would seem that an appreciation for chaos, fostered by gaming, should make use all conservatives.

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