Nouvelles Nouvelles Podcast #10: Paul Milliman
Interviewer: Elise Robbins (ER); Interviewee: Paul Milliman (PM)
Time: October 28, 2022; Location: Hagerty Hall 142 (ASCTech Academic Technologies Studio)
ER (0:00): Hello, this is Elise Robbins with the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Ohio State University. I'm talking today with our guest, Dr. Paul Milliman, who will present a talk later this evening entitled “Do Gamer-Historians Dream of Virtual Sheep? The Playful Pedagogies of the University of Arizona Enhanced Experience for Age of Empires IV.” Dr. Milliman is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Arizona. His research is wide ranging. His first book, The Slippery Memory of Men: the Place of Pomerania in the Medieval Kingdom of Poland, analyzes the records from a series of disputes between Teutonic knights and the neighboring Poles, Pomeranians, and Prussians during the 13th and 14th centuries. His current interests include the social, political, and cultural values and meanings of food and games, both of those played in the medieval period and modern games set in medieval times. His article “Ludus Scaccarii: Games and Governance in Twelfth-Century England” in the edited collection Chess in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age was awarded the Medieval Academy of America's 2014 Van Courtlandt Elliott prize. I'm so excited to hear more about some of his work. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Dr. Milliman.
PM (1:07): Oh, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
ER (1:10): Before we delve into more deeply specific questions, can you just tell listeners a little more about yourself? When did you first become interested in medieval studies more broadly?
PM (1:18): That's an excellent question. I can't really remember. It seems like I’ve always been interested in medieval topics. I always thought it was a cool era. I mean, when I was a little kid, watching shows, with you know, wizards and warriors or playing Dungeons and Dragons and that kind of stuff. So, I would say it was definitely more the fantasy that brought me into the actual study of history. So, I understand other people who approach history that way too.
ER (1:40): Yeah, that absolutely makes sense. I've been reading fantasy from early on, so it makes sense that I ended up here. What about some of your more kind of specific specialties in things like food, games—like medieval games and video games more specifically—how did you arrive at those things?
PM (1:57): That's a great question. I played a lot of chess growing up and played competitively for a while. I was never very good. But I used to play in tournaments, and I had a ranking and all that stuff. The more I played, the more interested I became in the history of chess. So that was really the game that got me into the study of medieval games and historical games in general. And, you know, one of the best chess collections in the world happens to be right here in Ohio, in Cleveland.
ER (2:23): Oh, really?
PM (2:24): The Cleveland Public Library has an amazing collection of chess material. So, anybody who's interested in chess, go check it out. It's great. And then I mean, the more I read about it, the more fascinated I became with studying this idea of games and what it meant to people at that time. You know, there's so much writing about chess in the Middle Ages. You know, I haven't even discovered it all yet. Every time I find another reference, I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t know about that, that’s great, tell me more.” From that, I'm looking at other games too. And it's just a fascinating topic, and I never get tired of studying.
ER (3:03): Oh, that's awesome. So what did chess mean to people in the Middle Ages?
PM (3:07): That's so great. It's meant so many different things to different people. You can approach it from the negative point of view, and you have the bonfires or the vanities; there's always chess boards in there, with the other instruments of gambling. That's one of the earliest written references is to chess being a gambling game.
ER (3:26) Chess was considered gambling?
PM (3:27) It was! Well, they gambled on everything. But yeah, definitely because you could play chess with die because it could be kind of boring because it doesn’t have our modern moves. The queen was the weakest piece on the board. She could only move one square diagonally. The bishop had to move two squares diagonally. That's it. So that really slowed down game play. So, people could make it more interesting. You could assign a value to each of the six pieces. You know, if you rolled a one, you had to move a pawn or whatever. So, you could play chess that way. Also, there were lots of chess problems because either you're alone and you're trying to entertain yourself playing chess, you solve a problem like we have today all these chess problems, or you just got bored of playing. And I think that's why chess functions in a lot of medieval literature, sort of a lot of background stories. It's something that lovers are doing to get away or something that people are doing just to pass the time. It's something that could be deadly serious. There's a great story from one of the sagas where the king asks to take a move back and the guy he's playing against says “no,” and then it doesn't end very well for that guy.
There’s the great Jacob de Cessolis’s book on chess, which has all these great stories from the Matter of Rome and Matter of France and all these ideas of “this is the way an ideal king should be,” or queen or other people. So you could just do with it what you wanted to do with it. And I think that's what makes chess really interesting. You’re never going to get tired of it. You're never going to figure everything out. There's always more questions to ask.
ER (5:15): That's interesting because I feel like that has carried over to today right? Somehow chess never gets old.
PM (5:21): Right, now we have all the chess scandals too, the cheating scandals.
ER (5:24): Right? Thankfully, no one's getting murdered, hopefully. Interesting. So aside from chess, what did people play in the Middle Ages?
PM (5:35): Yeah, so other board games are very popular, like Nine Men’s Morris, which at its most basic level is tic tac toe, you tried to put three counters in a row. It’s so great because it's a scalable game, so you could scale it up to as many pieces as you wanted. It was most common to have each person to have nine and then you’d place the counters and tried to get three in a row, and when you did that, you’d take off one of your opponent's counters. So, once you got all nine on the board, you move them around to try to find them. So that was a really fun game. And it's great because anybody can play this. You find game boards everywhere, scratched into the floors of buildings. You don't even need to do that. You can just draw it in the dirt, you can use sticks and stones. That's one of the things that makes board games so popular, is that you didn’t need that. Everybody thinks of these super expensive chess boards, like the Lewis chessmen, and you know, these intricately carved things, and that's great. There are wonderful things like that, but at its most basic level, you don't really need that much to play board games, and anybody can do it. And like I said, games like Morris are scalable. There's a great image from Alfonso’s Book of Games in the late 13th century, where there are two children and their mothers playing tic tac toe. It’s in the section on Morris, where they’re talking about more difficult games, but they're like, “Look at this game. Anybody can play this.” And I think that's what's really great. It's such a great teaching device. It's a fun way for people to interact with each other.
ER (7:02): That's cool. It's almost transferable or equalizing in a way because everybody, everybody can play them in their own ways and with the own materials they have. It's really interesting. I was interested when you said they're scratching it into the floor. There's art where this is depicted. What does research in medieval games look like?
PM (7:24): A great question. It’s just like going down endless rabbit holes because there are some books dedicated just to games like Alphonso’s Book of Games or Cessolis’s book on chess book on chess. But for a lot of it, it's just a passing reference, sometimes, you know, an amazing passing reference, like the floating chest sets in the Arthurian stories that I’m forgetting.
ER (7:53) Oh yeah, I don’t remember either, but I remember of them.
PM (7:57): Maybe it’s one of the Gawain stories? Anyway, sometimes it’s just a passing reference. I’m reading a great new biography of Albertus Magnus that came out, talking about him mentioning hunting when he was a kid, just somebody reflecting back on their childhood and the enjoyable time they had engaging in this game. A lot of times, it’s just that little passing reference, and you’re digging through all this stuff, trying to find just a little bit. Almost always it's some chance encounter. I'm not looking for games. I'm just reading something, and I find it, and I'm like, “Oh, that's great.” So I have to write it down, keep track of it. I've noticed there's an alarming rate at which people die of hunting accidents, especially rulers. I'm not sure if they’re all accidents. That seems to be a common theme.
ER (8:44): A conspiracy theory. I mean, I guess it’s not surprising. Kill the boar or kill this king you don't like?
PM (8:54): You're alone in the woods.
ER (8:56): Things happen.
I especially like the reference you made to him hunting as a child. I guess I haven’t thought a lot about games in premodernity, but it's really interesting that these types of nostalgic things carried so far into the modern day. I was thinking, I've read about your teaching and it feels like you have a really interesting approach to pedagogy that involves not just studying these games, but using games for students. So, I guess, what do you typically teach? And how do you approach teaching those things?
PM (9:35): That's a great question. I teach a course specifically on games, and for the first time this year, I have them make a game as their research project. There’s this great program called Twine. It’s super easy to use. It's just basic HTML coding. Even I can do it, and I have no idea what I'm doing. The students design their own choose-your-own-adventure computer game. All the research is focused on primary sources, so I have them identify texts and images they can use to incorporate within the game. I really like that sort of playful aspect because my own favorite research project when I was a college student was inventing this diary of someone who took part in the Ciompi Revolt, and I read so much—all these primary and secondary sources—to make it authentic. It’s just so much fun to do that role playing. And then I got an opportunity recently to publish a work like that where because the internet says that the first Lithuanian King of Poland Władysław Jagiełło invented the Polish national dish of bigos, which is like this hunter stew because he was a famous hunter. There's nothing in an actual primary source that says that. But there's this famous chronicle by Jan Długosz, and I found a place in that chronicle where I could insert that story in this wedding feast. So, I translated a paragraph from the chronicle and then sort of took over pretending that I was the chronicler telling the story.
It's so much fun to do that kind of role playing that's based on real historical research. The students enjoy it, and I enjoy it. You know, it's so much more fun to play these games than to read a paper that might not be so interesting. So, I try to have that playful idea. We play lots of games in my classes. I teach a course on food now, and I can't require students to cook. Not everyone has access to a kitchen or food, but if they could, that would be great. But, you know, I encourage them to. So, we try to do making, playing, really learning history by doing. That's my most important thing. The best way to learn history is by doing history, doing the research. So, I don't have any tests; I don't have any term papers; I don't have any textbooks. I do very little lecturing. It’s all hands-on, research-based, project-based, and it’s so much fun. I like teaching this way so much better than the way I used to teach.
ER (12:06): Yeah, I mean, I want to be in your class. I’m going to come take your class. But that sounds so fun. On your bio, you compare yourself to Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus.
PM (12:18): If only I could live up to Ms. Frizzle.
ER (12:20): I feel like you’re living up to Ms. Frizzle. I grew up watching that show. I was going to ask you how students “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy,” but I feel like hearing that like we're cooking medieval food. That's awesome. So, do you cook for them?
PM (12:46): I teach mostly online, so I don't, but you know, I would if I could. Right before the pandemic, I had planned to have this presentation for our history club, and we're were going to do a little like, Chopped kind of challenge making a medieval dish. So, I would have participated in that too. But unfortunately, the pandemic ruined that. Maybe, you know, in a safer world in the future we'll be doing that.
I think it’s just trying stuff. And I’m more flexible. Some people say you only have to use the traditional ways of cooking and that's fine. I mean, I think that's great if you can, but if you can't maybe you just use an Instapot and that’s fine. Don't feel like you can't try something because it's just too hard. Just ease your way into it, and then you can try different things after you become more comfortable.
ER (13:27): Right, you don't have to go build a fire and all that stuff.
So, you said that you liked teaching in this way more than the way that you used to teach, so I'm wondering, how have you seen kind of students respond compared to like previous teaching, and how do you do this more like research, project-based teaching? How has that affected them?
PM (13:47): Thank you, that's a great question. I have had a pretty positive response, but not everybody. Some people want to just sit there and listen to lectures and be that person in the back of the class just. But most people really like it. That games course I turned into a Gen Ed course this time, and it was really great because maybe at least a quarter of the students were computer science majors and programming was so easy for them. They could do so many more interesting projects, but for them to link the humanities with STEM stuff was really, really great. Just in general, students enjoy it more. I've tried this in the past, but I made it optional. And then I didn't give very clear instructions. I didn't repeat the instructions enough. I used to have them, in this games course, I'd have them choose a primary source and make a gloss of it and explain what a medieval gloss was. And I would still get students in the last few weeks saying, “So what's this gloss thing? Can I just write a regular paper?” And I’m like, “Fine, you can just write a regular paper.”
I think that's the thing I've really learned. If you're going to do this stuff, you have to give clear instructions. You have to walk them through, and you have to give them examples. And once they have all those things, though, they'll try it and they’ll do a good job or do the best job they can. I scaffold everything, and I got rid of any assignment that could possibly be conceived of as busy work because I don't want to waste anybody's time. So, I explain clearly, “You're doing this because it's going to help you do this, which is going to help you do this, which is going to help you do this.” It’s thinking about where we're going to end up and working back from that and really trying to put myself into the mind of a student, being respectful of their time, and showing them “there is a reason why you’re doing this, this is really going to be help you with the final graded project.” I don't grade any of the early stuff. It's all low stakes. That's one of the things with “take chances, get messy.” Swing for the fences. If you miss, that doesn't matter, we'll get there eventually. I really like that approach.
ER (15:54): I love that so much. Some of my peers and I who have taught for a couple of years, we've noticed our students, they're afraid to take risks a lot of the time or they are afraid they're going to do something wrong if they're not told exactly what to do. So I love that that encourages students to literally do something that is so out of the realm of what they've known before that they kind of have to take risks. They might not even know the questions to ask, so they're not only all on the same playing field, but they're able to go through that journey together and really do something totally different. I think that's really cool.
PM (16:31): No, absolutely. I think that's one of the reasons that I have them play medieval board games in class because it's having to learn how to play a game you don’t know how to play from medieval directions with people you don't know that well. It's really uncomfortable and really awkward. And that's a great way to learn: to just get uncomfortable and sit down and try to go over these primary sources and make sense of them with other people. Absolutely, whatever assignments you can come up with that break the mold on and get people outside of their comfort zone, I think is great.
ER (17:04): I hadn't even thought about that angle. Of course, they’re having to read the primary sources, so they're doing something academic, but they kind of don't know that they are.
PM (17:13): Exactly, it’s the best way to trick them into learning.
ER (17:17): Do you feel like these approaches have impacted your research as well as your teaching?
PM (17:20): Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I feel like I've already made this clear to my colleagues, but I really don’t want to write a second academic book. I want people to actually read what I write because I spent a lot of time doing it. Everything I'm doing now is more public facing. I try to make it more approachable, more engaging. I just want to interact with people and teach them and meet them where they are and where their interests are and encourage the study of history, however it is. I used to be sort of more snobbish when I was younger and I was like, “Oh the Renaissance Faire, that's not real.” I just want people to have fun with it, and whatever you enjoy, that's great. Because that's what people should be doing. If you like SCA or Renaissance Faires or whatever, that's great. Learn how you learn. Come to class, let's do some fun stuff. Because I mean, all that stuff, you’re experiential learning. Just try everything, and let’s come together and see where we are.
ER (18:32) Yeah. I feel like this connects (you can tell me if it does not), but that public-facing component. I imagine that's come into this—you consulted with Age of Empires IV, correct?
PM (18:41): Right. Yeah, well, I didn't actually consult. They had actually written the game, and then they brought us in at the end to turn it into a credit bearing-experience.
ER (18:54): Got it. Still cool!
PM (18:56): So I wasn't actually involved in making the game. It was still a lot of fun. You know, I worked with the developers and we talked about stuff and they told me what their process was in designing the various things. They gave us this script and my partner on the project, Alison Futrell, who was the head of the History Department then, and she's a professor of Roman history. So we worked together and came up with a bunch of ideas. We were working with all kinds of people, with administrators at my university and businesspeople at Microsoft, and there were so many people involved, which for an academic historian is unusual. We’re used to just sitting by ourselves, sitting in front of my computer or sitting in a library, and it’s always just me working. This collaborative teamwork, I think it's also a new experience, and I think an important experience because I think that's the way history has to go in the future. It has to be more collaborative. There’s so many so many great things we could be working on. Nobody's ever going learn two dozen languages or all the paleography or all the stuff. The more we can work with other people who have that expertise. You don't need to become an expert in this archive if there already is somebody you can work with, and they can help you. Our jobs would be so much easier and so much better if we just worked together more and were less territorial about our topics and just shared more. And brought in the public more! The way that there are citizens scientists, there are people who are genuinely interested in history, who want to be historians—not in the way that I'm a historian, but to be somehow involved in the production of history. So, let's get those people involved, somehow, figure out a way. The more people who are working on problems, I think, the better.
ER (20:35): Do you feel like video games like this one are a kind of a way to do that?
PM (20:37): I do, I really do. So many of my best students tell me that they got into history because of video games, not because the game told them the history but because they say, “Oh, wow, that's really cool. I want to find out more about this.” Inevitably, they may end up just at Wikipedia, or wherever. Sometimes they dig a little deeper. But that was part of what I wanted to do here, was to show all the great open access stuff that already exists. Museums have digitized their collections, libraries too. There are all these great public history projects. There's so much great real history on the internet that you can use, anybody can use. So, if you're interested in, whatever we talked about; the Battle of Hastings is where Age of Empires starts. There's so much great material out there that you could learn more about this. So, I try to point them in those directions and see if they want to do that. Or maybe they don't. Maybe they just want to read a short Wikipedia article, and that’s fine.
ER (21:34): They’re learning something!
PM (21:35): Exactly. You don't have to go all in.
ER (21:40): You can just dip your toe.
PM (21:41): Exactly, exactly.
ER (21:43): Yeah, I think that's so cool because I love Dungeons and Dragons. I like Renaissance Faires, all that stuff. As a scholar of the Renaissance, I'm like, is it like entirely authentic? No. Is it a really cool pathway to something else? Absolutely. Yeah. So, I think that that's so valuable, as even just dipping the toe in, right? We're learning that history is not just this stodgy and cold thing that people do, isolated in our offices or archives.
So, there is a course at the University of Arizona, a one-credit course involving Age of Empires IV. Without giving away too much of your talk today, what does that look like for students? What do they get to do?
PM (22:24): So, they'll play through the game. There's two ways to play Age of Empires. There's the eSports way, civ versus civ. You can play in teams of up to four. You can play against the AI or play against other people. Then, they also have campaigns. So, there are four campaigns: the Hundred Years’ War, the Norman Conquest, the rise of Muscovy, and the Mongol Empire. They would play through those four campaigns, and then then they would do the work. Professor Futtrell and I created these—they call them “illuminated histories.” They're like Atlas Obscura-style deep dives into interesting aspects of the history that isn't covered. It's related to something that comes up in the gameplay, but we don't go into as much detail about it. So, we tried to relate it to the gameplay. There are also these “Hands-on History” videos, which are these little mini documentaries that are really interesting. And then there are a bunch of other cinematic things where they take you to places. We tried to relate as much as possible to things in the game and refer to that constantly so that the people that are playing stay engaged and want to learn about it that way. Then we're taking them in different directions too. I mean, it's essentially a war game, so from that, we’re like, “Here, you can look at gender history or environmental history.” From that basic core, we're sort of broadening their horizons. Once they work their way through all the campaigns, once they work their way through all the materials we created, then I created an assessment—because we had to have an assessment, but it has to be fun because it's a game—so I created a gamified assessment. It's an online scavenger hunts where we're going to various museums and finding things in public history sites and all this stuff just to teach them these are the kinds of materials that are out there for you to use if you want to keep learning. Once they pass the assessment, then they'll get the credit. And I've created this separate three-credit course based also on Age of Empires, which if they actually enroll in University of Arizona and take that with me, they can keep learning based in that world, you know, keep building on the experiences that they had there. We'll do more project-based learning. That's really the goal: to make this not end with this one-credit course but to keep instilling this love of history in people and keep having them learn based on their experiences with this game.
ER (24:54): Yeah. What has the response been like from students?
PM (25:01): It's been pretty positive. Yeah, for the most part. For the most part, people think it's a good idea. There have been some cynical people who think it’s a horrible idea. But for the most part, it has been pretty positive. We're doing more events to introduce it. We did a bunch of press earlier when it first came out. And we're doing another event in two weeks on campus where we have an eSports arena. This is targeted both at people who aren't University of Arizona students as well as students who are there. So, we'll bring people into the eSports arena, introduce them to the concept, have them play the game, just try make us make this known to as many people as possible, just have fun learning history with games.
ER (25:51): That’s great because I think it's really meeting students where a lot of them have been at. Maybe they’ve played video games for most of their lives, you know, so I think that's a really cool way to meet them and then challenge them and push them to the next thing. So I love that and I look forward to hearing a little bit more about it in your talk this afternoon.
Last question I have for you, is just broadly where are you going next? Are there projects you're working on that you're excited about?
PM (26:16): That’s a good question. Yeah, this one has taken up most of my life for the past two years.
I think I’m most excited about teaching because, while I was working on this, I just completely redesigned all my courses according to this new style. I'm really looking forward to working on that stuff, to doing more projects. For the Age of Empires course, I'm going to have them do story maps because maps are such an important part of the game of Age of Empires and then have them look at medieval mappa mundi and how they viewed the world. I'm so focused on teaching right now that I haven’t been thinking as much about research, but for me, they go together so much. I would love to do more. There are so many great people working on this topic, working on historical video games and how students learn with them, so I'm hoping to maybe work with some of them in the future.
I know I said I didn't want to write another academic monograph, but I am working on a history of medieval and early modern Western European perceptions of Eastern Europe, which is still relevant today, I think, because of everything is happening in the world. Of course, I look at that through food and games too, which is an important part, pointing out how those are different from their use in the West. I am working with a lot of maps for that too. So, I'm still all over the place. I’m never a person who says, “This is one project. That's another project/” I'm always working on ten things at once never finishing really, but that's okay.
ER (27:57): You’ve got to keep it exciting, keep it fun.
PM (27:59): Exactly.
ER (28:00): What are we doing if we're not having some fun doing it? I need you to make some kind of series or a blog or something about your pedagogies and how you keep it playful. I really feel like I and many people who are teaching today could learn a lot from that a lot from the active engagement. So, all sounds really, really cool.
PM (28:20): Thank you.
ER (28:21): Well, I think that we that's all the time we have for today. You've given our listeners so much to consider and think about and get excited about I think. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. And I look forward to your talk later this afternoon.
PM (38:33): Thank you. Thank you so much for having me here.