DH grad seminar – day 1: on gender bias in games and history

There are 11 of us in the class (including me). We started the class by playing Timeline (because, you know, we are historians). Timeline is a very simple card game in which each player has to organize cards (without dates) in the correct order.

I wanted us to play a game rather than go around the table and do the awkward intros, where every student defines herself by her field and the year she’s are in. That worked – when we finally did get everyone’s name, there was no mention of cohort, and one of the pieces of info that establishes arbitrary hierarchy among students was simply not there.

We got to know each other playing the game, and then we realized a major problem with the game. Of the 110 cards depicting historical events (The Fall of the Berlin Wall! The start of the Eastern Roman Empire! The last time the guillotine was used in Paris! The invention of Bubble Gum!) only 4 showed women on them. That is barely 3%.


look! data viz!

Here’s another way of looking at it: In the left pile of cards, each historical event is illustrated with one or more men on it. Blackbeard, the invention of the Colt revolver, the start of the 100-years war are just a few of the 50+ historical events that are best represented with images of men. In the middle pile are historical events illustrated with inanimate objects: the declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen  – just text; the first train accident – a burning train; the burial of Pompeii – an overflowing volcano. Last and least, the four cards on the right: the death of Joan of Arc shows her burning at the stake; Cleopatra shows a very stub-nosed queen; the ubiquitous Salem Witch trials, with, you guessed it, one woman about to get a noose around her neck, and two judgy men in tall hats behind her.

The card that bothers me the most is the one about the invention of the shopping cart.


sad shopper

It shows a sad woman pushing a cart. I mean look at this picture! I get it, it’s 1937, the US economy is in a hole,  the world is about to go to war, but does the shopping cart need to be so empty? Does she need to look so sad? Maybe it is all accurate – empty cart because Depression, sad woman because women did the shopping? Of course, it is also very accurate in that it largely follows the representation of women in standard history textbooks. Anyway – this led us to a good conversation about representation and marginalization – and where DH comes into play.

I played this game in different contexts multiple times, and had never noticed this. I had not paid attention to gender at all – I was more fascinated by the clues to the date that the images conveyed, or the rather odd choice of historical events – the invention of bubble gum is in there, but there is not a single card on modern Latin America, and while there is a card on “the end of colonization in Africa”, that’s about it for that continent. I enjoyed the exercise because any historical timelime has to make choices about what to included and what not to include – and this game illustrates that there will be consequences to making those decisions.

Perhaps it was the context: this class is entirely made up of women. It’s a statistical anomaly – but I’ll take it.  I already learned so much. We filled the rest of the three hours with some graphic design to properly illustrate who this group is – we are #History Squad  (graphics to follow); and a decision to keep the syllabus loose to reflect what the group wants and needs as we move through the quarter. Next week we discuss technology and DH, and we are reading Nowiskie, Gitelman and a bunch of NYT Science section articles. Stay tuned.

Go #HistorySquad!


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