A master student’s fun and fascinating internship: Writing alternative histories

Jochem Scheelings, MA student African Studies, is doing an internship that is as fascinating as it is fun. With Angus Mol en Mirjam de Bruijn as supervisors, he is researching the role of video games in education, more specifically, in educating histories of Africa. 

Within the existing video game The New Order: Last days of Europe (part of the Second World War simulation game Hearts of Iron IV), an alternative world history has been written. Germany has achieved victory over the Allies. ‘I noticed that Africa was missing from this game. Not that it was missing from the map, but the only playable content in the region was related to colonialism. The process of decolonisation and its aftermath has as of yet not been implemented by the original developers. I decided I would like to write that process, that missing history’, Jochem says in a video call. 

As said, this is an alternative history being written. ‘We take a point in time and from there start to think: how could history have gone differently from that moment? I write a scenario in which African countries deal differently with decolonisation’, Jochem explains. 

How it works? As a player, you ‘are’ a country or a country’s leader. You play against the computer or online against other players, who control other countries. You come across newspaper articles, see coups happening, all pre-programmed by the developers, with a sizable amount of African flavour added by Jochem using the alternative history of the world as-it-has-already-been-built as a framework. But what can students learn from a history that is intentionally different from how things went? ‘What you discover when playing and in fact when building this game, is how historical processes work. How did anti-colonial Africans come to their ideologies, what are the building blocks of these ideologies, how did they rebel against their colonisers? Entire Wiki pages exist explaining how scenarios have come about. In the scenario of The New Order, Germany is much more influential in Africa than it has been in reality. At a certain point in time in the game, Germany’s hold over Africa collapses and it is forced into the process of decolonisation. The historical processes may be the same up to a certain point, but then we change the outcome.’

Jochem will write his MA thesis based on his internship (based at VALUE), and would love to continue working on the cutting edge of gaming and academia. He wrote four articles about these interactive games so far:

VALUE’s members livestream their experiences with interactive pasts on Twitch every Tuesday and Thursday at https://www.twitch.tv/valuefnd.

Jochem Scheelings, who holds a BA in History from Utrecht University, is also working on a project with TRAFIG (Transnational Figurations of Displacement) and Dignity Kwanza (a not-for-profit organisation in Tanzania) on behalf of Dr Catherina Wilson and Prof. Mirjam de Bruijn. This last project will become a game in Twine (an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories) about the experiences of Dignity Kwanza’s workers with protracted refugees from their neighbouring countries. The game will highlight the experiences of these refugees and can be used as both a training tool and a vehicle for raising awareness of the conditions of these people.