Playing History

I have a confession. I’m a renrat. I’ve enjoyed Renaissance faires since I was a kid and from at least the age of 14, I’ve made my own costumes, collected various historically accurate pieces (or “faire approved” garb), and learned sixteenth century colloquialisms and Shakespearean insults, so that I can play along with the actors, which I have done successfully enough to be confused for being one.

In reading Jeremiah McCall’s and Adam Chapman’s articles on historical video games, I found myself going through the same intellectual transformation I experienced as a Renaissance faire playtron: my mental model of experiencing bits of real history overshadowed superficial checks for accuracy. When I first began filling my massive trunk of bodices, skirts, and chemises, I payed close attention to historical accuracy in terms of fabrics and colours, and I would shake my fist at peasants wearing royal purple, demanding punitive measures for their disregard of sumptuary laws (even though I really can’t say my costumes are 100 percent accurate, whatsoever). Over the years, as movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean”  came out, the sixteenth century started to resemble the eighteenth, and men wearing excessive eyeliner stole Sir Francis Drake’s spotlight while the local faire moved from a shire- to a port-themed set-up. I could go on about the uncomfortable corporatization of Renaissance faires and the implications, but I’ll spare you. As annoyed as I was about the many historical inaccuracies that abounded (exploded, really), a couple of years ago, I realized there wasn’t much I could do except continue enjoying what early modern life still existed, which expanded the more I studied early modern European and Atlantic World history. Discursive engagement has never ceased because I’m playing history, not writing or reading it.

Like historical video games, Renaissance faires and the actors and playtrons involved undergo the same scrutiny and criticism. What’s more is, I approach faires like I do adventures in video games (except that I always hope that it becomes the Millennial Fair in Chrono Trigger so I can tryout the teleporter; and in I also tend to do side missions more than the primary…). However, as Adam Chapman saliently states,

“Simply focusing on the accuracy of the game [or a Renaissance faire] often re-informs us about popular history rather than recognizing the opportunities for engaging with discourse about the past (and the nature of this discourse) that this new historical form can offer.”

Discursive engagement with history occurs at less obvious levels in video games and Renaissance faires, and both are mediums by which history can be consumed as well as experienced. However, while neither is fully representational of the past, at the very least they are mimetic cultural products in which players enjoy “typical historical environments, characters, scenarios, and experiences,” from Maypole dances and the celebration of spring, to danse macabre; from staving off the plague with foxtails and horns, to chasing fairies with bells and trinkets; from yelling “God Save the Queen” during her processions, to drinking an ale in a pewter mug while listening to songs of performers with friends.

While Renaissance faires may provide a means to experience history, it is not clear how they may serve as “problem spaces” in the same way as video games. This is not to say faires are not problem spaces; they are, but in different ways because there really are not any goals and conflicts, unless this includes fulfilling a multitude of mini missions to complete your experience (these might include: attending the market, seeing a few shows, bowing for all the courtiers, sneering and yelling back at Puritans, losing children in the maze, playing games, concluding with singing songs with friends while sitting on grass in the shade with friends and sampling things brought back from the New World thanks to a generously bearded courtier).  In this case, the idea that “the choice of problem space, or more specifically the choice of whose problem spaces to represent necessarily locks the game [faire] into certain portrayals of the past,” particularly in Elizabethan England (with packs of Jack Sparrows running amok).  As often as the facts are not straight, like video games but not to the same degree, Renaissance faire characters generally have historically legitimate roles and goals, at least the major figures.