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Practical Necromancy: Mel Brooks, Historical Thought, & the Case for Video Games

There is a hilarious scene in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, a satire of the Mary Shelley novel, which has stuck with me for years. In it, Dr. Frankenstein's daft, unaware sidekick, Igor, is tasked with finding a brain in the cellar of his castle to put in the monster. The brain will be the engine of the monster. However, when the semi-literate Igor goes to grab a brain in the basement he chooses one that once belonged to Abby Normal (read: abnormal). You can view the scene here.

Abby Normal


In the early hours of this morning I recalled the scene but then thought about what it can teach us about historical thinking. I believe it is a widely accepted fact among historians that pure objectivity can never be reached and that our predispositions, however unwilled or subconscious, drive the narratives we create. The analogy formed in my brain: when we recall the past - that is, study history - we are in fact condemned by our fallible nature to choose Abby Normal. The immense and seemingly infinite intricacies of the past, and their synthesis in past epochs, is just too much for our current brains to comprehend. I suspect this is a product of our biological evolution. Our brains evolved throughout the years to comprehend a certain amount of necessary information. Looking over your shoulder if you heard a noise was advantageous to survival; thinking about your ancestor's calculated movement across the African planes was not.

Yet we are also 'condemned' by our nature (especially in an age with such luxuries as today's, which allows us the freedom to think about our ancestors rather than worry about the rustle of a bush) to want to understand the past and how other's have once lived. We want to raise the dead (practical necromancy). You can read more about practical necromancy in "Practical Necromancy for Beginners" by Shawn Graham at Play the Past. In raising the dead, we simulate the past. Yet we cannot present that past as it was. So we really are stuck with Abby Normal. We are forced to 'teach' Abby Normal how to react and live in this day and age so that they can show us the past. 

This does not mean that we are on a hopeless endeavour in studying history. In fact we are learning more an more everyday from Abby Normal. And thus weshould theoretically apply Abby Normal everywhere and using every platform or medium. This includes the emerging historical representation in video games. Games are a new platform to experiment with historical thought in ways that were previously unheard of or undoable. Even if you are vehemently opposed to representing history in video games, you still must recognize the 'meta' aspect of what they have the potential of teaching. That is, video games can teach us what may be wrong about a certain representation, how it can be presented more accurately, etc. A vast array of understanding can emerge from video games.


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