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Story | Education
2 February 2021

In his own words: Digitally dusting off the pages of history


Professor Spencer Striker, Associate Professor-in-Residence for Communication at QF partner university Northwestern University in Qatar, on a learning tool that retells the past through the narratives of ordinary people living in extraordinary times

History Adventures, World of Characters is a fully interactive, cross-platform digital learning series designed to engage students by igniting an ember of curiosity for learning about the past. By combining first-rate historical interpretation, cutting edge mobile entertainment design, and the power of narrative, History Adventures inspires interest-driven learning for students.

By framing the study of the past through the lens of fascinating characters caught up in dramatic moments, we hope to inspire an emotional resonance

Professor Spencer Striker

Our idea is to dust off the pages of history, and bring them to life, by focusing on compelling narratives of authentic people, who lived in complex flashpoints of the human past, in different times and places around the globe. Our characters face perplexing, difficult choices whose fateful consequences they cannot possibly foretell. By framing the study of the past through the lens of fascinating characters caught up in dramatic moments, we hope to inspire an emotional resonance, which will imprint in the minds of students, forming long-term memories—and an emotional, visual impression of history they will not easily forget.

Professor Spencer Striker of Northwestern University in Qatar.

Characters at the crossroads of history

For our latest product, Empires & Interconnections, we’ve tried to tell the story of the world over a vast, transformative period concerning the three centuries from 1450-1750.

We begin this creative process by first trying to determine what are the major themes of the age, and where they are happening most vividly around the world. From there, our goal is to try to conjure and visualize characters at the crossroads of history – geographically, intellectually, and culturally. What people living in the world have lives that intersect profoundly with these broader themes of the age?

During this early modern period of colossal change, the world got smaller. The age of exploration, gunpowder, and international trade took hold, like never before. Epic empires expanded, and followed trade routes, as European nations battled to control as much of the world’s wealth as possible.

The dark side of this explosion of wealth and consolidated power and influence, meant enslavement and ruin for some, as Europeans unknowingly brought diseases that killed millions and meanwhile initiated the gruesome, inhumane Atlantic Slave Trade. Some nations remained autonomous and isolated, such as the Tokugawa of Japan, but it took immense effort to throw off the colossal tide of increasing global interconnectedness.

We developed six new characters, each of whom confronts the question of how to deal with this tidal sweep of rising empires

Professor Spencer Striker

“What would I have done?”

For Empires & Interconnections, we developed six new characters, each of whom confronts the question of how to deal with this tidal sweep of rising empires. Will they fold into this new interconnected world, or will they somehow resist?

We begin our journey in 1453, as Ioannina, a woman of Byzantine and Turkish ancestry, experiences the Ottoman Siege of Constantinople, led by Sultan Mehmed II. The battle hangs by a thread, but ultimately the ancient capital falls, heralding the final death knell of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Islamic empires of the Middle East, whose control of this critical crossroads will push the emerging mercantile empires of Western Europe to search for a Western route to Asia.

On the other side of the globe, Luis Felipe Gutierrez is a Spanish adventurer who dreams of achieving wealth and glory in the New World – while spreading the word of his Christian God – as Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro had done before him. In the disease-stricken, war-torn mountains and jungles of Peru, he finds instead madness, confusion, and death.

History Adventures combines the legacy of learning games with creative techniques.

In 1619, we introduce William, a man forcibly brought to the new settlement of Jamestown in Virginia, by Portuguese slave traders. Captured by English pirates in the Caribbean, William was sold, along with 16 other Africans, to the struggling Jamestown colony—and there he would be the first to confront an international slave trade that would last for centuries, and grip the lives of millions.

In Tokugawa Japan, a young woman, Ishi, is a key advisor to the powerful warlord, Tokugawa, who strives to achieve the first Shogunate. She will advise Tokugawa on how to deal with these strange, fanatical European missionaries: should we grant clemency, or should we deal with them harshly, and with violence, to stamp out their looming threat?

We start by trying to answer the question: what is the spirit of the age, and who are the people who define it?

Professor Spencer Striker

Impossible decisions upon which everything rests

When designing our historical flash fiction narratives, we start by trying to answer the question: what is the spirit of the age, and who are the people who define it? We then composite together plausible historical characters who are not famous, not kings or queens, but rather ‘real’ people, living through extraordinary circumstances.

Our characters are rooted in historical research and plausibility. But it is empathetic projection and imagination that dusts off the pages of history, and brings these ancient people to life. We must find the drama in a moment—an impossible decision, upon which everything rests.

And this is where the story jumps off the page; when the student confronts the emotion of living through a high stakes moment in history, forced to ask themselves: “what would I have done?”

Context for the complex world around us

Having won of the 2019 Horizon Interactive Gold Award for Best Education App, History Adventures was nominated for Best Educational App at the 2020 Reimagine Education Awards, known as the ‘Oscars of Education.’ From Apple Books to our Chromebooks web app, Android, iOS, and Kindle—History Adventures will be accessible in 2021 on every device and platform found at home and in the classroom.

From Oregon Trail to Assassin’s Creed, History Adventures synthesizes the best elements from the legacy of learning games while introducing new creative techniques, including historical flash fiction; dynamic cinemagraphs; 2.5D; immersive 3D; 360 panorama; interactive infographics; choose-your-own-adventure; visceral sound design; original music; and adaptive assessment.

The characters within History Adventures are, according to Professor Striker, “’real’ people living through extraordinary circumstances”.

We are committed to creating a scalable series of History Adventures exploring the past most studied in schools today. From the gardens of Babylon to the stockyards of Chicago, students will be able to explore five millennia of amazing interactive content with ever more to come. Coming in spring 2021, our newest product, Global Pandemics, will enhance student comprehension of the challenging times we’re living through—introducing the stories of five major pandemics to help students better contextualize the world around them today.

Spencer Striker is associate professor-in-residence for communication at Northwestern University in Qatar, specializing in digital media design. His creative scholarship is organized around digital media design that embraces interaction design, mobile media, digital media and learning, game media, and entrepreneurship.

He has taught at the American University in Dubai, the University of Wisconsin, and Indiana University; and designed and taught a wide range of creative production courses. In addition to his teaching experience, Professor Striker has been active in the digital media industry, having served as founding creative director of the Silicon Valley learning games startup, Galxyz, Inc., and producer and product manager at Kno, Inc. His projects have garnered some of the highest awards in the digital media field.

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