Adrian Vickers, ''Trade Winds': an Interactive Simulation for the teaching of Southeast Asian History': Paper for Virtual Histories, Real Time Challenges Seminar

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‘Trade Winds’: an Interactive Simulation for the Teaching of Southeast Asian History

Adrian Vickers

University of Wollongong

In the teaching of Southeast Asian history, accessibility has always been a problem, and multimedia provides one way to deal with that problem. It helps us to answer the question of how one instils the kind of feeling of familiarity with the region that exists for European, American and Australian history. John McQuilton and Jim Hagan stimulated my interest in ways to supplement the teaching of history through the use of multimedia. At John’s suggestion Li Tana and I began working on ways to provide an opening into Southeast Asian history through the use of multimedia.

My starting point was the idea that geographical knowledge was essential for familiarity—perhaps history can be maps rather than just chaps. Maps provide a way of demonstrating change in the region over time, if supplemented with enough visual material to give a sense of place with which students can identify. I took this proposition to Ray Stace of the University of Wollongong’s multimedia teaching unit (CEDIR), knowing that making maps interactive was vague at best. Ray responded by asking ‘why not make it into a game?’ The McQuilton project already had one example, a game based on the processes of Selection, that we could use. Tana’s research on trade in early modern Southeast Asian history, combined with my knowledge of Dutch sources, provided bases for concentrating on the Seventeenth Century and the Asian trade of the VOC or Dutch East India Company, the world’s first great multi-national. So we came up with ‘Trade Winds’, in which the player begins as a VOC trader in 1670, visiting key factories—Batavia, Melaka, Ayutthaya, Makassar, Ambon (these are the active sites to date in Southeast Asia) as well as Syriam (Pegu), Pulicat (Coromandel Coast) and Galle (Ceylon). Once we have established the port shells, the number of ports can be expanded to cover the full extent of Company trade.

Setting up these visits meant replicating the journey from Amsterdam to the East Indies, which first of all involved an introduction to the game in Amsterdam. There is an abundance of material on the voyage to the East and the ships involved (including the publications on the Batavia and other ships that reached Australia—intentionally or otherwise). Adam Orvad, our illustrator, got excited about the possibilities of pirate attacks, although statistically such attacks did not occur as often to the VOC ships as they do in our game. Based on the statistical data of VOC voyages we plan to build in random events such as shipwrecks (on the Australian coast) which will be accurate in terms of their rates of occurrence.

The advantage of selecting the VOC was that it was a way of moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from European history to Southeast Asian history, in a way that would replicate the students’ own processes of knowing. There were other advantages as well, particularly because the Dutch left such a heavy legacy of visual representations of the region (many of them available through the marvellous collection of the Mitchell Library). I had already attempted to use time lines and basic data (for example about weights and measures) as adjuncts to teaching the basics of early modern Southeast Asian history, with little success or enthusiasm from the students. An interactive history simulation also provided opportunities to add these basic requirements in a useable fashion, and one that could be tied directly into the knowledge required for the player to complete the simulation.

As you have probably already surmised there are a number of problems and issues that arise from this approach. First, early modern Dutch history is not exactly familiar to Australian students, although it is a little more accessible than Southeast Asian history. Secondly the reliance on Dutch representations creates a problem of lack of reflection on the nature of European perceptions and early modern forms of Orientalism. Beyond this there is also the problem of the status of ‘facts’ and ‘events’ in the presentation of history. As Geoff Gillan discusses in his paper, these problems raised questions about whether producing a multi-media simulation was a new form of history writing, or whether it is an adjunct to the main business of history. All of these questions are the kinds of issues which arise in any history writing, but we had the added problem of reproducing experience, one which creates issues of how far to push the boundaries of extrapolation or imagination when there are gaps in the data.

The project was conceived of as a practical one, which meant that instead of beginning with the historiographic questions, we began with the creation of the game and the questions arose as we built the simulation. Tana and I were lucky enough to have a star student with experience in script and game writing, Geoff Gillan, or greatest stroke of luck in getting the whole project off the ground. Solving our main problem of making the interactivity work was to be Geoff’s major contribution, but along the way he has solves smaller issues and problems, including basic problems of inconsistencies in the trade data made available by our Dutch research assistant, Anne-Geerke Hesselink.

The game, which consists of a series of trading transactions, has raised a series of interesting problems. First, the role of the ship as the main site of trade, or the primary matrix of interaction, has been important. In order to simplify interactivity and the processes of trade, we began with the device of having one trader travel to the East Indies and back. After a while it became clear that we were trying to fudge too much, and certainly the leading Dutch experts (Femme Gaastra and Els Jabocs) we consulted politely told us we were pushing it, since trade was a Company matter. So we moved to the device of a trader being based at a factory and gradually being promoted. Julia Martinez, one of the early research assistants on the project, had already indicated how we could follow the long-term career of a Company employee in Batavia. Compromising to some degree we came to the point at which we decided on movement between factories after a number of years. This is the kind of compromise which raises the question of what are the limits of historical representation—how much can we interpolate or compress before we cross the borders of ‘accuracy’?

What the trading process over a number of years required was a data-base of trade and background information on which to build the simulation. The VOC records and the publications from them provide huge archives of this kind of data, but not always in a form which we could use without adding a lot of work. We were able to build up the information for trading in the major items of trade—nutmegs, cloves, pepper, deer hides, saltpetre, cinnamon, Indian cloth—over a couple of decades. Thus we had the basis for simulated career-length trading for a Company official, whose success in one factory would lead to moves to others in the region.

Built into this idea of profiling Company trade through specific examples was a series of indicators of the fortunes of the character. I had the idea of acquiring political knowledge as the basis of rising in status, since such knowledge was essential to trade. Geoff developed this into the two status indicators—Company and local—which are now part of the game. We have toyed with companion characters and translators, but budgetary limitations have prohibited this. For the moment the ship and the VOC Factory remain the keys to interaction, especially through the recent development of having trade occur from Southeast Asian boats to VOC ships, a suggestion which came from Tana’s research. Our other indicators of success in the game are health and wealth—we always planned that Company employees would make themselves rich as well as pleasing the VOC, as this was the standard, but illegal, practice. Given the high death-rate of the hard-living Company employees, it is important to draw students’ attention to the physical conditions of the time through constant threats to health.

The latest draft is currently being completed, and we hope to have this to the point where we have some element which shows the Chinese and Southeast Asian sides of life in the port cities. So far the project has cost around $70,000 (the majority of this being a Federally-administered CUTSD grant), a modest budget for what we have achieved, but also a lesson to the administrators who think that interactive teaching is a way to save money! Our imaginations always exceed the budget, which is as it should be. If we are able to get further funding we have grander schemes for future developments: we would like complete trading functions to be available for English, Indian,Chinese and Southeast Asian traders, so that you can put their experiences and perceptions against those of the Dutch, to produce some creative disjunctions. There are a number of other interactive or digital projects we would like to build further connections with: the virtual Ayutthaya and virtual Batavia projects which are currently up in shell form, the visual library of Dutch representations of Asia being built up in the Netherlands, and perhaps going forward in time, the Endeavour Project of Paul Turnbull.

There are other aspects of the project which serve teaching needs, and if we ever get the million dollar grant we’d probably have to differentiate a commercial version from an educational. What is most exciting is the historiographic dimension of the project. We have raised questions about the data and the way it has been used in the literature, so there is a clear research agenda behind carrying out the project. But there are also larger questions of what purposes multimedia can serve in writing history. These have been pursued in Geoff Gillan’s honours thesis, a part of which is summarised in his paper for this Symposium.