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Online Games of Today = Secret Societies of the Last Century?

At a recent In Your Neighborhood meeting, Erin Kelley (our director of Education and Community Engagement) noticed an interesting collection of costumes and props from a secret society on display at the Dearborn County Historical Society. She compared the way people would dress up and take on a role in those secret societies to what today's online gamers do in creating an avatar or virtual character and playing a role within the game. 

Her observation really made me think. When I've read about historical secret societies (like The Supreme Tribe of Ben Hur), they've seemed so foreign to me. How strange to imagine grown men dressing in costume or performing rituals. And there is also the darker side of many of these groups which frequently excluded people of color, non-Protestants, and women when they were formed. While it was clear that the appeal of "being a member of the club" was compelling, I just couldn't see the attraction.

But I know lots of people who really enjoy creating avatars and interacting with each other. In the gaming world, you have the chance to be whatever kind of person (or creature, for that matter) you want to be. You can do things you wouldn't normally do in your regular life. And you belong to a community.

Now when I imagine a secret society functioning in the same way, I get it. Erin's comparison suddenly opened up a new way for me to connect to an unfamiliar piece of the past. That is what all good historians, storytellers, docents and teachers do.

I shouldn't have been surprised that Erin might make this kind of observation, because she is often thinking about ties between popular culture and history. We always benefit from stealing some time from other IHS staff members to talk with local history organizations. I can't wait to see how her summer program, which includes public health response to disease outbreaks (like polio), disaster response (like that to the Flood of 1913), zombies, and oral history turns out!

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