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

February 27, 2013

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

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

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 historyturns out!


Stacy Klingler is assistant director of Local History Services at IHS. Along with the other LHS team members, she travels the state assisting local history organizations. She loves her job because itÕs never the same thing twice, unless she has to make a U-turn at Main Street.

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