Carl Sagan, Contingency, & Choose-Your-Own-Adventure

Carl Sagan, Contingency, & Choose-Your-Own-Adventure

Rewatching the original Cosmos series over the summer, this quote resonated with me:

“Biology is more like history than it is like physics: you have to know the past to understand the present. There’s no predictive theory of biology just as there’s no predictive theory of history. The reason is the same: both subjects are still too complicated for us. But we can understand ourselves much better by understanding other cases.” ~ Carl Sagan

I see a connection between Sagan’s words and Dr. Rand Spiro’s work with ill-structured domains.  History is certainly an ISD (although unfortunately not always recognized as such), characterized by irregularity, involving the activation of multiple representational schemas, and requiring considerable cognitive flexibility (Spiro et al., 1987).  Implicitly, Sagan also touches upon the idea of contingency — the idea that historical events are not inevitable or predestined, but instead emerge from a complicated web of factors and contexts.  Contingency is an important concept for students to understand as they develop the skills for historical thinking and investigation.  Since my research focuses on connections between videogames and historical empathy, I can’t help but link contingency with agency (agency being loosely defined here as meaningful interaction within a game, or the extent to which a player feels that her actions have an impact on the game world).

The idea of a connection between contingency and agency sparked a question about games used for history education (and one that may well already have been studied…but bear with me).  Does a game with a strong, linear narrative — one that presents a limited set of choices to the player — also limit the player’s sense of agency?  If so, might that complicate understandings of contingency, possibly even reinforcing a problematic sense of teleology?  I’m thinking especially of the scripted decision-making style of games that are quite popular in the history education games market.  It’s not just that the number of play-through paths are limited, though; its how visible those limitations are to the player when they’re presented as they so often are…as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style menu of options.  In contrast, a commercial game like Heavy Rain is also limited to a certain number of paths, but feels less so, since plot branches are more seamlessly integrated into the story line (and are less transparent).  Many scripted decision-making games are designed as such in order to promote a sense of agency…but is this approach sophisticated enough for learning outcomes like historical thinking?  Does this approach attempt to treat an ill-structured domain like a well-structured one?

I’m not arguing that players require an inordinate number of choices.  That would not only be a developer’s nightmare, but also potentially overwhelming for players, as Soren Johnson notes on Gamasutra in a discussion of commercial videogames.  However, it seems just as important for educational games to find that “sweet spot” for player agency — not just in the number of choices, but in the level of sophistication (and to borrow from Johnson, the “elegance”) in which they are presented.


Sagan, C., Druyan, A., Soter, S., Malone, A., Carl Sagan Productions., & Cosmos Studios. (2000). Cosmos.  Studio City, CA: Cosmos Studios.

Spiro, R. J., Vispoel, W. P., Schmitz, J. G., Samarapungavan, A., & Boerger, A. E. (1987). Knowledge acquisition for application: Cognitive flexibility and transfer in complex content domains. In B. K. Britton, & S. M. Glynn (Eds.), Executive control processes in reading (pp. 177-199). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.