Guest Post: HBO’s Westworld and the Realities of Living History

Cam Shriver is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, working in the Myaamia Center at Miami University. He has a PhD from Ohio State University, and his research focuses on surveillance among Native and European communities in early North America.

westworldWhen I began watching episode one of HBO’s new show Westworld, I was prepared for something in the Western genre. I had seen a trailer that included horses, Indians, and a stereotypical Old West landscape. I was pleasantly surprised. Not only is Westworld in the mold of previously-successful HBO projects, it also forced me to think about the prospects of living history. “Living history” simulates and interprets the past. Attractions assert history-as-entertainment. In that vein, successful museums must constantly keep exhibits fresh, introduce new initiatives, storylines, and characters, and generally give visitors a reason to return. The same problem faces the Westworld theme park, as technicians and writers strive to provide an ever-more entertaining and realistic experience. The show raises a perplexing question: how “real” should we get?

The “Westworld” of the title is a theme park, where guests pay to be transported into an authentic Old West—complete with gunslingers, saloons, sheriffs, gambling, drinking, etc.—while thousands of human-like androids (called “hosts”) fill out interactive storylines with each other and the guests. The androids are updated and begin to access their memories, including mistreatment by a generation of park guests. The fundamental problem is what happens when super-advanced robots become self-aware, or at least beyond the control of their programmers. The show is based on a 1973 film of the same name written by Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park. Technological uncontrollability clearly links the two. Moreover, the show innovatively provides the perspective of the robotic androids along with the theme park’s management. There is a lot to chew on.

The statement about artificial intelligence seems to be that the ability to access memories—history—blurs the line between machines and humans. At the risk of sounding philosophical, this is a useful truism for us as historians. Put differently, the difference between me and the squirrel outside my window is history. Maybe there’s more to it; I’m a historian, not a squirrel expert.

More to the point, the “Westworld” theme park reminded me of my experiences in public history, specifically living history. This is not because Westworld is a show about public history, reenactments, or similar categories, but because it unintentionally portrays a conversation we historians are already having. For the readers of this blog, I think the fantasy of “Westworld” reflects an important tension: historical education versus entertainment.

The idea of living history is not such a far stretch from the type of immersion offered at the Westworld theme park. Consider the sentiment of a behind-the-scenes theme park writer who creates the interconnected storylines followed by the androids. This management staffer says “we sell complete immersion” to paying guests. Compare that attitude with the statement on Plimoth Plantation’s website: “The guest experience is at the heart of our work. Plimoth’s unique and evocative setting, professional staff and compelling approach to history in an immersive environment combine to provide a guest experience that is at once authentic, engaging, educational and fun.” I asked Buck Woodard, director of Colonial Williamsburg’s American Indian Initiative, about immersion. He observed that millennial audiences are different from an older generation, and they generally want interactive “things to do” at museums. A program called Revolutionary City—Colonial Williamsburg’s relatively new interactive “politics in the streets” program—illustrates this paradigm shift. Dr. Woodard even said they have experimented with scent machines to deliver realism. As he reminded me, “what we’re doing is an impression of the eighteenth century.”

Yet the entertainment value of Westworld has an uneasy relationship with reality or, for those of us hoping to reach a wide audience, historical truth. It’s not that Westworld isn’t authentic—the android “hosts” are all too real, as we begin to find out. In addition, there is a great deal of violence in the park and, as we know, in American history generally. That combination of sex and violence brings men to Westworld. I reached out to University of Arkansas-Fort Smith anthropologist Daniel Maher about “frontier tourism.” He’s an astute critic of the genre. He told me that places like the Fort Smith National Historic Site (featured in the story True Grit) “is still closer to an amusement park than to history.” Based on his observations, he says “in effect when Wild West frontier violence is wallowed in without context it titillates the violent senses with impunity.” I can’t think of a better catch-phrase for the Westworld amusement park.

Then there are the top-notch living history museums, which present another end of the spectrum. As the Westworld park’s narrative-writer says to other behind-the-scenes management: “This place works because the guests know the hosts aren’t real.” The basic argument from the employee is that immersion in debauchery is too uncomfortable; the things that happen in Westworld border on evil. How do we—as writers, teachers, or museum professionals—balance entertainment with the uncomfortable realities of history? Put differently, what is the limit of immersive role-playing when modern society has changed fundamentally from the past society being played? These uncomfortable questions are at the heart of declining attendance in historical tourism, and help explain, as Professor Maher says, “why so few social minorities visit these sites.” At the same time, the American Indian interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg are effectively too historically accurate, like the hosts of Westworld. As Buck Woodard told me, guests “are confounded” to see Indians on the streets of the colonial city (ironically, because of colonialism). They cannot sustain a historical conversation. Thus, immersion often requires a “translator,” such as an “Indian trader” or go-between character, to help mediate between the Native actors and the guests. Dr. Woodard and his team also use a mix of first- and third-person interpretation. For guests without proper background knowledge, living history can be so authentic it becomes ineffable.

Particularly as we early American historians try to educate our audience in past attitudes toward race, class, and gender, such role-playing can provoke some strange boundary crossing in the here and now. This brings me to a moment that stuck with me the most, and I think is worth considering particularly from where I sit at the Myaamia Center, the research arm of the Miami Tribe. Ed Harris’s character describes the guests who come to Westworld by saying: “they just come here to get their rocks off, shoot a couple Indians.” Even if those “Indians” are androids, this is an awkward proposition. Westworld’s villains are its human guests, Ed Harris at the top of the infamous list. I suspect that people would not really want to “shoot a couple Indians.” Still, if modern social boundaries dissolve in the face of immersion, thorny situations arise. I’m thinking of when black interpreters and white guests interact while interpreting slavery, for example. Native or African American interpreters have their own stories of guests saying or doing hurtful things. Buck Woodard noted that Colonial Williamsburg guests make quips that would not be said in, say, Rapid City or Flagstaff. Sometimes it is innocent, but other times visitors have their own ideas of historical reality or just cannot contextualize what they are learning. In real living history situations, the entertainment of guests can lead them to step over boundaries.

HBO excels in building worlds filled with fascinating characters. It is comparable to the ambitions of good living history. The line between entertainment value and reality can be a risky one to cross. None of this is an indictment of the show, and I’ll continue enjoying Westworld. I will also keep thinking about the possibilities and perils for living history: the good, the bad, and the ug…not-well-contextualized.


NB: I thank Daniel Maher and Buck Woodard for their thoughts. Those interested in the American Indian Initiative can follow its Facebook page. Daniel Maher recently published Mythic Frontiers: Remembering, Forgetting, and Profiting with Cultural Heritage Tourism (University Press of Florida, 2016).

4 responses

  1. Great post Cam! I haven’t watched Westworld yet, but it is on my list. Looking forward to examining the extra layer of how it relates to public history and historical memory.
    ~ Jen Garrott

  2. Thanks Jen! For me, that living history layer is pronounced, so as a fellow CW person I’d be interested if you see those or different connections.

  3. Great post! Been perusing Westworld posts since yesterday, and we have a winner. Have you read theories, btw? I compiled a list of all my favourite theories on my blog. Check it out if you want.

  4. Pingback: Public History and Pop Culture | Issues and Interpretations in Public History


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