Witness to the Revolution: Decoding the Boston Massacre

By Joanna Wendel

Imagine yourself pacing the narrow streets of Boston on a chilly morning in 1770. The night before, March 5, a confrontation between local civilians and British soldiers outside the Boston Custom House erupted into violence. The troops opened fire, with tragic results: four civilians are dead, and a fifth will soon succumb to his wounds. In the wake of this shocking event, everyone in Boston seems to have a different opinion about what really happened. Who provoked whom, and who is ultimately responsible? As tensions flare between soldiers and outraged colonists, it’s up to you to gather testimony from as many witnesses as you can find and piece together a narrative that gets as close as possible to the truth.

This intriguing scenario is the premise of Witness to the Revolution, a digital game designed to help players gain a deeper understanding of the incident known as the Boston Massacre. Developed by Serena Zabin, Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, the game emerged from a decade of research behind her new book, The Boston Massacre: A Family History. (On July 16, Zabin will discuss her book with The Pursuit of History’s History Camp Online over livestream.) Zabin designed the game in collaboration with Austin Mason, Director of Digital Arts and Humanities and Lecturer in History at Carleton.

The Boston Massacre is often remembered as a pivotal event that catalyzed colonists’ hostility to British rule and set them on a path to revolution. In 1768, the British government deployed over 2,000 troops to Boston in response to colonists’ objections to newly imposed taxes. According to popular lore, the colonists grew increasingly resentful of the soldiers’ presence until their animosity culminated in a deadly confrontation.

Zabin’s book seeks to provide more nuanced account of the relationship between civilians and soldiers. Drawing on records of marriages, friendships, lodging arrangements, and other points of contact, Zabin demonstrates that both groups were connected by a web of familial and neighborly interactions. Her research reminds us that the version of events presented by Paul Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre is more propaganda than fact. While Revere shows the British soldiers as heartless aggressors, Zabin argues that soldiers and colonists were not as polarized as we might assume. The conflicting eyewitness accounts collected after the Massacre—some of which blamed civilians for provoking the soldiers by hurling ice and snow—reflect not only the difficulty of seeing clearly in the darkness of an 18th-century night, but also the complex social ties that linked civilians and soldiers and affected their interpretation of events.


From map to game 

To help her understand the social bonds that formed between local Bostonians and British soldiers, Zabin created a digital map to track the residences of various individuals. The process of mapping helped her visualize how these figures might have encountered one another as they moved through the city, which at the time measured only one square mile. She enlisted undergraduate students to examine eyewitness accounts in one of the pamphlets published shortly after the Massacre. Students studied an original edition of the pamphlet from the collection of the Carleton library and determined which routes certain eyewitnesses could have taken on their way to the Custom House during the night of March 5. Several students continued to work on the mapping project after their coursework ended. They suggested that an on-the-ground walking view, rather than an elevated bird’s-eye view, would be more engaging, and began to build a three-dimensional map of colonial Boston using the platform CityEngine.

Mason, a medieval historian who has used virtual modeling in his own research, proposed a “trailer course” in which Zabin’s students would work with him to refine the three-dimensional map. Students in the course spent ten weeks adding colonial buildings and other realistic details to the virtual environment. Enthused by the project, the students ultimately encouraged Zabin to develop the virtual map into an interactive game.

Witness to the Revolution begins with the player being invited to join an investigative committee the day after the Massacre to find out what really happened. The player starts with two images: Paul Revere’s engraving and a blank page. As the player moves through the city, he or she encounters and interviews a series of eyewitnesses, each of whom provides a different, sometimes conflicting, story. The witnesses’ dialogue is based on real testimony from contemporary depositions. Each time the player interviews a witness, the blank page acquires more visual details, creating a counterpoint to Revere’s image. In cases where witnesses give contradictory evidence, the page will appear to “smudge” to indicate uncertainty. The game ends when the player has collected as much evidence as possible in the time allowed, producing a new interpretation of a familiar story.

As Mason explains, Witness to the Revolution follows the format of a typical mystery-style game—yet unlike most of games of this type, the mystery is never definitively solved. Each player will encounter a different combination of fifteen possible witnesses in the allotted game time of three to eight minutes. This means that each episode of play will generate a different “solution” to the puzzle. Zabin and Mason are also considering enhancing the game with historic objects from Boston’s Old State House that players may pick up to reveal additional clues.


A new way to learn

As an educational tool, Witness to the Revolution may be the first of its kind. While virtual reconstructions of historic sites are common in the field of digital humanities, notes Mason, games are unusual. (A recent exception is Walden, A Game, a simulation of Henry David Thoreau’s experiment with mindful living, described by one reviewer as an “anti-video game video game.”) Commercial video games with historical themes are relatively common, but are designed more for entertainment than education. Zabin adds that game companies often hire historians as consultants when designing history-themed games, but don’t have the resources to invest in the type of in-depth research that underpins Witness to the Revolution.

While the game is still in “alpha,” or preliminary, mode, Zabin and Mason are moving forward with plans to build and refine it further. They have applied for funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the next phase of development, they will collaborate with the game design department at the University of Wisconsin—Stout.

In partnership with Revolutionary Spaces, the nonprofit that administers key sites from colonial-era Boston, Zabin and Mason plan to have the game completed and installed in the Old State House in March 2022. According to Zabin, the game helps meet a growing demand among history museums for immersive, interactive experiences for their visitors. With Boston’s Freedom Trail receiving four million visitors per year, including numerous school groups, Zabin believes that Witness to the Revolution will help students engage with history in an unusually visceral way.

Another benefit of the game, Zabin emphasizes, is that it allows a more diverse group of individuals to enter the narrative of history. While we often think of the colonial era as dominated by “guys in wigs,” the city of Boston was in fact majority female in 1770. Zabin’s research sheds light on British and Irish women who accompanied their deployed husbands to Boston, as well as local Boston women who married British soldiers. Boston was also home to a significant number of both free and enslaved African Americans, yet most people only recognize the name of Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent and the sole person of color to die in the Massacre. Zabin hopes that Witness to the Revolution will bring some of colonial Boston’s lesser-known individuals to life, and help players to feel more connected to their stories.