In the last decade, the History of Emotions has become one of the most exciting and innovative fields of research worldwide.
Central to this research is the idea that emotions are not a fixed human experience, the same for everyone in all times and places. Once, it was assumed that emotions were constant through history: that while the scenery changed, the people on stage were always the same. Instead, we now say that emotions are a product of history: the way we feel, and the way we express our feelings, depends on who we are, and when, and where. What one culture or community thinks of as a natural, irresistible emotion (like piety, or patriotism) might seem unnatural to another. What one century condemns as 'greed', another century praises as 'ambition'. Our emotions are as much a product of our upbringing and surroundings as how we style our hair.
In this sense, there is no such thing as (for example) a standard, uniform thing called 'love', an inherent emotion felt the same way by everyone. There is only a range of feelings and experiences that humans have called 'love' across the centuries, but which have differed from each other enormously. Instead of searching for historical examples of people experiencing an identical thing called 'love', we might look at what 'love' was like for our ancestors in different times and places. Was it a bond of duty to others? A deep passion causing dangerous instability-to be avoided, or hoped for? Was it important, or irrelevant? Were young people taught to 'fall in love' with certain qualities that served society as a whole-and did those qualities change as society changed? What was allowed? What was forbidden? Asking these questions, we can build up a picture of the history of love, in its many and changing forms, just as we might trace the history of hairstyles.
A second key point is that just as history makes emotions, emotions make history. For too long historians have attempted to explain historical change without explicit reference to emotions-and yet historical events are human events, rich in emotional complexity. Major events like revolutions were shaped and driven by emotion. Slow shifts, such as changes in the status of women, were just as surely the result of actions by feeling human beings. The History of Emotions seeks to discover the specific ways that emotions have been a force for historical change.
Finally, the History of Emotions forms part of a larger project in the humanities and the medical sciences, of adjusting our understanding of what emotion is. Scholars of other centuries have seen emotion as the opposite and enemy of reason. More nuanced work tells us that emotions are in fact highly rational, and that our reasoning process draws deeply on our emotional selves. Emotion and reason can then be seen as two overlapping terms for the kind of perceptive judgement that we bring to our encounters with the world around us.
Developed through a partnership with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, the Queen Mary University of London and digital media studio Monkeystack, The Vault brings these ideas to an audience in the form of a game. The game is currently in an 'Alpha' state; core concepts and functionality are in place, but it has not yet been completed to a state releasable to the public. This 'Alpha' version of the game is downloadable for review through this website.
The Vault game is a journey into history, an immersion into the experiences and emotions of those whose lives were very different from our own. There, we discover unfamiliar feelings, uncanny characters who are like us and yet unlike.
It is also a journey into the human condition, into a metaphoric space in which being truly, richly human is the only way to survive-provoking us to consider not only our past but our future.
"I have been working in the area of history of emotions and thinking about public engagement for the last ten years, and this is by far the most exciting, original, and high-quality project I have encountered for the dissemination of the results of history of emotions research to a wide and diverse global audience."
Professor Thomas Dixon, Director of the Living With Feeling Project, Queen Mary University of London.