In today’s instalment of Meet the Historians, Dr John Wills, Reader in American History and Culture, discusses his fascination with all things American and his latest research projects.
What’s your role in the School of History?
I’m a Reader in American History and Culture. I just finished my role as Research Seminar coordinator, where I basically invite experts to speak about their topics to our staff and students; next I’m returning to the role of Director of American Studies, a programme dedicated to the study of American history, politics and culture.
What led you to become a historian of the USA?
I’ve always be drawn to California, the alternative lifestyles, the beaches, the LA thing. It feels like a second home there.
What are you currently researching?
I just wrote a book on video games and American culture, called Gamer Nation, out now. I’m currently editing a book on Red Dead Redemption with a colleague and friend, Esther Wright, and starting a new book project on Doom Town, a weird experiment at Nevada Test Site in the 1950s.
What’s the best book in your field you’ve read recently?
Most recently, Michael Newman’s Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (2018), a great piece of work on early video gaming. Max Page’s The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction (2007) is brilliant, and I wish I’d written it.
What’s the most common misconception about your field?
In terms of my involvement in Games Studies/video games and history, quite simply, that video games are ‘just for kids’ and ‘don’t matter’.
What’s your favourite module to teach?
I teach three undergraduate modules, one on California, one on Games/Recreation in the USA, and the third on US environmental disasters, called, in an upbeat manner, Inviting Doomsday (!). I enjoy teaching all three, but I especially like the Doomsday module and seeing how students take environmental issues very seriously today.
If you could have dinner with one person from the past, who would it be?
Well, as a Buddhist, I’m bound to say Shakyamuni Buddha, although language could be quite a challenge! My ideal dinner party of ‘the living’ would definitely include Barack Obama, William Shatner, and Nicolas Cage.
Follow John on Twitter here: @drjonw.