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Review: The Hajj Trail

A review of The Hajj Trail, a text-based game on early modern Ottoman cultural history, directed by Tyler Kynn and Russ Gasdia

Published onDec 18, 2023
Review: The Hajj Trail

The Hajj Trail

Project Directors
Tyler Kynn, Central Connecticut State University
Russ Gasdia, Yale University

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Merve Tekgürler, Stanford University

Project Overview

Tyler Kynn and Russ Gasdia

The Hajj Trail is a free-to-play text-based educational game that introduces students to the cultural history of the early modern Ottoman world through a narrative centered on the historical pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). The game, or simulation, presents players with the difficult choices that historical travelers faced on the journey to Mecca through the early modern Ottoman Empire. The concept is similar to the classic educational tool The Oregon Trail. Through historical quotes, imagery, and music, the game allows students to imagine the early modern Ottoman world on a step-by-step journey from Sarajevo to Mecca. 

The main path in the game follows the route of an early 18th-century Bosnian pilgrimage manuscript and aligns the hours of travel accounted for in the game to this historical document. In doing so, the core mechanic of the game presents students with an experience of time and distance in their comprehension of travel in the early modern Islamic world. Additionally, a water decay mechanic provides students with an abundance of fresh water for much of their travels in the digital world, but as they approach the Arabian Desert and the final leg of the journey to Mecca, they are faced with the same desperate situation that many historical pilgrims faced in their own journeys: scarcity of water. By centering the experiences of time, distance, and water scarcity in the game playthrough, students leave the learning experience with a more dynamic understanding of the challenges that shaped pilgrims’ experiences of travel in the early modern Ottoman world than they might understand from an assigned primary source reading alone. 

The historical throughline of the project was developed from a variety of early modern pilgrimage and travel narratives from the Islamic world, based on the dissertation research of lead developer Tyler Kynn. For further cultural context of the early modern Ottoman world and in-game historical content, we consulted secondary literature on the cultural and social history of the early modern Ottoman Empire, cited on the project’s webpage.

The code of The Hajj Trail was built through the open-source platform Twine. While Kynn coded the locations, events, historical content, and narrative for the project, project co-creator Russ Gasdia wrote the code for the core game mechanics to provide a solid foundation for the project’s historical and regional scope and developed the webpage to host the project. The audience for The Hajj Trail is primarily undergraduate and high school students for use in world history, Middle Eastern history, and Ottoman history courses. While the project has been entirely volunteer-based and has received no funding, it was highlighted in The Economist in July 2022, discussed in an episode of Ottoman History Podcast, and summarized in a research note in the Journal of Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association.1 

Project Review

Merve Tekgürler

The Hajj Trail is a text and image-based historical simulation game where players travel through the early modern Ottoman Empire to perform the Islamic rite of pilgrimage, Hajj, in Mecca. Inspired by the 1970s educational simulation The Oregon Trail, project lead Tyler Kynn started this project in 2020 at Yale University with his co-creator Russ Gasdia. Combining Gasdia’s coding expertise with materials from Kynn’s dissertation project on pilgrimage in the early modern Ottoman world, they released the beta version of The Hajj Trail in early 2021. The current Balkans version was released in summer 2022.

The goal of this project is to present social and cultural histories of the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic world to non-specialist audiences and students in engaging and accessible ways while diverting from predominantly orientalist, violent, and warfare-centric depictions of the region. It also aims to offer new ways of engaging with primary sources that demonstrate the multifaceted nature of a pilgrim’s journey, embedded in the everyday lives of early modern Ottomans. The Hajj Trail achieves these goals by designing an interactive experience based on materials from historical sources, including quotes from pilgrimage narratives, details from local court registers, and stories from better-known travelogues, like that of Evliya Çelebi. 

The Hajj Trail communicates the spatial and temporal aspects of early modern travel through its unique mechanics of time. Kynn used the travel time information from an early 18th century Bosnian pilgrimage itinerary to encode the distances between two locations expressed in hours. The players lose time as they travel through the digital landscape much like they would have in the early modern period. Hence, they experience the journey in a more immediate way than reading about it in a manuscript. 

The Hajj Trail was constructed using Twine, an open-source tool and platform for digital storytelling. Using Twine, authors write interactive, non-linear stories in hyperlinked passages. Readers navigate the story by moving from one passage to another, and they are free to choose a path based on different options in each passage. Twine does not require previous coding experience because it automatically visualizes the hypertext connections between the different parts of the narrative. Kynn leverages the advantages of this underlying technology by building different branches into The Hajj Trail. Players can start their journey in different locations, travel on longer or shorter routes, or visit sites slightly off the main road, making Twine very well suited for the interactive flexibility of the game. 

While there are no pending changes to the game’s contents, there is potential to expand the game’s narrative by incorporating sources from Eastern European Muslims traveling to Mecca, such as the Polish-Lithuanian Tatars, whose accounts are found in the anonymous Risale-i Tatarı Leh or local pilgrimage sites like the tomb of Suleyman I near Szigetvár in today’s Hungary. These historical vignettes would be a timely reminder of religious and ethnic diversity in early modern Eastern Europe. Moreover, Kynn expressed interest in launching a 2.0 version of the game in collaboration with indie game developers, which would alter many of the underlying design and platform decisions without impacting the historical content.

In the emerging field of digital Ottoman studies, The Hajj Trail stands out with its contributions to undergraduate pedagogy. By making the historical experience of Ottoman pilgrimage accessible to students of all backgrounds, the project increases students’ engagement with Ottoman history. It allows instructors in adjacent fields, like early modern European history, to incorporate more diverse materials into their courses, further decentering Western Europe. Broadly speaking, The Hajj Trail also demonstrates how historians can communicate their research to a wider public audience. While academic history writing and historical simulation are not interchangeable, we cannot ignore the benefits of identifying new, popular modes for sharing our research and generating educational and enjoyable materials that are historically sound.

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