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(originally posted at #HIST3812, my course blog for this term’s History3812: Gaming and Simulations for Historians, at Carleton University).
I play because I enjoy video games, obviously, but I also get something else out of it. Games are a ‘lively art’; they are an expressive art, and the artistry lies in encoding rules (descriptions) about how the world works at some microlevel: and then watching how this artistry is further expressed in the unintended consequences of those rules, their intersections, their cancellations, causing new phenomena to emerge.
This strikes me as the most profound use of humanities computation out there. Physicists tell us that the world is made of itty bitty things that interact in particular ways. In which case, everything else is emergent: including history. I’m not saying that there are ‘laws’ of human action; but we do live in this universe. So, if I can understand some small part of the way life was lived in the past, I can model that understanding, and explore the unintended outcomes of that understanding… and go back to the beginning and model those.
I grew up with the video game industry. Adventure? I played that. We had a vic-20 . If you wanted to play a game, you had to type it in yourself. There used to be a magaine (Compute!) that would have all of the code printed within, along with screenshots. Snake, Tank Wars – yep. My older brother would type, and I would read the individual letters (and spaces, and characters) out. After about a week, we’d have a game.
And there would be bugs. O lord, there were bugs.
When we could afford games, we’d buy text adventures from Infocom. In high school, my older brother programmed a quiz game as his history project for the year. Gosh, we were cool. But it was! Here we were, making the machine do things.
As the years went on, I stopped programming my own games. Graphics & technology had moved too fast. In college, we used to play Doom (in a darkened room, with the computer wired to the stereo. Beer often figured). We played SimCity. We played the original Civilization.
These are the games that framed my interactions with computers. Then, after I finished my PhD, I returned to programming when I realized that I could use the incredible artificial intelligences, the simulation engines, of modern games, to do research. To enhance my teaching.
I got into Agent Based Modeling, using the Netlogo platform. This turned my career around: I ceased to be a run-of-the-mill materials specialist (Roman archaeology), and became this new thing, a ‘digital humanist’. Turns out, I’m now an expert on simulation and history.
And it’s all down to the fact that I’m a crappy player of games. I get more out of opening the hood, looking at how the thing works. Civilization IV and V are incredible simulation engines. So: what kinds of history are appropriate to simulate? What kinds of questions can we ask? That’s what I’m looking forward to exploring with you (and of course, seeing what you come up with in your final projects).
But maybe a more fruitful question to start with, in the context of the final project of this course, is, ‘what is the strangest game you’ve ever played?’
What made it strange? Was it the content, the mechanics, the interface?
I played one once where you had to draw the platform with crayons, and then the physics engine would take over. The point was to try to get a ball to roll up to a star. Draw a teeter-totter under the star, and perhaps the ball would fall on it, shooting the star up to fall down on the ball, for instance. A neat way of interacting with the underlying physics of game engines.
I’d encourage everyone to think differently about what the games might be. For instance, I could imagine a game that shows real-time documents (grabbed from a database), and you have to dive into it, following the connected discourses (procedurally generated using topic models and network graphing software to find these – and if this makes no sense to you, take a quick peek at the Programming Historian) within it to free the voices trapped within…
This is why I play. Because it makes me think differently about the materials I encounter.
Finally, with a bit of space to breathe, I am turning to getting my HIST3812 Gaming and Simulation for Historians course put together. In response to student queries about what this course will explore, I’ve put together a wee comic book (to capture the aesthetic of playfulness about history that games & simulations naturally contain). I’m not a particularly good maker of comic books, but it does the trick, more or less.
See it on Issuu here
One of the things I want my students to engage with in my ‘cities and countryside in antiquity’ class is the idea that in antiquity, one navigates space not with a two dimensional top-down mental map, but rather as a series of what-comes-next. That navigating required socializing, asking directions, paying attention to landmarks. I’m in part inspired by R. Ling’s 1990 article, Stranger in Town, and in part by Elijah Meek’s and Walter Scheidel’s ORBIS project. Elijah and I have in fact been talking about marrying a text-based interface for Orbis for this very reason.
But I’m also interested in gaming, simulation and storytelling for their own merits, so I’m trying my hand at an interactive fiction written using Inform 7 along the same lines. Instead of interfacing directly with the model represented in Orbis, I’ve queried Orbis for travel data, and have begun to write a bit of a narrative around it. (One could’ve composed this in Latin, in which case you’d get not just the spatial ideas, but also the language learning too!).
Anyway, I present to you version 0.1, a beta (perhaps ‘alpha’ is more appropriate) for ‘Stranger in These Parts‘, by Shawn Graham. I’m using Playfic to host it. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts. (And a hint to get going: check to see what you’ve got on you, and ‘ask Eros’ about things…)
Obviously, some things are lacking at the moment. I’ll want the player to be able to select different modes of transport sometimes (and thus to skip settings). There’s a point system, but it’s meant more to signal to the students that there is more to find. Depending on which NPCs a student talks with, different kinds of routes should become available. Time passes within the IF, and so night time matters – no travel then. As far as I know, there’s no such thing as multi-player IF or head-to-head IF, but that’d be fun if it were possible: can you get to Pompeii before your classmates?
In terms of the learning exercise, the students will play through this, and then explore the same territory in Orbis. In the light of their readings and experiences, I’ll be asking them to reflect on the Roman experience of space. Once we’ve done that, now being suitably disabused of 21st century views of how to navigate space, we’ll start looking at the landscape archaeology of other ancient cultures.
That’s the plan, at any rate.
nb. I found this post lurking in a dark nether region of my wordpress dashboard, and it appears I never published it. So here it is!
Having spent a great deal of time in my thesis pondering the mysteries of Roman economics, it is curious to see how a city-builder game like Caesar IV demands many of the same skills – working with cost ratios, determining how much of a particular resource certain kinds of activities consume, distance & profit calculations – see for instance the discussion here and the tables here. Then go and study something like The Baths of Caracalla by Janet DeLaine. It is all strangely similar. I would have done better to have spent a few months playing the game and then looking at my copy of Finley or Hopkins. I’m not saying that the assumptions that underlie the game mechanics are analogous to the actual workings of the Roman economy; I’m saying that the game foregrounds the interconnectedness of production, consumption, taxes and society. I am constantly running out of money & resources as I play the game, which brings a whole new appreciation to the problems of monetary flow in the Roman world.
Below are the slides from my presentation to the Carleton University History Undergrad Society, on good history through good gaming…
mea culpa: there should be a citation of the Laura Secord plaque to Rob MacDougall and his historical ARG, Lies Here, recounted on Play the Past.
[Originally posted on Play the Past, October 13]
In Matthew Johnson’s excellent ‘Ideas of Landscape‘ (Blackwell, 2006), he talks about the way archaeologists and historians look at landscape. (See Bill Caraher’s blog review piece). Landscape-as-palimpsest has been one of the most powerful metaphors for understanding landscapes and how they are formed. (A palimpsest being a manuscript that has been overwritten numerous times, with the earlier layer being erased more-or-less completely so that the parchment can be reused.) Johnson argues that the metaphor is too strong, in that while it helps us to untangle what we are looking at, it deflects attention away from what this ‘text’, with its grammar and sentences, all actually means (58).
In which case, I wonder if a playful approach to landscape might be useful? Instead of teaching students to ‘read’ landscapes, might ‘playing’ landscapes be better at generating meanings that go deeper? Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, in ‘Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals’ (MIT, 2004) situate meaningful play as a relationship between “player action and system outcome”, where both are “discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game” (34). Discernability in a game relates to being able to actually perceive whether an action had some sort of outcome; integration means that the action has consequences for later stages of play (35). I’m suggesting then that the game of reading landscapes would not stop at just reading some aspect of past human activity in the landscape. Rather, it would be framed as part of some game whereby it competes with other readings of the landscape, where the story of the landscape emerges from game play, through some process of physically annotating & crafting competing visions of the palimpsest.
In short, an augmented reality game.
There are many competing definitions of augmented reality out there, but I think it is simplest to think of it as the imposition of layers of information onto the day-to-day experience of life. A GIS is not an augmented reality; but if you could project a GIS map of census data onto the field of view of a person standing in that street, it would be AR. Similarly, a device projecting Twitter streams about a place or made in that locale onto a screen in that place, is also a kind of AR. A Terminator style helmet with heads up display is AR; a two-dimensional bar code that whenscanned loads up a wiki page about the scanned object onto your cell phone is also AR. There is then a lot of potential ways to realize AR, and most of them no longer require lots of money or specialized equipment.
My putative reading-the-landscape game would be smartphone based. It would involved annotating the world with what you are seeing, with some sort of ratings mechanism to ‘lock in’ readings of the landscape. The higher the ratings for your reading, the more points you get; points can be cashed in to overturn someone else’s readings. I think that would qualify as both discernable and integrated, per Salen and Zimmerman? Reading the landscape then becomes a contested activity, which reflects how landscapes can be made in the first place… This is just a first stab at the idea, but I think there’s potential here?
Some examples of existing historical/archaeological AR approaches or projects (all of these use the geolocating features of smartphones to ‘know’ roughly what you are looking at, and they display the data overlays on the phone’s camera as a heads-up display):
- Voyager Xdrive, which is a hand-held guide to a historic location, with 3d reconstructions appearing at the appropriate point. My Italian is a bit rusty, and I always find it difficult when I can’t see the face of the person speaking but it seems to be quite an effective way of pulling archaeological VR off the desks of the archaeologists into the spaces where it should be understood. (Video)
- Wikitude World Browser, which pulls information from Wikipedia or other sources (including your own points-of-interest).
- Layar, which does something similar, but allows for more ‘playful’ approaches by incorporating proximity triggers
- SCVNGR, a kind of souped-up treasure-hunt application
- The Civil War Augmented Reality Project, which envisions ‘pay binoculars’ that look back in time on the landscapes of the American Civil war
- Street Museum, from the Museum of London, which works out your location in the streets of London and projects historical photos against the view where you’re standing
- and Karen Schrier‘s MSc thesis, ‘Revolutionizing History Education: Using Augmented Reality Games to teach Histories‘ at MIT
What AR applications/platforms are you using for your playful approach to the past?
As part of my Digital History class, I introduced the students to the concept of alternate reality games. I don’t know of any that exist with the explicit purpose of teaching history, so we looked at some of the standards - I Love Bees, The Beast, Majestic. We looked at the work of Jane McGonigal. All in all, it was a fun couple of sessions. At the end of the last session, I mentioned that while I was in the library, a piece of paper fell out of a book I was reading, and this is what it said:
What could this mean? Points to the group who solved it first!
So that was my attempt at using some of the basic conventions of an alternate reality game – the puzzle, the riddles, the treasure-hunting aspect – to teach history. “Is this worldwide?” one student asked. “Safe to say, limited to this city” I replied.
I figured it would take them a couple of days, if they really tried hard. The first group returned two hours later with the whole thing solved! So what was I trying to do with this? By calling it ‘people are places are people’, I was pointing to the way we name buildings on the campus here. The first clue too was pretty easy, and I figured that when they solved it, it would alert them to the fact that we were looking at the buildings on campus here. To solve the puzzles, they had to perform one of the authentic tasks of the historian, and read closely. But some groups didn’t read the clues very closely, and were stumped almost from the word go.
Interestingly, one group took my off-hand comment about ‘limited to the city’ to imply that the game would be played all over the city; and the line, ‘people are places are people’ to mean the founder of Ottawa, Lt Col. By. Amazingly, they found locations, statues, historic plaques all over Ottawa’s downtown that *could* be thought of as the answers to my clues… so in interacting with my text, they found items completely unrelated to my intentions – the sort of thing that happens when working with historic documents all the time, after a fashion.
As part of my continuing exploration of 7scenes, I’ve also tried translating it into a smartphone application. If you’re around Carleton, give it a try and let me know what you think. Consider this still as *draft*.
Some of my student feedback:
“[...] It is hard to figure out exactly what the clue means and once you find and solve and reveal the clue, you don’t want to stop.
Personally, I thought this game was really challenging because you didn’t really know where to start with a clue that could deal with generally anything. Once you figured out the clue or were on the right trail, I thought was exciting because it felt more like a race to be the first one to crack the clue. [...]“
“[..]What worked for me about this game was the mystery behind it. It really captured my attention because it had kind of like a secretive aspect to it; it made me want to decode the mystery. The “rabbit hole” of the game is to figure out the first clue first in order to solve the rest of the clues and therefore solve the riddle[...]“
“The procedural rhetoric is I suppose to inspire active as opposed to passive learning about a subject that, while right under our noses, goes overlooked even though it has a lot of history. The rabbit hole was the sheet of paper falling out of a book in the library.
I found that this game touched on every aspect of what makes a good augmented or alternate reality game, but what I found to be most frustrating was the appearent lack of an overarching objective, that is to say something that tied them all together explicitly and not just generally. I feel that the game could have been better if there was a longer back story with the rabbit hole, like a hint dropped about what we should look for based on what you were researching in the library. It was a fun experiance over all though, I enjoyed learning what I did and it was nice to be able to do so in a group.”
I’m happy to report that Play the Past, a collaboratively edited & authored blog about cultural heritage and games, has launched.
Actually, Ethan, our intrepid leader, says it best:
At its core, Play the Past is a collaboratively edited and authored blog dedicated to thoughtfully exploring and discussing the intersection of cultural heritage (very broadly defined) and games/meaningful play (equally broadly defined). Play the Past contributors come from a wide variety of backgrounds, domains, perspectives, and motivations (for being interested in both games and cultural heritage) – a fact which is evident in the variety of topics we tackle in our posts.It is very important to note that Play the Past isn’t just about digital games, its also about non-digital games (boardgames, tabletop games, collectible card games, etc.), alternate reality games (ARGs), barely games (a term originally coined by Russel Davies – no, not the Doctor Who Russel Davies – and built upon by our very own Rob MacDougall), and playful mechanics (or “gamifying” as its been recently called).
We are also very interested in exploring the spectrum of approaches to games – from the more “philosophical” (as some might call it) games studies side of things, to the more practically applied serious games/meaningful play side of things (and just about everything betwixt and between).
Drop by and see what’s happening!
Ruth Tringham and her team at Berkeley continue to do extremely interesting work! I’ve just come across this course description for ‘serious games for archaeology‘, a course that asks probably *the* most important question when it comes to the content of historically-themed video games:
[...]We will explore and learn to critically analyze existing games that deal with archaeology, history, and the past. How, for example, does the game “Colonial Williamsburg” that MIT is developing differ from more popular games such as “Civilization”? We’ll discuss why it is that the commercial game producers are not interested in the educational value and content of their games.[...] (emphasis added SG)
That’s the nub, right there. Why does it matter that the Taliban can be swapped out of Medal of Honor without any consequences to game play? These are questions that historians and archaeologists need to address. In a similar vein, that was the motivation behind our paper from this past summer on a theory of good history through good gaming.
Players of history games are interested in the past and in the big questions that drive historical scholarship. In this way, games have the potential to draw players into the discipline if we can discover the best way to express history though simulation. But what research do we draw on as we study how to accomplish this transformation? This essay is the product of a meeting of historians, educators, and gamers who joined previously separate lines of inquiry to identify literature and models that we believe form the foundation for developing a theory of good history through gaming.
From Kevin Kee’s team at Brock U, an excellent augmented reality application for history:
Take a trip into the past with Niagara 1812. Using your iPhone, visit places and people from the War of 1812 and beyond. Choose Roam Mode, walk around one of the historic towns of Niagara, Canada, and discover the stories that lie behind the bricks and mortar. Or choose Quest Mode, and solve a centuries-old mystery in an immersive adventure.
With Niagara 1812, you carry history with you, in the palm of your hand.
I saw a prototype of this game earlier in the year, and with the website up and running, I guess it’s been launched! Having just finally purchased an iPhone, I can’t wait to give this a try. I like that it comes in two flavors – roam mode, and quest mode. Not everyone is up for playing AR games, so the choice is a nice usability feature. To get a sense of what the quest mode is about, go to the website and play the prologue…