ARGs and the Classicist: Roger Travis

Roger Travis is doing amazing things in his classics classes.  He creates immersive learning experiences, and often his tools are low-tech, or old-tech, like interactive fiction (which I think doesn’t get enough respect in terms of digital learning!)

In Operation KTHMA, the course on Herodotus and Thucydides, my students stood trial for breaking and entering the home of Pericles’ rival Thucydides son of Melesias. In FABULA AMORIS ROMANI, my students had to sing for Augustus, first emperor of Rome. In these moments, fun is being had—I have video of some of these moments, and there are actual smiles on my students’ faces!—but fun isn’t the thing that matters most. What matters is engagement in the material, and, if they’re to be believed in their comments on the course at the end of the semester, my students were engaged. In (Gaming) Homer, my students are caught up in an ARG where they must become homeric bards by observing and playing The Lord of the Rings Online in relation to the Iliad and the Odyssey.

His latest looks fantastic:

The Demiurge recruits the students as operatives in Project
ΑΡΧΑΙΑ in the usual way (cryptic e-mails on the course’s web-site saying that their services have been commandeered to save Western Civilization yada yada yada). In order to reach the mission objectives of knowledge  and skill necessary to brief the world about Greek cvilization (including sub-objectives of reading ancient Greek), the Demiurge has coded the following practomimetic simulation into the TSTT:

It’s the lead-up to the trial of Socrates, and operatives are inserted into Athenians who could be called on to be jurors. In order to make the best possible decision about his guilt and his penalty, they must learn everything they can about how Socrates ended up on trial (which is, when told correctly, a story that goes back to the Bronze Age), and what the consequences of the trial have been for Western Civilization.

For more on Travis and the fantastic things he does, see his blog as well as the initiative he directs, the Video Games and Human Values Initiative.

The Mines of Gatineau Park

The Mines of Gatineau Park – (S. Graham – appeared in Gatineau Park Chronicle v2, 2009 v4-5)

The same geology that makes Gatineau Park a stunning panorama, from the Eardley  Escarpment to the rolling landscape of the Meech Creek Valley, also made the area  attractive to miners in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There is a certain romance in mines named “Eva” or “Pink,” and their ruins and tailings can be spotted underneath the dense underbrush which has, for the most part, reclaimed them. The names recall some of the earliest landowners and entrepreneurs: Forsythe, Baldwin, Lawless, Pink, Morris, Headley, Eva, Fortin-Gravelle, Laurentide, Wallingford, Cliff, Fleury, Chaput-Payne and McCloskey.

The most commonly mined mineral was mica. In the 19th century, mica was valuable for its use as a heatproof window material and, later, as an electrical insulator. Mica mined in the park was transported to Hull, where it was cut and processed. However, only a few of the more than 14 known mines in the park were actually exploited on what can be considered an industrial scale. Many were little more than surface scratchings by farmers looking to create another source of income. The Fleury mine, opened in 1898 by M.C. Brown of Cantley, was one of the larger mica operations. Twenty tons (18 metric tons) of mica were removed from two pits over 30feet (9 metres) deep; one crystal of mica was removed from this mine that reportedly weighed more than 500 pounds (about 227 kilograms).

Today, the most easily accessed mica mine in the area is the Pink Lake Mica Mine. This mine was first prospected by the Kent Brothers of Kingston in 1903. By 1904, the mine was producing mica, which was being shipped along the Rideau Canal to Kingston,  here it was cut and readied for market. This mine consists mostly of surface cuts, most of which were opened (using steam powered machinery) by 1905. By the mid-1910s, the mine had closed down, only to be reopened by the Pink’s Lake Mining Company at the end of 1945. This company even ran a tunnel from the edge of the lake to the earlier surface pits, but this was the last gasp for the mine. It was closed by 1946, all the equipment was removed, and now only a keen eye can spot the earlier diggings.

In terms of economic value, the more important and longest-lived mines in the park were the iron mines in the Pink Lake sector, and the Moss Mine in the Onslow/La Pêche Lake area. (here for Pontiac County; here for the townships split from Pontiac County into ‘Municipality’ of Pontiac)

The Iron of Gatineau Park

The discovery of iron in the Gatineau Hills is connected with the first surveys and  settlement of the area. In 1801, John MacTaggart, who was surveying the area for Philemon Wright, noticed the needle in his compass swinging wildly about as he traversed a certain portion of lot 11 range 7, in what was later known as West Hull Township. The reason, of course, was that the high iron content in the rock was interfering with the Earth’s magnetic field. MacTaggart and Wright were not able to exploit this discovery until 1826, when they formed the Hull Mining Company, and dispatched a colonist to occupy the lot. This was little more than a claim-staking exercise, and the mining that did take place was small scale at that time. Tiberius Wright sold the rights to this Hull Iron Mine to Forsyth and Company of Pennsylvania in 1854 (thus renaming the mine as the Forsyth Mine).The ore was of such quality that the company exhibited a ton of ore from this mine at the 1855 Paris International Exposition.

Production increased dramatically. Between 1954 and 1860, about 15,000 tons (13,600 metric tons) were shipped, and 13 men worked at the mine. Ore was taken out of the hillside (near where the modern hydroelectric pylons cross through the park from Hull to Aylmer) to the little village of Ironside, where they were loaded onto barges for the journey along the Rideau Canal to Kingston. In Kingston, the ore was transshipped onto lakers, which transported it to Cleveland and the iron mills.

A fire in 1870 destroyed the village of Ironside and the infrastructure there for preprocessing the ore. At this time, Alanson Baldwin purchased the mine, as well as some neighbouring properties which also had promise for iron mining. The Baldwin mine produced roughly 3,000 tons (2,721 metric tons) of ore during the 1870s.Various legal difficulties beset Baldwin, and the ownership of the various mines in the area (the Forsyth, the Baldwin, and the Lawless) passed through a succession of hands over the next 50 years. Production continued, intermittently, during that time too, but never again at the same pace or with the same economic impact as during those 20 years in the mid-19th century.

The Moss Mine: Biggest in theWorld!

In the far western corner of Gatineau Park, there are several mine pits, underground tunnels, building foundations and crumbling structures standing as silent witnesses to an important episode of our industrial heritage. Nearly 100 years ago, this area of North Onslow Township was the epicentre for one of the biggest mines of its type in the world. Well over 100 men worked and toiled in the pits of the Wood Molybdenite Mine, with their families living above the underground shafts. At the time, the mining camp was one of the largest towns west of Aylmer. There were over 40 buildings, and more than 300 people living at the mine site during the First World War, the mine’s greatest period of prosperity.

Molybdenite comes from the Greek word meaning “lead.” Indeed, the first owner of the land thought that he had found lead while target shooting at cans on an outcrop of rock behind the family farm. The odd stray bullet would chip flakes off the rock. Examining these chips, the owner noticed a bluish coloured metal. A nearby mine on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River was mining lead, so he thought he might have found a lead deposit. The chips were sent to the Dominion government for testing, and were found to contain 15 percent molybdenum disulfide (MoS2). The men from the Galetta mine (the nearby mine in Ontario) tried to stake a claim, but discovered that the farmer had the mineral rights. Negotiations ensued, and soon a new company was formed. Henry Wood of Denver, Colorado, a pioneer in developing economical ways of extracting molybdenum from ore (achieving 80 percent efficiency), was brought in to develop this mine site. It was soon producing at full capacity.

Molybdenite has a high melting temperature, so it was used in alloys with steel to strengthen armaments. The miners processed 150 tons (136 metric tons) of ore daily. Over the lifetime of the mine, nearly 250,000 tons (226,795metric tons) of ore were milled, 1,000,000 pounds (453,600 kilograms) of concentrates were created, and 25,000 tons (22,680 metric tons) of waste rock were mined. All of this was transported by horse power to the PPJ Railroad, several kilometres to the south. The value of molybdenum during the First World War was over $2,000/ton, and the mine earned back the cost of opening it within the first few months.

With the worldwide depression following the end of the war, the price for the commodity dropped, and the mine closed. The mine changed hands—and names—several times over the next 20 years. It was reopened with a skeleton staff during the boom times of the 1920s, but closed with the onset of the  Great Depression. The Second World War saw a resumption of production at nearly the same level of intensity as during the previous war. However, once the United States joined the war effort in 1942, cheaper sources of molybdenum could be exploited via open-pit mining, and the mine in Onslow closed down.

The mine was never known officially as the “Moss Mine,” but perhaps the origin of that name comes from the procession of crates of mineral, drawn by horses down the long road to the train station, each one with the chemical formula “MoS2” written on it. Even as recently as the 1960s, there still stood some structures on the site but, after the mine was closed, most of the buildings were sold and dismantled (much of modern Quyon’s  building stock has its origins in the mine buildings), the equipment was shipped away, and the forest was allowed to reclaim the site. The ruins stand in mute testimony to the men who worked in the deeps, making their own contributions to the Allied war effort.

Moonshine and the Moss Mine

The Second World War touched everyone in countless ways. On the home front, a daily reminder was the need for rationing. Ration books contained coupons for a variety of  daily goods. One of these was alcohol; it was not unheard-of for teetotallers to sell their alcohol coupons on the black market, or trade them for other goods. Some workers at the mine had other ways of meeting this demand for alcohol. Every mine needed a chemist to test the ore and, during the war, some enterprising workers drew the chemist into a scheme to distill alcohol in a secure room in the laboratory. They coloured the alcohol with tea and flavoured it with essences that could be had from the ration books. The alcohol was strictly for the coterie’s private consumption, as there would be enormous trouble with the police if the alcohol was sold.

Nevertheless, word got around and soon “the Provincials” were in the area, asking if any bootleggers were about. They visited the mine, and were directed to speak to a man who “knew a thing or two” about life in the area. He in turn directed them to an old man, whom they questioned as follows.

“Who is making the moonshine around here?” they asked.

“What’s it worth t’ye?” said he.

“Ten dollars.” (A good sum in those days!)

“Give it t’me and I’ll tell ye alright,” said the old man.

They gave him the money, and the old man said,

“God makes the moon shine, and I’ll give ye a tip: He makes the sun shine too!”

(Story recounted by Edward Mulligan in the Shawville Equity, December 10, 1986.)

(with files from the Gatineau Park Heritage Inventory)

Historiographical issues & computer games

I punched that title into Google to see what would come up. Thought I’d share the more interesting results (in no particular order):

Jonathan Kinkley
Jonathan Kinkley (art historian), 1240 N. Wood Street, #2, Chicago, IL 60622, U.S.A. E-mail:


Cognitive research has revealed learning techniques more effective than those utilized by the traditional art history lecture survey course. Informed by these insights, the author and fellow graduate researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago designed a “serious” computer game demo, Art Thief, as a potential model for a learning tool that incorporates content from art history. The game design implements constructed learning, simulated cooperation and problem solving in a first-person, immersive, goal-oriented mystery set within a virtual art museum.

  • From Slideshare, a ‘Literature Review on the use of video games in humanities education”:

Niall Ferguson on Counterfactuals and Playing Games

An oldish article in Wired on Niall Ferguson:

What if the great events in history had turned out differently? How would the world today be changed?

Niall Ferguson wonders about this a lot. He’s a well-known economic historian at Harvard, and a champion of “counterfactual thinking,” or the re-imagining of major historical events, with the variables slightly tweaked. In a 1999 book Virtual Histories, Ferguson edited a collection of delightfully weird counterfactual hypotheses. One essay argued that if Mikhail Gorbachev had never existed, the USSR would still exist today. Another posited an alternative 18th century in which Britain allows its colonies to develop their own parliaments — so the Americans never revolt, and the USA never exists.

The essays were fun, but Ferguson really craved a more holodeck-like experience. He wanted to have a computer simulation that would let him set up historical counterfactuals — based on real-world facts — and then sit back to see what happens. “I was always thinking that one day the right technology would come into my life,” he told me.

Last year, it finally did. Ferguson was approached by Muzzy Lane, a game company that had created Making History — a game where players run World War II scenarios based on exhaustively researched economic realities of the period.

Ferguson’s own thoughts on the game were published in the New York Magazine:
To say that I’m interested in World War II would be an understatement. For the past few years, I have been toiling to write its history, skulking in my study and neglecting my children in the process. In theory, games like Medal of Honor ought to have helped our family to reconnect when I finally emerged from my books. But no. Unfortunately—and to the disappointment of my sons—I hate them. And that’s despite the fact that I sincerely believe computer games have a potentially revolutionary role to play in the teaching of history.
I’ll go further. There’s never been a more important time for people to play World War II games. For the last five years, politicians from the president down have been recycling the rhetoric of that conflict. September 11 was “a day of infamy.” Saddam/Ahmadinejad/Kim Jong Il is the new Hitler. And yet few of these politicians seem to have any real understanding of the strategic risks involved in global conflict

It’s not fashionable to claim to learn lessons from history, but….?
I think I’ve posted on this article before, but maybe not. With my upcoming talk, it seemed appropriate to post it again if I did.

The Game’s the Thing

I’m headed of to the Niagara peninsula next month, for Playing With Technology in History.

Here’s what I thought I’d talk about :

Shawn Graham, “Rolling your own: On Modding Commercial Games for Educational Goals”

Making modifications to existing commercial games is a strong and vibrant sub-culture in modern video gaming. Many publishers now provide tools to make this easier, as part of their marketing strategy. In this paper, I look at the nature and quality of the discussions that occur on the fan mod sites as a form of participatory history. I also reflect on some of my own forays into modding commercial games in my teaching of ancient history: what works, what hasn’t, and where I want to take things next.

I’m looking at a lot of the literature on online learning right now, about how to assess the educational value of formal discussion fora (usually in the context of learning management systems), but I’m thinking it’s equally applicable to the fansites. Hmmm. Kevin’s also asked me to take everyone through the process of developing a mod or scenario in Civilization, ideally having something built at the end of the day. Again I say, hmmm. It’ll be fun, but I need to think how best to do that in a useful way that says something interesting and intelligent about history. Here’s Rob’s thoughts about the same conference and the idea that the ‘funnest’ narrative is going to be the one that wins. Civilization as a game is certainly about crafting narratives through play.

I need to dust off my copy of Civ. With one thing or another (including a small fire in the power supply of my computer yesterday!) I haven’t had a solid block of time to play/craft in what feels like ages.

Virtual Worlds: and the most powerful graphics engine there is

Virtual worlds are not all about stunning immersive 3d graphics. No, to riff on the old Infocom advertisement, it’s your brain that matters most.  That’s right folks, the text adventure. Long time readers of this blog will know that I have experimented with this kind of immersive virtual world building for archaeological and historical purposes. But, with one thing and another, that all got put on a back shelf.

Today, I discover via Jeremiah McCall’s Historical Simulations / Serious Games in the Classroom site Interactive Fiction (text adventure) games about Viking Sagas – part of Christopher Fee’s English 401 course at Gettysburg College.

Yes, complete interactive fictions about various parts of the Viking world! (see the list below). I’m downloading these to my netbook to play on my next plane journey.

Now, interactive fiction can be quite complex, with interactions and artificial intelligence as compelling as anything generated in 3d – see the work of Emily Short. And while creating immersive 3d can be quite complex and costly in hardware/software, Inform 7 allows its generation quite easily (AND as a bonus teaches a lot about effective world building!)

Explore the Sites and Sagas of the Ancient and Medieval North Atlantic through one of Settings of The Secret of Otter’s Ransom IF Adventure Game:The earliest version of the Otter’s Ransom game was designed to be extremely simple, and to illustrate the pedagogical aims of the project as well as the ease of composing with Inform 7 software: In this iteration the game contains no graphics or links, utilizes very little in the way of software functions, tricks, or “bells and whistles,” and contains a number of rooms in each of sixteen different game settings; as the project progresses, more rooms, objects and situations will be added by the students and instructor of English 401, as well as appropriate “bells and whistles” and relevant links to pertinent multimedia objects from the Medieval North Atlantic project.

Using simple, plain English commands such as “go east,” “take spear-head,” “look at sign” and “open door” to navigate, the player may move through each game setting; moreover, as a by-product of playing the game successfully, a player concurrently may learn a great deal about a number of specific historical sites, as well as about such overarching themes as the history of Viking raids on monasteries, the character of several of the main Norse gods, and the volatile mix of paganism and Christianity in Viking Britain. The earliest form of the game is open-ended in each of the sixteen settings, but eventually the complete “meta-game” of The Secret of Otter’s Ransom will end when the player gathers the necessary magical knowledge to break an ancient curse, which concurrently will require that player to piece together enough historical and cultural information to pass an exit quiz.

Play all-text versions of the site games from The Secret of Otter’s Ransom using the Frotz game-playing software.

Play versions of the site games which include relevant images using the Windows Glulxe game-playing software.

In order to view images the player must “take” them, as in “take inscription;” very large images may come up as “[MORE]” which indicates that text will scroll off the screen when the image is displayed. Simply hit the return key once or twice and the image will be displayed.

We hope that you will enjoy engaging in adventure-style exploration of Viking sites and objects from the Ancient and Medieval North Atlantic!

Start by saving one of the following modules onto your desktop; next click the above game-playing software. When you try to open the Frotz software (you may have to click “Run” twice) your computer will ask you to select which game you’d like to play; simply select the module on your desktop to begin your adventure; you may have to search for “All Files.” Each game setting includes a short paragraph describing tips, traps, and techniques of playing:

Andreas Ragnarok Cross

Balladoole Ship Burial

Braaid Farmstead

Broch of Gurness

Brough of Birsay Settlement

Brussels Cross

Chesters Roman Fort

Cronk ny Merriu Fortlet

Cunningsburgh Quarry

Helgafell Settlement

Hvamm Settlement

Hadrian’s Wall

Jarlshof Settlement

Knock y Doonee Ship Burial

Laugar Hot Spring

Lindisfarne Priory

Maes Howe Chambered Cairn

Maughold – Go for a Wild Ride

Maughold- Look for the Sign of the Boar’s Head

Maughold – The Secret of the Otter Stone

Mousa Broch

Ring of Brodgar

Rushen Abbey Christian Lady

Ruthwell Cross

Shetland Magical Adventure

Skara Brae

Stones of Stenness

Sullom Voe Portage

Tap O’Noth Hillfort

Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh

Ting Wall Holm Assembly Place

Tynwald Assembly Place

Yell Boat Burial

Playing History: Your Source for Historical Games

Just came across the ‘playing history‘ website which, interestingly, is powered by Omeka.

There is a wealth of resources here. Many are actually based in Canada. The Montreal Museum of Archaeology is one prominent developer of historical games based on Montreal’s history.

There are many ancient-themed games listed too.

A search on ‘Rome’ provides:

Death in Rome Death in Rome

You have until dawn to gather evidence and catch a killer…

Prepare a gladiator for battle in the arena of death…

Follow Adam Foster into a world of cults, corporate conspiracy and murder…

A search on ‘Greece’ turns up a game about building your own Parthenon. Given my own interests in the economics of ancient Roman construction (always a party favorite) I was intrigued by this:

but when I followed the link to the History Channel, it wasn’t there. As I explored the History Channel’s offerings, I found a game called ‘Hidden Spirits: Paranormal Investigation Halloween Game’. Note the photo of the ‘Royal Mangnall Hotel:

This is none other than our very own beloved Chateau Laurier!

(more on Chateaux in Ontario)

And finally, archaeologists & mysterious deaths go together like chips & gravy:

(info here.)

…some great ways to spend a snowy winter weekend… :)

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Patronage as Social Computation

I’ve been reading John Miller and Scott Pages’ Complex Adaptive Systems – an introduction to computational models of social life, and Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity – a guided tour, both of which have set my wheels to turning.

Of the two, Mitchell’s book is the more accessible. Miller & Page dive heavily into cellular automata, and it takes some real leaps of the imagination to see how any of that applies to social life. One thing that they do discuss (and as does Mitchell) are Stephen Wolfram‘s theories that certain kinds of automata are universal computers. In principle this then suggests that simplified models such as cellular automata or more complicated ABM are widely applicable: that with a conceptual shift, a model may do double duty.  A model about predator-prey interactions becomes a model about shopping malls.

Mitchell also explores by-ways where the distributed, no-central-control system has as an emergent property the ability to compute solutions to problems facing the ant colony, the bee hive, the group, as a whole. Ants explore their world, and leave pheromone trails behind them. Another ant encounters the pheromone trail, leave its own traces, which reinforces the route. Trails that lead nowhere evaporate away; trails that lead to food sources are reinforced, and soon you have a map of all local food sources for the colony.  (or the Tokyo rail network, as the case may be.) No central direction.

Mitchell’s book is also quite good when it comes to explaining how networks figure into all of this, and some basic statistical properties of networks and how they conform/are formed by various behaviors.

Which is sparking a thought in my head, as a route to a new project. In my thesis work, I was able to compute the statistics for a variety of networks in Rome. I was then able to model these networks, to see how decentralized control solved the problem of resource exploitation (in this particular case, building materials to Rome). It would be interesting to compare the statistics of various patronage systems from various cultures at various times around the world. How did these systems solve the problems of resource management? I would then reanimate these various networks in a ‘sugarscape‘ type world. Which ones are more effective? How do I measure effectiveness? Which social configurations are more fit? Then, translating that back into history & culture, it would be interesting to see how that plays out when you’ve got two cultures in roughly the same environment – Medieval Florentine patronage vs Ancient Roman patronage…

Another thought sparked by these readings: in a patronage system where clients have choice over who their patron is – ie, they can insert themselves into the train of a new patron- naturally evolve to a state where there is a single patron.  In this, I’m recasting Miller and Page’s City Formation model (pg 151, section 9.4) in patronage terms.

In this model, imagine a world where all of the available patrons are standing in a ‘police-lineup’ style line in the town square.  The population of the town is randomly sorted in lines in front of each patron.  There are a host of reasons why a client might wish to swap patrons; let’s collapse all these into two variables: displayed support (# of clients the patron already has, hence the desirability of becoming a client) and ‘difficulty’ in switching allegiances – it is hard to gather knowledge about patrons further down the chain to either side, so the further away a patron is in the line, the more difficult it is to get into that chain.  A patron’s success depends on his ability to marshal the resources made available via his client base.

So – behavior. Following Miller and Page, the agents want to have access to the most successful patron.  A client can stay where it is, or move one step to the right, or the left. If the model is run, allowing clients to assess the entire line of patrons, this ‘society’ sorts itself out so that all clients are clients of a single patron. (situation a)

That’s quite neat.

If the ability of clients is restricted so that they can only see locally (a step to the right, or a step to the left), you end up with multiple ‘poles of power’, a handful of patrons with all the clients. (situation b)

So… if we have a society in history characterized by patronage… is it more like situation a, or is it more like situation b? In this model, it’s all about the clients. They choose where to go: so the key dynamic is in how they ‘learn’ about the world. The daily display, in ancient Rome, of a patron walking to the Forum with his clients then is a way through which clients learn about the relative fitness or desirability of potential patrons: thus leading to a single patron….?

…I’m just riffing off the top of my head here, but I think there’s something to this…

On this Remembrance Day: Cecil Elliott

A few years ago, I lived in Italy. I received a letter from a gentleman from my community back home, who heard I was in Rome. Cecil Elliott had fought with the Canadian Army in the Italian Campaign (see also CBC archive), and wanted to know if I could find out for him the burial place for two of his friends, who had fought with him. I contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and when I came home that Christmas, I was able to pass the information along.

Cecil didn’t really want to talk about the war; but he did want to talk about Italy, and Italians – he had a love of Italy that shone through. He recounted how once, as his platoon walked into a hill-top town, and Italian man came walking along towards them. Behind him, his black-clad wife, carrying a tub of potatoes on her back. Cecil’s comrades picked the tub up from his wife, and held the man until he picked up the tub, and carried it himself.

We talked for a couple of hours. Cecil told me how after the war, while he was at the creamery at Stark’s Corners one day, the men were all puzzled by what a ‘DP’ was trying to tell them – a displaced person. Cecil recognized the language as Italian, and began speaking with the man, forming a fast friendship that lasted for the next couple of years, until the man moved on.

Cecil was typical of the men around here, loving a practical joke. When they were forming up in England, he and ‘some other Pontiac lads’ used to tell the rest of the men how it took them three days by dogsled and canoe, just to get to the recruiting office!

Cecil passed away a few years ago, but on this Remembrance Day, I remember him.