So you’re interested in Alternate Reality Games – some readings

[snipping all the ms-office crap that somehow made it into this post the other day without me noticing]

Things you should read: more ****** = you should really *really* read these

*****Jane McGonigal “This Is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics & Collective Play.” Digital Arts & Culture 2003 Conference Proceedings.  May 2003

***** Jane McGonigal “Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming.” Ecologies of Play. Ed. Katie Salen. Forthcoming, spring 2008.

***** Adam Martin and Tom Chatfield, editors. IGDA Alternate Reality Games – Special Interest Group – Whitepaper 2006 or for continuously updated wiki version of the same,

**** Shannon Drake ‘Breaking the Fourth Wall’ The Escapist Magazine June 27 2006

**** Nova ‘Chimaera’ Barlow ‘The making of World Without Oil’ The Escapist Magazine September 18 2007

**** “History”

*** Penelope Green “Mystery on Fifth AvenueNew York Times June 12 2008

*** Jane McGonigal”Massively Collaborative Science.” Op-Ed. Seed Magazine. Special Issue: The Universe in 2008. February 2008.

*** Frank Rose “Secret Websites, Coded Messages: The New World of Immersive Games” Wired Magazine

** Shannon Drake ‘Wrapped Inside A Mystery In An Engima: Perplex City Revisited’ The Escapist Magazine February 14 2007

** Russ Pitts “Horror 2.0: Lance Weiler’s Cinema ARG” The Escapist Magazine November 12 2007

** Richard Perrin “Art is Resistance” The Escapist Magazine September 18 2007

** Jane McGonigal “Making Alternate Reality the New Business Reality.” Op-Ed. Harvard Business Review. Special Issue: Top 20 Breakthrough Ideas for 2008. February 2008.

* Edward Castronova “ARGs and Utopian Dreams” Terra Nova November 21 2005

* Cory Ondrekja “Tombstone Hold’em” Terra Nova October 16 2005

* Clive Thompson “Fun Way to Lose Weight: Turn Dieting Into an RPG” Wired Magazine August 11 2008

Civilization & Education

In the course of doing some writing on why making games and modifications for existing games is a much better educational endeavour than simply playing historically-themed games (it seemed much more clever when expressed in 7000 words than 20), I came across the following post on Rob MacDougall’s blog which covers some of what I’m thinking:

In simpler language, Civilization’s game play erases its own historical content. Learning to play means learning to ignore all the stuff that makes it a game about history and not about, say, fighting aliens. One could easily program a different game with a different set of ideological assumptions—Galloway imagines a “People’s Civilization” game by Howard Zinn—and see precisely the same de-historicizing effect. Mastering the simulation game necessarily involves a journey away from reality towards abstraction, away from history towards code.

However, I don’t know whether there’s anything particularly unique to computer games about that idea – isn’t any game, when you really get down to it, about mastering the mechanics of the game, the rules? (whether or not those rules are expressed mathematically or in a rule-book is immaterial I should think).

Anyway, there’s a lot more on his blog worth a longer look! Ultimately, MacDougall concludes that what one should do is get the students to design their own game. We’ve been doing just that at the Simulating History project at Brock for some time; we’ve got a workable beta up and running, but man! there’s a lot of work involved. My role in that project (making the game) is more of a background reviewer-type guy; I’m not at the coalface.


Quibus Lusoribus Bono? A Classicist Shakes Things Up

Recently, in the Escapist, an article entitle ‘Quibus lusoribus bono?‘ appeared, by Roger Travis, a Classicist at the University of Connecticut. On his blog site, he argues that “video games are actually ancient, […] they reawaken the anicent oral epic tradition represented above all by the epics of the Homeric tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey.” I am going to have to go carefully through his posts, because this is a great argument to make… anyway – in his Escapist piece, Travis writes:

The problem with game studies – the thing that gives rise to opinions like Wilson’s – is that the effort to create and maintain the discipline is keeping gaming from winning the respect it deserves. Against all appearances, scholars are pursuing game studies to the detriment of gamer culture.

By pretending that game studies stands alone as a unified discipline rather than at the nexus of various other fields, scholars of game studies (and those of departments that call themselves things like “digital media studies”) are institutionalizing exactly what Wilson feels: antipathy to the real culture of gaming. The more entrenched the notion becomes that gamers are abnormal and defective, the longer it will take for real works of art like Sins of a Solar Empire, BioShock and, yes, even Halo to vindicate gaming as a worthwhile pursuit.

Comments, critiques and a bit of old-style flaming are all over the games-related blogosphere; but for an interesting dialogue, see Ian Bogost – whom Travis refers to on a number of occasions in his piece – at “A Response to Roger Travis who misconstrues my work and that of my colleagues“.

For the most part, the discussion is moderate in tone, though clearly Travis has upset the apple cart – one commenter writes:

Whatever is said here, it boils down to this: Roger, do you let people with Marketing degrees tell you how to teach “Topics in Advanced Latin”? I’m guessing you don’t. Why is acceptable for you to tell Ian how to do his? I’ll give you a hint. It isn’t.

It’s one thing to question the legitimacy of a professional. It’s another to question the legitimacy of a profession. I really don’t think you want to open that can of worms. While I can see the worth of the classics and how they are basically the basis of all modern thought, I’m thinking it’s probably hard for payroll to justify paying your obviously bloated salary.

I suppose it’s only a matter of time before somebody invokes the Nazis. But in the meantime, the last word by Travis on Ian Bogost’s blog (and then the conversation switches to the forums at the Escapist):

“1. I see the analogy of a marketing professional telling me how to do classics as very unpersuasive. Ian and I work the same job, more or less, and we both (I’m sure) spend time on committees where we’re doing, intramurally, precisely what we’re doing publicly in this discussion. The suggestion that my salary is bloated would have made me laugh if my salary weren’t such a sad little thing.”

And finally, for completeness, here’s the link to the Escapist forum discussion.

So… what do I make of all of this? I admit, I got a bit lost in the original article, since I haven’t read all of the related pieces (nor indeed, the one to which Travis was originally responding).  In essence, it looked as if Travis was warning of the danger of academics sucking the fun out of games (which may be to simplify).  But that’s something every discipline or subject needs to watch out for, the people who take things too seriously. Archaeology sure has a hard time paying the bills, but at least it’s still fun to do…

“Burial Passage” – Remixing Catalhoyuk

I’ve finally resolved my graphics issues, and can now float about in Second Life without fear of crashing my poor old computer. I teleported over to Okapi Island to see what I’d missed during the Remixing Catalhoyuk day.  One of the first things I came across was Sebastian Heath’s entry for the remixing contest, ‘Burial Passage’. He writes:

“‘Burial Passage’ intends to immerse users in images related to the excavation of the multiple burials below the NW platform of building 3. You can walk through it in either direction. I sort of like going uphill. The images at the two entrances are bookends. The central image showing excavation mediates between the two surrounding images.” <more>

It’s an interesting approach – as you move through the passage that he has created, you pass through images of the successive layers of the excavation, hung like curtains. It’s strangely tactile… and if you type in the chat box, ‘/1 start excavation’, the panels automatically re-arrange themselves in sequence. So bravo to Sebastian for creating one of the first demonstrations of the potential of SL for archaeological publication!

And of course to the Berkeley Catalhoyuk folks, for providing the data in such a way that remixing it is even possible!


The pic is me – Canadensis Yellowjacket – after having clicked on ‘Burial Passage’, in search of more information. This demonstrates one of the nice things about SL, the ability to pull ‘outside’ information – like the blog posting – into Second Life.

Writing Archaeology and Writing Fiction

The title of this post comes from an article written by David Wilkinson, of Oxford Archaeology, published in the Autumn 2007 edition of ‘The Archaeologist’ (the journal of the Institute of Field Archaeologists). Wilkinson is not only a top-flight archaeologist, he is also an accomplished writer of fiction. In his article, he contrasts the writing of fiction with the writing of archaeology. His first example, the description of a clay, is instructive:

Slabs like the squared off clots
Of a blue cream. Sunk
for centuries under grass [Seamus Heany, Door into the Dark 1969]

Until I found Bann clay. Like wet daylight
or viscous satin under the felt and frieze
Of humus layers. The true diatomite

Discovered in a little sucky hole,
Grey-blue, dull-shining, scentless, touchable –
Like the earth’s old ointment box, sticky and cool. [Seamus Heany, To a Dutch Potter in Ireland, 1996]

And now, the archaeological version:

‘Very compact, Blue-ish grey to white, 10YR/8/1, pliable, clay 90% silt 10%, 35-17 cm, probably natural.’

In his paper, Wilkinson discusses how such bloodless, pseudo-objective writing is slowly being replaced by ‘true’ archaeological voices again, and he cites the recent paper by John Barratt concerning Framework Archaeology‘s excavations for Terminal 5 (‘Academic aim and approach, in Framework Archaeology’, Landscape Evolution in the Middle Thames Valley, Heathrow Terminal 5 Excavations Volum 1, Perry Oaks, Framework Archaeology Monograph No.1 pp15-17. 2006.) But he asks, ‘what of characters in archaeological writing?’ Wilkinson’s paper is really making a plea for archaeologists to remember that they themselves are characters in the story of the site or landscape that they are studying, and that they should put themselves into it:

“We all sit in portacavins, in offices, in vans, in pubs or round fires, and we tell stories… we have a great time and drink too much and what do we do the next morning? We get up and go to our offices and we rite, ‘In Phase 1 ditch 761 was recut (794) along part of its length.’ Surely, we can do better”.

A similar argument was made in the SAA Archaeological Record last May, by Cornelius Holtorf , in an article called ‘Learning from Las Vegas: Archaeology in the Experience Economy”. Holtorf argued:

“Learning from Las Vegas means learning to embrace and build upon the amazing fact that archaeologists can connect so well with some of the most widespread fantasies, dreams, and desires that people have today.[…] I am suggesting that the greatest value of archaeology in society lies in providing people with what they most desire from archaeology: great stories both about the past and about archaeological research.”

Archaeology – the doing of archaeology! – is a fantastic experience. You learn so much more about the past when you are at the coal-face itself, when you stand in 35 degree C heat, with the dust on your face so thick you almost choke, debating with the site supervisor the meaning of a complicated series of walls, or sitting at the bar afterwards with a cool beer, still debating the situation, laughing, chatting. Reading ‘Three shards of Vernice-Nera ware found in-situ below 342 indicate…’ sucks the fun out of archaeology. It certainly has no romance which puts the practice of archaeology – as published to the public – far down the list of priorities in this modern Experience Economy. The serious face of archaeology we present to the public is so lifeless : how can we expect government and the public to be excited about our work if we ourselves give every indication of not being excited either?

I’m not arguing that we turn every site monograph into a graphic novel (though that’s an interesting idea, and has been done for teaching archaeology). But with the internet being the way it is these days: couldn’t a project website contain blogs and twitters (‘tweets’, actually) from the people working on it? Can’t we make the stories of the excavation at least as important as the story of the site? The Remixing Çatalhöyük project is a fantastic step in that direction. I hope to see more like it soon. Maybe we should be talking also with the folks at the Centre for Digital Storytelling

Touchgraph: digging through digital data

When I was untangling the social networks in Roman stamped brick, I used the UCINET and Keyplayer programs almost exclusively. These are still probably the best tools out there for doing high-end social networks analyses on large volumes of data.

But what about digital data? Sometimes, it is useful to know how websites tie together, who is linking to whom, other similar sites (based on linkages) and so on. For that, you might want to use Touchgraph. In its early days, it had a handy tool for seeing who linked to a particular site; in the current version, it seems to only have one way out links. Still, it might be handy for someone…


(Touchgraph of Electric Archaeology)

Why Grand Theft Auto Should be Taught in Schools

Came across this today, an interview with my colleague at Brock University, David Hutchinson, whose book Playing to Learn: Video Games in the Classroom has recently come out…

“I recently had a chance to interview Hutchinson about his goals for this project and wanted to share his responses with you. In explaining the value of games for schools, I often say that “nobody is advocating bringing Grand Theft Auto into the classroom” and go on to point to a broader range of other titles which do seem more appropriate for school use. But Hutchinson makes a fairly compelling argument for why schools should be addressing Grand Theft Auto in the comments which follow. His arguments here is consistent with his perspective that just as traditional media literacy involves learning to think critically about mass media, games literacy has to include asking hard questions of this still emerging medium, questions concerning representations, ideology, and of course, commercial motives….” more

The archaeology of digital landscapes

In an earlier post, I mentioned Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, in relationship to how spaces are arranged in Second Life, how to read space and so on. As I was interested in the archaeology of urban spaces at the time, Lynch’s work was a foundation for me. I’ve carried those lessons into my wider work as an archaeologist, and they still seem appropriate as I move into these otherlands. Seems I’m not the only one going down that path – over at Terranova we have:

“…Though Lynch’s book praises the virtues of ‘legible’ cities, he acknowledges in the first chapter that, where the stakes are low and the boundary limits of a space are understood, there can be pleasures to being lost. Being lost, when time allows, can be as enjoyable as a puzzle, tantalizing the reader with an unrecognized pattern. Another qualification he provides to the goal of legibility is that cities are (and should be) living and decentralized art forms. A static city is dead […] citizens do (and must) have the ability to erase and fill in the content of city spaces…. So I’ve been wondering a bit about how our mental construction of real cities might carry over to the structure of virtual worlds…”

The author goes on to link to a paper called ‘Architecture, Space and Gameplay in World of Warcraft and Battle for Middle Earth 2‘ by Georgia Leigh McGregor. Her abstract:

Taking as its starting point the notion that architecture provides a way of analysing computer games and their spatiality, this paper compares two very different ways of producing architecture and space in World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings: Battle forMiddle Earth 2. Looking at the production of architecture within the two games as an object or as a spatial entity, as experiential or symbolic, this paper links videogame architecture, landscape, gameplay and the player.

She argues that in these games, it is the architectural spaces that organise and give meaning to much of WOW, while BFME2 treats space much more symbolically. She concludes that it should be possible to categorise games by the way they conceptualise space.

Further categorisation based on an architectural reading of
videogames might include contested spaces that push and pull at
the gameplay, organisationally directed spaces that orientate
activity and objectified spaces that symbolise and reduce spatial
endeavour. The manner in which these video games portray
architecture is entwined with the way in which they use space.
Architecture then forms a useful tool in analysing the spatial
qualities of videogames.

Now, I am reading Ian Bogost’s ‘Persuasive Games’ at the moment, where he argues that games make rhetorical statements as they try to convince the player of a particular point of view – this rhetoric lies in the processes, the procedures, that make the game (an important differentiation from other visual rhetorics like film or advertisements). I’m not all the way through yet, but so far, he hasn’t consider the internal representations of worlds in games – just the rules. While the rules are quite important, I think McGregor’s analysis might in the long run be a more fruitful way of analysing online worlds than Bogost’s approach. Maybe I should temper that thought – neither approach alone is sufficient, but together they complement one another. Understanding what goes on in a (real-world) city can’t be achieved by studying its by-laws – you have to look at how people move through its spaces, see what emerges from the unintended consequences and interactions of those bylaws with the people who are constrained by them (cf Massey 1999 City Worlds).


Persuasive Games

If you’re in doubt over the power of games, you may want to consider ‘FatWorld‘. You may have seen something in the press recently about this game

[…] about the politics of nutrition. It explores the relationships between obesity, nutrition, and socioeconomics in the contemporary U.S. Coming Fall 2007.

We naturally equate ‘games’ with ‘fun’, but, as has been pointed out before, we don’t necessarily use ‘fun’ as a yardstick to measure novels, paintings, or other creative works. The creator of this game, Ian Bogost, has recently come out with a book that should add some ammunition for those of use who want to explore games for our teaching and research. The book is entitled Persuasive Games and it comes from the MIT Press:


Videogames are both an expressive medium and a persuasive medium; they represent how real and imagined systems work, and they invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them. In this innovative analysis, Ian Bogost examines the way videogames mount arguments and influence players. Drawing on the 2,500-year history of rhetoric, the study of persuasive expression, Bogost analyzes rhetoric’s unique function in software in general and videogames in particular. The field of media studies already analyzes visual rhetoric, the art of using imagery and visual representation persuasively. Bogost argues that videogames, thanks to their basic representational mode of procedurality (rule-based representations and interactions), open a new domain for persuasion; they realize a new form of rhetoric.

Bogost calls this new form “procedural rhetoric,” a type of rhetoric tied to the core affordances of computers: running processes and executing rule-based symbolic manipulation. He argues further that videogames have a unique persuasive power that goes beyond other forms of computational persuasion. Not only can videogames support existing social and cultural positions, but they can also disrupt and change those positions, leading to potentially significant long-term social change. Bogost looks at three areas in which videogame persuasion has already taken form and shows considerable potential: politics, advertising, and education. Bogost is both an academic researcher and a videogame designer, and Persuasive Games reflects both theoretical and game-design goals.

I have yet to read it – but I will as soon as I have some denaro to spend – but the people over at Grand Text Auto have some good things to say about it.

Archaeology and the Visual – a conversation with Michael Shanks

Came across this today – a fascinating discussion with Michael Shanks about representing the past. I especially like his comments regarding maps (and by extension, Second Life) as a prothesis for understanding the past. A snippet below:

“TW: Why do archaeologists need to think about media? How is visualization implicated?

MS: The easy answer is that archaeologists need to publish what they find, otherwise the past is lost. But there is more to it. There is a distinctive experience of immediacy in archaeology – a notion of discovering the past in its material remains. A conservation ethic drives the global heritage industry – that the past should to be looked after as a legacy of cultural property, with such a past often even considered a human right. But it is, of course, the case that archaeologists do not discover the past. They work on what remains. And such work involves the translation of materiality into proxy mediating forms – texts, catalogs, images. Now while this discursive character is widely accepted in many disciplines, the archaeological nature of the relationship between past and present is less often recognized. By this I mean the material relationship of decay/loss and rescue/restitution at the core of contemporary historicity. Such an archaeological sensibility refers to matters of presence and absence, of trust and authenticity. It reaches far beyond the discipline. I consistently argue that there is an archaeological sensibility at the heart of modernism and modernity.

In this I would subordinate inscription and visualization to mediation. I hope the reason why will become clear – it is to do with the idea of medium as mode of engagement.


TW: But in practice, maps only work, only allow navigation and wayfinding, via relating directly this abstracted information beyond the immediate perceptual and cognitive capacity of a map-reader to what is immediately perceived on-the-ground. The perceiving map-reader becomes a conduit for coordinating information offered directly through perception – of features, plazas or pyramids – and indirectly through the schemata of the map. One cannot operate effectively without the other. This is a cyborg ontology. In this sense, maps are better understood as prostheses of the individual. We might say that visualization is less what we do with information – to convey, condense or distribute – and more how we intimately function through visual media.

MS: Rather than a virtual world, we have treated Second Life as such a prosthesis. Not a substitute, not a re-presentation of a world, but as an extension. An instrument of augmentation. A mediation of certain source materials – re-sources for mapping pasts….”

Material Culture…. in a virtual world?

Exploring Second Life is not unlike wandering around an enormous digital Pompeii. Here are rooms, and paintings, and buildings… and yet more often than not, they are completely empty. SL is billed as a social experience, but any time I’m in there (which tends to be during business hours, EST) there are no people. It’s one big archaeological site, without the need to dig.

It should be possible then to apply normal archaeological theories in this world and to deconstruct what these spaces mean. And of course the meaning that I glean might not necessarily be the same meaning as the person who created the space (whom I could presumably interrogate, if they happened to be online when I was there).

Whilst wandering around in Second Life (and in Active Worlds), you start to notice things. The first thing is of course the huge variety of things that people create. The second, upon reflection, is the way that – in these worlds where anything is possible – certain common themes keep repeating themselves in this material virtual culture. There would seem to be a common grammar of what to build, and how to build it. It is interesting to note how in three short years a cultural koine has emerged in this space.

I guess I’ll get started.