Changing direction?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around my participation in the Portus MOOC a few weeks back. This post is an attempt to get my thoughts in order, so I apologise in advance for any disjointedness.

First of all, let me edit in some thoughts on locatative gaming, prompted by a Guardian article on social gaming I read today while I should have been bashing this post into shape. Describing the new game from Bungie, Destiny (which is of course a console game, not a location based one) she says

On a practical level, though, “social” is a business model. It means content engineered to be “liked” or shared. It means fundamentally we spend anxious time doing free labour for social infrastructures, providing our personal lives, disseminating links, making those platform-holders wealthy with our exhibitionism and interaction. When it comes to games, it’s increasingly on the player to create the meaning in their experience.

And passionate players provide unpaid labor to games development, too: games are being released in beta and updated in public, so that the end product will better meet their needs. Thus the eager front-line beta testers mitigate the expensive risk of developing a commercial tech product, just through the fuel of their social behavior.


It is social in that business sense: you must collaborate with and keep up with your friends, ensure that your statistics and equipment – your fitness for competition – are ever increasing. You participate excitedly in this capitalistic metaphor.

Having “played” Ingress for a couple of weeks now, I’m beginning to feel the same frustrations as the author. I simple don’t have the time and dedication to labour on behalf of Google and for the benefit of my fellow players. I know what I ought to do to have an enjoyable experience is recruit freinds and family into the game so that we can play as a team, or build relationships with other players to do the same. But its too much bother. Its not for my generation, I’ve concluded.

In the Guardian, Leigh Alexander concludes:

I believe in the potential for games to create incredible collaborative environments for play. But let’s think about what a “social” play experience would look like if it served us, the users, and not the platform, whose only real desire is to have us use it, to have us serve and propagate it, to lend hours of our time to its cold lunar ecosystem.

What would a locatative game look like, that served the users rather than the platform? We’ll have to wait and see.

Right now though, I’ve been thinking about how the Portus MOOC might better serve its users. I’ve been looking at all the comments that were posted by students on the MOOC, and though I’ve not yet done any proper text analysis, my impression is that the Portus team received great praise from participants, but there are two apparent challenges for web-based learning:

  • Spatial and contextual awareness. Comments from participants consistently highlight the difficulty of understanding the spaces involved, their relationship to each other, and their scale. Efforts to understand spaces were further undermined by the struggle to understand the context as the topography and use of space changed during the 500 year period of occupation. Copious maps, plans, 360/spherical panorama and references to GoogleEarth and Bing Maps failed adequately to mitigate this challenge.
  • A preference for didactic learning over investigation. Though many participants relished the more autodidactic optional activities, a considerable number expressed discomfort when faced with interpretation tasks where users generated their own content. Peer review was especially daunting.

My supervisor, Graeme Earl already addressed the first point in his post on the Portus MOOC blog. Therein he says:

Some of you have already used ingenious methods, such as pacing out the size of a canal on your driveway or finding household objects similar to those we find at Portus. This is fabulous and please keep sharing these ideas – it is really helpful for us and for other learners.

But what do we do if we want to immerse you in the site as it is today, and as it was in the past? I would like you to imagine the buildings towering above you, to feel as though you are walking the streets and avenues in the footsteps of the Roman sailors, warehouse workers, slaves and traders that walked there two thousand years ago. You did this in textual form fantastically already in theFirst Century discussion in week one and in the Summary of the Week in week five, and it would be great if you continued to produce image or audio versions and share them on the Flickr group pool.

We’ve been thinking about how, for the next run of the Portus MOOC, we might lift our model of Portus off the page, take it out of the tiny window of the average computer monitor.

Imagine this.

Armed with a smartphone (loaded with a simple app that we create), one of our MOOC participants takes a walk, where-ever they live, and finds a piece of ground of a reasonable size, a park perhaps, or a school playing field, or a parking lot even. As long as it’s reasonably clear of obstructions it should be fine. They walk around the field pacing out as large a rectangle as they can, using the smart-phone’s GPS function to define and log each of the four corners. The app (or maybe its an HTML5 webapp, so they (and we) don’t have to worry about app-stores) tells them how the area they’ve measured out compares to the area of the Portus site.

Then (and here is the clever bit) the app scales everything we know about the real Portus to the area they’ve described. Using the app, and maybe some physical markers of their own, they can locate the intersections of the streets, and the locations and sizes of buildings that we’ve excavated. The app would allow them to map the changes that took place over time too, so that could plan out Then they can walk those streets, and the app can help them visualise the building they are walking past, and how goods (and people) moved from one space to another on their journeys in and out of the Port.

When I say visualise, I bet you are thinking they hold their phone up and, looking through the screen, see 3D models that we’ve made of the buildings in AR. I guess it’s a possibility, but we’re beginning to push at the limits of the technology here: Smartphone GPS has been getting better, but most phones are likely to deliver something accurate only to between three meters and nine, and what with level changes on the site they are doing this, and at Portus, I fear that an AR presentation might end up with so many visual glitches that it becomes off-putting rather than insightful and inspiring.

So actually I’m thinking there is a better learning outcome by making them do it all in their heads. I like the idea of  learning that visualisation starts in the imagination, not at the 3D modelling interface. Grant Morrison, who wrote the challenging comic The Invisibles, coined the term Fictionsuit to describe a method by which an author interacts with the characters in his (or her) diegesis by becoming a character in the diegesis. In a way, this is what the MOOC asked students to do the “First century discussion” that Graeme referred to in his post. Some participants (according to the comments) were more comfortable than others with this exercise, but I’m convinced its a vital tool for interpreting archaeological evidence and learning about exploring a world that can, in a very literal sense, only be a creation of our collective imaginations.

In another way, game avatars are fictionsuits too. Whether they are created by authors of the game, like John Marston in Red Dead Redemption, customisable creations of the player as in Skyrim, or held entirely within the imagination of the player as in Dear Esther.

But there’s a dichotomy between the exercise of imagination, and the “truth” of an academic paper or computer model. And the evidence of the comments betrays, among participants on the MOOC, a preference for passive acceptance of an expert’s model over willingness to imagine a model of their own.

So I’m thinking about how we might use game mechanics to:

  • Immerse participants in the geo-spatial relationships of different parts of the site. Exploring it by moving from place to place on a map (or even a scale recreation of that map in a real-word space) to access different content.
  • Encourage the creation of fictionsuits to explore the possibilities of how the site might have worked
  • Share (and even evaluate) interpretations of the site and the evidence

That last, the sharing and evaluation of interpretation is a particular challenge, the game mechanic solution to which might be in some work I looked at yesterday. Without wanting to reveal too much about the project of a colleague I only just met, I was introduced to a team which is working of using game mechanics to create Linked Data for an enormous  corpus, and also evaluate learning. It strikes me that this methodology could be incredibly useful for MOOCs. Yes, it uses game-play to source un-paid labour, just like the social games that Leigh Alexander was berating in today’s Guardian, but it does offer the intrinsic reward of actual, real learning.

I’m still trying to synthesize all this into a coherent project, but I do think I’m getting somewhere.

Please do comment if this all feels like nonsense though.