Prof. Ethan Watrall. Image: Michigan State University, Dept. of Antropology.

The Digital Creativity Labs (DCL) at the University of York (in the United Kingdom) is a think tank and center of productivity in digital games and interactive media. On January 23, 2017, the DCL hosted an informal lecture on games, technology, and publicly engaged heritage given by Prof. Ethan Watrall of Michigan State University where he directs the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative and the Cultural Heritage Informatics Field School for Matrix, the Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences. Watrall is also part of the first wave of archaeogaming from the early 2000s, and is a founder of the Play the Past blog concerning games and cultural heritage. During his talk, Watrall discussed Matrix as well as a game he developed with his students (funded by a startup grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities), and a new Open Source platform for developing content for an app encouraging exploration of places containing cultural heritage. Below is a summary of the talk.

Watrall is a trained Egyptologist (Predynastic) who now works in applied anthropology, his goals being to build digital tools for everyone to use when working with cultural heritage, and to encourage the public to engage with the heritage that surrounds them. To help him accomplish these goals, the Matrix Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences exists as a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment with strong ties to computer science (CS). A Matrix pilot project, the Quilt Index, utilized computer analysis/computation of patterns in quilts, and now includes over 100,000 quilts along with digital images and robust metadata.


Matrix’s programmers are CS undergraduates (15-20 per project), who are conversant in object-oriented programming. Over the years, Matrix has shifted from C++ to Python, and is now actively engaged in coding for Android mobile applications. Coders also learn PhP and javascript, and projects are moving from Subversion to Github for version control and Open Source distribution. For students who need the technical training, they may participate in the Cultural Heritage Informatics (CHI) Initiative. Watrall’s latest NEH ODH-funded endeavor is the Institute on Digital Archaeology Method and Practice, which focused on creating tools and platforms for a variety of cultural heritage projects conceived of by the post-graduate and professional participants.

Watrall’s earlier NEH ODH-funded project (2012–2013) helped him and his students create a proof-of-concept game set in ancient Egypt, Red Land/Black Land. Awarded $50,000 ($25,000 of which was absorbed by MSU, leaving the remaining funds for actual project development), Watrall and his team of students wanted to learn more about digital gaming’s impact on the perception of archaeology, and how games could advocate for the human past and for archaeologists, as well as serving as a critical intervention in archaeology for teaching the public. Originally, Watrall wanted to build a cultural simulator to cover 4,000 years in Egypt, which was impossible todo with the time and funds available. He wanted to use the game to explore fully how we know what we know (as archaeologists).

Red Land/Black Land screenshot. Image: playthepast.org.

To simplify, the game was created as a Civilization V mod. While good on its own, Civ V also had good modding tools and a robust modding community, and supported coding in Python, XML, and LUA, creating a low barrier for entry into cultural heritage game design. The game was broken down into scenarios/missions with set win conditions and controls user-behavior. Modded Civ V advisors became character-driven archaeological learning agents, including pseudoarchaeologist Don Vaniken (who for the sake of this post I am calling the author of Chariots of the Mods). After testing the gameplay, Watrall’s students felt that the game did enhance learning, but did not replace their egyptology textbooks. The other main takeaway from this project was that Red Land/Black Land leveraged Civ V’s linearity (cultural linealism) to make counterfactual play experiences. The game was changed from a cultural simulator to a knowledge simulator.

The final third of Watrall’s talk focused on his current, active project and underlying platform, msu.seum and mbira.io. Msu.seum, available for free in Apple’s App Store, connects users with the cultural heritage found on the giant campus of Michigan State University, incorporating history, archives, and archaeology. The app was built on the Open Source mbira.io platform for mobile devices, which encourages multivocality and content co-creation. Not only can anyone use the platform for create their own cultural heritage explorations, the users can also contribute to the shared knowledge by adding comments and becoming community experts. Watrall has learned that while the public is interested in the end results of archaeological excavation, they are perhaps even more interested in the process of archaeology itself. The app satisfies both points of interest, while treating space and place as an open museum to be explored often in a non-linear way.

Screenshot of exhibition creation for Mbira/KORA. Image: @mbira_matrix.

The data reside in the KORA respository, a content management system, accessed via Mbira’s authoring plugin and mobile templates. The CMS allows for dynamic data updates, which can be pushed to users upon refreshing the app. A public beta is forthcoming. Content-creators can build explorations (aka tours) for users that connect points on a map, stringing together themes within a locality. The app allows users to get beyond commenting, encouraging conversation about the areas being explored. The app recognizes and respects citizen-scholars. Click here to see an example work-in-progress for Colonial Cartagena. The next phase of app development will tie these explorations to a user’s GPS location.

A Q&A period followed the lecture:

Q: What did archeology learn from the act of game design?

A: The act of designing the game was more powerful than the user’s experience in playing the game. A full assessment can be found in Watrall’s NEH ODH white paper post-project.

Q: Will Mbira not only support GPS but also some kind of augmented reality (AR)?

A: Native apps forAndroid do GPS automatically. The team is exploring low-energy Bluetooth for tightly packed areas and indoor use. 3D models, screen-based, and stereoscopic interaction through Daydream and Cardboard, etc., are all being considered.

Q: How can we promote cultural heritage apps and games outside of the archaeological mainstream?

A: For cultural heritage explorations within municipalities, one of the best ways is to promote the apps/games through the governments and organizations closely tied to the places being explored.

Q: How can these apps handle intangible heritage?

A: Everything is spatial, and as long as a latitude and longitude can be assigned, intangible heritage can be a part of the app. The app does not have to focus on built heritage. Sites of memory, memorialization, etc., can be included.

Q: Can the content be any format?

A: The app currently handles only images, but will later be able to accommodate video, audio, and 3D/AR. Watrall is keen on soundscapes, which can build in accessibility at the top level.

Q: Has there been any user feedback so far?

A: The feedback has been unstructured and casual but very positive. He will run more formal user testing in the future.

Q: Are there any plans for developing for Apple Watch and Android Wear?

A: Watrall remains skeptical of wearables as platforms. The low barrier is ambient notification. Voice-to-text commenting? What might be quite effective if the power of these devices putting people into difficult (simulated) situations.

Q: Why did Watrall consider Red Land/Black Land to be a failure?

A: The team was unable to attain the goals, and the end result was at the very best an alpha. At the end of the project, the interest shifted from interest in games to interest in play intervention.

Q: Will there be playful interactions in Mbira?

A: Likely. There can be both competitive and collaborative play. Competition is easy and could have a badging system. Collaborative play is more meaningful, using exploration and discovery as conduit. Narrative and story can be used to drive exploration and discovery. To Watrall, the best play experiences now are alternate reality games including the about-to-be-released STEM-learning game, Dust.

Q: Could the Mbira app overlap with LARPing for brief encounters for people and places?

A: See Steve Poole and the Ghosts in the Garden project set in Bath that used place-based audio AR. Something similar could be done with Mbira perhaps.

Prof. Watrall will be speaking at the University of York again on January 24, 2017, at 5:30 p.m. in King’s Manor K/159, on the topic of “Building Scholars and Communities of Practice in Digital Heritage and Archaeology.”

—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming



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