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Can Games Teach?

This is part of a series of research/industry snapshots, capturing the work of those affiliated with the Bristol Digital Game Lab. For the second post in the series, we are delighted to showcase the work of Dr Lewis Alcott

If you remove Jurassic Park from popular media, how many members of the general public would be able to recognize a T-Rex? And how many palaeontologists were inspired to pursue their careers because of Jurassic Park? Films, TV, literature and many other forms of media have motivated members of the general public to engage with and learn about the natural world, so why can’t games? My research and outreach efforts attempts to explore the representation of the natural world in games, from the realism of geological formations such as volcanoes to the representation of climate change impacts of ecosystems.

This work originally grew from having more time than I had expected to enjoy and play games through the Covid-19 pandemic, finding myself playing God of War and googling some of the Norse mythology represented within the game and questioned how my own interest in games led to my career in Earth Sciences.

My recent work has focused on commercially available off the shelf (COTS) games and using them as a tool for learning and engagement. There are several instances where representation of scientific concepts are not ideal to say the least, so screening of games that demonstrate the potential to teach a wide variety of learning is required. However, COTS have been shown to have better engagement than traditional educational games, as these games have essentially by design been made to entertain.

There are several ways in which people can learn from games. There is the interaction with game mechanics that can teach specific skills, such as map reading. With games becoming more and more open world adventures, the requirement of what can be considered orienteering skills becomes a necessity that is directly transferrable to the real world. Games can offer a significant vocabulary, much greater than what would be considered based on the average age range of games such as those from the Pokémon franchise, allowing students and children to associate animations to relatively complex terminology. Over the past few decades, gaming and especially video games have become social hubs, with interactions between players, developing negotiating skills and describing ideas in game. A fourth means of teaching is through tangential learning, i.e. learning through self-engagement by exposure to a topic, has been noted as an effective means to incentivize educational material, much like how I learnt about Norse mythology through God of War.

My ongoing work focuses on the representation of my own and other researchers’ work in games as a way to promote public engagement of research. Alongside this, I explore how narratives have evolved over the last few decades with the growing engagement and perception of the general public with climate change.

Renewable energies represented within the Pokémon franchise. Left: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond (2021). Right: Pokémon Scarlet (2022).

Dr Lewis Alcott is a Lecturer in Geochemistry in the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol. Outside of games, he is interested in researching the evolution of a habitable planet and anthropogenic environmental change.

End of Year Wrap Up

The Bristol Digital Game Lab showcased a vibrant array of events throughout autumn 2023, providing a platform for scholars, students, and enthusiasts to delve into the multifaceted world of digital gaming.  

The Lab initiated the academic year with a thought-provoking online roundtable on October 24, where experts and major UK game lab leads gathered to discuss the implications of the Video Games Research Framework (launched by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in May) on individual research, and how game labs, centres, and networks could support its aims. The event featured two esteemed keynote speakers: Prof. Peter Etchells, who was involved in drafting the Framework, and Dr Tom Brock, the Chair of British DiGRA. 

Later in October, we judged the University of Bristol Computer Science Society 2023 GameJam, offering prizes for Best Narrative and Most Technically Accomplished. A very impressive range of entries, with over 70 students creating a total of 17 games! It was a pleasure to judge alongside the MyWorld Skills and Training team.

The Computer Science Society Game Jam 2023

Following this, on October 31, the Lab collaborated with Digital Scholarship @Oxford and organised a hybrid panel and roundtable titled “Music and Sound in Games.” Expert speakers from both industry and academia dissected the impact of music on gaming narratives, characters, and emotional engagement. The digital roundtable facilitated by Dr Richard Cole further delved into critical conversations surrounding this fascinating aspect of game design. 

The Music and Sound in Games hybrid roundtable.

November brought a Research Seminar in collaboration with the Department of Classics and Ancient History. Dr Dunstan Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Latin Literature at the University of Kent, presented on “History is not the Past”: Videogame Design and The Ancient Mediterranean. The seminar explored how video games portray ancient history, emphasising the diverse ways in which different genres and playstyles influence the conceptualisation of ancient worlds within digital games.

 

Dr Dunstan Lowe presenting his research seminar.

Towards the end of November, the Lab hosted an exciting inaugural event, the ‘Concept’ Game Jam, co-organised with the Centre for Creative Technologies and sponsored by MyWorld. The Game Jam challenged the 40 participants to explore how gaming mechanisms could shed light on the biases embedded in algorithms, especially in the realm of machine learning and AI. It stimulated creative thinking about the intersection of gaming and algorithmic bias and some teams came up with innovative working prototypes. We will be publishing the games developed, along with a film of the event, in the new year.

December started with the Antiquity Games Night, a novel monthly online meetup organised by Dr Richard Cole and Alexander Vandewalle (University of Antwerp/Ghent University). Scholars, students, and designers will gather to play antiquity games, fostering an engaging space that blends academic discussions with gaming experiences.

 

AGN Logo

Closing the year on a festive note, the Lab brought back its “Festive Gaming” event on December 14. This event invited participants to join in for an evening of social gaming, featuring the latest releases and playtests of upcoming games. The lineup included a fantastic lineup of local developers, including Catastrophic Overload, Meaning Machine, and Auroch Digital, as well as a former University of Bristol student group who developed the Escape from Pompeii board game as part of their Classics and Ancient History degree in 2023. Festive Gaming provided a platform for networking, exploration, and celebration within the gaming community. 

Festive Gaming 2023

In summary, the Bristol Digital Game Lab’s 2023 events were a testament to the diversity and richness of the digital gaming landscape. From scholarly discussions on research frameworks and ancient history to hands-on game jams and festive gaming, the Lab succeeded in creating a dynamic space that catered to a broad spectrum of interests within the gaming community. The Lab has expanded to a network with more than 150 members, gaining increasing recognition internationally.

Looking ahead to 2024, we will be hosting an ECR/Postgraduate work-in-progress event in January, followed by a series of industry talks with a headline from Ndemic Creations, a roundtable on accessibility, as well as a conference on New Directions in Classics, Gaming, and Extended Reality. We look forward to seeing you there!

Thanks to Dr Xiaochun Zhang for this wrap up to what has been an exciting year.

Bristol Digital Game Lab Events Autumn 2023

We are delighted to share details of several upcoming events hosted by the Bristol Digital Game Lab, as well as those where we are an organizing partner. We hope to see many of you there!

October 2023

We’ll be kicking off the new academic year with two events:

How to Make the Most of the Video Games Research Framework

On 30 May 2023, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport launched the Video Games Research Framework as a best-practice supporting tool for research into video games. In response to the Framework, the Bristol Digital Game Lab is hosting an online roundtable on Tuesday 24 October, 13:00-14:30 to discuss the Framework, in particular how game labs, centres and networks can support and build on its aims and ambitions. As part of this event, we are delighted to welcome two keynote speakers:
  • Prof. Peter Etchells (Bath Spa University), who was involved in the drafting of the Framework. Peter will give a keynote overview, providing both a background to the Framework, as well as future aspirations for the sort of research it might encourage.
  • Dr Tom Brock (Manchester Metropolitan University) will join the discussion as Chair of British DiGRA to share his perspective on the Framework.

Music and Sound in Games

Co-organised with Digital Scholarship @Oxford, this hybrid panel and roundtable on Tuesday 31 October, 12:00-16:00 focuses on the role of music in video games – what is unique about the composition of music for games? How does game music change as the technology behind video games evolves? How can music help a game to build its emotion, narrative, characterisation, and world? Find out from our panel of expert speakers from industry and academia, followed by a digital roundtable discussion, organised by the Bristol Digital Game Lab, with leading academics from the intersection of music with game and media studies, for an insight into the ongoing critical conversations around this fascinating topic. To sign up, visit DiSc’s event page.

November 2023

Research Seminar

Together with the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Bristol, we are delighted to be hosting a research seminar on Tuesday 14 November by Dr Dunstan Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Latin Literature at the University of Kent, on “History is not the Past”: Videogame Design and The Ancient Mediterranean. The seminar will run from 15:30-16:50, Humanities Research Space (3/5 Woodland Road), and will be followed by a drinks reception. All welcome, no booking necessary. A summary of the talk can be found below.

A screen shot from Secret of Evermore

‘History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler’ (Henry Glassie, 1982). When video games portray ancient history, they draw the map in very different ways according to the conventions of different genres and playstyles: Action, strategy, scrolling shooters, racing, and versus fighting games all have distinct conventions, which are a matter of design as well as taste. These conventions have shaped ancient worlds for digital games: not only what they look like on the surface, but also how they are fundamentally conceived. Image: screenshot from Secret of Evermore.

‘Concept’ Game Jam

Come along to our inaugural ‘concept’ game jam, co-organised with the Centre for Creative Technologies at the University of Bristol and sponsored by MyWorld!

Theme: Exposing Algorithmic Bias
Where: Humanities Exhibition Gallery Space (7 Woodland Road)
When: Wednesday 29 November, 16:00-20:00

From education and health to financial services and facial recognition, algorithms have become key components in scaling decision making. The danger, of course, is they can embed and augment existing biases, or even generate new types of bias within complex systems. This danger is only amplified by the application of machine learning and AI. The aim of this condensed game jam is to think about how the mechanisms of gaming and play can expose these processes. For more about the inspiration behind the theme for this game jam, see Prof. Ed King’s Game-Jam-Intro.

If you would like to attend the jam, please complete our sign up form. The event is open to both University staff, students, and the wider public.

Pizza and drinks will be provided, thanks to the generous sponsorship of MyWorld.

If you have any questions about this event, please contact the organizer, Dr Richard Cole (richard.cole@bristol.ac.uk).

 

December 2023

Antiquity Games Night

The Lab is delighted to be supporting Antiquity Games Night – a new monthly online meetup where scholars, students & designers play antiquity games together, organised by Dr Richard Cole (University of Bristol) and Alexander Vandewalle (University of Antwerp/Ghent University). Think: ‘reading group, but with games’. All you need to do is sign up to the Discord via https://discord.gg/h2XPtJfGut. The first event is on Monday 4 December, 18:00 UTC. The AGN team will be setting up co-op sessions of the free-to-play game Smite (2014). No experience required – only finishing the tutorial. We look forward to seeing you there!

Festive Gaming

Back by popular demand, our Festive Gaming event will return on Thursday 14 December, 17:00-20:00 (Humanities Research Space, 3-5 Woodland Road). Join us for a drink while we try out some of the most recent social games, as well as playtest others that have not yet been released. We’ll have games and presentations from the following fantastic lineup:

We’re also delighted to welcome back the student team who developed the board game Escape From Pompeii as part of their Classics and Ancient History degree in 2023. Sam and the team will be on hand to demo the latest version of Escape from Pompeii.

If you would like to attend, please sign up via Eventbrite.

Further events will follow in 2024

VR, Games, & Storytelling Panel – ‘Platform Cultures’

The Lab’s VR, Games & Storytelling project is interested in the intersection between games, immersive theatre and VR storytelling, and the principles and frameworks for developing narrative material for immersive experiences. The project team brings together academic expertise in gaming (Richard Cole) and immersive theatre (Harry Wilson) with creative practitioners working in XR (Ruth Mariner and Eirini Lampiri). The project emerged following discussions at the Metaverse workshop, hosted by the Centre for Creative Technologies at the PM Studio, and was generously funded by the Centre’s seed corn initiative.

On Tuesday 25 July, the project team were delighted to collaborate with Jacqueline Ristola on her ‘Platform Cultures’ event and offer the keynote address. The keynote brought together two specialists, both XR Storytellers from different backgrounds:

  • Jo Mangan, a director coming to XR through a background in immersive theatre
  • Rob Morgan, who comes to XR from a background in video games.

Jo and Rob were asked to consider the following prompts:

  • How do the rules of environmental storytelling change when we move from a gaming or immersive theatre environment to a headset?
  • How do you use interactivity to increase immersion within a story? And, how might approaches to interactivity be different between a VR game, and VR theatre piece?

Our intention was to compare and contrast the different approaches to XR storytelling, and how each form influenced the approach to interweaving story and interactivity. Our ‘North Star’ was to work towards a set of ‘rules’ or principles for telling stories using XR. And although we didn’t reach a full framework, there was agreement around specific themes and issues.

Both speakers touched on the importance of narrative integration in different contexts. Rob spoke about how failure to integrate an audience member’s self-conscious feelings when participating in an immersive experience can be a barrier to immersion. Although a common perspective within the immersive sector is that self-consciousness itself is a barrier to immersion, Rob argued that the player is always aware, and that by emphasising the notion that self-consciousness is permitted, and weaving this into the narrative fabric, audiences can accept the ‘gap’ between how they feel and the role of the character within an immersive experience.

Jo spoke about the need for narrative integration to signpost the audience around the space, and how it is important to let the environment guide the audience in a way that is integrated into the narrative, rather than asking the player to move directly. Referring to  immersive theatre, she touched on the example of bad spatial design, where audiences do not know how to inhabit the space, but are moved from one spot to another by stewards. In the virtual space, audiences should be given enough information from the environmental storytelling to know how to interact with the space.

Both speakers also touched on the subject of how to create meaningful choice, as well as feedback systems that immerse the audience by enabling them to feel they can impact the environment. This operates on multiple levels of the experience, from the ‘core’ of the piece and the narrative dramatic structure, to individual audience choices on how to view and experience the work at any given moment.

It was agreed that by making choices within a narrative framework, audience members need to feel that the consequence of their decision has an impact on the narrative. For example, if audience members are presented with a decision that feels serious, they will expect for there to be consequences which impact significantly on the direction of the narrative. If the consequence of their decision is minimised, or doesn’t impact the plot fully, they can feel let down.

On the ‘surface’ layer of the experience, where the audience choose how they experience the work, there is still a lot of agency that can be afforded. In Jo’s production for Irish National Opera, audience members could follow different sonic layers by changing the way that they tilted their head, leading them to explore and experiment with the way that they experienced the work, on a sensory level.

Finally, immersive experiences are closely linked to the 3D avatars of the audiences and/or players. Circling back to the initial theme of the audience’s feeling of self-consciousness, Rob spoke about the construction of the audience’s character in AR experiences, describing it as ‘a light, pliable character, like a silhouette’ instead of a fully fleshed out role. He went on: ‘often, being a protagonist in AR  is more like an extra dimension that you augment on to the player’s own identity.’ This gives more freedom to the player, enabling them to enact in ways that are perhaps more dangerous or risky than they would opt for in everyday life.

Our sincere thanks to Jo and Rob, as well as to Jacqueline for the simulating discussions that followed the keynote and carried on throughout the ‘Platform Cultures’ event.

Catch the full recording of the keynote address.

Race and Reception in MECC’s ‘Freedom’!

This is part of a series of research/industry snapshots, capturing the work of those affiliated with the Bristol Digital Game Lab. For the first post in the series, we are delighted to showcase the work of Claudia Jones, Bristol Digital Game Lab intern.

When history meets game experiences, players are virtually transported to an event in time, a setting once long forgotten but remembered, and characters that enliven the story. If historical games grant access to the past and engage with our history, whose history are we accessing? Who is allowed to grant this access? How can games act as a digital archive of our collective memories?

My dissertation for the Master of Arts in Black Humanities explores these questions, and many more during the course of my continued research this summer. I am currently conducting autoethnographic analyses of three historical games that focus on the Black American experience within historical contexts, while using secondary sources to critically evaluate them. One of the titles is Freedom!, a 1992 educational game that centered around characters escaping slavery in the United States. It was published through the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, famous for its work on The Oregon Trail. After the title was tested at selected schools in the United States, but was subsequently pulled from release after receiving complaints.

I found it incredibly important for this to be the starting case study due to its sensitive content in an educational setting. Through an emulation found on the Internet archive, I was able to download Freedom! and play through its entirety three times. Each time, my character attempted an escape but was recaptured and sent to the deep south, where further chances of escape were slim.

As I played, I returned to the question of “whose history are we accessing?” and it slowly morphed into “is this the type of history that games should access?” While on the surface, it seems obvious as to why Freedom! would not be released for the general public. However, as I played with these characters, there is a multitude of symbols that inform my experience within Freedom’s game world. The use of vernacular. The feeling of hopelessness and confusion as you navigate. The anxiety in encountering violence. These characteristics are common in a multitude of games, but coupled with events such as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, ethical implications come in play.

Rather than the question whether these games should exist, which is valid, there should be an expansion of and why representation is vital in game worlds and how to ethically portray people of colour in these spaces. After over 30 years since Freedom’s creation, the work continues to be done to examine these questions, and I am thankful to be a part of it.

Claudia Jones is the Bristol Digital Game Lab intern studying in the Master of Arts in Black Humanities. She is a former librarian from the United States of America. Her research interests include Black historical narratives in video games, Black digital bodies, and games as archives.

Funding Awarded for the VR, Games & Storytelling Project

We are delighted to announce that the Bristol Digital Game Lab has been awarded funding by the University of Bristol’s Centre for Creative Technologies to run a project on VR, Games & Storytelling.

The VR, Games & Storytelling project is interested in the intersection between games, immersive theatre and VR storytelling, in particular where interactivity can enhance or obstruct storytelling, what the different forms could learn from each other, and how we might define the ‘rules’ of storytelling within these mediums. This project has emerged following productive discussions at the Alternative Technologies workshop on the Metaverse, hosted by the Centre for Creative Technologies, as well as the recent Immersive Showcase in Bristol, organised by Empress VR.

To achieve this, Richard Cole and Harry Wilson will work with Ruth Mariner and Eirini Lampiri at the PM Studio to organize knowledge-exchange events with experts working at the intersection between games, immersive theatre and VR storytelling. They will also take part in a workshop to explore further projects and training activities on the theme of VR, Games & Storytelling.

As part of this project, we’re delighted to be partnering with the Platform Cultures event at the PM Studio on Wednesday 26 July 2023. The project will be contributing the keynote for the day in the form of an ‘in conversation’ event with experts working at the intersection between games, immersive theatre and VR storytelling. Come and hear Jo Mangan, Director at The Performance Corporation and Robert Morgan, Creative Director at Playlines and Visiting Fellow at King’s College London, speak about their projects and engage in discussion on the nature of VR, Games and Storytelling. If you would like to attend, you can sign up by expressing an interest in the Platform Cultures event.

Studying Player Experiences of Historical Video Games

The academic study of the representation of history in video games is currently thriving: more and more researchers are investigating what this popular medium has to offer in terms of thinking about the role of history today, and the amount of books, articles, conferences, and workshops organized around the topic has likewise grown exponentially. Still, one area that has not really received sustained attention is the question of how players actually play historical games, referring to both the impact such games may have on players, and specific (un)conscious decisions they make during gameplay.

To investigate this in more depth, Richard Cole, co-Director of the Bristol Digital Game Lab teamed up with Alexander Vandewalle from the University of Antwerp and Ghent University (Belgium). Together, they coordinated an experiment where Classics students were asked to play the game Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for eight weeks and subsequently report and reflect on their experiences. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Ubisoft, 2018) is a critically and commercially successful historical video game in which players adopt the persona of a mercenary during the first nine years of the Peloponnesian War (431-422 BCE) between Athens and Sparta. In the game, players travel to well-known ancient sites, ranging from the Parthenon in Athens, the oracle at Delphi, to the Minoan palace at Knossos, as well as to more obscure locations such as the Acrocorinth and the Delian Lion Terrace. Players also participate in historical events, including the staging of Aristophanes’ Knights (424) and the Battle of Amphipolis (422). The game was lauded for the lavish detail with which it reconstructed ancient Greece.

Specifically, the experiment inquired into how Classics students played their game characters, why they made the decisions that they made, and to what extent they were motivated to play in a certain way because of historical considerations. In total, the experiment was conducted with ten students, six of whom attended Ghent University, and four who studied at the University of Bristol. The Bristol Digital Game Lab provided infrastructure for this experiment, offering valuable support ranging from the recruitment of student participants, to platforming further discussion during the analysis itself. The investigators behind the experiment would like to extend their sincere thanks to the Lab!

On May 26, Richard and Alex presented their work at the third Interactive Pasts conference (TIPC3) hosted by the VALUE Foundation in Leiden, a leading Dutch research group that has been conducting research into historical games since 2017. Their presentation, entitled ‘As You Write Your Odyssey…’: An Empirical Study of Classics Students’ Play Interests and Ergodic Characterization in Historical Video Games, discussed the experiment’s main findings and elicited further conversation on the meaning of immersion in such games, the methods used to study player experiences, as well as future avenues for game designers to enhance players’ engagement with games. You can watch the recording of the presentation on YouTube. Richard and Alex plan to write up the experiment analysis and publish the results, thus opening up the debate about the nature of players’ experiences of historical games.

Our thanks to Alexander Vandewalle for writing this blog post.

Virtual Realities as Time Travel Workshop

On Friday 12 May, the Virtual Reality Oracle project hosted an international, multidisciplinary workshop on Virtual Realities as Time Travel at the University of Bristol and online.

Virtual Realities as Time Travel brought together speakers from the project team and from across academic disciplines and industry to explore how users and producers of VR experiences and historical video games conceive of journeying to the past.

Virtual Reality Oracle Project, Esther Eidinow, Kirsten Cater, et al, with Friday Sunday Studios, funded by AHRC, University of Bristol.

This event was organised by Richard Cole, in collaboration with Chris Bevan, Elisa Brann, Crescent Jicol and Emilia Tor. The workshop was sponsored by the Bristol Digital Game Lab and the Centre for Creative Technologies.

The event attracted over 100 signups, with around 40 people attending the event in person at Bristol’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and 54 on Zoom.

Esther Eidinow (Bristol) kicked off the day with an overview of the Virtual Reality Oracle project. Esther discussed how virtual reality has helped to imagine a visit to the oracle of Zeus at Dodona, c. 465 BCE. Richard Cole (Bristol) followed with an exploration of how game and VR developers often frame the experience of their worlds as a form of time travel, as well as how feedback on these experiences frequently draws on the same terminology.

The remainder of the day was divided into the following panels: Playing with Time, Facilitating Time Travel, Connecting Past and Present, and Producing Historical Experiences.

In the first panel, Alexander Vandewalle (Antwerp/Ghent) suggested that rather than thinking of time travel, a more useful way to understand what historical games offer is to think about them as a form of time tourism. Bettina Bodi (Leeds Becket) refocused attention on the player as an active agent in playing with the temporal structures of game worlds, and looked at how cosy games complicate the idea of temporality in games when compared to fast-paced play.

Robert Houghton (Winchester) took the audience on a tour back to late antiquity with a paper on Total War: Attila. By deploying innovative strategy game mechanics, Robert argued that Total War: Attila attempts to create an experience of a truly Dark Age. From console to phone, Kate Cook (St Andrews) went on to explore how certain design features, such as microtransactions, alter the player’s relationship with time in mobile games.

After lunch, Jack Lowe (UWE) charted how location-based games engage with place. Jack suggested that the relationship with the past in such games is more a form of wayfinding than time travel.

Following Jack’s talk, workshop attendees were treated to two industry presentations. The first, from Leyla Johnson (Mokawk Games), demonstrated how developers can turn a historical era, leader, or event into a game system. Using Mokawk’s Old World as an example, Leyla emphasised how this approach could be used to incorporate a diverse range of historical material. The second industry speaker, Stéphanie-Anne Ruatta (Ubisoft), delivered a richly illustrated presentation on the experience of using historical source material to create the world of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Stéphanie-Anne showed how historical research served as a foundation for many of the facets of the game experience, thus creating ‘time travelling’ opportunities for the player.

Dooley Murphy (Copenhagen) rounded off the workshop with a paper on his project Hans Christian and I, which uses VR, not to recreate Hans Christian Andersen’s life, but to explore facets of his character.

The Virtual Reality Oracle project team would like to extend their thanks to all the speakers, Chairs, and to Claudia Jones at the Bristol Digital Game Lab for her excellent work overseeing the hybrid format of the workshop, which was praised by participants for opening up access to the event.

Plans are underway for a publication inspired by the workshop. Watch this space!

The Bristol Digital Game Lab at the Arts and Social Sciences and Law Showcase

The Bristol Digital Game Lab was invited to create a poster for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Law Research Centre and Group Showcase on Thursday 4 May 2023. This was a fantastic opportunity for us to reflect on our original aims for the Lab, what we have achieved in 2022-23, and our ambitions for the future. We focused on our five core areas of work: Research, Funding, Networking, Partnerships and last, but by no means least, Play! The poster helped us to share our work and meet new collaborators at both the Showcase and the Faculty of Arts Research Celebration on the 9 May 2023. We have included the full poster text below.

Richard and Xiaochun at the Showcase. Poster design by Melissa Cole.

Research 

Over the past seven months we have organised three research seminars in collaboration with University and civic partners, hosted local and national industry speakers, run an eight-week experiment with Classics students looking at how they play Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Ubisoft, 2018), supported ECRs across the University through a research student work-in-progress event,  established a network of UK Game Labs, and sponsored a workshop on Virtual Realities as Time Travel, organised by the multidisciplinary Virtual Reality Oracle project. 

Funding 

We’ve secured £10,000 of research funding to support our activities, and are actively exploring further avenues of funding, including from industry. Our thanks to our current sponsors: the Faculty of Arts and International Strategic Fund, University of Bristol; the British Academy. 

Networking  

Following the first annual UK Digital Game Lab Summit in February 2023, where we invited the leads of eight UK-based game labs to Bristol, we have pioneered the creation of a ‘meta’ network of game labs in the UK. With support from the International Strategic Fund, we are building links with EU game labs in Cologne and Tampere. We have also fostered links with local and national industry partners. Our mailing list currently numbers over 100 researchers and practitioners. 

Partnerships  

From the start, we were keen to work with partners in the creative industries, including the non-for-profit Bristol Games Hub. Thanks to these partnerships, we have been invited to share our research at industry-led showcases, such as the Made in Bristol Showcase in October 2022 and the Immersive Showcase in April 2023. We have also supported local industry partners in applying for key funding opportunities, and invited industry experts to share their insights with us at public lectures, including Dr Tomas Rawlings, Studio Director of Auroch Digital (Bristol) and Luke Holmes, Senior Game Designer from Creative Assembly, the multi-award-winning BAFTA UK games studio. 

Play 

As Huizinga argued, play is essential to the human condition. We have had fun running events such as our Festive Gaming session, where local industry partners shared early releases with us to playtest. We also enjoyed co-judging the Computer Science Society’s ‘It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!’ game jam, where we identified the winning entry, Magnum Opus.  

Future  

We’re excited to be arranging future events with colleagues at the PM Studio in the Watershed. We’re also planning to run a game jam, organise several conferences, collaborate with the Centre for Creative Technologies, MyWorld and BDFI, develop our industry partnerships, as well as plans for courses and skills training in gaming. We would also love to hear from you. Let us know what you are working on and what you would like the Game Lab to do. Come play with us!

Richard with the Game Lab poster at the Faculty Research Celebration on 9 May 2023.

The Quest for Authenticity in Historical Games – Creative Assembly Talk

On Wednesday 26 April, we had the pleasure of hosting Luke Holmes, Senior Game Designer from Creative Assembly, the multi-award winning BAFTA UK games studio. Luke came to the Lab to talk about ‘The Quest for Authenticity in Historical Games‘.

Prior to joining the games industry, Luke spent almost 10 years working in the museum and heritage sector. Playing with history has been his lifelong passion, incorporating games into museum exhibitions, and now designing the battles for historical Total War games at Creative Assembly. Luke also has a unique connection with the University of Bristol, having studied for an MA in History with a dissertation on ‘Video Games as Public History’, which was later adapted and published, as well as the City of Bristol, having worked at the SS Great Britain.

Drawing on this rich and varied background, Luke introduced the unique offering of the Total War series. He demonstrated how the series allows for a layered historical perspective, which operates at the level of cartography all the way down to individualized soldiers in battle, and described how this enables the player to connect with their actions at different stages within the game. Luke then went on to outline two key academic frameworks for analyzing history in games. Significantly, he suggested that such frameworks could be used to consciously develop historical games.

Luke began with Salvati and Bullinger’s concept of ‘selective authenticity’, which examines how aspects of historical representation are determined by genre and audience expectation. Using examples from Total War and other historical games, such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Ubisoft, 2018), Luke explored how selective authenticity enables the designer to construct a ‘hall of fame’ of historical references in order to engage the player. However, this can lead to problematic representations, and so Luke introduced Jeremiah McCall’s Historical Problem Space Framework. This tool, Luke argued, could be used to think through the elements that might go into a historical game and whether they reflect the choices that historical agents might have made. He concluded that the HPS framework is a helpful check when it comes to designing historical games, while also useful in terms of opening up new mechanics.

Luke’s stimulating talk generated a fantastic Q&A, covering topics ranging from game design to the role of history in games. Our sincere thanks to Luke and Creative Assembly for helping us to arrange this industry lecture. If you would like to read more on the topic, check out the interview between Luke and Jeremiah McCall on Gaming the Past.