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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Odyssey (Ubisoft, 2018), Luke explored how selective authenticity enables the designer to construct a ‘hall of fame’ of historical references in order to engage the player.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.

Games/Gaming in Chinese TV: Research Seminar

In collaboration with the Department of Film and Television at the University of Bristol, we were delighted to co-host a research seminar on Friday 24 March by Dr Charlotte Stevens, Lecturer in Media and Communications, Birmingham City University.

Charlotte took us through the early stages of a fascinating research project focusing on the Remediation of Games and Gaming in Chinese Television Dramas. The presentation was rich in clips from games and TV alike, which helped to frame the key research questions and thematic areas that Charlotte is exploring on this project. These included:

  1. The translation of game elements into TV narrative, and the types of storytelling this enables
  2. The transmigration of players into game worlds, and what happens at this intersection
  3. Players themselves as key characters in TV dramas, offering access to game worlds, while also acting to translate success in gaming into success in other social areas.

In the process of critically examining a range of examples, Charlotte posed the question as to whether ‘remediation’ is the most effective term to describe the breadth of activity here. Her talk gave way to a stimulating Q&A with colleagues from across the Faculty of Arts, which was continued over dinner.

Our thanks to Dr Stevens for her wonderful talk, and the Department of Film and Television for organizing! Watch this space for future collaborations at the intersection of gaming and TV.

Poster for The King’s Avatar (2019)

For those unable to attend, you can gain a sense of the talk from Charlotte’s summary:

This talk is an overview of a developing project that considers two broad forms of remediation of video games in Chinese television dramas. First, in fantasy dramas which adapt RPGs and MMOs (i.e., Chinese PaladinXuan-Yuan Sword), I am interested in where and how elements of game mechanics translate into narrative. Second, romcoms and adventure dramas which centre on MMO players (Gank Your HeartLove O2OKing’s AvatarThe Player), or otherwise feature gaming (Original SinThree-Body), present success in MMOs/esports as a proxy for success as a citizen and romantic partner. These are set against a rapidly-shifting cultural policy context that frames online gaming as an adult activity, with children’s access limited to a few hours per week, and an industrial context where large corporations such as Tencent produce both games and television dramas about gaming.

Connecting through Game Research Interests at the First Annual UK Digital Game Lab Summit

On 24 February, the Bristol Digital Game Lab hosted the first annual UK Digital Game Lab Summit at Clifton Hill House. The aim of the event was to examine shared research themes, explore ways to engage with industry, and discuss the creation of a network of gaming research groups. Thanks to generous funding from the British Academy and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol, we were delighted to welcome the leads of nine UK-based game labs/groups, including:

The summit was conducted in five sections and began with an icebreaker in a series of small groups, starting with the first game that we ever played. This discussion branched into further conversations surrounding games studies as a discipline, and the utility of games both in academia and the gaming industry.

As the summit progressed, discussions focused on how to run a game lab/research group, before covering the research themes emerging from the work of each group present. Such themes included the interplay of history and gaming, analog vs. digital games, experimental and applied gaming, multidisciplinary approaches to gaming, social action, sustainability, and education in/of games.

After lunch, we heard from Iain Dodgeon of OKRE and Ben Byford of Nuclear Candy Limited/the Bristol Game Hub. OKRE is an organization that focuses on supporting entertainment content that challenges perceptions. OKRE has helped develop and fund BAFTA-winning video games, Oscar-nominated films, and supported Emmy award-winning screenwriters. The Bristol Games Hub is a non-profit organization that provides working spaces in Bristol and the West Country to bring together game developers, academics and other industry workers to create games. Both presentations highlighted the importance of organizations outside of academia to support and fund projects for further development.

The Summit concluded with a discussion about funding opportunities, and how to leverage our shared expertise to tackle policy changes in order to support gaming as a discipline. Attendees provided valuable feedback on setting up a network of gaming networks, including the remit that such a network might have.

The Summit was followed by a public lecture by Dr. Tomas Rawlings, Studio Director of Auroch Digital, on ‘Authenticity in Game Development’ in the Wills Memorial Building. His discussion stemmed from Auroch’s work on Mars Horizon and the experience of working with real space agencies when making a game about running a fictional space agency.

Thank you to all of the researchers and staff who contributed to the first Summit, to our funders, and especially to Claudia Jones, our intern, for writing up this report!

We look forward to seeing you at the Manchester Game Centre in 2024 for the next Summit!

Research Student Work-in-progress Afternoon

To kick off the year, on 30 January 2023 we heard from four current research students working on games/games culture. Dody Chen (Bristol) went first, delivering a video presentation about her PhD research. In her talk, ‘Streamers’ Localisation of Video Games in Live Game Streaming’, Dody navigated her role as both streamer and researcher, and explained how her case study approach, along with practice-led research, will help to better understand how streamers localise video games from English to Chinese in real time, as well as the impact that this type of localisation might have on streaming audiences.

Claudia Jones (Bristol) spoke next about her Masters research, ‘Playing through Pain: The Ethics of Black Historical Narratives in Gaming.’ Claudia set the scene by noting that only 2% of employees in the both the US and UK games industry identify as Black. Considering the size and impact of the industry, Claudia is interested in the question of who is allowed to compete to create historical consciousness in virtual worlds. Her research looks at the ethics of Black historical games broadly speaking, with a particular focus on how Black historical games can serve as an archive of collective memories.

After a coffee/networking break, Jemma Stafford (Leeds) showed how her research has developed since she completed her Masters degree at the University of Bristol. Her PhD, which focuses on the English localisation of Chinese games, was outlined in her talk: ‘Crouching Button, Hidden Typo: The Reception of Chinese Videogames Translated into English.’ Jemma showed how a multimodal, paratextual, UX and reception-based methodology will help her to examine a series of research questions focused on the ways in which English localisations of Chinese games are often negatively perceived, and how this might help to inform future design decisions.

Finally, Edward Knight (Bristol) spoke about ‘Nurturing Inclusivity in the Video Game Industry: A Ludonarrative examination of Blackness in contemporary video games.’ Edward is pursuing his PhD at the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures. The Centre’s unique approach, which considers how the social and digital are interwoven and the possible futures that await us, underpins Edward’s aim to understand both the current state of the video game industry, and its possible futures. In doing so, Edward’s research aims to challenge, call out and disrupt the same exclusionary trends that Claudia drew attention to, and which limit Black people and their presentation of them. His research focuses on games, the gaming industry, and game culture, and takes a mixed methodological approach, including both conventional and creative methods of investigation.

A big thank you to our presenters – we wish you all the best with your studies. Thanks also to the Centre for Black Humanities for live-tweeting Claudia’s talk.

Bristol Digital Game Lab Events 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!

January 2023

On Monday 30 January at 13:30-17:00, the Bristol Digital Game Lab will be hosting an MA/PhD work-in-progress afternoon. This in-person event will showcase the game-based research being undertaken by current students across the University, while also offering a chance to postgraduates to share ideas, practice conference papers, and discuss their work in an informal, relaxed setting. All members of the Lab and those interested in game-based research are most welcome to attend and join in the Q&A. The event will be held in the Humanities Research Space, 7 Woodland Road, and refreshments will be provided. View full programme.

February 2023

On Friday 24 February, the Bristol Digital Game Lab is delighted to be hosting the first UK Digital Game Lab summit. Thanks to generous funding from the British Academy Early Career Research Network, we will be welcoming the leads from nine University-based game labs and gaming research networks and groups to the University of Bristol to explore shared research themes and industry challenges.

The Summit will culminate in a public lecture by Dr Tomas Rawlings, Studio Director of Auroch Digital, who will speak about ‘Authenticity in Game Development – Mars Horizon and the experience of working with real space agencies when making a game about running a fictional space agency’. The lecture and Q&A will take place from 17:30-19:00 in the Reception Room, Wills Memorial Building.

You can register to attend the public lecture on Eventbrite. All welcome.

March 2023

Together with the Department of Film and Television at the University of Bristol, we are delighted to be hosting a research seminar on Friday 24 March by Dr Charlotte Stevens, Lecturer in Media and Communications, Birmingham City University. The seminar will run from 15:00-16:30, Floor 5 Lecture Theatre (5.65), Richmond Building, and will be followed by a drinks reception. All welcome, no booking necessary.

Remediation of Games and Gaming in Chinese Television Dramas

This talk is an overview of a developing project that considers two broad forms of remediation of video games in Chinese television dramas. First, in fantasy dramas which adapt RPGs and MMOs (i.e., Chinese PaladinXuan-Yuan Sword), I am interested in where and how elements of game mechanics translate into narrative. Second, romcoms and adventure dramas which centre on MMO players (Gank Your HeartLove O2OKing’s AvatarThe Player), or otherwise feature gaming (Original SinThree-Body), present success in MMOs/esports as a proxy for success as a citizen and romantic partner. These are set against a rapidly-shifting cultural policy context that frames online gaming as an adult activity, with children’s access limited to a few hours per week, and an industrial context where large corporations such as Tencent produce both games and television dramas about gaming.

April 2023

We’re delighted to welcome Luke Holmes, Game Designer from Creative Assembly, the multi-award winning BAFTA UK games studio, to the University of Bristol on Wednesday 26 April. Luke will talk about ‘The Quest for Authenticity in Historical Games‘.

Are ‘fun’ and ‘good history’ opposite concepts in historical games? How can we tell if our games are authentic to the past? This short talk explores best practice in historical game design. It introduces some of the key debates and useful tools for amateurs and professional game makers alike.

The talk will be held in LT2, 11 Woodland Road, and will be followed by a drinks reception. All welcome, book here.

May 2023

The Virtual Reality Oracle project is proud to present an international, multidisciplinary workshop on Virtual Realities as Time Travel at the University of Bristol (UK) and online on Friday 12 May 2023, 09:30-17:00.

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

View the full programme and register your interest on Ticket Tailor.

We’re very happy to be sponsoring this workshop, along with the Centre for Creative Technologies.

July 2023

On Wednesday 26 July 2023, we’re delighted to be partnering with the Platform Cultures event at the PM Studio. The Lab’s VR, Games & Storytelling 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.

Festive Gaming with the Bristol Digital Game Lab

People playing an augmented reality board game

To mark the end of the year, the Bristol Digital Game Lab hosted an evening of Festive Gaming on Wednesday 7 December 2022 at the University of Bristol. Thanks to the support of special guests and local developers Catastrophic Overload and Play Well for Life, members of the Lab had the opportunity to try out some of the most recent social games, and playtest others that have not yet been released. It was not all fun and games, however, as players were encouraged to provide feedback throughout the evening, to be a part of the developmental process.

To kick off, we pulled some sofas together, broke out the controllers and had a go at Catastrophic Overload’s latest work, Bish Bash Bots, ‘a turret defence game like no other.’ A lot of fun was had testing the limits of this new feature experience, and a lot of effort expended attempting to complete the hardest level. Many towers were built, and many robots decommissioned. Drink More Glurp also made an appearance, to the delight of players, who attempted – with varying levels of success – to master the game’s wacky physics. It was a pleasure to hear from the developers, to understand more about the work that goes on behind the scenes, and to receive playstyle tips from the experts!

People sitting around a large screen

Away from the big screen, Play Well for Life hosted several rounds of their augmented reality board game, Dragons of Afterlands. This game, which has been developed in partnership with clinical psychologists at Royal Holloway University to develop wellbeing skills and improve communication of adolescents, offered a case in point for how serious games can challenge players to think critically about their emotional reactions. The animations, coupled with the beautifully designed board and gameworld, managed to inject the magic of fantasy games into what is very much a reflective experience.

We also heard from international special guest Loki, who were visiting from Spain, about their work translating games across languages and cultures.

Thank you to everyone who came, and to all of those who have supported the Lab since we launched in September 2022. Stay tuned for our next installment!

Two people beside a roller banner for the Bristol Digital Game Lab

Mario is Missing! Inaugural Lecture

Professor James Newman (Bath Spa) delivered the Bristol Digital Game Lab inaugural research seminar on Friday 4 November 2022 at the Pervasive Media Studio. James’ title was Mario is Missing! Playing, not playing and preserving videogamesIt was a tremendous talk, full of side quests, easter eggs, and nostalgia, not to mention a call to arms for how to preserve all the different ways to play video games. After the talk, the Bristol Digital Game Lab were special guests at the First Friday social event, where we introduced our aims and networked with creative professionals working at the Studio. Many thanks to James for headlining our seminar series, and to the Pervasive Media Studio and the Watershed for hosting us.

One attendee kindly wrote the following feedback on Twitter.

A fantastic talk! Full of ideas for cultural historians thinking about the problems from the other direction: what practices of play history *didn’t* preserve, and what we do now. Thank you #BristolDigitalGameLab!’

For those unable to attend, you can gain a sense of the talk from James’ summary:

At a time when there are more gaming platforms and titles available than ever before, it might seem strange to claim that videogames are disappearing. And yet, despite their apparent abundance, the processes of material and digital deterioration render hardware and software unusable as hard drives fail, discs become unreadable, activation servers are re-allocated and newly released systems offer no compatibility with existing libraries of games and peripherals. Adding to this, journalistic, retail and marketing practices fuel a marketplace of perpetual innovation that rationalises and justifies the rapidity of supersession and obsolescence. As such, videogames are, without doubt, disappearing and the continued – and accelerating – loss of this material denies future generations access to their cultural heritage and robs the next generation of developers historical reference material to draw on. As Henry Lowood (2009) pointed out more than a decade ago, we need to take action ‘before it’s too late’.

Building on ideas outlined in publications including Best Before (2012) and the *Game Over* (2018) and *Time Extend!* (2020) White Papers, this session considers different approaches to preserving, interpreting and exhibiting videogames. In particular, the talk revisits some underlying presuppositions and proposes a rethinking of the objective of game preservation that shifts away from the dominant assumption that the aim of game preservation is to retain long-term playability. Instead, the talk suggests ways of considering play as a complex collection of practices that need to be captured and preserved. The session concludes by exploring the application of these ideas and some innovative uses of emulation in exhibits such as the ‘Game Inspector’ developed for the National Videogame Museum where Newman is a curator and researcher.

References

Lowood, H. (2009) ‘Before It’s Too Late: A Digital Game Preservation White Paper’, American Journal of Play, 2(2) pp. 139-166. https://www.museumofplay.org/app/uploads/2022/02/2-2-special-feature-digital-game-preservation-white-paper-1.pdf

Newman J. and Simons I. (2020) *TIME EXTEND! The future of curating, preserving and exhibiting videogames*. White Paper. http://vhs-thenvm-org.stackstaging.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Time-Extend-White-Paper-Newman-2020.pdf

Newman, J. and Simons, I. (2018) *Game Over? Videogame preservation, exhibition and curation*. White Paper. http://vhs-thenvm-org.stackstaging.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Game-Over-White-Paper-Newman-and-Simons-2018.pdf

Newman, J. (2012) Best Before: videogames, supersession and obsolescence. New York; Routledge.

Computer Science Society Game Jam

On the 2nd & 3rd November 2022, the Computer Science Society at the University of Bristol held their annual games jam. The theme: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

The Bristol Digital Game Lab sponsored two prizes, including Most Accessible Game and Best Engagement with History and Culture. We were delighted to take part in the judging alongside colleagues from Ardman, MyWorld, and the University of Bristol.

Huge congratulations to the students, who built fantastic games from scratch in ~30 hours incorporating innovative artwork, design choices and narratives. It was difficult to select a winner, but Jordan’s appropriately titled Magnum Opus impressed us in most categories, with its stop motion aesthetic and nod to video game history. You can see Jordan’s work online: Magnum Opus by LeverSoftware (itch.io).

Made in Bristol: Games Showcase

Advertising image for the Bristol Games Showcase

We were delighted to sponsor the Made in Bristol: Games Showcase event on Thursday 27 October 2022. This event, run by the fantastic Bristol Game Hub, took the form of a public showcase of games released or in development from local developers. The Bristol Digital Game Lab was also there in person, demonstrating both the AD4Games project and the Virtual Reality Oracle (pictured below). We thoroughly enjoyed this lively, social evening, and the chance to share ideas with, as well as take feedback from, local industry players. We’re looking forward to getting involved with more industry-led events!

A banner of the Virtual Reality Oracle Project and VR headsets on chairs

Bristol Digital Game Lab Events 2022

We are delighted to share details of several upcoming events and activities that the Bristol Digital Game Lab is organizing and/or involved with. We hope to see many of you there!

September

Come and help us launch the Bristol Digital Game Lab! On Wednesday 7 September at 18:00, we will be hosting a launch/networking event in Clifton Hill House, following a full day workshop on game accessibility. We look forward to sharing our vision with you.

October

On Thursday 27 October at 18:30, the Bristol Digital Game Lab will be sponsoring the Made in Bristol: Games Showcase, organized by the Bristol Games Hub. We will also be sharing the outcomes from University of Bristol game-based and immersive projects at the event, including the AD4Games project and the VR simulation from the Virtual Reality Oracle project. All welcome to come and enjoy some games, pizza, and drinks. Please sign up via Meetup.

November

On Thursday 3 November, the Bristol Digital Game Lab will be helping to judge the University of Bristol GamesJam, which will see up to 100 Computer Science undergraduates take part in a games design challenge. We will also be sponsoring two prizes, including one on accessibility.

Join us on Friday 4 November at 15:30 for the inaugural Bristol Digital Game Lab research seminar, Mario is Missing! – Guest Lecture by Prof. James Newman. This event will be held in the Pervasive Media Studio at the Watershed, Bristol. The lecture is in person only; please register via Eventbrite as there are a limited number of spaces. The seminar will be followed by the First Friday November social at the PM Studio at 17:00, where we can continue to discuss all things game related; everyone is welcome to join us.

December

Come and play some games with us!  

To mark the end of the year, on Wednesday 7 December 18:00-20:00, the Bristol Digital Game Lab will be hosting a social play session. Thanks to the support of special guests and local developers Catastrophic Overload and Play Well for Life, you will have the opportunity to try out some of the latest social games, and playtest others that have not yet been released! 

We will also hear from international special guest Loki, who are visiting from Spain, about their work translating games across languages and cultures. 

The event will be held at the University of Bristol, in the Humanities Research Space (1.H020), 7 Woodland Road, Bristol, BS8 1TB. We look forward to seeing you there, and to hearing your thoughts on the games. 

Book now to avoid disappointment

2023 and beyond…

We have lots of plans in train for 2023, including an early career research showcase in January, a UK Game Lab Summit in February, and a conference on Virtual Realities as Time Travel in May. If you have any ideas for future events that we can help out with, please just let us know!