Exhausted. Enthralled. Excited.

Three words which neatly summarise how I am feeling having just returned from four deeply inspiring days at the “Challenge the Past // Diversify the Future” (@ctp2015) conference. In this not-quite-as-short-as-anticipated blog post I will try to detail some of my personal experiences of the event and elucidate on why I think the people, panels and talks given were so exceptionally enthralling and exciting. Sitting here now my head (and email-inbox) are spinning with new ways to think about the how, why and what of heritage video-games and possibly more importantly where we might direct this fascinating area of study in the future. By taking a more personal approach here I hope to not only recount the events from my point of view, but also add some introspective insight into how the conference and all its incredible attendees have impacted the future directions and ambitions of my own research. To try keep it manageable I will split my write up into two parts – Part I (presented here) will discuss my experiences of the first day, and Part II (to be posted later in the week) will overview the second day and offer some further discussion and conclusions.

My #CTP2015 experience begun the night before the conference officially opened as the fabulous Edwige Lelièvre (@edwigelel) had been kind enough to organise an informal pre-event meet-up at a local bar. The bar itself was small and quirky – a perfect fit for the small number of anticipated video-game and history researchers (most of the speakers having endured an early morning and 10+ hours of flights to arrive in Gothenburg, and one intrepid traveller having endured 36+ hours to come all the way from Australia).

As it transpired a shockingly large number of us turned up – tired, jetlagged but thoroughly enthusiastic – taking over all available seating and standing locations, pushing the bars person-per-square-metre ratio beyond capacity. It was a surprisingly emotional thing for me – having previously worked on my MSc and now PhD largely in isolation – only to see how many people there are actively engaged in this topic area, how diverse the field can be, how truly passionate everyone was about sharing their research and how enthralled everyone was at the prospect of learning from others. I was so excited to be able to speak (in meat-space as he puts it) to my long time inspiration in all things #archaeogaming – Andrew Reinhard (@adreinhard) – as well as to meet the multitude of other academics from all corners of the globe who are creating and applying their own skills the study of history and heritage in video-games. After multiple hours of entrancing discussion even the most intrepid of the conference attendees fell to jetlag or tiredness and I left for the hotel feeling reinvigorated and inspired about my own research (a welcome change from the day-to-day stresses and self doubt) and unbelievably excited for the days that lay ahead.

The following morning the conference was warmly welcomed by the inspiring and hard-working primary event organisers: Dr. Chapman (@Woodlandstaar), Dr. Foka (@FencingFox) and Dr. Westin (@Kallikanzaros) – all of whom emphasised the diversity of contributing disciplines and the growing traction which the study of history for, about and within videogames was starting to gain in the wider academic (and public) sphere. The passion, expertise and excitement which they spoke with – not only about the current state of research, but the future directions that are becoming possible – added a tangible (and less beer-fuelled) line of reasoning to the overwhelming excitement and anticipation felt the night before at Kino Bar. Throughout my MSc and into my PhD I have run into my fair share of people who have been deeply sceptical that heritage in and for video-games is a legitimate, worthy or academic field of study –  but it only took a cursory glance around the room during this opening address to dispel any inkling that these statements might hold any weight. It truly is an exciting time to be involved in this field of study alongside such inspiring and talented people.

The first key-note, delivered by Dr. Cecilia Lindhè (@cecilialindhe), was undoubtedly inspiring for everyone in attendance, but also deeply informative for myself as it formalised, reframed and expanded so many of issues I have presently been navigating during my PhD research – using interactivity as a springboard into discussing the creation of non-traditional interfaces for facilitating multimodal and performative interaction with the past. Leveraging the concepts of memoria and ductus Dr Lindhè guided us through the transformative power which user-interfaces, such as that being developed at HUMlab for the Imitatio Maria project, can have for disrupting traditional interactions by moving ones perceptions away from the object as aesthetic, reframing them towards process, and turning viewer from passive receptor into active participant. I was deeply inspired by how Dr. Lindhè openly and frankly talked about the issues of applying formal logic to humanities applications and elucidated on the experiences of working with technical developers to try facilitate duality, subjectivity and humanist approaches within formal computer languages – I couldn’t help but be reminded of the research being conducted by the ever inspiring Chris Martens (@chrisamaphone) regarding generative rules and emergent narrative and found myself speculating on how research being done from purely computational and game based approaches could be used to recursively inform our practices of engaging with history. The resounding questions which drew the key-note to a close were: what happens if we move away from formal and traditional methods of accessing material about the past? What other things might we learn through using multimodality as a method of remediation? And how else might we be able to experience, access and interpret the past as a result of this?

Inquiry into these questions continued over a coffee break where the value of inter-disciplinary discussion and indeed the necessity of conferences such as #CTP2015 for facilitating these interactions became evident. The group gathered around the coffee machine had a diversity of backgrounds which ranged from the games-industry, ancient history, creative writing, computer-science and beyond – and all of us had pulled different ways in which the research and creation practices discussed by Dr.  Lindhè could impact, direct and inspire our own work. As each member discussed their views, the networks for contextualising and understanding how the past can be accessed, interpreted and portrayed widened, each member of the discussion adding a new layer of understanding. Layers which on my own I would not have been able to access or understand. My current PhD work is seeking to make a case for trans-disciplinary knowledge exchange between the video-game, heritage and player stakeholders based upon the notion that each brings to the table views, experiences and knowledge which is not accessible or understandable from external frameworks – a notion which started to solidify as I stood there, next to that coffee machine, listening to views derived from frameworks I have never engaged with (and never would have thought to engage with without #CTP2015), learning different ways to think about the same, shared problems.

The late morning bought with it a split between conference sessions – “Gender, Space and Time” and “Building Histories” – of which I attended the latter. Highlights of this session included an investigation into representations of dark heritage in Minecraft by the talented Marina Werholm who used her skills as a teacher and her interests in how the problem space of Minecraft allowed for remediation. Marina carefully and intelligently utilised a data set generated from you-tube videos and comments to demonstrate how constructions inspired by the events of 9/11 affected the viewer in different ways based upon their expectations and boundaries of play. One of the really stand-out points of Marina’s talk was how social perceptions of the video-game media form constrain what is acceptable or not to present in game worlds – and that the act of personal construction and engagement means some topics are more easily off limits for discussion or portrayal than in the more conventional media counterparts.

This theme was echoed by the panels second speaker – Dr. Tobias Winnerling – who artfully compared and contrasted the differential treatment and reception of historic remediation through Lego and Video-game. A key theme within this panel was the concept of ‘normalization’ – that the greater the agency or self-determination there was in constructing aesthetic and narrative, the easier it was to normalize the symbolic system for wide-spread consumption – hence why Lego, perhaps, was seen as more socially acceptable for engaging with the past than its video-game counterparts. This observation was used as a basis for arguing that perhaps with more sandbox style video-games the media form, in the future, will become increasingly normalized and accepted as a way for exploring the past.

Both Marina and Dr. Winnerling’s presentations offered me new insights into problems which I had been grappling with through my MSc – Where are the limits of play? Why do they exist? What influences them? Dr. Winnerling demonstrated that media forms interplay with ideas of symbolic systems, and in turn, by necessity, interplay with socially constructed ideas of acceptance and normalization. Whilst I might still be a sceptic that sand-box games are the avenue to solving the current resistance of the video-game format, I did observe that Marina’s talk demonstrated much of these shifting trends within the Minecraft problem-space – players actively engaging, critiquing, complimenting and commenting on constructions of dark heritage in a way which seemed, to me at least, to be increasingly normalized to how others removed from those systems discussed the media form and the practices occurring within it. Perhaps indicating that as new generations grow up embedded into the media form of video-games their ongoing interactions will form a wider foundation for normalization and acceptance of the media-form itself. The extended Q and A session provoked further discussion from a distinctly multidiciplinary perspective – demonstrating again how valuable it is to compare, contrast and draw from the expertise of others working from different paradigms and perspectives.

Whilst I was not able to attend the ‘Gender, Space and Time’ session (on account of not being a timelord nor having access to a time-turner) several enthusiastic tweeters provided a backdrop for how the alternate session was progressing, tweeting key themes, questions and rhetoric from the panel – allowing conference attendees and academics from further afield to engage in the conference happenings under the #CTP2015 hashtag. The ability to capture, access and contribute to these discussions, in my opinion, demonstrates how truly fantastic, and powerful Web 2.0 platforms such as Twitter can be for facilitating both recording and further dialogue between academic communities.

Even more powerful is when these 140 characters of conference happenings can be taken, collated, pulled apart, parsed and turned into a valuable data source – as the ever impressive Dr. Shawn Graham (@electricarchaeo) did via forays into scraping and collating images (https://github.com/shawngraham/exercise/blob/gh-pages/ctp2015images.md),  tweets (http://shawngraham.github.io/exercise/ctp2015-wall.html), transforming the content of the tweets into a visual network (http://infranodus.com/shawn), and creating an image quilt:

I always find that working within the digital humanities is truly an exciting endeavour – a feeling which really was driven home as I poured over all the fantastic material which Dr. Graham had stitched together and produced from the #CTP2015 twitter happenings. I mean, there is something truly interesting and awe-inspiring in the fact that another academic, a world away, can access, collate and remediate our conference experience – and in turn that through us engaging with this material we can examine the trends, patterns and impacts of our research as we generate and share it. To return to an earlier concept – the production of these entities (such as the twitter networks, imagequilts etc) alone are novel and interesting in and of themselves, but more interestingly is how through engaging with these entities we start to reflexively see not only what we are doing, but potentially how and why.

The next split for conference tracks was between ‘Multisensory Antiquity’, ‘Fictional Worlds and Historiography’ and ‘Alternate Histories in Games’ – of which again I attended the latter. The first presenter from this panel was Johannes Koski (@personamatters) discussing the reframing of WWII history in the JRPG ‘Valkyria Chronicles’. Drawing on the ideas of fetishization, branding, subversion and popular memory Johannes unpicked how ‘Valkyria Chronicles’ afforded the player a way to explore and indeed cope with a difficult period of the past. By simplifying or differentially representing certain contested elements, by drawing them into an alternate world, the game allowed for exploration with lessened moral conflict and the subversion of the existing ‘brand’ of ‘WWII’ history. Perhaps the thing which was most interesting to me was Johannes’ assessment of using mechanics to explore historical aspects – as with ‘Valkyria Chronicles’ the character trait for racism impacts how characters can interact with each other, as well as the types of dialogue which accompany this. By systematizing historical aspects into mechanics it was noted that you allow the player the agency to explore the impacts and relationships which underlay the traditional representations, stories and statements – a process which video-games excel at, yet, as Josh Unsworth (@Joshua_Unsworth) stated in a later paper, is rarely incorporated into video-games about history.

Many of these sentiments and themes were reiterated by the second speaker of the panel – Mateusz Felczak – who discussed the ‘Wolfenstein’ franchise through the lens of memory production about an ‘actual past’ from popular culture rooted in ‘alternate pasts’. The most interesting thing for me from Mateusz paper – which resonated with the data-set I presented at the conference, as well as with my ongoing PhD research – was that through disrupting conventional memory about the past you can provide the player with a space in which they not only consume, but can effectively participate in negotiating the events of the past. But, as an astute member of the audience noted during the Q and A time, for this negotiation to happen effectively knowledge of the multiple perspectives must be built into both the game-space and the preceding knowledge being navigated. How we might best achieve this is still very much open for debate.

The final session of the day was split between ‘Dancing Metamorphosis Workshop’, ‘Digital Cultural Heritage’ and ‘Actively Engaging History’ – which once again I attended the latter of. The opening speaker – Dr. Raiford Guins (@RaifordGuins)- threw me headfirst into a world which I had literally no knowledge or framework for understanding:  the design and experience of coin-operated arcade video-game machines. I mean, I have played the great arcade classics on emulators from the comfort of my own PC, but I had never once thought about the cabinets as a media form inextricably linked to the games which they hosted. Dr. Guins almost lyrical presentation had me totally entranced with the idea that we need to not only look at the software, not only at the hardware, but also at the hardwood which surrounds the ‘game’ and the ‘game system’. At the moment I am designing case-study implementations of ‘heritage video-games’ for locations spanning museums, fieldwork and home consumption and it had simply never occurred to me that the ‘hardwood’, as Dr. Guins put it, required consideration on its own grounds, as well as in relation to the other facets of game implementation. Since arriving back in York I have been hard at work writing industrial-design provisions into my development structure and am eagerly anticipating the arrival of ‘Game After’ so I can continue expanding my knowledge into this area which I had completely blind-eyed during my previous research and development processes.

The next presentation by Dr. Dale Andrews continued with the theme of throwing me headfirst into worlds in which I have incredibly limited understanding or context for – this time broaching the transitions from real-world history, to digital video-game, back to embedding in the real-world through fans depictions of historical characters in the votive folk art of ‘Sengoku Basara”. The thing which I really took away from Dr. Andrews talk (aside from inspiration on how to be a fantastic public speaker) was the role which the players have in remediating an already (possibly) multiply remediated past – and how each of these framings and re-framings of history allow for different engagements and interpretations. Back last year I was lucky enough to attend a doctoral workshop hosted by Dr. Chapman in Gothenburg, during which Jason Begy (@Jasonbartfast) discussed the concept of ‘the players-do fallacy’ – the idea that as video-game researchers we have a tendency to say what players and doing, learning and getting out of games without actually ever talking to them, or observing them in the different contexts that their practices extend to. The data set which Dr. Andrews collated was a wonderful, playful and insightful reversal of this fallacy. From studying it he was able to move beyond inference and say not only what players were doing but show the processes underpinning why and how. I must admit to being somewhat burnt out from primary data collection, having done a silly amount for my MSc thesis, but watching Dr. Andrews presentation revived the notion that such work is fundamental to developing and legitimizing the statements that we are already crafting. Moreover the fact which I could be so blindsided by data rooted in something so obvious demonstrated how far reaching, interwoven and unexplored so much of the discipline still is.

Next up to speak was Dr. Edwige Lelièvre on how tangible and intangible heritage was facilitated in the mixed space of the multiplayer adventure video-game ‘OFabulis’. In the opening chapters of my MSc I had provided some pretty harsh critiques of ‘heritage video-games’ (games made or sponsored by the heritage sector with the purpose of engaging audiences or providing a pedagogic platform) so my expectations of ‘OFabulis’, before attending the talk, were sceptical – to say the least. Throughout the talk Dr. Lelièvre began to soften my stance, artfully demonstrating how her development team had moved away from those ‘heritage game’ conventions which I had been so critical of by drawing inspiration from video-game industry produced works such as ‘Broken Sword’ and ‘Everquest’. It was incredibly gratifying to see that in the time it had taken for me to research, write and submit my thesis others had already acknowledged the same issues on their own accord and been searching for novel approaches for producing meaningful works in this space. I have only just found the time to open up and begin playing ‘OFabulis’ for myself, but already I have been utterly blown away by the quality of the work which Dr. Lelièvre and her team have produced. It really seems indicative of how much we stand to gain when we work referentially to wider video-game industry frameworks and how many ideas about representing the past we have yet to really explore.

The final speaker of the panel was one of my most anticipated – Joshua Unsworth (@Joshua_Unsworth) speaking on the problems inherent with only applying history at the aesthetic level in video-games, and what we might seek to gain from investigating its application at the deeper, mechanical level. The reason why I was so anxious to hear this paper was twofold, firstly it was one of the strongest trends in my MSc data – that within game studios historical material is usually exclusively used by the artists, writers and animators as reference material whilst designers rarely engage with these sources, thereby leaving the mechanics largely non reflexive to historic underpinnings. Due to time and word-limits I had not been able to explore this topic in any way other than a passing overview, so I was super interested to hear how Joshua’s research was exploring this subject area. Secondly Joshua comes from the incredibly privileged position of being both a video-game developer and an ancient-history academic, having studied an undergraduate in the latter and now working towards a MSc in games design – allowing for an in-depth understanding of how both frameworks operate and how we might work to better integrate or mediate them. The presentation itself was an insightful exposition into how little of history we have actually explored with video-games and how much we could learn, as players, academics, historians and games designers, through engaging with the past through mechanics. To me, Joshua made evident the unique power of video-games for exploring the past and in turn drove home how much further we have to go in order to effectively leverage this media form to its potential. Video-games are not just aesthetics, narratives or mechanics in isolation, they are a dynamic space which allows for exploration of all these threads collaboratively – yet we rarely capture this potential when designing games about the past. Undoubtedly this is not an easy or quick fix, but at least in acknowledging and discussing the problem Joshua provided a platform from which meaningful critique and construction can continue to emerge from both the heritage and video-game sectors – and I truly look forward to hearing more of his insights on this topic in the future.

By the time the day drew to a close I was utterly exhausted. But more than this I was enthralled by what I had heard, and excited to continue discussions over a wine reception and into the next day. But for now, further insight into those exciting and enthralling discussions must be cut short, as at 3,700 words this blog post has become rather too exhaustingly long already. Part II (which undoubtedly will be equally silly in length) of the conference run-down should be posted by the end of the week – until then, once again, a massive thank-you to the fantastic organisers, support team and speakers of #CTP2015 who have opened my eyes to how incredible our subject area is, and in turn have provided a great deal of ideas and motivation which I will draw from as I continue my own research.