TIPC@Work: A Trip to Leiden

Last week I made the journey over to the Netherlands to participate in a two day workshop organised by the VALUE research group who are based at the University of Leiden, just outside Amsterdam. TIPC@Work refers to The Interactive Pasts Conference which was held last year but with a more practical focus this time – we would be learning how to hone our interactive storytelling skills by making narrative games using Twine.

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Tara enthusiastically gesticulating through her excellent Twine demo…and the first couple of coffee cups stacking up on my desk!

On day one we had a couple of presentations, the first from Jeremiah McCall who spoke about how he uses his Twine game Path of Honors to teach history in a school classroom context. Pawel Szyszka from 11bit studios then spoke about his work with narrative design on the development of their strategy survival game This War of Mine which dealt with a lot of difficult and morally challenging themes.

We spent the second day of the workshop in groups making our own Twine games which was great fun. Our group produced a multi-threaded narrative entitled “Voices from the Agora” which was set in Athens on the day war was declared against the Persians. We played with the idea of being able to switch between multiple characters to hear the story from different perspectives. Each of these characters was based on someone from history – Alcibiades, Kallipateira and Diogenes – as well as an owl which presented a metaphor for the city…and facilitated the production of many owl gifs!

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The gif action was strong in our game!

Back in June I’d attended a couple of days of workshopping in Ireland with the Digital Humanities folks at Maynooth University. The focus was Virtual Worlds as Digital Scholarly Editions and brought together scholars from the fields of 3D heritage visualisation and digital scholarly editions. There was a lot of great discussion and certainly I returned home with loads to think about, buzzing as always from a couple of days chatting about the ins and outs of this complex field. I did feel however that the ever-present ‘need’ to disengage with subjectivity in interpretation hung over some of the discussions. Some of the comments suggested people were very self conscious of the discipline of 3D visualisation in archaeology being difficult to justify as an academic practise in itself (there was one particularly interesting point about the ability to have 3D models peer reviewed). It seemed that many of the rehearsed debates were just aired again and I couldn’t help feeling like I’d had these discussions a hundred times before.

In Leiden it was quite refreshing to attend an event where people didn’t seem to feel so restricted by their understandings of what it means to interpret archaeology and create narratives on the past. Gaming facilitates ‘play’ and I think that creates a very positive environment for research.

Analysing it a bit (as I like to do!) I think there’s something liberating about being part of a newer movement of thinking in this field and gaming in archaeology has certainly been on the fringes for a while, though it’s rapidly gaining momentum and a louder, more confident voice. I think this slightly peripheral positioning of the field makes it a freer place to share ideas and have conversations without the lurking fear of quantifying the inevitable subjectivity that comes with archaeological interpretation or the sense that practitioners are scared by their own shadows (i.e. they feel more comfortable justifying their creative decisions in the context of games). Don’t get me wrong, of course the visual and/or narrative outputs of this process within the context of heritage and academia should always respond to the evidence and be grounded in a critical and reflexive approach – but not to the extent where it cripples any ability for the field to explore itself and test the boundaries. Especially when the field is comparatively so young.

Reflecting back on these two workshops has actually made me really appreciative of the route I’ve taken to get where I am now research perspective-wise. Doing a practise-based PhD at the Glasgow School of Art then consequently working my research post at Duncan of Jordanstone has placed me in environments where academia can be creative and playful – much like games…

Aside from attending the workshop I also made the most of my hotel being right next door to the fantastic Ethnography museum in Leiden and spent the day before flying home trawling through the exhibits with my sketchbook. In particular I spent most of my time in a special exhibit on Greenlandic and Northern Canadian art which was fantastic.

All in all a great trip!

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