New Blog/Homepage

January 23, 2009

A little while back I merged this blog with my other blog onto trevorowens.org.

So if you want to see what I am up to these days you can find new posts there.


Darwin Quest RPG: Making Historical RPGs for Almost Nothing

August 5, 2008

Last Friday I was excited to rediscover RPG Maker, a windows only, no-programing skills necessary, platform for building role playing games. The tool allows you to create games with the look and feel of mid-nineties Super Nintendo Games like Final Fantasy VI, Breath of Fire, or EarthBound. As an avid gamer and proto-historian I was excited to see if RPG Maker could be used to build historical RPGs, or, if not that, at least  playable proofs of concept. After a few hours of fun with the program I am happy to report that I think it can serve both these purposes.

Through the tools relatively simple interface you can very quickly create maps, characters and edit all the other RPG staples like character classes, skills, and items. I have always thought Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos would make a neat RPG so I thought I would start by playing around with that. Below are some screenshots from my 2 hrs of work.

Darwin Quest Title Screen

Darwin Quest Title Screen

Charles is aparently a level one naturalist

Charles is apparently a level one naturalist

RPG maker comes pre-loaded with generic map tiles and each tile already comes with standard properties. For example you can’t walk on water tiles but your ship can sail on them. So with a few minutes of playing around with the tiles and a map of the Galapagos I had a functional recreation of the islands for my game. I also used a visual basic sprite generator one of the members of the RPG Maker community built to make a little Darwin character for the main map. You can see him, the map, and the HMS Beagle in the image below.

Darwin on the Map

Darwin on the Map

Here is where the interesting stuff starts. RPG Maker allows you to create events triggered through simple interaction, and then use those events flip global switches that can then impact any number of other interactions. So, in a simple example, a designer could require the player to observe 10 finches on the island to trigger a switch which would give the player an item called “Finch Observations”. Now, the player can use that item to say win an argument, or form a theory. What is exciting here is not my example, which is actually pretty weak, but the fact that this platform allows folks interested in these types of games to jump into development, with basically nothing more than the investment of their time, and get right to the heart of interesting game design questions. You can skip all the programing and start making a game today.

Darwin finds a finch

Darwin finds a finch (Ok, I know it looks like a chicken)

Now, the fact that RPG Maker requires basically no programing experience does mean that it imposes some strong limitations on the kinds of games and the kinds of game play you can develop. After a bit of head scratching I think I am getting close to some ideas for how to use the mechanics behind the RPG standard “kill some monsters-to get experience points-to level up-to kill some tougher monsters-repeat” model to build some very different kinds of player experiences.

I should mention that a lisence for RPG Maker costs 60 bucks, you can try the 30 day trial for free though. Beyond just using the platform, it looks like that fee allows you to make and distribute any game you develop in any way you chose.


Free Omeka Theme

June 20, 2008

I am excited to unveil my first attempt at playing with CSS for Omeka themes. I have been meaning to get more practice with vaguely technical things and my first priority is getting better acquainted with our friend the cascading style sheet.

As my first Omeka theme I decided not to do  anything particularly fancy. I just took Ken Albers dark theme; brightened it up a bit, switched in sans-serif fonts, made some of the lines chunkier and messed with the margins a little. Overall I think it has a pleasing effect.

You can download the theme right here. In the near future, if it survives review it should go up on the public Omeka themes page. If you want to see what the theme looks like in action I will have it up on my test install where this theme will be on display for the near future.

If you have any trouble with the theme feel free to post questions/comments/concerns on this post.


Conversation Piece For THATCamp

May 31, 2008

This is just a quick post to get out a first pass at a rubric for assessing games for use in history classrooms for THATCamp. Click the image to see a bigger, more readable version.
History Games Rubric First Draft

Most approaches to evaluating games, or at least most of the approaches I have come across are not discipline specific, and I think that is a really bad thing. Even within the humanities each discipline has a distinct epistemology, distinct set of goals for teaching, and a distinct role to play in curricula.

The rubric is my attempt to bring together existing models of reviewing both games and historical works and adapting them to needs of a history classroom. Most videogame reviews are written for the consumer. They answer the question, should I buy this game? Historical book reviews serve a different propose. First, like the game reviews they tell the historian whether or not they need to buy the book. Beyond that the reviews are a forum for critiquing the work, often the original author will respond to the criticism. In the altruistic sense the reviews are a critical tool in refining our understanding of the past, helping define future paths for scholarship.

In reviewing games as educational tools we are fundamentally asking a different set of questions. For the purpose of Playing history the most direct audience is teachers and the question the review should answer is should I use this in my classroom, and if so in what capacity and how should it be integrated.

Many of the issues in games reviews come into play in a sideways sort of way. One of the biggest values of games is in the literature is the notion that they are engaging, a rich way to get kids involved in learning. I think much of that richness comes from the very features that make a game commercially viable. The story line, the graphics, difficulty, soundtrack etc. are all relevant to the value of the game.

Similarly the historical book review offers some good functions. The viewpoint of the work, its historicity. Beyond a resource for teachers, one of the ultimate goals of Playing History is to build a network that can offer substantive feedback for developers. In this capacity it would be ideal for these reviews to comment on what the game does in relation to other games and where it takes the field.


Sunrise on Methodology and Radical Transparency of Sources in Historical Writing

March 15, 2008

hip twotone nixon pictureEarlier this week Tom Scheinfeldt, of Found History suggested that the historical profession could well be moving in a new direction. For quite sometime historians have been concerned with questions of ideology, arguments about which historical-isms are the best for a given task. Tom, suggests that new media tools (like text mining) challenge historians to consider methodological questions anew.

I think there is a great example of one of these new methodological conversations that could be emerging in the way we work with source material. Consider historian Jeremy Suri‘s article in this months Wired magazine, a brief 4 page adaptation of a paper he coauthored with political scientist Scott Sagan. Beyond being a bit pithier and coming with hip twotone images of Nixon I would imagine that most historians would suspect that the brief wired article is simply a derivative from the original 33 page article published in International Security. But Suri’s article in Wired gives the historian something very valuable that the original paper does not.

When you read the Wired article online you are only a click away from scans of many of the declassified primary sources Suri used to develop his argument. This gives the reader a radically transparent view into the source material supporting the case Suri argues. Imagine what this kind of source transparency could do if it became standard practice for historical journals.

As a thought experiment consider the implications of the David Abraham Affair. When several historians rigorously fact checked Abraham’s footnotes and turned up a host of inconsistencies he was drummed out of the historical profession. In analysis of the incident in That Noble Dream Peter Novik suggested that Abraham’s sloppiness was not a isolated case, but instead one of the only times a historians footnotes were so rigorously fact checked. This kind of double checking doesn’t happen that often largely because it is so time consuming. How many people would retrace a historians footsteps through archives scattered around the world to double check each citation? But when checking sources becomes as simple as clicking a link what do we think will turn up everyone else’s footnotes?

You might think the linked citations I just mentioned are something that will never happen. Or that this kind of change is twenty years out. But, just last week Jstor started to implement new features that bring this kind of linked connection to secondary literature and <shamelessplug> on a very basic level our work on Zotero’s ability to create smart bibliographies allows authors the ability to put their bibliographies upfront for others to quickly grab. Beyond these two projects however, our plan for the Zotero Commons will facilitate exactly this kind of radical transparency for primary source material in historical scholarship. Through a collaboration with the internet archive any author will be able to stick permanent URI’s on their cache of scanned source material. Allowing anyone to link out to an author’s primary sources.</shamelessplug>

With the commons, every professional and amature historian will be able to end their papers with. “You can find the documents cited in this paper @ Zotero Commons.” So, the question is, when it takes 15 seconds instead of 15 hours to fact check a source do we think historians will start to write differently, or otherwise change how they do their work?


Why we need to Play History

November 18, 2007

In the last few years there has been a wealth of interest in games for learning. A growing body of research on the educational value of games underlines the ways the can engage students like no previous media. There are now conferences and journals dedicated to games and learning, the MacArthur foundation last year granted 50 million dollars to different groups to build educational games, articles in Nature and Science have explored the potential for games to simulated health emergencies and elicit scientific thinking. In short there is a lot of interest and excitement about the potential for games, many of these games are under-construction and many are ready for students and teachers to start playing.With all the interest and infrastructure that has been invested in games for learning there is no comprehensive spot for connecting teachers with the resources which have now cost foundations and universities hundreds of millions of dollars. Many of these games are rapidly built, tested, and promptly shelved, often never having been played by more than a handful of students. It is clear that there is a need to connect these games with teachers. Bringing this bleeding edge technology and learning theory to the finger tips of teachers around the world through a web community.

Aggregating these games is simply not enough. Teachers are overworked, underpaid and often stretched to the limit. This project’s success is contingent on making it as easy as possible for teachers to find high quality content related to their immediate needs in only a matter of minuets. By enabling teachers to search for games by time periods, historical keywords, educational standards and associated lesson ideas the tool would be built to make it as easy as possible for teachers to integrate high quality games and simulations into their daily plans.

As more teachers begin to use the tool it will have the potential to engage other audiences. Several communities have emerged in the last few years as places for independent game developers to share their games with the public. Once Playing History reaches a critical mass of teachers and potential classrooms to play these games it can become a spot for developers to try building games for the classroom with easy distribution across the world. This has the potential for building a community where these developers respond directly to the needs of practicing teachers improving the quality and quantity of games available for theses purposes.

Once this relationship is cemented it will become a rich resource for educational researchers. Through a separate interface researchers will be able to track which games are successful at what times in what parts of the world giving them further information to inform game design.

There is something tragic in the fact that so much money is being spent to develop so many amazing games and simulations, but those resources are often lost and kept out of the hands of the teachers who could put them directly into use. With a small investment in Playing History we can connect the research and development community with the teaching community and in so doing tremendously benefit both groups.


Sidenote: RIAA, DMCA, Comic From xkcd

November 15, 2007

I thought this would add to our discussions of DRM.

From xkcd


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