Learning history through adventure gaming: combining entertainment, communication, and research

Posted by Søren Hein Rasmussen.
First posted on 26 May 2011. Last updated on 27 May 2011.
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Learning history through adventure gaming: combining entertainment, communication, and research
The historical harbor of Aarhus is a common gathering place for people, including jugglers and freelancers.
Learning history through adventure gaming: combining entertainment, communication, and research
A lady of the night stands outside a typical mill outside of town where peasants deliver their grain.
Learning history through adventure gaming: combining entertainment, communication, and research
Bea is the main character in Signets of Power.
Learning history through adventure gaming: combining entertainment, communication, and research
Bea walks past a small crop field just outside of Aarhus.
Learning history through adventure gaming: combining entertainment, communication, and research
The cathedral of Aarhus is in midst of a major reconstruction.
Learning history through adventure gaming: combining entertainment, communication, and research
A nervous clergyman stands next to a typical relic of the Middle Ages—a mummified hand of a saint.
Learning history through adventure gaming: combining entertainment, communication, and research
Children often play hide and seek in the cathedral.

The author wishes to acknowledge Helle Kiilerich for her assistance in the translation.

About the author

Søren Hein Rasmussen is an associate professor in History and the vice leader of the Department of History and Area Studies at Aarhus University in Denmark. He is the recipient of the 2007 Sven Henningsen Prize for best Danish history book and the 2009 Danish Ministry of Science Prize for research communication.

About the designer

Christian Hviid is a game designer from Aarhus, Denmark and the project lead for Signets of Power.

For more information, visit Signets of Power.

The following article was originally written in part in Danish. It was translated to English and edited.
Signets of Power is a classic adventure game developed by a group of historians and students at Aarhus University in collaboration with professional game developers. The goal of this project is to experiment with the didactic possibilities of developing computer games in a specific historical context while making academic research available to a wider audience. The principal idea is to make an educational game that is just as entertaining as commercial games which are played for fun. We aspire to combine entertainment and education—to connect on an affective as well as intellectual level—without straining either or compromising at the expense of the other. The method to achieve this is to make sure that the plot and the universe of the game are historically plausible and to combine the game with a vast database of lexical references, quizzes, film spots, and other educational materials that can be viewed at leisure on a companion website.

Development for Signets of Power first started after Aarhus University successfully launched the educational Danish website danmarkshistorien.dk ("danmarkshistorien" means "Danish History") in the spring of 2010. The website had been active for several years and had been in use by the Department of History and Area Studies at Aarhus University in a series of novel experiments to disseminate scholars' different research interests through the use of text, sound, film spots, quizzes, and other media. Our exploration of using computer games began as a further step in this direction.

Our choice to develop a classic adventure game is partly based on practicalities. Although Aarhus University is able to call on game developers as well as game researchers, the context within which this project needs to be conducted is classic object research (that is, the researcher faces a specific technical task or examining a particular phenomenon). To this end, we have given ourselves a specific communicative task in a defined historical context. These requirements lead to our decision to choose a well-proven, technically doable genre. Further, the kinship between classic adventure games and the traditional literary storytelling and the opportunity to add textual elements are appealing to many academics, who are educated in a text based tradition and whose primary competences lie within this area.

The starting point of our work is the assumption that games hold the same affective qualities as other kinds of fiction, typically feature films and fictional literature. However, because games are interactive, we believe that these qualities of computer games are even more powerful when it comes to emotional influence and the imparting of non-reflected "tacit knowledge". For example, the most senior member of our group has a 25-year-old daughter who, at the slightest mention of Socrates, will exclaim, "Hermocrates, friend of Socrates!" Yet, she also knows that the entrance of Atlantis is at Knossos on the Mediterranean island of Crete. She remembers this latter factoid from her time playing Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis with her father back in 1992. The point of this example is not that there is an entrance to Atlantis at Knossos but that she, so many years later, can still access the knowledge learned from that game. We want to leverage this power in Signets of Power. In an immediate connection to the game, we offer explicit, reflected historical knowledge to the player who has played the game and is now left wanting for more.

Inside Signets of Power

Signets of Power tells the adventurous story of a teenager named Bea. In the present time, Bea is sitting in her room playing with her new mobile phone. A flaw in one of the new apps sends her back in time to the Danish (Northern European) medieval town of Aarhus in 1458. A guard takes her phone away from her, and in order to get back home, Bea must now convince the rulers of the town to grant her permission to retrieve her phone. Many different people claim to be in power in Aarhus, however. Bea has to figure out the medieval power structure of the time period and then maneuver between all kinds of dodgy characters from that era to play them off against each other so that she can get help she needs to get back home.

It has been an important consideration to us that Bea lands in an actual place (Aarhus) in a specific year (1458). As opposed to moving about in a fictional city, Bea moves about in a town within scenes that are modeled after a specific historical town, as suggested by historical and archaeological research of that time period. Beyond its caricatured look, we also pay close attention to the look of the game as traditional, empirical historians. This includes scrutinizing details such as the look of the half-timbered houses that are drawn according to instructions from one of the archaeologists working on recent local digs. The goblet, from which the bishop drinks in one of the scenes, is modeled after an archaeological find on the spot. Dresses, windows, and even candle sticks are depicted according to historical knowledge of the time period. In and of itself, it has been a charming task of trying to reconstruct our own town in the way that it may have looked centuries earlier. However, our primary aim is to provide the player with a setting that is as accurate as possible. As historians, we wish to be able to vouch for the image of the Middle Ages that a naïve player acquires after finishing the game. Our graphic designer has coined the term "historical surplus value" to describe this effect. The term covers the mass of knowledge that a consumer of fiction acquires, aside from the story that is the main focus of the fictional work.

We try to pass this "historical surplus value" in medieval history onto the player within the game. In Signets of Power, Bea encounters a lot of people in Aarhus, with whom she rarely sees eye to eye. This is because while she is from a world where natural science is of great influence, the people from the Middle Ages have different norms and ideas. For instance, Bea talks with a baker's wife who is proud of being fat because it is a symbol of wealth. Elsewhere, Bea learns how different citizens of Aarhus have different opinions about the bishop, the game's powerful villain. A priest thinks the bishop must be very pious because he has instituted masses in church for the redemption of his own soul, while a merchant thinks that the bishop is bad for selling cattle in competition with the merchants. The religious circumstances as well as the social conflicts of the Late Middle Ages are thus presented through Bea's conversations and interactions with the citizens of Aarhus and are contrasted against Bea's own perspective of the present. The plot of the game is based on actual historical events involving all of the institutions of power of the Late Middle Ages: the Crown, the church, the nobility, and the emerging bourgeoisie. In the game, the player will be introduced to the internal relationships between these institutions and how they influence everyday life of the people living in those times.

Outside Signets of Power

It is most likely that there are counterparts to Signets of Power already created by other game developers, at least to some extent. However, as far as we know, the unique feature of this project is that the player can access the game from a companion website that also offers a series of actual historical elements that is an integral part of danmarkshistorien.dk. Hence, within the website, the affective aspect is kept separate from the intellectual aspect, while both aspects are nevertheless presented side by side in a complementary manner. In particular, when you finish playing Signets of Power, you can go to the website to:

- read FAQs that are closely tied to the game;

- watch and listen to our group talking about the ideas behind the game and what they have contemplated during the making of the game;

- watch film spots about contemporary Aarhus and learn how remaining relics from ancient Aarhus are incorporated into the game;

- read about 30 lexical references to Danish and Northern European Middle Ages;

- read and watch a selection of historical sources linked to the plot of the game;

- quiz yourself on your knowledge of the Middle Ages;

- get ideas on how to use the game and the website to learn more (such as in youth education or as a self-study).

All in all, the companion website to Signets of Power covers a wide field and offers many opportunities for the curious player who seeks more "real" and reflected historical knowledge related to the game. In addition, danmarkshistorien.dk offers vast options for you to explore the questions that may present themselves during or after playing the game. All of the references are interlinked, so that when you look at any given reference you are suggested a number of other references that may further elaborate on the subject. To this extent, Signets of Power is all but a small element of a much larger and extensive cross media product that is already in existent.

Aspects of research

The fact that Signets of Power as well as the digital platform on which it is distributed is entirely created and owned by historians allows for many opportunities to conduct original research projects.

Firstly, our internal documents generated from the development process of the game serve as a kind of log book that can be used to examine how the game has influenced us as "traditional" historians in our approach to communication using multiple unconventional platforms (of which computer game is, at first, the most alien platform but also the platform that, in the end, has been the most influential on our work). The focus of this research will be a discussion on how different media platforms have influenced our thinking about history as a research discipline. What happens to the message which we try to communicate when we refrain from using the traditional research paper but take a more narrative approach using drawn images? What happens to our original focus during the process when we cross text with pictures, music, and other physical factors? How can we combine what is academically relevant with what is narratively and dramatically necessary? What compromises do we have to make to achieve a balance between these aspects of storytelling?

Secondly, we plan to do a survey on how users interact with the game. Through collaboration with a local grammar school, we plan to acquire accurate information on how the game is used in an educational context. By analyzing user patterns of danmarkshistorien.dk, we can gather more general information about the users. How much time do the users spend on the website? Which articles do they open during or after playing the game? How long do they keep the articles open? The focus of this research is to understand how adventure games and computer games in general can be used in a cross media context.

Both of these empirical projects, aside from being valuable in their own right, can be utilized together to understand how research relates to the platforms on which it is distributed. The communication of research is to be understood as a presentation of knowledge to an audience and must always involve a thorough reflection on what the target audience knows about the subject at hand and how this knowledge can be presented under the conditions of the chosen platform without being compromised. This process is often treated rather harshly, because academic knowledge is predominantly communicated in writing, often using very established so-called academic formats with set formulas on how to structure the text, reference, and language. Communication of research outside this narrow peer audience will likewise often be carried out within a range of a set of written templates. When this communication is done in other formats, such as in television with its special demand of being brief, many researchers will find that their knowledge is challenged and changed. This is a known phenomenon, even though its consequences have not yet been studied systematically (to our knowledge). The possibilities (and limitations) of computer games as new media are important to understand. We believe that our empirical research provides an ideal foundation to reflect upon how communication on a given platform affects the cognition of the communicator. Communication is a way of thinking within a "language", and every language dictates certain rules for thinking. Our starting point is that there is no thinking without language and that people think in a certain way in a certain language. Thus, we attempt to make an original contribution to the understanding of how thinking works in connection with the language which it is thought in.

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