Of Hockey, Sympathetic Magic, and Digital Dirt

Mar 22, 11 Of Hockey, Sympathetic Magic, and Digital Dirt

We won tickets to see the Ottawa – Tampa Bay game on Saturday night. 100 level. Row B. This is a big deal for a hockey fan, since those are the kind of tickets that are normally not within your average budget. More to the point of this post, it put us right down at ice level, against the glass.

Against the glass!!!

Normally we watch a hockey game on TV, or from up in the nose-bleeds. From way up there, you can see the play develop, the guy out in the open (“pass! pass! pleeeease pass the puck!” we all shout, from our aerie abode), same way as you see it on the tv.

But down at the glass…. ah. It’s a different scene entirely. There is a tangle of legs, bodies, sticks. It is hectic, confusing. It’s fast! From above, everything unfolds slowly… but at the ice surface you really begin to appreciate how fast these guys move. Two men, skating as fast as they can, each one weighing around 200 pounds, slamming into the boards in the race to get the puck. For the entire first period, I’d duck every time they came close. I’d jump in my chair, sympathetic magic at work as I willed the hit, made the pass, launched the puck.

For three wonderful periods, I was on the ice. I was in the game. I was there.

So…. what does this have to do with Play the Past? It has to do with immersion, and the various kinds that may exist or that games might permit. Like sitting at the glass at the hockey game, an immersive world (whether Azeroth or somewhere else) doesn’t have to put me in the game itself; it’s enough to put me in close proximity, and let that sympathetic magic take over. Cloud my senses; remove the omniscient point of view, and let me feel it viscerally. Make me care, and I’ll be quite happy that I don’t actually have my skates on.

Good enough virtuality is what Ed Castronova called it a few years back, when Second Life was at the top of its hype cycle.But we never even began to approach what that might mean. I think perhaps it is time to revisit those worlds, as the ‘productivity plateau’ may be in site.

In an earlier post, Ethan asked, where are the serious games in archaeology? My response is, ‘working on it, boss’.  A few years ago, I was very much enamored of the possibilities that Second Life (and other similar worlds/platforms) could offer for public archaeology. I began working on a virtual excavation, where the metaphors of archaeology could be made real, where the participant could remove contexts, measure features, record the data for him or herself (I drew data in from Open Context; I was using Nabonidus for an in-world recording system).  But I switched institutions, the plug was pulled, and it all vanished into the aether (digital curation of digital artefacts is a very real and pressing concern, though not as discussed as it ought to be). I’m now working on reviving those experiments and implementing them in the Web.Alive environment. It’s part of our Virtual Carleton campus, a platform for distance education and other training situations.

My ur-dig for the digital doppleganger comes from a field experience program at a local high school that I helped direct.  I’m taking the context sheets, the plans, the photographs, and working on the problems of digital representation in the 3d environment. We’ve created contexts and layers that can be removed, measured, and planned. Ideally, we hope to learn from this experience the ways in which we can make immersion work. Can we re-excavate? Can we represent how archaeological knowledge is created? What will participants take away from the experience? If all those questions are answered positively, then what kinds of standards would we need to develop, if we turned this into a platform where we could take *any* excavation and procedurally represent it?  I’m releasing students into it towards the start of next month. We’ve only got a prototype up at the moment, so things are still quite rough.

The other part of immersion that sometimes gets forgotten is the part about, what do people do when they’re there? That’s the sympathetic magic, and maybe it’s the missing ingredient from the earlier hype about Second Life. There was nothing to do. In a world where ‘anything is possible‘, you need rules, boundaries, purpose. We sometimes call it gamification, meaningfication, crowdscaffolding, and roleplaying.  Mix it all together, and I don’t think there’s any reason for a virtual world to not be as exciting, as meaningful, as being there with your nose at the glass when Spezza scores.

Or when you uncover something wonderful in the digital dirt. But that’s a post for the future, when my students return from their virtual field season.

(Image “Jovo doing what he does best”, cc by xoque http://www.flickr.com/photos/xoque/5006821145)



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