Discovering Babylon: The Opportunities, Challenges and Irresistible Potential of Video Games as an Educational Medium
Summoned to the museum under mysterious circumstances, you are sent on an urgent mission to pursue a time-traveling archaeologist through Mesopotamian history. Armed with a translation device and a PDA (personal digital assistant) that adjusts to your level of interest, you leap into the persona of Taribi, a 10 year old scribal student. It's 2300 BCE. You are in the city of Uruk . . . and you are late for school.
The Discover Babylon project was implemented by the Learning Federation, which is a part of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), as part of an initiative to explore how video game technology can be used as an educational tool. Its aim is to promote informal learning about the history and cultures of ancient Iraq. Informed readers may appreciate the challenge of such a task. Teachers, students, and scholars of the ancient world are often keenly aware of the difficulty of bringing this subject matter to life for non-specialists. Moreover, Discover Babylon was intended, from its inception, to reach a target audience of middle school students.
The educational potential of video games is well articulated by Dr. Henry Kelly, president of the FAS, in his 2005 article "Games, Cookies and the Future of Education", in which he asserts that, "well-designed, highly interactive simulations can provide a wide range of experiences. . . . They have an almost frightening ability to capture and hold interest. Gamers will spend literally hundreds of hours mastering obscure details . . . in order to meet the motivating goals established by the artifice of the games"
Funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) intended to promote collaboration between museums and libraries, the project counts among its partners the Walters Art Museum (WAM) of Baltimore Maryland, and the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) based at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Discover Babylon project comprises two phases of development to date.
In phase one, the team, led by Dr. Michelle Roper of the FAS and including personnel from the WAM and CDLI, collaborated with the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University to produce a short-play game that is installed in a kiosk at the WAM. Intended to stimulate visitor's interest, this version highlights a number of artifacts from the Walters collection and one piece from the collection of the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC.
The plot of the short-play kiosk game involves a visit through the neo-Assyrian palace at Kalhu. Players are given a virtual digital "camera" and are challenged to find and take photographs of objects from the WAM collection that are situated throughout the palace. Players have an opportunity to understand context by wandering through the palace, creating a photo album of their visit, and learning more through semi-scripted dialogues with avatars or by getting an information flashcard when a museum object is discovered and photographed.
Designing a game for use in a museum setting presents a unique set of challenges, and the narrative, activities, and even the structure of this phase-one game reflect the team's approach to those challenges. The game needed to be short, with a playing time of thirty seconds to five minutes, so that visitors wouldn't spend their museum visit in front of the monitor and so that visitors could take turns playing. It also needed to be extremely easy, even intuitive, to learn, so that museum visitors could play right away without spending too long figuring out rules and control commands. Additionally, it needed to be quiet because the team hoped that the kiosk could be installed immediately outside the gallery to encourage visitors to make a connection between the game and the collection.
The second phase of the project is a full-length game developed by Escape Hatch Entertainment, which features about fifty minutes of game play. This full prototype, which is available for free download at www.discoverbabylon.org, is powered by Vicious Cycle's commercial game engine. It uses sophisticated video gaming strategies and realistic digital environments to engage the learner in challenges and activities that can be solved only by developing an understanding of Mesopotamian culture and history.
This full-length Discover Babylon opens with a cataclysmic event — a series of earthquakes in the city of Baltimore. The setting for these opening scenes is the WAM, faithfully reconstructed via hundreds of digital photographs. The player quickly learns that the earthquakes are being caused by a time-traveling archaeologist named Dexter, who is accidentally and unknowingly wreaking havoc with the fabric of time. The storyline then unfolds, compelling the player to go on a series of missions to ancient Iraq, "leaping" into the body of several historically attested characters in the ancient cities of Uruk and Ur. Currently in development is a third level, in which the player will travel to the neo-Assyrian city of Kalhu. This longer game, intended for use on a home computer, includes numerous small and simple challenges embedded into the "Find Dexter" storyline. Along the way, players can grab and read information nodules, which can pay off later in extra points.
Balancing a responsibility to the historical material while creating a compelling victory strategy and game narrative was an endeavor that involved numerous professionals, each contributing their expertise and opinions. Assyriologists, art historians, archaeologists, educators, and game designers from Austin or Pittsburgh, from Baltimore and Los Angeles and Washington, DC, all came together via email or the project intranet board to debate and discuss storylines, dialogue, and details. Additionally, the team regularly had to re-evaluate its priorities in light of a budget already stretched to the limit by the expense of producing a game that could compete in performance and style with commercial products. Dialogue could become heated, but the potential of the project was obvious to the entire team — and it was worth all the effort.
No doubt, experts who download and play Discover Babylon may find anomalies they find unsatisfactory or arguable; indeed, the most obvious anomaly of the project is the title itself! Careful readers will notice that Babylon is not among the cities visited in the game play — about six months into the project, team members began to joke with one another, saying "Discover Babylon?," then deadpanning a la Roy Scheider in "Jaws," "We're gonna need a bigger grant."
All kidding aside, one of the greatest challenges of using game technology educationally is balancing the requirements of creating a compelling game narrative with a responsibility to the historical material, and this balance can involve some compromise. Relying on a time-travel conceit is one example of this. While some members of the team winced at the idea of introducing a science-fiction angle, all eventually conceded that it was worth it for a chance to connect the historical material to a world that players would find familiar, thus emphasizing the role of museums as places where one can encounter history in a very real, and potentially exciting, way. Similarly, a decision to postpone the construction of the chapter on Kalhu, which had already been researched and largely written, and a decision to recycle the environment of Uruk to use for the chapter taking place at Ur — both made so as to stretch limited resources as far as possible — were tough calls. The result, however, is a viable prototype that truly demonstrates the irresistible potential of video games as an educational medium; both game versions feature built-in evaluative tools, and the data gathered thus far is very promising and exciting in terms of demonstrating the value of game technology to promote informal learning.
The Learning Federation initiative is ongoing, and Discover Babylon has an important role to play. A number of commercially successful games and game systems, such as World of Warcraft or Second Life, demonstrate that users around the world are willing to contribute to the construction of highly sophisticated environments. A future incarnation of the Discover Babylon project might involve a number of volunteer developers and contributors and could potentially develop a de-facto standard for technology-based learning using an open media.
Alice Petty, Stanford University
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Citation: Alice Petty, " Discovering Babylon: The Opportunities, Challenges and Irresistible Potential of Video Games as an Educational Medium," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=672