VR games from History : Andrew Hamilton

A game developer’s story

Developer at VRTRON (Sheffield / Malta)
Videogames

Andrew Hamilton is a game programmer. After his studies in UK, he is currently working for VRTRON company in Malta on the development of an Environmental Videogame for Playstation VR about Roman history. We have met him and asked few questions about his job.

Q- How did you start to be a game programmer, Andrew? 

In 2017 I completed a master’s in Computer Science for Games at Sheffield Hallam. Soon after this, I started working for Steel Minions on the REVEAL project for SHU.

Q- How long did it take and what is the suggested career path, in your opinion?

I would suggest to anyone pursuing a career in game development to look at university courses, especially those that focus on graphics programming and programming more generally. 

Q- What do you do at the moment?

I am working for an European project called REVEAL (www.revealvr.eu), a project focused on Realising Education through Virtual Environments and Augmented Locations (REVEAL). I have started following the project in Sheffield and am now I’m working for VRTRON, a REVEAL partner. We are getting ready to publish the second PlayStation VR game for the project called ‘A Night in the Forum‘. The game will be published in 2019.

Q. What are the tools necessary to become a game developer?

A vital tool for game developers is called a game engine. A game engine is generally a suite of reusable pieces a software designed to help create and render video games. The REVEAL project is using Sony’s PhyreEngine to help build the 2 VR games: “The Chantry” and “A Night in the Forum“. Experience with a game engine (e.g. Unreal and Unity) is important, but I would argue a strong programming background and flexibility is even more important. The C++ programming language is widely used in the games industry but scripting languages like python are important for creating tools. 

Q. What is the most complex aspect in the development of the game you are doing?

There are numerous technical challenges that arise when creating a VR game. The algorithms to render real time 3D graphics in VR have not yet been perfected and learning to understand them is very tricky. 

Q. What do you see in the future of narrative videogames?

I can easily see narrative video games, especially in VR, being the future of an interactive documentary experience and story telling more widely. The REVEAL project has helped expose the potential for video games to tell an educational narrative in a fun and novel way, a trend I would like to see carried on by other video game developers.

Cognition and games: Herre Van Oostendorp

A researcher story 

Professor in Human-Media Interaction (Utrecht University)
Mental models, cognition, serious games

Herre van Oostendorp is a professor in Human-Media Interaction at Utrecht University in Netherlands, at the Department of Information and Computing Sciences, section Game Research.
H.vanOostendorp@uu.nl

Prof. Herre van Oostendorp

Q1- First of all, we would like to ask you which is your background?
A1- Cognitive Psychology. I got my traing at, and PhD from the University of Amsterdam.

Q2- Your main research domain regards cognition and specifically how games could be used for learning. How and when did you start your research? and what was your motivation at the beginning of your career?
A2- I was and I am still interested in how individuals process complex information. First I had interest in multimedia and in human text processing, and that evolved in serious games research.

Q3- What is the challenge for cognition today, that we assist to advancements in immersive and interactive technologies and videogames now more and more available for VR visors?
A3- VR can often be very or even too complex for users or players. The VR should adapt to the level of the player and give meaningful support.   I think that that is a main issue today, particularly how we can adapt online –during playing- the game or simulation to the player.

Q4- Do you play games?
A4- Not that often; I do often find the content of games disappointing.

Q5- What are Environmental Narrative Videogames and how could they be useful to support knowledge transfer?
A5- The narrative component in Environment Narrative games can make it for players more exciting, and the story aspects can provide structure to the player so she/he is not overwhelmed. And the Environmental aspect points to the notion that games can involve real situations in the environment, like the remains of Forum August in Rome. These aspects afford players/users to learn in a meaningful way and to try out things that are not possible in reality.

Q6- What are your recents projects applied to videogames?
A6- A game project focused on learning mathematics on the topic of proportional reasoning by including surprise and curiosity-triggering events which had positive effects on learning.

Q7- From where a developer could start? Could you suggest a general book about learning and games for curious of this topic?  Could you please also suggest the most interesting paper, among your scientific production, on these topics?
A7-
A very accessible source is a new book that gives an overview of types of techniques that empirically appeared to be effective with a lot of references to look further: Wouters, P. & van Oostendorp, H. (2017). Instructional Techiques to Facilitate Learning and Motivation of Serious Games. Swiss: Springer (218 pages).

Archaeology of Videogames: the beginning. Alessandro Pintucci

A curious story

President of CIA (Confederazione Italiana Archeologi)
Archaeology, Videogames

Alessandro Pintucci is an archaeologist, president of the Italian Confederation of Archaeologists that groups the professionals in this field. He is also an enthusiastic gamer, who doesn’t think that games are against culture.
Recently, he has participated to the workshop “Archaeology plays with Cultural Tourism” at Archeovirtual 2017 (BMTA, Paestum Italy) where he presented the long story of games dealing with archaeology, pointing out how games have been influenced by this discipline and also how the discipline was possibly influenced by them, at least in term of general public expectation.

Q1-  What people know about archaeology, at least people with just a “movie” and “games” experience
A1- If we look at movies and videogames directly connected with Cultural Heritage and archaeology, I think that three are the elements always present: adventure, exploration and treasures.
The reasons for this common  idea about archaeologists are strongly based on the stories that the same nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ archaeologists have told about themselves in books (often autobiographic), written mostly to economically support their researches. It’s what we call “colonial archaeology”, made of astonishing discoveries in far countries by rich western archaeologists. In a word, Indiana Jones.

Q2- In Italy you are recently redeeming videogames, discoverying their potential also for tourism promotion, education and Cultural Heritage (CH) dissemination.  Is this the first time CH and games talk to each other? When can we find a game connected to CH?
A2- It’s not the first time that archaeology and videogames meet themselves, but it’s the first time that archaeologists recognize this as an interesting phenomenon and try to analyse it.
There are plenty of archaeology based videogames, often produced by mainstream companies, but if I had to choose one I would say Apotheon, by Alientrap: it’s a platform and adventure game set in Ancient Greece, where all the scenarios and characters are drawn inspiring to Greek black-figures vases.
Well it seems that developers of the games have understood the potential behind ancient art and archaeology as a modern language to communicate with, better than how most part of archaeologists usually do.

Q3- At Archeovirtual we have seen an exhibition where 13 games have been presented, all with a connection with our patrimony or story. Which one you think better represent a model that could be used to promote them?
A3-
Everyone of them has a meaning and a place in the history of videogames, but if I had to choose one, probably I would say the Assassin’s Creed series, where to the player is given the possibility to explore an entire no more existing world, perfectly recreated with the crowds that lived it.
It’s every archaeologist’s fantasy, to rebuild the world he is studying and live it. Something like what happened to the archaeological mission staff  in Michael Crichton’s Timeline.

Q4-  Do you see a role for archaeologists in the game industry?
A4- During the development of Assassin’s Creed Unity (set during French Revolution, in eighteenth century), a Canadian scholar worked for a year side by side with game developers to perfectly recreate Paris, gathering a large amount of old maps of the city, pictures and written documents of that time. The result is the most perfect reconstruction of the city ever made.
Furthermore, all the videogames plots are based on some objects or facts usually considered ordinary: we can see them as the material culture we normally study in archaeology.
Every archaeological object has multiple stories to tell: stories about how it has been made, of how it has been found and even of how it came to the collection where it is conserved. The task of the archaeologists should be to tell those stories and make them interesting for a plot.

Q5-   What kind of support, if any, institutions should have for game developers?
A5- I do think that public institutions can do much for developers and for archaeology too: the first thing  is finding a place where demand and supply can meet each other. I hope in an economic support system too, especially for Italian developers that could be interested in developing CH based videogames, giving them the freedom to imagine how to tell the stories. Something like what already exists for movies (i.e. the movie Bruges with Colin Farrell).

Q6-  If you have to convince a curator to include a videogame into its museum communication plan, what would you say? What kind of suggestions would you tell him/her?
A6- If a criticism can be made to museums is that pieces seem dumb, conserved in unproductive display cases. But they have been alive once, they all contain stories, about the makers of them, their owners, even of their discoverers. Do you remember what happened to Smithsonian Museum with Night at Museum movie? Well, let’s imagine that an entire museum collection, or part of it, can be brought into a videogame, where to the player is given the possibility to explore all those stories, to live them, and then, after having completed the game, to visit the museum and meet the real pieces. I don’t know if this can bring more visitors to that museum, but certainly can create a new approach to CH, as part of everyone’s life.

Reconstructing History for Videogames: Owen Gower

A heritage professional’s story

Manager at the Jenner House Museum (Berkeley, UK)
Museum, Videogames, Reconstruction

Owen Gower is the museum manager at Dr. Jenner’s House, Museum and Garden in Berkeley (UK). He is an historian taking care to this piece of history, where Edward Jenner, pioneer of vaccination against smallpox, lived and told the world about his work. He is now cooperating at the development of a videogame, within the REVEAL project.

Q1-  How an historian is related to videogames, what is your role in the project? Do you usually play videogames?
A1-  I have to confess that I don’t usually play video games and, in fact, I hadn’t even used virtual reality before taking part in the REVEAL Project! So it’s been quite a learning curve for me and fortunately I’ve not been responsible for any of the technological side of the game development. My role has been to help the game developers to understand what Jenner’s house would have looked like in 1823, the year the game is set in, and along the way I have been asked to provide advice on all manner of things, from the vocabulary of the time to the correct colour of paint for the walls.

Q2- Could you explain what did you do, as historian, for the historical reconstruction of the original house of Dr Jenner and how this was transferred to the game developers, based at the University of Sheffield Hallam?
A2- We faced a difficult challenge in recreating the house. We had very limited records to work with and certainly not anything as useful as a plan of the building from the time. We started off by looking at the building and trying to identify historic features, as well as tracking down archival records about changes to the building by its various owners. Without any evidence of how the rooms were decorated we had to rely on style guides of the time to recreate the interior design of the property. Finally, we used the probate inventory taken at the time of Jenner’s death to understand how the rooms were used and what they contained. We provided all of this information in a document for the game developers and I was able to visit their studio at various points throughout the development process to see progress and to provide further advice.

Q3-We are asking now to the manager of the museum, how do you plan to include the videogame in the museum daily life? would it be installed in the museum or left to be played at home?
A3- We are very keen that people will be able to experience the game in the museum as there is something quite special about being able to stand in a modern room and then be transported to the same room as it would have been 200 years ago. We are a small team here at Dr Jenner’s House and we know that use of the videogame will need to be facilitated by a member of staff, so it’s not something that we can offer our visitors everyday, however we also hope to be able to use the information we’ve learnt through the project to make some changes to the interpretation of the museum. Plus of course people will be able to play the game at home and we hope that might then encourage them to visit us here in Berkeley.

Q4- What are your expectations, when the game is published?
A4- I’m really excited about the opportunity for one million gamers to be able to access this videogame and to discover the remarkable work of Edward Jenner and I’d be really pleased if it meant that people were inspired to go away and find out more, or even to visit the museum.

Q5-  What would you say to curators who are wondering how to include videogames in their museums? Any suggestion on what to do and how to start?
A5-  I think you have to be realistic about what can be achieved. We were told straightaway that it would be difficult, and expensive, to put moving characters in our game, for example, so we knew that we had to find a way of justifying the house being empty of people. It may be helpful to talk to people who have already been involved in similar projects to find out what they were able to do. There are also a number of public-funded projects, like ours, working to create material which can be reused by museums and heritage organisations to make this kind of project more achievable.

Q6- And what would you say to those heritage experts who think that culture and education is “serious” and museums have nothing to do with games?
A6- Museums are all about stories, whether that’s the story of an individual or a group of people, or perhaps a building or an art movement. Our job is to share these stories and to find new ways of doing so as culture and the way that people learn and interact changes. I think videogames are an excellent way of engaging with a completely different audience and helping our existing audiences to see our stories in a different light. And although we’re talking about new technologies, I think there’s something quite appropriate about introducing games into museums; certainly ours. Edward Jenner loved entertaining people and he wrote down all sorts of riddles and puzzles for his family and friends to play. I am certain that he would be just as excited as us about this videogame.

Q7-  Would you start another videogame project, after Dr Jenner game? How?
A7- Definitely. There’s so much more that we can do with the virtual reality recreation of Jenner’s house now that we have it and we’ve already been talking to our friends at Sheffield Hallam University about some further ideas that we’re trying to get funding for. Watch this space!

Links: The Jenner House museum: https://jennermuseum.com