« Discussion: The Grapes of Wrath | Main | Discussion: Double Vision »

April 28, 2005

Discussion: Versailles


Back when I was a researcher at the Center for Human Modeling and Simulation, I was thinking a lot about educational software. The software package we employed was based around human factors issues¹, but was branching out into behavioral issues as well. Ultimately one of those issues was developed into a Siggraph paper, which gave me one of the few published papers I have from my graduate work².

In any case, all of this is a long-winded introduction to an idea I had at that time, which was just a bit after 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing here in the Americas. My thinking was that it would be an interesting educational tool to build a simulation where you could walk about on one or all of the three ships, speaking with people who did different jobs on board, seeing their travails from disease, death, weather, having a chat with Columbus himself, whatever. The idea wasn't to be specifically entertaining, but to instead offer a richly informative experience which gave you the opportunity to view the issues of mid-millenial ocean crossings more or less first-hand.

At the time, I was very interested in some work a professor of my undergraduate acquaintance was doing on CD-roms, then an emerging "multimedia" platform. Come to think of it, his prototype might have involved The Grapes of Wrath. While I liked the idea of a sort of hypertext, multimedia Annotated Alice, I didn't think it went nearly far enough to really bring the source material alive -- everything he had to offer was passive, except for the actual reading (but then, as now, books are better on paper) and the clicking of various links.

In a lot of ways, Kathryn Davis' Versailles is the book version of such a project. We get to interact with Marie Antoinette from a number of vantage points, including her own both pre- and post-mortem, and also through some moderately varied media, in the forms of little vignettes structured like plays. It's an interesting format, and it's really interesting is how the multifaceted approach brings a richness to the material. It's a welcome departure from the more standard formats, such as used in A World Away.

I still think a Columbus project such as I describe would be an interesting application, though granted, probably with a gross market of only slightly higher than Thomas Watson's original projections of the computer market4. What would be really entirely interesting to me would be to start off with the basic interaction mechanisms, and then extend it out to include a sort of "historical journey" mode, which would cover what we know of the paths he took and the historical record of what happened on the way. After that, why not turn it into a fully interactive simulation, with you leading the tiny fleet to find the spices of India? Sort of an updated Oregon Trail.

For a long time I didn't really know what to make of this book, as far as games go -- I had just regrounded the blog at about that time and was finding myself wondering if I shouldn't just drop it. But listening to The Mammoth Cheese today with its "living historian" character (more on that later), I suddenly remembered my own ideas about how to bring history alive.

You see, history for me has never been a hugely interesting subject; or at least, it hadn't until just recently. Lately I've been having encounters with it a little bit in my reading, and those encounters have both been making me take a greater interest and also taking me back. Having never been a history buff, but always being interested in technology, I spent a lot of time wondering, back when massive storage started becoming available to PCs, how to really bring that stuff alive. I think it's really doable -- I don't know if there's a market large enough to support the idea, but I think it's doable, and could maybe win history some converts.

¹I use this term loosely. Software is something that really needs engineering, not constant piling on of stuff. A bunch of graduate students slaving away for years without any engineering discipline beyond what they themselves put in place is no way to build a useful piece of software. To give you the sort of idea of what it was originally built for, an early project was sponsored by John Deere who wanted to know what kind of visibility there was from within a CAD model of their next prototype bulldozer.
²Some of my co-authors are still at it; a new paper appeared in last year's Siggraph about a substantively similar talk. Which ties this back to games again, since they used SSX' Zoe as their conversational agent.
³I attended the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate in the College of Arts and Sciences, and then returned to the Ph.D. program in Computer Science, in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
4If you're not familiar with the reference, IBM's president Thomas Watson said in 1943 or so that he thought that "... there is a world market for maybe five computers."

Posted by Brett Douville at April 28, 2005 09:49 PM