The Humboldt Lab is not just a physical place you can set foot in and observe. It can also be experienced as a digital space in the form of a game developed by gamelab.berlin, an interdisciplinary research and development platform at the Humboldt-Universität. Christian Stein is a computer scientist and German studies specialist. His research focus at the HU is on games, interfaces, the Semantic Web and virtual reality.
Mr Stein, you are working at the gamelab.berlin on a “digital representation” of the Humboldt Lab. What can we imagine that to mean?
We are not creating a digital appendage to the physical exhibition; we are creating a digital extension that is to be taken just as seriously. In other words, there is a digital representation of the Humboldt Lab, but it is one that is artistically and conceptually interpreted and redesigned. It contains both objects that actually appear in the physical Humboldt Lab and objects that are not there and develop a life of their own. The idea behind it is that the Humboldt Lab will not only be the physical space; it will also be a place for thought and experimentation that is equally at home in the digital sector, and not just initially but permanently.
What can visitors experience there?
We aim, due in part to our understanding of science and scholarship, to break out of the pure presentation of results and into an interactive, procedural perspective, by which we mean that visitors are invited to investigate a digital experience and an adventure space. It is based on the traditional point-and-click adventures with which many people will probably be familiar. They will be able to guide a very special character around the Humboldt Lab’s rooms – a character about whom we do not yet want to reveal any more bout. On the way they will encounter exhibits and be able to experiment with them. We want to show visitors that science involves playful curiosity and trying things out. Media content can be played that is only available online, but we also want to encourage people to visit the physical exhibition.
What do you mean by “media content”?
There is a series of videos that are specially produced and can only be accessed via the game. They are short sequences that process the Humboldt Lab’s topics graphically and entertainingly.
How do you develop the game for the Humboldt Lab?
The most important aspect of game design is not to choreograph mechanisms or technologies so that they generate experiences of their own or to make things perceptible by doing them oneself. We ask ourselves which emotions we want to generate, what the underlying narrative is, which game mechanisms we could make use of. We then start to think visually with initial drawings and models and then design the player’s journey. We develop the software and test it from the outset, including with outsiders, to ensure that our ideas work. That is because minor situational adjustments really matter. This love of detail is what, in the final analysis, transforms a collection of ideas, narrative elements and mechanisms into a convincing game.
Why do people play in the first place?
We in our research at the Humboldt-Universität are increasingly convinced that the play element is a fundamental cultural technique of mankind. That is apparent in cultural history, as in Johan Huizinga’s “Homo ludens,” in which mankind is classified not as a “homo oeconomicus” who is guided by economic considerations but as a player. All culture has its origins in play, Huizinga argued. Play in all its facets is a fundamental characteristic of us as humans even if we no longer call it play. Everything that we do in our career or our social environment can be wonderfully illuminated, explained and differently understood from a game theory perspective. In general we believe that play is worth taking seriously, as is asking how we can create experiences that draw us into the universe of play and convey content to us emotionally, intensively and rewardingly.
How do games achieve that?
Fundamental psychological mechanisms that we find in many games lead to us finding successful games fascinating. They don’t always have to be fun; games can also shock and upset us. They involve us emotionally. If they do it well, we will repeatedly want to return to this world of play. A famous definition by Salen und Zimmerman, based on Huizinga, states that play is a kind of magic circle, a circle in which other rules apply than in the external world of non-play. Relations with the external world are not entirely lost, however. These interrelations are what makes the game interesting and what, conversely, the external world can learn from. This crossover from game to non-game is an aspect on which we focus by means of so-called serious games or gamification – the use of game mechanisms or motivational elements to convey knowledge or empathy ort for training purposes.
In which area of our life do we encounter gamification?
Game mechanisms are immensely powerful and present everywhere in our daily lives, from online shops via career development to social media. They are also used in areas where we do not expect them, such as via progress bars or social feedback. Our task as scientists is to trigger reflection about them and to analyse wherever we encounter these mechanisms.
Where do the dangers lie?
As digital gaming almost always generates data, control mechanisms can be implemented under the guise of a game. They can be used, say, to make working conditions worse or more stressful. If a game appears to be colourful and fun but in reality collects data about how I work and then maybe builds up pressure by means of comparisons and assessments, we are way outside the magic circle. What then happens is what we sometimes jokingly describe as chocolate-covered broccoli: an attempt to sell us with a tasty coating something that is not really tasty at all.
Which examples show where gamification can assist us?
Good gamification is when players are helped to build up interest or to acquire knowledge more simply and intensively – and to make more motivational something that tends to be experienced as an unpleasant activity. Well-known examples are gamified sport or language learning apps that effectively help millions of people to better achieve their objectives. They help to make progress visible and to strengthen motivation. In our approaches at gamelab.berlin we try to use aspects of this kind to impart knowledge. We categorically rule out control mechanisms that by, for example, not enabling personalisation of players.
gamelab.berlin develops a wide range of projects – from dance performances to school projects. What is it all about?
In general it is always about experimental research into how far we can or ought to go with game mechanisms and about which areas can be viewed differently from game design and game research perspectives. We leapt at different areas that may seem to be far apart from each other but all have great potential for the use of game mechanisms. We have, for instance, just received the first results of a study on Neurosurgery 360°, an application for training neurosurgeons that uses a virtual reality headset to help them prepare better for operating theatre situations. As part of the German federal government’s #WirVsVirus solution enabler programme we have also adapted one of our apps for the coronavirus crisis. As a result of Germany’s largest ever hackathon we developed a digital corona card game. Called Singleton #WirBleibenZuHause, it deals in a playful way with issues that were and continue to be important in the pandemic. We have just adapted it for nursing and care staff, who are particularly affected by Covid-19.
You also develop projects for schools such as “Water for Kenya VR”. What do they involve?
The aim is to visit a school in Kenya – virtually, that is. We send a class set of VR headsets from school to school and provide a double lesson prepared by geography teachers that deals with topics such as climate change and development aid, transforming them into a virtual experience. Over 1,000 students have successfully tried out the lesson and gained insights that cannot be conveyed by a book or a conventional film. In all these projects we try to establish a connection between our research and society and to create added value that is not just housed in the ivory tower of academia.
People from very different disciplines collaborate at gamelab.berlin. How has that evolved?
The gamelab was established at the Humboldt-Universität’s Image Knowledge Gestaltung cluster of excellence. We continued with it independently after the cluster came to an end. With 46 participating disciplines the cluster was to the best of my knowledge the largest and boldest interdisciplinary experiment ever undertaken. Gestaltung or design disciplines were on board from the outset on an equal footing and made a lasting mark on us as the gamelab. Our team includes computer scientists, graphic designers, game designers, psychologists, theatre studies specialists, mathematicians, philosophers, media scientists, social scientists, architects and others. This mixture generates an atmosphere in which we can think further than the average researcher in any one discipline. The experience of interdisciplinarity, we would say, is an essential pasrt of our identity.
|Datum:||17. Februar 2021|