Augmented Reality Games: ISEA2012 Interview with Chris Holden

"Dow Day" ARIS game at the University of Wisconsin.

Building on the ISEA2012 Albuquerque: Machine Wilderness (September 19 – 24, 2012) photo essay posts, Temporary New Mexico regional editor Nancy Zastudil has organized ongoing coverage of the symposium with the ISEA2012 Insiders, a group of (ISEA2012′s Artistic Director) Andrea Polli‘s University of New Mexico students who attended the event. This interview is the third in a series of posts from the Insiders in conversation with several ISEA2012 artists about their artistic practice, exhibition projects, and overall experience of the symposium. 

Chris Holden, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, presented a workshop on developing augmented reality games at the Albuquerque Natural History Museum as a part of ISEA2012. Chris received a PHD in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008 where he started designing and playing augmented reality games.

Larry Heard: Can you give me a brief definition of augmented reality (AR) games?

Chris Holden: They are games played generally outdoors using mobile devices. The term refers to the way in which the technology allows the author to layer their own world on top of or mix with the real world. This combination can be very technologically involved, like the Layar app, or fairly simple like a tour or treasure hunt. There is a very similar term, alternate reality games, that usually is used to describe situational games that take place using many technologies to mediate participation rather than a single game engine. Both are very experimental areas, so nomenclature and categorization only goes so far.

LH: I wish we had a whole day to do the workshop but I was surprised at how much you were able to show us in the time we had. I thought it was important to actually build something simple, so that people would understand that there is no programming or technical knowledge required.

CH: Thanks a bunch! My favorite is a 3-day game jam type workshop. In those, you can really get something useable at the end if things go well. I’d love to find a way to organize one soon.

LH: Can you describe the ARIS authoring tool?

CH: It’s a web-based, drag-and-drop environment. It is written in flash and writes to a MySQL database on the backend. It allows newcomers to quickly be able to put together something simple like a place based tour, but is capable of depth. In addition to narrative content, you can create data collection activities and games where content spawns around players wherever they are.

LH: I’ve never worked with game authoring tools. How is it different or unique from other authoring tools?

CH: The ARIS editor is very easy to use. Newcomers can get up and running, producing a working prototype in very little time. ARIS is different from some augmented reality platforms, and similar to others in that it is chiefly map based (as opposed to camera based). It is also free and open source, and allows people to get their content on iOS devices without going through the app store. Games do not have to be compiled or published: changes made by the author are essentially instantly available to players.

ARIS is what many call a kit, meaning authors do not need to code. There is an exchange of power for usability inherent in kits. ARIS has a little bit of a back door, where there is some code you can write to customize how things work or include other code outside ARIS. Eventually, the idea is to make the user interface (UI) better, so that these extra abilities fold into the kit. One other area in which this tool is unique has to do with the experimental nature of AR games. Since this genre is just beginning, ARIS is a tool to make things that we don’t know what they are yet. So it is a tool for experimentation maybe more than production.

Chris Holden at an ARIS Game Jam at the University of Wisconsin.

LH: Can you briefly describe the value of game playing and development in education?

CH: That’s hard. There are many perspectives from which there is value. One is to view game playing as a site of learning that isn’t particularly connected to schools. Schooling does a lot of weird things to learning, making it hard for people to do in a lot of ways. So it is helpful to get ideas from other situations where learning is happening or to try and understand how learning takes place in them. We also use learning around games as fodder when trying to design educational environments in hopes of avoiding old traps.

Another perspective is simply that videogames have, over the last 50 years, become a huge part of our culture, have changed the world and how we think about it. To ignore that in education would be willful ignorance.

A third has to do with the use of games as interactive simulations, technical tools that we can use to model systems in the world and see how those systems work not just as static ideas but dynamic entities in response to the actions of the agents involved.

A final perspective to share here is connected to the verbs available to students. Educators often struggle to find opportunities for students to do high-level, self-directed thinking, even though most claim to value it. Game design not only affords easy opportunities in this direction, but is naturally collaborative, interdisciplinary, and can produce tangible products that might mean something outside the classroom.

LH: A game was developed for a Spanish class at UNM. How do they use it? How does it enhance learning? Were there any surprises in how the students responded or how it impacts learning?

CH: Yeah, it’s called Mentira and I put it together with Dr. Julie Sykes, an assistant prof. in Spanish & Portuguese, starting back in 2009. The idea is to make something that gets them out of the classroom, to begin experiencing the study of Spanish as something living and part of their lives rather than a set of assignments completed for a teacher to get a grade. Most students of Spanish here want to see Spanish in that way, but it doesn’t happen very often through a Spanish class. That’s not to say it’s worse here at UNM, or worse in Spanish than elsewhere – if anything the opposite is true.

So Mentira is designed as a first step into the Spanish speaking community that we are a part of but as non-speakers sometimes separated from. It’s a murder mystery that takes place in the Los Griegos neighborhood – students play partly in their class, partly at home, and partly in the neighborhood itself. They work as teams to uncover clues and sort through the evidence to identify a killer. It’s a part of the 202 curriculum that takes place over about three weeks.

I think the biggest strengths of Mentira for learning comes from its focus on doing something meaningful in Spanish rather than focusing on learning about Spanish and that it involves leaving the classroom and getting out into the community, if only briefly. I’m hoping that these two ideas are infectious and lead to more new innovative teaching ideas more than I’m looking for Mentira itself to do it all. Both grad students and professors have started interesting new projects that would seem to owe something to the excitement around Mentira.

One surprise is the strength of local place in people’s imaginations. Even though this AR stuff is built around the idea of local engagement, there just remains something magical about getting outside the classroom and into the world. It surprises me every time. Students don’t usually want to take the trouble to go down there: they are busy and it’s a pain. Sometimes there are technical difficulties. But they do all kinds of great things when they are down there. They start observing, talking to each other, digging in to Spanish, imagining themselves as Spanish speakers. They tend to take on a lot of the good learning behaviors I’ve come to associate with game play and find rare in the classroom. And the game gives that field trip a strong focus to make that possible.

LH: I was most interested in the student driven design potential in developing these games. Are there any unique aspects of developing these games in New Mexico?

CH: Yes, infinitely many. I’m really excited to see what’s possible and want to help any other interested parties join in. Students of pretty much any age or background can get involved, and with this work, they don’t need to be separated from non-students. There’s a lot of room for collaboration across traditional divides. You saw some of my students at the workshop. They have some really great ideas this semester, and I can’t wait to see how they play out.

LH: How is augmented reality changing the future of video games and how we use the internet?

CH: The first part is mobile itself. The fact that the internet and music is with us wherever we are, and we can be connected to other people and networks across vast distances through those connections has changed the way in which we relate to place on a basic level. Mobile is not only powerful in this sense, but ubiquitous. There are now more active cell phones than people on earth, and not just Western, middle class people are participating here. Especially outside this country, mobile has become a democratizing technology.

We think of AR games as a very specific, niche outgrowth of mobile. That’s more an accident of history and nomenclature than a cogent analysis though. A lot of these very common activities are built around engaging the very same affordances of mobile devices to remediate our relationships to place as we think of being present in AR games. So I tend to think of AR games as a sort of indy maker space inside this much broader cultural phenomenon. What this means for us making AR games is that we have an opportunity and responsibility to address what the mass market of mobile probably won’t ever bother with.

The game aspect of this is maybe worth mentioning a little bit on its own. You get to play many games as a hybrid between yourself and a character. Games are independent worlds, derived from but separate from the usual one. The are not arbitrary alternate universes, but myriad caricatures, each one different with its own particular space of possible meanings and experiences, bringing a particular aspect of life or a situation into relief. So, being able to create using some of the grammar of games allows designers to craft rich experiences for their players, opportunities for them to synthesize meaning out of chaos.

LH: What projects are the students working on in your class this semester?

CH: Here is a list of the projects they individually proposed last week. They will self-organize into teams to produce some of these and develop other content along the way.

LH: Can you share an interesting story about the class?

CH: This semester: It’s not a story, but my students have really impressed me this semester with their independence, insight, and ability and willingness to collaborate with each other. I feel lucky and am really excited to see how their projects develop.

I do have an interesting anecdote from past years: One of the strange things about Honors, good and bad, is that the students’ ambitions lie outside the subject matter of the classes they take there. The bad part is that when you get a really fantastic student you don’t get a lot of time with them before they go far away to do something else entirely different. Maybe it’s a little like what parents feel like when their kids go off to college. Alyssa Concha was for me one of these students. She took my class back in 2010, got really interested, and did fantastic work. She ended up deciding to teach the class with me the following year, we presented together at some great conferences together, and she even joined the ARIS design team for a brief period. But before long, she was graduating and off to study Occupational Therapy at the University of Southern California. Well, it just happened to turn out that this experience in game design and thinking about how to use games in the real world was a research direction of her new professors in OT. Surprisingly, her experience with working with me was uniquely and directly valuable.

LH: Do you have plans to do workshops at other events like ISEA?

CH: It was fun getting to participate in an arena determined by artists. It’s a different world than the education type worlds I’m often a part of, and I think I have a lot to learn from their perspectives. So, yes, I sure hope so.


Images courtesy of the artist.

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