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Crafting the Canal
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Group H Paradata: Crafting the Canal

Presentation document

Goals and Gameplay

New digital tools have provided us with opportunities to teach and explore history in novel fashions, however in order to create history within a digital space requires an understanding of your platform. The platform of the game of Minecraft focuses on exploration and building. Text is somewhat difficult and audio is limited to what the game has built in. The game is centered on exploring and directly interacting with the environment in which the player is situated. Minecraft’s spatial typology according to Aarseth et al’s classification (Kee & Graham 2014, p. 276-278) would best be described as vagrant in perspective, dynamic in environment and an interesting combination of geometrical and typological in its topography. The blocky nature of Minecraft’s voxel based graphics and the ability to build or destroy almost anything anywhere combined with the difference appearances and uses of the various blocks and items allow representations of almost anything to be created.

Our understanding of Minecraft as a platform helped defined what form our project would take within the space. We wanted to take advantage of its strengths and let the player both explore and build along the lines intended by the inherent code of the game. Our other goal was to create something that would engender an understanding of not just historical fact but also historical thinking. We sought to place the player in a historically factual space and use the natural tendencies of the platform of Minecraft to create a scenario that required them to think in a variety of historical ways. In order to accomplish these gameplay goals while simultaneously using an emotional connection to the local environment we chose to represent a large scale engineering task: the building of the Rideau Canal through the area that would become Ottawa.

This choice makes it much easier to create a connection between the player and the end goal. Due to its status as a heritage site many people know at least what the Rideau Canal looks like and can better envision the outcome of the task set before them. This is further reinforced by our use of real life topography and historically appropriate terrain and buildings. These elements also helped shape how we expected the player to go about achieving the goals we set for them. The terrain that they would face as they attempted to dig a canal that faces demands and challenges similar to those that faced by the physical Rideau Canal. All of the challenges inherent to playing out the scenario presented within the map are related to the historical realities faced by those actually building the Canal.

Using large, obvious markers we guide the player through the unfamiliar terrain of Ottawa in the 1830s along the actual route of the Canal. As they attempt to use shovels and pickaxes to dig a large canal that they must keep dry through swamps and rocky hills, the players will gain a sense of the challenges that were inherent to the historical project. The terrain, including swamps that incorporate soulsand blocks that slow movement in order to simulate mud, is scaled to represent the enormity of the Canal project in the six years from 1826-1832. The combination of the terrain, the scale and the simple tools available to the player is intended to make the player think like the engineers and workers would have had to face in building such a massive waterway.

Additional explanatory text attached to the markers intended to guide players provides additional context that cannot be easily represented in Minecraft. This might include the often horrible living conditions of the mostly Irish workers or the dangers of malaria and other diseases. The freedom and creativity that we give the players in carrying out their assigned task combines with various contextual elements to create an experience that, while still constrained by the platform of Minecraft, contains an authenticity that is more nuanced than many mainstream video games. A central part of our goal is creating a historical mindset in the player, get them to think about the historical context of the environment in which they live. As such the authenticity we attempt to create is a form of what Salvati and Bullinger call “selective authenticity”, (154) rather than choosing to show specific experiences we have created an authentic space but haven’t tried to define the experience. Instead we rely on the gameplay inherent to Minecraft to create their own stories and experiences within our authentic world. We expect them to gain an understanding of this particular historical project through their interaction with the terrain and space of undeveloped Ottawa, just as the project itself was so defined.

Through the combination of the challenges built into the Minecraft scenario and the explanatory texts presented as players work towards their goal we have created a story of the building of the Rideau Canal that is defined by the space we have created. By focussing on guiding the player only lightly, allowing most of the historically interaction to come through in the world we have created we have created a situation where the player, through their own choices and interactions creates for themselves the experience of the engineers and builders who created the Rideau Canal. By using this freedom we maximize the impact we can have on the player, letting them come to their own conclusions and think critically about the historical implications of the space within which they live. Through experiences such as this history within digital spaces can allow people to not just gain knowledge but new ways of thinking and looking at the world around them as they are able to interact with historical spaces in ways that make them realize how the space can affect the events that take place within it.

The Design Process

In this section, I will be discussing the creation process of all the game’s essential elements: the game world, game structure, and gameplay (Kapell 20). This process will be evaluated based on the projects goal of escaping a classical experience of representation of history and creating an immersive experience allowing for ludic exploration of Ottawa and the Canal. The history presented in our game is about what may happen within our game, rather than with what has happened in history (Fogu 19). We believe the act of building the Canal while experiencing historically grounded conditions and circumstances can offer players a strong understanding of the Canals history (Kapell 20).

The game world was built to create within Minecraft a historically immersive realm for player interaction and to impose conditions on gameplay. This process began with the acquisition of a detailed topographic height map of the Ottawa region. The map was then imported into World Painter, a Minecraft map designing program. The first question of historical immersion versus gamification arose here. Historical immersion called for the map to represent the geographic area to scale. Offering a scale version of the game would have increased the potential for immersion within the Minecraft world as players would be tasked with a directly analogous goal of Colonel By. Gamification called for a reduction in scale to make the game playable and complete-able. It was decided that historical immersion would be sacrificed if player chose not to play because of scale. The geographic region was scale down significantly. 1 block represented 7.5-10 metres on the horizontal axis.

This created a significant problem with the vertical axis as the map would have been rendered flat if the same scale was introduced. Mirroring the scale down decision, we chose to scale up the vertical axis in order to represent elevation changes within the map. These elevation changes were integral to Canals history being the primary reason for its existence. Scaling with world painter proved to be a technical issue. Terrains turned out to flat or unbelievably bumpy; in both cases the immersive experience created by the game world suffered. To fix this issue and create a more appealing world for our procedural rhetoric to be developed in, the original topographic map was edited within global mapper. The map’s coloring was adjusted from a natural colour gradient system to a custom 3m pegged gradient colouring. An outstanding problem was the elevation lines built into the original map; the new colour scheme allowed these lines to be blurred out using a photo editing tool. The result of this was a more natural looking terrain within Minecraft with significant geographic features being more accurately defined; 1 block represented 1-3 meters on the vertical axis. This added to immersion as Ottawa could feel real to the player.

This solution however came at the expense of minute geographic features essential to the procedural rhetoric we intended developing. Reorganizing the vertical axis erased key geographic feature such as the Rideau Falls, rapids and Hog’s Back Falls. The vertical axis was now manually edited in world painter to better simulate these features. The map, in its final form, represented a historically and geographically ground reimaging of Ottawa in the 1830s; this gamification over historical accuracy was created a viable universe for the player to play, immerse and learn in; it allowed for our procedural rhetoric to be developed in game structure (Fogu 118).

Beyond the technological difficulties of importing the physical geography of the area into minecraft, we also had to consider the historical differences between Ottawa in 1830 and Ottawa today. To learn more about these differences, we looked at a variety of sources. Early surveys of the area helped reveal what the Rideau River and the surrounding area looked like, such as MacTaggart’s 1826 survey. Ken Watson’s book The Rideau Route: Exploring the Pre-Canal Waterway also offered valuable information on what the route would have looked like before the canal. His other books, as well as his website, were also very informative, and many included information from other earlier surveys of the area. Differences discovered included the area being much more forested, as well as Hog’s Backs Falls being much a much more gradual rapids. For more general information about the canal, I also consulted Legget’s The Rideau Water. Many pictures of the canal from the archives Canada where also consulted. Although it was not a priority in our game, the human geography of the area was also very different. The population was much smaller and scattered. It was difficult to determine where people would have lived, and we did not have time to construct the city as it exactly would have been. The reduced scale also made this difficult. And so while there are few scattered buildings in Upper and Lower town, Wrightville (Hull) does not exist. These were omitted mainly due to time constraints.

If there would have been more time, it would have been nice to more fully construct the area and maybe even add villagers in order to give players a sense of atmosphere. More documents could have been added which allowed characters to act as a detective, inferring from where it had been found, and the document itself, information about that person and location and time-period. In short, they can act a historian. While we do not have as many as we perhaps would have liked, we have included a few primary documents for that purpose. For example, in Colonel By’s house there is a book which contains a correspondence between him and the authorities back in England. The powers that be are ordering him to make sure to keep the canal in budget. Having documents such as these in the game provide important information - in this case the issue of finance of the canal, which would eventually lead to disastrous results for By - in a non-explicit way. Instead players are invited to discover the information on their own in an immersive and engaging manner. Instead of stating explicatively the narrative, players are invited to use these documents as clues to get a broader picture of the canal. A few other documents are scattered through the canal, including some primary source documents. These also help to increase immersion and help oriente the character within the world. However, this was not our main focus, which was to build a procedural rhetoric about the canal.

Game structure in the form of game rules and geographical obstacles are used to develop a procedural rhetoric teaching the player about the canal’s building. This process begins with the room players are first spawned into. They are presented with their orders; build the canal following the markers. They are then presented with three difficulty levels each with different rule sets for the game. On easy difficulty, players are instructed to enable creative mode. On medium difficulty players are given enough material to construct the canal. On hard, players are given tools and no material. All rule sets share the same goal: build the canal. Difficulty levels give the player agency over the length of their experience; they do not take away from the argument about the canal presented within gameplay to the player.

Beyond rule-sets, markers serve as the secondary structure. The path presented by the markers is the historical path of the canal. Player choosing to follow the path is exposed to various geographic obstacles. First height; 30 blocks of water level increase is required to make the locks enter Mooney’s Bay. Second, swamps slow the player and create secondary objective. Dow’s Lake before the Canal construction was a swamp; in game, it is represented as a swamp complete with soul sand presenting mud. Soul sand within Minecraft slows the player. When combined with water in the swamps, the players move extremely slowly. The player is instructed to make Dow’s Lake out of the swamp provide a further structural challenge mirroring the historical counterpart. The third structural challenge was presented to the player in the role of water. While the idea of water killing the player was discussed, the simple presence of water while building the locks proved a challenge in itself. Locks function in Minecraft using redstone; when redstone contacts water it is destroyed. The creeping nature of water as one constructs and fills the canal presents a constant challenge to the player. The final structural component is the empty world within Minecraft. While not explicitly stated within the rules, the player is left with the agency to make of Ottawa what they want. With the most pertinent geographic feature in place, the Ottawa and Rideau River, players have the ability to give themselves lessons in city building.

The result of these game structures is gameplay presenting a procedural rhetoric teaching the player about the challenges of constructing the canal. Gameplay consists of digging, building the locks, and exploring Ottawa. Digging and building the locks is the primary gameplay. Interaction with the games structure in the form of geographic challenges teaches the player about the canals history. Players may ask why build the canal when the Rideau river exists? Exploring the river answers that question. Players may ask why the canal was such a difficult project; following the route of the canal reveals vertical inclines and swamps as the answer. Players may think the task to be easy and begin building; they would be confronted with the historical reality of a long and difficult process through tedious, frustrating, and difficult gameplay requirements to make locks with redstone. These lessons about the geography and the process of building the canal exploited the platform of Minecraft gameplay strengths.

Minecraft, our design process, and our overall procedural rhetoric is lacking when judged from the perspective of social history. A social history of the Rideau Canal would account for the significant cost of construction in human lives and suffering. Minecraft simply is not an effective platform for inducing human sympathy based on the critical assessment of the game our group conducted. Depiction of death or suffering in a game with voxel graphics would be a challenge. This was confirmed during class discussion as many agreed the death of Minecraft villagers was funny rather than emotionally engaging. A quality writer reimagining may have been able to remedy this; we however lacked one. We also discussed a non-human threat in the form of monsters to represent the threat of disease and death. After discussion, we decided this would detract from the overall gameplay experience leave ambiguous the lesson we intended to send to the player. A more structured experience then Minecraft could delve into metaphor more respectfully and meaningfully; agency in Minecraft leave the creation of narrative a closely guarded tool for those developing procedural rhetoric. Our gameplay was thus focused on delivering geographical challenges to the player and encouraging them to build. To account for this gap within gameplay and procedural rhetoric we intended to include various sample of primary source material along the canals path informing the player about the social history.

Is our game Good History?

After everyone’s presentation, as a group we wondered is our game good history? Have we as group H made a game worth saying that it is in fact a way of showing history that anyone can play, enjoy and learn from? To begin, our game of creating the canal in Ottawa takes place in the past when Ottawa was just unused land. It is up to the player to create the locks, and settlements to progress through the game with no end goal. Basically, the player can relive the past of Ottawa and how people in those times had to create their new world for themselves. Our game not only emerges the player into the world of Ottawa but allows them to simulate what the game was like in 1830. However does that make the game good history? Our group believes good history comes from learning about the past as well as documenting the past for people to observe. For instance, we created a game where a player can explore 1830s Ottawa, in that sense the player starts to understand the build up to where Ottawa is now. In turn, the player understands what a person from the 1830s timeline had to endure in order to create a sustainable settlement. As the content creators, we want our game to show how the 1830s people had to work hard in order to create the Ottawa we have today, and using minecraft we were able to make a game that not not only allows a student to learn, but to enjoy the history of Ottawa.

This game also forced us to look at the ways our game could be used out in the world. Our idea of constructing the canal, as well as allowing the player to interact with the terrain of 1830’s Ottawa could certainly be used in an educational way, whether in a museum or inside a history class. While he focuses on RPG’s, Brad King outlines a good example of a way to use a game like ours for a museum to draw both gamers and non-gamers in different ways. Using his concept, museums could set up stations for competitive players, which would give them a time limit to complete the construction of the canal. For the non-gamer, challenges based on exploration and discovery would give the player the experience of the period, while demonstrating the local history, and giving players the opportunity to follow that history, or create their own. This can be further explained using Dr. Graham’s piece on “Rolling Your Own”, in which he explains that games can be used to teach from the perspective of a fan rather than that of a teacher. Our game is a simulated historical scenario for the player to be submersed in, where the players learn through the perspective of someone living the history that is being taught and demonstrated. In our opinion, if a person is able to learn and enjoy the content that brings about the history of a subject, then we believe that is good history.

In conclusion, we have built a gamified version of 1830’s Ottawa, instructed the player to build the canal, and developed a procedural rhetoric within the game teaching the player about the canal. The game world was a significantly altered adaptation of Ottawa’s current geography promoting an immersive experience for the player. The world further influences the game structure in the form of geographic challenges presented to the player. The games rules and guidelines serve as a procedural rhetoric creating gameplay teaching the player about canal history. This was our original goal and we achieved it; Crafting the Canal is an example of good digital history.