Documenting the process of imagining and bringing-into-being…

Sembl, the game of resemblance: presentation to NDF2012

This post is a web translation of my presentation to the National Digital Forum, Wellington, NZ, on 20 November 2012. (Video recording is here.)

Sembl, the game of resemblance

Hello, people. Thank you for having me on this land and at this forum. I’m utterly thrilled to be here – among you all – to talk about this project.

In its first form, Sembl is an iPad game, called The Museum Game, at the National Museum of Australia. We’ve just released it in beta as a program for visiting groups.

This video is a good way to explain how the game works. (It’s a DIY first attempt, so please look past the production quality and focus on the content.)

Feedback

Over the last year and a bit we’ve gathered feedback from children and adults about their experience of playing the game.

Four photographs of a paper playtest of Sembl Museum

In our first tests, we used a paper prototype; these kids used iPads to take photographs, but the board was paper, and they drew and wrote their moves on paper. Between rounds we had an analogue voting process to determine which team’s content made it onto the board. After the game, we prompted them to tell us a few things about their experience.

resemblance – quotations from school children in response to playing Sembl Museum

Several kids homed in on the principle of resemblance.

Quotations from students about the game Sembl Museum – social aspects

Others emphasised the social side of the game.

School children playtesting Sembl Museum in the galleries

Once we had a digital prototype, we invited the same group back. Again, after the game, we asked them for feedback. The next slide shows some of their responses to the question: What interested you about the game?

Quotations from students describing what interested them about the game Sembl Museum

Again, there was general interest in resemblance. But the kids are now also talking about being keen to explore the Museum, how the game used the exhibits, and democratic social curation. 

I find that fascinating. You might imagine that looking at a museum through a tablet computer would detract from the authenticity of the visiting experience. But for these kids, it seems like it actually draws them in.

Education

We also interviewed the teacher of those kids; she’s convinced of the value of the game for education.

(Here’s a longer extract of the interview.)

Play

Sembl provides a new way to connect to cultural heritage. It’s about play, which is not just for kids. It’s actually a powerful mode of thought, that we lose touch with as we grow up.

Makers of meaning – quotation of Derek Robinson

As a smart friend of mine says, we all need to recognise ourselves as a maker of meanings and engage in imaginative play. In this next clip, you’ll see a boy whose first language is not English, and historian Peter Stanley, both moving their bodies and struggling with words as they play.

The game gives visitors permission to let their minds wander, to make new kinds of connections, to think differently.

For the host institution, The Museum Game involves a kind of radical trust, and open authority – recognition that knowledge and understanding is not all about curatorial interpretation, that it also comes from visitors thinking and imagining and sharing ideas with each other. Which remains rare in museums, despite the fact that it makes the experience more compelling for visitors.

Dialogue

Another way of saying this is that the Game provides a structure and impetus for dialogue, between the museum and visitors, between visitors and things, among visitors and between things. And this is not dialogue in the sense of an everyday conversation. It’s deeper than that. It’s a mutual experience of looking both ways, simultaneously.

teachers and students are co-intent on learning – quotation of Paulo Freire

My notion of dialogue comes from the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, and his sense of teachers and students as mutually co-intent on creating knowledge.

Quantum physicist David Bohm was also a strong advocate for dialogue.

to hold several points of view in active suspension – quotation of David Bohm

Each of these notions of dialogue is premised on an understanding of consciousness and how thoughts shape reality. For Bohm, dialogue means holding several points of view in active suspension. He regarded this kind of dialogue as critical in order to investigate the crises facing society. He saw it as a way to liberate creativity to find solutions.

Game-based social learning

So the concept of Sembl, in its deepest sense, is social learning – game-based social learning. In its first instantiation, it is game-based social learning in a museum and – if things turn out as I hope they will – from next year it will be playable at any other exhibiting venue that has the infrastructure and the will to host games – galleries, libraries, botanic gardens, zoos and so on.

But The Museum Game is just one form of Sembl. The Museum Game is played in real time, on site, and players take photos of physical objects to create nodes on the board.

The next step is to make a web-based form, that you could play at your own pace, and from your own place. Then, Sembl becomes a game-based social learning network, which amplifies the personal value of the game – it becomes social networking with cognitive benefits.

Personal value aside, it’s the bigger picture – of humans as a community – that I most want to explore: Sembl as an engine of networked ideas, or linked data. First, though, a brief diversion to the genealogy of the game.

Genealogy

I didn’t invent it! The progenitor for Sembl is a vagabond monk called Charles Cameron.

Charles Cameron in front of a stack of books on religious violence

I’ve never met Charles in person but we’ve spoken a lot over the internet, which is how I took this picture. For 15+ years, Charles has been playing what until recently he called Hipbone Games – because the hipbone’s connected to the legbone. He has always played with a static image of a board, through discussion among players, either face-to-face or online.

And Charles crafts whole symphonies of resemblance about war and religion, art and science.

womb–tomb: chambers for entering or leaving the world

Here’s a classic simple move he made, linking the word-concepts ‘womb’ and ‘tomb’. Charles didn’t invent the game either. Well, not really.

Glass Bead Game – quotation from Herman Hesse's novel

He got the idea from a novel Herman Hesse wrote in the 1940s, called The Glass Bead Game, which as you can see, has a fairly grand vision for the game, to create a kind of music from the entire intellectual content of the universe.

I first encountered Hipbone Games about eight years ago and straight away imagined a digital form, where you could see the network of linked nodes assembling as you play. Ever since then, I’ve been waiting for it to come out in digital… Well, I got tired of waiting, so at some point I adopted it as a personal mission.

Kudos to the National Museum of Australia for building the first digital version. The Museum Game is a simple version of what Sembl can be, but it has potential to grow – and actually, it’s already a little more evolved than it appears in the video at the beginning.

Sembl Museum gameboard for four teams of younger players

For example, this is the board you saw in the video. We use that one for younger players. But we have other boards, for groups of three teams, for older groups of four teams, for five teams and six.

Four different Sembl Museum gameboards

And in the true spirit of the Glass Bead Game, there’s also talk of hosting tournaments at the Museum.

Toward a game-based social learning network

But it’s at the point of networking the gameplay and the game content that Sembl will really ‘level up’ and rock the world. Once the games are on the web, and the field of playable content is already digital, good things can happen:

  • We can aggregate game-generated data and build an interface to the ever-evolving web of resemblance. So it’s not just the thought-riffing in your own game you can enjoy, but the whole generative symphony.
  • We can preserve links to the objects’ context in online collections, improving their discoverability – and our knowledge and understanding.
  • And – if we harvest the associations to display on the museum’s or other sites – we can forge new browseways within and between collections.

In short, the game becomes an engine of rich, useful data about collection material, and through that the world.

network thinking – how Sembl network links differ from traditional linked data links

A web-based form of Sembl can generate linked data with a difference. It’s linked link data, and quite different to normal linked data.

  • Instead of connections based on what a thing is – sculpture, or wooden, or red – Sembl generates connections based on a mutual resemblance between two things. Which, amazingly enough, is a great way of gaining a sense of what each thing is. And if your interest is to enable joyful journeying through cultural ideas, or serendipitous discovery, this approach just wins…
  • Instead of compiling logical links, Sembl cultivates the analogical.
  • Instead of building and deploying a structured, consistent set of relationships, Sembl revels in personal, imprecise, one-of-a-kind, free association, however crazy.
  • Instead of attempting to create a comprehensive and stable map of language and culture, Sembl links are perpetually generative, celebrating the organic, dynamic quirks of cognitive and natural processes.

But the most important way that Sembl is distinct from other systems of network links is that those who generate the links learn network thinking. Which is a critical faculty in this complex time between times, as many smart people will tell you.

Understanding relationships is key to understanding the self – quotation of Jack Lohman

21c society is shaped by connectivity – quotation of Rachel Armstrong

life demands dynamic attention – quotation of Flemming Funch

data classification yields to pattern recognition – quotation of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan foresaw this shift 50 years ago. Classification is for simple, neat systems. Networks are complex and messy; they demand new forms of literacy. But we have not yet adapted as we need to.

Prior to the 17th century, the primary order of knowledge was resemblance – quotation of Michel Foucault

We’re still largely stuck in the Enlightenment thinking that began 400 years ago to institute the binary order of things. But notice what preceded 17th-century ways of knowing. According to Foucault, the ‘primary form of knowledge’ was … resemblance.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant – poem by Emily Dickinson

Poets have always known the virtues of analogy as a path to the truth.

And my favourite visual artists work in this way, creating in-between spaces for us to explore and discover.

Metalwork, part of Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum, an installation at the Maryland Historical Society

As part of an installation at the Maryland Historical Society, African-American artist Fred Wilson placed a set of slave shackles into a cabinet with fine silverware and called it ‘Metalwork’.

Rosalie Gascoigne, Past Glories

And more subtly, this work is by New Zealand-born artist Rosalie Gascoigne, who lived for a long time in Canberra, where I’m from – so I had to include her… She took discarded signs, disassembled and reassembled them, converting text to textures into which we can read our own messages.

I like the way these artists work; I like how their works induce me to think.

painting of an ape sitting at an easel painting a nude woman

I keep an eye out for opportunities to participate in associative thinking. Last year The Open Museum – a user-generated exhibit site – hosted several rounds of a game where one person would post an initial work, such as this one…

12 moves of an association game at the Open Museum

and then anyone else could come along and a post a visually similar work. After a few days the most up-voted work would win the place as the number 2 image, and so on. You can see here how this game progressed in the first 12 moves.

the final move in the association game – a painting of a large woman looking at herself in a mirror in which is reflected a smaller woman – loops back to the first

It continued until after 26 moves, it looped back to the original work.

Brilliant. I love how there’s no right answer, and that it encourages wide and wild associations – from a satellite image to a Miro, to a photo of a human embryo.

Polyphonic thinking

Sembl promotes dialogic, non-linear thinking, and new forms of coherence.

deliberative thinkers – quotation of Charles Cameron

It’s distinct from deliberative thinking, which is rational and causal and logical and linear.

eccentric thinkers – quotation of Charles Cameron

It’s another kind of thinking, which might be informed by rational thought, but its purpose is not singular.

bridge-builders – quotation of Charles Cameron

You might say its purpose is to create – and cohabit – a state of grace, from which ideas simply emerge.

every move you make is a creative leap

If playing Sembl gives us practice in polyphonic thinking, if it helps cultivate connectivity and our capacity to find solutions to local and global problems, it is good value. As Charles says, every move is a creative leap.

If you’re interested in working with us to supply content, develop strategy or raise capital, we’re keen to talk.

And I can’t tell you how much I’m anticipating being able to invite everyone to play.

thanks

*****

NDF delegates were a truly lovely audience. Having spoken with lots of people about Sembl in the past week – and now that I have a bit of distance from this presentation – I can already see some ways in which I could express Sembl ideas in more pithy, accessible ways. In fact, I plan to rewrite the home page of this site.

In the mean time, know that I would absolutely more-than-welcome further comments, ideas, questions or – of course – resonances with your own context. And if you want to help shape Sembl, you could tell me: in what way are these ideas useful to you, personally and/or professionally? (Or to put this another way: how might you use a tool for network thinking?)

Lines become thought-space

More thoughts on interface design… and fun with animated GIFs :)

Imagine that you’re looking at a large, complex network of connected nodes. As you hover over any line between two nodes, it draws the two nodes together, then splits and expands into a single thought-space enclosing its two seeds, thus:

Perpetual animated GIF showing two connected nodes, where the connecting line transitions into a circular bubble

A thought-space emerges from a line

On click, the single thought-space would enlarge so you could consider the two seed nodes and the descriptive resemblance in the centre.

…..

If you hover instead over a single node – say, one with three connections – you see a trio of connected thought-spaces emerge, like petals on a flower.

Perpetual animated GIF of a node connected to three others, where the connecting lines transition into circular bubbles

A trio of thought-spaces

Again, on click the view would enlarge.

…..

Once I’d animated those hand-drawn sketches, I thought my thinking about interface design would stop – at least until we’re actually building this baby. But no. Neurons kept firing; I developed a strong desire to visualise this thinking space in the simplest way, a line resoloving into a circle – or a circle-like pod thing.

So I fired up Processing and the online reference, and retrieved my neglected Processing textbook. It took me ages of fiddling and wondering why it was looking so skew-if to recall that the y axis starts at the top. Anyway, here it is – for your cognitive pleasure, the first born-digital animation of Sembl think-space – a pod:

A line transforms into a circle-like pod

It’d be way better if it faded gently out and then back to the line; as it is, it’s like a mouth that snaps shut just when you think it’s safe to explore :) But for now I’m spent.*

* Spent and yet, seeing a flip-book in my future…

Sketching data structure & interface

Thinking about how in Sembl, the lines that connect things are not lines but, actually, circuits – because they are always already mutual, originating from and applying equally to both things – I started to imagine how the network of aggregated game data would look, and how you could interact with it to explore both the whole and its parts.

Pencil drawing of four ways of representing a network diagram, with the words 'A line resolves into a circle.'

In Sembl, node-connecting lines are actually circuits.

Lines between things could be spring-like. On hover, they could draw the two things closer and resolve into a circular facet or disc, perpendicular to the connecting line. You could click to enlarge the posited semblance.

In the next sketch I’m wondering if the data structure could really be this simple. Each semblance is linked to (its rating and) two things, which in turn have title/s and persistent identifiers (PIs).

Pencil drawing showing a resemblance and its rating between two things represented by their title/s and a persistent identifier

A resemblance and its rating are at the centre of two items comprising title/s and a link to their location.

The data is generated in the game and editable via a wiki, so we are also likely to capture metadata about who created it (username or IP address), and possibly also when, where etc – but those few fields form the foundation.

Preview of fonts Archer and Verlag Condensed by Hoefler & Frere-Jones

Typographic design

What fonts to use for the name of the game, and in it?

Preview of fonts Archer and Verlag Condensed by Hoefler & Frere-Jones

I *love* this Hoefler & Frere-Jones’ typeface, Archer. Look at that ‘C’!

What a lovely game name/heading Archer Book would make: gorgeously classic-yet-futuristic. With Verlag Condensed as a complementary contrast for in-game body text.

On group size and complexity

Sembl works for lots of different sized groups. We reckon that playing in a team of two to four is ideal. Any fewer and the ideas might not flow freely; any more and you might have too little time with your hands on the device :)

Below you can see board designs for three, four, five and six teams. (So a single Sembl game can involve 6 to 24 players – and we can host multiple games simultaneously.) Each team starts with seed content occupying a coloured spot. In most boards, you have your own seed node to work from, but with the board for younger players – the last one, below – you share with another team. Numbers indicate which round of play that node becomes available.

In all of these designs, I’ve attempted to make the game enjoyably resolvable in an hour of play. Round 1 is always a warm-up. You’re not competing for the place on the board, you just need to find one thing that resembles your seed node, and explain how.

In Round 2, each node in contention is linked to two of the Round 1 nodes. With the simple board for four teams, that pattern continues into the final round. With the other boards, Round 3 requires you to find fewer nodes with more connections.

In Round 3 of a six-team game, you compete for two nodes, each of which is linked to three prior nodes. With the other boards, the aim of Round 3 is to occupy a single node, which is linked to either three, four or five others in accordance with the number of teams playing.

I’m fascinated by how the dynamic of the play shifts according to the number of nodes in contention (relative to the number of teams playing), and the number of prior nodes these nodes link to. The board for five teams is probably the most challenging. Not only are you competing with four other teams for a single node, your node must link to five prior nodes. It might push the limits of what’s achievable within the hour – or perhaps the peculiar pressure of such a game will inspire wondrous thinking!

A dialogic order of knowledge

This post is a provocation, triggered by Mike Bergman‘s clear and interesting talk on the semantic web in use. It follows some earlier, fuzzier thinking of my own on Sembl and linked data. I now understand where Sembl fits in relation to the semantic web. The answer is that it doesn’t, not really, because Sembl triples are quintessentially different to RDF triples. Different and, I contend, better.

Here’s the problem – just reiterating here, for people who are unfamiliar with ‘the semantic web’. We made a beautiful web, huge and full of knowledge, but it’s too big for humans to use well. We need machines to process the bulk data so we can extract the most relevant gems of knowledge. But for machines to understand the whole web of human knowledge, they need the parts to be arranged in a more orderly way. Is this thing the same as that? If not, what’s the relationship between the two? Machines fail to articulate the parts, and humans are never sure we’ve got the best part of the big picture.

What we need is an authority file for What Each Entity Is and How It Relates to Other Entities; an agreed way to inform machines of the complex variations and dynamics of human knowledge.

Semantic web proponents have succeeded in creating an agreed process for defining and agreeing on What Each Entity Is. Mike Bergman describes the use of URIs to identify data as the semantic web’s ‘crowning achievement’. But the second part of the challenge – How Each Entity Relates to Others – is critical, and tricky. And the current approach – build and/or mash up and apply ontologies, vocabularies, thesauruses, schemas and taxonomies – feels labour-intensive and ineffective.

The web is about as non-linear and dynamic a system of knowledge as you can get, yet we try to describe it in terms of the sum of its components.

What if we’re going the wrong way in our mission to understand things in relation to other things? What if the basic building block of the semantic web structure, the triple, is sub-optimal? At the very least, it is insufficient. Consider:

This entity
[subject]

has this relationship to
[predicate]

that entity
[object].

Let’s face it: triples are reductive and authoritarian. Always starting with the subject and ending with the object, they seek out and cultivate otherness. Whatever the part in the middle is, the subject gets to co-opt the object into a relationship that is always already from the subject’s perspective. Sometimes the subject’s defined relationship to the object is consensual. And sometimes it’s inappropriate. The thing is, even if you carefully pass all your triples through the complex regulatory system they necessitate, you can never be sure you’ve got the relationships right. And if they are validated at one point in time, they may later need updating.

In short: triples are intended to impose order, but they tend to create conflict.

Triples are not evil. Often the predicate is unifying, a form of equivalence, something along the lines of ‘is the same as’. Too often, according to Mike, who lamented the ‘SameAs’ relationship’s overuse. He also showed us a list of various terms for defining the near-identity of different entities – my personal favourite is ‘somewhatSameAs':

A list of terms for 'almost the same as'

Different ways to describe near-identity

Evidently there is a reconciliatory bent among the seekers of the semantic web, a force resisting the oppositional stretch of the triple :)

And… therein lies an answer to the problem of imposing order without generating disagreement.

Instead of trying to map the complete tangle of relationships, we could focus on crafting resemblance. We could ditch the one-way triple in favour of a mutual one:

This thing
[subject]

shares this resemblance with
[predicate]

This thing
[subject].

Resemblance is by nature imprecise, but because its perspective is mutual, it is never wrong. The spectrum of resemblance runs from fairly uninteresting (eg a glass and a bowl both have a round rim) to the startling, insightful, poetic. And whether humans like the resemblances or not, every single one will help the machines to understand – whether they are written in ‘proper English’, vernacular, or any other language.

Resemblance is a very human approach to structuring knowledge. It is generative rather than reductive, and it is intrinsically attractive – both conceptually, in the sense of drawing two entities closer together, and emotionally, in the sense that it feels better to seek similarity than to define difference. We are naturally dialled-in to similarities and patterns. And this capacity is extremely useful for seeing how the parts relate to the whole. Which is, I recall, the mission of the semantic web.

Obviously, there will still be difference. In fact, it turns out that to identify sameness is to explore difference. As soon as you find a resemblance between two things, a difference pops up. Intriguingly, difference seems to make more sense, and be more palatable, in the context of resemblance. It’s kind of beautiful.

To create an online version of the Sembl game – a Sembl Web – we will need to use stable URIs or to create them if they don’t exist. By default, I’d like to link Sembl entities to Wikimedia. But can we hack the RDF triple and forget the vocabularies and ontologies?

Freed from having to define and structure all the possible relationships in advance, we could invest energy in exploring the territory of relatedness at our leisure, and begin to work out a pattern language for them. We’d be building a knowledge system based on consensus instead of authority.

Wikipedia changed how we create and access shared knowledge. Sembl could change how we create and access shared knowledge of how it all fits together.

The semantic web is big, in theory. There are over 7 billion RDF triples already, though according to Mike ‘very few’ are put to use. Sembl Web doesn’t yet exist, but when it does, it will constitute a humane generator of mutual triples – triples that:

  • are always already in use
  • bring joy to the people that create them
  • fit the dynamic non-linearity of the web

Sembl is poised to create complex, chaotic flow among disparate parts of the web. And that flow is the point. That’s what converts knowledge into understanding.

…..

Disclaimer: I’m no expert on the semantic web. If I have overlooked something critical in the above, I’d appreciate you letting me know. On the other hand, if you see value in this approach, please let me know where and how. Ie, comments appreciated!

Sources for Sembl Web

I love what Mitchell Whitelaw calls a generous interface. The traditional search box gateway to a collection is reticent, even officious, begrudging you for your lack of familiarity with the goods. By contrast, a generous interface hails the most casual passerby with a taste of the collection or – better still – the whole feast and before you know it, you’re delving in and across and between, following your nose and filling up with wonder.

Screenshot of the Flickr Commons Explorer

Mitchell Whitelaw and Sam Hinton, Flickr Commons Explorer

Unlike in the Museum game of Sembl, where players source content from the iPad’s camera, in the web-based game players will draw on the wealth of material already available online.

But finding something to resemble should not be the challenge of the game – that honour is reserved for resembling itself. An empty search box during the game would feel confronting, and counter to Sembl’s spirit of speculative exploration.

Clearly, Sembl Web needs to be hooked into some generous collection interfaces.

Happily, Canberra appears to be a hotbed of exemplar interactive GLAM dataviz work. (Hello MitchellSamPaulBen and Tim. I may be in touch :)

cannon

Thinking linking – Sembl data

Because Sembl will be a system for generating data, I’ve been worrying about how we can ensure that the data it generates is well-structured so that it is machine-readable and thereby linked to other data and reusable in aggregation. But because both linked open data (LOD) and Sembl itself are all about relationships, whenever I try to think it through my thoughts become tangled.

In this post I attempt to order my thoughts around linked data as it pertains to Sembl – specifically, I seek a better understanding of entities, identities and similitude. Whoa. We had better start with a picture.

This is a cannon in the collection of the National Museum of Australia. If you look at our information about the cannon,  you can see that it was:

and that there are various dates associated with it:
  • made circa 1725–50
  • used 1768–70
  • jettisoned 11 June 1770
  • salvaged 1969

It would be great if all those references – to the Endeavour, Cook, the Great Barrier Reef and all those dates – were linked to all the other references to those things on the web. Then, you could find out much more about the boat, the person, the place and the time.

That is the dream of linked data – to enable machines to recognise an entity wherever it is mentioned on the world wide web.

So what does it require of us as a web publisher or as a designer of a system for generating online data? Any time we publish a chunk of web content, we should bundle in with the publication a set of pointers to relevant places, times, people and organisations associated with the entities mentioned in that content. In this way, we forge a link between our mention of Captain James Cook and all his other mentions elsewhere on the web. Tools for doing this do exist, but they remain curiously rare. (Try searching for a WordPress plugin that adds linked data to your blog content.)

But actually, identity-tracking is only one part of the LOD dream; there are many kinds of relationships other than ‘is the same as’. Imagine if there was a universally comprehensible language for describing the various relationships one entity has with other entities.

In my description, the cannon was

  • ‘on board’ the Endeavour
  • ‘used by’ Cook
  • ‘jettisoned’ on the reef

But it could just as easily have been

  • ‘part of’ the Endeavour
  • ‘owned by’ Cook
  • ‘thrown onto’ the reef

How do we know how to cite the relationship so that the machines can parse it as we would want? That’s where ontologies and RDF triples (or quads!) come into the picture – whenever the relationship between two entities is more complex than ‘[x] [is the same as] [y] (according to [z])’. But that’s also where it becomes tricky to link data. We need a common vocabulary to describe and to arrange relationships that are not necessarily common or even clear to one person – let alone a global population!

There are many different ontologies out there and emerging; but so far none works especially well for museum objects. In fact, as I write this, there are discussions going on about sharing vocabularies for LODLAM (aka linked open data in libraries, archives and museums) as a step toward a shared understanding.

It’s difficult to imagine a single system for describing objects that would be universally agreeable. And as Tim informs me, the point is rather to connect the vocabularies rather than settle on one. But here’s a thought-stream about primary elements of museum object relationships: we would probably want to identify the object’s relationships to

  • people: ‘created by’, ‘used by’, ‘owned by’
  • places: ‘created at’, ‘used at’, ‘stored at’, and
  • events: ‘associated with’ – although vague, that concept seems important for museum objects whose potency is often by association with significant people or events
  • activities: ‘used during’ or ‘used for’
  • other objects: ‘made of’, ‘type of’, ‘part of’, ‘contains’, ‘used with’, ‘replaced’, ‘prototype of’

And so on. Although perhaps anything much more than that is more trouble than it’s worth? (I don’t know!)

And… Sembl data?

In the case of Sembl, data that players generate is intrinsically linked: the challenge of the game is to find a way in which one object relates to another. As a player you might draw on the machine-readable ‘other objects’ links; but if you relied solely on them, you might not fare very well in the game because to win points the relationship has to be ‘interesting’ – as defined by the other humans playing the game.

You might improve your chances if you identified a less direct relationship through a series of steps through the linked data. For example, you might find out that the seed object was used by someone who was the daughter of someone who was integral to an event that is represented by an object that you then select to play in the game. But that’s still a machine-like relationship and therefore a bit… uninteresting.

Part of the game’s awesomeness is that players generate new kinds of relationships – relationships that fit no predetermined ontological structure and which, sometimes, make you think differently. One key to this novelty is that players forge connections not from one thing to another but from one facet of a thing to another facet of another thing.

Triad of images and the resemblances between them

Whaleboats and thylacine are not intrinsically linked; the link coalesces between a particular facet of each thing. Players identify (describe) those facets as part of the game, as illustrated above.

As well as faceted, connections can be figurative or playful. In one game the above Thylacine ‘puppet’ was linked to a Welsh organ because the former is organ-less. In another game, 10-year-old children linked the Welsh organ to a set of convict leg irons because both work with keys.

Imagine trying to develop an ontology that worked for all those different linguistic twists. It would be as mind-melting as that Chinese animal taxonomy that Borges described; and it would be ever inadequate. Similitude resists containment.

So… Sembl and linked data?

After all this thinking – and the above is a lot clearer, I believe, than the crazy diagram I made when I started thinking this through – I reckon: we should not worry about creating linked data within the Sembl app. We should, however, endeavour to do the following:

  • Make the Museum’s collection database do the work of adding linked data about entities mentioned in the description of collection objects. (That’s big, and well beyond me and my Sembl project; but the wheels are in motion.)
  • Find a way to link representations of collection items created during gameplay to their entry in the collection database. (Again, this will not be easy although Tim’s object type browser might be a valuable first step.) Maybe the game app can award extra points to teams that link their proposed object to its authoritative Museum representation.
  • Capture the descriptive and relational information that players generate and connect it to the relevant fields in the collection database. So in the collection database, each object that has been used in Sembl will have player-generated descriptive and relational augmentation.

Those, then, are my thoughts – de-fuzzed to a degree by what felt like some strenuous mental exertion! What do you reckon? Can you spot any flaws in my thinking? (If so, please share!) Is this post useful for others thinking through linked data in relation to their own collections and applications?