On Sembl as applied to the education sector in its broadest sense – formal, informal, work-based, community, personal…

A woman stands aghast holding a seeing instrument that displays a circle full of small monsters.

On access and use –> cultural material and Sembl

A sample of images already in the Sembl system, and some notes on openness, of both cultural heritage material and of Sembl.

In selecting seed material for Sembl, I look in collections that are:

  • openly licensed and
  • available to download in high-resolution

with a preference for those that also provide:

  • a persistent identifier – to link back from Sembl to the source image, and
  • plenty of context – date, place, a description and notes on its significance

I choose images that appeal to me but I also seek out material that matches up with keywords – of people, places, events and concepts – extracted from the Australian Curriculum for History and Geography.

So far there are about 800 images in Sembl. Collections I have tapped are:

No doubt, there is plenty more material available that could be in Sembl. Here are some that I have my eye on:

  • material from the Biodiversity Heritage Library – eg Ernst Haeckel illustrations of microscopic organisms – as per the header of this blog
  • Paul Gervais’ 1844 Atlas of Zoology
  • much, much more from Wikimedia
  • more from Te Papa Tongarewa – the number of available images grows steadily
  • the Library of Congress

As soon as the games themselves are available (and that will be soon!) the process of selecting material to include in games will also be open. Game hosts and players will be able to upload their own material in advance or as part of a game, so you really will be able to play on any subject or problem you care about. (I’m also very interested to hear of collections you would like to play with, so don’t hold back from commenting or contacting me.)

Quite wonderfully, it seems like every week another museum opens the door to a collection to share its treasure. On a dimmer note, many collections are released with a non-commercial re-use licence, which means (I presume) I would have to seek permission to use them in Sembl. Suffice it to say, I will avoid those for now and hope that repositories find a way to become completely permissive as time goes by.

In the same spirit of optimal openness, I want to share the treasure of Sembl. Here are my thoughts on Sembl as an open platform:

  • It will always be free to play against random opponents or at the invitation of a game host.
  • The system should work on tablets as well as desktop, and meet AA or AAA accessibility requirements.
  • Standard rates for game hosting will be flexible for educators and venues who lack the resources to pay them.
  • Sembl data – resemblances between collection items – will be available to source repositories to use in their own databases and interfaces.
  • Ultimately, my plan is to make Sembl source code available so that the system can be adapted, refined and extended for the benefit of all patrons.

Recap: on Sembl / HipBone Thinking

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — briefly picking up a strand from an earlier ZP (religio-political) post & running with it ]


Some of the fish in the pool HipBone / Sembl swims in - slide credit Cath Styles, & h/t Derek Robinson


I just wanted to reiterate an Einstein quote that I slipped into the middle of a post on the Black Madonna and iconography recently, where some readers more interested in the Sembl / HipBone games and their applicability to analytic work and creative thinking may have missed it:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of sign, which can be communicated to others.

The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.


Combinatory playessential feature in productive thoughtanalogous to certain logical connections one is searching for — these three phrases sum up pretty exactly the congitive training function of the HipBone / Sembl games.

As I said earlier, I have to wonder how many of our analysts are deeply versed in this “combinatory play” of images and kinesthetic experiences, way below the threshold of conscious thought.

Of children, cultural differences, and computers

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — kids, computers, creativity and games ]

Motorola Xoom tablet


It’s quite a triumphant story, with African kids in the foreground and Nicholas Negroponte and MIT playing the role of proud parents pushing them forward from behind…

With 100 million first-grade-aged children worldwide having no access to schooling, the One Laptop Per Child organization is trying something new in two remote Ethiopian villages—simply dropping off tablet computers with preloaded programs and seeing what happens. The goal: to see if illiterate kids with no previous exposure to written words can learn how to read all by themselves, by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other programs. Early observations are encouraging, said Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC’s founder, at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference last week.

[ … ]

Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

That’s a striking story, and it has caught many people’s attention since David Talbot wrote about it in a piece in MIT’s Technology Review in late October, titled Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves.


I’d like to let that sink in — because I don’t want to deny it, in fact I want to share the excitement — but I do, too, want to juxtapose it with something else I read recently, where we’ll see some other African children, and where a different set of questions about their intelligence are in the air.

This quote is from Malcolm Gladwell, in a New Yorker piece titled None of the Above: what IQ can’t tell you about race:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement— — that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

That one, of course, concerns me deeply — in fact they both do.


Look, my work with Cath Styles on the Sembl Game is predicated on the importance of resemblances — so the more cognitive preferences we can marshal by inviting people to make rich and varied links between things — Kpelle-style, western-style, art-style, science-style, you think of it, you name it — the better. But clearly we should also be aware in using and propagating the game that different styles of association exist, and should be explored.

And the first quote? That’s important too, because it shows the eagerness to learn that’s there, innate, before our culturally-acquired habits and assumptions and behaviors inhibit the childlike excitement of discovery, recognition, eureka! and aha!


Howard Rheingold once said of community-building digital media such as this blog, “Like all technologies, this medium has its shadow side, and there are ways to abuse it.”

When feeling the thrill of “up” stories like Negroponte’s, it may we wise to ask also what the “down” side might be. And IMO, there’s always room for optimism — but let’s keep it cautious, eh?

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.)


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.



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?)