Cath Catherine Styles admin 1 cath@sembl.net

sacred bridge over a river

Peace is a bridge

Crafting an entry for the Peace App competition, I came to see the extent to which peace depends on stereophonic thinking – or dialogue in the radical sense deployed by Paulo Freire, David Bohm and so on. It didn’t surprise me – Charles (Sembl’s progenitor) is a kind of peace activist, intervening as he does in the realm of religious violence and global conflict. But for this competition I fine-tuned into the consonance of ‘sembl thinking’ and the project of working for peace and justice.

As it happens Sembl didn’t win, so I here record my thoughts on Sembl and peace-building.

My point may be summed up in the metaphor ‘peace is a bridge’.

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Peace is a bridge. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

It’s not as simple as you think. (It seldom is, right?) Partly, the insight is that it’s important to find a way to meet between two opposing sides. In the middle of the bridge you can see both sides equally. That’s the obvious part.

Less obvious but equally important to the peace mission is that when you cross all they way over, you gain a new perspective on where you came from. The kicker is that you don’t actually have to even concentrate, specifically, on the opposing sides, in order to come to new understandings of that conflict, the social structures and historical legacies that fuel it. To foster peace, a bridge doesn’t have to cross the front line; it can go anywhere.

As Charles is wont to say, in Sembl every move is a creative leap. It’s about playing with concepts – diverting your mind in order to come to a some new understanding of what happens in relationships – especially those involving difference or conflict. To illustrate, here are some examples from my recent games:

  • The notion that the military is invincible can be used to sell cigarettes and support for war alike; in the context of a Christian culture it draws power from the story of Jesus’ resurrection, fuelling a sense of righteousness.
  • Children are always drawn into war – in these examples their food is rationed and they are used to advertise cigarettes for sailors; in real life they are also directly, horrifically, involved – as in the recent Peshawar attack.
  • We take care of soldiers, inside and out – as well as all the resources that go into weapons and armour and directly serving warfare, there are plenty more resources deployed to indirectly support it, including the psychological support offered by and required of women and children. What a waste.
  • Thinking more broadly about conflict, difference and Otherness, negotiating relationships can be challenging – whether personally, through diplomacy or culturally, through immigration – and in every case, hospitality has its limits.

Aside from any particular insights that this diversionary approach to peace-building generates, as a method it’s a bit magical. For better or worse, most people prefer to be in control of their own learning, to assimilate new information in their own way, if and when and how they like. Presented with a worldview in stark contrast with their own, it’s difficult for anyone to instantly or simply adopt it. And if a peace offering feels disciplinary in any way, it will generate resistance counterproductive to the mission.

Sembl is not pinpointedly concerned with peace and justice, but to my mind – and in my experience – that’s exactly where and how it intervenes. It allows players to find their own way, to build their own bridge.

12-semblers

A game for 12

This post falls into the category of should-have-blogged-earlier. I designed a board for 12 players.

12-semblers

It’s not one for the faint-hearted. This game has four rounds rather than the usual three, and rating all the sembls would be a four-part marathon – note that in Round 1 you only fill one node, and you never rate the sembls you create:

(Round 1: 11 nodes x 1 connection =) 11 +
(Round 2:  11 players x 6 nodes x 2 connections =) 132 +
(Round 3: 11 players x 3 nodes x 3 connections =) 99 +
(Round 4: 11 players x 1 node x 4 connections =) 44 =

286 sembls to rate

Wow, in total, each game played with this board could generate 12  x (1 + 12 + 9 + 4) =  312 sembls created – 26 for each player.

So now this is the full suite of boards – including a double-quotes form, which could be non-competitive.

6-boards-for-Charles

 

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.
Screenshot of The Museum Game sliding scale of interestingness. A convict love token is connected to Mary Gilmore's typewriter with the resemblance 'anti-establishment: he's a highway robber; she's a radical socialist poet

Cultivating conceptual propinquity

Dialogic thinking doesn’t only mean taking into account two different perspectives; it also means recognising the common ground between entities – what it is that makes them one. This post is a note about game mechanics to cultivate conceptual propinquity.

In Sembl games, players form associations between pairs of objects or concepts. Evaluating others’ moves according to a sliding scale of interestingness provides for a great gamey dynamic. It’s fun, and about as open and social a contest as you could imagine.

Screenshot of The Museum Game sliding scale of interestingness. A convict love token is connected to Mary Gilmore's typewriter with the resemblance 'anti-establishment: he's a highway robber; she's a radical socialist poet

Screenshot from the Museum form of Sembl showing the sliding scale of interestingness.

More importantly, the mission to associate, and the challenge to be interesting – both invoke and honour dialogical play, sparking all manner of logical and analogical associations between nodes. In aggregate, those associations form a new big picture of the networks we inhabit, which in turn can help us to communicate better via machines.

But to operate optimally, Sembl needs an additional filter.

Sembl’s true power lies in its capacity to surface similitude – links that are mutually applicable, or bi-directional. Such links do not make a comparison; they unite.

Having now observed dozens of games played at the Museum, I notice that players often deviate from my purist approach, and create links in the form of this-whereas-that, associating the pair by way of an opposition or a third element. Such moves can be highly humorous and thereby interesting, but asymmetrical links do not serve the purpose of drawing disparate objects and concepts together, so their interest is more fleeting. Asymmetrical linked data is also, as I have ranted earlier, subjective, sometimes objectionable – even authoritarian.

The act of perceiving a resemblance between things conceptually distant elicits understanding of important hidden-in-plain-sight patterns. A sense of connectedness – or the overview effect – is insightful and can fill us with wonder at the beauty and fragility of the Earth. Such a perspective can also yield understanding of the structures that divide us.

Beyond its liberatingly loose notion of interestingness, Sembl needs to surface higher-value, propinquitous links – those with a centripetal force – those that specify the nature of a similitude. I’m therefore thinking that… Players should be able to mark down links that don’t work both ways.

For five teams

Torus and lotus

Last year I posted about the gameboard designs we’re using in the Museum form of Sembl.

On those boards, each team starts with their own seed node – so on the hex board there are a whopping six nodes not created by players. I wanted less space to be taken up on the board by the seed content, to leave more space for the player-generated content. Conceptually and logistically, it also simplifies entry to the game if everyone focuses at first on a single node.

So I made two new boards, for four and six teams, where each team begins from the same node. In Round 1, the game expands, in Round 2 it contracts, and then in Round 3 there’s only one or two nodes left to claim. Because of this opening out and then closing in, I call these the Torus boards.

Having built a fancy Graffle-gameboard converter, the trusty lads over at Secret Lab were able to easily provide new gameboards for us to play in the iPad game. The two Torus boards fast became our favourites. Here’s what the Torus 4 looks like in The Museum Game:

Screenshot of a game showing timer, leaderboard and gameboard of connected nodes, two of which have images in them.

But last night I realised I’m still disappointed in those designs, because they’re not really, truly, toroidal – because you don’t actually end up where you started. I realised that the Round 3 node/s should link back to the seed item, like this:

Because how could I not, I call these latest boards the Lotus series and I can’t wait to put them through the Graffle gameboard-o-matic. I sure hope it can handle curves and crossovers.

[edited 15 July to add the following…]

Turns out crossovers are fine but curves demand engineering we can’t prioritise. So… here again with straight lines:

Sembl for GLAMs

Over the last couple of months I’ve been asking myself: how can Sembl help galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMs) do what they do, better? Actually, I’ve been asking myself the same question in relation to educators, but that’s for a later, longer post. For now, I’m sharing some of my thinking and action in relation to the GLAM sector.

Sembl needs GLAMs.

In Sembl games, players are challenged to to find interesting ways in which things resemble each other. To perform these analogical feats, players need access to a generous array of things or entities – let’s call them nodes. Nodes are comprised of images of items in the world’s cultural heritage collections.

And GLAMs need Sembl.

GLAMs are in the business of collections interpretation and education. They need their collections to be accessed. (Which is why supporters of OpenGLAM are coalescing into a powerful force – hooray!) But beyond ‘accessing’ their collections, GLAMs need people to contemplate, wonder about, and respond to them. Sembl induces people to do exactly that. By contributing collection material to it, GLAMs can tap into a new – and wonderful – platform for social learning.

Because I wasn’t sure whether GLAMs would see it that way, I set up a short survey, inviting staff of GLAMs to estimate the likelihood of their institution becoming involved with Sembl as a contributor of content, and as a host of online and onsite games. This is not large-scale, long-range or in-depth market research; I did all my respondant-soliciting via Twitter. But the responses – mostly from people in large institutions in Australia and New Zealand – indicate that there is indeed a market for Sembl among GLAMs. Here are some highlights:

  • 96% of institutions either would or might be likely to contribute content
  • 72% would be keen to host games online if the return on their investment seemed good
  • 84% might want to host real-time tournaments onsite

Thank you, dear respondents! You have given Sembl a small but essential boost.

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?)