Happy (Associative) Trails to You

Although #TWP15 has ended its formal run, the network lives on (I hope!), and so I’m going to keep blogging about this WordPress based course, How the Web Works. It also occurred to me after today’s class meeting that sometimes it would be a helpful practice to blog about a particular meeting as a reflective exercise, to think out loud, and to capture a bit of what transpired to help clarify my own thinking.

I realized toward the end of our time today that we were on an “associative” trail that was largely serendipitous and unpredictable. An associative trail, for those new to the term, was the phrase Vannevar Bush used to describe a sequence of nodes of information and ideas, one prompting the next, through which one could move in an emergent process of discovery (see his famous 1945 article, “As We May Think,” which foreshadows the development of hypertext). Bush was describing an information retrieval and management system modeled on the way our brains work, namely, by a process of association in moving from one item of consciousness to the next. Just for kicks, you can check out this video by Gardner Campbell demonstrating how he followed an associative trail through the stacks of a library and elsewhere to discover new resources for one of his classes. And here’s a cool account of a serendipitous “distraction trail” by Alan Levine (aka CogDog).

So something analogous to that happened in class today. On a regular basis I’m trying to introduce new knowledge tools for students to incorporate into their learning toolkit, and so today I started out by demonstrating Diigo for social bookmarking and annotation. I discussed how I use my Diigo library and network in my work flow, and then turned our shared screen over to Chris for him to set up his account and to add some relevant bookmarks. As I watched him learn to navigate the basic elements of the application, I had occasion to explain one crucial difference between the free and premium versions of Diigo–the ability to cache weblinks. It’s all well and good to bookmark a resource, but if the link rots or gets broken, you’re out of luck if you don’t have a cached version or a local copy of the resource. Now I didn’t require Chris to get a premium account, but this was an opportunity for a bit of discussion about the impermanence of the web, and I was able to reference a speech given earlier this year by Vincent Cerf, a pioneer developer of basic internet protocols, warning about the possibility of a “digital Dark Age.” (Of course I found the reference almost immediately because I had bookmarked an article about the speech on Diigo.)

From there I described how I use Diigo (and Twitter) networks to discover new resources and to share references with others, and how I also use a service called “If This Then That” (IFTTT) to automatically tweet the title and URL of any resource that I save in my Diigo library. That led to Chris setting up his own free IFTTT account on the spot, and creating his first “recipe,” to automatically tweet the title and URL of new blog posts to his WordPress site. We then launched into a broader discussion of APIs and how applications talk to each other and share information, and why that’s important in an open web environment. I asked Chris if he had any experience with APIs, and he mentioned the Steam gaming distribution platform, on which he is quite active. It seems that on Steam, players can develop “mods” (modifications) to existing games that other players can download and add to their version of the game. But sometimes mods can conflict, and so Steam has developed a way to bundle mods together and determine whether there will be any conflicts among them and with the base game before they are downloaded and installed.

As Chris was demonstrating this by showing me his Steam site, I noticed some of the games that he was in, and we started talking about those. Mostly they were historical immersion role playing games such as Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV. I realized we had an opportunity to open up a whole new space for discussing games and learning, as I recalled two resources dealing specifically with immersive game experiences for learning history at the undergraduate level. First, Reacting to the Past, a classroom simulation experience originating at Barnard College and now used at over 300 colleges and universities in the US and abroad. According to the RTTP website,

Reacting to the Past (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills. Reacting to the Past was honored with the 2004 Theodore Hesburgh Award (TIAA-CREF) for outstanding innovation in higher education.

Secondly, I called to mind an initiative called Play the Past, which operates from a similar conceptual framework but is more oriented toward actual gameplay rather than classroom simulation. PTP is a community of academics and developers pursuing the study of gaming, learning, and cultural heritage:

Collaboratively edited and authored, Play the Past is dedicated to thoughtfully exploring and discussing the intersection of cultural heritage (very broadly defined) and games/meaningful play (equally broadly defined). Play the Past contributors come from a wide variety of backgrounds, domains, perspectives, and motivations (for being interested in both games and cultural heritage) – a fact which is evident in the wide variety of topics we tackle in our posts.

As we looked at the PTP home page, it just so happened that the latest article featured there was an interview with the developers of a World War I immersive simulation game called Verdun (after one of the iconic battles of that war). Turns out that this is one of Chris’s favorite games, he has played it extensively, and has even presented about it at a gaming conference. Interestingly, if you google “Verdun,” the first return is not, as you might have expected, the Wikipedia article on the battle (that’s no. 3), but the page for the game on Steam. So we chatted about how the game places the player inside the experience of WWI and unfolds the futility and senseless of the war as well as historical information about the military strategies and maneuvers, the political dynamics of the conflict, and the cultural and economic contexts in which the war played out. Here’s the Verdun trailer:

So now Chris is going to write up a blog post about his experience playing Verdun, complete with a “let’s play” video demonstration documenting his gameplay with commentary. And when the class had started a couple of hours earlier, I had no idea we were going to get here…a completely “emergent” development that we reached by an associative trail. Now it’s not likely that every class will exhibit such a clear sequence of leaps from one idea to the next, but I thought this instance was striking enough to be worth writing about.


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