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The virtual museum is not simply a museum in virtual space

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted from Sembl — on the infinite possibilities of juxtaposition in gallery & museum, catalog & library — creativity & the Sembl game ]
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Van Gogh's Sunflowers: the Amsterdam and National Gallery Sunflowers side by side, Jan 2014. Photo credit: Julian Simmonds, Telegraph UK

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Please note that what I term here the “virtual museum” is intended to cover both a physical museum or gallery space with available or built in digital affordances and the museum as a completely portable function of the digital network and its devices alone.

I originally wrote this set of notes on February 10, 1997, and have made only tiny changes in the text as presented here — removing one paragraph that was left incomplete, switching the last two bullet points, and placing one “spare” sentence in a suitable context.

As I look back to those days of the Magister Ludi list, and forward to Cath Styles‘s progress with Sembl, I have a sense that this document was prescient, the seed of much that is coming into being now, as we speak. Like all such visions, the manifestation has developed over time, but the idea of the ready, multiple comparison of museum or gallery objects, together with supporting documentation, is still fresh: over time the invisible becomes cutting-edge.

To set the scene, here is a quote from Sven Birkerts that had long inspired me:

There are tremendous opportunities, and we are probably on the brink of the birth of whole new genres of art which will work through electronic systems. These genres will likely be multi-media in ways we can’t imagine. Digitalization, the idea that the same string of digits can bring image, music, or text, is a huge revolution in and of itself. When artists begin to grasp the creative possibilities of works that are neither literary, visual, or musical, but exist using all three forms in a synthetic collage fashion, an enormous artistic boom will occur.

With that insight in mind, here’s a glimpse of my early thoughts about the glass bead game and the museum:

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That’s right — the virtual museum is not simply a museum in virtual space

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What’s going on here is that we’re dealing with a multidimensional space rather than the flat space of a wall or the three dimensional space of a room.

  • Walk-through “real-life” museums necessarily organize their collections in such a way that one work of art is sequentially related to the next. The visitor walks up a corridor, or through a room, and takes in each work in sequence, carrying a little of the previous work trailing in memory — and on occasion stepping back to view two works placed next to one another in a comparative way.
  • In her hand or in his ear, a textual commentary is available: the catalogue. And this is typically consulted in a one-to-one relation, such that picture 63 is viewed and the text for picture 63 heard or read.

The museum is a collection of physical objects with stories which explain them: virtual space is a space of virtual objects with linkages between them.

  • It follows that the virtual museum is a collection of virtual objects and the linkages between them.
  • But what are those objects?
  • We cannot assume the objects in the virtual museum are limited to the objects in the physical museum: if nothing else, the stories which explain those objects will themselves be objects in the virtual museum.
  • Both “collection objects” and “catalogue entries” are represented in the same digital fashion. The catalogue entries, in other words, are objects in the virtual museum.
  • We do not carry a catalog as we browse the virtual museum… “collection” and “catalog” merge.

The virtual museum is its own virtual catalog.

  • And this is because the digital democratization of information which obtains on the web renders the “art object” and the “art-historical text” functionally equal.
  • In fact, “digital democratization” allows for the expansion of presentable content to include not only visual and art historical materials on an equal footing, but also all manner of other texts, the world of literature and drama, architectural renderings, mathematical analogs and explanations, sounds and musical items…
  • Thus the virtual museum need not and should not limit itself to physical objects [eg pictures, sculptures] and associated texts, but can and should contain linkages to other arts and modes of representation [eg musical, literary, historical, scientific and mathematical expressions].
  • Furthermore, the virtual museum need not limit itself to the objects in its sponsor museum’s holdings, but may also contain linkages to the holdings of other museums: indeed — and importantly — web-based “frames” make this possible without the viewer leaving the originating web site.
  • Not just the museum catalogue and reference library, but also the world’s other museums, private collections, text libraries, record libraries and databases are all available as reference points for the items in the collection.
  • Linkage, in other words, is the “new” in our context, while objects and their stories are the given.
  • We do not move from room to room but from link to link as we browse the virtual museum.

The virtual museum can be conceived as an ellipse with one focus in the originating collection and the other in world cultural history…

  • The “virtual proximity” of other bodies of knowledge on the net and web invites the inclusion of multiple reference points outside the collection: effectively, the museum as we know it transforms into a repository of world culture whose special focus is the collection:
  • The virtual museum is thus no longer archeologically or artistically based: it encompasses all forms of expression.
  • The museum becomes an expression of cultural totality.

The floorplan of the virtual museum is an n-dimensional graph of nodes and links.

  • The essence of the difference between the museum and the virtual museum is this: objects in the virtual museum are “next to” a far larger number of other objects than objects in the physical museum.
  • The system of linkages inherent in the structure of the Internet and the World Wide Web expands our concept of the museum by making possible a bewildering variety of new “throughways” between and among the items displayed, and “outside” the museum: thus raising new problems and possibilities in sequencing the experience of the “visitor”.
  • What happens as a result is that linkage itself blossoms from a narrow and largely sequential business into a multiplex affair.
  • The juxtaposition of one artefact with another explodes in an unimaginable freedom, and a system of constraints must therefore be imagined to limit and lead the viewer — through a “garden of forking paths” — to a desired and appropriate outcome.

To understand this is to make a virtue of the virtual … and a cathedral of the museum.

II

The virtual museum is not simply a museum in virtual space, but the virtual presentation of whatever the museum-as-archetype has been or will be in the labyrinth of human vision.

  • The sequencing the visitor’s experience in virtual space will thus inevitably reflect the topology not only of the collection, but also of the catalog and of the web itself.
  • And this topography brings a new feature to the foreground: linkage. The links between items themselves begin to assume considerable esthetic importance.
  • The museum and the library can no longer be separated, since their contents are intermingled: and the result is that the virtual museum, like the cathedral before it, becomes a speculum mundi or”mirror of the world”.

We live in secular times, and the museum is our cathedral.

  • This could mean, minimally, that the museum has replaced the cathedral as the central space where people congregate in a culturally rich environment. Maximally, and thus potentially, it means that whatever the cathedral was for us — master artwork of combined artworks in many media, ritual space, hub of the city, mirror of worlds — the museum can be.
  • The secular does not lack for a sacred dimension, but offers access to it in a manner that does not demand a specific, local belief or practice.
  • The virtual museum as secular cathedral is the place where all the world’s imaginal trasures come together as offerings, and from which all the world departs imaginally enriched.
  • The museum is thus heir to the phenomenology of shamans, saints and mystics, as well as of artists and their patrons, teachers and students — for it is visited by crowds in which each individual carries a different cultural inheritance, now Italian, now Congolese, now Navaho, now Santeria…

The test of the museum is its cathedral-effectiveness: its capacity to invoke wonder.

  • The virtual museum is thus a special case of the “art form” described by Hermann Hesse in his novel The Glass Bead Game:
  • The elevation of the virtual museum is a sacramental elevation.
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Lotus board for a HipBone / Sembl type game

Saturday, January 4th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — simply blown away ]
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Cath Styles and her team have worked even more magic with the latest (at least to my knowledge) board for the Museum Game at the National Museum of Australia

Beautiful. Huzzah!!

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The White House, Games, and HipBone/Sembl — today

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — a project of keen interest to me, and a request for your support ]
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Something is going on in one corner of the White House that has me agog in a pleasant way.


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Mark DeLoura, Senior Advisor for Digital Media at the WH Office of Science and Technology Policy is soliciting ideas about Games that Can Change the World. I’ve jumped in, and so have some old friends, one auld acquaintance and one new…

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The home page for this project is hosted on its own Games for Impact site, and I’d invite you to take a look, and note in particular…

  • Games where ideas collide (& create new ideas)
  • This is my own page, for the HipBone / Sembl games and DoubleQuotes — and if you have found my style of analysis valuable, you may want to go there, (take the trouble to) log in, and upvote my idea — making a comment too, should you so wish.

  • Positive Impact and Game Evangelism
  • Similarly, you can log in and upvote the whole idea by supporting this proposal, the current “leading” concept…

    Part of what makes this entry so interesting is the fact that Chris Crawford, game designer and thinker non pareil, is discussing his own long-hoped-for paradigm shift in game design in this thread. Chris is the “auld acquaintance” I mentioned, and I met him via the good services of my old friend Mike Sellers late in the last century. It is good to read him again in the new millennium.

  • Games to increase understanding about emergent social systems
  • Mike’s own offering is this one, which I also highly recommend. Mike is one of the founding fathers of multiplayer games with graphical architecture, and has more recently been working to bring human psychology into gameplay with increasing subtlety. By all means give him a vote up if that sounds good.

  • Knecht/Connect – a playable version of the Glass Bead Game
  • As you know, my own games attempt to bring the game concept embedded in Hermann Hesse’s great novel, The Glass Bead Game / Magister Ludi into playable form, and my friend Paul Pilkington has been doing the same in a series of books [1, 2, 3] and a Twitter stream. Let’s help him get some recognition, too…

  • Try the Poietic Generator
  • This one’s a game concept I like, too — it’s based on Conway‘s Game of Life… and brings it alive!

    It was submitted by Olivier Auber, whom I hadn’t previously met — so he’s my new acquaintance, and I’m hoping his game ideas will flourish and that acquaintance will grow into friendship in as things unfold…

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    So that’s the overall project, along with a sampling of specific ideas that I admire and would invite you to support. I hope you’ll find (and support) some other game concepts of interest, too.

    In a follow up post honoring Chris Crawford — which may still take a while to write and post — I’ll be looking at some of the historical background of “serious games” — and of the HipBone / Sembl style of thinking in particular.

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    Gaming the Connections: from Sherlock H to Nada B

    Sunday, December 29th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — the game of Connect the Dots in play and practice ]
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    CIA's (now ret'd) Nada Bakos examines the Al Qaida board in the HBO docu, Manhunt

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    Manhunt, the HBO documentary, does what (not having been there and seen that at the time) appears to be a decent job of recreating some of the cognitive stratregies employed by CIA officers in the OBL hunt. The one I’m interested in here is the building of a “link chart” or cognitive map — law enforcement “evidence board” — the idea being (a) to note known connections visibly, and (b) to encourage the mind to make intuitive leaps that reveal previously unknown connections between nodes… or “dots”.

    Sophisticated software does this sort of thing algorithmically with regard to (eg) network connections via phone-calls, but the human mind is still better than AI at some forms of pattern recognition, and that’s the aspect that interests me here.

    Aside:

    For more on the cognitive significance of the link chart in Manhunt, see my post Jeff Jonas, Nada Bakos, Cindy Storer and Puzzles.

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    Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Sherlock lays out the way it works —

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    Okay, so one way to visualize connections is to make a fairly random collage of relevant photos, names, dates and places, and tie it together with links of string or ribbon. That’s the equivalent of what in HipBone games terms we’d call a “free-form” game, and it works well for the “divergent”, initial brainstorming phase of thought. But it does little to bottle its own energy, to focus down, to force the mind — in the no less powerful “convergent” phase — into perceiving even more links than occur spontaneously in building the link chart in question.

    HipBone‘s preformatted boards take the cognitive process to that second stage. They work on one of the most powerful ingredients in creativity: constraint. Business writer Dave Gray of Communication Nation puts it like this:

    Creativity is driven by constraints. When we have limited resources — even when the limits are artificial — creative thinking is enhanced. That’s because the fewer resources you have, the more you are forced to rely on your ingenuity.

    But that premise doesn’t just hold true for business problem-solving — it’s at the heart of creative thinking at the Nobel level, too, in both arts and sciences. Consider mathematician Stanley Ulam, writing in his Adventures of a Mathematician:

    When I was a boy I felt that the role of rhyme in poetry was to compel one to find the unobvious because of the necessity of finding a word which rhymes. This forces novel associations and almost guarantees deviations from routine chains or trains of thought. It becomes paradoxically a sort of automatic mechanism of originality…

    Here’s how the poet TS Eliot puts it:

    When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas.

    A Hipbone Gameboard such as the Waterbird, Dartboard, or Said Symphony board is chosen precisely to challenge the mind with third, fourth and fifth rounds of “creative leaps” — thus adding both divergent and convergent cognitive styles to this form of graphical analysis.

    That’s my point here — and a plug for HipBone-Sembl style thinking.

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    I can’t resist adding a couple of instances in which the meme of “connecting the dots” via a link chart or evidence board has crept from TV series that I enjoyed into the world of games — this first one based on the terrific French detective series, Engrenages, retitled Spirals for British consumption:

    — and this one for fans of the US TV series, Breaking Bad:

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    Glass Beads and Complexity

    Monday, May 27th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — achieving something like closure on a post I started for Adam Elkus here, with a side dish along the way here ]
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    It’s astonishing to me how closely complexity science is related to Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game.

    Adam Elkus recently pointed those who follow him to Cosma Rohilla Shalizi, Methods and Techniques of Complex Systems Science: an Overview, and just a quick dip there gave me the graphic I’ve put at the head of this post, together with this quote about “patterns” as Shalizi understands that term:

    I mean more or less what people in software engineering do: a pattern is a recurring theme in the analysis of many different systems, a cross-systemic regularity. For instance: bacterial chemotaxis can be thought of as a way of resolving the tension between the exploitation of known resources, and costly exploration for new, potentially more valuable, resources (Figure 1.2). This same tension is present in a vast range of adaptive systems. Whether the exploration-exploitation trade-off arises among artifcial agents, human decision-makers or colonial organisms, many of the issues are the same as in chemotaxis, and solutions and methods of investigation that apply in one case can profitably be tried in another. The pattern “trade-off between exploitation and exploration” thus serves to orient us to broad features of novel situations. There are many other such patterns in complex systems science: “stability through hierarchically structured interactions”, “positive feedback leading to highly skewed outcomes”, “local inhibition and long-rate activation create spatial patterns”, and so forth.

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    Let’s start with patterns. The “people in software engineering” Shalizi mentions gleaned their use of the term “pattern” from the architect Christopher Alexander, author of the extraordinary, seminal book A Pattern Language, which in turn has hugely influenced computer science. Alexander distilled the essence of his thinking in his “Bead Game Conjecture”:

    That it is possible to invent a unifying concept of structure within which all the various concepts of structure now current in different fields of art and science, can be seen from a single point of view. This conjecture is not new. In one form or another people have been wondering about it, as long as they have been wondering about structure itself; but in our world, confused and fragmented by specialisation, the conjecture takes on special significance. If our grasp of the world is to remain coherent, we need a bead game; and it is therefore vital for us to ask ourselves whether or not a bead game can be invented.

    Manfred Eigen, Nobel laureate in Chemistry, called his book with Ruth Winkler-Oswatitsch Laws of the Game — and it deals with molecular biology, cellular automata, game theory, and games. But not just that — it is specifically written with Hesse’s concept in mind:

    We hope to translate Hermann Hesse’s symbol of the glass bead game back into reality.

    While we’re on about cellular automata, what about Stephen Wolfram? I don’t know that he talks about the Glass Bead Game himself, but at least three people talk about Wolfram’s book, A New Kind of Science, and/or his search engine, Wolfram Alpha as being strongly analogous to Hesse’s game — Jason Dyer, Graeme Philipson, and most recently, Mohammed AlQuraishi. Here’s a key para from Quraishi’s piece:

    I think the Game is an intriguing concept, and I think it may one day be realized. In fact I think we are already on our way toward realizing it. In the simplest and most general sense, mathematics and programming languages allow us to formalize all knowledge. Contenders for the language of the Game already exist, at least in principle. But we are further along than that. Search engines like Wolfram Alpha have already begun the process of formalizing diverse pieces of knowledge, unifying them in a single medium, and providing the means to connect and reason about them. A repeated example in the book, the mapping of musical compositions to mathematical formulas or even historical events, is eminently doable within Wolfram Alpha. Much remains to be done of course, and there is no “game” yet that can be played across the vast sea of all human knowledge, but some enterprising individuals have already gotten started on creating it.

    And then there’s John Holland, the “father of genetic algorithms”. Holland told an interviewer:

    I’ve been working toward it all my life, this Das Glasperlenspiel. It was a very scholarly game, starting with an abacus, where people set up musical themes, then do variations on it, like a fugue. Then they’d expand it to where it could include other artistic forms, and eventually cultural symbols. It became a very sophisticated game for setting up themes, almost as a poet would, and building variations as a composer. It was a way of symbolizing music and of building broad insights into the world.

    If I could get at all close to producing something like the glass bead game I can’t think of anything that would delight me more.

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    I’ve been working on a playable variant on the Glass Bead Game too, for twenty years quite consciously, and more if you count subterranean stirrings. And I don’t think glass beads, or stones, or chess or go pieces, or beads on an abacus, or strings of ones and zeros, or cells in an agent-based model for that matter, are the way to go. Which is not to say those approaches shouldn’t be tried, or don’t have remarkable things to teach us. I just don’t believe they give us quite what Hesse envisioned:

    a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

    I think what’s important in Hesse’s game is that concepts that humans can grasp should reveal their stunning interrelations to heart and mind. And for that reason, the “moves” in my games [Hipbone, and more recently Sembl] consist of concepts — musical, verbal, visual, mathematical — and the links, the analogies, the “semblances” between them.

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    And thus the game is a search for analogies.

    The human mind must inevitably perform what Shalizi calls the “trade-off between exploitation and exploration”. Some thoughts are proximate to others, they can be developed without any special insight by regular “linear” thinking. We do this every day, every minute — but it is not particularly revelatory. It doesn’t solve thorny problems, much less create beauty. There is another mode of thinking, however, that leaps between thoughts that are not so “close” but are nevertheless deeply related. To leap the apparent distance between such deeply related thoughts, we deploy analogy and creative thinking, and that is where the aha! of revelation occurs.

    So I would suggest there is a close analogy here with the point Shalizi is making with the diagram atop this post. The human mind, to slightly paraphrase Shalizi’s caption, will “exploit the currently-available patch of food” for thought by linear, inside-the-patch thinking, but at full stretch it will also “explore, in hopes of ?nding richer patches elsewhere” — the “elsewhere” being attained precisely by “creative leaps” — by seeing semblances, patterns, analogies.

    And to return to my earlier post, Thinking outside the cocoon, of which this post is a continuation, and perhaps the completion….

    Shalizi’s “random walk” is thus also the archangel’s “zig-zag wantonness” in that great poem, Tom O’Roughley — when William Butler Yeats asks, “how but in zig-zag wantonness / could trumpeter Michael be so brave?” and writes, “wisdom is a butterfly / and not a gloomy bird of prey”…

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