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Myst-like Universities, Oxford-like Games?

[ by Charles Cameron — games in education — written in 1996 for friends on the Magister-L mailing list — for background, see In response to Lewis Shepherd ]

I’ve been thinking about education, “edutainment” and games, with special reference to Myst-type games, Glass Bead Games and Universities not unlike my own alma mater, Oxford…

Here are some preliminary ideas…

I: Proposal

There is no reason why the books in a MYST-like game shouldn’t be real books.

Yeah? So?

There is no reason why studying the books in a MYST-like game to gain access to the information needed to “solve puzzles” within the game structure and gain access to more advanced levels of the game should be any different from studying the same books in an OXFORD-like university to gain access to the information needed to “pass exams” within the academic structure and gain access to more advanced levels of knowledge…

There is no reason why education and game should not merge. OXFORD is a walk-thru MYST, and the puzzles are exams. Education is Game, the supreme Game of life itself.

The only thing needed to make the future of computer game playing and the future of computer education one thing is a concept of gaming which extends as far as the concept of education — and Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game does this.

A future Glass Bead Game with Myst-like properties could encompass the entirety of education, because (a) unlike chess it deals in the sum of human culture and knowledge while (b) its own skills involve a chess-like mastery: its game aspect stretches as high as its knowledge base.

We already know from such things as Sesame Street that learning about “fiveness” can take place at the intersection of education and entertainment, with a kangaroo bouncing five oranges on a trampoline and gleefully calling out “five, five”. We suspect that at this level, the entertainment element adds to the student’s interest in learning.

We also suspect that at higher levels of learning, entertainment quite naturally gives way to the “more important” educational element. No need to entertain, the subject itself fascinates…

But Feynmann — the Nobel Prize man, the drummer, the CalTech fellow — entertains while he educates, educates while he entertains: it’s an aspect of the nature of his genius…

The future of education lies in a Game involving mastery in the acquiring and manipulating of knowledges, both in depth within individual disciplines, and in breadth across them. This is the future of the Glass Bead Game…

It is stored on megacomputers. It is accessible through cable lines coming into your home. It is displayed on your new hi-res TV screen. Think of a terabyte holographic storage device which could transfer info in or out a gigabyte per second… Its architecture contains “rooms” at all levels of learning from K through post doctoral, in all subject areas. Any student of whatever age can access any “room” to which he has solved the “prerequisite” puzzles. The “rooms” contain a massive library of “books” and an equally impressive video library…

Imagine a world in which the very best classes taught at Harvard, Yale, MIT, CalTech, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg, the Sorbonne are accessible on the web in video form…

Imagine a world in which students can supplement their “live” classes with access to a virtual environment of this sort…

The arts — at the level of a Mozart, a Bach, a Yeats, a Shakespeare, a Leonardo, a Michelangelo — are games. Creative play with a very high order of skill…

Imagine the Great Game…

II: Background

That’s the main thrust of where I’m going, but it may help if I add in some background, in the form of the following notes:

I am wondering about a number of “threads” that seem to come together somewhere hereabouts:

(i) a recent effort in California to put together all the information in a “geography” curriculum from kindergarten through — I think — the second year of college on videodisks, in such a way that a student of any age could move as far and as fast through it as his/her ability to give “correct” answers to the quizzes along the way permitted…

(ii) the notion that large film archives such as those maintained by the studios may in the not too distant future be accessible on-line, with real time delivery along fiber optic “phone” cable for display on the “tv” screen…

(iii) the notion that all the classes in, say, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, CalTech, Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg… could be videotaped, also in the not too distant future, and be made available in a similar fashion…

(iv) efforts to put large libraries online in toto: I gather from an IBM commercial (!), for instance, that the Indiana musicological library is now available to the daughters of Italian vineyard owners over the net…

Putting these all together, I see the possibility of computers storing and delivering enough in the way of first class lectures and libraries to allow students of whatever age to move as far and as fast through self-education as their interest and capacity to pass quizzes permits…

III: Invitation

The “proposal” and “background” above, taken together, represent the thinking I’ve done so far, and the direction I hope to take — they’re my personal “state of the art” on all this. I suspect there are people already working on many of the ideas that go into this mix — but that the overall vision here is a “gourmet” version, and that we’ll get pretty thin soup if we leave it to people outside the GBG environment to do all the cooking.

There’s further background on the origins of Myst-like games in the classical Art of Memory in my piece The Mysts of Antiquity.

Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in discussing these ideas in more detail.

16 Responses to “Myst-like Universities, Oxford-like Games?”

  1. L. C. Rees Says:


    I’m currently reading Richards Heuer’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis. Much of Heuer’s work since he began his career in at CIA 1951 has been focused on improving the quality of analysis produced by the CIA and other parts of the intelligence apparatus. In PIA, he discusses several approaches, including “structured analysis” methodologies like his own Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH) framework. The initial step in many of these methodologies (and, curiously, the Getting Things Done (GTD) “personal productivity” system) is a collection phase where as many ideas as possible are tossed out without any attempt to prejudge or categorize them. This phase seems to be one spot where a framework like Sembl, Hipbone, etc. designed to produce sudden flashes of insight through the juxtaposition of things that are not necessarily like each other would fit in.

    The dilemma I keep seeing in these methodologies or frameworks is that the mechanisms through which they compensate for politics is unclear. Each participant is supposed to equally contribute ideas during the collection process. But, since politics is the division of power, the contribution of an idea, its collection, and its potential aggregation into whatever ideas emerges from the analytic process comes bundled with new possibilities for altering an existing division of power within a group, be it at CIA or down at the local McDonalds. Those higher on the greasy totem pole may be hesitant to accept new ideas even in an unstructured or game-generated manner because doing so would threaten their place on the totem pole. Those lower on the pole may hesitate to offer their ideas even in an ostensibly “politics-free zone” because they know the Powers That Be will come down hard on them irrespective of the PTB’s rhetoric to the contrary. While it would be nice to have the guarantee that all managers were enlightened and tolerant of ideas that challenge their own and all subordinates were brave proto-martyrs willing to Speak Truth to Power™ come what may, that’s not the world most of us have to live in. Most managers are insecure mediocrities and most subordinates just want to get through the day and go home without making a Career Limiting Move. Most people will self-censor their input out of fear of political repercussions. And yet they may have the very idea needed.

    I’m curious if you’ve devised any mechanisms for Sembl, et al. that compensate for or suborn politics in the service of generating new or creative ideas without requiring superhuman leaders or saintly subordinates to make the process work.

  2. zen Says:

    Ironclad anonymity?

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi LC — you say: 

    This phase seems to be one spot where a framework like Sembl, Hipbone, etc. designed to produce sudden flashes of insight through the juxtaposition of things that are not necessarily like each other would fit in. 

    I’ve always thought of the “throw all the ideas out without judgment” phase in creative brainstorming, often including a hazy “add another balloon to the diagram” rule, as part one of a process that gets far more intensive if you add a constraining mechanism and a rule that derives originally from aesthetics as part two — and yes, that’s where Sembl comes in.  


    First, the constraint, and why it functions, derives from my work as a poet, and my sense of what happens when the free-play of imagination meets a tight form like that of a sonnet.


    Stanley Ulam, in Adventures of a Mathematician, describes the process elegantly:

    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… 

    And TS Eliot (whom I’m quoting from Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, p. 133, lol) confirms the idea:

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

    One way to see Hipbone and Sembl is as providing a “tight form” for the kind of free association you describe, using fixed, preset boards to mandate which ideas must link associatively to which others.  This forces the participants / players to attempt linkages they might otherwise rush past without noticing them — and the poetry component in the game’s background means that there’s a strong focus on the qualitative / aesthetic strength of the links, which players or teams must articulate, and which in Sembl play is then evaluated for the quality of its “leap” in the same way we evaluate a discovery, a joke or an insight — by how strong a chord it strikes in us.


    So that’s what your first para triggers for me — the rest is more complex, and I’ll have to give it time.


    But Zen has the short-form answer!

  4. L. C. Rees Says:

    The recently formulated “argumentative theory of reasoning” argues that the reason humans reason is not truth but victory. Reasoning exits to sharpen thoughts into arguments to defeat other arguments. If this theory is accurate, reason i, above all else a process for weaponizing communication, a continuation of politics with the addition of symbolic means.

    According to Heuer and others, the enemy of analytically derived truth is confirmation bias. However, if the predominant purpose of reason is victory, not truth, confirmation bias, the purported enemy, is often more friend for the individual reasoner than enemy. In the “Principles of War”, confirmation bias is known positively as the principle of “Maintenance of the Objective”. Individually, someone who persists in filtering the world to support his world view is maintaining formation, not screwing up the impersonal pursuit of truth. Remorseless pursuit of a line of argument can win in the end, even if the line between great communicator and crank is thin.

    But Maintaining of the Objective can go too far. Foolish consistency can lead the reasoner astray. Groupthink, the contagiously viral form of confirmation bias, can herd groups over the cliff edge as efficiently as it leads individuals of overly confirmed biases over the cliff.

    The role of constraints is key in breaking this loop and injecting fresh virility into it. But what makes an effective contraint? “Legalists” in Warring States China like Lord Shang reduced the art of constraint to crude material rewards and punishments. Their working notion of constraints was almost as primitive as those of modern economics or international relations theory where material rewards and punishments dangled before near omniscient rational actors make the world go round.

    The Confucians (benefiting from 2,000 years of editorial control) claimed Confucius’ notions were superior since they appealed to something higher than Lord Shang pointy hat. But does the higher but perhaps intangible constraint of “something higher” motivate creativity more than the tangible but perhaps less than noble constraint of material gain or loss?

    Pushkin had the “honor” of having Nicholas I as his own personal censor. I’m not sure if the creative juxtaposition caused by listening to the sound of one Iron Czar clapping ran up Pushkin’s meter or not. Perhaps the cold steely grip of Nicholas is as inspirational a poetical muse as the creative incentives attributed to constrained poetical forms like haiku or the 14-line sonnet.

    Or may be it isn’t. I can offer no more except the argumentative singularity of “it depends” from which no creative resolution can escape. I look forward to whatever thoughts you might have on the subject in the future. 

  5. zen Says:

    BTW – the Psychology of Intelligence Analysis is first rate – thank you to LC for linking to that one!

  6. L. C. Rees Says:

    Found this 2009 version for the attention-span impaired: A Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis. “Structured Analytic Techniques” seems to be the new term of art for techniques like Heuer’s own ACH.

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    There’s a lot of convergence going on here — in your response to Mike Few’s post, LC, you reference the IBIS system which I first ran across a decade ago via some folks working on decision support systems with Jeff Conklin, and which I view as in some sense a cousin of my HipBone / Sembl games.
    Fascinating.  More on this later… 

  8. Bryan Alexander Says:

    This feels like augmented reality to me, Charles.  Everyware, hyperlinked reality, and the internet of things.

  9. L. C. Rees Says:

    I exchanged emails with Dr. Conklin once about whether there’d been work done by the dialog mapping/IBIS community to apply those methodologies to Taleb’s black swan, a concept that overlaps the concept of the wicked problem.

    Heuer references a letter from Ben Franklin to Benjamin Rush where Dr. Franklin discusses a technique he developed that presages both ACH, IBIS, and other systems. The Matrix of Understanding has many convergent yet far flung forms, from the Zachman Framework to Kanban to CMMI. As the Matrix of Misunderstanding, it’s most notable manifestation is the spreadsheet, a horror from which the world has yet to wake. 

  10. Michael Says:

    Reading this today I immediately think of Khan Academy. At the moment this is one, smart, guy teaching the world but (with foreign language translations and perhaps mor tutors coming online) the mechanisms Khan is creatings feels like just the kind of delivery system we need for this open augmented Myst-like university. What I live about Khan’s site is the curriculum links, one can jump straight to calculus but the knowledge tree is more fun completing the basics of maths before moving to advanced topics.

    Maths and sciences lends themselves to the quiz model and I’m wondering how Sembl and GBG mechanics could help Khan assess, value and score ideas in humanities and other subjects. Public, crowd-sourced review and scoring of associative links and points from the crowd for richness of the more poetic ideas perhaps.

    As an ex-technology journalist and future educator I’m fascinated how this vision of yours in unfolding.

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Michael:
    I’m hoping for a follow up post giving my current vision, and have a couple of intermediate steps that I intend to post as parts 2 and 3 of my current “tree series” — one of them will be a sort of prose poem and the other the description of a game idea, both of which I wrote in 2000 or before, I’m not exactly sure when.
    In brief, though, what disappoints me about both the Khan Academy and MIT and similar offerings is the almost total absence of what to my mind makes a college education special — the social aspect.
    I probably have emails that went into this in more detail going back to the mid to late 1990s, but my vision included Myst-like social gatherings in settings like the Bear Inn, just around the corner from Christ Church, Oxford, my old College, coffee houses like the much-loved and now long-gone Osiris in Little Clarendon Street, and — if  we’re sticking to Oxford — debates at the Student Union.
    Take advantage of place!  Take advantage of people!  Let bright talk with bright, bright flirt with bright…
    An inset game where you can steer a punt along the river past St Caths would be nice. 

  12. Trees: Phototropic Simplexities Says:

    […] the pair of them represent a stage in my games and education thinking intermediate between Myst-like Universities of 1996 and my vision today of games in education. In this posting, I have added the words […]

  13. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Trees: Phototropic Simplexities Says:

    […] the pair of them represent a stage in my games and education thinking intermediate between Myst-like Universities of 1996 and my vision today of games in education. In this posting, I have added the words […]

  14. Rob Pye Says:


    I can see the merit and can also see some ‘but what about’.  I see the merits of social gaming (although never have had the interest myself beyond the original space invaders arcade game some 30 years ago!).  Have you read the book “everything bad is good for you”.

    But what about the fact that books engage the reader in a deep almost meditative process that requires slow digestion, thinking and cogitation.  The reverse seems to be true in the online world.  Attention span falls to near zero.  Distractions are huge. Concentration is difficult.

    I have three boys.  The eldest is 15 and has always been a reluctant reader.  He can and does read but immersion a a book? Not really. Some will be naturally bookish, of course.  Is the trend for people to spend less time with prose and less time reading whole books?  I think it is.

    Social learning on the other hand blends context, experts, practice and community into an arguably more goal-oriented environment.  For example, solving a real problem as well as earning a qualification in so doing.  A masters degree would infer ‘practice’, ‘experience’, ‘engagement’ and involvement with your communities rather than something abstract and purely intellectual or academic.  What do you think?


  15. David Pollard Says:

    You may have been thinking along the lines of Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu, which started way back in 1960. As history turned out, the worldwide web steamed past.
    You will forgive me for saying that when you wrote your piece in 1996 you seem not to have grasped fully the democratic potential of the internet; and it is here that the greatest potential for education lies. You took the line that “a student of any age could move as far and as fast through it as his/her ability to give ‘correct’ answers to the quizzes along the way permitted…”
    Why, pray, do we need permission to learn? Is knowledge to be held in a hierarchy guarded by gatekeepers?
    Surely all that is needed is some optional means of self-assessment for those who wish to check that they are absorbing what they are consuming. Or do you wish to impose strictures on learning, perhaps to constrain knowledge to that which is ‘correct’; as you put it; and comprehension to that which can be answered in the tickboxes of a multiple choice questionnaire?
    But think, for a moment. How might it be possible to frame anything like a reasonable test of comprehension of a concrete poem? One that would be equally appropriate for all ages, abilities, nationalities, cultural backgrounds…? And then, if you can achieve this in easier areas, can you do it without the instilling the biases and without the dumbing down that multiple choice tests invariably cause? On my part I think that Open Access is the appropriate way to deliver the technological opportunities for widespread learning. I will agree with you, though, that discourse is perhaps the best way to consolidate.
    I was glad to see your mention of the Osiris coffee bar, now long gone. Perhaps the last time that I saw you was when you bounced along Little Clarendon Street just outside, exclaiming, “A lad named am made mandala.” “Don’t you see? Don’t you see?”, with the letters written out in a circle on a piece of paper. I didn’t and needed an explanation that it reads the same both ways, and still didn’t entirely understand. It was some little while ago but the anarchic optimism of those days still glimmers.

  16. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi David — well met!
    When I wrote the line you quote, “a student of any age could move as far and as fast through it as his/her ability to give ‘correct’ answers to the quizzes along the way permitted” I was referring to a particular California laser-disk program that a friend of mine was involved with: it was designed to work with the California curricula and to provide students not just with a variable speed education but also with appropriate credentials, and thus was indeed still tied to the hierarchy of the CA educational system.  The word “correct” was part of that framing, and I put it in scare quotes because it made me feel a tad queasy.
    My own attempts back then can be broken into two parts.  The first and more, heh, practical part involved the devising of a variant on Hesse’s Glass Bead Game that could be played on a napkin in a cafe — that project wasn’t tied to anything but the delight of anyone who stumbled on it and decided to play, whether solo or in company with others, and its current embodiment is the Sembl game which I see you’ve found!
    The post above represents the second part, more closely tied to the development of computer games at that time, and really amounts to little more than saying that I’d like to see ambiance added into whatever educational sims the future might come up with, in the same way that I think one’s tone of voice is as important as “what one is saying” in conversation, and a fortiori in poetry.
    Insofar as I have any engagement with educational futurism, it’s with Howard Rheingold’s peeragogy project, which (to my mind) still tends to focus a bit more on learning in educational situations (trainings, classes, schools) than in life-at-large.  But it’s life as learning that interests me most, and I personally enjoy bright minds and generous hearts, regardless of degrees or monastic robes, wherever I can find ’em.

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