Critical Heritage

I recently returned from the Critical Heritage conference in Canberra Australia. Interesting group of people and some very good seminars which one could not often guess the quality of judging by the abstract. And there are certainly many books out on heritage now.

But was it sufficiently critical? No I don’t think so. Will the next one be critical enough? Well the next one is in Montreal in 2016 which should turn out to be a great venue to prove me wrong..

Is digital heritage critical enough? You know the answer to that question.

Anyway, here is/was my abstract. The full programme is available online at and twitter feed was


Critical Theory, Game-Based Learning and Virtual Heritage

Expanding on observations on essential components of games, by Thomas Malone, this paper critiques essential features in prominent theories of serious games, and compares them to prominent features of commercial computer games that could be used for history and heritage-based learning. These theories and components are analyzed in order to develop heuristics that may help future the specific requirements of serious game design for interactive history and digital heritage.

Games as pedagogical tools are indisputably growing in popularity; many cultural heritage projects have harnessed game technology and techniques. The heritage projects may use a game engine or be games in the fuller sense of the word and there have been recent surveys on games appropriate to cultural heritage (Mikovec et al, 2003). As a counter the burgeoning interest in games, there have also been papers warning of game ideas applied to cultural heritage leading to disastrous results (Leader-Elliott, 2003). How can we develop more useful and robust criticism in this field when so many projects are based on large-scale research grants that don’t reward learning from failure? At the very least we need to improve the way we evaluate the learning benefits of virtual heritage. If it is serving the purpose of heritage, then it cannot be only to impress people, it has to motivate but also educate people.


  • Leader-Elliott, Lyn. (2003). Community heritage interpretation games: A case study from Angaston, South Australia. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 11(2), 161-171.
  • Mikovec, P. Slavik, and J. Zara, “Cultural Heritage, User Interfaces and Serious Games at CTU Prague” in Virtual Systems and Multimedia, 2009. VSMM ’09. 15th International Conference on, 2009, pp. 211-216.

But here is my earlier abstract (which is expanded on in an upcoming book for Ashgate)..


Digital Heritage and Social Media: Virtual Heritage and Criticism

I worry that the term virtual heritage is too self-contradictory, I am concerned at the lack of archival knowledge associated with the area, and I am still concerned about the gaps between content, learning and technology in these projects. How can we develop more useful and robust criticism in this field when so many projects are based on large-scale research grants that don’t reward learning from failure? At the very least we need to improve the way we evaluate the learning benefits of virtual heritage. If it is heritage, then it cannot be only to impress people, it has to motivate but also educate people.

Criticism And Gaming

How can we ensure that our critical positions, theories, and arguments about gaming have merit? This is a work-in progress checklist that may help identify weak points in an argument.

Ideally a critical position / argument about computer games should be:

  1. Falsifiable and verifiable. Not such a common feature in the Humanities, and not always relevant, but in my opinion a good argument should be saying where and when it is contestable, and where and when it can be proven or disproven.
  2. Extensible and scalable. We should be able to add to it, extend it, apply it to more research questions and research areas or add it to current research findings or critical frameworks.
  3. Reconfigurable. Components are more useful than take it or leave it positions.
  4. Is useful even if proven wrong in terms of data, findings, methods, or argument (possibly this heuristic should be combined with number 3).
  5. Helpful to the current and future design of computer games, and has potential to forecast future changes in design, deployment or acceptance.
  6. Not in danger of conflating describing computer games with prescribing how computer games should be. Several of the arguments cited in this book appear to make that mistake.
  7. Understands the distinction between methods and methodology, the selection or rejection of methods should always be examined and communicated.
  8. Is lucid and honest about the background, context, and motivations as factors driving it. The parameters of the argument should also be disclosed.
  9. Aiming for validity and soundness of argument.
  10. Attempting to provide in a long-term and accessible way for the data, output, and results of any experiment or survey to be examinable by others.

In virtual heritage publications I often see an extremely broad research question, aims confused with objectives, and a lack of criteria that explains exactly who (or what) determines whether the project or experiment was a success or failure. Care in showing what has been already proven or disproven impresses. But a good research project should go further, explaining why it expects to employ the methods it has chosen, how it can test its ideas, and which audience in particular would find the results significant, and useful.

My suggestion appears to be backed up by the method employed in a recent journal article and survey on serious games (Connolly, Boyle, MacArthur, Hainey, & Boyle, 2012) that determined “high quality” publication by

  1. The appropriateness of the research design for addressing the research question.
  2. The appropriateness of the methods and analysis.
  3. How generalizable the findings were (with respect to sample size and representativeness).
  4. The relevance of the focus of the study.
  5. The extent to which the study findings can be trusted in answering the study question(s).

This last criterion is very important, and easier to address if a research proposal works backwards from the intended final findings to creating the focus, scope and parameters of the research question.

The Next Step

How can the public communicate to each other opinions, memories, stories and reflections of place, but when they are visiting or designing virtual worlds? Tagging both personalizes and contextualizes; yet this use of imaginative, dynamic and creative user-based infill is often not made available in digital media projects. New interfaces and game engines can help the personalization of the environment by an active viewer; ‘tagging’ place could increase engagement and insight to the socio-cultural elements of urban and rural and imaginative spaces, as well as enrich virtual heritage environments.

For example, student projects recreated environments from historical sources using commercially available game engines. Inspired by a scenario called a cultural Turing Test, the game levels recreate not only the tangible surroundings but also rule-based social behavior using impostor-detecting avatars, and by creating communication channels between players in the form of diary entries that record contextual historical and cultural information. The diary entries can take the form of text or there can be dynamic capture of external data such as videos of people inserted into the virtual environment as narrators or collaborators. New technology in the form of biometrics, dynamic sound, dynamic textures, and user—driven geo-data can augment and update static and lifeless virtual environments with communal memories and personal experiences.

Through the game itself, we can also create our own levels that bend space and time. Could we also bend or invert conventional notions of historical narrative? Is it possible to meaningfully do so, and personalize a virtual environment through the interactions that take place within it, even if that interaction initially appears to be destructive? Can we share these meanings within a community, or reveal meanings about a community that is typically removed from us? Given improvements in technology, will these environments improve or hinder a sense of authenticity?

More than just for visualization, though, this technology can also help educate through self-directed learning. Possible features include learning by resource management; learning about social behavior (chat, observation, mimicry); visualization of scale, landscape or climate; depicting varying levels of uncertainty; allowing visitor to filter or reconfigure reconstructions; immersion in the excitement of the times; selecting correct objects or appearance to move about the ‘world’ or to trade or to advance social role or period of time; deciphering codes, language, avoiding traps; and online walkthroughs by expert guides.


  • Australia ICOMOS Incorporated. The Burra Charter, The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance, 2013. Australia.
  • Connolly, Thomas M., Boyle, Elizabeth A., MacArthur, Ewan, Hainey, Thomas, & Boyle, James M. (2012). A systematic literature review of empirical evidence on computer games and serious games. Computers & Education, 59(2), 661-686. doi:

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