Reproduction of museum objects

October 2, 2013 in 3d Printing

 Why reproduce museum objects?

This project started in the stacks of the Wellcome Collection, when Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands discovered some of the things that Henry Wellcome collected into his giant collection of medical history – around 10,000 of the items he collected relate to sexuality and culture throughout history. They stretch from prehistory to Victorian times, and the sheer variety and strangeness of many of them is a window into parts of culture that the world doesn’t tend to record in the official histories.

The objects confront modern sensibilities quite powerfully. Like books, they are something like portals to the time they were made, and used, and understood.  The Sex & History project proved that engaging with this type of object can frame sex education classes in powerful and interesting ways, and bring real benefits to the educational value of those lessons.

However, the objects which that this framing turns on are also generally extremely fragile, singular, and live behind closed doors. They can’t be handled, except carefully, rarely, and with white gloves.

Many museums solve these problems using reproduction. Something like a quarter of the objects in the Natural History museum, for example, from dinosaur skeletons to fish fossils are reproductions, good enough that you get the same feeling from looking at them that you do from a ‘real’ object.

Given that you can’t take the pupils to the objects without vast expense, and the objects are too fragile to go to the pupils, bridging this gap with reproduction objects seems like a sensible way forward.

There’s a huge variety of objects that we could have chosen for test reproduction, but as this is only a small piece of initial R&D, we focused on the loop of 3d scanning and printing, and, as comparison of the original and reproduced objects was going to be key, we bought a couple of phallic amulets on ebay, so we could get a first prototype and sit originals and copies side by side.


How did we go about it?

Roman phallic amulet - about 2000 years old

This is a Roman bronze amulet – the two groups on Roman society which wore such amulets were small boys and Roman soldiers – hundreds of them are found buried in the soil in the sites of Roman military camps.

Currently, museum reproductions are mostly made using rubber or silicon moulds. However, the level of detail now available using 3D scanning is extraordinary and the price of that and 3D printing is coming down all the time. Scanning is a hands-off process which allows you to reproduce things too fragile or delicate for moulds, and can give an extraordinary level of fidelity – to the level that scratches and marks of use can be reproduced.

Stearite amulet

This may or may not be authentic, but stone amulets of this type have been found in tombs in China dating back to c1100- c 256 BC. This is made of stearite, which is what gives it that beautiful surface patterning. It’s shown with samples of laser sintered bronze and textured plastic.

We worked with scanning house Sample & Hold to scan both amulets as high resolutions scans.

Stearite amulet scanned


Printing Results

We 3d printed samples of both amulets in the closest possible material – laser sintered bronze and ‘White, Strong & Flexible’ from Shapeways.

Of the two, the bronze one came out looking already old. Although the printing resolution wasn’t high enough to precisely reproduce the incredible surface texture of the original, it felt old to people, and only required a little patination to feel exactly like the original object. The loop of scanning a bronze objects then reproducing it in the same material means that the weight and feel in the hand is perfect.

Small runs of up to three or four can be laser-sintered, but for any larger quantity it’s still more sensible cast from a master, whether that is the real object or a printed replica.

Roman bronze amulet reproduced

Old and new bronze amulets

Bronze phallic amulet reproduced

Stone turned out to be harder to reproduce. Everyone I found offering marble dust or a similar material is not doing it for the scale of fine detail we need. Various plastic prototypes could be patinated to look ok, but as soon as you pick them up, the handfeel is wrong.

Stone Chinese amulet reproduced via 3d printing


Stone amulet reproduced via 3d printing

In scoping future reproductions we’ll look for objects where shape rather than surface patina is the important part of it, as there’s a clear, simple route to reproduce physical objects by making digital copies when only shape is involved, whereas the kind of surface pattern reproduction needed for the stone amulet requires a level of hand finishing that puts it out of the reach of educational budgets.

This sample produces shape perfectly, but as soon as you pick it up, the weight is wrong

In future, reproducing larger runs of objects will turn back to moulds – the economics of scale mean that when you’re making a batch of more than a few pieces, that will always be financially more attractive. However, the 3d scanning process means that with particularly fragile or detailed objects, we get the kind of fidelity in the digital reproduction that is unimaginable any other way. Reproducing that fidelity physically depends on the resolution of the printer – for a truly fine reproduction in bronze, I’d need to find a much higher resolution printer, and probably commission a jeweller to hand finish the pieces.

Going forward though, we now have a good idea about what is easy and hard about digital model-making. We’ll work with the museums holding the objects to scan them digitally in the highest resolution possible, to future-proof that process.

It would then theoretically be possible to send copies to every interested school in the country, or give an accurate-looking reproduced object to every participant in the workshop, although that then raises new questions about whether multiple copies of an object can ever feel authentic in the same way as a singular one can.

Resources for reproducing small museum objects

3d scanning:

Sample & Hold

51-63 Ridley Road
E8 2NP 

3d printing in Bronze

UK houses include



US site Shapeways is very userfriendly for beginners and delivers to the UK. Their tutorials are worth a look for beginners.


Free 3d software

Netfabb basic



Bronze reproduction via moulds and patination

Small sizes

Large sizes



A writeup at Edugames Hub

September 27, 2013 in Sophie Sampson

Look back to your school sex education with adult eyes, and you probably remember some poor teacher standing up in front of a class of giggling, scandalised or bored teenagers, teaching them how to put a condom on. Maybe a diagram of the uterus.

These days PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economics education), as it’s now called, goes much deeper into the territory of emotions and moral frameworks.


Edugames Hub has just published a short piece I wrote about the possibilities of using games in PSHE classes – read it here

Looking at your own society from outside

September 14, 2013 in 3d Printing, Objects, Process, Project description, Sophie Sampson

This is from an hour long talk I gave about the project at Pervasive Media Studios Lunchtime Talks series on Friday 13th September 2013. Kate and Rebecca weren’t able to attend, so this is very much a talk about the learnings from the project from a gamemaker’s point of view.

Looking at your own society from outside

I’m here with my game designer and producer hat on. I make games which do things, which prompt people to think differently or look at the world with new eyes.

You can see some of the previous projects I’ve worked on here – the threads that unite them are designing for people playing together in real life, rather than always and only looking at a screen, and a concentration on explaining history through games and game mechanics.

Some of the games I’ve worked on look like this:

PM Studio 2.003-001

But some of them look like this:


That’s a game I worked on called Battlefield designed by Holly Gramazio of Hide&Seek, with no digital elements at all.

Our REACT funding

Kate Fisher, Rebecca Langlands and I received some money under the REACT Pump Priming fund to do a piece of R&D that extended work that Kate and Rebecca had been doing at Exeter, around framing sex and relationships education with historical erotic objects. We did some prototyping around using games and historical objects to frame PSHE lessons.

I’m going to talk a bit about the particular demands of PSHE, a bit about how games in particular work in the classroom, and a bit about historical objects and taking them into the classroom.


Getting to grips with PSHE

My memory of sex education in school can be summed up in one word: awkward.

I polled some friends on twitter, and they said things like


“I remember a dark room, awkward boys, then a bright flickering fluorescent light followed by biological diagrams”

“They did a talk attempting to scare us about STDs, did the condom and banana thing, then considered their duty done”

“Purely functional. No PSE/ responsibility stuff at all. BAD”

“I would have appreciated anything that made me feel like I wasn’t some sort of awful pervert, really”


It has an odd place in the curriculum. Most of my generation got a Biology teacher showing diagrams, possibly demonstrating how to put on a condom. Also, depending on what country you were educated in, perhaps the opportunity to put questions anonymously in a box and have the teacher go through them and lead a class discussion about issues raised.

This last is an example of othering – allowing pupils to ask personal questions in a way that does not feel like it’s about them, which is key to being able to break away from the strictly factual towards a more emotionally nuanced conversation, without too much risk to the individual. Framing something about others allows pupils to be braver in their questions.


The Educational goals of PSHE

To quote from Department of Education guidelines these include:


– learning the value of respect, love and care;

– exploring, considering and understanding moral dilemmas; and

developing critical thinking as part of decision-making


At secondary school level, sex and relationship education should prepare young people for an adult life in which they can:

– develop positive values and a moral framework that will guide their decisions, judgements and behaviour;

be aware of their sexuality and understand human sexuality;

– understand the arguments for delaying sexual activity;

– understand the reasons for having protected sex;

– understand the consequences of their actions and behave responsibly within sexual and pastoral relationships;

– have the confidence and self-esteem to value themselves and others and respect for individual conscience and the skills to judge what kind of relationships they want;

avoid being exploited or exploiting others;

– avoid being pressured into unwanted or unprotected sex;

– access confidential sexual health advice, support and if necessary treatment;

– know how the law applies to sexual relationships.


The educational goals and curriculum requirements for PSHE have moved on quite a lot since my generation was at school watching someone put a condom on a banana. It’s a mix of factual learning “understand the reasons for having protected sex” “know how the law applies to sexual relationships”, and much more touchy-feely emotional development:

“respect, love and care”, “respect for individual conscience and the skills to judge what kind of relationships they want”, “avoid being exploited or exploiting others”

Most important for this project are the paragraphs at the end of the document:


It is essential that schools can help children and young people develop confidence in talking, listening and thinking about sex and relationships.

Teachers and other staff may need to overcome their own anxieties and embarrassment to do this effectively.

Partnership between school and parents is the key to success.


That directive to develop confidence in talking, listening and thinking about sex and relationships is exactly where this project is situated.

What PSHE is trying to do is insert answers into pupils’ brains that they can draw on in risky situations. There is factual information to impart, but there is also a strong sense that pupils have to develop their own deeply felt moral frameworks, which requires a certain depth and sincerity of discussion to achieve.

That’s not simple in a school environment, with all the constraints built in. It’s really easy for pupils to put up a barrier between themselves and what they are being told, in classic kid ways.

These are some quotes from the evaluation we did with 17 year old students at Exeter College about their previous PSHE, putting up those barriers in different ways:

[D] I got banned from sex ed.

[C] Why?!

[D] The boys…they exploded a condom at the back of the room


[E] I got a C on my sex education test.

[D] You did a test?! We just got taught that you shouldn’t use crisp packets or plastic bags as condoms [laughs]


[A] The session here…it was all about protection and ways of preventing being pregnant and stuff

[B]It was just contraception really, more than anything

[A] I think in that one though, everyone just sort of took the attitude that i’ve already heard all of this, I’m not really going to listen sort of thing


[D] The videos we got played, they were hilarious.

[B] One thing I didn’t like about it in school is that people took it so, like, immaturely…no offence but I always used to get quite pissed off. I was always quite interested, and people used to sit there and giggle and it was…

[C] It was funny though, it’s funny when you hear about it, think about it. Like you get told all this rubbish, that you were brought by the stork or whatever (laughs) but then you find out actually your dad’s genitalia has been inside your mum, it’s weird


The problem of trying to affect people’s moral framework when the material you’re presenting feels like it’s not ‘for them’ is a thorny one. Channel 4 have gone a long way towards solving it with the Sex Education Show, which is classic risky, on the edge Channel 4 stuff, with live video links to nude people of different shapes and sizes, and segments which get groups of parents watching internet porn and showing live images of STDs, surrounding the calm and cheerful message that all this stuff is both normal, and easy to protect yourself from. It clearly puts itself on the side of teenagers a way it would be difficult for teachers to emulate in the classroom, and many of the pupils we asked cited it as one of the main places where they got their actual sex education from in practice.

I started to understand the problem of PSHE differently when I came across this quote from neuroscientist Gerald Edelman:

“The metaphor of a brain as a jungle is much more appropriate than the metaphor of the brain as a computer”

It has relevance to the job that PSHE is trying to do.

This is the best picture I could find that sums up the undercurrents in a class of kids:

Breakfast Club social groupings

Those labels skew American, but teenagers the world over are working out who they are and how they’re going to be. Kidworld comes with a constant jockeying for position, it contains pressures and embarrassments that adults have been largely happy to forget. It’s a harsh, status-obsessed place, where social pressure builds up and often directly contradicts what adults presenting as good and bad.

Brian Sutton Smith writes in his book The Ambiguity of Play:


“The adult public transcript is to make children progress, 

the adult private transcript is to deny their sexual and aggressive impulses; 

the child public transcript is to be successful as family members and schoolchildren, and their private or hidden transcript is their play life, in which they can express both their special identity, and their resentment at being a captive population.”


He writes combatively here, but he is right, and healthy children and adults negotiate the differences between these transcripts effortlessly. The adult private transcript is a perfectly fair one, if you examine it. We want to live in a society where people are able to curb their sexual and aggressive impulses, it’s part of the implicit bargain of society.

( As adults we raise our eyebrows at the idea of schoolchildren being a captive population because we have so internalised the lessons of school, but when the gift of compulsory education was first given to children in Europe, many of them rioted. It takes some getting used to. )

But this is what school does, apart from merely teach facts and techniques for manipulating them. It socialises children into responsible members of society. It’s mostly great at that, but PSHE falls right on one of the seams between the world of being a good pupil, and the messy, status grabbing, adult-rejecting world of Kidworld.

Public Transcripts

Public transcripts can be satisfied with diagrams, and facts, but we must acknowledge that when we want the lessons taught in PSHE to be put into practice, it’s in situations which look more like this:


PSHE needs to infiltrate the private transcripts of kidworld in order to make a genuine difference, to get deep inside people’s moral frameworks, and it needs to do it ethically.

Kids develop ways of keeping adults out of kidworld from a very early age – any teacher will recognise the ripple that goes across the class of giggling, messing around, jokes and teases at the expense of those in authority, when the group doesn’t want to listen for whatever reason.

This, finally became the big question that this piece of R&D looked to answer:

Given the constraints of public and private transcripts, how do you facilitate genuine and nuanced discussions with teenagers about society and the things they care about?

PSHE through games and objects

I met Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands through the REACT programme – they’ve been grappling with these questions through the lens of history. Their subject is historical erotic objects and the meanings modern people put on them. With their Sex and History project, they have hit on a great way of othering, which is framing PSHE lessons around historical erotic objects

We got interested in the potential of games to also do this. People lose themselves in playing, they have plausible deniability because they’re ‘just following the rules’.

I’ll introduce some of these objects as Kate and Rebecca introduced me to them. You have to imagine us sitting in a cafe in Exeter, having lunch and discussing what a potential collaboration might look like. They whipped out some A4 glossies to show me.

These are 19th century chinese, and the right size to fit nicely in your palm.

Historical erotic objects

Inside, they look like this:

(c) Wellcome Images

So of course, I asked, well what were they used for, why were they made? And their answer was “what do you think they were used for?” Because, in common of many of these objects, there is little to nothing in the official history books about them. It’s thought that they might have been given to brides as an educational tool, but historians don’t agree on this point. Maybe they were just for good luck, or something else.

And by asking what do I think they’re for, I’m put on the spot which makes me actually run through scenarios in my head, and try and imagine a society that produces such beautiful, unusual objects. I really look at them.

Here’s a couple more:

Historical erotic objects

The vessel on the left is of a type found in the graves of a particular South American tribe. There are no written records of why they made so many of these, and put them in the graves of men, women and children. Was it about resurrection? Did they, as one historian has argued, think they were funny?

The garden gnome – well, I had no idea before I started this project that Roman daily life had phallic imagery everywhere. Often with bells on. Often with wings on. I had no idea because it’s not part of the life we talk about officially. When we write history for public consumption, we tend not to include this stuff. For many years, guidebooks to Pompeii have been dismissing the phalluses everywhere as brothel markers, if they talk about them at all.

So all that sounded super interesting, and was clearly something I wanted to investigate further.


Games in the classroom

The particular things I thought games might add to this project are these:

How games might help

When people are playing games they feel empowered to do and say things they’d never do in ‘real life’

Game space is one where, within limits, people divest themselves of their regular personalities – so much that is not acceptable in normal life is encouraged when playing some kind of game. Trash talking, deviousness, going all out to win, screwing over your fellow competitors entertainingly. You can get away with acting like a terrible friend when you’re playing croquet.

So, we looked at the activities they had previously tested in the Sex and History project, and with Simon Katan, we put together several prototypes which used games and objects in different ways to start the type of conversations we were looking for.

Simon and I also looked at learning objectives and success criteria for a PSHE activity. A prototype should always answer a specific question, after all.

Conversation pieces - learning objectives

We also need to establish what success will look like, so that we have a benchmark for evaluating our activities:

Conversation pieces - success criteria

So, the games themselves. One asked the class in small groups to create ads for the objects we gave them, specifically to advertise them as if to the society they were made for. They needed to think their way into the shoes of those people, and there was a voting system which asked the groups to vote on which they thought the entire class would find most convincing.

We gave them objects like this anti-masturbation device:

Victorian device

And these Roman lamps:

Roman Lamps

We also prototyped a card game about Chinese concubines which asked all the pupils (boys and girls) to play as concubines, trying to gain power by putting down other concubines, gathering the support of eunuchs, and scheming to get their own child elected as the next emperor.

Concubines card game

This looked to use the game rules to model a historical society as a way of getting pupils to step outside their own world, and think about how those rules and constraints affected the decisions they were making.

Both were surrounded by discussion. For the first, we let the class introduce the objects to each other, then led a discussion about what the societies that produced those objects must have been like. For the second, we introduced the class to objects, images and testimonies from real eunuchs and concubines to bring alive the world. We showed tiny shoes for bound feet, images of some of the 19th century eunuchs serving the empress, and testimony from the last surviving court Eunuch, who remembers when there were hundreds more candidates than were able to get positions at court.

Afterwards, we again asked the pupils to discuss what seemed strange to them about that society that they’d just stepped into. Brilliantly, they themselves did a really good job of then turning the discussion around to look at what people a thousand years ago would feel about their own society, what they’d think was strange. Which is exactly what we’d hoped they would do.


Was there a difference between using historical objects and using games?

In evaluation, I felt there was remarkably little difference in effect between sessions that were framed by objects, and those that were framed by a game. Both served as strong devices for othering, for triggering strong thinking about society that could be turned round to self examination without much danger of becoming too personal. In fact when the games were about the objects themselves, it felt redundant. Too much. They are both fairly powerful framing devices, and the path of objects which introduced the world of a game as real, then a session of play, felt like the right way forward.


How games work in the classroom

I also spoke to as many teachers as I could about teaching PSHE, and what they need out of classroom activities, and realised what different conditions I’m used to as a game maker. I’m used to relying on the rules of a game to control chaotic situations.  The image below is a group of people playing Hide&Seek‘s Battlefield, a playground game designed for 7-11 year olds which is run by a single person holding a piece of paper with a ruleset on. From the outside, it looks like total chaos – everyone is running and throwing beanbags at each other, and probably shouting at the tops of their voices. Because I’m aware of how the game fits together, I know that the shouting is people trying to improve their team strategy on the fly, and because both teams have a goal and the game is robust and well balanced, I know there’s a predictable end to the game and a constructive reason to be running and screaming (although when playing with small children you need good policing to prevent cheating).

PM Studio 2.023-002

They are actually refighting the Battle of Hastings – one side are told they are Norman knights, trying to invade and steal the treasures of England. The other side is the English defenders: footsoldiers and longbowmen. The different soldier types are simulated with different rules and actions, and the battle is balanced so either side has a roughly equal chance of winning. So replaying it sets up an alternate history, but it’s a brilliant way in to finding out about a long-ago battle.

Every one of the children who had a discussion about the Battle of Hastings and then re-enacted it in this way felt ownership of that piece of history. I suspect I could come back to them now two years later and ask them about it, and they’d have something to say about the Norman Conquest and the difference between knights and longbowmen.

However, I know from playtesting this game in primary schools that this amount of running and screaming is not something that teachers are comfortable with, or neccessarily feel is helpful to learning, and I have a lot of sympathy with why. Teaching children how to be still and learn is one of the main unspoken goals of primary school, and it is a lesson that needs to be constantly reinforced if it’s going to stick. Boisterous excitement is something run off at break, it’s something that has a place on the sports field, but it constantly threatens to disrupt lessons.

So the question remains:

Why are educators so interested in games?

With my outsider status as a game maker doing a research project comes the chance to ask lots of stupid questions and really interrogate what’s going on. And I ended up asking a lot of questions around what traits of a game might be desirable or undesirable in the classroom. There’s a big movement at the moment which is looking at how to use games in schools successfully, and it possibly involves being clear-eyed about what games are and how they work.

I came to the conclusion that educators are really interested in qualities of games to attract attention and engagement. Museums and broadcasters have had great success with games that help people learn. It’s one of the things that made me want to be a game designer, the realisation that some games help you understand things in a depth that it’s difficult to achieve with other patterns of pedagogy. You know things in your gut about a system that you’ve played with and found the breaking points of over and over again.

My own personal epiphany came from this game:

PM Studio 2.025-001

That’s a screen from Civilization, a game I have given hundreds of hours of my life to. For the uninitiated, this is a game which simulates leading a civilization from first Bronze age settlements to building spaceships to settle on other planets. It’s full of intricately interlocking systems around scientific, cultural, military and manufacturing developments, and playing well involves making a series of many hundreds of hard decisions about what to focus your society’s resource on.

I mention it because around the time of the first Gulf War, when I was both young and politically naive, the idea that the war might be in part about securing our oil supply felt like the most shocking and cynical political decision our government could make. And yet, and yet. In Civilization, I had invaded to secure an oil supply hundreds of times, because at the point of the game where it becomes necessary, it becomes REALLY necessary, and you risk your neighbours crushing you out of existence if you don’t have any. I started my first games as a player who valued science over might and never built any armies, but as my neighbours invaded over and over again, I learned that I needed to balance both in order to survive to build a spaceship.

I found I could apply the models I’d learned in the game, for all they are simplified models, to real world political and economic situations, and understand them better. Forcing you to make hard decisions in worlds that are not your own is something games can do brilliantly. Another example is Papers Please, a game where the player is a border guard checking passports at a border crossing in an Eastern European-ish country at war.

Papers Please

You have a giant book of rules and exceptions, and a constantly changing requirements sheet, and are working against the clock to check through as many people as possible, so you get paid more, without letting anyone through incorrectly, for which you’ll be fined. At the end of the day you go home and work out how to budget your pay to feed your family and heat your home. The normal things. It’s bleak decision after bleak decision – do you let the wife follow her husband through even though she has the wrong stamp in her passport, knowing another fine will mean someone in your family won’t eat tonight? Do you let through the pimp, knowing he’s conducting human trafficking but his papers are in order?

High Tea was a collaboration between the Wellcome Trust and Preloaded, a game in which you play an independent British smuggler, selling opium in China’s Pearl Delta. Buy cheap and sell high to make a profit which you can spend on tea to keep Britain happy. It is inevitable that, as you maximise profits in order to do well in the game, you contemplate what you’re doing to create and protect that profit. It’s a subtle game whose message creeps up on you, and Wellcome published a full evaluation of it here.

High Tea Preloaded Wellcome

So these are all examples of ways learning can be stimulated, but there’s no doubt that games in classrooms are still controversial. Whether it’s rhetorics around frivolity, or control, or simply doubts over their educational value, although games have their classroom advocates, they are often drowned out by other voices.

It’s the kind of ambiguity and controversy that, if it came up in a playtest, would mean that more understanding and design work needs to be done. So, I looked deeper at classrooms, and the design constraints they require.

Like policing, classrooms are a consensual hallucination. Classrooms are founded on rules, just like games are. But also, they are a bargain between pupils and teacher, where the teacher asserts that these things you are learning will help you in later life. The public transcript is worthwhile.

Some of the rules of a classroom include:

1) sit still

2) pay attention to what the teacher says

3) speak when asked to do so

4) contribute to class discussion

5) do set homework or fail

6) feedback comes through answering questions, and on homework

7) failure has consequences outside the classroom


Whereas the meta-rules of play are something like:

1) success in a game comes through modelling the system in your head, then testing those assumptions

2) actions will have consequences inside the game,  but not outside

3) failure is encouraged as a method of modelling the system, and will come with feedback to help you get better

4) actions that could be deemed agressive outside the game are acceptable within it

5) winning will have social consequences outside the game – ie, you’re allowed to brag about winning a game in the way you can’t brag about say doing well in a test, because failure has no consequences outside the game.


Huizinga wrote quite pointedly in Homo Ludens:

“Play is a voluntary activity. Play to order is no longer play: it could at best be a forcible imitation of it.”

Written in 1938, Homo Ludens is subtitled ‘an examination of the play element in culture’. And there are lots of ways in which he’s right. A teacher standing up in front of a class brings certain assumptions, one of which is that if you don’t follow their directions, there will be sanctions, and being sanctioned for not playing well enough is a mindboggling concept when you start thinking about it. It becomes impossible to relax into a game in the way you would if you had voluntarily decided to play.

Games do give you engagement and absorption, but the specific techniques games use to produce that absorption aren’t neccesarily great for a classroom environment. To run through a few fundamental characteristics of games and play and examine them individually:

Heightened Concentration

That state of heightened concentration that game players have is produced by the collision of several things, but the first is feedback loops. Game systems are set up so that every action results in feedback. When you complete a line in tetris, it doesn’t just disappear, but it flashes for a second to show that yes, you did the thing you were supposed to do, and now enjoy your reward. In poker, when you win a hand, there’s the tactile reward of a pile of chips pushed towards you, and the joking comments of the other players, and the sudden freedom to play more wildly if you like.

Cycles of tension and release

Huizinga wrote “Tension is a part of play; uncertainty, chanciness, a striving to decide the issue and so end it’. Every game works on tension and release. You’re given knowledge of how to win, and the opportunity to try something to do so. As a player you take an action not knowing at first if it will come off or not, and in that uncertainty is fun.  There is some of that in classrooms, but the cycles tend to be much longer, and real life rarely, if ever, has a defined win state. Exams and graded papers are the closest school gets, but again, failure has consequences.


Brian Sutton-Smith perhaps said it best: “In all games, it is very important that the player should be able to boast of his success to others”. Not cool in the classroom, once you’re over the age of ten or so.

Repetition is rewarded

Repetition does seem to be an alignment between what games provide and what teachers want – everyone needs to repeat things to learn them, and the constant joyful repetition is what helps learning through games settle so deep in your gut. But classroom repetition should stop when something is learnt, because class moves on.  Again, contrast this to the rising system, where repeating an action that’s intrinsically fun and getting feedback and release makes you want to do it again and be disappointed when you are forced to stop, unless you come to the final tension and release of the end of the game.

Ambiguity has less place in school than in adult life

Play is, by its nature, ambiguous, especially to someone who isn’t engaged in it. Play fighting and fighting look the same from the outside, even if in the former someone getting hurt would stop the play immediately.

Ambiguity is something that is worked up to in schools as pupils become ready to take a more sophisticated view of a subject. Take Physics. When you get to university, you find out that Newton’s Laws of Motion, which you were taught at GCSE, don’t apply as universally as you may have been given the impression. Strictly speaking, Einstein’s work disproved them for anything close to the speed of light, but they work well enough for the physics you do in school – measuring the force of gravity from a pendulum, or travelling from the Earth to the Moon, say. It gets you far enough.

The scientist I asked about this said, “Everything you are taught in school physics assumes everything is made of matter and energy, and it turns out they’re the same thing. Doing a physics degree involves having your conception of reality entirely shattered and rebuilt on about a fortnightly basis.”


So, can a compulsory game be fun?

Yes – people get a lot of pleasure out of sports and rituals, but fun isn’t the most important reason they are conducted. Not everyone enjoys them, by their nature. Participation in both sports and rituals becomes smaller and confined to a self selecting group in adult life.

But inside classroom, if I can generalise, teachers feel supported by a game activity when nobody loses themselves in play. We want educational play to take place at one remove. We want its participants to be examining their feelings and responses, and acting a little like game designers. The best possible outcome is if they start looking at the rules they are playing under, and wondering what would happen if they changed them.

So, that probably isn’t the right question. Can a compulsory game support learning is a better question.


My new design rules for games to be used inside the classroom

1) Dial down the ecstasy and joy

2) Dial down the tension and release

3) Design a lesson, not just a game. (this is really important – the game is there as a stimulus to the conversation, not the other way round. It’s a framing device and needs hooks within it to hang the discussion on.)

4) use games to model a system, not reward reading (though I kind of knew this already – a lot of low quality educational games are just any game reskinned to deliver factoids at appropriate times. Not cool guys.)

So games can be used in the classroom, but as a game maker, I need to change my expectations and design goals considerably to suit this situation.


Using historical objects in the classroom

Having done this piece of R&D, the conclusion I came to is actually that the game and the object are both acting in the same kind of way. Both are performing othering, leading to discussion, but in a single activity, you don’t need both at the same time, although the one can lead to the other powerfully, as they did during the Concubines lesson.

There is a problem with the objects though – they live here:

Blyth House

This is where the Science Museum (who currently have custody of most of Wellcome’s physical objects) store their collections.

It’s possible for schools to arrange visits there occasionally, but that’s certainly not a scalable solution – they’re busy and the rooms are small. The objects can’t be sent out to schools – they’re fragile, singular, and some of them are thousands of years old.

Luckily, tech has solved this for us. Models have a long history in museums. Something like a quarter of what’s on display at the Natural History Museum, for example, is reproduction, reproduced well enough that the objects have the emotional charge of the real thing.

We decided to look into 3d scanning and printing and see where it might get us – the price and accessibility is coming down the whole time, and it’s an intriguing area to look at. Currently most copies of objects are made through silicon and rubber moulds. It’s inexpensive, but risks damaging fragile objects, and the fidelity isn’t great, whereas with 3d scanning you can pick up every tiny crack, chip and usage mark.

We worked with a great 3d scanning house, Sample and Hold in Hackney.

They were originally going to come with us to the museum, but it proved difficult to schedule, and we wouldn’t have been able to go back with the models and do a direct side by side comparison, so I turned to ebay. It turns out there’s is a roaring trade in historical erotic objects on ebay. Who knew?

They are often found by metal detector fans near roman military camps, because the two groups in Roman society who wore bronze phalluses around their necks are Roman soldiers and preadolescent boys.

searching for historical erotic objects on ebay

However, they don’t just come out of the ground in the US, where there is an equally keen base of collectors, so prices there are higher, and there are clearly shadowy figures buying up phallic amulets on UK ebay and reselling them for higher prices on the US site. But I digress.

Eventually, after weeks of being sniped, I managed to buy two contrasting amulets, one Roman bronze, one Chinese and made of stearite. I took them down to Sample & Hold, and they were rendered beautifully into ones and zeros.

3d scanning a phallic amulet

And we made some first prototypes, to get a feel for what we could and couldn’t expect from the process.

reproducing Roman bronze amulet

Laser-sintered bronze is now widely available, and this reproduction feels successful. The surface of the 3d printed object isn’t as beautiful, but a jeweller can cheaply patinate it with fake verdigris, and the weight and hand feel are perfect.

PM Studio 2.049-001

The Chinese stearite was a much larger challenge, and ended up being outside the scope of a project looking to make inexpensive reproductions for use in schools. I couldn’t find anyone printing with marble dust or anything in this small size, only on an architectural scale, and so the model above is in Shapeways’ Strong White – it’s too light in the hand, and I could get an artist to reproduce the beautiful surface markings, but only for a couple of hundred pounds. This led me towards reproducing objects which rely on their shape, and can be printed in something close to their original materials. The South American ceramic vessels should come out quite well, for example, by this method.


Final Conclusions

In this short piece of R&D, we didn’t design robust, finished lessons, but the route to them is clear.

The evaluations clearly showed that the class surprised themselves with their level of engagement:


[B] it was the fact that people were joining in the discussion that surprised me, like it turned from a talk about something, a talk about the sexual artifact we were looking at into, like, modern issues, and everyone actually gave their opinion.

[A] Yeah, I think people spoke about things that they wouldn’t normally talk about without realising it…so that, but then, so it was easier, which meant they were obviously comfortable talking about it, but I don’t think they realised until everyone else kind of joined in

[B] Because, yeah, it didn’t feel like a sex ed thing


They didn’t indulge in the behaviour we examined at the start, where pupils act up to put a barrier between themselves and the lesson.


[B] it was the fact that people were joining in the discussion that surprised me, like it turned from a talk about something, a talk about the sexual artifact we were looking at into, like, modern issues, and everyone actually gave their opinion.

[A] Yeah, I think people spoke about things that they wouldn’t normally talk about without realising it…so that, but then, so it was easier, which meant they were obviously comfortable talking about it, but I don’t think they realised until everyone else kind of joined in

[B] Because, yeah, it didn’t feel like a sex ed thing


Kids even talked to their parents about what they did in their sex education class:


[SJ] Did you discuss any of this with your friends or family?

[B] I talked about it with my mum.

[A] We was discussing it as a tutor group, afterwards.

[B] Yeah we did, didn’t we? Yeah, like, I’m really close to my mum so I said to her, you should have seen some of the weird stuff we saw today…because it’s quite weird, I mean you don’t expect to see it…because I wasn’t expecting things like this anyway, I was like, that’s a bit strange. She just thought it was really funny.


Several weeks later, they had intimate recall of what they’d done and seen in the class, and could talk in detail about the objects and activities. To go back to our list of success criteria:


We’re getting it right if we:

1. Create an inclusive environment in which both shy and confident students can express their ideas and feelings.

2. Create a safe space removed from students’ personal world in which they can describe their concerns and experiences with a degree of plausible deniability.

3. Bridge the gap between pedagogical treatment of PSHE and everyday teenage realities.

4. Raise awareness of social issues to do with sex and gender.


Not everyone spoke out in the lessons we ran, but the majority did, and the class as a whole appeared to be very engaged. The othering leading to a safe space appeared to work well – the classes discussed topics from removal of pubic hair to the stigma around pedophilia with an air of comfort, and appeared to be making new connections and thoughts around those subjects.

Much of the discussions focussed on gender and power issues as they affected the daily lives of the class, and there is clearly more to bring explore around these subjects. PSHE is especially seeking ways in to having conversations around the availability of internet porn, and this could be a way in which is much easier on pupils and teachers than most.

So what’s next?

Kate and Rebecca’s wider Sex and History project will of course continue. This particular portion clearly has further to run, and we’ll be seeking further funding to push forward to some robust, well tested game designs in the context of lessons, and do further testing within classrooms.

I’m keen to continue to explore the idea that games can help develop an understanding of distant and historical cultures. In particular how they can prompt thinking and conversation around the moral issues that making hard decisions in the course of a game raises. This piece of R&D has shown that this is effective, particularly with teenagers, and we have only scratched the surface of its possibilities so far.


Games for sex education, really? Why?

May 19, 2013 in Process, Sophie Sampson


Working out what success would look like was an important early step. I started this project because I believe games can be helpful in producing the kind of learning you know in your gut rather than just learn for a test. Conversation Pieces is a brilliant chance to trial that in one of the most potentially awkward classes in the school curriculum.

So, the list we came up with to test game treatments looks like this. As designers, we will have succeeded if the lesson does the following:

  • Creates an inclusive environment in which both shy and confident students can express their ideas and feelings.
  • Creates a safe space removed from students’ personal world in which they can describe their concerns and experiences with a degree of plausible deniability.
  • Bridges the gap between pedagogical treatment of PSHE and everyday teenage realities.
  • Raises awareness of social issues to do with sex and gender.

Note that we’re using lesson as the unit, rather than game. Designing a game specifically for use inside a classroom carries quite different needs from something digital available on the web, or something kids will access outside school. It carries expectations of form, that classroom roles will be somewhat respected, and also that it will be surrounded by interpretation and discussion.

This is important because school lessons are a place where pupils get help to unpack ideas – they’re learning those skills of interpretation and abstraction that adults take for granted. The value of this activity is contained in teenagers having honest conversations about the things which worry them, in an environment where their preconceptions can be challenged. We’ve all been teenagers, we remember the self-reinforcing nature of peergroups, the way mis-information can be taken as truth. Part of what you learn at that age should be how to question information sources, the importance of disbelief, and looking outside your own experience.

So, there’s a game, that sits inside the structure of a lesson. The purpose of the game, like the purpose of the objects, is to frame the lesson in a context that’s not about anyone in the room. It’s about distant times and places. When game structures are right, when the historical objects are introduced in the right way, the class gets to step outside itself. By trying to put themselves in the place of people in a society with completely different rules and norms, the kids get to look at their own society from the outside, and examine and discuss things which are genuinely important to them.

Ebay for beginners

February 14, 2013 in 3d Printing, Objects, Sophie Sampson

I keep being sniped. Having decided that the very best way of prototyping would be to own an object so we can make direct, side by side comparisons with copies we make, I’ve turned to ebay to buy a Roman phallic amulet for the duration of the project.


Another lost ebay auction

It turns out that in this country at least, they’re pretty common, there are two or three a week on ebay, sold by metal detecting enthusiasts or general dealers in antiquities. Almost no one claims to specialise in such objects. But the bidding on them is fierce, and I keep being outbid by someone, to the point I’m considering abandoning principle and resorting to software. It’s got personal.

But this process has scratched the surface of a whole hidden ecosystem. The amulets are relatively common because apparently Roman soldiers wore them around their necks daily, and lost them as they marched all over this country two thousand years ago. Metal detectors turn them up occasionally, along with WW2 bullets and Victorian costume jewellery and Georgian pennies. One of the glorious things about the internet is that it’s possible to get little windows into other worlds, and the need to identify corroded finds means that metal detector fans are enthusiastic forum users, with a private vocabulary of ‘permissions’ (fields where they have the landowner’s permission to detect), FLOs (government Finds Liaison Officers) and the pleasing litany of model names. It’s a hobby which rewards persistence unevenly – you might find a roman coin or a diamond ring your first time out, or go weeks and months with nothing more than 1ps and tin cans.

But that persistence means that a steady stream of lost and abandoned pieces of metal is being painstakingly taken back from the earth, and cleaned up and shared. But then what do you do with it all? If you have the passion and an understanding wife, you end up with a collection of thousands of pieces of corroded metal, or you send it to ebay to see if you can make back some of what you paid for your gear.

And so the phallic amulets are bought and sold. Often they go to America where prices are higher because they don’t just come out of the ground in the New World like they do on our congested island. And then what? These ebay auctions are run as private sales, so there is no trail that leads to the buyers, and alas, no equivalent forum culture exists among the collectors. Why do they want them? What do they do with them when they’ve bought them? If they’re sharing their passion, it’s more privately.

It’s true that there’s something electrifying about being able to own and handle a good luck charm from two thousand years ago. I’d like to think that people still wear them for luck, or like Henry Wellcome put them into overflowing cabinets of curiosities. Soon, I hope to join their ranks, these owners, and to have our very own piece of history to better understand things like patination and weight distribution. And then perhaps I can stop searching ebay for “phallic”, the snipers will have less competition, and my recommendations can get back to normal.


February 3, 2013 in Process, Sophie Sampson


From a design and production point of view, we’re going to follow a simple process that converts extensive research into a starting point for game design. Right now we’re in that research period, and are following up a few different strands:

  • Interviewing experienced teachers of PSHE to understand the requirements of our potential users
  • Interviewing teachers who have run previous pilots of Kate and Rebecca’s methodology, to get the teachers’ perspective
  • Talking to the facilitators who have run the previous pilots to get a sense of their methods and conclusion
  • Reviewing documentation of the previous pilots, which includes extensive feedback from some of the pupils involved
  • Reviewing the curriculum objectives for PHSE, and anywhere else in the curriculum this might potentially sit
  • Finding out more about the objects that are available to us at Blythe House – both their reproducibility and what is known about them historically
  • Understanding how to get the best out of the 3d scanning and printing process.

The research will point to what we particularly want the games to do, and that will give us a framework for evaluating success and failure alongside ‘is it fun’, though that is still a primary question. There’s a puritan streak in many educational games that seems to have the underlying assumption that educational and fun are different things, which always seems a shame to me. We’ll be looking to find a sweet spot where they overlap and re-inforce each other.

In parallel, I’ll be investigating and trialling the object reproduction process, looking to time it so the first prototypes are available to use in the two day March playtest which is the culmination of this round of R&D. Evaluation of that playtest will give us a strong base to improve our understanding of the problem space and what about our current designs is doing what we want it to.

The Pump Priming scheme is designed to give us space to evaluate feasibility and to do active research – we’re looking to reach a point where we have tested our assumptions and our designs, and we have the knowledge to go on and develop a robust educational resource which has the potential to be useful in a wide range of situations. I’m enormously grateful to the teachers and schools who are giving up some of their time to help us understand the space and test our designs – it will make a huge difference to the end result.



How it all started

February 1, 2013 in Kate FIsher, Rebecca Langlands

Roman lamp, probably 1st or 2nd century AD

Roman lamp, probably 1st or 2nd century AD

This object was discovered by academics Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands in the dark and dusty basement storeroom of the Science Museum as part of their research into sex across human history. It had been purchased by billionaire pharmaceutical giant Sir Henry Wellcome in the 1920s, but had never been displayed in public.

An ancient artifact like this offers us an intriguing glimpse into another world, where explicit images of sexual intercourse adorned everyday objects, like this cheap terracotta household lamp. Perhaps it lit a dinner table, where Roman parents sat down to eat with their children. The difference between our own society and those of ancient cultures when it comes to attitudes to sex and sexual imagery is stark.

It turned out that this was just one of hundreds of objects from across the world relating to sex and sexuality that Wellcome had collected. Together, as a collection, they provide a powerful resource for understanding the variety and complexity of human sexuality. As they began to work with these objects Kate and Rebecca realized that they provided an ideal stimulus for discussions about contemporary questions that affect us all – power relations, gender roles, pornography, censorship and openness, and issues about what and how we learn about sex when we are young.

So they brought the objects to young people, working through schools, charities and museums. They found that the objects provided eye-opening and empowering encounters with the past which expanded people’s horizons, and opened up new ways of talking about sex and important related issues. Bringing objects into the classroom transformed stilted and embarrassing sex education lessons.  Teachers and pupils involved in a pilot project talked about the ease and lack of embarrassment with which they were able to talk together about the things that really matter to them but that are normally hard to discuss. The objects drew them in yet provided an impersonal focus for discussion:


“The objects act as a go-between. They facilitate discussion, they make it okay to talk about sex.”

“The great thing about the project is that it allows institutions to talk about sex – which is otherwise full of problems”


Conversation Pieces – an experiment with games and museum objects

February 1, 2013 in Project description, Sophie Sampson


Objects like these tend to get hidden away. People don’t quite know what to make of them. They’re odd and intriguing and asking why they were made and used can open up whole worlds which don’t get written about in official histories.

The questions they raise and how later people answer them is exactly the area of study of Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands, both historians at Exeter University. They’ve both published widely on the subject, and are asking questions few others are about why and how we explain away evidence from previous cultures that we now deem unacceptable.

They’ve also been running a pilot project in schools that uses these historical erotic objects to frame discussions in sex education classes.  They have found that being confronted with the objects has a powerful effect, particularly when you’re asked to imagine what was normal for the people who made them, commissioned them, and used them. What were they thinking, and why did they want to own this?

It takes people outside themselves and their everyday concerns. In a PSHE lesson this ‘othering’ is a really useful tool – the framing is no longer you, a teenager, talking about what you think and feel to your teacher – you are teasing out something strange and unrelated, which helps you to look at your own culture from outside a little.

PSHE lessons are a place for getting to grips with society, for learning how to thrive in a strange, confusing world, getting to know yourself better. However, it’s not easy to step outside yourself in school, in 45 minute periods, surrounded by the intricate web of social pressure and obligation that teenagers habitually operate under.


Why games?

I met Kate and Rebecca a year ago, under the auspices of the REACT Sandbox scheme, and we got talking about what we are both interested in. And what they said about the effect of their work immediately reminded me of games. Games are made of rules, and that gives you plausible deniability when you are playing. The particular affordances of an activity you can win or lose typically mean people lose their self-consciousness, stop worrying about what people think and start worrying about how to win.

I started to wonder if a ruleset might allow teachers to try new ways of hosting such discussions in their own classrooms – all the previous work had been run by some truly excellent facilitators, outside of normal classroom time.


What else apart from games?

There’s another issue, which is that these ancient objects, in some cases thousands of years old, can’t leave their museum storage. They certainly can’t be taken into schools without a curator to protect them for future generations. Previous activities have made do with photos of the objects, or taken the people doing the workshops directly to the museums, which is costly in both time and money.

Happily, the fine reproduction of fragile objects is easier than it’s ever been, and we’ll be investigating reproduction methods to make objects that can be handled and passed from hand to hand in a classroom, but have something of the emotional charge of the real thing. I know from work at the Natural History Museum that there’s a point at which models become good enough that looking at them produces the same effect as looking at the real thing. We’ll be looking to find that point.


What’s next?

And so now thanks to REACT we have some time and space to explore these issues with 14-18 year olds. I’m going to be collaborating with game designer Simon Katan on a piece of R&D with teachers and facilitators, to design and test some game ideas in schools and prototype objects. More here as it happens.


Right hand image © Wellcome Images