Playing Beowulf: Gaming the Library

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Culture, Communication and Media


This project will develop a game-authoring tool based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, for use by literature students, curators and library visitors. It will enable them to transform the poem into a digital game, interpreting the text into playable characters, landscapes and events. This will allow curators of literary treasures at the British Library to design digital game experiences of the Beowulf manuscript, the only copy of which is held at the British Library. It will also however allow visitors, students and schoolchildren to design their own games, thus producing an example of co-curatorship through a digital environment. The games will be screen-based, playable on computers, tablets and online. However, the use of arduino control boards will allow the game to control external environments and vice versa, allow the game events to connect with dramatic enactment of the poem by participants. This vision of 'gaming the library' will explore how literary treasures can be engaged with in dramatized library spaces connected to game environments.
Beowulf is chosen for three reasons. Firstly, it was one of the first major digitisation projects of the British Library - so this project can extend its history of digital adaptation into forms of game narrative and dramatic action. Secondly, it belongs to a narrative tradition which has strongly influenced the videogame designs of the last twenty years: archaic and mediaeval-themed fantasy games often deriving from Tolkien's stories, themselves drawing on Old English and Scandinavian poems and sagas. For Anglo-Saxon scholars and HE English students, adaptation of Beowulf into a videogame opens up ways of reinterpreting the poem, and connecting it to contemporary popular cultural contexts. Thirdly, Beowulf is a popular text in translation for secondary schools at Key Stage 3. If students are able to explore the poem through drama and videogame design, they also will make connections between this archaic form of narrative and their own gaming cultures. They can also explore in close detail the narrative, and even selections of the original text, such as the ambiguous term 'aglaeca', used both of Beowulf and Grendel's mother, but often differently translated to signify hero in one case and monster in the other. This ambiguity can translate into morphing visual characters, shifting point-of-view, and even spoken dialogue in their game designs.
The project is a collaboration between five partners. The Institute of Education's specialists in English, Drama and Media will lead, organising workshops for PGCE trainee teachers in drama and game design, and overseeing how those trainees replicate these experiences with their secondary school students. These activities will be supported by Anglo-Saxon scholars at UCL, who will also run workshops for undergraduates, and contribute to the scholarly effort to consider what game adaptation can contribute to the interpretation of Beowulf. The British Library will co-design the game-authoring tool, ensuring its suitability for curators and library visitors, and collaborating in the organisation of an international conference on Literature, Drama and Game at the BL's conference centre. They will also run Young Researchers game design workshops for London teenagers. They will also host a Digital Conversation on the use of games in libraries and the GLAM sector. The fourth partner is the University of Sydney, where specialists in educational drama and videogames will replicate the UK school workshops, and contribute to the interpretation of the pedagogic benefits of this activity. Finally, the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park will host two workshops using the tool with young people in an informal coding club. The objective here will be to link this kind of narrative adaptation to programming skills, asking how coding meets narrative: or more generally, how the pedagogies of the book arts meet those of computer science.

Planned Impact

The development of our game-authoring tool under the generic name of Missionmaker has a good track record of impact,
and features as an impact case study submitted by the IOE for the recent REF. Specific routes to impact for the present
proposal are:
1.Cultural Institutions: the rationale for the game-authoring tool as a transformative mode of display for collections, archives
and performances is relevant across the GLAM sector. We will explore routes to future collaborations throughout our network of partners in DARE (Digital Arts Research Education), the research centre from which the project will be led: museums, libraries, galleries, theatres. An important pathway to impact will be the BL's online Discovering Literature programme, into which the project will feed as it scopes its content for Old and Middle English in 2016/7.
2. Education: we will seek partnerships in education and to disseminate the outcomes of the project, through
subject associations (especially for English, Drama, Media and ICT); through the BL's Education department; and through
teacher education networks. We will also pursue collaborations in HE, through game design courses, teacher education
programmes, and contacts in English departments. The BL's game design competition, part of the project, will stimulate
interest in HE game design programmes based on literature. We will explore dissemination fo approaches and resources to schools through the English and Media Centre, an independent publisher in London.
3. Industry will benefit: we will make the case for game adaptations of classic literature, through partners in game design
companies, SMEs, and the trade associations, UKIE, IGDA and TIGA. This builds on existing networks and knowledge exchange
events at the London Knowledge Lab, such as the What The Research Says series of seminars for industry,
educators and researchers.
4. London: members of the project team belong to the Creativeworks London KE hub, and will disseminate the outcomes
through its networks, building on earlier work such as the LKL Coding & Creativity summit last year, supported by the hub.
We will pursue opportunities for collaboration between research and industry, developing existing proposals and projects. We will also explore routes to future work with other partners such as Ministry of Stories in Hoxton, Hackney Pirates, and London Connected Learning in Lambeth, who have all developed programmes including game-based learning, coding and hackathon workshops.
5. UK policy-makers will benefit. We will disseminate the outcomes to the DCMS, BIS and the DfE, with the support of
policy advisers such as Professor Diana Laurillard, former e-learning head at the DfE, and Ian Livingstone, adviser to the
government on computing in schools.
6. Europe: PI Burn is the UK delegate to the EC's Media Literacy expert group, advising the Parliament and Commission.
We will present the project, seeking future collaboration among member states. Burn presented the Digitrans pilot on which this proposal builds at the recent Media Literacy Summit in Prague.
7. International: the international research community will benefit, especially in research in literacy, computing, and media.
The partnership with Sydney will kickstart networks for future research; and existing partners in Cape Town, New
Zealand, the US, and the Nordic countries will also offer routes to potential collaboration.
8. Digital Transformations: the theme will benefit from our project, which brings extensive experience of research in games,
education and the media arts. We have been enthusiastic supporters of the theme from its inception, having conducted a
successful pilot project, attended events, exhibited at the Digitrans Moot, and been shortlisted for the Large Projects call.
We expect to both contribute to and benefit from the knowledge-sharing of the theme, and what we expect to be its substantial impact on digital scholarship in the UK.
Description Creating digital games based on a canonical literary texts enabled students at different levels of education (from primary school to HE) to interpret the text in original and creative ways.
Exploitation Route The software tool we produced can be used by schools, libraries and universities to produce similar outcomes. The software industry can explore similar game-authoring solutions to game-based study of literature. The software tool has been further updated since the end of the project, with the aim of a commercial release in the autumn of 2017.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The game-authoring tool developed by the project has been used by the British Library, by Game City, Nottingham, and by a group of schools in London. The tool has since been further developed, and used in other context. These include: an MA module at UCL; a game-authoring workshop in Aarhus, Denmark, with primary school children; and a Viking game-making competition as part of UK Code week in October 2017. The tool has now been further developed to commercial release in January 2018.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description Software development: game-authoring tool "Missionmaker Beowulf" 
Organisation The British Library
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Software development.
Collaborator Contribution Expert consultative advice.
Impact Software - game-authoring tool for schools - Missionmaker Beowulf.
Start Year 2015
Title Beowulf Missionmaker 
Description A game-authoring tool for users to make their own digital games based on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, developed in Unity. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact The beta version of the software is being used by a group of schools in London. 
Description Viking game workshop, Denmark 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This was a workshop using the game-authoring software developed in the Playing Beowulf project to make Viking games with primary school children in Aarhus, Denmark. It was led by a postgraduate student attached to the project, Bruno de Paula, and by Professor Andrew Burn, PI.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017