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Dartmouth humanities professor awarded grant to design Internet game that will assist libraries with archival data tagging

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 09/03/09 • Media Contact: Bonnie Barber (603) 646-3661

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Mary Flanagan
Mary Flanagan (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

When you hear the phrase “multi-player Internet game,” it brings to mind gamers talking on headsets to their fellow players as they control the movements of tanks and troops with a joystick. But game designer Mary Flanagan, Dartmouth College’s Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities, is designing a multi-player, Internet-based game with a more scholarly purpose—players will compete to add keywords and descriptive data tags to library and archival databases.

Flanagan, a professor in Dartmouth’s Department of Film and Media Studies, was awarded nearly $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in August to develop a game prototype: “Metadata Games — An Open Source Electronic Game for Archival Data Systems.” The project is a collaboration between the Dartmouth College Library and Flanagan’s Tiltfactor Laboratory, which most recently developed the “Layoff” game in response to the worldwide economic crisis.

“Archive files often aren’t tagged with the kind of diverse, useful information you need as a researcher. And entering new keywords is a time-consuming and expensive job for libraries,” explains Flanagan, whose latest book, Critical Play: Radical Game Design, was recently published by The MIT Press. “So we’ll develop a game prototype that utilizes the idea of crowd-sourcing, in which groups of people will compete against one another to tag data. The game system we produce has to appeal to a player’s sense of fun first. It won’t feel like drudgery. We want to design a casual game mechanic that rewards players and that also offers levels of gratification for time and effort.”

According to Flanagan, players will be asked to match images that appear on the screen with keywords. “For example, if it’s an image from Dartmouth’s Stefansson Collection on Polar Exploration, people might enter ‘dogsled,’ which would help researchers who are looking up specific things like modes of transportation,” Flanagan says. Once multiple players have entered the same keyword, it’s considered a match and the word is added to the database, which she says will help others more effectively use the material.

“While there are other researchers doing this type of work, no one has yet created an open-source, shareable tool set so that nonprofit archives or humanities resources can benefit,” says Flanagan. “Ideally, any institution will be able to use our work, from the Smithsonian, the National Archives to stand-alone repositories and libraries that have their own database systems—for images, film, media archives, and more. But now we have the real work of figuring out who on Dartmouth’s campus will play the game and whether it can be made accessible off-campus.”

Archivist Peter Carini of Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections Library will work with Flanagan on the project, which they hope to complete by next summer. Rauner holds approximately 36,000 linear feet of manuscript and archival materials, and close to one million photographic images. “While all of these materials might benefit from this project, it’s really an experiment to explore the potential of this kind of user supplied and user mediated tagging,” says Carini. “We will try it out first on 100 images from the manuscript collections to see what kinds of results we get.

“If successful this project will bring archival images and possibly other documents into the gaming sphere and thus to a broader audience,” Carini continues. “If the project succeeds in the way we hope, it will also provide a way to gain deeper and richer content related to historical materials. More perspectives will produce broader search terms and make it easier for researchers to find what they are looking for. We have more images and more materials than we can adequately describe in a lifetime. Even if we had the staff and the time, librarians and archivists bring their own, naturally limited perspectives to the description of their collections. Offering these images up to a broader community for interpretation only serves the public and research community.”

Dartmouth College was one of 21 recipients of NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants. The Dartmouth project is jointly funded by NEH and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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