The Hieroglyph Game

Once I had been in the community for a while I began to understand that the way to engage people in learning activities was to turn them into a game. The first game I designed was an Egyptian Hieroglyphics learning game. It consisted of an Egyptian hieroglyphic to English character transliteration key, an obelisk with hieroglyphic writing on it and many individual cubes, each with a single hieroglyph on them. The cubes could be moved around and lined up to form words. The idea of the game was that one could use the transliteration key to decode the writing on the obelisk and use the blocks to write one’s own name with reference to the key. I used the game successfully on many occasions in classes for the priests or in individual lessons with non priestly members of the sim.

However I soon noticed that most people, other than priests, were only interested in it as a guided activity. They wanted me to be there to give them the lesson. In fact they were often quite insistent that I should be there at a given time to provide them an individual lesson. Some were quite rude when I wasn’t able to be there on demand. There was a pervasive presumption that such things should be provided gratis. I posit that this is because although Second Life is not a game, it looks like a game. Second Life is similar to games in its interface, environment and method of access. But as a user created world it does not have the things that people take for granted in a game. The most basic of these is interactive experiences. When entering a game world the user is directed along a series of interactive experiences, even before the game starts. The scenario for the game will be explained in some way, utilising methods as varied as text displayed on the screen to full blown cinematics. Then one might be directed though a character selection and customisation process, usually choosing from a set of provided options e.g. The Horde or Alliance factions in World of Warcraft. Then one will be taken to the game play area and given a usually quite specific instruction, as in World of Warcraft where one undertakes a series of quests. In Second Life some of these features are present, for instance there is an avatar customisation process and an orientation to the world, which are both processes which the resident is led through. These processes however are not specific to a particular role play community. There is no way to select an Egyptian avatar for example. One must pick a more general avatar and then customise it to suit the particular role play community one joins. These processes are so similar to game worlds’ processes that they reinforce the expectation that this kind of directed action is the norm. When one arrives in a role play community in the world all this is absent. One must create one’s own character from scratch. One must then seek out the appropriate attire for it, often outside of the role play community, though some sims have markets. There may be options to choose from, as in Ptolemaic Egypt where residents could choose to be a priest or a soldier or a noble, but these options are not set out in any formulated way. Rather they are gathered from interaction with other members of the community. As far as entering the role play when one arrives in such a community, one must be completely self directed. The scenarios of the role play are developed on the fly as a result of the interactions between the residents, not scripted in advance and laid out before one in a logical series. It is this dynamic nature that is the appeal of these communities for many. It is as if anything is possible. One doesn’t have to grind away at a series of boring low level quests in order to make progress. There is no such thing as leveling up here. One is free to direct the action in myriad ways, as long as one stays within the boundaries of the general scenario, in this case, of ancient Egypt.

Few people in the community were capable of building and because I quickly picked up these skills I was valued as a member of the community. Other authors have noted this phenomenon1 2. I made many objects and sold them, both bespoke and generic, and people gladly paid for them. But dollar value resided only in objects not services. One might think that the scarcity of interactive experiences in Second Life would command payment. If there are few interactive experiences on offer surely they would be more sought after and this would result in them commanding a price. However the perception that experiences should be provided as an integral part of the world seems to have trumped this law of supply and demand. After I had built the hieroglyph game people continually asked me to build more interactive activities, as they saw them as things that would attract users to the community. They thought I should build them and then I should be available on demand to provide the experience for the user, even though I had designed the objects to be able to be used without supervision, because they saw the guided experience as more desirable. This kind of role is filled by non player characters in many games, and these surely don’t mind standing in the same place and doing the same activity over and over again on demand. I however, was not so inclined.

The hieroglyph game served multiple purposes. Not only was it useful to teach about the hieroglyphs, but the same lesson was able to incorporate historical information relating to the period the sims were set in. In addition to this, information about how to use the Second Life client was conveyed. This produces a rather dense lesson. The Second Life client requires a notoriously high learning curve in order to master and is difficult to use3 and as a result many residents were overwhelmed by this and often either did not ever learn to use all the features or took a very long time to do so. This meant that every activity had a component of explaining how to do things with the software client to at least one member of the group. Having to do this often had a damaging effect on the immersion into the time period that we all sought. Consequently those who had mastered the interface would prefer to participate in activities where there were no noobs present, which obviously had an impact on recruiting new members to the community. We used the hieroglyph game as a recruitment tool for the priesthood. This enabled us to pass basic information about the scenario of the sim on to prospective members, as well as provide them an engaging experience that might make them interested enough to join the priesthood.

Chat Excerpt – The Hieroglyph Game

Thutmose: come here and we shall start the lesson
Thutmose: As you know, the god Thoth taught writing to us
Thutmose: as an echo of the sound which with which the universe was created
Thutmose: and so that we can store the sacred teachings
Thutmose: and make the magic which will allow us to enter the D'uat after death and spend eternity with the gods
Thutmose: On this obelisk you can see the sacred letters
Thutmose: on three sides there are hieroglyphs
Thutmose: Do you know what a cartouche is?
Pepi: yes
Pepi: small tablet, seal something like that
Pepi: a couple of characters
Thutmose: on the fourth side of the obelisk you will see a cartouche
Thutmose: the cartouche is used to enclose some glyphs to indicate a name
Thutmose: it is used for names of gods and pharaohs
Thutmose: this cartouche contains a name
Thutmose: using the key on the other three sides see if you can decode the name
Pepi: okay
Pepi: ptolemais
Thutmose: You have done well
Pepi: thank you
Thutmose: as you know this is the name of our pharaoh
Thutmose: can you tell me why his name is Ptolemais on this obelisk and not ptolemy
Pepi: I do now
Thutmose: :)
Pepi: I'm not sure on that one
Thutmose: what is the name of the city of the pharaoh, just over the river
Pepi: alexandria
Thutmose: good
Thutmose: and why does an Egyptian city have this name?
Pepi: probably something to do with the gods but I'm not sure on that one either
Thutmose: you know who Alexandria is named after?
Pepi: don't remember reading about that one
Pepi: Alexander the great
Thutmose: there is no shame in not knowing
Thutmose: there is only shame in not admitting one does not know
Thutmose: for if one never admits to not knowing then how can the odors of learning be opened to one
Thutmose: well done
Thutmose: and was Alexander Egyptian?
Pepi: roman or Greek I believe
Thutmose: he was the son of Phillip of Macedon
Thutmose: and he conquered Egypt
Thutmose: and was declared a god by the oracle
Thutmose: but Alexander did not rule long
Thutmose: he died young
Thutmose: and his generals split his empire among them
Thutmose: and the greatest of those generals,
Thutmose: and possibly Alexander's half brother
Thutmose: is Ptolemy
Thutmose: who is now Horus manifest as our pharaoh
Pepi: ohhhhh
Pepi: okay, understand now
Pepi: Horus, son of Isis and Osiris
Thutmose: yes, who the pharaoh is the living image of
Pepi: right
Thutmose: so the name is Greek, because the pharaoh is Greek
Thutmose: you will hear much talk among some of the priests about being ruled by a Greek pharaoh
Thutmose: some do not like it
Thutmose: and think only a blood son of Egypt should sit on the throne
Pepi: I will reserve my opinion until I know more but tend to lean the same way
Thutmose: Some say that the priests are the true rulers of egypt
Pepi: as the keepers of the word, the language and the secrets, possibly true
Thutmose: you see well
Thutmose: but to say this is treason
Thutmose: so you would be well advised to not say such things to or near the pharoah
Pepi: I understand
Pepi: would like to keep my head
Thutmose: you are wise aspirant
Pepi: thank you
Pepi: and you are a great teacher
Thutmose: From this short lesson I hope you can see how knowledge is power
Pepi: yes, I can see that
Thutmose: ok now we shall go to the second part of the lesson
Pepi: as we interpret the word of the gods, there is much power in our hands
Thutmose: yes
Thutmose: now remembering that the universe was created with a sound
Thutmose: I will ask you now to construct your name from the blocks you see around
Thutmose: remember this is a holy task
Thutmose: it is an act of creation
Thutmose: for if you know the name of a thing you have power over it
Pepi: yes
Pepi: I need another N but don't see one
Pepi: am I missing it
Pepi: its the saw tooth one
Pepi: found it
Thutmose: right behind you
Thutmose: move the ones you are not using away
Pepi: I believe that is correct
Thutmose: ok let me have a look
Thutmose: ok I will show you how to line them all up exactly.
Thutmose: ok select the third block and go edit
Thutmose: then go to the tools menu
Thutmose: and select snap object to xy grid
Thutmose: this will line it up exactly with tthe others
Pepi: where is the tools menu
Thutmose: once you are in edit mode it appears at the top near the help meu
Pepi: I have focus, move, edit, create and land
Pepi: at the top
Thutmose: no right at the top of the sl windows. there is file, edit, view, world etc
Pepi: duh, sorry
Thutmose: no worries
Pepi: okay, hit it
Pepi: didn't seem to do anything, did I miss something
Thutmose: it did
Pepi: okay it worked
Thutmose: make your view so you can see more than one side of the block
Thutmose: do you know how to do that?
Pepi: I changed my camera view to look downwards
Pepi: at an angle
Thutmose: do you know about alt zoom?
Pepi: I think we did that the other day
Thutmose: cool
Thutmose: try control alt zoom
Pepi: Z?
Pepi: which is zoom
Thutmose: move the mouse
Pepi: ok
Thutmose: change the lighting back to midday. the sunset will mess with your view
Pepi: oh thats good, how do you change the lighting, didn't know you could do that
Thutmose: wolrd/environment settings
Pepi: wow
Pepi: didn't know you could change that
Pepi: I'm hitting the snap object but they don't seem to be moving
Thutmose: they are moving for me
Pepi: I don't have tools on my bar anymore
Thutmose: it only appears when you are in edit mode
Pepi: edit, tools, snap, what am I missing
Thutmose: sorry?
Thutmose: you have to right click the object and then select edit
Thutmose: and then tools will appear on the top menu
Thutmose: it used to be there all the time but they just changed it so it only appears in edit mode
Pepi: I'm hitting edit, then tools, then snap, yep that's what I'm doing, right click, edit, tools, snap but no move
Thutmose: is the snap to grid option, which is right above the snap to xy, selected?
Thutmose: it must have an x next to it
Pepi: okay have checked it, I'll try again
Thutmose: there is another way to do it.
Pepi: okay
Thutmose: right click a block and then look at the object tag
Pepi: ok
Thutmose: now see there is a position section?
Pepi: yes
Thutmose: with x, y and z labels
Pepi: right
Thutmose: click on the block next to the one you are on now
Thutmose: and you will see that the y number is 49.500
Thutmose: yes?
Pepi: right
Thutmose: if you make those numbers the same the blocks will line up
Pepi: yes
Thutmose: understand
Pepi: okay
Thutmose: cool
Thutmose: I love quick learners
Pepi: but if you make the x the same they are top of each other or trying to occupy the same space
Thutmose: not if you only change the x value
Thutmose: if you make all the x values 49.500 they will all align on the x axis
Thutmose: align
Thutmose: also the z numbers should all be the same
Thutmose: only the y numbers will differ
Thutmose: see?
Pepi: I see
Pepi: but when I change the x to the same they jump on top of each other
Thutmose: let me see
Thutmose: they aren't actually jumping
Thutmose: but I do see the viewer is doing strange things to the edges
Thutmose: sometimes the viewer has bad days...
Thutmose: anyway
Thutmose: it is not necessary to line them up
Thutmose: it is just useful practice of aligning objects
Pepi: I will work with the snap function
Pepi: yes it was
Thutmose: come over here aspirant
Thutmose: You have passed this test and may now be admitted to the priest hood

In this example of one such lesson it is interesting to note that the conversation begins with us both in character, using the flavour of language and register used for that character, and speaking about things ancient Egyptians would have. However when we start to talk about how to build things in the world we both swap out of our characters and begin to use a more modern idiom. Strictly speaking, according to the rules of the sim, this conversation should have remained in character at all times as it was undertaken in local chat. But how does one talk about the building tools for Second Life as an ancient Egyptian?

One of the great difficulties of trying to help someone in Second Life is the inability to see what the other is looking at4. This lack makes the process like giving someone tech support over the phone. In the above dialogue I try to help the student to learn how to line up his blocks. I explain about to him how to use the ‘snap object to grid’ setting. He tries several times to make it work but he doesn’t know if he is looking at the right place to set the option. I have to go through a lengthy process to try to establish where he is looking. When this fails I explain a second way to achieve the same end which he is able to understand and do more quickly. Perhaps my willingness to go through this process is the reason I soon gained a reputation for being fantastically patient with people and for spending a lot of time helping them.

I found that for me there was an inverse relationship between how long I had been in the world and how much time I was willing to spend helping noobs. When I first entered the world many people were exceptionally helpful. When I joined the priesthood many of the priests spent a lot of time helping me. I felt I had a responsibility to pass this help along, and for a long time I did so. I answered every question from every noob who asked me. I gave a great many hieroglyph game lessons. I built objects for free for other residents of the sim. I fitted out the temple and spent a lot of time showing new residents around the sims and helping them to learn how to role play. I gave people lessons in how to build things that often went for over an hour. But slowly this began to change. One particular incident comes to mind. A new resident wanted to know how to make pots. At the onset I asked that in return for my showing her how to make pots she should make an offering of a pot each week at the temple. She agreed. I spent two hours showing her how to make pots. I made a demonstration pot and then walked her through the process, providing her with all the textures and sculpties she needed to do so. I gave her a full permissions copy of the demo pot so she would be able to refer to it in future and learn from it. She was a slow learner and made some rather distorted pots with textures that didn’t line up. But she was happy with them. She however never made a pot offering to the temple. I reminded her about it a couple of times, but she never did it. She did however put the demonstration pot I had made for her up for sale on the Second Life marketplace, with restrictive permissions that would have prevented others from learning how to make pots by looking at it. This kind of experience, repeated many times, contributed to the decline in my interest in helping noobs. In general though the members of the community spent a great deal of time helping new people and trying to get them up to a level of skill where they could participate in the community activities. Because of the large number of people and the wide range of times zones these people came from the sim owner had to appoint others to do some of the sim administration tasks. These tasks included dealing with visitors who broke the sim rules, removing prim litter from the sim, and dealing with any technical difficulties the sim might experience. Some people only acted as admins and never, or very rarely, participated in the role play.

Soon after I had finished building the hieroglyph game the Pharaoh came to visit the priests to see how the refit of the temple was coming along. This provided an opportunity to use role play to convey information about the refit of the temple, including the game.

Chat Excerpt – The Pharaoh Visits The Temple

Khenut: His Majesty, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Lord of the Two Lands,: Son of Re: Ptolemy Suter I, the appearance of appearances, given life, forever and ever.
Nebty-nub whispers to Khenut. "This is the new classroom"
Udjebten: Em hotep brothers and sisters! *smiles*
Khenut: Our god approaches
Amon bows
Paiankh bows
Horemheb: raises his hand to quiet the beast he rides
Nebwenet brings her hands together in front of her chest and bows deeply at the waist
Horemheb: looks around with a keen eye, inspecting all before him
Thutmose: mighty one allow me to address you
Horemheb: "We may hear your words"
seatpilot Ryder observes the goings on outside this place, listens and watches with care
Thutmose: You see around you in this room the humble beginnings of our new efforts to educate the priesthood that they may serve the gods, your brothers, better
Thutmose: the scribes do not know the words of the gods and we plan to instruct them here
Thutmose: also to inform them of the history of your divine forebears
Thutmose: that they might know the full glory of Egypt's mighty past
Horemheb: listens and waits
Thutmose: it is sad but true that there are not many priests in the temples
IM: Nebty-nub: Tell him about your class as well
Thutmose: we hope to rectify this by scheduling classes for them to attend regularly
Thutmose: if I might humbly show you one object we have made to teach the words of the gods?
Horemheb: "We have gifted all Egypt, all our children, all the world known to us, the wealth of knowledge within our Great Library"
Amon listens with interest
Horemheb: "Our Priests, as all who serve us, will find the vast repository of knowledge of great use to their instructions"
Thutmose: this obelisk will help the priests, and all who care to learn how to write the words of the gods
Udjebten observes the obelisk for the first time
Horemheb: "While we teach of all of the Gods, do not mistake the need to teach the words of Maat, for she holds all truths"
Horemheb: "All of our children are the same to us as our father sees us all"
Horemheb: "Continue with your learnings Priests." and with that he simply walks off

You can notice in this excerpt that one of the other priests present sent me a message via IM to ask me to tell the Pharaoh something via role play.

  1. Malaby, T. M., (2009), Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life, Cornell University Press, New York, pp. 34-41. ↩︎
  2. Boellstorff, T., (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp. 205-211. ↩︎
  3. Sanchez, J., (2009), “Barriers to Student Learning in Second Life”, Library Technology Reports, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 29-34. ↩︎
  4. Hindmarsh, J., Fraser, M., Heath, C., Benford, S., Greenhalgh, C., (1998), “Fragmented Interaction: Establishing Mutual Orientation in Virtual Environments”, Proceedings of the 1998 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, pp. 217-226. ↩︎

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