Rob MacDougall


Hi! I am an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario, where I teach United States history, the history of technology, and digital history methods. I blog (sporadically) at Play the Past and Old is the New New, and am on the Twitter as @robotnik. A life-long gamer, I am interested in the history of gaming and in using games and play to encourage more playful historical thinking. In 2011, I led a successful beta test of Tecumseh Lies Here, an ARG for history and heritage education; we are working towards a much larger public launch for the bicentennial of the War of 1812. My own play is largely non-digital of late–tabletop RPGs with my gamer buddies and make-believe with his kids–but I look forward to seeing how good computer games will have gotten by the time I get tenure.

  • Three More Half-Baked Ideas


    Hi campers! I just proposed a session about ARG design but I have a few more ideas for sessions, or at least stuff I’d like to talk about, so I’ll copy our excellent organizer Amanda Visconti and toss out a few more ideas, even less baked than the usual THATCamp session proposal:

    Learning from the Tabletop
    My own play has been mostly non-digital lately: board games, tabletop RPGs, make-believe with my kids. When I applied for THATCamp Games, I was a bit worried I’d be the only one in the room not au fait with Skyrim or Deus Ex 3. Looking at the session proposals so far, I think I needn’t have worried – there seems to be a healthy interest in “analog” games, tabletop games, what have you. So I don’t know if this needs to be a discrete session, but I’m always happy to talk about tabletop games (board games, war games, RPGs), their history, their place in the classroom, their relationship to digital games (I’ve always loved Matthew Kirschenbaum’s description of war games as “paper computers”). Over the last few years, some indie tabletop RPGs–it seems funny to take a niche as tiny and marginalized as tabletop RPGs and calve off an even tinier, more marginalized section of it as “indie,” but there you are–have done some interesting things with collaborative narrative construction. But that’s just one example. There are many things, I think, that digital games, gamers, and educators can learn from cardboard and paper, spinners and dice.

    Toys, Not Games
    Really, I should say, “Toys, Not Just Games.” Because I love games. But do we limit ourselves if we assume that play = games, in other words structured, rule-driven, goal-oriented activities? What can we learn from, how can we adapt and make use of, other forms of play? What can we learn from the action figure playset, or arguments about “who would win?“, or the “barely games” we play in our heads on car trips, at bus stops, standing in lines? Along with humanities games, can we imagine humanities toys?

    Shall We Play A Game?
    It would be a shame to hold a THATCamp Games and not actually play any games! My daydreams of cooking up some elaborate and mysterious ARG that would run around and through and under the whole THATCamp like a secret underconference have, amazingly, not come to fruition (of course, that’s just what I would say if I really was running a mysterious secret ARG), but I still think a session or two of actual game play would be fun and worthwhile. I think I will bring some Parsely Games – Parsely Games are a loving recreation of the text adventure games of the 1970s and 80s, but with a human being playing the role of the computer. Mafia / Werewolf is also a good game for conferences and gatherings like this. I hope other people will bring or suggest a few games that would work well in a conference setting.

  • Session Proposal: Place-based Gaming and Learning / ARG Challenges?


    I almost called this “taking the aaargh out of ARGs,” but thankfully thought better of it.

    There have been a couple of great ARG-related session proposals already, which I will certainly attend, and and this one could be folded in with any of those, but Ido  think ARGs are interesting enough to sustain more than one discussion.

    There is real (and justifiable) interest about the idea of ARGs or pervasive games for education. But there are real challenges with the genre too. Last fall, I led the beta test of an ARG for history education called Tecumseh Lies Here. (That site is currently just a placeholder as we redesign for our bigger public launch, but I’ll link to some blog posts about the game below.) We were, and remain, very excited about running a game that brought students or players into a collaborative, creative encounter with the past; a game that spilled out of the classroom and the online world into libraries, museums, and heritage sites; a game where the act of playing was actual historical research.

    One of the most exciting discoveries that came out of the beta test was the power and appeal of place-based gaming and learning. We called this the Washington Slept Here phenomenon: a historical event or fact is somehow much more compelling when you are standing in the exact place it happened than when you read about it in a book. GPS, mobile devices, and augmented-reality technology make possible all sorts of exciting forms of place-based learning.

    But our beta test confronted us with real challenges, both professional questions about the boundaries between fact and fiction and also very practical questions about the scalability of the genre. Our test was a success in that we gave about a dozen active players an extremely intense, enjoyable, and educational experience. But it was also a ton of work, both in the long development stage and especially in the active runtime. So the questions we’re struggling with right now are: Can this model be scaled up? How can we reproduce that experiment for an audience 10 or 100 times the size? If not, does it make any sense for money- and time-strapped educators?

    I’d love to talk about these and related issues with anyone else involved (or just interested) in ARG design. Obviously my own ulterior motive is to get some ideas about how to scale up Tecumseh Lies Here for its public launch. But I think the conversation could be useful and interesting for many others.

    (Non-required reading: Here are some blog posts where I discuss the genesis of our own ARG project, and a paper (PDF, with spoilers redacted) about the challenges we’ve come across to date. Email / DM / ask me in person if you’d like a non-redacted copy of the paper.) (I know, “no papers, no presentations”–you don’t have to read it!)