Taking library collections Off The Map

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Stella Wisdom explains how technology and digital methods can enable innovative interpretations of library collections

The ‘Off the Map’ competition is an unusual collaboration between the British Library and GameCity; a videogame culture festival, which takes place annually in the UK city of Nottingham. The competition challenges higher education students based in the UK to create videogames, explorable virtual environments and interactive fiction inspired by the British Library’s digital collections.

The Off the Map competition is one of the library’s experimental projects investigating how the institution can collaborate with digital creative practitioners.

Each year a different Off the Map competition topic and three sub-themes are decided, usually based on an upcoming exhibition, to be held at the Library. Curators select collection items to be digitised and these are provided to the participating students in the form of downloadable ‘asset packs’. The students then create an interactive digital experience relating to the competition themes and “assets”.

The first Off the Map competition took place in 2013 with these three sub-themes: Stonehenge, including a proposed plan to rebuild the fallen stones; the pyramids at Giza; and 17th Century London, including a survey map made months after the Great Fire of 1666. The 2013 winning team was called Pudding Lane Productions; these were six second-year undergraduate students from De Montfort University, Leicester, and they created a very detailed and atmospheric interpretation of 17th Century London1.

In addition to studying the digital British Library resources provided, they arranged a fieldwork outing to York, to examine, photograph and sketch the architecture of the buildings; enabling them to model authentic looking buildings for their virtual explorable environment. The fly-through of their work, which you can see on Youtube at http://youtu.be/SPY-hr-8-M0 is breathtaking.

The 2014 Off the Map competition accompanied the British Library’s exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. The three themes for entrants to base their videogames on were: author William Beckford’s home Fonthill Abbey (which no longer exists), Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death and the seaside town of Whitby, which features in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.

The 2014 winning entry Nix was created by three computer gaming students from the University of South Wales, and it invited players to reconstruct Fonthill Abbey by collecting glowing orbs, which are hiding from you in a spooky underwater world. Their game used Oculus Rift, a revolutionary virtual reality headset for 3D gaming, to enable the player to virtually build, and then explore the Abbey. You can see a fly-through of their game at http://youtu.be/8ESieZO4VHw.

Tim Pye, curator of Terror and Wonder and a member of the 2014 Off the Map jury, said: ‘The original architectural model of Fonthill Abbey is currently on display in Terror and Wonder. What is so impressive about the Nix game is the way in which it takes the stunning architecture of the Abbey, combines it with elements from its troubled history and infuses it all with a very ghostly air. The game succeeds in transforming William Beckford’s stupendously Gothic building into a magical, mysterious place reminiscent of the best Gothic novels.’2

The third and most recent competition, Alice’s Adventures Off the Map,’ has accompanied the British Library’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition (20 November to 2015 to 17 April 2016) which celebrates 150 years of the publication. The 2015 winning Off the Map entry The Wondering Lands of Alice has been created by Off Our Rockers, a team of six students from De Montfort University in Leicester. The player controls Alice through a whimsical journey in a surreal underground setting where there are a number of challenges to solve, including breaking a pile of logs and jumping on lily pads to cross a pond.

Tom Scutt, a game designer at Mudlark and one of this year’s Off the Map jury members, said this about the Off Our Rockers entry: ‘This game uses the British Library resources to great effect. Its levels, while clearly influenced by the handmade aesthetic of Little Big Planet, have a dream-like style all of their own, and are littered with wonderful touches like the faint manuscript texture visible in the light rays. The game avoids the usual Alice in Wonderland clichés, and instead has a main character true to the real-life Alice.’3

Furthermore, for the first time in the Off the Map competition’s history; The Wondering Lands of Alice game and two runner-up entries; Alice Gardens and A Curious Feeling, have been made available for visitors to play in the British Library’s exhibition gallery as part of the Alice in Wonderland exhibition.

If you are working with videogame design or creative writing students in UK universities, please do encourage them to consider entering the 2016 Off the Map competition (http://gamecity.org/projects/off-the-map/), which is associated with the British Library’s Shakespeare exhibition (15 April 2016 to 6 September 2016).  The Shakespeare Off the Map themes are The Tempest, plus castles and forests that have been used as settings in Shakespeare’s plays. We are hoping for some high quality entries and winners will be announced at the GameCity11 festival in October 2016.

Stella Wisdom is a Digital Curator at the British Library, where her role explores and promotes new methods of research using both born digital content and digitised collections.


1 Wisdom, S. (2013) Off The Map Winners Announced. British Library Digital Scholarship blog. Accessed 29 October 2015 http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digital-scholarship/2013/10/off-the-...

2 Wisdom, S. (2014) Off the Map Competition Winners Announced at GameCity9 Festival. British Library Digital Scholarship blog. Accessed 29 October 2015 http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digital-scholarship/2014/10/2014-off...

3 Wisdom, S. (2015) 2015 Off the Map Competition Winners Announced at GameCity10 Festival. British Library Digital Scholarship blog. Accessed 09 November 2015 http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digital-scholarship/2015/10/2015-off...