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The Great Steampunk Game Jam

Julie Halls and Simon Demissie

The National Archives has a huge collection of design records – over three million designs in total – covering a variety of subjects, from clothing to technical inventions. The designs were submitted to the Designs Registry, originally at Somerset House in London as part of the process of applying for copyright. The person or company wanting to copyright their design had to submit two identical drawings, photographs or samples of their design. One copy would be pasted into an enormous leather-bound volume and retained by the Registry, and the other would be kept by the copyright holder. These volumes of designs eventually came to The National Archives – the official archive of the UK Government – for safekeeping because the Designs Registry was part of the Board of Trade, a government department.

The most visually engaging designs are those submitted in the Victorian period and these records have provided excellent opportunities for engagement with audiences perhaps unfamiliar with archives. Usually this has taken the form of presentations and publications but recent efforts to become involved in gaming elsewhere in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector provided inspiration for a potential new way of interpreting this material.

Several institutions within the GLAM sector have attempted to use gaming to represent their collections, with the British Library in particular leading the way through their annual Off The Map competitions. They have developed themes to allow student games developers to create vivid and exciting interpretations of their collections, with particularly visually arresting games coming from their themes on The Gothic Imagination32 and Alice and Wonderland.33 Other institutions have made memorable games, such as the V&A’s Strawberry Thief.34

The visual nature of the Victorian designs made them ideal for a potential gaming activity. The illustrations are often very detailed, and the written descriptions that accompany them are interesting in their own right. The Victorian period was one of amazing inventiveness, and many of those new technologies changed the way we live. However, for every great idea there were many more that sank without a trace. In many ways the failed inventions are even more interesting than the major inventions as they shed light on the interests and preoccupations of people during that period: the small, everyday annoyances they had to deal with; problems they wanted to solve; or ways of doing things better. Sometimes these were rather misguided.

Via Jo Pugh, collaborative PhD student at the University of York and The National Archives, we developed ties with the Department of Theatre, Film and Television and the Intelligent Games and Game Intelligence (IGGI) PhD programme at York. Through a combination of the availability of visually striking records, historical specialisms and expertise, and personal interest we worked towards hosting The Great Steampunk Game Jam, as part of the York Festival of Ideas over the weekend of 18th-19th June 2016. Participants from the University and the local community were invited to attend.

We chose three main themes – Invention, Spectacle, and Unrest – in order to inspire the participants and to structure their thinking, and selected relevant records. Each had sub-themes which allowed us to identify particular stories (e.g. the Chartist movement during the 1840s, or extravagant exhibitions from the period), with the Invention category similarly split. ‘Out and about’ highlighted designs for forms of transport, including the ‘flying or aerial machine adapted for the Arctic regions’, bicycles, and carriages; listed under ‘Dress to impress’ was Victorian clothing, such as the ‘Bona Fide Ventilating hat’, and the ‘Volunteer reversible trowsers’; and ‘Danger’ highlighted the Victorians’ preoccupation with health and safety, and included such gems as the ‘Anti-garroting cravat’ – consisting of a collar of lethal-looking spikes cunningly concealed by a black cravat – and an artificial leech.

We were available over the course of the weekend, as ideas were generated and initial designs tested, to assist further with interpretation of the records. Following an initial discussion the teams set about developing their ideas and worked late into the night and throughout Sunday to complete their creations.

Three judges – Professor Helen Petrie and Alenna Denisova (both of the University of York) and Victoria Hoyle (City Archivist, City of York Archives) – were asked to decide on the top three entries based on the technicality and playability of the games, and the interpretation of the archival material. Chris Power, also of the University of York and Able Gamers35, judged a ‘most accessible’ prize, based on guidance provided on the wonderful Includification website.36

All of the games submitted are available on The Great Steampunk Game Jam page on Itchio.37 The most accessible award was presented to Hatastic38, a game which alongside engaging game play and storytelling, carefully considered accessibility, through hints to assist players, ‘cheats’ so that people could re-enter the game, and colour contrasts for easier reading.

Third place was awarded to A Victorian Trip[39](#fn39, which picked up on all three main themes and created an immersive experience through a combination of attractive visuals and experimental sound and music. Strong accessibility also helped the game’s strong showing.

Second place went to Hatastic, which used the concepts of social disorder to create a game in which the player travels around Edwardian York, following clues under the pretence of attempting to steal Herbert Asquith’s top hat. The possibility of being captured by an under-cover policeman added some necessary peril.

The winning entry was The Great Airship Rescue40, which pulled together two themes, as an aircraft created to locate Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition had been sabotaged by protestors.41 The player is tasked with fixing various bits of ailing machinery to keep the aircraft aloft and the game, which included elements drawn from archival material, was well-designed, playable, and fun.

The winning team worked together well over the weekend and were almost certainly helped by a fantastic presentation, led by a character in full Steampunk gear of long leather jacket and an impressively tall top hat. A generous £300 prize – provided by the Friends of The National Archives – was presented to the winning team.42

Special mentions should also go to Eleanor’s Notebook43, a beautifully illustrated game which saw the daughter of Sir John Franklin use a fantastical aircraft to try and locate her lost father; and to Aaron, the designer of The Great Leap44, who at the age of just 14 demonstrated a high level of skill and application over the course of the weekend.

We learnt several lessons from the weekend. In particular, we could perhaps have challenged some of the ideas earlier in their formulation, provided a greater explanation of what we would expect to be ‘acceptable’ themes, and reminded participants that a vague interpretation of the period would not necessarily be enough. Also, we could have been more proactive in structuring initial team discussions. However, overall it was a wonderful opportunity for us to see archival material interpreted in this way, and for such talent and skill to be demonstrated by the participants.

The visual nature of the designs proved to be very popular with the participants (the ventilating top hat appearing in several games) and the exercise proved to be incredibly valuable in helping us to understand how we can engage people with archival material in new ways. Building on our experiences will hopefully allow us to develop other similar events, for which we can draw on other visual collections for innovative interpretation.

Image: BT 45/10 (1823) – Ventilating Hat – Top hats were heavy and heads could get quite hot – a combination of perspiration and hair oil could lead to an unpleasant atmosphere. The Bona Fide Ventilating Hat, which featured a system of grilles, aimed to solve this problem by ‘carrying off perspiration from the interior’ Image: BT 45/10 (1823) – Ventilating Hat – Top hats were heavy and heads could get quite hot – a combination of perspiration and hair oil could lead to an unpleasant atmosphere. The Bona Fide Ventilating Hat, which featured a system of grilles, aimed to solve this problem by ‘carrying off perspiration from the interior’

  1. The British Library Website: Digital Scholarship Blog: 2014 Off the Map Competition Winners Announced at GameCity9 Festival, Available at (accessed 26 July 2016)
  2. The National Videogame Arcade Website: Gamecity: Off The Map 2015: Alice in Wonderland, Available at (accessed 26 July 2016)
  3. The Victoria and Albert Museum Website: Blog: The Strawberry Thief iPad Game, Available at (accessed 26 July 2016)
  4. The AbleGamers Charity Website, Available at: (accessed 27 July 2016)
  5. The Includification Website, Available at (accessed 27 July 2016)
  6. Some of the games will require special software to play – usually Unity. The Itchio Website: The Great Steampunk Game Jam: Entries, Available at (accessed 27 July 2016)
  7. The Itchio Website: Hatastic, Available at: (accessed 27 July 2016)
  8. The Itchio Website: A Victorian Trip, Available at: (accessed 27 July 2016)
  9. The Itchio Website: The Great Airship Rescue, Available at (accessed 27 July 2016)
  10. The Admiralty launched a search for Franklin’s expedition of Arctic exploration, which was followed by several professional and amateur attempts to find the expedition.
  11. Copies of Julie Halls’ ‘Inventions That Didn’t Change The World‘ and ‘The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage‘ by Sydney Padua were presented to the participants, also courtesy of the Friends of The National Archives. The University of York provided prizes for second and third places – as well as food and refreshments over the weekend, and Able Gamers presented the award for most accessible game.
  12. The Itchio Website: Eleanor’s Notebook, Available at (accessed 27 July 2016)
  13. The Itchio Website: The Great Leap, Available at (accessed 28 July 2016)