Conference paper: Play as Process and Product: On Making Serendip-o-matic

The abstract for our Digital Humanities 2014 conference paper is below. Scott's posted his notes from the first part, my notes for the middle part How did 'play' shape the design and experience of creating Serendip-o-matic? are on Open Objects and Brian's are to follow.

Play as Process and Product: On Making Serendip-o-matic

Amy Papaelias, State University of New York at New Paltz

Brian Croxall, Emory University

Mia Ridge, The Open University

Scott Kleinman, California State University, Northridge


Animated gif of a green cartoon hippopotamus with a speech bubble saying 'feeding the machine'

Who says scholarship can't be playful? Serendip-o-matic is a "serendipity engine" that was created in less than a week by twelve digital humanities scholars, developers, and librarians. Designed to replicate the surprising experience of discovering an unexpected source while browsing library stacks or working in an archive, the visual and algorithmic design of Serendip-o-matic emphasizes playfulness. And since the tool was built by a group of people who were embarking on a difficult task but weren't yet sure of one another's names, the process of building Serendip-o-matic was also rather playful, encouraging participants to take risks, make mistakes, and learn something new. In this presentation, we report on how play shaped the creation, design, and marketing of Serendip-o-matic. We conclude by arguing for the benefits of more playful work in academic research and scholarship, as well as considering how such "play" can be evaluated in an academic context.

Full abstract

"Play" is not a foreign concept to the digital humanities nor to the Digital Humanities Conference. Indeed, there have been a number of presentations over the years that focus on the ludic interactions between player and game in virtual worlds [1] [2]; that consider game design [3]; that attempt to preserve experiences of gameplay [4] [5]; that view play as integral for the creation of new texts [6] or interpretation of already existing ones [7] [8]; or that philosophically connect play to pedagogy [9] [10]. There have even been panels that examine the literal mechanics of play in the context of video [11]. But while play has been central to these discussions, it has most often been treated VERY SERIOUSLY.

In contrast, this presentation will highlight a project that placed playfulness at the center of its development and of its final project. Serendip-o-matic ( is a "serendipity engine" that connects large texts (e.g., entire articles or syllabi) or personal research libraries to digital materials located in libraries, archives and museums around the world. It recreates the surprising discoveries that frequently accompany research. Serendip-o-matic was built in less than five days as part of One Week | One Tool (OWOT, OWOT is a playful departure from traditional institutes funded by the U.S.'s National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in that the outcomes are largely determined by its participants rather than by the institute's organizers. And the team that designed and built Serendip-o-matic decided to place play at the center of its process and final product.

"Play" has been defined as the "free movement within a more rigid structure" [12]. In the context of tool building, a playful process means dodging the rigid structures that so often define the tool development process. A digital humanities "barn-raising" destabilizes the established ways in which digital humanities tool building projects are traditionally formulated, facilitating a playful process. The impending deadline—just. one. week!—and the rapid-fire completion of tasks and decision-making made the building experience a playful, almost game-like, experience. Although it was a very real possibility that Serendip-o-matic might fail to launch on time (if at all), the artificial construction of the challenge—as an NEH institute, wherein the main goal was for participants to learn something—made the consequences of such failure less severe. Separated from the responsibilities of daily life, the immersive format of OWOT offered the team the opportunity to take more risks and engage in a playful practice of ideation, conceptualization, and making. Play can also be a significant method for creating engaging user-experiences in design [13]. This technique has been employed in a variety of user-experience environments, particularly those aimed at engaging the public with humanities and cultural heritage materials, such as the Tate Museum's "Magic Tate Ball" [14] [15] and the Wellcome Collection's "High Tea" [16] [17]. The playfulness of Serendip-o-matic is easily visible upon visiting the project's website. The logo resembles a Rube Goldberg machine [18], and the colors and iconography throughout the site were chosen and created specifically to evoke the lively nature of the tool itself. The text throughout the site also broadcasts a playful attitude. For example, users are asked not to "select" or "upload" a "document" but instead to simply "grab some text." Much of the work of the Outreach team during the week was spent crafting this text as well as the name for the tool, with the goal of preserving the playful feel of the entire enterprise.

In this presentation, members of the OWOT team will report on creating a playful digital humanities tool. In addition to discussing the rapid and ludic development atmosphere and the choices made to shape user experience, the presentation will discuss the playfulness that was encoded in the tool's discovery algorithm, which uses named-entity recognition and text parsing to create a 'magic machine' that queries various collection APIs. We will also outline steps that were taken to create a playful voice throughout the deployment of the tool, including the creation of a mascot for the tool (the Serendhippo) and rules for public engagement for the mascot as well as the whole team. We will also report on the challenges of a playful project, one of which includes the consideration of how such playful work should be evaluated in the academy.

In conclusion, we will argue in favor of the benefits for incorporating more "playful work" in the context of academic research and scholarship. As current digital humanities work relies on collaborative environments (including hackathons, maker spaces, maker challenges, etc.), opportunities like One Week | One Tool provide a space for playful work to encourage more creative risk-taking and engaging user-experiences within the context of digital humanities scholarship and practice.

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