Battle of Bannockburn

Visitor Centre Battle Game

Carly A. Kocurek is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and Media Studies at Illinois Tech. Her book, Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), is a cultural history of golden age arcade culture. She co-edits the Influential Game Designers book series for Bloomsbury with Jennifer deWinter.

On the grounds of a battle site now more than 700 years old, there are statues and markers, walking paths and a visitor center. The Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre is a relatively small facility marking the site of an iconic battle; it is also, however, an innovative example of the application of games in the construction of interpretive experiences at historic sites. By integrating multimedia content artfully, the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre asks visitors to consider the enormity of Bannockburn as a historical battle as well as the degree to which individual players are alternately swept up in and shape historic events.

During the First War of Scottish Independence, the Battle of Bannockburn was a significant victory for the Scottish army, defeating the much larger English forces. Since the battle took place in 1314, its location has become a significant historical site, studied by archeologists and historians and preserved through the efforts of the Bannockburn Preservation Committee, the National Trust for Scotland, and Historic Scotland. While the initial visitor center at the site, the Bannockburn Heritage Centre, opened in the 1960s, it was closed in 2012 to be replaced by a new building opened in March 2014 in time to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the battle. Today, the site’s modern facilities welcome visitors with a gift shop, café, and two “Battle Room Experiences”: the Battle Show, a brief narration illustrated by tabletop map projection, and the Battle Game, which takes place using the same projection system and is overseen by a Battlemaster.

The current installation at the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre represents a collaboration between Bright White Ltd and the Glasgow School of Art’s Centre for Digital Documentation and Visualization. Since opening, the exhibit has earned honors including a top award for Innovation from the Museums + Heritage Awards for Excellence, a UK-wide program that recognizes the work of museums and historic and cultural sites. It is also popular with visitors, sometimes booked out for hours or days in advance, and ranked highly on crowdsourced ratings sites like TripAdvisor.

Visiting Bannockburn

Visitors for either Battle Room Experience begin their visit by seeing two short videos that describe the events that preceded the battle; royal intrigue, political conflict, and military actions alike are relayed through 3D animation that is vaguely reminiscent of the work of illustrator Edward Gorey. From here, visitors “Prepare for Battle” by visiting a gallery area that combines video content with interactive and more conventional exhibits. Armor and weapons are displayed in the center of the room. A guide welcomes visitors and narrates a demonstration of weapons and other battle details that again relies on 3D video, although here more realistic than cartoonish. Knights, spearman, archers, and crossbowmen appear in turn on a large screen to the left, the impact of their attacks then shown on a screen on the right. A comparison between longbow and crossbow demonstrates the weapons’ differing range and power. Viewers, caught in the middle, hear the simulated weapons fly overhead and then hit their targets, projected across the room.

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Figure 1: An interactive guide prepares players for battle

When this formal demonstration is complete, guests are released to explore the other exhibits—whether the armor in the middle, the interactive guides to the Battle Game (see Figure 1), or the motion controlled character profiles hidden in hallways behind the large screens. These character profiles (see Figure 2), focused as they are on the way individual motivations intersect with large-scale political and military goals, are particularly compelling. A middle-aged woman holding a pitchfork, one of the Scottish smallfolk called to stand nearby to make the badly outnumbered army look more impressive, talks about her willingness to fight if allowed by the king. A young English squire speaks excitedly about his aspirations to become a knight himself. A Welsh longbowman explains his years of experience—he received his first bow at age 6—and mentions his willingness to fight for the English only so long as he gets home soon.

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Figure 2: Individual, interactive characters line two hallways.

From here, those with Battle Game tickets are shuffled into a specialized room with a large table in its center where they are assigned numbers and sent to their battle stations. The stations correspond to various characters. These assigned characters correspond with the historic record of the battle, so players take on the roles of various leaders and control military units. As in the real battle, the Scottish army is badly outnumbered and tasked with preventing the English from advancing to Stirling Castle. While the visuals on the table are largely projected, the table itself roughly mirrors the topography of the area, so, for example, Stirling Castle is on a molded hill. The relative strength of each player’s men is shown by shields with bars; a full depletion of a force is indicated by a red X (see Figure 3). The battlemaster oversees gameplay, urging players along when they stall too long and ensuring that gameplay is completed in the allocated time (see Figure 4).

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Figure 3: Shields, meters, and red Xs let players know the strength of their forces.

Battle Game as War Game

The Battle Game extends on a long history of war games and simulations. What makes this particular game novel is not necessarily historical accuracy—there are gestures towards it, as in the names of the key actors, the careful recreation of the site’s topography, the weaponry, and the numbers of men involved, but it is entirely possible for the outcome of the battle to shift radically from the historical record. In the game I participated in, the Scots lost after halving the number of English soldiers standing, and both English and Scottish forces had wandered far from the center of the historical battle. Ultimately, Robert the Bruce, last man standing in the entire Scottish army, died just seconds before the game’s clock ran out, ending the game. As the introductory materials for the game note, conflicts in the game work largely like rock, paper, scissors, so it is generally difficult to know what possible outcome any attacks might have. Because of this incorporation of chance, gameplay is absolutely strategic, it is also absolutely dependent upon luck.

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Figure 4: The battlemaster urges players to action.

The most compelling aspect of the Battle Game is how it highlights the degree to which historical events are rarely inevitable. The Battle of Bannockburn is noteworthy particularly because it does not make immediate sense; that the Scottish army defeated a force twice its size remains surprising, even as more archeological and historical evidence is unearthed and our understanding of the battle subsequently grows more comprehensive. For unskilled players–and given that the Visitor Centre is a tourist attraction, most players are unskilled–the game is challenging, and an in-game Scottish victory is far from assured, even as the Scottish soldiers do enjoy some advantages, particularly the ability to set traps for English forces. The game is balanced carefully, as the uncertainty of the game’s outcome makes clear. This balance means that the game is not a simulation of the battle as it happened; it is historically derived more than historically accurate, but in this it carries more complicated lessons about the events in question. As players bumble through their own efforts to secure Stirling Castle, they witness the sheer unlikelihood of the battle.

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Figure 5: Historical and archeological maps are displayed during the Battle Show.

Further, the careful presentation of post-play information ensures that players are able to put the play experience in critical context. At the conclusion of the game, players are shuffled back into the main exhibit, where they circle back and re-enter the game room. Once there, they are joined by those attending the “Battle Show.” The same table is used now to display historical and contemporary maps of the battle site while a historian and archeologist narrate by recording what happened at the battle and how we know (see Figure 5). This brief scholarly interlude can stand alone as it does in the Battle Show, but it is essential to the game’s function. Learning games are most successful when integrated with opportunities for reflection and interpretation (in fact, reflection is essential to learning broadly), and the combined activities at the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre work toward this goal admirably. Visitors have opportunities to learn some history before entering the game, then play the game, and then revisit the battle through historical reflection. At the conclusion of this 10-minute narrated demonstration, players and Battle Show attendees alike move into the last room; another small theatre with another 3D animated video summarizing the aftermath of the Scottish victory. This final room also displays credits for the exhibit production, including the game and videos, and a reminder of the importance of the battle for Scotland’s independence (see Figure 6). Without these post-game activities, the lessons of the game would be much more difficult to parse, and the ease with which the game alters history might serve as a source of confusion rather than deepening understanding.

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Figure 6: The last bit of interpretation visitors see on the way out of the exhibit.

Lessons for Designers

Much of the rhetoric around serious and learning games emphasizes the possibility of immersion, but the Battle Game at Bannockburn shows what game-based, multimedia immersion can and should look like when leveraged for educational ends. The game as players experience it is framed carefully at multiple points, and educational content is provided through thoughtful narration by live guides as well as through impressive 3D displays, short videos, interactive screens, more conventional displays of artifacts, and the game itself. There are numerous points of entry into the information provided. Players interested in strategic and technical details of gameplay can spend time looking through screen-based guides in the time leading up to the game session, but nobody is obligated to do so, and the game is playable regardless of the degree to which players have prepared themselves. The battlemaster runs the game, but he also gently coaches the players, ensuring that none of the individual players drags out or spoils the game for the rest of the group. The large, team-based nature of the Battle Game facilitates collaboration and strategic gameplay, but it also produces a game that is readily accessible to players of wildly different ages and skill levels—a particular challenge of designing games for these types of educational settings.  For those of us teaching with games or designing games for use in teaching, the careful integration of materials and reflection opportunities at play here is instructive.

Often, games in museum spaces are geared towards informal or partial play; museum visitors can stumble into and out of games easily with little guidance or opportunity for reflection. This type of setup diminishes even the most carefully designed game and discourages the kind of deep engagement necessary for players to learn even general concepts. However, the alternatives can prove challenging and costly. Games like the Bannockburn Battle Game or like the Simulation Game currently exhibited as part of the Future Energy Chicago exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, are resource heavy both in terms of what is required for design and production and in terms of what is required for the ongoing display of the game. In both of these situations, player access is metered, player experience is guided, and everything is carefully timed. These types of games demand the ongoing attention of guides and gamemasters who help lead players through the experience of play. Because of this, players cannot simply wander in, but must obtain timed entry tickets. This is not a shortcoming of the game, so much as it highlights why games like this can be difficult and costly to implement and suggests at least in part why so many museum games are so much less rich.

In presenting the Battle Game, Bannockburn’s programming is innovative even as it relies on established standards for the presentation of history. Historical content lends itself well to immersive and interactive experiences. Long-running “living history” sites demonstrate this, often delightfully, as in the nearby Stirling Castle, where costumed castle staff answer questions about dressing the queen, entertaining nobles, and other minutiae regarding what daily life in the castle might have been like at the peak of the site’s importance. The approach at Bannockburn is decidedly more technical even if it relies on some of the same principles: Hands-on experiences are framed with educational content; opportunities for interaction and engagement are subtly customizable; and while the “big picture” of what happened is at the heart of the exhibit, it pays attention to the degree to which individual actors both shape and are caught up in historic events. The Battle Game at the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre is a provocative and deeply engaging example of the application of serious games.