The making of the World War 2 tribute curiosity box: Unsung.

Ive previously blathered on about my love of all things curiosity box related. And Im finding that the more I experiment with the ideas of exploration and the use of perceptual curiosity in Higher Education, the more I fall in love with the idea of returning to this childlike state where multi-sensory play is thought to be just as much an important part of a students learning experience as the ‘traditional’ lecture. Last year, I was lucky enough to present at the fantastic conference; Gamification Europe. It was an amazing experience and I met some brilliant people in the industry! I would urge anyone interested to think about going to the next one, and to maybe watch the videos of the 2018 conference which you can find their YouTube channel here.

Whilst I was putting together ideas for something to talk about at this conference, it became quite clear that what I really wanted to talk about was this idea of perceptual curiosity that I found kept creeping into the kind of games that Im interested in. *** I think there will be a video of this talk flying around at some point which I shall update here with at some point ***

So what is perceptual curiosity? Well, here’s an except from a paper that is in progress:

‘Early work into the study of curiosity (Hume, 1777; Berlyne. 1954), recognised that there were in fact differing types of curiosity. Berlyne proposed that curiosity was either that of epistemic curiosity; the seeking out of intellectual information or the “drive to know”, or, perceptual curiosity; sparked through visual, auditory and tactile experience or the “drive to experience and feel”. In light of these differing examples of what triggers curiosity, we as educators, can begin to imagine rich-learning experiences that are through exposure to a range of sensory stimulants.’

The idea of all of the senses being integral in the process of engaging students to achieve their highest potential, is just something that appeals to me on a very fundamental level. But anyway, as my research progresses into this, I am experimenting with these different types of narrative/puzzle-led mystery box experience. Long story short, I decided to make a little mystery box concept to present at the conference. I wanted to begin to move away from the usual talk about specific mechanics and design processes of games and gamification and look at more the experience and emotions side which of course includes curiosity.

Previously I had been working on a concept surrounding WW2 with two students at Coventry University. We wanted to build something that would be a conversation about some of the more unknown factors of what happened in WW2. So the next bit is full of spoilers about what the box is about, but also describes the development process for anyone who is interested in how it was made.

OK. So. I have been quite focused recently on trying to highlight women’s achievements and work that has previously gone unsung (see what I did there) or buried or downright ignored. What this box is really all about is raising awareness that women played a crucial role in helping to win WW2. Particularly in their role at helping crack ENIGMA at Bletchley Park, the home of the Codebreakers. This box, is a little exploration of some fictional correspondence between Margaret Rock, a prominent female decoder and her brother John Frank Rock, a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. This box is really just a little concept and to be honest, a learning experience for me, to try and find that sweet spot of non-linear story-telling mixed with some different puzzles. I wanted the story to feel organic, in which I mean, I wanted people to not have to ‘get’ the puzzle elements, in order to feel like they ve experience the game. Im not sure if this has managed that though. But anyway, let me describe the design process.

My loose objectives for creating this experience, was that I wanted it to be an awareness building exercise. I wanted people to be aware that their were such women working at Bletchley park tirelessly to decode the German messages coming through, alongside more known names such as Dilly Knox. I also wanted this to potentially be an experience that may inspire girls into the conversation that women were and have been working in STEM for a very long time. So with those loose objectives, I began some research into the women that were based at Bletchley. There were many fantastic candidates to try and tell their story, but in the end I opted for Margaret Rock, as I felt I could build a nice narrative around her and her brother sending letters to each other. As this was going to be more of a ‘ lets talk about some names, things that happened’ type of approach, I started to plot some very basic ideas that I could work some basic puzzles around..

*Who is Margaret Rock? *Blechley Park what/where? *John F Rock *ENIGMA *Dilly Knox *Abwehr *Mavis Lever

In this process, it became clear that I wanted part of the experience to be players having to look up what these words or people were. Touching on developing some interesting research skills and piecing the story together as a nice side bonus.

I went on a bit of a spending spree to get various items that I thought would be cool. Artefacts that were real and were part of that WW2 narrative. I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted, but in the end after a good search of EBAY and Gumtree, I found some very cool items. Including the authentic WW2 Gas Mask.

As it came in this gorgeous strapped bag with lots of pockets (inside and out), I decided that this was going to be the ‘box’ for the experience. I thought about how could I start the story with just this as the artefact, and in the end it made sense-ish, to tie a tag onto one of the outside straps with the following words:

Could someone please catalogue this item? No information immediately obvious, other than it is from World War 2. I need this off my desk ASAP!

Hopefully this statement would be vague enough to not give too much away, but contain enough information that it was obvious what the player was supposed to do with it.

The items that i then hid inside the bag along with the puzzles were made up of the following:

  1. An authentic gas mask (Which is so much fun to put on!)
  2. A locket
  3. A torn picture of Bletchley Park
  4. A newspaper from the time
  5. 2 handwritten letters inside envelopes
  6. Note on field/waterproof paper

And the puzzles/ story that ties all of these bits together are:

  1. The gas mask bag itself is quite integral to the process of feeling and finding all of the interesting stimuli. As it has loads of pockets, I used this to my advantage and hid all of the items in random parts of the bag. Including under a bit of foam, and then under the newspaper there is another small popper compartment in which the locket is hidden.

2. The newspaper, the locket and the two letters are a puzzle. A line, word, letter cipher otherwise known as a ‘Book Cipher’ is used for ‘Margaret’ to send secret messages to her brother. The newspaper acts as the text that both Margaret and John would have had access to. Inside the locket, hidden behind the pictures is the key to the Cipher as seen below. Each message is timestamped to each one of the letters it came from to give an idea of time passing and events.


3. The torn picture of Bletchley Park has written on the back of it the Latitude and Longitude co-ordinates of its location. This is a very simple puzzle but effective, as once someone works it out they can type it in to search and they will be presented with Bletchley in all its glory.

4. The pictures in the locket are also part of the clues. The male is an actual picture of Margaret and Johns father – If you look closely enough you can see his hat, a clue! Surgeon Frank Ernest Rock, R.N., lost his life on the Laurentic…

5. Note on field/waterproof paper is written from LDR J E Benham, a officer above John. If people go searching for this information they should bring up information regarding John.

6. Gas Mask – so the gas mask itself has a few puzzles. Firstly and probably my favourite, even if it isn’t completely in keeping with authenticity is the visual puzzle. I put red cellophane into the eye sockets of the gas mask and created a piece of paper with words hidden under layers of red and yellow type. When you look through the gas mask you will be able to see the hidden message on this paper. I do want to make this more in keeping eventually, but i got a bit excited about players looking through the red filter. If you want to know how to do this, go here.

7. On the gas mask canister itself I have also scratched in morse code: ENIGMA as seen below:

8. A code on the canister – By fortune there was a number sequence that was written on the outside of the canister of the gas mask in numbers, which serendipitously matched the exact number of letters that made up John’s full name. So i did a bit of a home brew cipher based on the Pig Pen Cipher in which when you work it out gives John’s full name. The paper was hidden in the inside of the canister.

9. Finally, and very simply, a little hand drawn visual puzzle on one of the letter envelopes. That when you tip it a certain way you can hopefully see the letters: ROCK.

And thats it. The idea is that the puzzles and narrative can all be pulled together in any order the players want. And that its not vital that they find all of the information, but that they enjoy the journey of exploration around the artefacts. Its also supposed to be a team activity, so that the players can discuss when they’ve found, go searching the internet, and hopefully feel curious enough that they fall in love with finding out the secrets of the bag! But mostly, I hope that people will come away from the experience having felt they had a glimpse into this pairs of siblings navigation through the war, living apart and in fear. And that maybe it will start some conversations further and spark curiosity about the women that also worked tirelessly in these conditions for the war efforts for often less recognition, thanks and praise.

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