Published: Sept. 22, 2011

Beth DusinberreBeth Dusinberre

Beth Dusinberre

Elspeth Dusinberre poses insider her office in the Eaton Humanities Building on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder on Monday, April 4, 2011. She was instrumental in creating a video game that helps her students learn about archeology, specifically Egyptian. (ASSETT/Esteban L. Hernandez)

A scholarly expedition to the archeological paradise of Egypt would cost thousands of dollars and require hours of arduous labor. Keen on offering a similar experience to undergraduate students, this quest turned into an expedition all on its own for professor Beth Dusinberre.

Dusinberre, an associate professor in the Classics Department, is a teacher specializing in Greek and middle Eastern archeology, but frequently teaches Egyptian archeology classes.

Her fondness for archeology led to the development of Expedition: Osiris, a computer-based video game allowing anyone to start an archeological dig in the Egyptian city of Amarna.

“The original genius behind doing this is John Bennett, who is the director of ATLAS now,” Dusinberre said. “I was participating in a work shop on integrating technology in teaching in ways to help students learn by incorporating more technology in classes and setting things up well.”

The idea would flourish into a full-scale video game experience, and with the help of junior and senior computer science majors working on a senior project, the video game developed.

“And I thought well, I could try this. So I looked into it, I wrote up a proposal for making a video game with some help from my chair and submitted it where it was jumped on,” she said.

After her proposal was quickly and enthusiastically embraced by the chair of her department, she was helped by what said were five extremely talented young men. That was 2003.

“They spent the entire year working with me to put together this video game,” she said. “Then the following year, one of them who had been a junior, put together another group of people who in connection with a video game class debugged it and it added a few more sophisticated things.”

Over the course of about a year and a half, Dusinberre said she met with the students every week for one to three exciting hours. The game would be complete in 2004 with members from the original five-person senior project, who had been juniors at the start of the project in 2003.

She now regularly uses the video game for class at CU, including an introductory survey class called Trash and Treasures, Temples and Tombs and a for a survey of Greek archeology. Both are undergraduate core classes and the game is only available for use through these two courses.

Beginning the virtual expedition

 Osiris.The video game is set in the sandy grounds of the city Amaran, which Dusinberre said was once the capital of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten. Set in modern-day, a player takes on the role of dig director.

“You pick a name, institution, personality type,” Dusinberre said. Among the choices for dig director types are scholars, big wigs and team leaders. “You start out with grant money and permit dig.”

After an initial grant award of $20,000, a player builds a team that must include a foreman, security guards, workers and grad students.  A player must also choose housing options, from tents to five-star hotels, and meal plans. These two factors contribute to how the team works, stays motivated and develops throughout the dig, reflecting a realistic behavior.

A dig can last anywhere between 4 to 12 weeks and are available during all four season.

Once these characters and options are chosen and a dig duration for the expedition is chosen, the fun begins.

A player is in charge of keeping workers working and making grad students create trench layouts and fix broken artifacts. The goal of the game is to unearth artifacts by laying out trenches. The more artifacts, the more likely a player will receive an additional grant to continue their research at the end of the dig.

Also of importance is keeping all these individuals safe.

“It is also important to hire protective specialists (for) natural and supernatural dangers,” she said laughing.

Some of the threats to a dig included: a thief who will loot unearthed treasures; a cursed mummy bent on destroying workers; mutant, man-eating scorpions and crocodiles; and a spirit that glides above ground, laughing manically as it refills dug out trenches.

During the end of each week, a player is given an overview of their team’s morale and what they found. High moral means more findings, while less usually spells a disastrous dig effort with few items discovered.

Its value as a tool for education

While it’s all fun and games, Expedition: Osiris is still an educational goldmine. Dusinberre explains why.

“What matter from an archeological perspective, and the reason that it’s a worthy intellectual game, is that at the end of each season you need to interpret the functions of each of the rooms that you excavated based on the finds that you excavated from within it,” she said.

And just like the real world, the game expects players to publish their findings. And just like the real world, there are ramifications on how the educational community views a finding.

“You get feedback on the reaction of the scholarly community,” she said. “You’re stats change when you’re applying for grants on the season. Your success fringes on how accurate your interpretations were.”

“It’s been the most wonderful, useful technology for teaching for me,” she said.

She said students are responding with universal enthusiasm to the game.

“The interpretation aspect really helps students think like archaeologist, and the game itself is actually just fun,” she said. “It’s a way that you can, from your own dorm room, be an archeologist and get that practical experience.”

Dusinberre said the game helps enhance a student’s educational experience at CU by engaging students in their own learning.

“This is not an assignment which says, ‘here’s a bunch of artifacts, what’s the room?’ It’s a project that says, ‘here, actually be an archeologist.’ Even if only virtually.”

“Having the virtual, practical experience I think is something which brings education and learning alive.”

Adding to the authenticity of the game, during game play players can view photographs of the items they excavate thanks to Digital Egypt, an image server form the United Kingdom.

“The team of students linked this database to all of this stuff that you find, so you may be excavating in a room and find a whole array of artifacts which you then interpret: is it a drover’s house? Is it the workshop of a sculpture? Could it be a brother? All of these things might be options,” she said.

Dusinberre said the game is built in a manner that may allow for future expansion, and she said she’d be interested in crating a similar game for Athens, Machu Picchu, Rome and Troy among other cities.

For now, students will continue enjoying a virtual experience based on some of the real-life adventures embarked on by their archeology professor.

"Having someone who’s picking and someone who’s shoveling and someone who is wheel baring, that’s all part of my experience. It’s really fun,” she said.

-Written by Esteban L. Hernandez, ASSETT Reporter, CU 12'