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Can a game change how we learn about art?

Does the prospect of ownership, even in a fantasy realm, change how we interact with art? That’s the question Duke Art History graduate student Katie Jentleson asked as she worked with undergraduate students enrolled in interdisciplinary courses on the art market here at Duke. The answer came through a Humanities Writ Large project collaboration with Duke University Libraries’ Will Shaw: students can not only learn about art history in an engaged way by actively collecting the objects of their study, but also understand in practice the psychological and economic dynamics of art markets.

A view of one player’s fantasy collection


Fantasy Collecting – a multi-player, web-based game – transforms students into collectors and prompts them to reflect on and express the histories behind world art while simultaneously establishing and asserting the value of these works through structured and spontaneous art exchanges. In short: they see, they assess, they collect. And in the process, they experience the ways that art gains currency through historical value, marketing strategies, and exchanges.

Jentleson developed the fundamental principles of this pedagogical tool through her own print-based version of the game, which relied on color printouts of artworks to create a collection dossier for each student; frequent and carefully monitored “trades” and “challenges” executed in class and through Twitter; and many, many Excel spreadsheets used to track the value of artworks, their provenance, and students’ point acquisitions. This approach demanded considerable time, oversight, and manual data entry.

Through support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded Humanities Writ Large grant, Jentleson took her ideas to Digital Humanities Technology Consultant William Shaw, who developed an online prototype that met her requirements for student engagement, pedagogical impact, and easier administration. Having completed two phases of development testing in undergraduate courses, the game code and documentation are now posted on GitHub under an open-source license for others to use and modify. Jentleson plans to continue working with the game and is currently pursuing further funding for development.

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