Digitising Demolished Derry: Videogames as Public History

In our latest blog, Dr Pete Hodson discusses how the development of a videogame will help us to better understand the history of urban redevelopment in Derry-Londonderry.

The AHRC-funded project ‘Historical Urbanism’ based at Ulster University pulls together experts from historical, political and architectural backgrounds to understand the process and legacies of urban redevelopment in Derry-Londonderry. The project seeks to understand how cities have changed physically, and how this has influenced how people live, work, and move around the urban areas in which they live. This data will be used to inform urban design and planning in the future.

The project will deliver several outputs including 3D city models, a public exhibition (launching in Derry’s Tower Museum in 2021), an interactive website (including oral history archive) and academic publications. One of the more unusual outputs, discussed in this blog, is the development of a videogame recreating a long-demolished residential area of the city.

Derry’s housing stock was some of the worst (and most overcrowded) in Ireland after the Second World War. Piecemeal slum clearance was followed by largescale urban redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s. The Lecky Road/Rossville Street Redevelopment Scheme (1962-70) preceded the radical restructuring of the city outlined in the Londonderry Area Plan (1968-81). The Lecky/Rossville scheme saw 1,030 properties – housing some 10% of the city’s population – vested (compulsorily purchased) and demolished. Tightly packed streets of terraced housing were replaced by flat-roofed maisonettes in cul-de-sacs and three ten-storey tower blocks. By the early 1970s, against the backdrop of escalating civil conflict, the built environment of the Bogside was completely transformed. We decided to employ digital media as a means of conveying a sense of these seismic changes to the built environment.

The relationship between academic history and videogaming has received limited – though growing – scholarly attention.[1] Carvalho makes the distinction between ‘scholarly games’ and ‘commercial games’ – essentially, the difference between research-led games versus those that combine historical texture with fictive elements (like Netflix’s The Crown, to use a recent TV example).[2] Our Derry-Londonderry game falls into the former category. To be ‘scholarly’ in the context of videogame development does not require entertainment, surprise and adventure to be sucked from the finished product. Nor does our game strive to be a totally accurate historical simulation. It is, rather, an immersive educative experience that complements our other research outputs and ‘generate[s] understanding of historical context’.[3]

From a research perspective, gathering the relevant source material for the game was remarkably similar to constructing an essay – albeit with greater value attributed to audio-visual material. Good quality film and colour photographs were needed to reconstruct the historic built environment. Two large architectural features are included in the game – Derry Gaol (demolished in 1971) and Long Tower Church – but otherwise the area consisted of relatively uniform terraced housing, with a few shop fronts. Archive cinefilm and newsreels were sourced online via YouTube and BBC Rewind. Websites including ‘Derry of the Past’ and Eamon Melaugh’s CAIN collection were trawled for photographs.[4] Highly detailed land use maps were unearthed in the archives which complemented Ordnance Survey material. Oral history interviews also yielded strong place-based memories and allowed blind-spots in visual sources to be filled.

The gameplay area was eventually chosen on the basis of data quality and the size of our budget. Game development is a costly business. The gameplay area borders Bishop Street Without, Barrack Street, St Columb’s Wells and Howard Street in a loop around Long Tower Church. Whilst both Bishop Street Without and part of Barrack Street still form part of Derry’s streetscape (albeit heavily redeveloped) the rest of the area vanished in the early 1970s.

Game area in 1960. Original zone in the grey box was downsized to the area with the boundary marked in red.
Game area in 1972. Greyed areas signify impending demolition. Curved road channel carved out by the soon-to-be-built Lecky Road flyover is visible
Game area in 2020. The Lecky Road flyover curves 90° to the south-west of Long Tower Church to join Barrack Street. The area has been largely emptied of residential properties. Windmill Terrace, Cooke Street and Corporation Street were rebuilt in the 1980s.

Belfast-based company Cupboard Games was chosen to develop the concept. Preliminary meetings highlighted the potential to go beyond mere 3D reconstruction of the historic built environment. Why not add interactive elements and give players some agency, rather than rambling aimlessly around digital streets? The basis of our game narrative was found at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). One of our juiciest archival finds was a bundle of protest letters written by Lecky Road/Rossville residents.[5] These letters were sent by vested tenants to the Ministry of Health and Local Government at Stormont complaining about the lack of compensation for home improvements. Of the 625 houses assessed by Ministry inspectors only 13 tenants were initially found to be eligible for compensation. 199 decisions were subsequently overturned following vocal protest and re-inspection.

The original game concept involved a virtual reality headset located in a public exhibition. The Covid-19 pandemic and concerns about viral transmission quickly rendered this idea unfeasible. Our ‘Plan B’ was the development of a game capable of being played without the use of shared equipment. Barcode links from the public exhibition panels to the project website will instead allow a 3D videogame to be played on personal devices.

The game functions by using a map of the present to uncover that of the past. This allows players to grasp the sheer scale of urban redevelopment in this area of the city. Only Long Tower Church and a row of houses on Charlotte Street escaped the wrecking ball. Cupboard Games pitched the idea of a postal worker delivering some of these PRONI letters to/from long-demolished addresses. Players steer the avatar and can read these letters – and curt replies from the Ministry – to better comprehend the powerful emotions that can accompany urban redevelopment. The narrative invites players to think about power imbalances in the planning process (when applied, as in Derry, with minimal consultation and limited adherence to resident preferences).

Early development screenshot reconstructing the top of Howard Street

The game allows players to gain a sense of working-class communities in the early 1960s. Information about this era was gleaned from oral history interviews. Working-class life in post-war Derry was characterised by high unemployment, poor quality housing, limited disposable income and a strong sense of neighbourliness and family loyalty. Player interaction in/around certain key spaces – notably the pawn shop, pub and Employment Exchange – will immerse players in the rich texture of working-class life. Players will be able to eavesdrop street gossip about housing conditions and redevelopment plans. Streets will be populated with people and a small amount of traffic to convey atmosphere – such as bread vans, street sweepers, newspaper sellers and lamplighters.

What can this videogame contribute, or tell us about Derry-Londonderry’s past? Software developers have ‘leveraged elements of history’ to anchor videogame narratives for over two decades.[6] Recent additions include a Cold War themed Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed set in Victorian London. Whilst our intention, obviously, is not to compete with these multi-million-pound franchises, our videogame is a method of delivering ‘representations of ideas and theories’ about the past through digital (rather than textual) means.[7] It offers older generations the chance to re-acquaint themselves with the city of their youth, and younger generations the opportunity to visualise the seismic changes to the social fabric and built environment of Derry-Londonderry since 1960.

Our project website can be found here

Dr Pete Hodson worked as Research Associate on the AHRC-funded project ‘Historical Urbanism’ at Ulster University until January 2021. He now works on the UKRI-funded project ‘Museums, Crisis and Covid-19: Vitality and Vulnerabilities’ which is investigating how the museum sector will emerge and refocus in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.

[1] See Adam Chapman, Anna Foka and Jonathan Westin ‘Introduction: what is historical game studies?’ in Rethinking History, vol 21, no. 3 (2017), pp 358-71.

[2] Vinicius Marino Carvalho, ‘Videogames as tools for social science history’ in The Historian, vol 79, no. 4 (2017), p. 802.

[3] Jeremiah McCall, ‘Videogames as participatory public history’ in David Dean (ed.), A companion to public history (Hoboken, 2018), p. 409.

[4] https://www.facebook.com/Derryofthepast/; https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/melaugh/gallery.htm

[5] PRONI. DEV/9/56.

[6] McCall, ‘Videogames’, p. 406.

[7] Carvalho, ‘Videogames’, p. 807.


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