Mexico’s History of Gaming, Art, and AR-tful Designs for Cambridge Creative Encounters

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Catching Coyote in the Collection

MAA is an untapped home for Games Studies, primed for novel investigations empowered by digital curation. For instance, tapping out the words ‘game’ and ‘paper’ into the MAA online catalogue’s search fields brings up a kaleidoscope of comparative world gaming examples from the last two hundred years, from a set of Chinese Four Colour cards (likely a set of Sì Sè Pá, 四色牌) to multiple decks of Tarot and Lotteria from Italy. But the number of printed game boards from nineteenth-century Mexico draws one’s attention to a vibrant gaming world that needs more study. Examining one of these games, the curious El Nuevo Coyote , via co-creative experimental approaches can help to rearticulate a unique world of Mexican gaming for new audiences.

Figure 1. El Nuevo Coyote. Juego de tablero or de mesa (board game) published by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo. Silao, Mexico, 1890s. Art by José Guadalupe Posada. 407 x 292 mm. Collected by Frederick Starr. Donated by the Folklore Society. MAA Z 39653.

Posada under the Porfiriato

The boardgames (juegos de mesa or tablero in Spanish) at MAA were purchased in Mexico in the 1890s by Frederick Starr, a turn-of-the-last-century anthropologist. Then, in 1901, he gifted them to the British Folklore Society. They would eventually find their way to MAA, comprising more than 600 individual pieces of Mexican art from the reign of Porfirio Díaz. An example of leisurely activities under the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship (or ‘Porfiriato’), boardgames might have offered Mexicans some escape from daily worries, encouraged the dissemination of popular culture and all around knit families and friends together over play. 

The artist responsible for El Nuevo Coyote was José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), alive for a decade plus after the game entered MAA. It is undated, but collected by Starr before 1900 and likely in 1898, when he had last visited Mexico. Based on extensive research of the game and the historical context, Dr Josh Fitzgerald (Churchill College) is producing the first focused study of the game’s history, art and deeper significance, building upon recent Games Studies of Mexico’s past. In total MAA cares for 20 paper and cardboard games from the Porfiriato, namely: Oràcula de la Fortuna, El Cascabelito Mudo, Juego del Ferro-Carril Urbano, Corrida de Toros, Juego del Circo, Carreras de Caballos, Nuevo Juego de la Solitaria, El Nuevo Coyote, Castillo de los Aztecas, Juego del Sitio de Sebastopol, El 2 de Abril, La Batalla, La Guerra de los Kickapoos , Los Exploradores del Polo, Los Insurgentes, Siluetas, Oca General Porfirio Diaz, Los Viajeros en México and an unopened deck of Loteria, a used paper doll game called Inovedadi el Cambio del Ministerio, and dozens of handcrafted figurines, clay pieces, dice, bells and several complete card decks begging to be played with.

Old Games, Heartfully-Interpreted and Digitally-Enhanced

The tension is palpable. The collection at MAA is unique for its 14 pressed and painted fichas (clay game pieces) one coyote versus 13 chicken figures. Games are meant to be played and we are drawn to feeling the contours of the cool clay animals and moving them about Posada’s whimsical artwork. But historical games and their priceless game pieces ought to be conserved and cared for. Museums keep objects preserved for future generations, helping to remind us of the origins of games like Coyote and how it changed with Posada’s vision. Recognising this problem and combining forces through Cambridge Creative Encounters Partnerships, Cambridge School for Visual and Performing Arts (CSVPA) creatives Julian Escott and Adrián Gamboa and Josh have created ‘Re-Imagining Coyote: Mexican Boardgame Heritage in Digital Dimensions’ for the Cambridge Festival.

You can give it a go right on your dining room table. Scan the QR Code after following this link to open Adrián’s vision of El Nuevo Coyote and ‘switch’ to the hi-res model of the original and the 14 clay fichas.

Figures 2 and 3: Joshua Fitzgerald’s hand, holding a ficha (game piece) of a Coyote above Posada’s game board and Adrián Gamboa’s artistic response to the central figure. Photograph by Joshua Fitzgerald (July 2023); artwork by Adrián Gamboa.

Adrián and Julian truly transformed how visitors might one day encounter El Nuevo Coyote via inspiring artwork and an unparalleled Augmented Reality (AR) experience. The team’s foremost goal was to design a stimulating digital interactive experience that highlighted the underlying research and made El Nuevo Coyote playable once again. But some of the most significant revelations came from the creatives’ entanglements in the collection, supported by MAA’s Collections Manager for Anthropology Rachel Hand and her team. This close study of the material aspects and high-resolution scans taken are reflected in the creative outcomes.

Figure 4: Adrián Gamboa and Julian Escott examine the boardgame and the new artworks with Rachel Hand at MAA (October 2023). Photograph by Joshua Fitzgerald.

Adrián, an accomplished artist from Mexico, carefully studied Posada’s process and cultivated Mexican imagery from his own past to produce dozens of detailed works based on the game. Gamboa has explained feeling 

immense joy and enlightenment throughout the creative process and deep chats with my talented partners, [Julian and Josh]. It was an honour that each of us brought unique attributes and technical skills to the output’s purposes. Delving into the project, I not only expanded my knowledge of artistic techniques but also gained a profound understanding of José Guadalupe Posada’s artwork and life, deepening my connection to Mexican heritage. Being part of a venture embodying cultural richness as a source of fulfilment, and this project’s research and synthesis of art/history has left an indelible mark on my creative journey.’

For his part, Julian’s mission was to render the sense of play back into a century-old boardgame, a task he took on with enthusiasm. Generated for Adobe Aero, the AR models are primed for up-close inspection with most smartphones, and the carefully preserved sense of object weight and shape of the clay pieces places the objects right at your fingertips. Julian had a clear goal: ‘to respond to Josh’s research and give it a platform using cutting edge augmented reality [which] allowed me to stretch those tools into storytelling and engage with an audience who wouldn’t normally be invested in this research.’

He adds, reflecting on the Adrián’s process, the artist’s ‘wonderful artistic responses to the work of Posada,’ can now come to life and his own AR design has led to a ‘new found respect for the illustrative art of Mexico’ that resounds in Adrián’s heritage and Josh’s fascination in the art history.

Based on the amazing work of his partners, Josh continues to advocate for Cambridge Museum researchers to participate in public engagement to add depth to their projects. This experience helped us ‘create more dynamic learning outcomes for the U.K. public by platforming the magic of Mexican heritage and enhanced digital curation. The added benefit of learning from Adrián’s deeper relation to the art and Julian’s creative techniques has improved my approach to collections.’ Thinking about the relationship between the Digital Humanities, museums and Mexican Games Studies, Josh adds, ‘CCE has helped me rethink my collections research. I was privileged to closely study these objects. My partners have now envisioned creative artistic responses to these unique materials cared for by MAA.’

Figures 5 and 6: Julian Escott’s re-gamified version of El Nuevo Coyote with artwork by Adrián Gamboa. West Hub, University of Cambridge, 13 March 2024. Photograph by Joshua Fitzgerald.

Coyote Gamified Once Again

The ‘Re-Imagining Coyote’ project’s future iterations could impact object-analysis in the anthropology of games, Mexican Heritage Studies and AR-gaming experiences in museums. The team transformed how people can interact with protected objects of a cherish heritage through stimulating digital play.

The exhibit will be on display at the West Hub 14 to 28 March 2024, free and open to all, from 9 AM to 7 PM. Visitors will witness Adrián’s drawings jumping off the canvas and Julian’s added digital experiences—colour effects and dynamic sound—that augment the artwork and immerse viewers in the collection. Large format models of the original El Nuevo Coyote and the creatives re-imagined version are ready for the public to begin to learn the game, and an AR interactive set of these will guide the viewer in how to play and the project’s significance. For those seeking more interpretations of museology, see Josh’s collection of poems (‘Parsing Posada’s Pastimes’) for CCE Words’ Touching Traces: Finding the Words for Immersive Research, an interdisciplinary poetry book also on display.

The team thanks Rachel Hand, Mark Elliott, Ayushi Gupta, Guey-Mei Hsu and Anita Herle. Josh adds personal thanks to Jonathan Truitt (Games Historian and Professor of Latin American History and Chair of the Center for Learning through Games and Simulations, Central Michigan University).

Figure 7: Joshua Fitzgerald standing before Adrián’s well from ‘Re-Imagining Coyote.’ Artwork by Adrián Gamboa; photograph by Amber Fitzgerald.

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