I grew up on video games and board games. So it's no surprise that my dissertation (assuming it ever gets written, and at this point that is a big assumption), was triggered by a boardgame.
Battlelore is a very enjoyable, quazi wargame. It's based primarily in a fantasy world, but there are also historical battles you can play. It was one such battle that triggered the thought process which lead me to my dissertation topic.
After getting the game I read the rules, called my 9 year old, and we began with a historical battle-the Battle of Agincourt. I decided that along with the fun time, we would do a quick history lesson on the battle. Not knowing anything about what happened at Agincourt, I hopped online, entered the key words into google, and the first link was to wikipedia. One click later I was looking at a great article on the history of the Agincourt battle.
I had first thought that I would just have my son read the article, but I realized that double spaced, the text would be over 22 pages including footnotes. That is some pretty heavy reading for a 9 year old.
So I decided to skim the article myself, and then just explain the gist of it. However, the article was packed with data. This was no simple list of facts, it was an in-depth, complex, well written essay. I found myself needing to click on links to other articles to really understand what was being said.
I eventually prepared a brief history of the battle, explained it to my son (who was not above rolling his eyes several times during my 'lecture'), and we played the game and had a good ol' time.
But this got me thinking about the readability of wikipedia articles. Clearly my son couldn't have read and understood the article. The level at which the content was written was simply too high. Wikipedia has a lot of content (1.8 million articles), but that doesn't matter to those who can't understand the content.
I decided to try something. I went back to wikipedia and copied the article. A quick search led me to a site that gave you the readability level of text. I pasted the article into the field, hit submit, and was suprised to find the article was on the extreme end of the spectrum. The article wasn't at a highschool level, or even a college level. It was post graduate. It was on the same level as the Harvard School of Law Journal.
A quick and dirty sampling led me to conclude that most of the 'featured articles' (the articles the wiki community finds to be of high quality) were at this high level of complexity.
The aim of wikipedia is lofty. They want to provide a resource to every person on the planet, in their own language. But as things currently stand, my sons are left out. High school students are left out, to some extent. A large portion of Americans are left out.
So in the back of my head something clicked. It doesn't make sense to 'dumb down' wikipedia. But what if a copy could be made that was easier to read? Or what about several copies. One at a high school level, another at a gradeschool level. Wouldn't that make wikipedia accessible to more people?
Well, a simple wikipedia already exists, but instead of 1.8 million articles, there are only 16,000. For whatever reason, the simpler version is not gaining any traction.
So, the problem is that wikipedia is quite complex, and efforts to make a simpler wikipedia are having a hard time getting off the ground. The solution? Well, the solution lies in the same boardgame that brought the problem to my mind in the first place. I'll write more about that later.