Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Design constraints and research questions: museum metadata games

Back in June I posted parts of my dissertation project outline in 'Game mechanics for social good: a case study on interaction models for crowdsourcing museum collections enhancement'. Since then, I've been getting on with researching, designing, building and evaluating museum metadata games (in my copious spare time after work, in a year when we launched three major galleries).

I'm planning to blog bits of my dissertation as I write it up so there'll be more posts over the next month, but for now I wanted to contextualise the two games I'm evaluating at the moment.  In the next post I'll talk about the changes I made after the first solid round of evaluation.

Casual games
The two games, nicknamed 'Dora' and 'Donald' are designed as casual games - something you can pick up and play for five minutes at a time.  Design goals included: an instantly playable game that provides stress relief, supports a competitive spirit (but not necessarily against other people), inherently rewarding experience, simple game play and puts 'fun before do-gooding'.  The games were designed around a specific research-based persona ('Meet Janet', pdf link) - hopefully it's exactly right for some people who are close to the persona in various ways, and quite fun for a wider group.  It won't suit everyone, not least because definitions of 'fun' and expectations around 'games' can be deeply individual.

Design constraints
The games are also designed to test ideas about the types of objects and records that can be used successfully, and the types of content people would be able to contribute about the less charismatic and emotionally accessible reaches of science, technology and social history collections - this means that some of the objects I've used are quite technical, not all the images are great and small variations on object records are repeated (risking 'not another bloody telescope').  While this might match the reality of museum catalogues, would it still allow for a fun game?

The realities of a project I was building in my free time and my lack of graphic design and illustration skills also provided constraints - it had to be browser-based, it couldn't rely on a critical mass of concurrent players to validate actions or content, it had to help the player dive straight into playing and overcome any fears about creating content about museum objects, and it had to use objects ingested through available museum APIs (I selected broad subjects for testing but didn't individually select any objects).

I then added a few extra constraints by deciding to build it as a WordPress plugin - I wanted to take advantage of the CMS-like framework for user logins, navigation and page layout, and I wanted the code I wrote to be usable by others without too much programming overhead.  I'll need to tidy up the code at the end, but once that's done you should be able to install it on any hosted WordPress installation.  I'm making a related plugin to help you populate the database with objects (also part of an experiment in the effectiveness of letting people choose their own subject areas or terms to select playable objects).  I'll talk more about how I worked with those constraints and how they informed the changes I made after evaluation in a later post.

Different games for different purposes
I've been thinking about a museum metadata game typology, which not only considers different types of fun, but also design constraints like:
  • the type and state of the collection (e.g. art works, technical/specialist and social history objects; photographs and other media vs objects; reference collections vs selected highlights; 'tombstone' vs general vs interpretative records)
  • the type of data sought including information curators could add if they had infinite time (detail on the significance of the object, links to other subjects, people, events, objects, collections, etc); information that can be extrapolated from the existing catalogue record; things curators couldn't know (personal history, experiential accounts about the design, manufacture, use, disposal etc of objects); emotional responses; external specialist knowledge; amateur/hobbyist specialist knowledge; synonyms in every day language; terms in other spoken languages
I've also been playing with the idea of linking different game types to different 'life stages' of museum collection metadata.  For example, some games could help a museum work out which of its catalogued items seem more interesting to the public, others help gather tags, create links between items or encourage players to research objects and record new information or links about them, and others still could work well for validating data created in earlier games.  The data I gather through evaluating the games I've designed will help test this model.

So, all that said, if you'd like to play (and help with my evaluation), the two games are:

Donald's detective puzzle - find a fact about an object
Dora's lost data - a simpler tagging game

Friday, 3 December 2010

What would a digital museum be like if there was never a physical museum?

This is partly an experiment in live-blogging a conversation that's mostly happening on twitter - in trying to bridge the divide between conversation that anyone can jump into, and a sometimes intimidating comment box on an individual blog; and partly a chance to be brave about doing my thinking in public and posing a question before I've worked out my own answer...

I've been thinking about the question 'if physical museums were never invented, how would we have invented digital museums?' for a while (I was going to talk about this at GLAM-WIKI but decided not to subject people to a rambling thought piece exploring the question).  By this I don't mean a museum without objects, rather 'what if museums weren't conceived as central venues?'.  Today, in the spirit of avoiding a tricky bit of PHP I have to deal with on my day off, I tweeted: "Museums on the web, social media, apps - stories in your everyday life; visiting physical museum - special treat, experience space, objects?".  By understanding how the physical museum has shaped our thinking, can we come up with models that make the most of the strengths, and minimise the weaknesses, of digital and physical museums? How and where can people experience museum collections, objects, stories, knowledge? How would the phenomenology of a digital museum, a digital object, be experienced?

And what is a 'museum' anyway, if it's not represented by a building?  In another twitter conversation, I realised my definition is something like: museums are for collections of things and the knowledge around them.

Then a bit of explanation: "Previous tweet is part of me thinking re role of digital in museums; how to reconcile internal focus on physical with reach of digital etc" (the second part has a lot to do with a new gallery opening today at work, and casting my mind back to the opening of Who Am I? and Antenna in June).

Denver Art Museum's Koven J. Smith has been discussing similar questions: 'What things do museums do *exclusively* because of tradition? If you were building a museum from scratch, what would you do differently?'. My response was "a museum invented now would be conversational and authoritative - here's this thing, and here's why it's cool".


Other questions: Did the existence of the earlier model muddy our thinking?  How can we make online, mobile or app visitors as visible (and as important) as physical visitors?  (I never want to see another email talking about 'real [i.e. physical] and online' visitors).

So, what do you think?  And if you've come here from twitter, I'd be so thrilled if you bridged the divided and commented!  I'll also update with quotes from tweets but that'll probably be slower than commenting directly.

Anyway, I can see lots of comments coming in from twitter so I'm going to hit 'publish post' now...


[Update - as it turns out, 'live blogging' has mostly turned into me updating the post with clarifications, and continuing discussion in the comments. I find myself reluctant to re-contextualise people's tweets in a post, but maybe I'm just too sensitive about accidentally co-opting other people's voices/content.  If you want to share something on twitter rather than in a comment, I'm @mia_out.]