Monday, 16 May 2011

Notes from Gamecamp 4, London

Here are my thoughts from Gamecamp 4 (#gc4), an unconference held at London South Bank University on Saturday, May 14. Overall I had a great time, and managed to put some faces to names as well as catching up with people I knew. I don't think I learnt anything startling, but some of the sessions were great for helping me rediscover bits I already knew and clarify thoughts on other things. That might be a sign that I've been spending too much time thinking about games lately, or that the field is so huge and diverse that the chances of any session being on a topic that interests me and having the same approach (e.g. not video games) is smaller.

I also ran a session on 'hacking museum games' with Katy Beale to try to find out whether the excellent people at the event thought it was possible to run a hack event to produce new games with museums, get a sense of who'd be interested and hopefully learn from other people's experience with hack-type events with people new to games. I've written up the notes I took at the time, but would also love to hear from people who have more thoughts.  It wasn't in that session but based on other activities going on at the unconference I decided my new dream is to have a museum zombie larp.

So, onto notes from other sessions... They're really rough, sorry!  I haven't got the names or twitter IDs of the speakers, so please let me know if you know them.

5 tips to improve your game run by Graham McAllister
1 comparing controls (before building) - e.g. do a heuristic comparison of control methods like direct manipulation, d pads with requirements eg small controlled movements, big movements
2 tutorials - the art of integrated game tutorial design - make a list of everything you want the player to be able to do. Think of the ideal player (probably you cos you'll really know your game). Is there a safe space to practice the skills you want people to learn?  Integrate tutorials into gameplay - how? Use characters to deliver instructions. Can show them, tell them (text or audio) or get them to practice it.
3 involve users - but if you're play testing, don't ask them what they think. Ask people to draw their experience at the end - they remember the initial experience and the end, maybe something big in the middle. They won't remember the details afterwards. So how? Record it then walkthrough. Biometrics or observe the video and take them back to the moment afterwards and ask them, you'll get much better detail. [I nearly asked if anyone else did usability test-style think aloud testing but figured probably not as most people seemed to be video game developers]
4 recruit users - demographics; psychographics (internal motivations etc)
5 ux acceptance - define success tests. Write success tests for game ux acceptance - things the player should experience, not technical stuff; gives you something to keep working towards.

Suggestion from discussion - get a mirror and play through it, use your foot on the mouse to replicate experience of playing your game for the first time. [Great idea for empathy with newbie players]

[Update: I've come across some really detailed notes from this session, so go read Five tips to improve your game if you're interested in usability testing for games. Also, I didn't go to this session but there are some good notes on Can User Centered Design help games? (GameCamp report), and it's encouraging to hear that it had a good turn-out. For some reason I thought there was resistance to user-centred design in games, presumably from the same school of 'it makes boring, safe products' (which is only true if you're doing it wrong, as the notes point out), but maybe there's not.]

The failure of the fail state.
This was a quite interesting discussion, partly because people seem to have inherently different preferences, as well as variations dependent on your preferred game genres.  Posited it's better if you can die and then carry on... When is a fail state too much fail - balance between tension, high stakes and too harsh a penalty?  Or too binary - do you need to reload the game, can you recover from errors, what consequences do you need to live with? Discussion of the difference between creating tension because the stakes are high vs when game is completely over unless you re-start it's not good.


Other random notes from tweets:

@naomialderman pointed out 'moral choices in games are mostly shit' - yes! Crap moral scenarios put me off otherwise interesting games

Themes across sessions: 'all narrative is interactive'; we narrativise* experiences when we remember or reconstruct games *made-up word [actually, I can't really remember what inspired this, I must have had a sugar rush.]

It's always amazing the difference room setup makes in an unconference - a circle feels collaborative, desks facing the front can be 'us v them' [Owen Stephens pointed out that the circle setup is called 'cabaret' style - lovely!]

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Define your purpose or others will define you (and you may not like the results)

[A re-post, as the blogger outage seems to have eaten the first version. I'm incredibly grateful to Ben W. Brumfield @benwbrum for sending me a copy of the post from his RSS reader. I've set blogger up to email me a copy of posts in future so I won't have to go diving into my Safari cache to try and retrieve a post again!]

There's a lot of this going around as the arts and cultural heritage face on-going cuts: define yourself, or be defined, a search for a new business model that doesn't injure the unbusinesslike values at the core of public cultural institutions. Mark Ravenhill in the Guardian, Global art: nice canapes, shame about the show:
Many of our UK institutions operate under a strange contradiction: most of the signals we give out suggest that we offer the international glamour, the pampering loveliness, the partnerships with banks and brands... But at the same time, we agonise about access: we want everyone to be let into the business lounge.
...
In a modern world that buys and sells information and luxury, the arts deal in something very different: wisdom, a complex, challenging, lifelong search that can make you happy and furious, discontented and questioning, elated or bored.
...
What we need now, more than ever, is a clear message about what we do and why we do it. The government has opted for swift deficit reduction and a good hack at the arts: it's up to us to set the long-term agenda for the role of the arts in public life over the next decade and beyond if we're not going to be cut, cut and cut again. Boom and bust are here to stay: capitalism will always be in a permanent state of crisis.
Nick Poole has also written on A New Way Forward for Museums, saying:
It is entirely possible to be commercially savvy, operate sharply and make sophisticated uses of licensing as an artefact of control all in the name of serving a public cultural purpose. Equally, it is possible to throw open the doors and make content universally accessible in the name of driving commercial value to the bottom-line. The cultural and commercial imperatives are not in opposition, but coexist along a spectrum of activity which runs from non-commercial, through non-transactional (things like brand equity and audience engagement) to strictly financially transactional.
...
If the financial future of museums lies in becoming commercially acute, then a key part of true sustainability will lie in recognising our place in the supply-chain of culture to consumers, and in truly understanding and embracing our core competence and their value.

...we need to recognise that focussing on our core competencies and using them to create cultural assets and experiences which we can monetise (and therefore sustain) in partnership with the private sector is a story of success and advantage, not failure or loss.
His post has some interesting suggestions, so do go read it (and comment).

Nick also describes a vision "of a world in which museums have renegotiated the social contract with the public so that people everywhere understand that museums are places where culture is made and celebrated, rather than preserved and hidden from view" - it's easy, in my happy little bubble, to forget that many people don't see the point of museums. Some I've talked to might make an allowance for the big national institutions, but won't have any time for smaller or local museums. Working out how to deal with this might mean changing the public offer of these museums - or is it too late? There's a silent cull of museums happening in the UK right now, and yet I don't hear about big campaigns to save them. What do you think?

Thoughts towards the future of museums for #kulturwebb

Last week I was in Stockholm to give a talk on 'Museum Crowdsourcing Games: Improving Collections Through Play (and some thoughts on re-inventing museums)'.  Again, my thanks to  and  for the invitation to speak, and to all the lovely people I met for sharing their own stories with me, and for listening to a talk in English. The quote of the day came from @ during a panel discussion on museums and innovation at the end of the day: digital museum collections should be 'shareable, spreadable and nerd-friendly'.

Based on what I learnt about the audience I ended up including more explanatory material on museum crowdsourcing games and didn't really have time for the 're-inventing museums' bits, so I thought I'd share those notes here.  It's still very much a work-in-progress but since there are so many smart people thinking about the same subject, it's worth sharing for comment... (Also because Jasper Visser, who is also thinking about the future of museums, asked me what I was going to say. Btw, Jasper's #kulturwebb talk inspired the whole room, watch the video on his post about it.)

I know the future of museums lies in fitting into people's lives as well as being a destination; being the cathedral and being in the bazaar. Cultural heritage needs to be 'out there' to help people value and make time for visits the physical place.  It's about new types of engagement and outreach. It's not all digital, but as the world is networked and mobile and social, we should be too.

I was thinking about new metaphors for museums – what if we were Amazon? A local newspaper? A specialist version of Wikipedia? A local pub? A student blog? A festival, a series of lectures, or a film group? A pub quiz? Should a museum be at the heart of village life, a meeting place for art snobs, a drop-in centre, a cafĂ©, a study space, a mobile showroom?

But I realised that the answer to the question of the future of museums is deeply personal to any museum, because museums exist in the intersection of their collections, their fans and their local audiences. This is good, because it means you can apply your existing knowledge about what your audiences love about you.  The answer to the question 'what would your museum be if it was invented in 2011?' is up to you...

Every time I approach the question of the future of museums, or of how the future of museums will be informed by what's happening the world today, I seem to come at it from a different angle. Today I'm wondering about the implications of the fact that there are no (g-rated) offline activities anymore - people will do almost anything with their mobile in one hand, and could be doing anything from googling to find out more about the museum object in front of them to looking up the lyrics of that one-hit wonder from that summer they went camping with friends.  Their head could be in any space as well as in your space.

I'm also thinking about outreach, whether improving wikipedia articles, snippets of local history on the back of pub toilet doors or putting a museum exhibition in a truck and taking it to kids in the outer suburbs.  Tomorrow I'll wake up with some new 'what if?' in my head. And I'm curious - what are you thinking about the future of museums?

Friday, 6 May 2011

Thinking aloud: does a museum's obsession with polish hinder innovation?

I'm blogging several conversations on twitter around the subject of innovation and experimentation that I thought were worth saving, not least because I'm still thinking about their implications.

To start with, Lynda Kelly (@lyndakelly61) quoted @sebchan at the Hot Science conference on climate change and museums:
'Museums want everything to be slick and polished for mass audience, we lose capacity to be experimental and rapid'
 which lead me to tweet:
'does big museum obsession with polish hinder innovation? ('innovation' = keeping up with digital world outside)'.
which lead to a really interesting series of conversations.  Erin Blasco responded (over several tweets):
We can't pilot if it's not perfect. ... Need to pilot 15 quick/dirty QR codes but we can't put ANY up unless there are 50 & perfectly, expensively designed & impressive. ... So basically not allowed to fail and learn = not allowed to pilot = we spend a bunch of $ and fail anyway? ... To clarify: it's a cross-dept project. One dept ok with post-it notes & golf pencils. Two others are not. Kinda deadlock.
I think this perfectly illustrates the point and it neatly defines the kind of 'polish' that slows things down - the quality of the user experience with the QR codes would rest with the explanatory text, call to action and the content the user finds at the other end, not the weight and texture of the paper or vinyl they're printed on.  Suddenly you've got extra rounds of emails and meetings for those extra layers of sign-off, a work request or contract for design time, plus all the stakeholder engagement that you already, but does that extra investment of time and resources result in a better experiment in audience research?

But kudos to Erin for gettings things this far!  (An interesting discussion followed with Erin and @artlust about possible solutions, including holding stakeholder evaluations of the prototypes so they could see how the process worked, and 'making the pilot-ness of it a selling point in the design, letting audiences feel they're part of something special', which made me realise that turning challenges into positives is one of my core design techniques.)

For Linda Spurdle, the barriers are more basic:
Innovation costs, even my plans to try things cheap/free get scuppered by lack of time. For me less about risk more about resources
Which also rings perfectly true - many potential museum innovators were in this position before the museum funding cuts took hold, so innovating your way out of funding-related crises must be even more difficult now.

On the topic of innovation, Lindsey Green said the 'definite reluctance to pilot and fail impacts innovation'. Rachel Coldicutt had just blogged about 'digital innovation in the arts' in Making Things New, pointing out that the question 'privileges the means of delivery over the thing that’s being delivered', and tweeting that 'innovating a system and innovating art aren't the same thing and perhaps there's more impact from innovating the system'.

If the quest is to, as Rachel problematises in her post, 'use digital technologies to remake the Arts Establishment', then (IMO) it's doomed to failure. You can't introduce new technologies and expect that the people and processes within a cultural organisation will magically upgrade themselves to match. More realistically, people will work around any technology that doesn't suit them (for entirely understandable reasons), and even the best user experience design will fail if it doesn't take account of its context of use. If you want to change the behaviour of people in an organisation, change the metrics they work to. Or, as Rachel says, '[r]ather than change for change’s sake, perhaps we should be identifying required outcomes'.  Handily, Bridget McKenzie pointed out that 'The Museums for the Future toolkit includes new eval framework (GEOs = Generic Environmental Outcomes)', so there's hope on the horizon.

The caveats: it's not that I'm against polish, and I think high production values really help our audiences value museum content. But - I think investing in a high level of polish is a waste of resources during prototyping or pilot stages, and a focus on high production values is incompatible with rapid prototyping - 'fail faster' becomes impossible. Usability researchers would also say polished prototypes get less useful feedback because people think the design is set (see also debates around the appearance of wireframes).

It's also worth pointing out my 'scare quotes' around the term 'innovation' above - sadly, things that are regarded as amazing innovations in the museum world are often delayed enough that they're regarded as pretty normal, even expected, by our more digitally-savvy audiences. But that's a whole other conversation...

So, what do you think: does a museum's obsession with polish hinder innovation?

Update, January 2013: Rob Stein has written 'Museum Innovation: Risk, Experimentation and New Ideas', which resonated strongly:
A common pitfall for museums is an unhealthy addiction to monumental undertakings. When massive projects loom with ties to outside support and countless staff hours invested in a single deliverable, it becomes very difficult to admit the possibility of failure. As a result, we shy away from risk, mitigate the probability of embarrassment, and crush innovation in the process.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Emergent themes from (my) MW2011

I'm never going to have time to tidy these up, so here they are as they were scribbled on a post-it note closer to the Museums and the Web 2011 conference:

  • Stand on the shoulders of giants - so much great work is better because it's based on the experience and work of others.  There's a sea change in attitudes about making the most of existing work, and maybe it's just cos I was hanging out with cool people, but the 'not invented here' syndrome seems to be dead.
  • The cool kids share failures and mistakes - people's wonderful honesty about things that went wrong is amazing and can be so powerful
  • Twitter went from back channel to summarising, sending quotable quotes flying out from the conference, and to socialising - finding the hang outs was so much easier because there were lots of open invitations to explore places.
  • Processes and people over tech - tech is now generally the easy part, and the less interesting part.
  • Lots of anecdotal evidence about how much audiences love 'behind the scenes' content.
  • I kept noticing things about the power of storytelling but that could just be because I'm really interested in it.
  • I've only just figured this one out, but a lot of the conference was about engagement, whether through games, interactions with mobile devices, participatory projects, whatever. Access is dead, long live engagement.
Hopefully I'll grab some time to reflect more on specific sessions and talks, but an imperfect post is more use than a polished draft, so here you go!

Monday, 2 May 2011

Sharing hard-won wisdom about museum games - introducing 'Lift your (museum) game'

One outcome from MW2011 was the creation of 'Lift your (museum) game', a site for people who make museum games to share their hard-earned wisdom - project evaluation, research, references, methods, rants, lessons learnt from real projects - about making museum games.  Inspired by a question from Martha Henson about whether any sites already existed to gather resources like those discussed during the panel discussion after the Games session at Museums and the Web 2011 (with Dave Schaller, Elizabeth Goins and Coline Aunis), I created the wiki during the closing plenary and watched in awe as Kate Haley Goldman immediately started populating it with links.

Museum games have to compete in a highly competitive market, especially for casual and social games, and I suspect 'worthy' will only take us so far these days.  I'm hoping the dialogue around this site will help people avoid the pitfalls of 'death by museum committee' when designing games and push for excellent gameplay in museum games.  There are some great museum game projects and research going on, and pooling resources could help multiply the benefits of that work and provide a resource for people just starting out.  Also, if you're a games agency or designer, this could be a great place to pass on any tips or links (or warnings) you'd like potential museum clients to know about.  I've got a few papers on crowdsourcing games for museums coming up, so I'll be adding links and resources as I go - it's easy to add your resources or questions, just sign up at http://museumgames.pbworks.com.

One of the key themes of MW2011 for me was 'standing on the shoulders of giants' - there's so much good work going on in the museum digital sector, and so many amazing people are willing to share what they've learnt along the way, and hopefully this museum games wiki is a contribution to helping us all see further and do better.