Feeds:
Posts
Comments

I worked on a lovely project last year. Buxton Museum had won first stage HLF funding to do some initial development on their Collections in the Landscape project, and they wanted to use it to test how mobile could bring their museum content out into Buxton town and the Peak District sites that it relates to. This is something I know a number of museums have been trying out and thinking about recently, and it makes sense. If you have lots of artefacts from a particular archaeological site, wouldn’t it be nice if people could see those objects and hear their stories whilst they are at the site itself?

They were working with Lord Cultural Resources on this, and Lord hired me to help develop the pilots. I have to say, it was very pleasing to be working on a on a project that was a proper pilot: testing and evaluating the concept with the audience before plunging into building an expensive app. This seems like the ideal model to me, and well worth taking the time to do. As a pilot, though, the budget was limited, there were four ideas to test and no in-house expertise to build an app. We needed to find a platform that already existed to use.

I researched a number of options, there are quite a few services out there that allow you to build location based mobile tours and the like, but none were flexible enough or within the price range. Fortunately, whilst working on the Artmaps project for Tate I had met Ben Bedwell, who was part of the project team and the creator of Wander Anywhere (WA).

Wander Anywhere website screenshot

The Wander Anywhere website

Based on WordPress (which means the back end is very familiar), Wander Anywhere is a tool that allows you to create GPS based experiences: attaching text, audio, images or video to pages that can be triggered on screen as the user gets to a particular point on the ground.

The obvious use is to create mobile tours, but you could do something quite playful with it as well. We attempted this at a workshop Ben ran last year which invited a varied group of people (researchers, digital practitioners and museum staff) to use the platform to create something over two days at Wollaton Hall. This slightly silly Wollaton family fun tour was the result of my team’s efforts.

If you’re looking at the site on a non-mobile browser, it will just look like a collection of web pages. But, when viewed on mobile, the functionality is completely different: it gives you options for different ways to explore a site (using a compass, or map), and the pages are only triggered when you are in the right spot. A simple mechanic, but one that has lots of potential applications, I think.

Now, this is not an app. It is a completely web based experience, running on the phone’s browser. So it has its limitations, requiring a data connection and GPS to work. However, it is really very easy to use. You could put together a mobile tour in an hour, maybe less. For me, this makes it a brilliant prototyping tool, providing you are testing in a site that has a reliable data connection and good GPS coverage. Also, it’s a research project, not a commercial tool, so it’s free.

The

The “Mysterious Arbor Low” tour on the Buxton Museum apps site

For Buxton, it seemed like the best option. We ended up using WA as the basic platform but Ben did some extra development work on it to style the pages and tweak it a little. As one site, Dovedale, has absolutely no mobile signal, we decided to do a PDF family tour there instead that could be downloaded in advance, but the rest are WA based. The result is the Buxton Museum apps site here (best viewed on mobile for the full effect), which was launched and trialled at the beginning of 2014 (but is still live).

They are fairly simple, but each tries different things: Buxton Shops features wonderful reminiscences from local residents and asks for contributions from users, Buxton Waters is GPS triggered, Arbor Low is packed with extra content and set at a remote stone circle and barrow site. This meant that Buxton could evaluate the success or otherwise of the different features. For example, I think it’s fair to say that the GPS triggering proved difficult in a small town area. Lesson learned.

Buxton’s Collections in the Landscape blog is well worth reading, they’ve been very open about the whole process. There are a couple of posts on there about the trials they ran with the mobile tours (here for Dovedale, and here for Arbor Low) and many others on aspects of the funding applications, other digital experiments (e.g. with History Pin) and general museum objects and stories. And the good news is that they’ve been successful in securing second round funding, so the full project is now well under way.

Wander Anywhere carries on doing good stuff. Ben told me:

We’re currently in the middle of running a Creative Visiting Masterclass, which is a set of 1-day workshops looking at a range of different visiting technologies (including Wander Anywhere, but also visual markers, NFC, iBeacons, and so on): see http://wanderanywhere.com/cvm15/ . In terms of projects, it is currently at the Venice Biennale: see http://em15venice.co.uk (there is an on-location experience, via http://wanderanywhere.com/em15/) and we’ve got a few projects at proposal stage to look at cultural heritage applications.

I highly recommend having a play around with WA. Having the opportunity to try out a locative experience before a huge amount of build begins is really very valuable. I’d also love someone to come up with a game for it, at the workshop we were very taken by the fact that if there are multiple media points overlapping at one site, it will deliver one at random. There’s got to be a game in that, any ideas?

Over the last year, I’ve been involved in various qualitative research projects relating to teachers and how they interact with museums and use their educational resources, especially mobile or online resources, whether on a visit or in the classroom. In doing so, I’ve noticed a number of common themes coming up again and again that might be useful for other museums considering how best to work with and provide for schools.

A note: these are undoubtedly generalisations, and you will find teachers who do not conform to this, but these responses have been consistent enough throughout several different projects for me to think that if you want to be most effective for most teachers, you will need to consider these things.

Also, you are going to notice one word coming up a lot: “easy”. Make life easy for teachers. They work hard, they don’t have much time or budget. Make it easy, and they are much more likely to use your resources.

Make online resources easy to find

Teachers, by and large, are extremely time poor. They do want to find great new resources to use, activities and games to help them teach literacy, images to illustrate a historical topics, etc, and actually already spend a great deal of time looking for them. But they are swamped, and will tend not to look beyond well-known resources sites such as TES or “teachers pay teachers” (or corporate subject specific sites, sometimes that they are subscribed to) or Google. And when they google, they tend to use the key stage as a search term (or “primary/secondary”), the subject, and a word like “game” or “poster”.

Whilst some do go to a museum website that is well-known to them as having resources on a particular subject (e.g. the British Museum for Egyptian history), for the most part teachers are not going to trawl through lots of potential museums to see what resources they may have. So, your stuff will have to either be prominent on a resources portal, or high up the search rankings to be seen.

Alternatively, you will have to work harder to reach teachers directly, but when you do so, remember that:

The benefits must be easy to see

Again, always assume that teachers have no time (or energy) to spend a lot of effort trying to figure out whether your resource or session is what they need, whether it is appropriate for the age group, what it covers exactly, what is required to use it, and how long it is expected to take. Make this easy for them, by spelling it out up front, and by including good images such as screenshots of it or that show it being used.

The fact that it was created by a museum does give it some authority, but generally teachers will use whatever works, whoever it was made by, if it is easy to use and find.

Registration is a barrier that most teachers won’t bother getting over, especially if you can’t trial anything first, so don’t make that a requirement unless you aren’t bothered about losing a lot of customers.

Make the visit easy, don’t ask them to prep for it

Teachers don’t generally prepare for museum visits. Even if directly asked to check out the app they will be using, to recce the gallery, or to send over information about the students before a booked visit, they rarely do. See above re time and energy, but whatever the reason, instead of wondering why teachers don’t do this, and why the visits are sometimes chaotic as a result, better to just not rely on this preparation for the visit to work.

So, make sure any activities you have planned work without prep; make sure any digital resources come with a good introduction and, ideally, direct facilitation (seriously, this is what makes digital work well in these situations, a good facilitator); give teachers information they might need on the spot when they arrive (suggested activities for free time in the galleries, background info, questions and themes etc). Make it easy for them, and I’m sure they will appreciate it.

If you need information in advance, be proactive in seeking it out, don’t wait for a teacher to email. Also, I have noticed that teachers generally do not use email a great deal, especially out of term time, so find a better mode of communication if you must get in contact, probably by phone. But when you do that, don’t forget to:

Be mindful of the time of year

I was trying to reach teachers for interviews in December last year. Major error. The build up to Christmas was apparently frantic, almost nobody answered my calls and emails, and I began to despair of ever being able to get hold of people. In January I tried again though, and it was much easier. Exam times will have similar issues. Out of term time is probably hopeless. But at the end of the year, teachers will be looking to September, so that may be a good time to give them some new ideas for the new year.

Make it flexible and modular

You might have a grand online interactive planned or a beautiful mobile app that will teach the history of the Tudors in a single game, and so this might be hard to take, but chances are that won’t be nearly as useful to teachers as a really good image bank.

When teaching in their own classroom, they have their own way of doing things. Curriculums vary, especially at primary level, student needs vary, and teaching methods vary. For your activity or resource to work, it will be more use if it can be modified, broken apart, or flexible enough to be used in different ways. Rigid lesson plans that make assumptions about how teachers teach the subject and how long they spend on it are also likely to be unhelpful too.

So image banks are great for teachers, they can be used in presentations for teaching from the front or by the students in projects, they can be used to illustrate or enliven. If they can be provided on an open licence, all the better, so they can be repurposed and edited.

There is a bigger point here, too:

Don’t try and break the mould, make it fit with teachers’ existing practice

If you are trying to make teachers do something out of their normal way of doing things, it is probably doomed to fail. If they usually teach the Tudors with plenary classes (that are exactly tailored to their and their students needs, because they designed them that way) and an essay writing activity, your Tudor history game is unlikely to fit in here. It might be great for giving to students as homework, mind, which could be valuable in and of itself, but not much cop as a classroom activity, so don’t market it that way.

Generally, it pays to do the legwork to find out how teachers are already teaching a subject, and what the gaps and opportunities are, rather than making assumptions and finding out too late that your idea just isn’t practical in the time available. This is especially true of secondary schools, where there is a lot to cram in, and time is short.

Also, don’t assume all schools have access to ipads (other tablets are of course available, just not used that much, as far as I can tell), or that the ones that do are using them in the same way. Some are 1:1, many are using them in groups, or swapping them between classes.

Make it beautiful, easy, and solve a problem

Put yourself in the teacher’s shoes. They have a working busy life, a big class of students to keep engaged, a long week ahead and they just spent their whole Sunday marking. On Monday morning, they have to teach a tricky area of their subject, that students always struggle with, so they go in search of something that might help.

Can you give them something that will help solve this problem? Some great pictures, a short and exciting video introduction, some suggested live games to play, or, yes, maybe, a flexible interactive tool that will engage them but do more, perhaps track progress, or allow teachers to choose different bits for different students or be genuinely fun enough that kids will go play it in their own time.

Better yet, can you make it look really good? Because it does help, the students and teachers both appreciate high production values.

The best way to make sure that your resource works for teachers? Research their needs, and test it with them. I’ve found a lot of teachers very happy and willing to share their thoughts, and even just a few interviews will be invaluable for shaping your decisions.

So, I hope that’s useful. If any teachers come across this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is there anything I’ve missed, or misrepresented? If any readers want to hear any more detail on any of the research behind this, get in touch.

Thanks to the museums I’ve worked with for letting me share this research as well as the fabulous Teach Your Monster to Read team for whom I carried out research into classroom phonics resources.

This post first appeared on the Royal Institution’s blog.

Who are we reaching, and how do we reach further and have greater impact? This was what the Royal Institution wanted to know about their new ExpeRimental project: a series of free online films that aimed to encourage and support parents (and also teachers) to do science activities with their children.

The first ExpeRimental film published

They commissioned me to put together a report that would do this, evaluating the audience and their reaction to the films, but also looking at what they could do to better reach and engage with an audience that they strongly suspected was not watching the films: those were less confident or knowledgeable about science. This followed an initial piece of research I carried out for the Ri that evaluated the pilot (which was used to help develop the full series of films, a very useful process in a project of this nature).

In this post I’ll share the process and some of the key findings, which I think could be very relevant to anyone embarking on a science communication project, or perhaps even any subject-specific digital engagement work. Spoilers: the non-science savvy are probably not likely to seek out your online content, no matter how good it is, and to reach them you are going to have to work a bit harder. If you do only one thing, it should be to try and reach parents via their children’s schools.

Phase one

The first task was to look at the current audience, and try to find out more about who they are, and what they think of the films. To do this, I looked at analytics from YouTube and the Ri’s website, and put together an audience survey that asked for opinions of the films, as well as questions about their expertise and confidence in discussing science subjects.

One thing to note about the research: there were over 20 films in the series, but most had already gone live. The survey was linked to from most of the films, but the vast majority of results will come from the last three that went live (during Science Week) after the survey was published, skewing the results to those, and to people who came to them and the survey via subscriptions and social media (ie probably those who were already “fans” in some way of the Ri and who wanted to be helpful). Whilst we had over a hundred responses this does mean the results can only be indicative rather than a fully significant and complete picture of the audience. The lesson there is to capture viewer feedback from the very beginning.

That said, some of the results were pretty striking. First, the good news. The audience was overwhelmingly positive about the films themselves and fulsome in their praise for them. When asked what could be improved, the most common answer was “nothing”, closely followed by “have more”. A few wanted to see more “further reading” links, such as related videos or ways to extend the activities, but for the rest there were only a few minor criticisms or suggestions.

The audience loved that the presenters and settings were relatable (they showed “real people” and “real family homes”), and that they depicted kids actually doing the activities. They said that the videos were clear, and the activities were easy to do.

A pleasing number had also picked up on the fact that the activities were less about imparting factual information but were instead aiming to depict a more questioning approach, that it was asking the questions that was the most important thing. Perhaps the most encouraging stat was that 60% of parents had already done the activity with their kids or students, and of the rest, only one person said that they weren’t planning on it.

However, the less good news was that the audience appeared to be very much from within a particular science “bubble” – they were very science savvy. Not a single respondent said they were “not at all confident” discussing science with their kids or students, over 70% said they were “very confident” or “quite confident” doing so (compare this with the results from the Phase 2 recruitment survey where only a little over 30% from a more general audience were “very confident” or “quite confident” and about 20% were “not at all confident”).

Respondents were asked about their level of science studied, and over 55% had a degree or post-graduate qualification in science (again the phase 2 recruitment survey would show that less than 20% had a degree in science, over 50% not going beyond GCSE science). So, as suspected, there were clear indications that the current/existing ExpeRimental audience was somewhat unusual, and that there could be a huge untapped audience of less science-confident parents out there. Which leads us to the next phase of research.

Phase two

The next question was clear: how does the Ri reach this audience? Their promotional plan so far had included use of social media, distribution via third parties such as AOL, national media coverage including TV appearances such as a slot on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch and a piece on ITV London news, a Huffington Post blog series, hospital newsletters, promotion via Brownie groups and parenting blogs, and collaborations with organisations such as a link to British Science Week via the British Science Association and training sessions for play-workers via London Play. Whilst this had resulted in some strong numbers for a few of the videos, it apparently was still preaching to the converted, for the most part.

Looking at the analytics, discovery type varied between videos, some on well-known subjects (making playdoh, or bubbles) were being found by search on YouTube and others were mostly being found via YouTube recommendations or subscriptions. One or two had seen a lot of traffic from online articles such as on the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. On the website people were arriving via various searches along the lines of “fun activities for kids” or “science for preschoolers” (most science related queries appearing to be school related, including “ks2” or “kindergarten”).

Being found via search was clearly very important to the success of some of the videos, but this only works if it is something that people might actually be searching for (almost nobody is going to be searching for “balancing structures”, the subject of one of the videos, for example). If it isn’t on a popular subject, then it is competing with all the other results for “fun activities for kids” that might come up when a parent gets desperate on a rainy bank holiday. Which is an awful lot of competition.

Social media is obviously likely to result in getting a message out to the like-minded (existing Facebook or Twitter fans and followers, and their similar connections). You’d expect that more general press and especially an appearance on Sunday Brunch might reach a more general audience, but it hadn’t translated into lots of views. A new strategy was needed.

In my experience, getting to the bottom of questions like this requires a more in-depth, qualitative approach. Surveys will only get you so far, and can be a bit self-selecting. I needed to find people in this target audience, and have a long chat with them. To do this, I posted a recruitment survey to Mumsnet and the East Dulwich Forum (a very active local forum), that was looking for parents who were not at all confident discussion science subjects with their kids.

I would note at this point that the two forums I posted the survey on are known for having a fairly middle-class demographic, and they are naturally going to be an audience that are very active and engaged internet users. We had discussed reaching an even broader audience with the research, but it would have taken quite a lot more resources and we decided that it was beyond the scope and means of this evaluation, at least for the moment. Also, the Mumsnet/East Dulwich Forum audience is likely to be a good fit for the videos, so it made sense to focus on them. As it turns out, I think the strategy suggested by this research will also help reach a wider audience anyway.

Interview findings

I found eight parents who fit the criteria (“not at all confident” and mostly educated to GCSE science level or below) and who were willing to be interviewed, in return for a £15 Amazon voucher. The discussions I had with them were extremely informative, and whilst some of the insight may seem obvious in hindsight, it certainly didn’t beforehand. It’s also useful to just have some suspicions confirmed, and evidence to bolster the case for a particular strategy.

Firstly, when these parents did watch the videos (after our interview), they really liked them. They all planned to do the activities with their children afterwards. So there was nothing about the actual content of the video that was putting off this less science-savvy audience. That was a good start.

However, most of our interviewees just would never have considered doing science experiments with their children at home. If it had ever crossed their mind, they wouldn’t have known where to start looking, and would be nervous about “getting it wrong” and misleading their children. Instead, they tended to focus on doing more arts and crafts activities, general play, or sports and outdoorsy pursuits, because this was what they were comfortable and familiar with. It was clear that this audience were never going to find the videos by search, or by seeing them shared on social media, it was going to take something more direct, and something that addressed their concerns.

When I asked what they thought would be a good way to reach them, every single parent said something along the lines of “get a note into the kid’s school book bags”. The schools were the key, they said, they respected information that came via that route, and they paid attention to it. Whilst a mailshot to every school with leaflets for every child would require a pretty huge marketing effort and budget, the basic message of “go via the schools” suggests other possible avenues (via school newsletters, targeting teachers as ambassadors, or encouraging schools to send out emails or texts, perhaps).

Other possibilities mentioned included holding community events or targeting community centres, trying to reach after-school science clubs, tapping into childminder networks on Facebook and elsewhere, getting mentioned on general parenting blogs and forums, and via museums (the Science Museum and Natural History Museum were mentioned often as popular destinations for family visits). Nobody felt that Facebook or Twitter would be particularly good ways to reach them directly as parents.

The other important aspect of this is that if you did manage to reach this audience with a promotional message, it had to feature some key information. It had to be clear that the activity would be easy to do, use things that you would already have at home, or be straightforward and cheap to buy, that it wouldn’t take a lot of time to prepare (and then take only 5 minutes to do), and that they were be supported in answer the kid’s questions. One of my recommendations from this was to test future marketing messages directly with this audience, to make sure it does all of these things.

The parents particularly wanted to know the context of the science activity. What subject did it fit into, especially in terms of the school curriculum? What was it related to, and why was it relevant to their lives (i.e. is this really about electricity, or sound waves)? They also wanted to encourage their kids to spend time outdoors, so activities that could be done in the park or garden would be seen as a good thing.

Lessons learned

What I love about doing research of this sort is that moment where someone says something that suddenly seems so obvious, but that somehow hadn’t been before. It’s usually a good sign that your findings are plausible. So, it now seems very obvious that you have to be pretty confident and aware on science subjects to be seeking out experiments for your kids to do at home. It now also seems very obvious that schools are the best route to the audience that isn’t. Somehow, it wasn’t obvious at all when I started on this, but hopefully it will be useful for future ExpeRimental films and perhaps other science communication projects too.

Click here to browse the full set of ExpeRimental films.

This post looks at the results from some research I did for a project to develop an in-gallery app for a new exhibition (more details on that soon). I spoke to various helpful people (I’m not sure if they are happy to be credited though so will check and add them in if so. Edit: Thanks to Lindsey and Alyson of Frankly, Green and Webb! and Iain George of Antenna International) and also got some useful stuff from the MCG mailing list, thanks to everyone that helped.

Tiny museum signage that all the visitors are ignoring

Tiny boring museum sign that all the visitors are ignoring

I wanted to know: how do you market mobile apps to visitors when the app is designed to be used in gallery?

I wanted to hear what the experiences of others were, what had worked, what hadn’t. I knew that take-up for apps in gallery was often quite low, and that it was a difficult thing to get right, visitors often don’t understand the offer, don’t notice the signage, or didn’t see why they should bother.

There were some challenges with this research for a few reasons. There isn’t much shared data or evaluation about this out there. Maybe we could all be better at sharing our experiences? Also, it can be difficult to untangle how people find an app, without asking them directly. This sort of research is obviously possible, but can be time-consuming.

That said, I did get some good stuff. So, here are the key points from the research:

  • Making a good app that people can and want to use is obviously important, but one person told me that, in terms of take-up, as little as 10% of the success of an app is down to the content. Marketing and distribution is the rest.
  • Where do your visitors come into contact with your organisation’s messaging before and during a visit (and after)? Identify the opportunities to reach your audience at these touchpoints. A visit us page on the website is an obvious point, so make sure it’s there, or wherever your visitors go on your site to find visit information. Do people need to book in advance? Mention it there too then.
  • It must feel official – buy-in across the organisation is hugely important. Too often the marketing is an afterthought, or lost in a jumble of other competing messages. The app must feel like an important part of the experience to the visitor, so must be seen as important internally as well.
  • Copy and language are really important: use language that the audience will understand and find appealing. How can you be sure you have the right message? Test it! Take it out into the gallery and ask visitors what they think the name or tagline means. Or describe the app and ask what words they would use to describe it to a friend.
  • Address audience concerns. Visitors are worries about battery life, data usage, making noise in the gallery and many other things. Find out what those concerns might be and address them (not defensively, mind) in the marketing. Maybe explain that it is a one off download, or that they can use the wifi, or you can provide cheap headphones in the shop.
  • Convey the benefits. Don’t assume that the audience do the mental legwork in interpreting what the app will add to their experience. Be really clear and concise about what those benefits are.
  • Make the target audience clear. Is it for families? Say so. Families in particular are often looking for child friendly activities to do in gallery.
  • Signage is obviously important. But one sign is rarely enough, and one mention on a general sign is going to be ignored by the vast majority. Place specific, appealing, signage early on somewhere prominent. Reiterate in gallery.
  • Use the queues! If people are having to wait for a while for tickets, DEFINITELY use this opportunity to tell them about the app. This may also be a good point to get them to download it. Use it to build anticipation.
  • Use the mobile splash page. Andrew Lewis at the V&A has done some great research on this. If visitors can log into your wifi, use the login page or the page they are redirected to to tell them about the app and mobile offer. One catch though, you still have to market the wifi, as many visitors (perhaps the majority) are not aware that museums have it.
  • Use print. Don’t forget the old fashioned methods. Create a leaflet about the app, hand it out with tickets, or hand it out in the queue. Or place it in gallery, or use it at events. Use it to market the app and provide some guidance for those who may be less tech savvy.
  • Make sure gallery staff are aware of the app and trained in how to use it. A common issue, very understandable in museums with volunteer staff with a high turnover, is that the visitor cannot get support or information about an app from a staff member because they know nothing about it. The whole thing will run a lot better if visitors can ask any staff member about it. In gallery staff are also well place to identify visitors (again, perhaps families especially) who might benefit from the app and can even approach them to suggest it.
  • For teacher audiences, there are more specific needs. They want to plan in advance, so you will need to be more proactive about reaching them before the visit, when they get in contact to book. Or in more direct marketing before they were even thinking about it.
  • App Store and Google Play store promotion is difficult, you should obviously make sure it is easy to find and well tagged etc, but browsing through the App Store is not how most visitors will be attracted to using an app of this sort so don’t rely on this.
  • Press and PR is important, of course. Target the right audience as you would for other marketing. But may need to make it more about the app in the context of the whole visit, as you are also having to do the work to convince people to come in the first place, they aren’t already there.

What do you think? Do you have different experiences or disagree? Or have anything else to add?

A slightly belated write-up of my Children’s Media Conference experience in July.

This year was my first CMC, and it was great. Good sessions, good conversations.

On the Wednesday Kirsten Campbell-Howes and I, under the #LEGup and edugameshub banner, produced a workshop on turning existing IP into a good educational game. We had around 25 attendees from various organisations and agencies, some of whom, such as Aardman, who had a property they already wanted to work with, and others who were coming at it without something in mind.

Over the course of the afternoon we alternated between group exercises intended to develop a game idea into a full pitch, and informal chats on particular aspects of the process with our expert panel. We had Chris O’Shea of Cowly Owl, Josh Hutson of Nightzookeeper, Mahesh Ramachandra of Hopster, and Phil Stuart of Preloaded, all sharing their wisdom and anecdotes about the games they’ve created over the years. Personally, I learnt a lot from these guys during the workshop and during the prep for it. Hopefully our attendees did too.

The final pitches were impressively detailed, and really rather good, especially considering how little time people had to put them together. You can read a write up for the session with various takeaways here.

Our slides are below:

I was also on the panel for “Achievement Unlocked! How to design, make and sell successful educational digital games”. It aimed to be practical session on the process and business of educational games and was produced by Antonio Gould. We got into budgets, one of my favourite topics that I wish people would share more on (but I also get why they don’t). For the record, when I said that you could potentially get a reskinned game with a basic mechanic for under 10k, I didn’t mean that that was necessarily a good idea… especially for an educational game which usually needs to address specific learning outcomes. You can listen to the session here.

As with the above session, most other sessions have their audio and presentations online, and I recommend having a prowl around the site. Other talks that I thought were interesting were:

The opening keynote from Dylan Collins of SuperAwesome certainly caused some debate. Definitely didn’t agree with him on all counts, but it was still thought-provoking. Can watch the whole talk on that link and do some grumbling/nodding of your own in response.

The research sessions are worth a look. I caught one on pink and blue and gender, which had some interesting info but I didn’t feel really went into sufficient detail about whether the causes of gender differentiation might not be a result of subtle conditioning such as toy colours in the first place.

Andrew Manches’ talk on Transformational Technology went into some fascinating areas of research around embodied cognition and gesture theory. Did you know that our gestures often demonstrate the physical and embodied ways we think about apparently abstract concepts such as number, by imagining them like blocks in front of us, for example? And by disrupting the gestures, you can disrupt the ability to think? There were 9 research sessions in total and I will definitely be having a trawl through the rest that I missed.

The Learning Landscape session brought together a huge panel of experts who debated statements such as “Brands and businesses have no place in the classroom” (I think we need to be much more cautious about this, one panellist thought it was a great idea though); “No one wants to play an educational game”; “There’s no evidence that digital content enhances learning” and “Teachers are afraid of technology, so they won’t use your work anyway” etc. You can read the write up here.

One of the other workshops sounded brilliant, and I’m sorry I couldn’t attend, as was running my own. Olivia Dickinson and Jon Spooner ran a Collaborating with Kids session, which invited 35 local kids along to work with adult attendees on a selection of mini workshops within the workshop. It sounded insane and fabulous. The report is here. Top takeaway: children will be brutally honest, and also: “everyone needs a monkey sidekick”, apparently.

And the definite highlight of the conference was Ylva Hälllen from SVT in Sweden talking about Minimello, basically the X Factor with toilet rolls, as part of the Innovation Forum session. It sounded brilliant. Kids make characters out of toilet rolls, send them in, and they then turn up on the Minimello TV show with songs written specially for them, in the style of their character. The songs were hilarious, and whole idea was just beautiful. You can read the report here and or just watch an episode on YouTube (with subtitles).

In honour of #MuseumWeek, I have (badly) photographed (sorry) the guidebook for the weird and wonderful Wax Museum at Brading, Isle of Wight, where I grew up. I’m not sure if it’s my earliest museum memory, but it certainly made an impression, probably because of all the gore and excessive nudity, which was possibly a bit much for a primary school visit (if I’ve remembered that right).

Below is a slideshow of my own photos from inside the museum which also shows the fantastic taxidermy section, full of such (un)natural wonders as the winged cat, mermaid, and yeti (view on flickr for captions/attempted explanations). Sadly, the museum closed in 2009, saying that they were just not making enough money and visitor numbers were too low. This resulted in a rather spectacular auction of their collection, as described in this Daily Mail article and this Morbid Anatomy post.

(edit: just realised I’ve been bigging up the winged cat, but don’t actually have a photo, could have sworn I did. Anyway, there is one on this page).

I think if I ever become a billionaire I will track down all the pieces and recreate the museum.

Below is a paper by Danny Birchall and I that we wrote in 2012 about our work with games at Wellcome, and what we’d learned along the way. It was written just before I left, and so it felt like a nice wrapping up of what was a long and interesting process. It was only published in print, though, and I asked permission to post it online, which they granted as long as I waited 6 months. It’s been more like 18 months, but anyway, here goes. I hope it’s interesting and useful to anyone thinking about how they could use games as an engagement or learning tool, or to reach millions of people.

Reaching a new audience through gaming

Martha Henson and Danny Birchall

This article first appeared in Henry Stewart Publications 2047-1300 (2013) Vol. 1, 4 351–356 Journal of Digital Media Management 351

Wellcome Collection is an unusual public venue, based on the Euston Road in London. It is part of the Wellcome Trust, which was founded in 1936 according to the wishes of Sir Henry Wellcome, a biomedical entrepreneur and fanatical collector, as expressed in his will. The aims of the trust are to improve animal and human health, largely through funding biomedical research, but they also have an interest in public engagement with science. This is where Wellcome Collection comes in.

Together with a very fine medical library, the building houses two permanent exhibitions. One displays a small fraction of Henry Wellcome’s original collection of artefacts loosely connected in some way to health, but with this remit interpreted in such a broad way as to include items such as Charles Darwin’s walking stick, a chastity belt, prosthetics, surgical instruments and a Peruvian mummified corpse. The other looks at more modern medical concerns such as genetics and obesity through art and objects such as sequencing machines and diet books. There are also temporary exhibitions and events that deal with a wide range of topics related to life, medicine and science. The most recent, Superhuman, challenged ideas about what constitutes human enhancement, while the next one, Death, will tackle the emotive but endlessly fascinating subject after which it has been named.

The tone of all of this is very much non-didactic: the aim is to engage visitors with ideas, ethics, history and science in a thought-provoking way rather than merely to convey factual information. This approach also underpinned our thinking when it came to games: they had to be genuinely fun and engaging, and the factual content had to be embedded in a meaningful way. The idea was that people should have their curiosity and interest piqued by playing, not feel like they had received a thinly disguised lecture with a game mechanic crudely stuck on to it. It was also felt that the diverse subject matter that Wellcome Collection covers, combined with resources such as the image library and archives, had the potential to form the basis of really great original games.

But why games? First, a well-constructed game can be an incredibly engaging experience. Even those who do not consider themselves gamers will likely recognise the feeling of losing hours to playing Solitaire or Tetris on their computer, or perhaps Angry Birds on their phone. This state of ‘flow’, as it is known, is deep engagement and it is hard to think of many other activities that create this.

In addition, play is, in and of itself, all about learning. One must learn to progress in any game and there is no reason why this learning cannot also be factual. Furthermore, ‘people who play games’ constitute a huge audience, spread all over the world and yet using the same platforms and devices, all brought together by their desire to play. Reaching this audience, one that probably would not otherwise be aware of or be able to come to Wellcome Collection, was a significant reason for choosing this particular route — not because the aim was to convert those players into visitors, but to widen the reach of Wellcome’s activities.

THE GAMES AND THE PROCESS

We started relatively simply. The first couple of games were based on existing successful and enduring game mechanics that it was thought tallied particularly well with the museum’s content. We worked with an agency called Smile Your Eyes Off to create an online Flash game called Memory, which used the old game of Pelmanism as a basis. In this game, the player must turn over two matching cards to clear them away, the aim being to clear all the cards presented (1). The difference in this game is that all the card faces have pictures from Wellcome Images, a vast and varied picture library that contains both historical and contemporary images (2)

Having different themed levels made it possible to convey the breadth of the collection, with around 30 themes available for ten levels, such as masks, skeletons, cells and advertising. The levels also get increasingly difficult as the images get more numerous and more similar. For example, at the end of the game, the player might be unlucky enough to get the forceps level, which is not only very difficult but also very representative of Henry Wellcome’s habit of collecting a large amount of the same type of object.

It was a good starting point — the game was not too complicated and we got to know the process for making games. We found that collaboration was particularly important, it could not have been done without the involvement of image researchers in Wellcome Images and we worked closely with the developers. This spirit of collaboration was to inform the process for future games as well. The game was placed on the Wellcome Collection website, and continues to attract players, with around 60,000 views since launch.

The next project was a quiz engine that allowed the creation of multiple choice quizzes that could bring in images, audio and video in both question and answer (3). This was not particularly original, but was very useful and perhaps most notable for being our first collaboration with Preloaded, an award-winning games agency who focus on ‘games with purpose’ (4). Soon after the quiz engine project, an opportunity came up to do something a bit different and we turned again to Preloaded to help realise the idea.

In the winter of 2010–2011, Wellcome Collection held an exhibition called High Society, which looked at the history of drug use. One small part of the exhibition dealt with the Opium Wars, a shameful episode in the history of the British Empire in which opium was smuggled into China by the British, in order to raise funds to buy tea. It is a fascinatingly murky and under-discussed period of history, but it also has at its heart a central trading mechanic: buy opium; sell opium; buy tea. It was this mechanic that became the basis for High Tea.

In High Tea, one plays as a British trader, attempting to buy and sell opium at a good price and make enough money to keep the people back in Britain in tea (5). The player must avoid getting their ship impounded by the Chinese authorities, who are very much against this trade. The game starts in 1830 and ends in 1839, if the player survives that long, at which point they are informed how many Chinese people are now addicted to opium because of their actions and also that the result of this trade was the First Opium War, which ended rather badly for the Chinese.

Again, collaboration was very important to making High Tea work. It is a controversial subject and it was important to make sure that it was factually accurate. Fortunately, one of the curators of the High Society exhibition, author Mike Jay, was involved from the start. He helped make sure that the facts and names were right, but more than that, he worked with US and Preloaded to develop the fundamental concept, which came out of a brainstorming discussion about the subject matter.

THE SUCCESS OF HIGH TEA AND EVALUATING IT

Preloaded’s distribution strategy for online casual games is to build the game to be self-contained and therefore easy to download and ‘rip’ to other sites (6). At the same time, the company also makes it easily trackable. This means that the game can be placed anywhere and one can still see the play statistics and information, in this case using Google Analytics. The game is then seeded to major portals such as Kongregate, Newgrounds and Armor games, from which, if it shows any promise, it will be immediately ripped to tens if not hundreds of other games sites around the world. On occasion they will ask permission, but usually not. This is what happened to High Tea when it was launched in at the beginning of February 2011.

Initially, a goal was set of around 100,000 plays in the first few months, but this was exceeded in just one day. The game got high star ratings, was featured on the front pages of all the big portals to which it had been, was ripped to around 70 more on the first day and hundreds of comments were left by players. This ‘opening weekend’ was beyond all expectations. After a few days the game left the front pages and plays dropped off, although still to a consistent few thousand plays per day, which continues to this day. To date, it has had over 4 million plays (7).

Why was it so successful? What did the players make of it and the unusual subject matter? Some clues could be found from the analytics. We could see that the distribution strategy had worked and that over 50 per cent of plays were on sites that had ripped the game. Around 47 per cent of plays were on the officially seeded portals and only 3 per cent were on the Wellcome Collection site.

We also saw that social media had driven very little traffic, although share links were placed for Twitter and Facebook in the game. It was therefore fortunate that we had not relied on putting it on its own site and hoping it would ‘go viral’ over social media. We also looked at the Google Trends results for searches for ‘opium wars’ over several months before and after the game was launched. There is indeed a spike that corresponds with the game, but does not appear to have any other news event associated.

Although this is all very circumstantial, a survey that was put up with the game suggested that the game was inspiring people to do more of their own research on the topic. While the analytics are interesting, they often raise more questions than they answer and a more qualitative approach is necessary to find out more. Collaborating again with another department within the Wellcome Trust that specialises in evaluation, a plan was formulated to do this.

First, players were asked to answer a series of questions not only about the gameplay and about themselves, but also about their learning from the game and how they felt about the British Empire after playing it. Based on the answers from this, an interview script was devised and was followed up with seven players in depth over the phone and in a small focus group.

The results were illuminating. The most pleasing result from the survey was that over 50 per cent of players said they were likely to go on to find out more about the subject under their own steam. This was mostly via internet searches, but one player even said that they had read a book about Chinese history as a result. This was a huge success. As the aim had been for the games to engage rather than didactically educate, to generate interest rather than lecture, this measure seems to demonstrate that this had been achieved. Players were asked whether they knew much about the Opium Wars before playing and how the game had affected how they felt about the British Empire. Over 60 per cent were already aware of this history, but in the interviews most said they felt they had learnt something from playing.

Surprisingly, given how shocking it was felt that the actions of the British Empire were, around 57 per cent of surveyed players felt the same about it after playing and around 10 per cent even felt more positively. This indicated poor survey design as there was no baseline to judge any change in opinion from before the game. As such, this was explored further in the telephone interviews. It turned out that players who felt more positively towards the British Empire did so because the game allowed them to empathise with the traders involved by putting them in their shoes. They felt that their decision making was purely economic — they were just trying to put food on the table and were at enough of a remove from the trade’s impact to make ethical factors seem very distant. It was not that players were condoning their behaviour, but understanding it made them more sympathetic. This was very interesting, that even such a simple map-based game could engender feelings of empathy towards characters in it.

The final avenue for evaluation was the commentary left by players on the games portals — many hundreds not only across all the sites on which it was played, but also in blog posts about and reviews of the game (and even comments on those articles), on social media, in YouTube walkthroughs and sites like Metafilter and Reddit. What makes this particularly interesting (although harder to analyse) is that one has no control over it and it can make for unexpected reading. For example, some commentators discussed the maths or economics of the game, not something that had been particularly considered while developing it.

Many commented on the gameplay, which they largely enjoyed, but frequently had suggestions for improving (multiplayer or sandbox modes, ability to buy more boats and so on). A significant number discussed the content in some depth and the commentary was often quite thoughtful and measured. A tiny number, many less than had been thought, took issue with Wellcome Collection supposedly glorifying the actions of the British by making it fun to play.

It was a deliberate aim to try to keep the game fairly neutral in tone to let players make up their own mind, up until the slightly over-the-top results at the end showing the millions of Chinese people the player has caused to be addicted to opium. We had worried that this would be misinterpreted as a pro British Empire game, but most people understood that this was not what was going on here.

In terms of the player demographics, an international audience had indeed been reached, with a large proportion of players not only in North America, but also all over Europe and a large chunk in Brazil. The age range was wide, but more focused on 16–24 year olds than other age ranges, which is a younger audience than is usual for Wellcome Collection activities. One disappointment was a 90 per cent male skew, according to the survey, despite female players liking the game equally well. This is probably a disadvantage of targeting these online portals, which have a mostly male demographic. We are is looking at ways to rectify this for future games, perhaps by including mobile platforms, which have a more even gender split.

WHAT NEXT?

This year has seen production of two very different projects, Axon and Magic In Modern London. Following the success of High Tea, the winning formula was repeated for online casual Flash games with a game about neuroscience inspired by the exhibition Brains. As before, we collaborated with Preloaded, the exhibition curator, who this time was Marius Kwint from the University of Portsmouth, and another domain expert, neurobiologist Richard Wingate from Kings College London.

There was a fruitful day-long session of learning and discussion, during which Richard Wingate gave a crash course in neuroscience and Preloaded in game design. We were looking in particular for some rules within the brain science field that could be turned into the rules of a game. A key moment was when Richard showed a video he had created of neurons growing in a foetal chicken brain (this video can now be seen in the game itself). The neurons are growing towards protein targets and are also competing with other neurons to make the best connections and survive. This mechanic, along with the ‘brainbow’ style aesthetic of bright neurons on a dark background, became Axon (8).

The distribution strategy was more or less identical to that of High Tea and it again met with huge success. As before, we were keen to find out more about players reactions and surveyed them. Although the evaluation is not yet finished and the telephone interviews have not been started, it has been found that over 76 per cent of players learned something from playing the game and, again, a large proportion were moved to go and do their own research after playing.

Magic in Modern London is a very different and much more experimental project (9). It was inspired by a recent exhibition at Wellcome Collection in which an artist, Felicity Powell, took hundreds of amulets and incorporated them into her own work. The amulets, now in the Pitt Rivers collection, were originally collected by folklorist Edward Lovett in the early 20th century. Lovett wrote a book, Magic in Modern London, in which he told the stories that came with the amulets, which were bought or cajoled off ordinary Londoners (10).

This time, the subject matter suggested a different approach. As the amulets were collected around London, the idea of a treasure hunt around the city, where the player ‘collected’ the amulets themselves, seemed natural, and the obvious platform seemed to be mobile. As it happened, an agency called Amblr was building a platform that used GPS to trigger audiovisual content, which was used to great effect in an app called Hackey Hear (11).

In the Magic and Modern London app, the user navigates a 1908 map, overlaid on modern London, to find ‘areas of enchantment’ and collect the amulet at their centre. The aim is to assist an elderly and ailing Lovett to reassemble his collection and the stories that go with it. Once in an area of enchantment, music, imagery and voiceover lead the player to the amulet. Finding the amulet in question will unlock a reading from the book or inspired by the book related to each amulet.

The app has only just been released, although an evaluation will be carried out in the same manner as with the other games. As this is in many ways a more complicated and involved experience for the player, it will be very interesting to see how the platform affects distribution and what players make of it.

WHAT HAS BEEN LEARNED?

As we hope is clear, this has been journey of discovery, during which we have been both surprised and delighted by what has been found. The success with reaching and engaging a new audience could be put down to a number of key factors.

Collaboration has obviously been important, as has the distribution strategy. Picking subject matter that was both intriguing and also lent itself to a game was crucial, as was making sure that the factual content was fully embedded in the game mechanic. Working with people who know how to make fun games is hugely important, as is testing them throughout development to make sure they are well balanced. Evaluation is vital, there are many simple methods available to check what players are learning from a game or how they are reacting to it and it is perhaps the most interesting part of the process.

References

1. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘Memory’, available at: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/interactives/memory/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

2. Wellcome Images (undated) ‘Wellcome Images’, available at: http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

3. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘High Society Quiz’, available at: http://www.wellcome collection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/high-society/quiz.aspx (accessed 6th November, 2012),

4. Preloaded (2013) ‘Preloaded’, available at: http://preloaded.com/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

5. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘High Tea’, available at: http://hightea.wellcomeapps.com/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

6. Stuart, P. (2010) ‘How we publish an online game’, available at: http://preloaded.com/blog/2010/08/16/how-we-publish-an-online-game/ (accessed 5th May, 2011).

7. Birchall, D. and Henson, M. (2011) ‘High Tea Evaluation Report’, available at: http://museumgames.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/44614076/HighTeaEvaluationReport.pdf (accessed 15th January, 2013).

8. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘Axon’, available at: http://axon.wellcomeapps.com/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

9. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘Magic in Modern London’, available at: http://www.wellcome collection.org/explore/play/magic-in-modern-london.aspx (accessed 6th November, 2012).

10. Lovett, E. (1925) ‘Magic in Modern London’, printed at the Advertiser offices.

11. Hackney Hear (undated) ‘Hackney Hear’, available at: http://www.hackneyhear.com/ (accessed 6th November, 2012).

Henson and Birchall

356 Journal of Digital Media Management Vol. 1, 4 351–356 [1] Henry Stewart Publications 2047-1300 (2013)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 37 other followers