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Archive for the ‘Thoughts about games’ Category

I used to give a talk about how museums should do more games. I would talk about how successful we’d been with this at Wellcome Collection with games like High Tea and Axon, and give other great examples from Tate, the Science Museum, the Smithsonian, and so on. However, I don’t feel that evangelising entirely makes sense any more, because the reality has proven tough.

So I have updated this talk to reflect that reality, to look into why some museums have found it actually very hard to create successful games, and to suggest a solution. Below is a video of me giving it at We Are Museums in Bucharest earlier in the year, including a short example of live game design game Cat On Yer Head in action. Since the slides from that are quite hard to make out, I’ve put them below, along with a summary.

Since the talk, I’ve left Frankly Green + Webb to go solo again, with a view to focus more on the game side of things (along with some general digital consultancy and research, and, er, yoga teaching and other bits and bobs. I do like a portfolio/random sort of career!). One of the things I offer is a game design workshop, which has proven very successful (two comments from the last one I ran: “I was really impressed by the way we managed to create our own games at the end of the session – this was really inspiring.”,”I’d say you learn a lot while having lots of fun. Great if you want to understand more about how games work and become a better commissioner of games.”).

The workshop gives you a chance to try out the principles described in the talk below, and feel confident about what it takes to create a good game. I’m looking for various outlets to run it at the moment for whoever wants to come, so more on that soon, but I have run it for specific organisations in the past, tailoring it to their needs, so if that sounds like something your museum or group would be interested in, let me know (give me a shout via twitter or linkedin). I genuinely love doing this workshop, it involves a lot of play and experimentation, and at the end of it participants have come up with some properly brilliant ideas.

On with the talk:

And the written version:

  1. Games can be a powerful medium for museums. Done well they can be engaging, educational, and reach a large audience. Look at what happened with High Tea. Over 4 million plays, amazing audience feedback/evaluation and engagement with the ideas and themes.
  2. But this turns out to be hard to get right, and too often goes wrong. Why?
    • Lack of digital and games knowhow or dedicated resource
    • Specifically a lack of understanding of the game design process from clients
    • Lengthy crippling sign off processes
    • A lack of flexibility in the game design process linked to funding structures – often decisions are made before games experts have had a chance to feed in and then are locked in.
    • Small budgets or tight schedules that don’t allow for testing and development
    • A poor fit between objectives and outcomes of the game – little learning or engagement
    • Lack of understanding about the audience
    • Failure to market – nobody played it
    • No shared learning or insight passed on.
  3. This is what I’ve heard from both museum insiders and agencies/developers, some of whom have stopped doing this sort of work on commission because it’s so fruitless. And lots of cultural organisations have had budgets cut, so doing a game can seem hard to justify if they haven’t worked in the past.
  4. Bummer. Cat gif for light relief. But, take heart! There are so many encouraging signs. Great things are being done in board games (look at all the lovely examples in slide 11!), in indie games, in physical games. Look how popular and brilliant Now Play This was. The answer is not to stop doing games, the answer is to do the right sort of games, appropriate to your needs and resources. And the answer is to understand what best practice looks like in this area and learn from the mistakes that have been made.
  5. So, how do we make good games? My thoughts. There are many (many) definitions of games. But I find helpful way to understand games is to see them as a system of rules or MECHANICS that produce DYNAMICS (what you actually do in the game) that lead to AESTHETICS or the player experience overall (Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek 2001 http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/pubs/MDA.pdf).
  6. As the designer, you control the mechanics, and then look at what this produces in terms of dynamics, and then how the players actually experience that.
  7. Too often, we think in terms of the aesthetics and the trappings of the game (the story, the art design etc), and forget that what you can control and what will make it compelling are good mechanics. And whatever learnings or objectives you have for the game, need to be embedded in the mechanics.
    • (For example, we wanted players to understand that the opium trade that caused the Opium Wars was about the buying and selling of opium, in order to buy tea. So, those are the mechanics of the game – buy opium, sell opium, buy tea. You can’t play the game without picking that up.)
  8. So, the good news is, the process for doing this isn’t really that complicated:
    • Identify your objectives (DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP)
    • Identify mechanics that fit (or try, just start somewhere plausible)
    • Draft a game
    • Prototype and test it. Does it meet the objectives? Is it playable/fun/compelling?
    • Revise based on findings from testing.
    • Test again
    • Revise
    • Test again
    • Revise
    • Test again
    • Revise
    • etc
  9. What are the implications of this?
    • Be clear about objectives, the mechanics will flow from that – these can be the brief
    • Leave room in the development process for the actual development – must be flexible enough for this
    • Test it early – leave budget and time for this
    • Bring in many voices
    • Think about how you are going to distribute and market it
    • Evaluate and share insight – within your institution and outside too
  10. The end. Another cat gif. PS if you want help with thinking about mechanics, why not use these game mechanics cards for inspiration? I’ve updated them a bit since, but you’ll just have to hire me for a workshop to get the latest 🙂

I’ve simplified, and generalised here, of course. Some game designers take different approaches in their work, which is fine. But this post isn’t for experienced game designers, and you can always break these rules once you’re comfortable.

I would also now add: be clear about your limitations e.g. if you don’t have sufficient budget to do a good digital game, don’t do a bad one on a small budget. Would a physical or board game work instead? (And sometimes, of course, a game isn’t the right approach at all, but you have to understand them to make a good decision about that).

I hope this is useful! Go make games 🙂

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Game type cards from previous workshops

Game type cards from previous workshops

I’m writing this to share a simple tool I created for a gaming workshop I recently ran for a museum, and also to see if anyone has suggestions for additions or improvements to it. It was inspired by another card-based tool that Danny Birchall and I created for games workshops a while back, found here. That one was designed to help people rapidly generate game ideas around a particular (museum related) subject. It was a stack of cards with a game type printed on one side and the description (generally from Wikipedia) printed on the other. I’ve used them a lot in classes and workshops since, they work well. You’re very welcome to download and use them yourself.

For the recent workshop, I was tasked with helping a room of non game designers understand the possibilities of games, and a bit more about the process behind their creation. We talked about game design, played a load of mobile games (mostly from this list of local multiplayer games) and discussed the mechanics, and then split into teams to generate game ideas, pick a favourite, create a paper prototype, play the other team’s games and feedback on it. We had about an hour and a quarter for the idea and prototyping session.

My overall aim was to focus the participants on thinking about game mechanics (rather than story etc), the effect they have on the player, and how they can be married to the intended learning or behavioural objectives. Given the limited time, I needed a way to give each team inspiration and an easy reference point for possible existing game mechanics rather than expecting them to pull them out of thin air with no experience.

Game mechanics cards selection

Game mechanics cards selection

So I created a set of game mechanics cards with the mechanic, a description, and a couple of hopefully easily recognisable examples. I gave each team a set and encouraged them to use the cards to inspire ideas. It seemed to work pretty well, with a bit of facilitation. I’ve linked to them here on Google Drive, I hope this works, let me know if you are trying to access them and it doesn’t work. The idea is you cut each one out onto its own card (a job for which I wish I’d had a guillotine).

Please download/make suggestions for improvements

Please feel free to take these and use them any way you like. If you repost them, it would be nice if you could link back here. It would also be nice if they could be expanded and improved. I’m sure there are lots of mechanics I’ve missed or better examples I could have used. Any suggestions for more mechanics to add? Please add comments below or send to me via twitter if easier. Thanks!

At some point I will go back in and tart them up a bit, they aren’t as pretty as the other cards, at which point I will add in suggestions and will also share them here.

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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)

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I am a HUGE fan of Spaceteam. I’ve played with friends, played with family of all ages, and used it in game workshops as both an icebreaker and an example of what can been done with mobile games. It shows that games don’t have to be competitive, and can be more about social interactions than just one person staring at a screen. It’s sort of hard to explain, but involves multiple devices connecting over bluetooth or wifi and is described as a co-operative shouting game on their website:

Do you like pushing buttons and shouting at your friends? Do you like discharging Clip-jawed Fluxtrunions? If you answered yes, or no, then you might have what it takes to be on a Spaceteam!

Recently, Alistair Aitcheson gave a great talk at Explay 2013 (update: see the slides here) that talked about his own games that involve more than one player using the same iPad, as in Greedy Bankers vs The World. He described players actually physically wrestling on the floor to get control of the device. He pointed out that these sorts of games could be great in spaces such as museums, as well as being party games, pub games and so on. (If I can find a link for Alistair’s talk, I’ll add it in).

Of course, there are many examples of multiplayer console games. But it feels like mobile has a lot of potential in this area. Since I keep going on about it but don’t have many examples, I thought it would be useful to try and collate a list of what I’m clunkily calling mobile local multiplayer games (whether it involves one or more devices) which I guess are related to what Mark Sorrell has called “computer mediated games” that put the focus on interactions, not devices. Here’s my start:

Will keep adding examples here as I think of them. There must be more out there, though, what else would you add? Update: lots of additions via twitter, thanks! And it turns out I’m not the first to try and make a list of this sort, see www.localmultiplayer.com, by Lorenzo Pilia (h/t zo-ii/Zuraida Buter). I’ve added the games from that list as well, but Lorenzo reckons he has loads more to add so keep an eye on that website for more examples from here on.

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A confluence of related projects and talks has got me thinking about where games in museums should be going in the future. There have been some notable successes in museum games to date, and some failures. Where to go from here? Here are some assembled thoughts on the types of games and game design practices I would love to see more museums exploring.

Collaborative games

Now, I love competitive games, but not everyone does, and competition can be off putting and disruptive in, say, family situations (I’m sure you all have stories about the game of Monopoly that ended in tears). Collaborative games are perhaps more suited to the mixed audiences and interests that are represented by museum visitors.

For example, Spaceteam is absolutely one of my favourite games of the last few years. It manages to be ridiculous, hilarious, breathlessly exciting, social and visually striking, all at the same time. Go find 3 other people with smartphones or tablets and have a go, it’s hard to explain. What’s particularly brilliant about it is the way that players become instantly collaborative through the mechanic of needing to convey information to each other rapidly. There is no competitive element, you are all working together to stop your spacecraft coming apart at the seams.

There are also lots of board games that work this way, (I tried Forbidden Island the other week, which is a good example), search for co-operative play on Boardgame Geek. The UVA Bay Game, a team based sim about sustainability, is another interesting case, and seems to have resulted in genuine behaviour change as players realised they would have to work together to solve the issues, both in the game, and in real life.

Discussion based games

Where discussion is happening, thinking is happening. Most museums want to be in some way thought-provoking, and recognise that seeing people deep in conversation about the objects or display they are looking at is a good sign. But many people don’t feel entirely comfortable sharing opinions about art, or history, or science, feeling they lack knowledge or will say something that will be ridiculed. Or, perhaps, it isn’t part of their normal group nature to have discussions of this sort. This means if you want to encourage discussion, you may need to scaffold it in some way, and games can be great for this.

One of the most interesting game experiences I’ve had was playing Liliane Lijn’s Power Game  at the ICA a few years back. The atmospheric set helped, but at it’s heart it was a sort of poker game (actually based on Chemin de Fer, I believe) where you had to make the case for why the word you had been given was more powerful that another. Everyone at the table would then vote, and if you won, you got the chips in the middle. It’s more complicated than that, in truth, but what it means is that you end up having to make arguments for abstract concepts you wouldn’t normally think about (i.e. is “war” more powerful than “love”?).

An online discussion game which I’ve enjoyed playing is the Foresight Engine. In this, there a future scenario to which players must respond by playing different types of card that discuss the outcome or effect of that scenario. You get points for each response you play, for responses to discussions that you start, and for having your response highlighted by a moderator/judge. It is effectively a collaborative crowd-sourced future forecasting tool and it’s been applied in all kinds of real world situations (they used it in Christchurch to help citizens work through the implications of certain scenarios for their earthquake damaged city, for instance). I’m certain a card based game that was a mix between this and Power Game could work really well in a museum setting, perhaps as part of events.

Rapid, casual games

Fast, casual games with the right mechanics can be super addictive. This is why I don’t open Bejeweled Blitz unless I know I have at least half an hour to lose to it, even though each game only takes a minute (and is totally brainless, yes, I know, I don’t care). They can also manage to convey a simple point effectively, as we found with the Axon game at Wellcome. In Axon, players click to move a neuron forward via protein targets, with games lasting sometimes just a few seconds, and in doing so (as we found via a survey of players) they learn something small but interesting about foetal brain development, get a sense of the aesthetics of modern brain imagery, and have their interest piqued sufficiently to follow up with a visit to Wikipedia.

Also look at super fast task based or point and click based games such as Wario Ware or McPixel. Each level takes seconds. This format can work really well, be exciting even if the task is incredibly unsophisticated (and therefore work for a range of abilities) and can also be fun to watch. Try also Tenya Wanya Teens if it comes to a place near you. It’s physical, quick, and fun for spectators as well. Oh and whilst we are talking about crazy fast games that are also hilarious, if you haven’t tried QWOP, or any other of Bennett Foddy’s games, you really must.

The temptation is for museums is to create games that convey a lot of information (because we have so much interesting content, so it’s understandable), or that are a bit worthy. But those games are really really hard to do well, and risk turning off a lot of people. For in-gallery games, museum visitors may be time conscious, or assume it will be serious, or just want to watch, and fast, funny games could be the answer.

Pervasive games

Museums are great spaces. And recently Lates events have become very popular. Many of these are already using pervasive games to get people interacting with the spaces in new and different ways. Hide and Seek’s Sandpits do something similar, as at the National Maritime Museum a while back. Capture the Museum (Thoughtden and National Museums Scotland) is a team based pervasive game that also uses smartphones to deliver puzzle based challenges (if I’ve got that right, I haven’t had a chance to play yet).

So this isn’t a new idea, but it would be great to see museums do more of this. These sorts of games are often easier to run and develop (and therefore cheaper) than digital games but are frequently overlooked. If you can turn them into a card or board game or just a set of instructions, you could also distribute online which helps it reach a bigger audience.

Yes, many museums don’t want people running around and yelling during regular museum hours, but not all games have to involve this. At SFMOMA, their ArtGameLab crowdsourced games to be played in the public spaces that were more sedate, but still fun (e.g. go around the museum critiquing artworks using only your facial expressions).

Card/board games

Having mentioned card and board games above, I think it’s worth highlighting them. Are there any examples of existing museum card or board games? I wonder why not.

Locative, mobile games

Taking the game out of the museum is not new. We tried it with Magic in Modern London, Tate did Magic Tate Ball (more toy than game, I guess, but still), and others have released games on mobile. But it feels like the potential of mobile is not yet being fully exploited, particularly around location, and the relationship between objects and the landscape, whether urban or rural.

Developing bespoke apps of this type can be expensive and difficult (but if you get it right, wow). But there are other platforms you can use, I recently looked into using the SCVNGR platform for a museum project and was disappointed to find out that it was now unsupported, which is a shame, because it would have been perfect. But you could use other trail apps to add challenges or mini games, or work with Junaio and its AR functionality to create something playful. In researching SCVNGR I found another ex employee has created a similar platform called Edventure Builder, which could be worth exploring.

Online, casual games

This has probably been the most successful approach to date. Tate, Science Museum and our Wellcome Collection games High Tea and Axon have all demonstrated that online casual games distributed to portals can be successful in reaching large audiences, and having an impact in terms of learning (read the High Tea evaluation here). The Science Museum had a rarer success with Launchball, a game that was only on their website yet reached a large audience (via a post on Reddit, if I recall correctly), but in general distributing to portals seems to be the most effective approach.

What this means is that there is already a good existing model for doing this. Use it! The potential audience is in the millions. And if you develop in a way that your game can be released to mobile as well (using Unity, say), it’s even bigger. This approach isn’t the cheapest, and you need to work with real game design pros, but it can be very effective. When you look at the value of High Tea, it was working out at about a penny per play, and had a genuine impact on players in terms of learning and thinking about the subject matter.

Games based on 3rd party platforms

I’ve already mentioned this in terms of locative games, but there are many game development tools out there that are relatively simple to use (I list some in this previous post on making games on a budget). There are also tools that were designed for other things but could be repurposed to playful ends.

I saw an online production recently (the Nightvision Experiment) that frankly didn’t work for me in terms of plot or acting, but used a clever mechanic of delivering the entire story via twitter and youtube. And The Dark Room used just Youtube and it’s annotation function to create a smart, funny sort of video text adventure. There is no reason social media can’t be used to create games, or interactive experiences, and in fact Liliane Lijn was at one point running her Power Game over twitter as well.

Console game partnerships

I don’t think anyone has tried this yet in museums (although the Wellcome Trust did try it as part of their broadcast and games funding work), but I’m sure there is potential here. Obviously museums are unlikely to be able to afford to develop a AAA console game of their own, they cost millions. There are increasing numbers of indie devs producing games for consoles (especially since Unity can output to several of them) for lesser budgets, but still, it’s expensive.

However, museums do have content. They have stories, settings and objects, and they have all kinds of experts. Many are respected global brands. Might a canny partnership be possible between a console game producer and a museum? Perhaps where a museum can do and fund some development work into the factual elements (or even non factual elements), provide some information, setting, or idea inspiration?

Evaluation

I do go on about this, but this needs to happen more. I’ve just read a fascinating evaluation for a Science Museum game (that I hope will be shared soon) and it was *really* illuminating. I wish I’d seen it earlier. It made me think that we’ve all done enough games now that there should be a pretty good body of knowledge about what works, and what doesn’t, and we should be building on this. Some of this information does get shared at conferences and so on, but it still feels like a lot of museum game development (and other digital development, in fact) happens in the dark.

We can copy other apparent successes, but without knowing in depth information about the player responses, we may just be repeating an empty exercise in gathering hits.

Games people

Museums need to focus on working with people who are good at making games, and not get so hung up on the platforms or technologies. This essay by Suzy Glass isn’t about games specifically, but it could be, and it is absolutely spot on about this issue.

Museums also need to be working with those people right from the start of a project, not waiting until they’ve put together an extensively scoped funding proposal without any games expert input. And that means hiring someone, freelance, or full time and paying them from the start. It will be worth the investment. I’d also like to see less of small games and other digital agencies time being wasted by having to jump through multiple time consuming (and therefore expensive) hoops as part of the procurement process, when they have a worse than 5 to 1 chance of getting the commission.

Those are my assorted, random, thoughts, please feel free to add yours!

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So you’re convinced, as I am, that games are a great way of reaching new audiences and engaging them meaningfully with your message or content. But you have little or no money, what to do? It’s all very well when you have upwards of £40k to spend (and ideally even more), but what about when you don’t? Are you excluded from creating or commissioning games?

Well no, I don’t think you are. But you’re going to have to do things a bit differently. You may have to give up a certain amount of control, and be relaxed about where games end up. But you probably should be anyway, the point is to get your message out there, right?

What not to do

I’ve recently heard about two separate organisations that were looking for proposals for educational games for between £500 and £2500, which made me gasp, I must admit. Taking this approach to doing games on a budget – just not paying much for them – is a very bad idea, for a number of reasons. I speak from experience, believe me.

Low budget projects are ALWAYS the projects that cause the most problems and take the longest. Your game will naturally take a back seat with the agency or developer when higher paying jobs come their way, and fair enough. As the commissioner, you won’t have much clout or sway over how the project develops, and aren’t likely to have much opportunity to change it as changes=time=money. Unless the agency/developer is bad at handling that equation, in which case they are likely to go bust trying to complete your game.

It’s the old cost/time/quality triangle. If the cost goes down, either the amount time goes up or quality goes down. Or, more likely, both. And since time=money, as established, the true cost actually becomes much higher for everyone involved. No-one wins and it’s bad for everyone’s business.

Instead, maybe try one of these options.

Find more money: other funding sources

There are a number of sources of funding for games out there. My old employer, the Wellcome Trust, is keen to encourage more games on biomedical subjects and offers a number of potential grants (this development grant, for example). Other public engagement funds are also likely to cover games projects, even if they don’t explicitly state that. Look at what people like Nesta or the Arts Council are currently offering in the way of funding. IdeasTap appears to have quite a lot of funding bodies listed on its website too.

I’ll add in more examples here as I come across them, but please do suggest any you know of.

A tip. Always always always, with any grant application, get in touch with people at the funding body to find out more and get advice on whether your project is suitable, or find out what you might need to do to make it suitable. Public engagement funding in particular is likely to need some sort of decent evaluation of impact built in, so don’t just say you’ll count the number of hits, give it some thought.

Find more money: partnerships and co-investment

You might not have the money, but presumably you do have something great to offer – content, domain expertise, a well respected brand etc. All of these might well be appealing to someone who does have money. A games agency might be interested in developing something in return for profit share. A company might see a good fit with their aims and want to sponsor your project. Another similar organisation (arts, cultural, educational?) might be interested in a partnership, or perhaps a group of you could club together and pool budgets. A broadcaster such as the BBC or other online platform might be interested too.

Partnerships of this sort can be tricky, true. All parties need to be very clear about their roles, where IP rests, where the final sign-off lies and so on before getting too far along with it. Get an agreement in place as soon as you can, and you may have to be prepared to relinquish some control. Regular communication is obviously really important too.

There are potential benefits beyond just the extra budget though. Your partner might also have additional expertise or resources, for example in marketing, that could be very handy. They might have their own large audience which you would then have access to. Choosing partners for what else they can offer is therefore wise as well.

Use existing game creation tools

You don’t necessarily have to start from scratch when creating a game, there are a number of tools out there that can simplify the process. Perhaps you or someone in your organisation could even have a go at making one yourselves.

I haven’t tried many of these tools, so can’t vouch for them. I know GameStar Mechanic has been successfully used to get kids building games, as has interactive fiction creator Quest (which I am a big fan of), which should be a good indicator of their ease of us. GameMaker: Studio by YoYo games is another possibility.

Googling for game creation tools throws up loads more options, Sploder, The Game Creators, Game Gonzo and more. Anyone used any of these and had a good/bad experience?

Run games jams or competitions

Games jams involve inviting lots games designers or games development team to spend usually 24 or 48 hours rapidly building a game on a particular theme. They’ve become more and more popular recently. Done well, this could be a good way of getting lots of games about your subject matter of interest out there. Done badly, though, they can feel exploitative and yucky.

It’s probably wise to work with someone who has run successful games jams in the past, and understand what it takes to make them work. Or work with a regular games jam event. You need to make sure people have a reason to be there, that their time is valued and that they are in some way compensated for it. Oh, and that they keep hold of the IP. The ones that Wellcome ran simply paid developers for their time, and then ran it as a competition so that the winners got money to develop their game further.

Update: This “Hack Day Manifesto” provides some useful advice for running events such as these (via @oonaghtweets and @dannybirchall on twitter)

Game design students

There are many game design courses out there. I haven’t actually tried this myself, but another option might be to work with a university or other teaching organisation that has a games design course to provide a brief for students.

Are you involved with a game design course that would be up for doing something like this? Let me know in the comments!

Try something different

Does it have to be a slick online game? Could you create a paper or card game and then make it available online? Add new rules to an existing game a la the brilliant Boardgame Remix Kit? Maybe if you want to get it into schools, you should just do something simpler like provide pictures and lesson plan suggestions and upload it to TES. Or do the same with instructions for a live or pervasive game that students could play?

And finally

Thanks to Sharna Jackson, Phil Stuart and Kim Plowright for their suggestions, which I’ve incorporated into this post. If you have any more thoughts, funding sources etc, please do add these in the comments and I will update the post.

Update

Updating to add some very useful additional thoughts from others following a discussion on the LinkedIn Games Based Learning Group.

Dustin Chertoff: The more the commissioner has completed up front, in terms of both art assets and game design, the cheaper it will be to actually develop the game. But that also means the commissioner is likely to be more resistant to the inevitable change requests from the developer saying “such and such feature doesn’t work or is too complicated.” A co-design between the commissioner and the developer is very useful in this regard, unless the commissioner already has a strong game development background (which is usually not the case).

As far as keeping project costs down, engines such as Unity3D are a huge development boon. Devs can start working on game system development much faster and there is a huge library of tools and assets available that further cut down development time.

Even so, from my experience it still takes a team of 3 (2 devs, 1 artist) working full time around 20k USD about 1.5-2 months to design, develop, test, and polish a relatively simple game. It does become faster and cheaper to add more content once you get the core game systems developed and tested though. But the low-cost commissions I’ve seen never have money beyond that first version.

Mathew Georghiou: Budget is always an issue and most people do not understand the complexity and effort required to develop a game as compared to other types of applications. There has been some industry research done that suggests the average mobile app costs $20,000-$40,000 to develop, and that seems to mirror my experience and that of Dustin’s comment above.

Some very basic apps can be done for less, but there will always be some significant compromises required as you have identified in your article.

The best advice is to always consult with someone with experience before designing your specifications or budget, and certainly before issuing an RFP, so that you can make sure to develop a plan that is feasible.

Peter Stidwill:  Although not a tip, this visual document from the Games for Impact academic consortium here in the States has some ballpark figures for professional game development. This is helpful to point to when trying to set expectations about what can be achieved.

http://gamesforimpact.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/gamesforimpact-bestpractices.pdf – see ‘Production cost estimate’

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As I sat in the audience at a session called “Learning To Game or Gaming To Learn?” at last Wednesday’s BBC Academy’s Fusion Summit on games in Salford, I became rather frustrated. The session had been billed thusly:

How far should broadcasters use games as a vehicle for learning? Join some of the finest minds in the field as they wrestle with the future of learning games and the controversial subject of gamification.

On the panel were Mark Sorrell (Hide and Seek), Carlton Reeve (Play With Learning), Tom Kenyon (NESTA), Phil Stuart (Preloaded), John Milner (Bitesize, BBC Knowledge & Learning), and they were being questioned by Kate Russell of BBC Click. Undoubtedly a great line-up, yet it was all rather unsatisfying, and also rather familiar.

This is my attempt to explain and unpick this frustration, which is actually a more general frustration with the way educational games are so often treated with scepticism and distrust. This isn’t really a criticism of those involved in the panel, since it was just playing out in the same way that these sorts of discussions always do, and probably are always expected to.

Starting the session with a discussion about gamification didn’t help. Russell acknowledged that it wasn’t going to go down well with some of the audience, and winced as she said it (as I did writing it, ugh). So much has already been said on this subject, whether gamification is just pointsification, whether it mistakes the extrinsic trappings of gaming for the reason why people enjoy games, whether it should be reclaimed as just meaning adding game mechanics to content and so on.

Most people do seem to understand it to mean pointsification, and I can’t see this having any more than limited value. In this context, it’s also a total distraction. This isn’t really what people are talking about when they talk about games based learning in my experience, so it’s a shame it took up so much of the panel’s time. In fact, it’s a shame gamification has taken up so much time on so many conference panels and sessions over the last couple of years, can we possibly move on from this now?

But it was the next few questions that troubled me more. Russell asked “do educational games work?” And “where’s the evidence?” Now, it’s not that I think we shouldn’t ask these questions, but it seems that these questions are all anyone ever asks about educational games. The implication always seems to be that one should be hugely sceptical of such an outlandish and possibly even NEUROLOGICALLY DANGEROUS (more on that later) concept, and that educational games exponents had better have some seriously good evidence up their sleeves if we are to countenance allowing their nutty ideas into our schools and homes.

This makes me weary. It is really such a leap to see that an activity so absorbing as playing a good game, could be harnessed for learning of some sort? An activity whose very essence is about learning, as you must do to improve in any game? Does it trouble people that much that it might be possible to have fun whilst learning? (Note: not that learning in and of itself can’t be fun, but if there was a better way of educating children that all of them would really enjoy, shouldn’t we be really happy about that and keen to explore it further?) Some of the panel did indeed make some of these points, but were rather on the back foot in the face of this slightly negative questioning. Asked to think of evidence off the top of their heads, they were unsurprisingly unable to cite any academic papers in support of their position.

Gran Turismo Academy was mentioned (by Mark Sorrell IIRC) where players were put in real cars, and performed brilliantly, despite only ever having played the game before.  It’s a great example, but in the rest of the discussion little other evidence was mentioned and the conclusion was that there wasn’t much out there. I couldn’t think of any either off the top of my head at the time, but a google search shows there’s a fair bit out there. I’m pretty sure the military wouldn’t be so keen on using games in their training if they didn’t have some good evidence, for example. But maybe all of us involved with games for educational purposes should be better versed in the literature (and there is definitely a discussion about better dissemination about this sort of research and evaluation to be had at some point).

Testing the efficacy of games in learning is always going to be tricky though. For example, testing existing games may show that some of them are poor learning tools, but you couldn’t conclude from that that all games are poor learning tools or that it’s impossible for games to work in this way. And perhaps this is a rather back to front approach anyway for those making the games. Using what we know about the science of learning and good gameplay to make great educational games, with the majority of the testing taking place in formative stages would surely be more effective?

This week I read the Nesta Decoding Learning report, which makes a similar point about starting from good learning principles when creating digital educational tools, and which I highly recommend. I’ve also had a number of discussions recently with people who are indeed working on this basis, which is great, and it may be that this line of thinking isn’t news to many people working on educational games and technology.

So why do we always end up on the back foot in discussions like this? Why is the default position apparently one of scepticism? Responding with examples of the odd good game based learning initiative or stats about how the games industry is huge, broadly equal in terms of gender, not just played by teenage boys in their…snore… doesn’t appear to be making a difference. I hear this defensive tone so frequently and, hands up, have definitely been guilty of doing this myself in the past. Especially to audiences I assume will be sceptical (science types, for example). I promise to stop doing that now. But I have heard this discussion about whether or not educational games can work so frequently in conferences, articles and from people outside the “industry”, and it never seems to move on.

Perhaps we’re doing it wrong. As I tweeted at the time, perhaps all this defensive navel gazing is counter-productive. Perhaps it’s merely reinforcing the impression that the scepticism is right. I think many others in this area, like myself, know in our hearts that there is much potential here; that there is something in games which could work really well for increasing people’s understanding of subjects, situations, and systems. There may well be aspects of learning that games are not good at too, of course, but I don’t think it’s so far-fetched to think they could be very powerful educational tools.

Let’s not allow the likes of Susan Greenfield and her Daily Mail pleasing nonsense about video games set the agenda around this. She might not be able to point at any actual evidence for her claims, but we can. (On another note, if she thinks games have so much potential for evil, they must be powerful things, and therefore have potential for much good too. And of course they change the brain, as any repeated activity will, and this is not necessarily a negative response, as well she knows. But I digress). Let’s not sit back and wait for others to confer respectability on this area, let’s set examples, continue to do great work, and let’s talk instead about how to deal with the real and meaty challenges facing educational games: reaching teachers, funding projects, being heard above the noise, and so on.

On that note, we do actually get into the genuine issues around games based learning at the London Educational Games Meetup group (LEGup). Please do come along to talk games, share learnings, tell me I’m full of crap, or tell me how you think we can change the tune on this issue.

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