Posts Tagged ‘museums’

This is going to be a rant, because I’m cross, so, fair warning. First I’m going to tell an illustrative story, and then I’m going to make the case that a really large proportion of digital projects are TOTALLY WASTING THEIR TIME AND MONEY. Here goes.

ITV drop the ball (aka the money, the talent, and the joke)

In my pre-museum days, before I joined the Wellcome Trust, I worked on digital projects for TV at Kudos for the best part of 2007. You may or may not recall an ITV show from the following year with an interesting concept: it was a rather cheesy soap opera set in Cornwall with Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon called Echo Beach, which was followed in the schedules by a fictional comedy about the making of Echo Beach, called Moving Wallpaper and starring Ben Miller. The whole thing was the brainchild of the great Eastenders lead writer Tony Jordan.

Alongside the main show a third online element had been commissioned, which is what I was working on. I still really like the idea, which was that a mole was operating on set, filming secret behind the scenes footage on Echo Beach. Before the TV show launched, and each week during it, these videos would be “leaked” into the public domain, showing the stars behaving badly, being divas and drunks, riffing off of their public personas and TV characters.

The aim was comedy and shock. A crack team of writers (from the Thick of It and other notable shows) was assembled to write the video skits, of which there were 12. An experienced comedy director was brought on board, and a small team of top filmmaking pros assembled. We got Jason Donovan (an absolute hoot to work with) supposedly filmed alone in his dressing room putting on a dress that Martine McCutcheon had worn on the show to mime along to her Perfect Moment hit. We also filmed him involved in vodka fueled fist fighting and fights with his agent, McCutcheon herself having tabloid-baiting practice snogs with female co-stars, secret thieving, incompetence, actors being ridiculously demanding and all sorts.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of those clips, but I seem to remember we were all pretty proud of them when we handed them over to ITV. And either way, a lot of effort and talent and a not insubstantial (albeit not quite sufficient, it never is) budget went into making them. Which made ITV’s subsequent bungling of the next stage all the more galling.

Our concept was that these videos would be released to a poorly executed website (Geocities style) by the “mole” and then the press and public would be pointed at them. These days, they would be leaked to YouTube from the mole’s account, ideally, but the main thing was to maintain the fiction that Moving Wallpaper was the real world and the behaviour captured was genuine, and thereby preserve the joke. Instead, ITV did this: they created a page on the official ITV site for the videos, using the official ITV player to play them, and then they used the punchline as the title for every single video, giving away the gag before anyone had even started watching them.

The jokes were thereby rendered stone cold dead.

They then sent out, as far as I can tell, one press release which sparked two small articles from the Sun and “Celebs Now”, and that was the extent of the marketing effort. I haven’t seen the viewing stats, but I’m 100% certain they were feeble. And that was the end of that project. All that hard work, months of preparation, script writing, production and editing. All that money, pretty much entirely wasted by a failure to understanding digital marketing, and a failure to invest any serious time and effort in promotion.

I wish I could say that was the last time I saw this happen.

A familiar pattern

I’m using this example because it’s far enough in the past that I can be brutally honest about it, but it stands in for probably a good 60-70% of digital projects I’ve worked on, to some degree. This includes projects for museums and galleries, for publishers, and for other broadcasters. It includes my projects and the projects of others: I did a straw poll amongst other digital producers, and my goodness! The outpouring of anguish and recognition that followed.

And I’m writing this now because despite all my best efforts, I recently watched exactly the same thing happen again, and I’m fed up. I want to say this:

Stop wasting money on digital projects if you aren’t prepared to promote them properly.

I’m serious. Do NOT embark on any digital project if you aren’t going to at least make a decent effort to tell people about it or otherwise figure out how people are going to see it.

If you are going to make an in-gallery app but only have room for a small piece of signage and no budget or space for print promotion, do not bother. If you are going to create a game and put it on your website and think maybe your organisation might be able to muster up a single tweet and facebook post about it, give up now. If you are creating an amazing interactive video experience but the entire budget is going on production and you’ve run out of money to market it, stop.

Furthermore, if you think that a digital experience, be it mobile or online, game, video, or guide, is going to sell itself, and thereby itself be marketing for your TV show or exhibition, you are going to be sorely disappointed. Actually, I suspect this attitude is partly to blame for some of the failures in this area. There seems to be some confusion over whether these digital add-ons are marketing themselves but, by and large, it doesn’t work this way, things just don’t magically “go viral”.

Now, I have been part of some very successful game projects in which we did pretty much no marketing whatsoever (High Tea and Axon, for Wellcome Collection). However, we were working to a very specific distribution model that relies on making a cracking game, seeding it to casual gaming portals, making it easy to rip and waiting for it to catch on. It worked, the mechanics of those portals make this possible, but it has its flaws (not least reaching a relatively narrow demographic).

For mobile games, in gallery apps, online interactive fiction etc etc, this is not an option. You are competing in a very crowded market for audience attention. Even if your content is amazing, you are going to have to work very hard to make people aware of it, and do so in a way that sells it effectively to draw them in. Let me be clear: I’m not saying this is easy, and it can involve a bit of luck (the right person picking it up on twitter, for example), but it cannot just be ignored.

Why does this keep happening? I have a guess

So why is it, so often? Apart from the reason above, I feel like a major factor is that these digital projects *are* just seen as add-ons. They get neglected by marketing teams who are focussed on promoting the big exhibition or show, which is where the real accountability lies for their actions with the higher-ups (and the funders too, perhaps?). I’ve been there in meetings with comms teams who make it clear that our digital project is just never going to be a priority when they are being scrutinised instead for their role in increasing actual ticket sales or getting press for the main exhibition.

If that’s the case, the project probably shouldn’t even go ahead. Whatever the size or type of audience you are seeking, someone absolutely has to make some sort of plan and put time and resource into communicating with them. So often this seems to fall to the production team themselves in this situation, but without organisational buy in, this is never going to be as effective as it needs to be.

For my own part, I try to have a discussion about communications around a digital project as early as possible once it’s kicked off, but I’m beginning to realise that this is too late. These conversations need to happen before, and at a higher level. There needs to be a commitment before any major work starts that the project will be fully supported by the organisation.

It’s also clear that some comms and marketing teams feel out of their depth with digital projects. Some of this is a problem of perception: digital projects can be promoted in precisely the same way as books and exhibitions – with signage, adverts, flyers, social media posts, targeted press releases, building relationships with bloggers and newspapers and so on –  and the principles about what makes an appealing message are not necessarily different.

I fear the problem is more about understanding the digital product and its potential audience, and therefore knowing *who* to build relationships with and where to send a press release. But surely, this is no different than looking for subject specialist avenues to market to for other products? Also, there are various online-only routes (your Reddits and the like) that comms departments seem wary of but need to understand. It’s not hard, you do it by using these sites and getting to know them. If this is all too much, hire a digital marketing agency to take the weight.

The outcome of this sorry situation

Aside from the wasted time and money (sometimes public money too, which is particularly infuriating), what I find very dispiriting is organisations using the failure of digital projects as a reason to stop doing them; writing them off as inherently risky instead of examining what went wrong and trying to learn from mistakes. It’s also dispiriting to see the level of frustration from digital producers and agencies, many of whom have told me that they are avoiding work of this kind from now on because they are sick of seeing it fail due to a lack of promotion. It was part of the reason I started moving away from digital production work too.

Of course, it’s possible that some of these projects were just rubbish, that the content or concept was just unappealing. But it’s really clear that users and viewers aren’t even getting to the point of finding that out and these digital projects aren’t really being given a chance.

I don’t think it’s that complicated: projects of this nature just need the budget, commitment and a plan as to how people are going to hear about it. If this isn’t in place from the beginning, ask why, and don’t start until it is.

Whilst writing this I heard so many stories of this happening, but few that people were willing to put names to (although blimey but the BBC comes up a lot, Channel 4 too). I understand. But if you have an example, even if just anonymously, please do share in the comments. Or have you got any other thoughts on this, do you disagree?


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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?


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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My Flickrset from a tour of the Horniman object stores.

I spent a very fine afternoon yesterday being guided around the stores where the Horniman keeps the 95% (I think) of their collection which isn’t on display. It was a public tour with a small group, guided firstly by Helen, who took us through rooms of mummies, weaponry, musical instruments and other assorted wonders.

The stores are cramped and absolutely bursting at the seams, but we squashed into the spaces between old fashioned rolling stacks and jam-packed shelves whilst we peered at oddities and several of us tried to grab what photos we could in the low light. Though we weren’t allowed to take photos of the outside of the building (understandably, they’d prefer it wasn’t identified) they were very accomodating in their photography policy for objects and the stores themselves. I could have spent hours and hours in there wandering around with my camera, pulling back curtains, reading the extraordinary labels for boxes I wasn’t allowed to open (a giraffe trap!) and listening to the curator’s stories about these fabulous objects.

One of the conservators showed us just what they are up against in terms of pests (carpet beetles, clothes moths and the like), light or sun damage and other wear and tear. And finally, Paulo (who blogs here) and is a natural history specialist, gave us an inevitably too brief whirl around their bones, antlers and taxidermy. I wish I could have seen every one of the Hart bird dioramas, created by a husband and wife team; he killed the birds and mounted them, she painted a backdrop taken from the very location in which they were collected. They’re wonderful.

The natural history collections pose some interesting problems for the curators. The bird’s eggs must have data on their provenance, else they could fall foul of more recent laws that forbid their collection. Taxidermy from the Victorian era can be laden with arsenic, found in the soap that was used to clean the animal’s insides. Gloves should always be worn when handling them to prevent arsenic poisoning (apparently not uncommon in curators of this type of material). And if you ever see flakes like dandruff on taxidermy, that’s the arsenic, do NOT touch!

Also, stringent CITES rules on transport of animal and plant material, designed to protect endangered species, mean that loans across borders to other museums become a bureacratic nightmare. Read the brilliant Orchid Fever (one of my favourite books) for an interesting and entertaining examination of why CITES might be doing as much damage as good in some instances.

I’ve been inspired to become a Friend of the Horniman (only £10!) after this visit, and highly recommend joining one of these tours if you get the chance. Apparently they only run them a few times a year but keep an eye on this page if you’re interested.

(PS embedding a flickr slideshow turned out to be a bit of pain, I found the solution here).

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