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Nameless Gameless

August 10, 2013

I have a problem with video games. My problem is not that I dislike them (I’ve been a gamer for a good 30 years or so now) or that I think they’re harmful (which is nonsense) or that I suffer from an addiction to them (a family and a job keep me on the straight and narrow there). My problem is a professional one. At the Royal Pavilion and Museums I’ve toyed with the idea of making a game for a couple of years now, but every time I have the opportunity to make one, I end up taking the game bit out.

Now, I am not a professional game developer. I’m a museum employee who happens to work with digital media, so there is no clear reason why I should be developing video games in the first place. And the reasons why I don’t make games are well thought through and, I believe, fundamentally sound. But while I don’t make games, I keep producing digital projects which are heavily influenced by games, even though it’s a struggle to call any one of them a ‘game’. The problem is one of identity. I’ve described them in the past as ‘non-games’, borrowing from this Wikipedia article, but I’d prefer to call them ‘gamish’. But even if you accept ‘gamish’ as an appropriate adjective, it doesn’t lend itself to any noun other than ‘game’. Which puts me back in the field of the ‘non-game’ or, perhaps, a ‘post-game’, if that didn’t sound like something bored staff might play in a sorting office.

So what are these gamish, gameless, ungames I’m referring to? Map the Museum was the first example of this. Although it’s a fairly dry, data-focused crowdsourcing project, its deliberate simplicity makes it feel quite playful, and some users have commented that it feels like a game. For my part, I’ve always thought of it as the heritage equivalent of a jigsaw in a waiting room, that attracts occasional contributions from those with an idle interest.

Story Drop, a forthcoming smartphone app we’re developing with Surface Impression, is also a bit gamish. It’s a geolocation treasure hunt of sorts, with rewards and even a points system, yet it’s not really a game. It’s an interpretation tool, and it doesn’t make any attempt to hide this.

Murder in the Manor is the closest I’ve come to producing a game. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the project was originally conceived as a collaboration with game development students, but even when the project took off on a radically different tangent, gaming was in its DNA. The original project description I posted on Wired Sussex cited classic Lucasarts’ point and click adventures as one of the reference points for what we were trying to create, but that was the last time gaming was mentioned during its development. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the last minute decision to establish some prior activity before the user could attempt to solve the murder, there would have been nothing structurally resembling a challenge in the final product. Even now, it’s the fictional genre, the inherently ludic murder mystery, that is closest to a traditional game.

It was only a few weeks after launch that I took to reluctantly calling Murder in the Manor a game.  Most people who used it agreed that it was obviously influenced by video games, but felt that it wasn’t really a game. At various points it’s been described as an interactive experience, or a piece of online fiction, but although these descriptions are reasonably accurate they make it sound like a sort of nebulous CD ROM experience from the 1990s. The decision to call it a game was really a striving for simplicity within the harsh attention economy of online stuff. But it comes at a cost. Considered purely as a game, Murder in the Manor is probably a bit rubbish. Given that the game elements were rapidly sloughed off from its design, that’s hardly surprising.

So why didn’t I just take the path of developing a straightforward game? That would have been an option with obvious appeal. Games are growing in popularity, and some museum games, such as the Wellcome Collection’s High Tea, have proven successful in engaging with hard to reach demographics such as 16-24 year olds. They are also being increasingly used in education, and from the conversations I’ve had with local teachers, the BBC’s selection of games are a popular resource. For more personal reasons, I’m also attracted to the idea of making games. Aside from being an incorrigible gamer, I have a lingering academic interest in the subject: many years ago I wrote a Master’s dissertation on video game space (featuring some brutal mashing of Kantian epistemology), and briefly started a PhD on the use of historical narratives within video games. But when it comes to actually developing video games for the purpose of a museum, I’m always struck by a number of severe practical and conceptual problems.

  1. Video games are expensive. Even the simplest video game requires relatively complex rule based dynamics, which take time to design and program. They also require assets such as sound effects, graphics and visual design, which need to be professionally produced. All of this adds up into a costly piece of work, and although the Royal Pavilion and Museums is presently fortunate to have some substantial funding for digital projects, we have not had anywhere near enough to commission an established game developer.
  2. There is a lot of competition out there, from dedicated video game developers with budgets that would dwarf even the wealthiest museum. Why would anyone play a video game that we produce, when there is so much choice elsewhere? Even a free game is competing with a lot of other free or low cost games in the App Store and elsewhere.
  3. Video games rely on systems of player-induced cause and effect which create pleasing feedback loops. Some subjects lend themselves well to depiction in this form, such as physics (eg. the Science Museum’s Launchball), or military and economic history. But how do you tell the history of the suffragette movement through a video game, without becoming crass? Can a video game adequately convey the historical development of impressionism without simply bolting game mechanics onto a linear narrative? It may not be impossible, and the Assassin’s Creed games are one example of a big budget video game series that does a remarkable job at telling nuanced historical truths within a fictional grand narrative; but my suspicion is that smaller, more casual games will struggle to articulate this.
  4. Even where video games do subjects well, do they do collections well? Tate Kids have done some great work encouraging players to think about the construction and form of art, but it seems to me that many museum games are really about subjects rather than collections. Which is fine, if your museum’s mission is to tell a particular story or promote one cause, or if the game is developed to support a focused exhibition. But for a museum service like the Royal Pavilion and Museums — which like most Victorian civic museums is an accidental jumble of collections bound by time, place and ambitions of permanence — our mission statement is bound by our collections rather than any subject, and this needs to be reflected in our digital activity.
  5. It’s very, very easy to make a bad video game. As much as I love the medium, the great, or even half-decent games are outnumbered by a colossal amount of crap. To produce a good video game on limited resources requires affordable talent and a lot of luck. It can be a very risky venture.

So where does this leave any museum looking to engage with gaming cultures? Gamification may present itself as a halfway house, but as Ian Bogost has persuasively argued, gamification is bullshit. The term has already been sullied by too many superfluous badges and empty pointsification treadmills to be redeemed as anything meaningful.

One way forward, in my view, is to look at the example of some recent pieces of digital work which have been released through gaming channels, but which defy the description of games. These are the non-games I mentioned earlier, and Dear Esther, Journey and Proteus are the poster children of this slender movement (although it’s so insubstantial that ‘twitch’ may be more appropriate than ‘movement’). These three products are very different from one another: Dear Esther is a single user progression through a linear narrative punctuated by a voiceover; Journey is a wordless narrative with heavily mediated social interaction; Proteus is an entirely unnarrated exploration of a procedurally generated island. Yet, aside from the fact that these are all distributed through traditional gaming channels such as Steam and Playstation Network, these ‘non-games’ share one feature. The experience is derived from the pleasure of traversing through a rich spatial environment. This is not a feature that is unique to these particular works; Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto and many other video games rely on rich imaginary environments that frame the player’s actions. But what is striking about the non-game approach is how potent this sense of exploration can be in the absence of any clearly defined game mechanics.

Dear Esther in particular was a huge inspiration for Murder in the Manor, even if they bear few similarities or comparison. If you haven’t yet played Dear Esther, stop reading this and go and spend the £5 or whatever Steam is presently charging for it. It’s a wonderful journey; and for all its wrapping as a game, for me it’s more of a unique form of modernist literature than a game. What struck me when first ‘playing’ through it, was how such a powerful experience could be created from the fairly stripped elements of space and story. The player doesn’t ‘do’ anything other than walk and look around an island, and listen to a story. Although (mild spoiler alert) the landscape and story of Dear Esther are closely entwined, this got me thinking. Museums and historic houses provide  spaces which feel very unlike everyday life; museums are also places for telling stories. A few of my colleagues had already done some good work with young people producing great creative writing inspired by our museums. But putting this material online always made the material feel slightly sterile, and its appeal was diminished by separation from its context. Could we create a digital experience that combined story and space to make an engaging experience that would not only give this creative writing a greater audience, but also promote our collections in a new way?

Preston Manor was an obvious choice, as its authentic history is, to be frank, of marginal appeal, and much of its interpretation, whether through role play or ghost tours, has always leaned towards the fictive.  It’s also a site that is hard to promote, and although visitors enjoy the experience, it’s in a remote area of Brighton for many people, and lacks an obvious hook to entice visitors. When a colleague recommended the Little Green Pig writing group (whose motto, aptly, is ‘space to create’) and Say Digital came up with a stable and evocative way of representing the space of Preston Manor, Murder in the Manor folded together.

Of course, Murder in the Manor bears little resemblance to Dear Esther or any of the other works mentioned here. It’s not a studio creation; it was put together in just over six months; and as a slightly improvised collaboration between three organisations, an illustrator, and the eleven young writers who created the story, it may even feel a little thrown together. Yet it has achieved some small but extraordinary things. The visitor numbers have not been huge, although they have stabilised at around 300 visits a month. In part, that’s a result of the decision to build Murder in the Manor in HTML 5 rather than as an app or Flash game. Accessing the site is much more fluid to the casual visitor, and will happily work on iOS devices, but it has meant that we could not promote it through recognised channels like the App Store or Kongregate.

But the quality of engagement has been hugely encouraging. Average dwell time on the manor ‘tour’ sits at between 20 and 30 minutes per month (this compares to 3 – 4.5 minutes on our other websites). As an average this is heavily skewed by outliers, but the site regularly receives visitors spending between 45 minutes and well over an hour on the site. The event tracking also indicates that users aren’t simply looking around the rooms of Preston Manor. They actively engage with the ‘clues’, the stories written by the young writers. Indeed, the number of stories read in a month equates to about half the number of monthly views of posts on our more established blog. There is also strong evidence from Google Analytics that the site is being used by schools in Sussex. I don’t know why, or even precisely where, but there has been clear evidence of it being used in a classroom environment on a couple of occasions, even though the site has never been promoted to schools.

What makes this really remarkable is that the experience is entirely ‘uncurated’, in the sense that it is unmediated by any professional museum voice. I may have hatched the initial idea, but when a user spends an hour or so on Murder in the Manor, they are immersing themselves in content that has nothing to do with me or my colleagues. Enter Murder in the Manor, and it’s simply you, the manor, and the voices of the young writers. Take into account that the murder mystery takes the form of an unusual non-linear narrative (not always the most popular form of storytelling), and that we have previously found it very hard to engage audiences with online content produced by young people, and this level of engagement becomes quite astonishing. It’s certainly far exceeded my expectations.

So where does this leave ‘gamish’ work? Although I’m looking at adapting the methodology used for creating Murder in the Manor for another project, I don’t think the structure would work outside of historic houses. For me, the technology is of secondary importance (although Say Digital did a great job on the site). What’s exciting about Murder in the Manor is how it demonstrates that the gamish framing of outsider voices can create immersive and oblique celebrations of our collections. The value lies in the broad approach rather than the practical implementation. I suspect that narrowly defined ‘games’ may not prove a great (or even sustainable) leap forward for museum engagement; but gamish digital experiences that play with the expectations and literacies of visitors steeped in gaming culture may provide potent experiences that just might fuse new relationships between users, collections and museums.

The only problem is what to call the damn things.

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10 Comments
  1. Understanding what you do is sometimes the hardest thing to define; maybe you are not the person to ask!
    I currently operate under the name “Playful Communications” which is a phrase someone else used to describe what I did – I liked it and kept it. Maybe you should ask others what they think your work is and take something from that?

    I work in similar areas and have experienced similar frustrations at what to call my ‘games’!
    I was always concerned that using the term ‘game’ would inevitably disappoint participants through ‘false advertising’!

    Jesse Schell talks about “transformational games”. Now, I have a ton of respect for JS but that just sounds dull as anything – a poor-excuse for a game almost!

    I would be keen for some ‘catch-all’ term to describe what I do in this field but I imagine it would take someone like Schell or Ian Livingston to carry enough weight for it to stick… and so far I’m not hearing so much about ‘transformational games’!

    So I came to the conclusion I would simply find a name for each variation of ‘playful activity’ that I produced, hence ‘Safari’.

    SuperFly (me) Safaris were digital trails (usually using QR Codes) I created around cities, college campuses and schools. The definition of Safari is ‘hunt’ and ‘observe’ which was precisely what the activity was designed to encourage. Some were more ‘gamey’ than others employing plenty of game mechanics and dynamics such as: Points, leader-boards, multi-players, rewards, incentives, winners and prizes) and they were used in a variety of ways for: advertising, tourism, education, heritage, etc…
    Participants were to hunt and observe objects, people and sometimes animals. (No animals, human or otherwise, were harmed during the process of any SuperFly Safaris.)

    This talk by Jim Bannister (if you’ve not already seen it) may be useful, if indirectly: http://vimeo.com/15205539

    Great post though, thanks for sharing 🙂

    Cheers,
    Jon

    • Thanks, Jon. I agree with you re ‘transformational games’; it sounds too much like a marketing slogan, and overtly conscious of the pejorative connotations of games. Emphasising ‘play’ makes sense too, although ‘play’ is as awkward to define as ‘game’ in some ways. But again, I agree that it’ll a top developer to eventually define this. I still think Sid Meier’s definition of a game as a ‘series of interesting choices’ has never been bettered.

  2. We tried to do a ‘play your own adventure’ style game to tell the story of 20th century london to 7-11 year olds a few years ago:

    http://talesoflondon.org.uk/

    The experience made me mostly want to just take the game out and just tell the stories.

    jason

  3. I’m a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, used to be a librarian, and now I create game and play-based expereinces in informal learning settings through my lab, Because Play Matters. I’m also a published board game designer and lifelong gamer. As I work in libraries and museums, I understand your frustration in living in this space of not-quite-games.

    I would suggest that you take a closer look at what gamification can be. Gamification is not just about adding rewards to motivate people – it’s about using game design elements in a non-game setting. Ian’s article led many game-focused people to turn a blind eye to what gamification could be. Instead of just poking spears at gamification, I decided to get involved and try to provide a different model for gamification.

    Over the last year, I’ve been focused on the concept of “meaningful gamification,” which is about using game elements to help players find meaning in non-game settings. It’s focused on concepts of play and participatory exhibit design from museums, and uses concepts like narrative, play, reflection, and information to create ludic learning spaces.

    I point to science museums as an example of meaningful gamification. They don’t need badges to get people to engage with science; instead, they use interaction, choice, and play to help people find thing that are interesting. This is what you are already doing.

    Not all gamification is bullshit… and we can use more people to help spread the message to those focused on reward-based gamification that there is another way.

    You can learn more about meaningful gamification at http://becauseplaymatters.com/pubs/

    • Thanks, Scott. I suppose the issue with gamification is one of language. I think there’s often a feeling that the word implies an injection of gaming elements into entirely different media, and i’ts this practice that often produces awkward and uncomfortable results. I certainly believe there is something in combining learning and heritage experiences with gaming, but the boundaries of what works and how are still very unclear for me.

      I also agree that science museums have done some very good work in this area (the Wellcome Collection in particular http://www.wellcomecollection.org/explore/play.aspx), but there are far fewer examples of games used for, say, social history or art history.

      In the context of this post, I was really thinking about games as simulation rather than reward mechanism. When I get a moment I’ll have a look at your papers, as I’d be interested to know if there is some good evidence based research demonstrating how gamification may work.

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