Engaging Visitors Through Play

CC Mia Ridge

CC Mia Ridge

 Guest blog post by Mairead Quinn

On the 30th May 2013 Oonagh Murphy and Alan Hook from the University of Ulster hosted a Museums Computer Group conference on play and digital technology in museums.  This event brought together delegates from across the museum, community and academic sectors to explore and showcase the innovative use of digital technology to engage audiences in a range of activities, within a range of budgets. Mia Ridge, Chair of the MCG opened the event by discussing the opportunities and challenges that digital offers those working in and with museums, and demonstrated how the MCG as a community has over the years worked together to respond to these challenges and opportunities. From hosting an annual conference, a spring meeting and taking part in other events such as the 2012 Museums Association conference, the MCG is an active community. Between events, the MCG Discussion list provides a valuable online network for those working in and with museums to seek advice, ask questions and learn from each other. Having outlined a vibrant and dynamic community of practice Mia encouraged delegates to get involved both online and by attending future events such as UKMW2013 which will be held at Tate Modern on the 15th of November.

Panel 1 – Play: A Northern Ireland Showcase

The first speaker of the day was Lyndsey Jackson, general manager of Kabosh, a site specific professional theatre company situated in Belfast.  Lyndsey discussed how the company uses site specific theatre as a medium through which to engage with audiences and get them thinking about history and their surroundings in a different way.   She highlighted the importance of situating site specific theatre in physical spaces not traditionally associated with the theatre experience (previous productions have taken place in synagogues, churches, city centre walking tours and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum), tying production content to historical events or anniversaries, and basing it on historical fact. The primary example drawn upon was the Belfast character Barney Bred who conducts street theatre/tours around Belfast city centre discussing his time working on the titanic and the history of food in Belfast.  Lyndsey highlighted how with the use of social media Barney has now gone global with a Twitter and Facebook page run by the man himself who now has fan bases across the globe.

Next up was University of Ulster PhD researcher Oonagh Murphy who explored her current research findings and methodology.  Oonagh deconstructed the myth that for museums to have a digitally savvy base would require enormous amounts of funding and resources, and emphasised the benefits of collaboration between diverse disciplines to create innovative and accessible tools for visitor engagement.  Exploring her ‘This is our Playground’ project, we saw how  innovative and cost effective methods of digital visitor engagement could be developed with the use of a little creativity and the coming together of different perspectives.  The project brought together students from the University of Ulster’s Cultural Heritage and Museums Studies and Interactive Media Arts MA courses for a hack day in the Ulster Museum with some very interesting outcomes.

Alan Hook of the University of Ulster, a researcher and lecturer in the Faculty of Arts spoke next about Alternative Reality and Pervasive Games in Northern Ireland.  Drawing upon the example of the ‘Where’s Wally’ project, Alan explored the benefits of trans-media narrative games with a multiple layered online presence.  A discussion around about the benefits and drawback of pervasive gaming was highlighted through the example of the MYNI game, developed by the University of Ulster and funded by the NI Tourist Board.  The game was designed to encourage local people from Northern Ireland to explore their surroundings and asked participants to send photographs of the places they visited, while the distance travelled from the participant’s home was logged via phone applications.  One of the issues with the game highlighted by Alan was the aggregation of personal details in order the engage with the game. It was emphasised that the mechanics of the game (i.e. asking for personal details) must be justifiable, and not simply a method of data gathering.

Reflections on the project raised a number of issues for future games developers to be aware of these included the problems of mixed agendas, timetables and interpretation of design documentation.

Part one of the day was wrapped up with a discussion panel before going to a lovely break of scone, tea and discussion with fellow conference goers.

Panel 2 – Games: Best Practice and Innovative Approaches

Part two of the conference was focused upon best practice in museums across the UK in engaging visitors through digital technology both in the museum and online.  Sharna Jackson of the Tate Gallery gave us a tour of Tate Kids an online website for children to play games that link to the museum’s collections and topics.  Sharna showcased a number of high quality and entertaining games which I would quite happily push any kid of the laptop to play (If you don’t believe me check out Wondermind!).  The games have been developed to work on three levels of difficulty therefore catering to the intellectual needs of a broader range of children and allowing the participants to carry on engagement with the games as their mature.

Sharna emphasised the need to look outside the box in finding innovative ideas for digital games design, looking predominantly at how games are designed in other sectors and exploring how those methods can be transferred over into the museum sector.  She also encouraged the development of more collaboration between museums and external industries, both in terms of funding and development and design.

Also explored was the possibility of using mediums other that digital technology to encourage game playing within and outside of the museum, one idea put forth was the use of space on the back of entrance tickets.  Sharna closed by underscoring the need for museums games to be developed predominantly as games for fun with educational undertones rather than games as education.

This idea was further reinforced by Danny Birchall of the Wellcome Trust who showcased six online games directed at adult museum audiences.  Danny also spoke about the need to move away from the structured educational focus of museum gaming (chocolate covered broccoli).  The games developed by the Wellcome Trust facilitate learning by putting the payer in the driving seat.  Games such as High Tea allows the player to become a character from a factual historical period in British history (opium trade during the time of the British Empire) and their actions within the game will affect the success or failure of the trade.  This free learning approach allows the player to learn about history and link elements of the game to the Wellcome Trust’s object collections.  The website also contains links to information about drug taking in the Victorian era and modern day, books and information about the British Empire and opium trade and an image gallery for the player to explore the topic more freely in an open environment.

A second game, ‘Magic in Modern London’ required the player to collect magical ambulates lost by the Edward Lovett, a historical character from Edwardian London.  This game was designed as an app to be used on the iPhone and actively encouraged the player to use the physical space around London to complete the game.

Danny spoke about the benefits of situating games within a historical period while allowing the player to make decision and alter the course of history through their choices and online actions.  He emphasised the learning personal development potential for players by allowing them to create fictional scenarios and new narratives that are not too far detached from what we know to be fact.

The last of the groups speakers was Alex Mosley, lecturer from the University of Leicester who focused upon the educational potential of low budget alternative reality games.  Alex exploring the world of gaming using the physical space, objects and simple, existing technology such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, phones and paper to create trails filled with clues, links and rewards for players to engage and stay motivated with.

Alex discussed six features of developing a ARG.  These included graded problem solving (from easy to hard), engage players through clear progress and rewards, good narrative devices, ability of player to influence the outcome of the game, and regular new events to keep players interested.

Part two of the event was rounded up by a discussion panel and a break for tea, quickly followed by lightening talks by a group of five local panellists from Northern Ireland.

Part 3 – Lightening talks

The first lightening talk guest was Anna Patrick, co-founder of Take Back Belfast who spoke about the organisations origins and current work which employed online and mobile technology to enable locals to engage with festival activities and explore undervalued aspects of Northern Ireland.  In short, allowing the local community to take back control of their cultural, arts and local space through the use of social media and technology.

Second up was Steven Shaw from Big Motive, a creative technology company based in Northern Ireland who have been involved in such events as Culture Night Belfast.  Steven emphasized the need for greater focus on the use of the individuals own technology such as mobile devices, for transfer of knowledge.

Design Zoo founders Gordon and Adrian Campbell also spoke of the importance of personal technology and its use for connecting with the culture and history of a particular physical space, using the ‘Street Museum’ project as an example.  They also explored different level of engagement with larger street technology, discussing the use of ‘City Buzz’ technology in the City Hall Belfast space.  This technology allowed passers-by to actively engage with the technology by physical movement beside screens which would alter the participants’ appearance on screen.  Participants could also passively engage with technology by sending tweets which would appear on the big screen.

Lance Wilson of Lancorz Design, a former student with the University of Ulster spoke about the benefits and drawbacks of designing and implementing ARGs.  Focusing on ‘Finding Janet’ Lance spoke about the issues he faced when delivering a lives multi person game.  For example how much time had to be devoted to ongoing game development, venue issues such as the Tower Museum being closed on Sundays, and environmental issue such as rain washing away chalk instructions for participants.

The conference was wrapped up with a game of Curate-a-Fact hosted by Alex Mosley, followed by a trip to the Hudson Bar for some well deserved pints and a chat at the #drinkingaboutmuseums event, followed by a scrumptious dinner and more chit chat at Made in Belfast.

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The MCG is for technologists, curators, educators, marketers and more in and around museums. Posts and event news by Mia (Chair), Jess, and the Comms team