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Engaging young visitors at Bletchley Park through gamification

Intelligence Factory, You’re In Charge interactive table – Image Credit : Andrew Lee, courtesy Bletchley Park Trust.

MuseumNext chats to Emily Scott-Dearing and Erica Munro about how they worked to strengthen the multigenerational offering at Bletchley Park, the top-secret home of World War Two codebreakers, using interactive games within newly restored wartime buildings.

With a brief to reanimate a number of buildings at Bletchley Park and attract a more inter-generational audience, Emily Scott-Dearing and Erica Munro were part of a wider-team tasked with showcasing what life was like for those who worked at the Bletchley Park during its busiest years.

To many, Bletchley Park was the home of genius codebreakers during World War Two and a place of triumph as well as great mystery.  What many don’t realise is the valued contribution of thousands of staff who worked at Bletchley Park, performing essential yet often mundane tasks which were of huge consequence to the overall war effort.

Intelligence Factory, The Cataloguing Room – Image Credit : Andrew Lee, courtesy Bletchley Park Trust.

It was the stories of these workers that (now) Head of Programmes, Erica Munro, and freelance museum consultant, Emily Scott-Dearing, wanted to bring to the fore. Their approach used a multi-layered interpretation strategy to transform what may be considered complex, nuanced or even dry subject matter into an exciting and engaging experience for families.

Breaking the code of what visitors want

The Intelligence Factory is the culmination of a four-year project to strengthen the offering at Bletchley Park after the rescue of a number of derelict buildings on the site 10 years ago.  The masterplan included bringing those buildings back into public and heritage use and creating exhibitions that had an inter-generational appeal.  An exhibition which spoke to different age groups but had activities and conversation-starters which bridged generational gaps.

Erica explains: “The Intelligence Factory is actually the largest exhibition we’ve ever done at Bletchley Park.  Twenty two connected rooms with many architectural challenges within that.  The entire exhibition has a number of different approaches but we knew from the outset that by gamifying certain information we could maximise the appeal to our target audience.

“Other areas of the exhibition are actually quite traditional and immersive and some areas are quite sparse to allow the building to speak for itself. The whole exhibition isn’t just focused on a gamifying approach but really key strategic areas of it were, more particularly where the messaging is such that we really wanted visitors to feel they were part of the Bletchley workforce.”

As a freelance consultant following many years spent at the Science Museum, Emily Scott-Dearing brought her considerable knowledge of how to turn complex  information into engaging exhibition content.   She identified early that putting visitors in the shoes of Bletchley Park and gamifying tricky processes would be the right approach to distil and present information in a way that suited the target intergenerational audience. Emily says,

“We wanted to move the exhibition from the anonymous masses that were pouring through the gates at the start of each shift, to the level of the individual, to create a relatable human experience.

Intelligence Factory, The Plotting Room – Image Credit : Andrew Lee, courtesy Bletchley Park Trust.

“When planning the exhibition, there were standout moments where we thought we’d get the most bang for our buck in terms of visitors being at the heart of the ‘doing’ at Bletchley Park.  But, throughout the exhibition we had to relate back to the individual. For example, the silhouettes of staff appear throughout the space, it’s all part of a continuum to help individuals really imagine that they are part of the workforce at Bletchley Park.”

Blending technology, gamification and analogue

The Intelligence Factory features two digital interactive exhibits, created in collaboration with Ay-Pe. On paper, gamifying the work that happened at Bletchley Park could seem frivolous and at odds with the historical and technical detail that loyal Bletchley Park enthusiasts value. But by building games based on the strong foundations of detailed historic research, the visitor experience has been enriched by making tricky or remote content more accessible, without dumbing down or obscuring the source material.

“Our first game room in the exhibition is called the Plotting Room. Here,  young female Wrens (members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service) worked around the clock in shifts to update the latest known locations of ships and submarines – friend or foe – on giant charts of the world oceans,” says Emily. “Those charts just enveloped the room, from floor to ceiling.

“As fast as new fragments of information came in from intercepted enemy messages, someone would add a pin and string to the board. We wanted to retain the lovely visual quality of those wartime materials, even in this digital exhibit. None of the original equipment survived but the memories of the staff who worked here do and we wanted to bring that room back to life.

“We re-papered it with the same charts they used, sourced from the UK Hydrographic Office. Erica worked with Ay-Pe and our Research Historians to come up with real scenarios that happened at Bletchley Park from the historical records. There was a mountain of detailed historical research to be gamified.  In that room you are treated as if you’re a Wren and spoken to as if you are on duty. You are given information as if it has just arrived and you need to move those pins around swiftly and accurately to reflect the latest events at sea.

“There was a huge amount of historical research required.  Yes, it is a relatively simple game that you can play for a couple of minutes, but it is interpreted with the standards expected of our audience who love Bletchley Park historical and technical detail.”

Erica adds: “All of the exhibition content is embedded with really rigorous historical research which did always have the potential to create tension when gamifying.  For example, the authentic maps were actually black and white but this just wouldn’t work with a 21st century audience. People expect to see the seas represented as blue so we try to keep everything authentic whilst acknowledging the modern expectations of our visitors.”

Intelligence Factory, The Plotting Room – Image Credit : Andrew Lee, courtesy Bletchley Park Trust.

The second digital interactive exhibit within the Intelligence Factory retains the approach of getting the visitor to play a role in the workforce.  But rather than being a map plotter, this time they’re invited – in this world full of secrets – to imagine being one of the few people to see everything happening at Bletchley Park.  Using a large animated representation of the site in a digital format, the user joins the Administration team trying to keep Bletchley Park running smoothly. They face a deluge of memos (the wartime equivalent of emails) raising difficulties, requesting resources and demanding decisions.

The question is, can they keep the show on the road?

Erica comments, “The game was designed to highlight how the park was a complex organisation but often run in secret silos.  Few people had the overall picture – except those at the very top.  The paper memos reflect real issues of the day from historical sources such as recruitment problems, construction delays or administrative failures and offer you two different options to deal with each challenge and their consequences.

Emily adds, “All of the memos in the game were based on documents identified in our historical research, and we made it very real by mixing the big issues in with the small stuff – from funding trouble to staff eating too many portions of pudding.  The wall behind the interactive exhibit is covered with facsimiles of the real memos, sourced from Bletchley Park’s collection and the National Archives. Everything that happens in the game is inspired by the enormous amount of work our Research Historians have done to really understand  how Bletchley Park ticked.

“Turning the relatively dry topic of the organisation’s bureaucracy and paperwork into a game makes it far more accessible to the audience but also hugely broadened our own understanding of how Bletchley Park operated in the process.”

“It’s a game but by displaying the source material nearby in the form of the original memos, we’re reassuring our  visitors  that the game is based on authentic scenarios. It’s a way to keep the exhibition grounded.”

Whilst the gaming aspect of these exhibits keeps visitors of all ages engaged in the mundane task of plotting points on a map or dealing with operational memos, the digital format fits with the brief of immersing the user into the mentality of the person doing the job. These exhibits sit comfortably alongside the more traditional analogue interactive exhibits, as Emily explains:

“The analogue exhibits are rooted in the same principle of putting you in the shoes of one of the many, varied roles someone may have held at Bletchley Park.  We really wanted visitors to discover  how mundane but absolutely essential some of these tasks were.

“For example, one of the analogue exhibits puts the visitor in the role of an Indexer, consulting Bletchley Park’s detailed card catalogues – each a bit like an old-school library catalogue – where staff methodically stored every scrap of information they learned about the enemy. Every card in every drawer was packed with facts. Over time, their knowledge of the enemy grew and grew, helping them make more sense of intercepted enemy communications as new messages came in.

“Visitors are set challenges, based on real historic scenarios, to find information amongst drawers of index cards.  We’ve simplified the tasks, for playability, but at the end they can turn over the instructions and find out what really happened.  The reveal is connecting the game to the authentic historic record.

Intelligence Factory, Block A exterior – Image Credit : Andrew Lee, courtesy Bletchley Park Trust.

“This game was initially on our long list of digital exhibits but budget restrictions meant we needed to find an analogue way to do it and it’s worked well. It’s a very tactile activity. We’re pleased to have ended up with a mix of analogue and digital approaches.  But one word of warning: if you’re gamifying complex processes where visitors might need lots of instructions up front, digital exhibits provide the chance to break these up and deliver them in chunks, during the game, while you could end up with lots of off-putting text up front in an analogue exhibit.”

Gamifying . . . or dumbing down?

Throughout the process of creating the Intelligence Factory, the team trod a fine line making content accessible through gamification for their intended audience, without alienating their traditional visitor base. Ultimately, the source material became the decisive factor in how the information should and could be presented to make the exhibition both engaging and authentic for its visitors. Emily comments:

“Bletchley Park source content is hugely complex. Gamification helps to make it more accessible as you can break down complex processes into series of simpler tasks and using an interactive approach supports people to learn by doing.

“We don’t need people to grasp every detail of the process, just to have that first-hand experience. It takes visitors a huge step forward from thinking they’ve heard about all the clever stuff people did at Bletchley Park to knowing that they had a go at it. One challenge was the pacing. These were often very young people doing very mundane tasks and we had to find a way of keeping a short taster of those tasks interesting.”

This focus on people and asking visitors to occupy real roles met the initial brief to reanimate the building – a principle championed by the exhibition’s designers Ralph Appelbaum Associates.  The strongest draw of Bletchley Park to visitors is the building itself and the actions undertaken within it.  The team amplified this further by enhancing the gameplay with an immersive and varied soundscape, such as heels clipping down a corridor, machines whirring and the clack of typewriters to provide a realistic context for the role play. As Erica says,

“Re-populating the rooms with visitors doing those activities means we have real people in real spaces moving in real ways.  It is visitors playing those games that are helping us to imagine the building in play during the war.”

Evaluating success and implementing improvements

Erica and Emily are clear on what they see as the very important role testing and evaluation has played in the success of the exhibition. During the exhibition’s development and since opening in May 2022, the team have been able to use evaluation findings from evaluation consultant Emma Pegram to tweak the exhibition and enhance the visitor experience – making changes to pacing and information where relevant.

Given the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the exhibition, there is one major learning that both Erica and Emily agree on.

“Don’t let a potentially dry history prevent you from creating a fun and interactive piece of gamification as there are always ways to do it,” Erica says.

Emily agrees, commenting, “You could easily be nervous and think this content is too complex or too nuanced – that by taking it from its authentic source into gamification you would be leaving those who expect the rigour and authenticity from Bletchley Park a little cold. That is not the case with the Intelligence Factory.”

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