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Film: Research into games within the context of museums.

Mia Ridge is a cultural heritage technologist, and has worked internationally as an analyst, consultant and programmer. Mia spoke at the 2011 MuseumNext conference in Edinburgh about her research into games within the context of museums.


Mia: Thank you for having me. I hope you manage to stay awake in the kind of difficult after-lunch slot. I’ve kept things not too dry, not too technical and lots of pictures of puppies and kittens to see if you’re awake.

We’re going to go on a journey looking at a lot of the problem encountered by museums and the kind of typical issues that they face. We’re going to look at some the solutions and some of the challenges that come up as you start to implement those solutions. We’re heading towards epic win, which is a lovely gaming term where everyone wins.

First, some definitions. The magic circle is a really useful gaming concept, it’s the division between activities and ideas that are meaningful in the game, and activities and ideas that are meaningful in the outside world. The magic circle is entered into when you decided to play. It can be as simple as saying to your friend, “Race you to the top of the hill.” When they say, “Okay,” then you’ve entered into the magic circle.

You’ve a goal: first one to the hill. And you’ve got rules about you can’t push people or whatever. It’s a really simple idea but it’s a really nice way of actually making something into a game and not just an activity. When I started my research on crowdsourcing games I came to the conclusion that casual games were a really good match for crowdsourcing. They’re really easy to pick up and play. They can be played for a few minutes or they can be played for hours.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a gamer, you’ve probably played one of the most popular casual games in the world, which is Solitaire. I think there’s something like 80 million hours still every month played on Solitaire. More recent casual games are things like Angry Birds. Angry Birds is actually a really good example, because it shows you how to play the game as you start to play the game, so all the tutorials, everything you need to know is built into the game play itself.

I don’t know if you’ve had friends who have done the same thing, but I’ve had friend who have not slept overnight because they keep thinking they’ll play just one more turn. That’s the mark of a really good casual game, when it’s such a small bite-size activity that you think, “Well, I’ll just do one more.” Unfortunately, the poor little puppies, because they can’t talk, they’re not very good at metadata games. Metadata game are games about words. So any game where you have to guess what I’m acting out, it might be charades, it could be Pictionary, it could be Taboo. They are all metadata games.

Even if you’ve never played a crowdsourcing game you’re probably actually familiar with a lot of the activities that it requires. Flow is a really useful concept for game designing. I didn’t want to get too technical but I kept this slide because a lot of people have said that flow is a really useful concept for them in their everyday lives. When you think about your work or your hobbies, the times that you really have a deep, focused engagement. The times when hours pass by but it feels like minutes. That’s because you’re in flow.

So flow is the channel that runs the line between anxiety and boredom. If your skills are greater than the challenges that you face, then you’re board. If your skills aren’t up to the challenges that you face, then you feel anxious. Flow runs between these two channels. Having variations in levels of the skills and activities required helps players stay in flow because you need to increase their challenges as their skills increase.

Some of the things that flow requires. Clear goals, and actually that’s a good design metric for any participatory project. Requires immediate feedback on the success of your actions towards that goal. And it requires a good match between skills and challenges.

Gamification is a buzzword that you probably will have heard quite a bit. I think there’s a danger that museums games fall for gamifcation in the same ways that other commercial companies do. There’s various phrases, like pointification, badgification, and they’re really warnings about taking the things that make something look like a game is not actually a game. I think museums really need to make sure that the games we produce don’t risk taking intrinsic motivation and replaces it with extrinsic motivation, and then when people realize the kind of cheap tricks we’re paying on them with badges and points, they’ll actually have lost that intrinsic motivation.

Museums are really great at providing meaning in the activities that we engage in with our public. We want to make sure that we don’t cheapen those by going for something faddish that’s actually not going to last.

The project I worked on was looking at difficult objects. I made two games that were dealing with objects just like these ones. These are the Powerhouse Museum API. I used two museum APIs, the science museum API and the Powerhouse API. These objects are actually listed as toys on the Powerhouse site, which maybe gives you an idea of the scale of the problem. I don’t know who would play with these as toys, but apparently they are.

Unlike art objects, which even if you are not an art historian, they’re reasonably accessible because you can talk about the mood, the emotions they evoke. You can talk about color, the things that they depict, the materials, things that they remind you of. Some of these objects are less accessible because their meaning and their purpose can be obscure. There’s a lot of objects that look very much like duplicates. These objects are often poorly cataloged because they come from quite extensive collections and so they’re reasonably scantily digitized.

Okay, so we’re going to start on the way to epic win. Museums have spent a lot of money and time and effort putting their collections online. But it sort of seems like the amount of effort that we’ve put in has not yet been rewarded in the level of usage that these sites get. One of the reasons for that is a semantic gap, it’s the gap between the language that catalogers use and the language that ordinary, everyday people use when they’re looking for objects. People often don’t intentionally engage on a museum visit. They’re looking for something else. They might be browsing through Wikipedia or looking for something on Google and they come across museum content. If we don’t get our content out there, they’re never going to find it. It’s only the specialists who will come and use it.

It’s everyone’s cultural heritage so we owe it to people to make it as accessible as possible. Even once people manage to find this content, it’s not necessarily engaging or accessible because the language used doesn’t really tell them enough about why we’ve kept this object. What does it mean? What does it tell us? How does it fit into the story of our lives? How does it tell us about what’s happening in the future?

A lot of our collection sites kind of assume a certain level of interest, or specialized knowledge or willingness to research things. People are busy. You’ve got five seconds to say, “This object is relevant to you because kings used this to decide when to go on important missions blah blah blah.” If you don’t tell them that, why are they interested?

So we can fix this gap. We all know this. We add context, we add links, we add meaning, we tell them why it’s significant. We help them find other relevant objects. That’s all great. Okay. That is a problem though, we know it’s expensive.

We’ve already heard about a number of projects that can help crowdsourcing. It turns outcrowdsourcing is a really good way to help solve this problem. This is a tweet from yesterday. It’s one of those citizen science projects. Imagine what you could do with that many volunteers, but unfortunately everybody else has figured out the same thing, so there’s a lot of competition for eyeballs. There’s a participation economy for crowdsourcing projects, because everyone else has also said, “Hey, this crowdsourcing stuff is kind of good.”

Also, some of the biggest crowdsourcing projects are things like Wikipedia, so the kinds of people who might come and share their knowledge on your site, might also look at Wikipedia and think, “Well, I’ll provide more benefit by sharing my knowledge on Wikipedia then I will by providing it on this site.” So how can we drive people to participate in our crowdsourcing projects?

It turns out that games are actually really good. Digital Crete is a project in Finland that asks people to help correct OCR errors in digitized newspapers. They have two different games, you have to help a beaver or a mole cross a bridge by building a chain of correct words. Even if you don’t speak any Finnish and even if you find 19th Century type a bit difficult to read, it’s a compelling experience, because if you don’t do it right, the mole dies and everyone is sad.

Games With a Purpose is the originator of a lot of these things. Even back in 2008 they had 50 million verified tags, so these are tags that have proven to be relevant to the images that they are describing. It’s not any old crap entered in by anyone. We also know that a lot of people in the UK play casual games. There are also a lot of social games in the world. The Science Museum’s Launch Ball game had about five or six million plays, andHigh Tea by the Welcome Collection, which was only launched earlier this year, I think has had about three million plays already. People are willing to play museum games. There’s a lot of people looking for something to play.

This is an example from my research project. One reason I am including it even though it was a very small scale prototype is that I think if I can do this in my weekends and my evenings then your small museum can manage something like this too. You don’t need to be a big budget place. You don’t need to have all the resources that you might think. A lot of it is about being agile, about being smart, about being wily, about using everything that you can to get stuff done within a reasonable amount of time.

Interestingly, Facebook turned out to be a really good place to promote games. I think because people are used to seeing calls for games there. And because Twitter, certainly on my personal networks, Twitter is much more of a professional peer network and Facebook is personal. People averaged about ten minutes looking at telescopes, looking at model steam pumps. This isn’t reading something wonderful or an exciting comic, it’s looking at really boring objects, but people spent a lot of time doing it, so even in six years we managed to get over a thousand tags and full facts on about 145 objects. So even at small scale it’s worth doing and if you’ve got actual promotion strategies behind your games, you can get much higher levels of participation.

So games are really participating engines for crowdsourcing. They drive ongoing play in a way that other crowdsourcing projects find much more difficult. One of my key findings was that the magic circle really helps get people playing. I’m sure a lot of you have experiences when you’re doing participatory projects in a museum, participation rates are quite low, because people are scared about saying things in museum spaces. As part of my project I did non-game versions of the activities, and even people who worked in cultural heritage found it difficult. But as soon as introduced characters and a storyline and a really clear task, that all fell away. Straightaway. There was no issue. People were just really happy to get in and start playing.

I haven’t gone into too much detail about the kinds of game mechanics that you can apply to crowdsourcing games. There’s a lot of material out there already. A lot of it depends on the particular context of your collections. What do you want to find out about your object? What you’re trying to do with your project and who your target audience is, because different game mechanics will apply to different processes. If you’re interested I can recommend some books or some sites that will give you some ideas.

One of the original ideas behind crowdsourcing games was that they produce meaningful and accurate metadata as a side effect of enjoyable play. So you can design tasks to get exactly the data that you want. And you can design the reward schedules and the rewards types, feedback types around the content that you want to get. It’s a very targeted process, but it’s worth doing because actually you can really quite precisely – and it’s quite exciting as a designer, or as a user experience designer, to design a game because you can be so precise and people do respond to the tasks that you set them.

That’s partly particularly true if you design for specific player types for play motivations. So some people like cooperation, some people like competition. It’s difficult to mix those two in one game, so you might need to think about the particular player type and design for them. I designed my tagging game for a forty year old woman with two kids, a busy job in the NHS. I had a player persona, she had a name and she has a photo. Because that’s actually who play casual games. Women over forty are the highest players of casual games anywhere. So I can design for particular motivations, and what I found in my evaluation was that the people who responded, they were also the supertaggers in this game quite closely match that demographic. So it’s actually worth doing that.

One of the key findings for museum crowdsourcing games is the idea of validating procrastination, because people are doing something good they feel okay about the fact they’re playing games on their tea break. So show them how you’re using the content, make it okay for them to feel okay about doing this. That really drives participation rates as well.

These are the prototype games that I made. These are the two front pages. It’s a really simple story line. Its Dora’s first day, she’s a junior curator, she’s really excited except she’s stuffed up and she’d deleted all the data about the collections. SO what you have to do is help her. Tag it with things that you’d find with Google. Because this was a really simple tasks, people had no problem doing it.

Straightway they could start typing, There was no registration process. There was no, “You must be this cool, this knowledgeable to take part in this game.” It was straight in, get going, start tagging.
I mentioned it was a prototype process. I made the avatars on the social networking sites because I can’t draw. Here you can see there is a range of objects that people wouldn’t normally find. If you just landed on this page I don’t; think most people would know that to do, but because you can start tagging this in ways that will help people find it, people sort of immediately started having an active engagement. What I also did was I recorded when people skipped an object so that I could start to use that as a metric for other projects.

One of the really exciting things that came out of project was the idea that people who aren’t social historians, who aren’t working in science and technology, who would never not only go to the science museum, except maybe to (elate?), they really enjoyed the objects. And I found friends talking in places like Facebook about what they’d learned about heliocentric astrolabes, because they’d started playing with these objects. And for the Powerhouse objects, because they all have an individual page, I linked back to the page within the game. People would go to the Powerhouse page, learn a bit more about the object and come back and tag it in the game.

There’s a really close active viewing, so it turns out that you can get people to look at telescopes. They might get a bit bored after awhile, but because there was a real range of different objects in the collection, you didn’t encourage too many telescopes. But I was amazed that people got beyond brown and stick as tags. And as you can see, the content’s actually quite useful in terms of helping other people find that.

One of the real benefits about a crowdsourcing for a museum is that there is a lot of stuff to do, so people found that “just one more” thing quite compelling. Sometimes they’re just really curious to know what the object would be. One of the key ideas underlying this is learning is fun. It turns out that learning really is fun. People were really engaged by the fact that they suddenly know something that they didn’t know, and because they’d been engaged in the process of creating that knowledge, they’d really kind of owned it in a way that was unexpected but really nice.

There’s also something about leading a trace. So people can go in, they can say, “I tagged that, I said stargazing” so now somebody else can find it with stargazing, but it’s also a reflection of your own personal experience. People brought their own skills and knowledge to this, so someone who was an architect who trained in architecture and design, tagged my materials in a really quite precise way. Someone else who was a graphic designer and spent a lot of time looking through picture libraries to find images to use was really, really good at using synonyms and a wide range of key words.
What people tag, even for an object like this, is a personal expression. I think people found that quite powerful.

Here are some of the ideas, different kinds of activities, different kinds of data that you can gather in museum crowdsourcing games. Tagging is a really simple one. It’s unstructured text. You can put in any kind of thing.

Debunking was one of the more interesting findings. Someone said, “I really like being grumpy, so what I want is to go through and say, ‘that’s wrong, that’s wrong, that’s wrong’” and she would happily do that for a really long time. So we would use her energy about being a bit OCD in correcting people to go in and clean up incorrect facts or incorrect tags. And it also means that as a museum, you have to spend less time worrying about weird things that people might have added.

Recording a personal story was one of the really interesting things. People have knowledge about our collections that we don’t know. They have access to experiential accounts. They have memoires. They have reminiscences. Sometimes for the science museum they might have been involved in the design or making of an object. They might have used it. It’s difficult. We’ve tried with things like take the object with you to get access to that content, but it’s difficult to motivate people to take that first step in participating and in keeping them going on.

Linking is a really nice way of finding how people think of your objects. How they group them tells you different things about them. It also means that you can crowdsource something like the application of finding Wikipedia articles about your objects in a crowdsourcing game. Stating preferences, so voting things up or voting things down or liking things, it’s a really nice, lightweight introductory interaction, but it gives you really useful data on either what records people find more accessible or more interesting, or on which pieces of user-created content they find more interesting and more accessible.

Categorizing, again, is like linking. It can be used to help understand people’s concepts that they bring, particularly for technical collections, or collections that are out of living memory. Helping people understand – or people can help us learn about how they think about these objects, in ways that can be quite surprising.

And creative responses. I’ve always wanted to do a game where people have to make the best fake label that they can think of for an object. So they give us the tallest possible story about how an object came to be, what it does, how it got into the museum.

Okay, so, this is all great but what about people who don’t like that kind of game? What about people who just want to troll? What about different kinds of participants? One solution is to create an ecosystem of games. This helps you engage a wide range of players because you can design games for the competitive person and for the cooperative person. You can design social games and solo games. You can design games that require a critical mass of people, and games that only require a few people to succeed.

You can use simple games, simple interactions to help clean and test out if you’re using other games. So the tagging game, when people skipped objects, I started to drop those out of the more complex games because it was clear that they were less accessible. One of the clear pieces of feedback I got was that people wanted quality feedback, not on the quantity of data that they entered, but on the quality of the data. So if they used specialist tags, they wanted to be recognized for that.

If they used tags and language other than English, they also wanted to be recognized for that. So using crowdsourcing to help validate that data where it’s difficult to do it computationally, is a really good use of an ecosystem of games. You can also crowdsource the matching of activates to objects, because different kinds of objects evoke different responses and work better with different types of tasks. But if you have to go through and manually assign a task or a game type to an object then you’re bringing the work back into the institution. So crowdsource it.

What about dodgy data? What about people who are trolling? Here’s an example. The obligatory Brooklyn Museum example. It’s a game called freeze tag. You go through and you say, “Well, that’s clearly not a bed, even I, not an art historian, know that.” So you can go through and you can say, “That’s crap, that’s crap, that’s crap.” So that’s like the debunking one. It’s a nice, simple interaction, depending on – in the example there you can see it might require some judgment. Sometimes it doesn’t require judgment, but its’ a really nice way of dealing with the problem that sometimes people put in with good intentions, they put in crap data; or occasionally you get people trolling.

Although I should say that in the entire time I did the games, I didn’t get any intentional trolling. I had two spam tags and I just built in systems that meant I could track who’d added what data. So if I found out that some of them had been deliberately misleading, it would be easy to track down and just remove all the content.

So just some thoughts on how to make crowdsourcing games even better. Design easy feel-good tasks to get started. We’ve heard today already about lowering barriers to participation. It works particularly well in games. We talked about good feedback, so giving people rewards based on quality not just on quantity. One thing that museums could do, but it’s quite difficult at the moment, is helping players acquire, test and master new skills. SO as people develop visual literacy, as they start to understand the differences between telescopes of the 16th Century and telescopes of the 19th Century, can you think of ways to help people test out that identification. Can they start to tell a 1950s style painting from a 1930’s style painting, and how can you validate those guess and help them learn and help them get better.

Again, because learning is fun. And people will spend time hanging out and playing if they’re actually earning. I’ve talked before about using personas or using really specific design processes. Fun is personal. It’s not institutional, it’s not something that you can say, “All 35-year olds like this.” Design and test with real people as soon as you can. You don’t need to start programming straightway. You can use paper prototypes. And that’s actually a really good way of helping to test ideas right at the start. And also explaining your ideas to stakeholders who might not be game players.

So back to flow. Museum games sometimes find it difficult to let people fail, because we want to help the kids. But actually maybe helping the kids means letting them fail. Just a tiny bit. Became then they can do better, and they can learn and reflect on their failure. So letting people bounce up and down in this flow channel where sometimes they’re edging towards boredom, and then you up the challenge.

And sometimes it’s getting a bit too challenging, so you help them improve their skills. The tension and release in a game is actually what makes it compelling. Its’ the fact that you might not succeed. It’s the fact that not every game in Solitaire turns out. It’s that sometimes the pigs are still smiling at you at the end of Angry Birds that makes it worth paying. If you could get through every level straightway it wouldn’t actually be that fun.

So try and design things that let people improve and increase the challenge over time.

So maybe it’s still not perfect, but what I’d like to see is as more and more museum games, and as there’s more and more crowdsourcing projects keep experimenting. Test and interact. If you’re designing a project budget, design it so you’ve got time at the end for improving based on the results of your play-testing, or based on the results of your evaluation. Test it with core audiences. Test it with non-core audiences and see what they think, because you might find that unexpected audiences pick things up. And share what you learn. There is a museum API wiki, there are a lot of museum mailing lists, there are conferences, keep talking.

I’ve made the case why failing a little bit is okay. If you do something that’s less than perfect and I certainly know that my project are only prototypes, but keep sharing and learning and then we’ll all benefit.

So just to summarise. crowdsourcing games are fun. They’re productive and they’re engaging, even with really boring objects. I find that people learn new information and new skills, even thought that wasn’t their intention, they were just looking to pass some time over a cup of tea, but that knowledge becomes imbedded in their social relationship, in their conversations. Particularly if you make a social game. And also museums can learn things that might surprise them. Our players can tell us things about our collections that we never would have known otherwise.

Thank you.

Mia Ridge is a cultural heritage technologist, and has worked internationally as an analyst, consultant and programmer. Mia spoke at the MuseumNext conference in Edinburgh about her research into games within the context of museums.

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