Make it easy: creating good museum resources and services for teachers

Over the last year, I’ve been involved in various qualitative research projects relating to teachers and how they interact with museums and use their educational resources, especially mobile or online resources, whether on a visit or in the classroom. In doing so, I’ve noticed a number of common themes coming up again and again that might be useful for other museums considering how best to work with and provide for schools.

A note: these are undoubtedly generalisations, and you will find teachers who do not conform to this, but these responses have been consistent enough throughout several different projects for me to think that if you want to be most effective for most teachers, you will need to consider these things.

Also, you are going to notice one word coming up a lot: “easy”. Make life easy for teachers. They work hard, they don’t have much time or budget. Make it easy, and they are much more likely to use your resources.

Make online resources easy to find

Teachers, by and large, are extremely time poor. They do want to find great new resources to use, activities and games to help them teach literacy, images to illustrate a historical topics, etc, and actually already spend a great deal of time looking for them. But they are swamped, and will tend not to look beyond well-known resources sites such as TES or “teachers pay teachers” (or corporate subject specific sites, sometimes that they are subscribed to) or Google. And when they google, they tend to use the key stage as a search term (or “primary/secondary”), the subject, and a word like “game” or “poster”.

Whilst some do go to a museum website that is well-known to them as having resources on a particular subject (e.g. the British Museum for Egyptian history), for the most part teachers are not going to trawl through lots of potential museums to see what resources they may have. So, your stuff will have to either be prominent on a resources portal, or high up the search rankings to be seen.

Alternatively, you will have to work harder to reach teachers directly, but when you do so, remember that:

The benefits must be easy to see

Again, always assume that teachers have no time (or energy) to spend a lot of effort trying to figure out whether your resource or session is what they need, whether it is appropriate for the age group, what it covers exactly, what is required to use it, and how long it is expected to take. Make this easy for them, by spelling it out up front, and by including good images such as screenshots of it or that show it being used.

The fact that it was created by a museum does give it some authority, but generally teachers will use whatever works, whoever it was made by, if it is easy to use and find.

Registration is a barrier that most teachers won’t bother getting over, especially if you can’t trial anything first, so don’t make that a requirement unless you aren’t bothered about losing a lot of customers.

Make the visit easy, don’t ask them to prep for it

Teachers don’t generally prepare for museum visits. Even if directly asked to check out the app they will be using, to recce the gallery, or to send over information about the students before a booked visit, they rarely do. See above re time and energy, but whatever the reason, instead of wondering why teachers don’t do this, and why the visits are sometimes chaotic as a result, better to just not rely on this preparation for the visit to work.

So, make sure any activities you have planned work without prep; make sure any digital resources come with a good introduction and, ideally, direct facilitation (seriously, this is what makes digital work well in these situations, a good facilitator); give teachers information they might need on the spot when they arrive (suggested activities for free time in the galleries, background info, questions and themes etc). Make it easy for them, and I’m sure they will appreciate it.

If you need information in advance, be proactive in seeking it out, don’t wait for a teacher to email. Also, I have noticed that teachers generally do not use email a great deal, especially out of term time, so find a better mode of communication if you must get in contact, probably by phone. But when you do that, don’t forget to:

Be mindful of the time of year

I was trying to reach teachers for interviews in December last year. Major error. The build up to Christmas was apparently frantic, almost nobody answered my calls and emails, and I began to despair of ever being able to get hold of people. In January I tried again though, and it was much easier. Exam times will have similar issues. Out of term time is probably hopeless. But at the end of the year, teachers will be looking to September, so that may be a good time to give them some new ideas for the new year.

Make it flexible and modular

You might have a grand online interactive planned or a beautiful mobile app that will teach the history of the Tudors in a single game, and so this might be hard to take, but chances are that won’t be nearly as useful to teachers as a really good image bank.

When teaching in their own classroom, they have their own way of doing things. Curriculums vary, especially at primary level, student needs vary, and teaching methods vary. For your activity or resource to work, it will be more use if it can be modified, broken apart, or flexible enough to be used in different ways. Rigid lesson plans that make assumptions about how teachers teach the subject and how long they spend on it are also likely to be unhelpful too.

So image banks are great for teachers, they can be used in presentations for teaching from the front or by the students in projects, they can be used to illustrate or enliven. If they can be provided on an open licence, all the better, so they can be repurposed and edited.

There is a bigger point here, too:

Don’t try and break the mould, make it fit with teachers’ existing practice

If you are trying to make teachers do something out of their normal way of doing things, it is probably doomed to fail. If they usually teach the Tudors with plenary classes (that are exactly tailored to their and their students needs, because they designed them that way) and an essay writing activity, your Tudor history game is unlikely to fit in here. It might be great for giving to students as homework, mind, which could be valuable in and of itself, but not much cop as a classroom activity, so don’t market it that way.

Generally, it pays to do the legwork to find out how teachers are already teaching a subject, and what the gaps and opportunities are, rather than making assumptions and finding out too late that your idea just isn’t practical in the time available. This is especially true of secondary schools, where there is a lot to cram in, and time is short.

Also, don’t assume all schools have access to ipads (other tablets are of course available, just not used that much, as far as I can tell), or that the ones that do are using them in the same way. Some are 1:1, many are using them in groups, or swapping them between classes.

Make it beautiful, easy, and solve a problem

Put yourself in the teacher’s shoes. They have a working busy life, a big class of students to keep engaged, a long week ahead and they just spent their whole Sunday marking. On Monday morning, they have to teach a tricky area of their subject, that students always struggle with, so they go in search of something that might help.

Can you give them something that will help solve this problem? Some great pictures, a short and exciting video introduction, some suggested live games to play, or, yes, maybe, a flexible interactive tool that will engage them but do more, perhaps track progress, or allow teachers to choose different bits for different students or be genuinely fun enough that kids will go play it in their own time.

Better yet, can you make it look really good? Because it does help, the students and teachers both appreciate high production values.

The best way to make sure that your resource works for teachers? Research their needs, and test it with them. I’ve found a lot of teachers very happy and willing to share their thoughts, and even just a few interviews will be invaluable for shaping your decisions.

So, I hope that’s useful. If any teachers come across this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is there anything I’ve missed, or misrepresented? If any readers want to hear any more detail on any of the research behind this, get in touch.

Thanks to the museums I’ve worked with for letting me share this research as well as the fabulous Teach Your Monster to Read team for whom I carried out research into classroom phonics resources.

Reaching the non “science-savvy” with a #scicomms project: evaluating ExpeRimental for the Royal Institution

This post first appeared on the Royal Institution’s blog.

Who are we reaching, and how do we reach further and have greater impact? This was what the Royal Institution wanted to know about their new ExpeRimental project: a series of free online films that aimed to encourage and support parents (and also teachers) to do science activities with their children.

The first ExpeRimental film published

They commissioned me to put together a report that would do this, evaluating the audience and their reaction to the films, but also looking at what they could do to better reach and engage with an audience that they strongly suspected was not watching the films: those were less confident or knowledgeable about science. This followed an initial piece of research I carried out for the Ri that evaluated the pilot (which was used to help develop the full series of films, a very useful process in a project of this nature).

In this post I’ll share the process and some of the key findings, which I think could be very relevant to anyone embarking on a science communication project, or perhaps even any subject-specific digital engagement work. Spoilers: the non-science savvy are probably not likely to seek out your online content, no matter how good it is, and to reach them you are going to have to work a bit harder. If you do only one thing, it should be to try and reach parents via their children’s schools.

Phase one

The first task was to look at the current audience, and try to find out more about who they are, and what they think of the films. To do this, I looked at analytics from YouTube and the Ri’s website, and put together an audience survey that asked for opinions of the films, as well as questions about their expertise and confidence in discussing science subjects.

One thing to note about the research: there were over 20 films in the series, but most had already gone live. The survey was linked to from most of the films, but the vast majority of results will come from the last three that went live (during Science Week) after the survey was published, skewing the results to those, and to people who came to them and the survey via subscriptions and social media (ie probably those who were already “fans” in some way of the Ri and who wanted to be helpful). Whilst we had over a hundred responses this does mean the results can only be indicative rather than a fully significant and complete picture of the audience. The lesson there is to capture viewer feedback from the very beginning.

That said, some of the results were pretty striking. First, the good news. The audience was overwhelmingly positive about the films themselves and fulsome in their praise for them. When asked what could be improved, the most common answer was “nothing”, closely followed by “have more”. A few wanted to see more “further reading” links, such as related videos or ways to extend the activities, but for the rest there were only a few minor criticisms or suggestions.

The audience loved that the presenters and settings were relatable (they showed “real people” and “real family homes”), and that they depicted kids actually doing the activities. They said that the videos were clear, and the activities were easy to do.

A pleasing number had also picked up on the fact that the activities were less about imparting factual information but were instead aiming to depict a more questioning approach, that it was asking the questions that was the most important thing. Perhaps the most encouraging stat was that 60% of parents had already done the activity with their kids or students, and of the rest, only one person said that they weren’t planning on it.

However, the less good news was that the audience appeared to be very much from within a particular science “bubble” – they were very science savvy. Not a single respondent said they were “not at all confident” discussing science with their kids or students, over 70% said they were “very confident” or “quite confident” doing so (compare this with the results from the Phase 2 recruitment survey where only a little over 30% from a more general audience were “very confident” or “quite confident” and about 20% were “not at all confident”).

Respondents were asked about their level of science studied, and over 55% had a degree or post-graduate qualification in science (again the phase 2 recruitment survey would show that less than 20% had a degree in science, over 50% not going beyond GCSE science). So, as suspected, there were clear indications that the current/existing ExpeRimental audience was somewhat unusual, and that there could be a huge untapped audience of less science-confident parents out there. Which leads us to the next phase of research.

Phase two

The next question was clear: how does the Ri reach this audience? Their promotional plan so far had included use of social media, distribution via third parties such as AOL, national media coverage including TV appearances such as a slot on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch and a piece on ITV London news, a Huffington Post blog series, hospital newsletters, promotion via Brownie groups and parenting blogs, and collaborations with organisations such as a link to British Science Week via the British Science Association and training sessions for play-workers via London Play. Whilst this had resulted in some strong numbers for a few of the videos, it apparently was still preaching to the converted, for the most part.

Looking at the analytics, discovery type varied between videos, some on well-known subjects (making playdoh, or bubbles) were being found by search on YouTube and others were mostly being found via YouTube recommendations or subscriptions. One or two had seen a lot of traffic from online articles such as on the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. On the website people were arriving via various searches along the lines of “fun activities for kids” or “science for preschoolers” (most science related queries appearing to be school related, including “ks2” or “kindergarten”).

Being found via search was clearly very important to the success of some of the videos, but this only works if it is something that people might actually be searching for (almost nobody is going to be searching for “balancing structures”, the subject of one of the videos, for example). If it isn’t on a popular subject, then it is competing with all the other results for “fun activities for kids” that might come up when a parent gets desperate on a rainy bank holiday. Which is an awful lot of competition.

Social media is obviously likely to result in getting a message out to the like-minded (existing Facebook or Twitter fans and followers, and their similar connections). You’d expect that more general press and especially an appearance on Sunday Brunch might reach a more general audience, but it hadn’t translated into lots of views. A new strategy was needed.

In my experience, getting to the bottom of questions like this requires a more in-depth, qualitative approach. Surveys will only get you so far, and can be a bit self-selecting. I needed to find people in this target audience, and have a long chat with them. To do this, I posted a recruitment survey to Mumsnet and the East Dulwich Forum (a very active local forum), that was looking for parents who were not at all confident discussion science subjects with their kids.

I would note at this point that the two forums I posted the survey on are known for having a fairly middle-class demographic, and they are naturally going to be an audience that are very active and engaged internet users. We had discussed reaching an even broader audience with the research, but it would have taken quite a lot more resources and we decided that it was beyond the scope and means of this evaluation, at least for the moment. Also, the Mumsnet/East Dulwich Forum audience is likely to be a good fit for the videos, so it made sense to focus on them. As it turns out, I think the strategy suggested by this research will also help reach a wider audience anyway.

Interview findings

I found eight parents who fit the criteria (“not at all confident” and mostly educated to GCSE science level or below) and who were willing to be interviewed, in return for a £15 Amazon voucher. The discussions I had with them were extremely informative, and whilst some of the insight may seem obvious in hindsight, it certainly didn’t beforehand. It’s also useful to just have some suspicions confirmed, and evidence to bolster the case for a particular strategy.

Firstly, when these parents did watch the videos (after our interview), they really liked them. They all planned to do the activities with their children afterwards. So there was nothing about the actual content of the video that was putting off this less science-savvy audience. That was a good start.

However, most of our interviewees just would never have considered doing science experiments with their children at home. If it had ever crossed their mind, they wouldn’t have known where to start looking, and would be nervous about “getting it wrong” and misleading their children. Instead, they tended to focus on doing more arts and crafts activities, general play, or sports and outdoorsy pursuits, because this was what they were comfortable and familiar with. It was clear that this audience were never going to find the videos by search, or by seeing them shared on social media, it was going to take something more direct, and something that addressed their concerns.

When I asked what they thought would be a good way to reach them, every single parent said something along the lines of “get a note into the kid’s school book bags”. The schools were the key, they said, they respected information that came via that route, and they paid attention to it. Whilst a mailshot to every school with leaflets for every child would require a pretty huge marketing effort and budget, the basic message of “go via the schools” suggests other possible avenues (via school newsletters, targeting teachers as ambassadors, or encouraging schools to send out emails or texts, perhaps).

Other possibilities mentioned included holding community events or targeting community centres, trying to reach after-school science clubs, tapping into childminder networks on Facebook and elsewhere, getting mentioned on general parenting blogs and forums, and via museums (the Science Museum and Natural History Museum were mentioned often as popular destinations for family visits). Nobody felt that Facebook or Twitter would be particularly good ways to reach them directly as parents.

The other important aspect of this is that if you did manage to reach this audience with a promotional message, it had to feature some key information. It had to be clear that the activity would be easy to do, use things that you would already have at home, or be straightforward and cheap to buy, that it wouldn’t take a lot of time to prepare (and then take only 5 minutes to do), and that they were be supported in answer the kid’s questions. One of my recommendations from this was to test future marketing messages directly with this audience, to make sure it does all of these things.

The parents particularly wanted to know the context of the science activity. What subject did it fit into, especially in terms of the school curriculum? What was it related to, and why was it relevant to their lives (i.e. is this really about electricity, or sound waves)? They also wanted to encourage their kids to spend time outdoors, so activities that could be done in the park or garden would be seen as a good thing.

Lessons learned

What I love about doing research of this sort is that moment where someone says something that suddenly seems so obvious, but that somehow hadn’t been before. It’s usually a good sign that your findings are plausible. So, it now seems very obvious that you have to be pretty confident and aware on science subjects to be seeking out experiments for your kids to do at home. It now also seems very obvious that schools are the best route to the audience that isn’t. Somehow, it wasn’t obvious at all when I started on this, but hopefully it will be useful for future ExpeRimental films and perhaps other science communication projects too.

Click here to browse the full set of ExpeRimental films.

How do you market in-gallery mobile apps to visitors?

This post looks at the results from some research I did for a project to develop an in-gallery app for a new exhibition (more details on that soon). I spoke to various helpful people (I’m not sure if they are happy to be credited though so will check and add them in if so. Edit: Thanks to Lindsey and Alyson of Frankly, Green and Webb! and Iain George of Antenna International) and also got some useful stuff from the MCG mailing list, thanks to everyone that helped.

Tiny museum signage that all the visitors are ignoring
Tiny boring museum sign that all the visitors are ignoring

I wanted to know: how do you market mobile apps to visitors when the app is designed to be used in gallery?

I wanted to hear what the experiences of others were, what had worked, what hadn’t. I knew that take-up for apps in gallery was often quite low, and that it was a difficult thing to get right, visitors often don’t understand the offer, don’t notice the signage, or didn’t see why they should bother.

There were some challenges with this research for a few reasons. There isn’t much shared data or evaluation about this out there. Maybe we could all be better at sharing our experiences? Also, it can be difficult to untangle how people find an app, without asking them directly. This sort of research is obviously possible, but can be time-consuming.

That said, I did get some good stuff. So, here are the key points from the research:

  • Making a good app that people can and want to use is obviously important, but one person told me that, in terms of take-up, as little as 10% of the success of an app is down to the content. Marketing and distribution is the rest.
  • Where do your visitors come into contact with your organisation’s messaging before and during a visit (and after)? Identify the opportunities to reach your audience at these touchpoints. A visit us page on the website is an obvious point, so make sure it’s there, or wherever your visitors go on your site to find visit information. Do people need to book in advance? Mention it there too then.
  • It must feel official – buy-in across the organisation is hugely important. Too often the marketing is an afterthought, or lost in a jumble of other competing messages. The app must feel like an important part of the experience to the visitor, so must be seen as important internally as well.
  • Copy and language are really important: use language that the audience will understand and find appealing. How can you be sure you have the right message? Test it! Take it out into the gallery and ask visitors what they think the name or tagline means. Or describe the app and ask what words they would use to describe it to a friend.
  • Address audience concerns. Visitors are worries about battery life, data usage, making noise in the gallery and many other things. Find out what those concerns might be and address them (not defensively, mind) in the marketing. Maybe explain that it is a one off download, or that they can use the wifi, or you can provide cheap headphones in the shop.
  • Convey the benefits. Don’t assume that the audience do the mental legwork in interpreting what the app will add to their experience. Be really clear and concise about what those benefits are.
  • Make the target audience clear. Is it for families? Say so. Families in particular are often looking for child friendly activities to do in gallery.
  • Signage is obviously important. But one sign is rarely enough, and one mention on a general sign is going to be ignored by the vast majority. Place specific, appealing, signage early on somewhere prominent. Reiterate in gallery.
  • Use the queues! If people are having to wait for a while for tickets, DEFINITELY use this opportunity to tell them about the app. This may also be a good point to get them to download it. Use it to build anticipation.
  • Use the mobile splash page. Andrew Lewis at the V&A has done some great research on this. If visitors can log into your wifi, use the login page or the page they are redirected to to tell them about the app and mobile offer. One catch though, you still have to market the wifi, as many visitors (perhaps the majority) are not aware that museums have it.
  • Use print. Don’t forget the old fashioned methods. Create a leaflet about the app, hand it out with tickets, or hand it out in the queue. Or place it in gallery, or use it at events. Use it to market the app and provide some guidance for those who may be less tech savvy.
  • Make sure gallery staff are aware of the app and trained in how to use it. A common issue, very understandable in museums with volunteer staff with a high turnover, is that the visitor cannot get support or information about an app from a staff member because they know nothing about it. The whole thing will run a lot better if visitors can ask any staff member about it. In gallery staff are also well place to identify visitors (again, perhaps families especially) who might benefit from the app and can even approach them to suggest it.
  • For teacher audiences, there are more specific needs. They want to plan in advance, so you will need to be more proactive about reaching them before the visit, when they get in contact to book. Or in more direct marketing before they were even thinking about it.
  • App Store and Google Play store promotion is difficult, you should obviously make sure it is easy to find and well tagged etc, but browsing through the App Store is not how most visitors will be attracted to using an app of this sort so don’t rely on this.
  • Press and PR is important, of course. Target the right audience as you would for other marketing. But may need to make it more about the app in the context of the whole visit, as you are also having to do the work to convince people to come in the first place, they aren’t already there.

What do you think? Do you have different experiences or disagree? Or have anything else to add?

Turning existing IP into an educational game and more at the Children’s Media Conference #tCMC

A slightly belated write-up of my Children’s Media Conference experience in July.

This year was my first CMC, and it was great. Good sessions, good conversations.

On the Wednesday Kirsten Campbell-Howes and I, under the #LEGup and edugameshub banner, produced a workshop on turning existing IP into a good educational game. We had around 25 attendees from various organisations and agencies, some of whom, such as Aardman, who had a property they already wanted to work with, and others who were coming at it without something in mind.

Over the course of the afternoon we alternated between group exercises intended to develop a game idea into a full pitch, and informal chats on particular aspects of the process with our expert panel. We had Chris O’Shea of Cowly Owl, Josh Hutson of Nightzookeeper, Mahesh Ramachandra of Hopster, and Phil Stuart of Preloaded, all sharing their wisdom and anecdotes about the games they’ve created over the years. Personally, I learnt a lot from these guys during the workshop and during the prep for it. Hopefully our attendees did too.

The final pitches were impressively detailed, and really rather good, especially considering how little time people had to put them together. You can read a write up for the session with various takeaways here.

Our slides are below:

I was also on the panel for “Achievement Unlocked! How to design, make and sell successful educational digital games”. It aimed to be practical session on the process and business of educational games and was produced by Antonio Gould. We got into budgets, one of my favourite topics that I wish people would share more on (but I also get why they don’t). For the record, when I said that you could potentially get a reskinned game with a basic mechanic for under 10k, I didn’t mean that that was necessarily a good idea… especially for an educational game which usually needs to address specific learning outcomes. You can listen to the session here.

As with the above session, most other sessions have their audio and presentations online, and I recommend having a prowl around the site. Other talks that I thought were interesting were:

The opening keynote from Dylan Collins of SuperAwesome certainly caused some debate. Definitely didn’t agree with him on all counts, but it was still thought-provoking. Can watch the whole talk on that link and do some grumbling/nodding of your own in response.

The research sessions are worth a look. I caught one on pink and blue and gender, which had some interesting info but I didn’t feel really went into sufficient detail about whether the causes of gender differentiation might not be a result of subtle conditioning such as toy colours in the first place.

Andrew Manches’ talk on Transformational Technology went into some fascinating areas of research around embodied cognition and gesture theory. Did you know that our gestures often demonstrate the physical and embodied ways we think about apparently abstract concepts such as number, by imagining them like blocks in front of us, for example? And by disrupting the gestures, you can disrupt the ability to think? There were 9 research sessions in total and I will definitely be having a trawl through the rest that I missed.

The Learning Landscape session brought together a huge panel of experts who debated statements such as “Brands and businesses have no place in the classroom” (I think we need to be much more cautious about this, one panellist thought it was a great idea though); “No one wants to play an educational game”; “There’s no evidence that digital content enhances learning” and “Teachers are afraid of technology, so they won’t use your work anyway” etc. You can read the write up here.

One of the other workshops sounded brilliant, and I’m sorry I couldn’t attend, as was running my own. Olivia Dickinson and Jon Spooner ran a Collaborating with Kids session, which invited 35 local kids along to work with adult attendees on a selection of mini workshops within the workshop. It sounded insane and fabulous. The report is here. Top takeaway: children will be brutally honest, and also: “everyone needs a monkey sidekick”, apparently.

And the definite highlight of the conference was Ylva Hälllen from SVT in Sweden talking about Minimello, basically the X Factor with toilet rolls, as part of the Innovation Forum session. It sounded brilliant. Kids make characters out of toilet rolls, send them in, and they then turn up on the Minimello TV show with songs written specially for them, in the style of their character. The songs were hilarious, and whole idea was just beautiful. You can read the report here and or just watch an episode on YouTube (with subtitles).

Brading’s bizarre and wonderful wax museum, Isle of Wight #museumweek #museummemories

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In honour of #MuseumWeek, I have (badly) photographed (sorry) the guidebook for the weird and wonderful Wax Museum at Brading, Isle of Wight, where I grew up. I’m not sure if it’s my earliest museum memory, but it certainly made an impression, probably because of all the gore and excessive nudity, which was possibly a bit much for a primary school visit (if I’ve remembered that right).

Below is a slideshow of my own photos from inside the museum which also shows the fantastic taxidermy section, full of such (un)natural wonders as the winged cat, mermaid, and yeti (view on flickr for captions/attempted explanations). Sadly, the museum closed in 2009, saying that they were just not making enough money and visitor numbers were too low. This resulted in a rather spectacular auction of their collection, as described in this Daily Mail article and this Morbid Anatomy post.

(edit: just realised I’ve been bigging up the winged cat, but don’t actually have a photo, could have sworn I did. Anyway, there is one on this page).

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I think if I ever become a billionaire I will track down all the pieces and recreate the museum.

Reaching a new audience through gaming

Below is a paper by Danny Birchall and I that we wrote in 2012 about our work with games at Wellcome, and what we’d learned along the way. It was written just before I left, and so it felt like a nice wrapping up of what was a long and interesting process. It was only published in print, though, and I asked permission to post it online, which they granted as long as I waited 6 months. It’s been more like 18 months, but anyway, here goes. I hope it’s interesting and useful to anyone thinking about how they could use games as an engagement or learning tool, or to reach millions of people.

Reaching a new audience through gaming

Martha Henson and Danny Birchall

This article first appeared in Henry Stewart Publications 2047-1300 (2013) Vol. 1, 4 351–356 Journal of Digital Media Management 351

Wellcome Collection is an unusual public venue, based on the Euston Road in London. It is part of the Wellcome Trust, which was founded in 1936 according to the wishes of Sir Henry Wellcome, a biomedical entrepreneur and fanatical collector, as expressed in his will. The aims of the trust are to improve animal and human health, largely through funding biomedical research, but they also have an interest in public engagement with science. This is where Wellcome Collection comes in.

Together with a very fine medical library, the building houses two permanent exhibitions. One displays a small fraction of Henry Wellcome’s original collection of artefacts loosely connected in some way to health, but with this remit interpreted in such a broad way as to include items such as Charles Darwin’s walking stick, a chastity belt, prosthetics, surgical instruments and a Peruvian mummified corpse. The other looks at more modern medical concerns such as genetics and obesity through art and objects such as sequencing machines and diet books. There are also temporary exhibitions and events that deal with a wide range of topics related to life, medicine and science. The most recent, Superhuman, challenged ideas about what constitutes human enhancement, while the next one, Death, will tackle the emotive but endlessly fascinating subject after which it has been named.

The tone of all of this is very much non-didactic: the aim is to engage visitors with ideas, ethics, history and science in a thought-provoking way rather than merely to convey factual information. This approach also underpinned our thinking when it came to games: they had to be genuinely fun and engaging, and the factual content had to be embedded in a meaningful way. The idea was that people should have their curiosity and interest piqued by playing, not feel like they had received a thinly disguised lecture with a game mechanic crudely stuck on to it. It was also felt that the diverse subject matter that Wellcome Collection covers, combined with resources such as the image library and archives, had the potential to form the basis of really great original games.

But why games? First, a well-constructed game can be an incredibly engaging experience. Even those who do not consider themselves gamers will likely recognise the feeling of losing hours to playing Solitaire or Tetris on their computer, or perhaps Angry Birds on their phone. This state of ‘flow’, as it is known, is deep engagement and it is hard to think of many other activities that create this.

In addition, play is, in and of itself, all about learning. One must learn to progress in any game and there is no reason why this learning cannot also be factual. Furthermore, ‘people who play games’ constitute a huge audience, spread all over the world and yet using the same platforms and devices, all brought together by their desire to play. Reaching this audience, one that probably would not otherwise be aware of or be able to come to Wellcome Collection, was a significant reason for choosing this particular route — not because the aim was to convert those players into visitors, but to widen the reach of Wellcome’s activities.


We started relatively simply. The first couple of games were based on existing successful and enduring game mechanics that it was thought tallied particularly well with the museum’s content. We worked with an agency called Smile Your Eyes Off to create an online Flash game called Memory, which used the old game of Pelmanism as a basis. In this game, the player must turn over two matching cards to clear them away, the aim being to clear all the cards presented (1). The difference in this game is that all the card faces have pictures from Wellcome Images, a vast and varied picture library that contains both historical and contemporary images (2)

Having different themed levels made it possible to convey the breadth of the collection, with around 30 themes available for ten levels, such as masks, skeletons, cells and advertising. The levels also get increasingly difficult as the images get more numerous and more similar. For example, at the end of the game, the player might be unlucky enough to get the forceps level, which is not only very difficult but also very representative of Henry Wellcome’s habit of collecting a large amount of the same type of object.

It was a good starting point — the game was not too complicated and we got to know the process for making games. We found that collaboration was particularly important, it could not have been done without the involvement of image researchers in Wellcome Images and we worked closely with the developers. This spirit of collaboration was to inform the process for future games as well. The game was placed on the Wellcome Collection website, and continues to attract players, with around 60,000 views since launch.

The next project was a quiz engine that allowed the creation of multiple choice quizzes that could bring in images, audio and video in both question and answer (3). This was not particularly original, but was very useful and perhaps most notable for being our first collaboration with Preloaded, an award-winning games agency who focus on ‘games with purpose’ (4). Soon after the quiz engine project, an opportunity came up to do something a bit different and we turned again to Preloaded to help realise the idea.

In the winter of 2010–2011, Wellcome Collection held an exhibition called High Society, which looked at the history of drug use. One small part of the exhibition dealt with the Opium Wars, a shameful episode in the history of the British Empire in which opium was smuggled into China by the British, in order to raise funds to buy tea. It is a fascinatingly murky and under-discussed period of history, but it also has at its heart a central trading mechanic: buy opium; sell opium; buy tea. It was this mechanic that became the basis for High Tea.

In High Tea, one plays as a British trader, attempting to buy and sell opium at a good price and make enough money to keep the people back in Britain in tea (5). The player must avoid getting their ship impounded by the Chinese authorities, who are very much against this trade. The game starts in 1830 and ends in 1839, if the player survives that long, at which point they are informed how many Chinese people are now addicted to opium because of their actions and also that the result of this trade was the First Opium War, which ended rather badly for the Chinese.

Again, collaboration was very important to making High Tea work. It is a controversial subject and it was important to make sure that it was factually accurate. Fortunately, one of the curators of the High Society exhibition, author Mike Jay, was involved from the start. He helped make sure that the facts and names were right, but more than that, he worked with US and Preloaded to develop the fundamental concept, which came out of a brainstorming discussion about the subject matter.


Preloaded’s distribution strategy for online casual games is to build the game to be self-contained and therefore easy to download and ‘rip’ to other sites (6). At the same time, the company also makes it easily trackable. This means that the game can be placed anywhere and one can still see the play statistics and information, in this case using Google Analytics. The game is then seeded to major portals such as Kongregate, Newgrounds and Armor games, from which, if it shows any promise, it will be immediately ripped to tens if not hundreds of other games sites around the world. On occasion they will ask permission, but usually not. This is what happened to High Tea when it was launched in at the beginning of February 2011.

Initially, a goal was set of around 100,000 plays in the first few months, but this was exceeded in just one day. The game got high star ratings, was featured on the front pages of all the big portals to which it had been, was ripped to around 70 more on the first day and hundreds of comments were left by players. This ‘opening weekend’ was beyond all expectations. After a few days the game left the front pages and plays dropped off, although still to a consistent few thousand plays per day, which continues to this day. To date, it has had over 4 million plays (7).

Why was it so successful? What did the players make of it and the unusual subject matter? Some clues could be found from the analytics. We could see that the distribution strategy had worked and that over 50 per cent of plays were on sites that had ripped the game. Around 47 per cent of plays were on the officially seeded portals and only 3 per cent were on the Wellcome Collection site.

We also saw that social media had driven very little traffic, although share links were placed for Twitter and Facebook in the game. It was therefore fortunate that we had not relied on putting it on its own site and hoping it would ‘go viral’ over social media. We also looked at the Google Trends results for searches for ‘opium wars’ over several months before and after the game was launched. There is indeed a spike that corresponds with the game, but does not appear to have any other news event associated.

Although this is all very circumstantial, a survey that was put up with the game suggested that the game was inspiring people to do more of their own research on the topic. While the analytics are interesting, they often raise more questions than they answer and a more qualitative approach is necessary to find out more. Collaborating again with another department within the Wellcome Trust that specialises in evaluation, a plan was formulated to do this.

First, players were asked to answer a series of questions not only about the gameplay and about themselves, but also about their learning from the game and how they felt about the British Empire after playing it. Based on the answers from this, an interview script was devised and was followed up with seven players in depth over the phone and in a small focus group.

The results were illuminating. The most pleasing result from the survey was that over 50 per cent of players said they were likely to go on to find out more about the subject under their own steam. This was mostly via internet searches, but one player even said that they had read a book about Chinese history as a result. This was a huge success. As the aim had been for the games to engage rather than didactically educate, to generate interest rather than lecture, this measure seems to demonstrate that this had been achieved. Players were asked whether they knew much about the Opium Wars before playing and how the game had affected how they felt about the British Empire. Over 60 per cent were already aware of this history, but in the interviews most said they felt they had learnt something from playing.

Surprisingly, given how shocking it was felt that the actions of the British Empire were, around 57 per cent of surveyed players felt the same about it after playing and around 10 per cent even felt more positively. This indicated poor survey design as there was no baseline to judge any change in opinion from before the game. As such, this was explored further in the telephone interviews. It turned out that players who felt more positively towards the British Empire did so because the game allowed them to empathise with the traders involved by putting them in their shoes. They felt that their decision making was purely economic — they were just trying to put food on the table and were at enough of a remove from the trade’s impact to make ethical factors seem very distant. It was not that players were condoning their behaviour, but understanding it made them more sympathetic. This was very interesting, that even such a simple map-based game could engender feelings of empathy towards characters in it.

The final avenue for evaluation was the commentary left by players on the games portals — many hundreds not only across all the sites on which it was played, but also in blog posts about and reviews of the game (and even comments on those articles), on social media, in YouTube walkthroughs and sites like Metafilter and Reddit. What makes this particularly interesting (although harder to analyse) is that one has no control over it and it can make for unexpected reading. For example, some commentators discussed the maths or economics of the game, not something that had been particularly considered while developing it.

Many commented on the gameplay, which they largely enjoyed, but frequently had suggestions for improving (multiplayer or sandbox modes, ability to buy more boats and so on). A significant number discussed the content in some depth and the commentary was often quite thoughtful and measured. A tiny number, many less than had been thought, took issue with Wellcome Collection supposedly glorifying the actions of the British by making it fun to play.

It was a deliberate aim to try to keep the game fairly neutral in tone to let players make up their own mind, up until the slightly over-the-top results at the end showing the millions of Chinese people the player has caused to be addicted to opium. We had worried that this would be misinterpreted as a pro British Empire game, but most people understood that this was not what was going on here.

In terms of the player demographics, an international audience had indeed been reached, with a large proportion of players not only in North America, but also all over Europe and a large chunk in Brazil. The age range was wide, but more focused on 16–24 year olds than other age ranges, which is a younger audience than is usual for Wellcome Collection activities. One disappointment was a 90 per cent male skew, according to the survey, despite female players liking the game equally well. This is probably a disadvantage of targeting these online portals, which have a mostly male demographic. We are is looking at ways to rectify this for future games, perhaps by including mobile platforms, which have a more even gender split.


This year has seen production of two very different projects, Axon and Magic In Modern London. Following the success of High Tea, the winning formula was repeated for online casual Flash games with a game about neuroscience inspired by the exhibition Brains. As before, we collaborated with Preloaded, the exhibition curator, who this time was Marius Kwint from the University of Portsmouth, and another domain expert, neurobiologist Richard Wingate from Kings College London.

There was a fruitful day-long session of learning and discussion, during which Richard Wingate gave a crash course in neuroscience and Preloaded in game design. We were looking in particular for some rules within the brain science field that could be turned into the rules of a game. A key moment was when Richard showed a video he had created of neurons growing in a foetal chicken brain (this video can now be seen in the game itself). The neurons are growing towards protein targets and are also competing with other neurons to make the best connections and survive. This mechanic, along with the ‘brainbow’ style aesthetic of bright neurons on a dark background, became Axon (8).

The distribution strategy was more or less identical to that of High Tea and it again met with huge success. As before, we were keen to find out more about players reactions and surveyed them. Although the evaluation is not yet finished and the telephone interviews have not been started, it has been found that over 76 per cent of players learned something from playing the game and, again, a large proportion were moved to go and do their own research after playing.

Magic in Modern London is a very different and much more experimental project (9). It was inspired by a recent exhibition at Wellcome Collection in which an artist, Felicity Powell, took hundreds of amulets and incorporated them into her own work. The amulets, now in the Pitt Rivers collection, were originally collected by folklorist Edward Lovett in the early 20th century. Lovett wrote a book, Magic in Modern London, in which he told the stories that came with the amulets, which were bought or cajoled off ordinary Londoners (10).

This time, the subject matter suggested a different approach. As the amulets were collected around London, the idea of a treasure hunt around the city, where the player ‘collected’ the amulets themselves, seemed natural, and the obvious platform seemed to be mobile. As it happened, an agency called Amblr was building a platform that used GPS to trigger audiovisual content, which was used to great effect in an app called Hackey Hear (11).

In the Magic and Modern London app, the user navigates a 1908 map, overlaid on modern London, to find ‘areas of enchantment’ and collect the amulet at their centre. The aim is to assist an elderly and ailing Lovett to reassemble his collection and the stories that go with it. Once in an area of enchantment, music, imagery and voiceover lead the player to the amulet. Finding the amulet in question will unlock a reading from the book or inspired by the book related to each amulet.

The app has only just been released, although an evaluation will be carried out in the same manner as with the other games. As this is in many ways a more complicated and involved experience for the player, it will be very interesting to see how the platform affects distribution and what players make of it.


As we hope is clear, this has been journey of discovery, during which we have been both surprised and delighted by what has been found. The success with reaching and engaging a new audience could be put down to a number of key factors.

Collaboration has obviously been important, as has the distribution strategy. Picking subject matter that was both intriguing and also lent itself to a game was crucial, as was making sure that the factual content was fully embedded in the game mechanic. Working with people who know how to make fun games is hugely important, as is testing them throughout development to make sure they are well balanced. Evaluation is vital, there are many simple methods available to check what players are learning from a game or how they are reacting to it and it is perhaps the most interesting part of the process.


1. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘Memory’, available at: (accessed 6th November, 2012).

2. Wellcome Images (undated) ‘Wellcome Images’, available at: (accessed 6th November, 2012).

3. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘High Society Quiz’, available at: http://www.wellcome (accessed 6th November, 2012),

4. Preloaded (2013) ‘Preloaded’, available at: (accessed 6th November, 2012).

5. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘High Tea’, available at: (accessed 6th November, 2012).

6. Stuart, P. (2010) ‘How we publish an online game’, available at: (accessed 5th May, 2011).

7. Birchall, D. and Henson, M. (2011) ‘High Tea Evaluation Report’, available at: (accessed 15th January, 2013).

8. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘Axon’, available at: (accessed 6th November, 2012).

9. Wellcome Collection (undated) ‘Magic in Modern London’, available at: http://www.wellcome (accessed 6th November, 2012).

10. Lovett, E. (1925) ‘Magic in Modern London’, printed at the Advertiser offices.

11. Hackney Hear (undated) ‘Hackney Hear’, available at: (accessed 6th November, 2012).

Henson and Birchall

356 Journal of Digital Media Management Vol. 1, 4 351–356 [1] Henry Stewart Publications 2047-1300 (2013)

Spaceteam and other mobile local multiplayer games – help make a list?

I am a HUGE fan of Spaceteam. I’ve played with friends, played with family of all ages, and used it in game workshops as both an icebreaker and an example of what can been done with mobile games. It shows that games don’t have to be competitive, and can be more about social interactions than just one person staring at a screen. It’s sort of hard to explain, but involves multiple devices connecting over bluetooth or wifi and is described as a co-operative shouting game on their website:

Do you like pushing buttons and shouting at your friends? Do you like discharging Clip-jawed Fluxtrunions? If you answered yes, or no, then you might have what it takes to be on a Spaceteam!

Recently, Alistair Aitcheson gave a great talk at Explay 2013 (update: see the slides here) that talked about his own games that involve more than one player using the same iPad, as in Greedy Bankers vs The World. He described players actually physically wrestling on the floor to get control of the device. He pointed out that these sorts of games could be great in spaces such as museums, as well as being party games, pub games and so on. (If I can find a link for Alistair’s talk, I’ll add it in).

Of course, there are many examples of multiplayer console games. But it feels like mobile has a lot of potential in this area. Since I keep going on about it but don’t have many examples, I thought it would be useful to try and collate a list of what I’m clunkily calling mobile local multiplayer games (whether it involves one or more devices) which I guess are related to what Mark Sorrell has called “computer mediated games” that put the focus on interactions, not devices. Here’s my start:

Will keep adding examples here as I think of them. There must be more out there, though, what else would you add? Update: lots of additions via twitter, thanks! And it turns out I’m not the first to try and make a list of this sort, see, by Lorenzo Pilia (h/t zo-ii/Zuraida Buter). I’ve added the games from that list as well, but Lorenzo reckons he has loads more to add so keep an eye on that website for more examples from here on.

2013: freelancing, flexible working, funding, frustrations and…

Have been debating as to whether an end of year round up isn’t all a bit self-indulgent, but whatever, nobody has to read it. It’s been an interesting year for me though, having left the Wellcome Trust in at the end 2012 to go freelance and see where that would take me, achieving a couple of life ambitions, getting frustrated in various ways with the areas I work in, trying to find solutions to problems and so on. It seems like it might be useful to reflect on that and share what I’ve learnt along the way.


I’ve not done badly finding work this year, and towards the end of the year began to get a much better sense of the lie of the land in this respect. I had a lovely job at the beginning of the year on a project with a school to help three teenage girls make a film. Having rather fallen out of love with filmmaking after several years working on projects for other people, this felt like a good way to be using those skills and was very rewarding. In March, I joined Tate as Producer: Interactive Media on a part-time maternity cover contract. It was a useful to have a solid basis, with two days free for other other work, and I got to work on Artmaps and the new Tate Britain Mobile guide. I’d love to have done more, to be honest, but it’s all been good learning.

In the last half of the year I got two agency contracts for extended freelance consultancy work on mobile and games, working with Lord and Frankly Green and Webb. I realised that this was where the work was. Cultural organisations in particular don’t hire individual consultants, they hire agencies. I was also lucky to come in on projects where the bid had already been won, so didn’t have to go through that tedious process (more on which later).

Flexible working

Offices make you ill. I’m becoming convinced that the traditional way of working, 9-5 in an office in front of a screen, is unhealthy and unproductive. This year I’ve loved being able to be flexible about the way I work, where I work, and when I work.

It took me a while to figure it out, but now I know when I work best, and don’t bother to do any heavy brainwork when I know I’m going to be slow (the afternoons, usually). If I do the complex stuff in the mornings, it takes me a fraction of the time. I’ve still been doing office days for my Tate work, and the way I feel at the end of the day (tired, a low level feeling of being under the weather) is now much more noticeable in comparison to the working at home days.


A theme for the year was money, and a lack of it for great projects. I went through three unsuccessful funding or tendering bids, saw some unbelievable tenders out there asking for the moon on a stick for no money, had countless conversations with people about how broken the system is and watched as some great companies and great projects folded under the pressure of finding money in this environment.

All the while, the message from funding bodies was that they wanted to see innovation, relentless innovation. Where is the room for best practice in this? For projects with established pedigree, a history of solid engagement or other measure of success? Do you have to throw in a bit of 3D printing to get anywhere these days? This cult of innovation seems to have us in a race to create the new without considering what kind of a world we actually want to live in. A world with more apps/more tech/more new types of products? Really??

It also seems very unsustainable. There seems to be no recognition of the amount of time and resources that go into putting a bid together. For companies or individuals who rely on funding for projects, it’s hugely risky. But I think most of us would agree that we want these sort of projects to exist even if they might not be commercial. I’d love to see some indication that funders such as Nesta, the Arts Council, TSB etc are at least thinking about ways to create a more sustainable and nurturing environment for companies and organisations, not just running huge competitions or banging on about being entrepreneurial. A thought: what if more of this funder money went into a sort of investment model, ie putting the onus on the funder to go out and find great projects, mentor and nurture them, and provide flexible funding where needed.

For organisations putting projects out to tender, maybe they could better consider what they are asking of agencies and make more of an effort to help steer that, build longer term relationships and change their procurement processes to be less onerous and more flexible. Being on the other side of this process has made me feel bad about the time I sent out a tender to seven companies asking for a lot of information in their bid, for example. Not great odds for any of those companies given how much work they have to put in, is it?

Learning and games

I’ve given up trying to find headers that begin with “F”. Anyway… I’ve given a lot of thought this year about how to help educational games fulfill their potential. LEGup (the London Educational Games Meetup Group) went from strength to strength, growing to over 850 members. Kirsten Campbell-Howes (who originally set up LEGup) and I saw a gap for resources about learning games and set up edugameshub. I’m really proud of it, there are some great articles on there and the response has been encouraging.

Now we just have to figure out how to keep it going, grow the content and make it more sustainable. No small task.  It’s a lot of work and nobody pays us to do it. But I think it’s important.  A constant theme around educational games is their quality, or lack of it. I think edugameshub and LEGup are part of the process of raising that quality, bringing people together, sharing best practice etc, but there is more to be done. This year, I’m keen to encourage edugames makers to see themselves as part of the wider games community, to attend games events and see the quality of work going on out there.

I’m also interested in finding a solution for the gulf between academia and games makers. There is loads of research going on into learning and games that isn’t making it to the people who might best make use of it. How to fix that? Hopefully something that Nesta’s current interest in learning and games can help with.


I did two things this year that I’ve always wanted to do: made the 17 day trek to Everest Base Camp, and got my black belt in karate. Both were really hard, and really worthwhile. I’ve found that if you want to do something hard or scary, don’t think about it too much, lock yourself into it, just book the ticket, tell people you are going to do it, do something that leaves you without much choice but just to go ahead and do it, then you probably will.

Sure, I could have given up and chartered a helicopter at the point that I was floored by the high altitude on the trek in Nepal (and people do) but it was really too late to back out once I got on the plane to Kathmandu, so much invested already. It’s kind of freeing to have little choice and you just get on with it, and being locked in will help you push past any fear or discomfort.

I did learn something else on the trek, and that was about being realistic about fitness. I’d really sort of thought that cycling everywhere, doing some long walks, karate and the odd bit of yoga and pilates would prepare me for steep treks at altitude. But of course it doesn’t. The only thing that prepares you for doing steep treks at altitude is doing steep treks at altitude. Or training really hard, with lots of cardio stuff.

I did alright, but the runners on the trek with me found it much easier. I resolved to add more cardio work into my training and to be more realistic about my fitness levels and not be complacent, which I’ve done. I’ve stopped pretending that the cycle commute is amazing exercise, for example, and added in some training rides with hills. It’s made a major difference. More in the new year, and one day I’m going to ride up one of those big alpine inclines and enjoy it. That’s the plan.

The future of games in museums: what should we be doing?

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!

Electronic visualisation and inspiration: the EVA conference 2013 #evalondonconf

I spent Monday and Tuesday of this week at EVA, the Electronic Visualisation and the Arts conference for which I was lucky enough to get a bursary to attend. It’s a multidisciplinary event, which describes itself as being about “electronic visualisation technologies in art, music, dance, theatre, the sciences and more…” It was certainly diverse. Some presentations were technical or academic, others were more practical, and they were on a range of subjects from a wide variety of institutions and individuals. “Electronic visualisation” covers an lot. I left quite inspired, if wondering on earth to do with all the ideas now whirling around my brain. I highly recommend it.

Here are some of my highlights from the two days I spent there. For the full proceedings go to

Creating Magic on Mobile

My paper kicked off the day, so let’s get that out of the way. I presented (with Alex Butterworth of Amblr) on “Creating Magic On Mobile”. You can read the full paper here, which discusses our experiences creating the Magic in Modern London app for Wellcome Collection (when I worked there as Multimedia Producer). It’s a geolocated treasure hunt set in Edwardian London so the paper covers the use of GPS, audio-visual content and a map based interface to create a historical semi-fictionalised narrative.

It also contains a call for more imaginative use of mobile in cultural organisations, and shows how we attempted to do this with Magic in Modern London, but also some of the challenges we faced along the way (such as trying to overlay a 1908 map onto google maps). It was a pretty experimental project, but also very ambitious, and we learnt a huge amount along the way. It played a large part in my drive to help set up ME:CA (Mobile Experiences: Cultural Audiences).

Keynote: Steve DiPaola “Future trends: Adding Computational Intelligence, Knowledge and Creativity to Interactive Exhibits and Visualization Systems”

Steve DiPaola (a “computer based cognitive scientist, artist and researcher”) gave a fascinating keynote that covered several of his projects. The notes from his talk are here These included.

  • A beluga whale pod interactive simulation at the Vancouver aquarium being used both in gallery and as oart of scientific research. This installation allows visitors to observe particular behaviours and test out scenarios.
  • Teaching evolution through art: using “evolved” artworks to help people really get what evolution means, particularly challenging in America, where 60% of people don’t believe in it (apparently). This was done as part of Darwins 200th birthday celebrations.
  • Analysis of Rembrandt’s works to understand his compositions and techniques and their affect on the eye path of the viewer. This work came to the conclusion that Rembrandt had an impressive understanding of vision science 200 years before anyone else.
  • A project to create life-like (ish) 3D avatars that people can speak through to address people remotely, and perhaps anonymously (e.g. scientists having a digital conversation with the public from another country).
  • An analysis of Picasso’s “Guernica” 40 day period of creativity. This mapped all the works created during this prolific period onto a timeline to try and understand the nature of his creative process, how ideas evolved, and how he was influenced by other works.


Timelines were also feature of other talks, such as this about “representing uncertainty in historical time”, I didn’t see this presentation but did see the demo later, which looked at turning the works of a composer into a timeline that mapped them against their first performances. Can’t find a link for this, but I was impressed, as with the Guernica project above, at the way a putting data into a timeline can reveal new insight.

More museums and mobile (with added AR)

There were a couple of other museum mobile projects, both of which used augmented reality (AR) in different ways. Timeline Newcastle looked interesting, and quite similar to Streetmuseum in overlaying archive photos onto the modern city (if I understood it correctly). I was particularly interested to see that the Smithsonian Natural History Museum have a very ambitious app in the works called Skin and Bones. It will focus on 14 objects, giving different levels of engagement with each, based on their framework for visitor preferences called IPOP (ideas, people, objects and physical). So for visitors who want to hear about people, they have a meet the scientist option, for physical – an activity, for ideas – an exploration of a scientific concept, and for object – a detailed study of the skeleton some of which used AR to overlay the skeleton with an animation.

I was interested in their concept of using it to raise “visual literacy” ie, helping visitors to understand and interpret what they were seeing  and in doing so increase dwell time in the galleries. They had recognised that users were spending little time in this gallery, except for at a few “hero” skeletons, and surmised that people weren’t finding it interesting because they didn’t know how to make sense of what they were seeing. So in the app, for example, it will show you how a particular venomous snake’s jaws hinge back into their mouth and how you can see that in the skeleton.

They have an impressive (and expensive sounding?!) user testing plan. They are creating two apps,  one without AR and one with to see how that affects visitor interaction, and will be using a beta app path analyis tool called Look Back to help with this (although this feature is also apart of GA mobile analytics as well).

Keynote: Linda Candy “Creativity and Evaluation: Supporting Practice and Research in the Interactive Arts”

This was an impassioned call for making evaluation a key part of the creative process in a keynote from writer researcher Linda Candy. It’s not just about evaluating impact, but also creating new knowledge and new works, she said (but impact also still important, I would add!) and should be fully embedded in practice. For artists creating digital interactive works there are also usability issues they should be testing (do people understand how to interact with it, for example? Is it within reach of children/wheelchair users?).

Obviously, as a huge fan of evaluation, I am very much down with this. Evaluation isn’t just about fulfilling the tedious criteria of funding bodies, but is more about understanding and improving your own work. The evaluation work I’ve done on games has been some of those more interesting and thought provoking work I’ve done.

Other assorted interesting presentations: critical robots, doomsday clocks and more

There were several other interesting demos and presentations.

Stop, my brain is full

There was a whole other day of this that I missed, probably for the best, as by the end of it my head was spinning.