2020 Yearnotes: the year of Zoom, new and old clients, games, yoga studies, and yeah, COVID-19

I survived 2020 gif by @brujahahahaha

I don’t usually do a public year-end round up, but this year, this year in particular, it felt like that might be a very useful exercise. 

2020

I guess I have what used (?) to be called a portfolio career, as illustrated by the wide range of projects I’ve been working on since last January. Most people who find this blog post will know my work in digital, maybe educational games or consultancy, but I’ve also had a fairly leftfield side hustle going on for the last two years as well. Of which, more later.

In the “regular” job, I started the year feeling the post-project haze of working on the It’s Our Time campaign with Comms Lab (and other partners), creating materials to support their goal of getting young people registered to vote and to stand up for climate issues in the last election (remember that?). 2.5 million people in the target age group were registered, in no small part down to these efforts. I was just a small cog in this brilliant machine, you can read the report on what we did and how, here

I wanted to do more in the area of climate change as it’s a subject I am passionate about (there is still time to make a difference!). So I spent the beginning of the year scouting around for similar opportunities with little luck, although I did come across the climate.tech community. It’s worth joining if you are similarly interested in the subject, although the volume of posts can be a little overwhelming.

I also began consulting work with a previous client, the excellent Teach Your Monster to Read (a rare edtech success story), digging into some issues around a new strategy for their range of learning games. As usual, this involved going back to basics – getting clarity around objectives before working out how to tackle them. Honestly you don’t need to hire me, you could just stick two post-its to your work wall: “BUT WHAT ARE YOUR OBJECTIVES?” and “DOES THIS MEET YOUR OBJECTIVES?” and be done with it.

I jest, it’s not that simple so you should definitely hire me. (Although, it kind of is). I also recommended and carried out some user research on how potential new products were viewed to answer various questions that were blocking decisions from being made.

Around this I was also doing my two day a week job as Project Coordinator for the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. That one might require some explanation. In 2017 I started a Masters degree at SOAS in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation… I guess that, too, might require some explanation. The short version is, that after years of karate training, I realised it had wrecked some of my joints, and that it was no longer physically sustainable. I got into yoga instead, and then, really into yoga. It was transformative, but I didn’t understand why. 

So I did a yoga teacher training course in 2016, mostly out of personal interest. It was spectacular. Based in a beautiful Buddhist monastery outside of Kathmandu, we were woken around 6 by the sound of the horns and drums during morning prayers. After a big rain, the smog would clear from the valley and we could see across the city to the Himalayas, including what I think was Langtang Lirung. One could almost believe anything, in a setting such as this. But still, as a natural sceptic, I left the training with a lot of questions (also a tattoo and a chest infection, but mostly questions). When I found there was a Masters at SOAS in the history of these practices, I had to do it, and started in 2017.

Should you somehow be oblivious to the current state of academic yoga studies, you should know that SOAS has recently been leading the field. There has been a major EU funded research project situated there for the last 5 years, the Hatha Yoga Project, led by Dr James Mallinson (also chair of the Centre of Yoga Studies). If you are scoffing at the very idea, no doubt based on a preconception of yoga as essentially a sport for bendy people and hippies, we should have a chat some time. The history of yoga and meditation is absolutely fascinating, an incredible lens on the development of Indian religion and philosophy and the impact this has had on the world. It is tangled and complex and problematic and hotly debated and extremely political. And nascent. One could still be an Indiana Jones in this field, uncovering a dusty manuscript somewhere that changes everything. 

Anyway, the Masters has been a trip. I’ve loved it. I entered a whole new world of knowledge, and raised my general level of academic critical thinking and research skills. I did two years of Sanskrit with it and it was like learning a new code that opens up a huge box of treasures. And at the end of the first year, I got involved with the new Centre of Yoga Studies at SOAS, and became its first actual staff member as Project Coordinator on two days a week, realising the vision of the steering committee and Chair. Mainly we ran events that disseminated the latest scholarship to as wide an audience as possible, as well as an internationally attended and widely regarded summer school. We had a Facebook group and an Instagram account. With the limited time available, that was about all I could manage, although we had aspirations to do more.  By February of 2020, we had a few thousand Facebook and Insta followers, had run many many successful events and the summer school preparation for 2020 was well underway.

And then, Covid-19. I felt the initial impact in two main areas. Firstly, with my work at SOAS. We quickly realised that the massive amount of uncertainty made the Yoga Studies summer school a big risk, especially since we relied on overseas students. In the end we cancelled it, rather than trying to replicate an intensive format that relied on personal learning time with renowned scholars online. But for our events programme, lockdown was a boon. We flipped quickly to a Zoom based format, recording the events and putting them on a new YouTube channel (videos from early October and before are the ones I was responsible for). 

It was nothing fancy, well below the production values that I would adhere to for my other day job. Just minimally edited recordings of the Zoom presentations, with all the lagginess and low resolution that this entails. They were also over 1 hour long and often on very academically dense subjects. Based on the received wisdom about how long YouTube videos should be and the ideal content, they should have flopped. And yet they were a relative hit, quickly racking up hundreds of views. There is a keen audience out there for this stuff and they don’t care what it looks like, they just want access to the scholarship. 

In terms of running the events themselves, I have written up our format and process in a previous post. We kept them very locked down and used Sli.do to manage the Q&A. We had absolutely no trouble with our audience as a result, and were often complimented on how well run the events were, which I was very pleased about.

The other area was in my volunteer/activism work within XR Southwark. I’d been increasingly involved with XR since they first started their activities in 2018, especially the local group. Unlike the media picture of XR, the local groups tend to be much more grassroots, supporting local campaigns and activities such as community gardens. When lockdown was announced, XR mobilised its networks to help out with mutual aid groups. It also moved in-person meet-ups to Zoom, a tool it had already been using heavily for delivering remote training. In Southwark we realised that our experience with Zoom could be really beneficial to other local groups and charities who were suddenly having to navigate this new online world. So, we started offering free Zoom training sessions to anyone who might find them useful, which I developed based on the general XR training and delivered with the help of some others in the group. Again, the details of this are written up in my previous post

I’m very proud of the response to this, we ran these sessions twice a week until interest eventually tailed off (I guess most people had figured it all out after a while). Attendees came from a wide variety of community groups, charities, local services and even bigger organisations and we had lots of positive comments, with one woman saying it had saved her from absolute despair at the idea of trying to move her service for vulnerable adults online. And it’s added another dimension to my work, as organisations have started asking me to deliver paid workshops in this area too.

Otherwise, though, I was largely able to continue with my work as before, since I was well used to working remotely. After a number of fallow years on the books of the National Lottery Heritage Fund as a Digital Consultant, I was given a lovely project in Scotland to act as a mentor on, and then later in the year four more in England that had been funded under the Digital Confidence Fund. All small local heritage projects, with a variety of different and overlapping needs in working out how to do their usual activities remotely and build their digital skills and resilience. 

I love this work, taking all my years of experience on digital projects and figuring out how to use that to advise organisations working on a small scale with very specific needs. It’s rarely the case that they just need MORE DIGITAL. Sometimes less, in fact (e.g. running an Instagram account is very time consuming, does this actually meet their objectives and is it really where the target audience are?). It’s a learning curve for both me and the client, I think, and a balance between advising and upskilling. Anything I suggest has to be sustainable for when I’m not around, of course.

In June I took part in a panel for the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in the UK entitled “Do we need new art forms to teach the Holocaust?”, timed around the launch of their own story app, “The Journey”. You can watch this here (or here on Vimeo), it was an interesting discussion, certainly for me to take part in and hopefully for the audience as well.

I also started gathering up anti-racism resources being shared whilst the Black Lives Matter movement was making headlines. It was great to see more discussion of practical steps to tackle structural racism, from education to hiring practices, something I’d found missing in e.g. diversity or unconscious bias training I’d taken part in, so wanted to collect it all up. Now I have LOADS, and am still trying to figure out what to do with it all, but will post about this in more detail soon, I just need to tidy them up a bit more before sharing. Life got in the way of that one, but I’m posting here as a kick up the bum to do something with this!

At the beginning of the summer I began consulting work with Unthinkable and Clore Leadership on delivering a previously developed digital strategy. Not much to say on that at the moment, much more work to be done in 2021 on this. And there was another new client, the National Lottery Community Fund, on a slightly different project: analysing a big qualitative data set from a funding call for the Climate Action Fund, trying to pull out useful insight from 600+ open field responses. I was excited to try some qual coding tools to see whether they could help, and was frankly disappointed. I tried NVivo, spending quite some time setting up the code, and then just found it so incredibly slow to code each item that despite its evident power, it was unusable. I also tried Quirkos which was, sorry, so fugly and clunky that it was also no help. In the end I used a pen and paper and tally system, and it was a lot faster. (Any recommendations for other tools very welcome).

I continued various volunteer jobs: admin with the brilliant Bike Project and mentoring with Bethnal Green Ventures (Tech for Good start up accelerator) and Digital Candle (free digital advice for charities). But I stepped away from XR, at least for the moment. The evidence suggests that most people accept that we are in a climate emergency, but just don’t know what they can do about it. So I want to focus more on positive solutions and future visioning in this area, not just negative disruptive campaigning. I tried setting up a new mini venture in this vein (The Sunny Upside) but it proved difficult to get traction with it and put enough time into it to make it work (I am no sort of social media influencer). Might revisit that at some point though.

Meanwhile, I’d also decided to turn my life upside down, joining the London exodus and heading to the Isle of Wight, where I grew up and where the rest of my family live. I’ve been here ever since, house hunting (unsuccessfully so far, but anyway). The decision was undoubtedly lockdown-prompted, a desire for countryside and the sea and more space. Like many others, I also realised that the increasing move to remote working meant that I finally could leave London without sacrificing my career. I hope that continues to be true! 

One might question my timing though, not only was work fairly busy but I was also working hard on my masters dissertation, due in October. Final title: “From Monkey Mind to Inner Silence: What does permanent loss of inner speech in meditators tell us about its nature and function?” After what felt like endless rewrites and last minute research along new avenues, I finally got it in. PSA: Google docs do NOT COUNT footnotes in the word count. Thank goodness I did a final count in Word although having to strip out 1000 words at the last minute was a pretty brutal exercise. It was the last act of my Masters, and I’m pleased to have gotten a distinction in both the dissertation and the overall degree. I also finished my working contract at SOAS, handing over to a new coordinator in October.

What do I do with all of that, then? I’ve had some interesting discussions with friends about integrating different sides of one’s experience and knowledge into work, but I’m not sure I can quite marry up the digital and the yoga research. We’ll see. I’m exploring a new project on the latter front with a friend. We’re seeing if we can make a space for discussion on the future of teaching and practice given so many new developments in academic yoga studies. And on the digital side of things, I have some ideas, but I’m not ready to share them yet. I’d like to do some more writing though, and have a list of blog posts I’m working on for the New Year. Is Medium still the go to for sharing? Or does everyone have their own newsletter these days?? I need to sort out this website, either way, which is no longer fit for purpose and looks rather dated.

I’m very lucky that my work can continue on during the current restrictions. It’s always so piecemeal and up and down that it’s a little hard to tell whether it’s been negatively or positively affected, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve suffered in the same way that many others I know have, in sectors that have been badly hit by the current circumstances. But who knows what the future holds. I think we can only make the best plans we can based on the knowledge we currently have, and prepare to adapt them as necessary.

I was kept sane during lockdown through:

  • Baking, cooking, fermenting. I share my foodie obsessions on my Instagram, but I’m wondering whether to change this up a bit in the New Year. Especially since I’ve stopped using Facebook much, Insta is now the best way for friends and family to keep up with what I’m doing, should they be interested. 
  • Also gardening. My tiny wildlife friendly garden was a godsend. I spent hours just watching the bees on the salvia. So lucky to have had this (but it took about 10 years to get the garden into a state I was happy with).
  • And games! Highlights: my usual poker home game moved to Pokerstars and Zoom, using the free game and running the books on money owed separately. It has worked surprisingly well. My D&D game also moved to Zoom and Roll20, the latter being basically indistinguishable from MAGIC, at least in the hands of our excellent and creative DM. We have just conquered the dragon in “Icespire Peak” in high style (whilst mounted upon a roc, no less). I got my parents into online Carcassonne, a heavyweight and slightly clunky transfer to digital but functional enough to capture the fun of the board game. Friends and I experimented with playing board games online, with varying levels of success. I recently enjoyed two disparate seasonal efforts, the Adventure Calendar and the Jacqui Lawson Advent Calendar. The first a branching narrative game over email with daily installations, and the second a TOTES ADORBS throwback of tweeness and sentimentality that I genuinely look forward to every year. And I finally got an up to date console, the PS4, just in time for the PS5 to come out. I am loving Middle Earth: Shadow of War, and revisiting Crash Bandicoot, Worms, Just Dance, Resident Evil 5 and Wipeout (and apparently I am basically stuck in the 2000s, eh?).

As soon as I press send on this, I’ll think of something else I want to share, but I’ve probably gone on enough. And it turns out, this has been a useful reflection on the year. If anyone gets anything out of reading it, that’s a bonus. Here’s to the New Year.

(Featured image by @brujahahahaha on Giphy).

Running live events and meetings on Zoom and avoiding “Zoom Bombing”

Zoom logo

Tl;dr sharing resources on how to use Zoom for running both live events and meetings, skip to the bottom for links.

Since the lockdown started, Zoom has become a go-to tool for running events and meetings online. I’d been using it for various things for a few years, but hadn’t really spent too much time and effort digging into what it could do. Then I got involved with XR who use it a lot for delivering training, so I saw features like the breakout rooms in action. I was impressed. It was by far the most powerful application I’d seen in the field, and it just worked.

Of course, I never expected that we’d all be living and working in part over Zoom due to a global pandemic. However, when it became clear what was happening, I realised that the knowledge we’d built up in XR on running things over Zoom might be valuable for others. So, I took some existing XR training on how to use Zoom, adapted it, and started running it for people in the local community and beyond with the help of others in XR. From the positive feedback we got, it seems it was useful for many.

At the same time, in my role as Project Coordinator for the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies, we were having to rework our live lecture programme for an online audience. We did a trial on Zoom, and it was a success. The live events worked really well, and the YouTube channel we created with the recordings has been a relative hit. You can find it here, if obscure academic scholarship on the history of yoga is your bag. Or, if you just want to see what the recordings look like (note: they are slightly edited, simple trim edits done with the YouTube editor, and more complex ones with an aged version of Adobe Premiere. But you get the gist.)

I created guides for both scenarios and shared them on twitter, which people seemed to find helpful. So, to create a more persistent record, I’m putting them here too, see below.

Now, I should mention Zoom security concerns. Zoom has had some major security and privacy issues exposed as a result of increased use and scrutiny. Most of the flaws have been fixed (and I’m impressed with how fast and sincerely Zoom seemed to handle this). But it is still possible for malicious actors to get into meetings and share horrible things on the screen, cause mayhem in the chat, scribble unwanted things on a shared screen etc, but ONLY IF you haven’t taken precautions. These are also outlined in the documents below.

I hope these are useful, please feel free to share them if so. I’m also keen to keep them updated so if people have suggestions on improvements or other good resources I could add, please let me know or pop them in the comments. And if you are a small community organisation who wants more advice, feel free to get in touch with questions (details here or tweet me) and I’ll help if I can.

Resources:

Turning research into results: the Teach Your Monster to Read Teacher Toolkit

A little while ago I wrote this blog post on creating resources for teachers that they will actually find useful (summary below). It was partly  based on research I carried out for Teach Your Monster to Read, a game from the Usborne Foundation for teachers and parents to help teach phonics to kids. Usborne wanted to know if there were other tools, games, videos or other content they could create that would make teachers’ jobs easier. 

Very wisely, rather than guess at what these might be, they commissioned me to talk to teachers in the UK and US and find out more about how they teach the subject and what might help them. It was hugely instructive, we learned a lot about what teachers might and might not use, and the research results were used as the direct inspiration for a set of ideas that have now been turned into reality. Just launched on the TYMTR site are mini games, flashcards, videos and printable resources (teachers love to be able to print stuff and make it their own!). They are lovely things.

Teach Your Monster to Read screenshot

I know this user centred, research based design process isn’t new, but unfortunately in my experience people don’t always see the value, or ignore the research results when they don’t fit their preconceptions. For the teacher audience, who have very specific needs and little time, this is especially likely to result in a product that fails. 

So, if you’re thinking of doing something similar, please read my previous post. The tl;dr version below:

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.

  1. Make online resources easy to find. Put them where teachers already go.
  2. The benefits must be easy to see. Make it clear what it is, who it’s for, show images of it being used.
  3. Be mindful of the time of year. Teachers are insanely busy at certain times of year, and more or less likely to be planning ahead at other times of year.
  4. Make it flexible and modular. Teachers will want to adapt it.
  5. Don’t try and break the mould, make it fit with teachers’ existing practice. Don’t expect them to start changing the way they have always done things overnight.
  6. Make it beautiful, easy, and solve a problem. 

And I would also add, test it heavily with teachers in the environment in which it will be used.

Pokémon Go in your museum: you can’t replicate it but you can work with it

Woo, on to the bandwagon I go, roll up for my hot take… (And a links round up, which you can skip to the bottom for if you like).

SO I tweeted this earlier today

I was kidding, but it turned out I was already too late, as people messaged me to say they had already heard this happening.

Listen, the massive success of Pokémon Go is very interesting, no doubt. I’m enjoying playing it, and that’s despite the fact that the collecting/battle game mechanics themselves are not even that compelling. It’s just fun seeing pokémon out in the real world and the surprise of finding them, the collecting and evolving and sharing the pictures and so on is enjoyable too, plus I found out about several local landmarks I hadn’t noticed before, bonus.

And yes, the collecting is obviously something museums can relate to, museums love collecting based games. However, museums are not Pokémon, they do not have objects as beloved as Pikachu (sorry), they do not have the staggering reach and influence and years of brand development that Pokémon has, and they do not have the budgets, not even close. Amongst other things (Dan Hon’s post on how to replicate Pokémon Go’s overnight success explains this excellently, thanks to  Chad Weinard for pointing me at that). And believe me, I’ve tried something in this vein. I still love Magic in Modern London but getting traction on something like that was insanely difficult.

My original tweet was in response to this, which sums it up:

I’ve been in countless discussions with people at cultural organisations who point at similarly huge success stories (“we’re thinking maybe we could do something like Clash of Clans?”) and want a piece of it. I understand why, but Clash of Clans is no overnight success either. Making games of that complexity takes serious time, expertise and budget. I’m a big advocate for museums doing games, but they need to be different beasts: simpler, and more focussed. (Not convinced? Hire me to run my game design workshop in your organisation and you’ll have created something like this by the end of the day).

It is good, however, to see museums embracing Pokémon Go itself and getting excited about it. It has already driven up attendance at some museums. So here’s my round up of the interesting stuff I’ve seen so far on it:

Seen anything else? Share it in the comments.

 

 

Organise your life using Trello

I was recently evangelising about using Trello to keep on top of everything to someone, which involved trying to describe how I use it. It was a bit difficult, in the abstract. So I decided to create a template board that mimics the way I use it, in the hope that it might also be useful to others.

Quite genuinely, it has made my life a LOT easier. I no longer forget stuff when packing for trips, I rarely miss exhibitions I want to see, I can see what I need to shop for when I find myself in the supermarket, I can see what I need to save money for (and don’t forget who I owe money to), I can easily see my slate of activities for work, and quickly put a to do list together for the day. When I am at a loose end at home, I can check my list of jobs around the house and clear something off the list. Very satisfying. And a huge weight off of my brainspace.

For example, I’ve had “write a blog post about Trello” on the list for a few days, and now I get to check it off (or rather, archive it, the Trello equivalent).

It is SUPER easy to use, as long as you have an internet connection. It syncs across my browser and phone, so I always have my lists handy. I haven’t tried calendar integration yet, but will explore that soon. Because it genuinely integrates with my life and makes things easier, it has stuck, and I’ve been using it for a few years now. (It’s a real art, creating processes and tools that actually stick).

Work/Life trello template
Work/Life trello template

Here is my template. Hopefully it’s pretty self explanatory. I’ve put some descriptions in for certain cards. But basically when I think of any new job (or thing I want to see or do, or shopping item I’ve run out of) I create a new card or add it to one of the lists. Then, each day first thing I move cards to “today” that I need to get through or that I could reasonably tackle. Some cards might not get moved to today, but are useful references in different circumstances.

I’ve also used Trello on work projects to share tasks with other people, but this is the board I use the most.

I’d love to hear any other tips that people have, or comments on this. Was it useful? Do you do something differently?

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.

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.

Freelancing

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.

Funding/frustrations

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.

Finally/fitness

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?

Evaluation

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!

An encounter with Patrick Moore (people are complicated)

A story I would like to share, on hearing that Patrick Moore passed away today (or perhaps yesterday). Already twitter is filled with a mix of sadness at his death and discussion of his positive legacy for science, but also reminders of his sexist comments and fairly extreme right wing views. I think it’s OK to talk about both these things, challenging the latter and celebrating the former.

When I was much younger I was a huge astronomy nerd and Moore was obviously an icon. When I was perhaps around 11 or 12 I was at an astronomy conference in London with my mother, who would escort me to astronomy weekends, observatory viewing sessions, and events like this. Yeah, I know, I was a weird kid. During a coffee break at the conference, Patrick Moore was there just sort of hanging out, and my mother encouraged me to go say hello.

I did, and Moore was charming and friendly. He was obviously pleased that I was so enthusiastic about the subject, apologised that he couldn’t talk for longer, and invited me and my mother to come visit him in Selsey. We arranged a time to do so via post (imagine, using the postal service to arrange a meeting!). I even kept his typewritten notes to me, see below, so I must have been a bit starstruck (pun intended).

A message from Patrick Moore
A message from Patrick Moore

We went to visit during a holiday nearby, and he was a great host. He showed us his telescope (no jokes please, seriously) and various bits of astronomical equipment and garden observatory. Finding out that I played music, he played his xylophone and recordings of some marches. We had tea and cake. He was clearly keen to encourage my interest in astronomy and science. We left after a couple of hours of visiting and that was the end of any correspondence, beyond a thank you letter from me of course, but the encounter left a huge impression on me.

Years later, I was immensely disappointed to discover his political views, and especially disappointed to hear his sexist comments about women ruining TV and so on. How to square this with the avuncular character I’d met who was so supportive of my enthusism for science? People contain multitudes, I guess. His views are clearly more complex than the impression you get from what is reported, but this isn’t a defence of them. It’s disappointing that he wasn’t challenged more on this in his lifetime.

We sometimes forget that people in the public eye are as nuanced, messy and complicated as any of the rest of us, and we shouldn’t expect them to be otherwise. We can be grateful for Patrick Moore’s kindness and great work in popularising astronomy and angry about his views at the same time.

Thoughts from SXSW: learning and games, how to create US/UK links?? A plea! #swswi

Posted in haste from my phone…

So far, SXSW has been eye opening. From the sessions I’ve been to and the people I’ve met, I’m discovering that there is a ton of work and thinking being done in the area of games for formal and informal learning across the US. At the same time, I’m finding that there is little awareness of what’s being done in this area in the UK.

Also, there has been a lot of discussion about how to make this innovative work more mainstream. It seems like pooling information, resources and learnings could be a good start, and that everyone working in this space could learn from each other. I know I could. So, this post is a plea for suggestions about how to do this, or for directions to places where this discussion might already be happening.

A google group? A wiki? both? Something else altogether? Suggestions in the comments or @ me on twitter and I’ll add them here. Thanks!

Updated after twitter discussions:

Museum games wiki as possible model: Museum games wiki

Q: are there not some serious games lists already out there?

Yes, lots of people working in this area in us but because it’s multidisciplinary it’s fragmented.
So q: is how to bring that all together.

any other thoughts from people?