Notes from #SXSWi: Adrian Hon – Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary #thecode

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.


Adrian Hon – Creating the Code: A BBC Transmedia Documentary

Since they started, I’ve been very interested in the work of Six to Start, founded by brothers Adrian and Dan Hon following their work for Mind Candy on the groundbreaking ARG (Alternate Reality Game) Perplex City. I was due to work with them on Spooks: Code 9 before I ducked off to join the Wellcome Trust instead in 2008 but have been keeping an eye on their projects in the years since. They always seem to be up to something interesting.

Dan has since left the company, but Adrian remains and the company continues to produce things that sound intriguing and novel, the latest being the Zombies Run Game. Last year, it was The Code, a BBC show about maths, presented by Marcus du Sautoy, that contained a hidden transmedia treasure hunt created by Six to Start. I signed up for the kick off, which involved receiving a postcard which had part of a visual clue on it and would require collaborating with the other postcard holders to solve. I hate to admit it, but that was as far as I got, I didn’t immediately get what I had to do and put it aside and forgot about it.

When I saw Adrian was speaking about it at SXSWi, though, I thought I’d go along and see what I’d missed. And, as I’ve worked with the BBC previously on a similarly large project around a TV property, I was interested to see what their experience had been.

From my understanding, the postcard clue needed to be put together with all the other post card clues, which then formed a shape. The players did this via the Facebook fan page, and the animated composite image is here. When turned into a 3D model, this unveiled the shape of the prize, a mathematical sculpture by artist Bathsheba Grossman.

This was all part of the pre show/pre game build up. With the show transmission, the treasure hunt proper began. I’m not exactly clear on how this worked, but it involved looking for clues in the BBC show itself and there are more details here. There were also four flash mini games and a puzzle book to solve. The three finalists who were first to “crack the code” were invited to a live event at Bletchley Park (viewable here) where they had to solve clues against the clock to find the overall winner.

It sounds like an absolutely mammoth undertaking, so was it successful? From Six to Start’s own site, here are the stats for The Code:

  • 1,000,000+ players of The Code Flash games
  • TV show significantly outperformed benchmarks on iPlayer and 7 day viewing figures
  • 100,000+ treasure hunt players engaging in the overarching meta-puzzle
  • 300,000+ interactions on the Facebook fan page
  • 1000+ photos, videos, 3D models, and a wiki with 100,000 views and 2000+ edits – all created by users!

The whole thing was really involved and quite complex, not to mention on a traditionally unpopular subject, maths, so over 100k players for the meta-puzzle is impressive. I do wonder how many stuck through the whole thing, ie, how many truly dedicated players there were, and would be interested in more stats on that. But still, it does seem like quite an achievement.

To pull this off required quite an operation behind the scenes of course, and we heard some instructive stories about how they did it. It was especially impressive since it sounded like they had a not massive budget, with little in there for marketing, and had to rely on their own twitter following for the pre-game puzzle solving.

There were a number of advantages about working with a TV programme. There is crossover and synergy and a flow, between the TV and online audiences. The media are complementary – video is good for explaining science, but games can be richer. However, there are disadvantages too.

There is considerable uncertainty about what will make the final programme, and a huge uncertainty about the transmission date. TV schedulers often decide the TX date late on, and even then it can be changed at the last minute. They just had to be flexible to deal with this. To deal with the uncertainty about the edit, they made sure they picked out quite a lot more shots per show than they needed to use as clues, knowing that several would get cut and they’d be left with probably just enough.

Another problem with working with a TV show is that they are usually an entirely separate production team. Moreover, they are a separate production to the BBC commissioning team that you will be working with as well. Six to Start’s solution to this was canny, they embedded a producer at the BBC, and a web producer in the programme production team. That meant that they had someone who was effectively both part of each of the other teams as well as their own, and that the communication problems that could otherwise arise were averted. Smart.

These weren’t the only challenges with creating something like this though. The solution had to be kept secret, and Hon recommended that only two people should ever know the final answer, that it should never be written down and that data relating to it should be encrypted. That sounds a little extreme but I guess when you think that the whole project is scuppered if this is given away, it’s quite reasonable.

Balancing the game is a challenge. They needed it to be done within three weeks, but equally it couldn’t happen too quickly. So to keep it challenging they made multilayered puzzles, but also provided encouragement along the way (but no outright hints) such as suggesting that users set up a wiki. Though the game was challenging, he did suggest that you can never make it too easy to actually get into at the start.

Failure of some sort, he suggested, was inevitable. The puzzle would be broken in some way, people might do something unexpected, and things would go wrong. So it was important that they, and their partners, were all prepared for this.

Really interesting to hear all this, lots of great insight and a fascinating project. Sadly, it sounds like the BBC is likely to produce few one offs like this in the future, instead moving towards using just one platform for their online content of this sort. There wasn’t much detail on this, so if that’s true I’d love to be pointed in the direction of some more information about what this would be. Anyone know more?

Notes from #SXSWi: Jane McGonigal – A Crash Course in Becoming Superbetter #games #avantgame

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.


Superbetter trailer

Jane McGonigal – A Crash Course in Becoming Superbetter

Thursday’s keynote speaker was Jane McGonigal, a woman whose work has been a huge inspiration to me, but who also provokes a very mixed response from people who make and play games.

She has created some truly innovative games such as I Love Bees, World Without Oil and Superstruct. The power of a game like I Love Bees to bring strangers together to collaborate on a seemingly impossible task, or the potential of games like Evoke to make an actual difference to people’s lives, is extremely exciting. Her TED talk on how gaming can make the world a better place has had hundreds of thousands of views.

That said, I didn’t read her recent book, Reality is Broken, in part because of the negative response to it from people I respect and in reviews that I read. The feeling seemed to be that it went too far, was overly optimistic and that her use of statistics and science to back up some of her points was deeply flawed.

As I’m following her on twitter I was aware that she’d been unwell after a serious concussion and that she’d created a game to help her recovery. I was curious to find out more and therefore very interested when I saw she was going to be speaking about it at SXSWi. The game that she developed during her illness became SuperBetter, and her talk gave us the rundown on what it was, and what she thought it could do for people.

Her talk started with a framing device that actually made me a little uneasy. She told us that the number one smartass comment she gets about games is, “yeah, but on your deathbed are you really going to wish you’d spend more time playing World of Warcraft/Call of Duty/Game Blah?”. Well, she told us, just look at this list of the top 5 regrets of the dying as reported a few weeks ago:

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

All of these, she said, sound a bit like “I wish I’d played more games” (I think this is what she said, but don’t have the audio to double check it, this was what I wrote down). And yes, McGonigal is right. Games can be social, can make us happy, can allow us to express ourselves in a safe environment and give us time to relax and play instead of work. However, “I wish I’d played more games” isn’t actually what people said to the palliative care nurse, even if games could potentially have played a part in that, and so using their dying regrets to make a point about games in this way seemed a little crass to me.

However, thinking about this example got me to what I think is the nub of many people’s problem with McGonigal. She is an evangelist for games. For the rationalist, that is uncomfortable. She is the uber optimist, and many of us who are more sceptical or cynical find that hard to deal with. I think she really believes in what she is saying, and the paramount importance of what she’s doing, and using the dying regrets of terminally ill people seems entirely reasonable within this world view.

She is also someone who uses “super” a lot and gets very excited which is all very un-British and could explain why some people on this side of the pond find her irritating. It certainly wouldn’t be my style, but she has created some great work and won a lot of people over with this attitude, and perhaps that’s something to be valued rather than ridiculed. Even if many prefer taking a rather more logical and measured approach.

With that in mind, I found it a lot easier to enjoy the rest of her talk.

So, whilst recovering from her brain injury, McGonigal found herself really struggling and realised that she needed a extra motivation to help with her recovery. Naturally, she turned to game creation to help with this, and created Jane the Concussion Slayer, which later became the far more refined SuperBetter. It’s a game about improving resilience, and is apparently based on genuine scientific research and created in collaboration with scientists. Moreover, it’s being subjected to clinical trials to test its efficacy. I’ve searched for this, but they don’t appear to have been completed yet.

The idea that games can provide motivation and enjoyment during a difficult time does seem reasonable and interesting, and I will be particularly interested in the results of those clinical trials. She appeared to go further, saying that anyone who undergoes a challenge is better for it, whether it’s a negative or positive challenge, and that what the game will provide is genuine growth. That’s quite a claim, but certainly an exciting prospect. See for yourself, SuperBetter is now in public beta here.

McGonigal went on to list a number of other projects in a similar space, about achieving goals and personal development and repeated Will Wright’s assertion that what we were about to see was a gaming equivalent of the Cambrian explosion which saw species diversity increase massively and resulted in some weird and wonderful creatures. She suggested this should be called the “Gambrian” explosion but for God’s sake let’s knock that one on the head right away. Here are the other projects she mentioned.


Lift (from Twitter’s Biz Stone)

Mighty bell

Daily Feats

Google Schemer

Dream (couldn’t find the URL, nice work on an ungoogleable name there)

We “played” a bit of SuperBetter during her talk, which involved shaking hands with a neighbour, concentrating on clicking our fingers a certain number of times, picturing a cute baby animal and so on. The idea being that each of these covers an aspect of positive behaviour that can increase our resilience (growing our social ties, exercising our brain etc), and I can believe that on a bigger scale this could be true.

McGonigal then rather blew it by producing some dubious maths to “demonstrate” that our “playing” of SuperBetter had increased each of our lifespans by 7.5 minutes during her talk and whilst I sighed to myself that this was at best an average increase and that perpetuating misunderstanding about medical data and risk vs benefits was really unhelpful, I was still thinking that I’d be giving SuperBetter a go when I got home.

The talk was being filmed, so I will update this with a link when it appears. In the meantime, you can read this interview from CNET with Jane McGonigal carried out after her SXSW 2012 talk.

Notes from #SXSWi: David Eagleman – The Secret Lives of the Brain #brainlives

I’m attempting to write up every single session I went to at SXSWi. Will be mostly about games, but also how tech can kill, neuroscience, digital anthropology, civic science and more.

David Eagleman – The Secret Lives of the Brain

My first session was neuroscientist David Eagleman who is, according to his own website, “best known for his work on time perception, synesthesia, and neurolaw”. Somewhat outside the tech/digital programme I was expecting but since we’re doing lots about the brain at the moment, and since I needed a bit of a pick me up after spending over TWO HOURS queuing for my badge, I thought I’d give it a go as it sounded fascinating.

He’s a hugely engaging speaker, witty and full of fantastic case studies to illustrate his point. Which was this: our conscious brain is just the tiny tip of a massive iceberg, and it’s what goes on behind the scenes that actually determines what we think and do. You may think that the decision you just made is borne of free will and rationality, but you were utterly unaware that your brain was whirring away below the surface, making that decision well before it apparently formed in your consciousness.

A difficult idea to swallow, no? But he had some cracking examples to back this up.

Nominative determinism is the theory that your name can affect your career choice and other aspects of your life that you’d hope were actually based on sensible, logical decision making. For instance, Eagleman pointed out that people called Dennis or Denise were disproportionately likely to become dentists. People also have a tendency to partner up with people who have a name that starts with the same first letter as theirs.

He also cited an example where they showed men two batches of the same photos of women and asked them to rate their attractiveness. The only difference between the two batches was that in one, the pupils had been dilated. The men overwhelmingly picked those with dilated pupils as being more attractive, and yet would not have been able to articulate that this, a sign of sexual readiness, was the reason why. They simply weren’t aware that this is why they made that decision. (I think he might have been referring to this study)

Our consciousness, said Eagleman, is like a broom cupboard in a mansion, or a tiny part of a steamship which is taking credit for controlling the whole thing. But in fact, it’s just aware of headlines produced by the rest of the brain’s machinations such as “you like dentistry”, and is spared some of the troubling reasons as to why that might be. Perhaps we may have a sense of being conflicted about something as these subconscious processes battle it out.

He discussed other examples of activities where we use the unconscious brain, such as playing the piano, or tennis, or trying to draw your name and its mirror image in the opposite direction at the same time. All of these are difficult or impossible once you try to think about them consciously. On which note, if someone is playing very well against you at tennis, compliment them and ask them how their excellent serve works – it will fall apart as they start to think about it.

Even our perception of reality is constructed by processes that we aren’t aware of, as demonstrated by optical illusions and also by synaesthesia, a subject Eagleman has studied in depth. He suggested that we may all be a little synaesthetic, and he showed this with the audience using the Kiki/Bouba effect. One hundred percent of the audience identified the spiky shape as Kiki. The test for true synaesthesia is all about consistency in responses, and can be found at

Neuroscientists can use our responses to illusions as well as phenomena such as synaesthesia to study our vast subconscious depths. Another useful, if unfortunate, method is to see what happens when the brain is damaged in some way. The story of Phineas Gage who lost part of his frontal lobe and became a drastically different (and unpleasant) human being is well known, but he also cited the example of Charles Whitman, the “tower sniper” who killed 16 people at the University of Texas, just down the road from the Austin Convention centre where we were sat listening to Eagleman’s talk. He knew something was wrong with him and that his personality was changing to something angry and dangerous, and asked for an autopsy after his death. He was found to have a very aggressive brain tumour.

Eagleman had another fascinating and disturbing example, that of a patient who had suddenly developed paedophilic urges and when examined, was founded to have a frontal lobe tumour. It was removed, and the urges went, only to reappear some time later. It was found that a small part of the tumour had been missed and was re-growing.

In a case like this, these bizarre symptoms can be used for diagnosis. He gave the example of Parkinson’s disease, the treatment for which affects dopamine levels as it attempts to compensate for the diminished dopamine caused by the disease. Overcompensation can lead to decreased risk aversion, one effect of which can be to turn patients into gambling pleasure seekers. This behaviour can be used by doctors to see if they’ve given too high a dose, and they can therefore dial it back down until the behaviour stops to get the correct amount.

So, what are the implications of all this for our society, our conceptions of right or wrong behaviour and how criminality should be punished? If we don’t really have free will, what affect should this have on our legal system? This is another area that Eagleman seems to have a particular interest in. If I understood him correctly, he suggested that explanations of bad or “immoral” behaviour are not necessary exculpations but should lead to better sentencing, better rehabilitation and incentivisation. He has set up the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law to address these issues.

A fairly mindblowing start to SXSW for me, and you can hear the whole talk here. I think much of this is from his book, Incognito, I will definitely be taking a look at it after hearing him speak, absolutely fascinating.

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?

Game Play: how to develop engaging games for a discerning audience

An article by myself and Danny Birchall for Museum-iD:


“How come I only understood what I’d seen in a museum after playing this game?!’’
Comment about ‘High tea’ on the gaming portal Kongregate

Making a good museum game means serious collaboration between game-makers and curators. Danny Birchall and Martha Henson of the Wellcome Trust on how to develop engaging games for a discerning audience…

Wellcome Trust Game


It seems traditional for any article about games to start with an introduction which includes a statement about how much money they make each year ($65bn a year according to Reuters), a supposedly surprising statistic about who plays them (a 43 year-old woman is the average player of social games), and a query as to why they aren’t therefore taken more seriously than they are. However, it seems this might finally have become unnecessary since, in many spheres, games are already being taken very seriously indeed.

Read more.

Frozen Planet and documentary fakery

Today’s fuss about “fakery” on Frozen Planet has provoked an interesting response on twitter, a chorus of jokes and commentary which essentially said “well *duh*, of course not everything on TV is real! Which idiots thought it was?” And no, I don’t think the Frozen Planet example, of cutting zoo footage with footage from the wild in a way that implied the former was happening in the latter and then telling everyone they did so on the website, is really that bad. In fact, they should be commended for providing behind the scenes information, as they also do in their end “making of” sections in the show. However, it does give me an excuse to talk about documentary fakery, on even very small scales, which has been bothering me as a filmmaker for some time and which I’d dearly love to have a bit of a debate about.

Firstly, let’s not assume that everyone does in fact realize the degree to which television, even documentaries, is manipulated and manipulative. Not everyone has worked in TV, made their own films, is media savvy, or even that critical of what they see. Why should they be, watching TV is often something people do to switch off and get swept away at the end of a long working day. Also, it’s not like we got taught to analyse television in this way at school (unless kids do now?) So the fact that shots are staged, noddies are sometimes done in the absence of the interviewee, bears are filmed in a zoo rather than the wild and so on will indeed come as a surprise to many people who aren’t necessarily idiots. Because documentary includes shots of real life, people do mistake it for an accurate representation of real life.

Even those who think they are smart about the way TV is made, who can spot the ways in which Come Dine With Me features staged shots, who sees the strings being pulled in the X Factor or even news interviews, even they aren’t always aware of the power you can wield in the edit, which perhaps one never is until you’ve tried it yourself. When editing an interviewee, for example, it is sometimes trivially easy to cut them to sound like fools, or edit out their inconsistencies to make them into geniuses. I feel a huge responsibility to interviewees for this reason, and it can be a tricky balance.

But does it matter that probably a majority of people are indeed very definitely being mislead by things like added sounds in nature documentaries, Kevin McCloud pretending to have “just arrived” at the recently finished houses on Grand Designs, and so on? In those examples it can seem fairly harmless, but they are still a fraud and very rarely made clear as such, and so it bothers me on some really basic level.

It also bothers me partly because these techniques are also used in documentaries that are trying to make a point, maybe political, maybe about a social issue, and whilst all intentions may be good, they are still on some level defrauding people who aren’t aware that it’s happening. Perhaps in some really really tiny way, like staging a shot of someone arriving to work on their bike (as I have done), when they do always arrive to work on their bike. But even that is still a fraud, and can undermine the validity of the rest of what the programme is saying. For those who do realize something is staged, it provokes the question “hmmm, I wonder what else is faked that they aren’t being clear about?”.

Finally, it also bothers me because often it looks REALLY NAFF. The noddies, interviewing someone whilst walking towards the camera as if it isn’t there, pretending you’ve got two cameras by asking someone to do something again and shooting it the resulting stiff and forced action from another angle etc

Done well, of course, this is all about making the programme more watchable and more flowing. And of course there is no way to make any sort of programme without editing. I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone should always make all their footage available. But it is something I wrestle with every time I make a film and sometimes I wonder about coming up with a Dogme 95 style list of rules for documentary that would do away with a lot of this. What would the resulting documentary look like?

Mostly, I’m talking about a point of principle, a philosophy of filmmaking that I haven’t quite worked out for myself. And I’m talking about not making assumptions about how people watch TV. But if nothing else, what I want to say is that I do think a little more transparency would be a good thing, if only because I think it’s something that many people would genuinely find really really interesting.

The High Tea game: An education

High Tea instructions: Buy opium, sell opium, buy tae
The instructions for High Tea

Have been meaning to write something up about our (Wellcome Collection and Preloaded‘s) High Tea game for some time. However, Danny Birchall and I have now published our evaluation report, which pretty much says it all. It’s been an incredibly informative process, which I hope to repeat for all future games. Some headline stuff from all the analytics, surveys and interviews:

  • High Tea has had over 3 million plays
  • Users found it fun and educational, and liked that it was based on historical fact
  • Over 50% were inspired to go find out more about the subject matter after playing
  • Distributing it to just three or four portals in a rippable format meant it is now on hundreds if not thousands more, but still trackable
  • Social media was useless for bringing people to the game

And lots more, all in the the evaluation. Whilst you are there, please sign up and contribute to the Museum Games wiki. We hope the latter can become a really valuable resource for all of us working in this area.

Strangely beautiful, beautifully strange: Smugglers and monsters at Blackgang Chine

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I hadn’t been to Blackgang Chine for about 15 years, during which time they’ve added some new bits, some bits have fallen away and some bits just weren’t as I remembered them. What loomed large in my childhood memory was a huge walk-in whale model which I thought was several stories high, but of course is not. Sadly missed out on a picture of that this time. I also remembered a brilliant and scary smugglers cave which was in reality less vast and terrifying than I’d imagined.

But I was still entranced by the place, which was a big hit with the under-fives we brought too. I had a hunch it would make a great series of photos, but became so in love with the odd, spooky, decaying aesthetic qualities that I became more concerned with just documenting the place before it goes. Which it eventually will, given that the coastline slips away at an average rate of about 3.5m a year. It’s been there since the mid 19th Century though, so maybe it’s got a few years left.

I’m not sure when most of the models (fibreglass?) date to, I’d love to get a more detailed history of the place. Many are creepy, dubious, inaccurate or bizarre, both intentionally and unintentionally so. All still have a weird kind of beauty. If anyone knows more about the history of this curious place, please let me know.

By the way, The Isle of Wight seems to specialise in off kilter attractions, see also this earlier set from the very sadly defunct Brading Wax Museum.

Gaming science, scientific games (my SCC2011 talk) #scc2011

[slideshare id=8093707&doc=scienceandgamesmarthahenson-110525044026-phpapp01]

Above are the slides from my talk this afternoon on games and science at the Science Communication Conference, King’s Place, London.

The aim of my talk was to demonstrate the different ways in which games can be a powerful tool for science communication and engagement. Rather than ask people to understand this in an abstract sense, I put together a varied set of game examples that have impressed and inspired me in this regard. The slides above won’t make a great deal of sense with some explanation, as it’s mostly screenshots and videos that won’t play in the browser. So, here is a bit more information about the slides, each game and why I chose it.

Overview: What games can do for you

Games can educate, they can impart information to the player. They can do more than that, though, they can really engage the player, get them to think and get them to actually use what they’ve learnt in order to successfully play they game.

They are experimental, some times almost mirroring the scientific process of forming a hypotheses and then testing it. This is true of games from Resident Evil (OK, this time, I’m going to try running past the chainsaw wielding zombie maniac to grab the shotgun shells, then hiding out here and using them from a distance to wipe him out. Let’s test it…) to Angry Birds (I reckon if I hit that wooden bit, it will topple the tower over towards me and I’ll have a clear shot at that bastard chuckling pig with a helmet sat in the middle).

They can even be used for genuine scientific research (don’t believe me? Read on…). Moreover, they are (usually) fun, a motivating factor in making people actually want to get involved. And knowing that people are having fun and doing something that is improving their knowledge and understanding has to make you feel good, right?

Games are big business, ubiquitous, demographically diverse (references from the slides)

• Publicly traded games companies worth over $100bn (Lots of sources e.g
• Well over 50% of both men and women play games online (Lightspeed Research (2009), cited by Nielsen (2009) )
• Games are the second most heavily used internet sector after social networks and blogs (
• Majority of app store downoads are games (maybe 80%) (

Examples of games that use/educate about/research science:

Pandemic 2: Engineer an organism that destroys all humanity. Yes, the gameplay allows to modify an organism (change its resistance to drugs, symptoms etc) once it is out in the wild, which is clearly unscientific, but there is a lot in there to educate the player about disease types, transmission, factors in spread and so on. In fact, you really have to understand this to create the deadliest possible organism. PS I can never wipe out Madagascar, despite my virus killing absolutely everyone else, anyone got any tips?

Launchball: the Science Museum has created a number of interesting games, and I understand that Launchball has been one of the most popular. It is a physics game (a popular genre, some more nice examples here), which requires you to get a ball from the start to the finish, using a combination of objects with different properties. It requires you to think about those properties and where the ball needs to go, put the objects into the space in a way you think will work, and then TEST it. It also gives you a little science factoid relevant to the level once you complete it.

Poker: The slide shows my approximately 650,000 to 1 triumph in hitting a royal flush on the river, and then utterly failing to make decent money out of it. I’ll spare you the bad beat stories, but suffice to say, when playing poker you really come to feel the probabilities. To become any sort of decent player, particularly in the more rapid online environment, you really have to understand probability and odds to the point that it becomes almost intuitive. I’m really not suggesting that everyone starts playing poker for real monies, but humans are notoriously bad at understanding risk, perhaps games that enable you to really experience it could help with that.

Routes: this was a Channel 4 game about genes, evolution and genetic testing in association with my employer, the Wellcome Trust. Not one I was personally very involved with, but one I took a great interest in because what it was attempting was pretty exciting. It was several things all at once: a documentary series on genetic testing, a series of minigames and activities, and a murder mystery in the form of an alternate reality game. Targeted at teenagers and their educators, it reached that audience and had some very positive feedback from them on the amount they learnt from playing.

High Tea: Not a science game, granted, but one with educational aims and the one I have the most information for, because I worked on it. For more information about the game see this other post I wrote, but basically it’s a strategy game that tries to give the player an insight into the Opium Wars of the Nineteenth Century. I’m including this because we have TONS of data, we did a really comprehensive evaluation on it, and because it was a massive success. We’ve had over 3 million plays to date, and the evaluation suggests it was successful in its learning objectives. Hope to publish this evaluation soon, but do contact me if you want to know more.

Foldit  This is the piece de resistance, I hope. A game that was also a piece of scientific research, which has just announced that it’s made some pretty exciting findings. It was designed to test whether humans were better than computers at working out how proteins are folded with the aim of using their strategies to build better models. It looks like they’ve gone even further than that, which they claim to have proved, in solving a protein that had flummoxed scientists for 15 years in just 2 weeks and designing a whole new protein. As the blog post linked to also says, in the process they’ve also created a lot more protein experts in the world. Very impressive.

I then included a list of more examples that might be interesting, here they are with links for more info:

Coral Cross – an alternative reality game about flu pandemic preparedness
Signtific Lab – crowdsourcing future forecasts
Fate of the World – climate science
Wolfquest – wolf ecology
Vanished (Smithsonian and MIT) collaboration with real scientists, learning scientific techniques, collecting data etc.

Finally a cautionary tale about happens if scientists and science communicators DON’T get involved with games. The examples above are all well and good, but most games are absolutely rife with bad science (thanks to all those on twitter who helped me come up with examples of this, will add some credits later, bit rushed!). From small details such as hearing explosions in space in Halo, to more heinous errors like growing frogs who apparently have no tadpole stage in Pocket Frogs, and finally Spore. Trumpeted as a game about evolution, it ended up more about intelligent design.

So please, Science Communicators of the World, get involved with games, use them, think about them, play them and build them if you can.

Edited to add some thanks I didn’t have time to put together yesterday:

Thanks to Tomas Rawlings, firstly for giving me the opportunity to speak and secondly for talking through some ideas with me. To @PJDubyaM, @itsmapes, @paynio, @snoozeinbrief, @danthat, @docky, @steel_fox, @tracilawson, @stitchmedia and @philstuart for answering my twitter call for bad science games. And to @dannybirchall, Amy and Jen for listening to my dry run and of course thanks to SCC2011 for having me!

A tour of the Horniman museum object stores

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My Flickrset from a tour of the Horniman object stores.

I spent a very fine afternoon yesterday being guided around the stores where the Horniman keeps the 95% (I think) of their collection which isn’t on display. It was a public tour with a small group, guided firstly by Helen, who took us through rooms of mummies, weaponry, musical instruments and other assorted wonders.

The stores are cramped and absolutely bursting at the seams, but we squashed into the spaces between old fashioned rolling stacks and jam-packed shelves whilst we peered at oddities and several of us tried to grab what photos we could in the low light. Though we weren’t allowed to take photos of the outside of the building (understandably, they’d prefer it wasn’t identified) they were very accomodating in their photography policy for objects and the stores themselves. I could have spent hours and hours in there wandering around with my camera, pulling back curtains, reading the extraordinary labels for boxes I wasn’t allowed to open (a giraffe trap!) and listening to the curator’s stories about these fabulous objects.

One of the conservators showed us just what they are up against in terms of pests (carpet beetles, clothes moths and the like), light or sun damage and other wear and tear. And finally, Paulo (who blogs here) and is a natural history specialist, gave us an inevitably too brief whirl around their bones, antlers and taxidermy. I wish I could have seen every one of the Hart bird dioramas, created by a husband and wife team; he killed the birds and mounted them, she painted a backdrop taken from the very location in which they were collected. They’re wonderful.

The natural history collections pose some interesting problems for the curators. The bird’s eggs must have data on their provenance, else they could fall foul of more recent laws that forbid their collection. Taxidermy from the Victorian era can be laden with arsenic, found in the soap that was used to clean the animal’s insides. Gloves should always be worn when handling them to prevent arsenic poisoning (apparently not uncommon in curators of this type of material). And if you ever see flakes like dandruff on taxidermy, that’s the arsenic, do NOT touch!

Also, stringent CITES rules on transport of animal and plant material, designed to protect endangered species, mean that loans across borders to other museums become a bureacratic nightmare. Read the brilliant Orchid Fever (one of my favourite books) for an interesting and entertaining examination of why CITES might be doing as much damage as good in some instances.

I’ve been inspired to become a Friend of the Horniman (only £10!) after this visit, and highly recommend joining one of these tours if you get the chance. Apparently they only run them a few times a year but keep an eye on this page if you’re interested.

(PS embedding a flickr slideshow turned out to be a bit of pain, I found the solution here).