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

[gigya src=”″ width=”500″ flashvars=”offsite=true&lang=en-us&page_show_url=/photos/marthasadie/sets/72157627457555479/show//&page_show_back_url=/photos/marthasadie/sets/72157627457555479/&set_id= 72157627457555479&jump_to=” allowFullScreen=”true” ]

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

[gigya src=”″ width=”500″ flashvars=”offsite=true&lang=en-us&page_show_url=/photos/marthasadie/sets/72157626777979312/show//&page_show_back_url=/photos/marthasadie/sets/72157626777979312/&set_id= 72157626777979312&jump_to=” allowFullScreen=”true” ]

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).

Elements: working with a great science communicator

Still trying to marshall lots of thoughts about games, museums and the like following High Tea and a great Museums and the Web conference. Hope to put up a presentation about the latter after I give it next week. In the meantime, the films below are the result of a new approach we’ve decided to take at Wellcome Collection to using video with our events, and I’m pleased with how they’ve turned out.

In the past, when we had big events with lots of activities on a theme, I used to just film everything, add some interviews and cram it all into a highlights package (e.g . here) Increasingly, especially given the low numbers of views for these videos, I began to suspect there might be a better way. So with Elements, we decided to do something in advance that would be more focussed, stand alone after the event, and perhaps act as marketing too.

Fortunately, one of the curators was Andrea Sella, an inorganic chemist as well as a brilliant and enthusiastic presenter. In just one hour he gave me a whistestop tour of three of the elements that would form part of the event and I did my best to capture everything. We tried a few things more than once, but this is mostly the product of one take and Andrea’s ability to ad lib a really great explanation.




They are pretty rough and ready, but I think it’s fine as the pace and presentation more than make up for it. Of course it’s not everyday you can work with someone who’s such a natural in front of the camera, but I think it makes such a difference if you can. Shows what a rare art it is.

On another note, if you start building something like atomic structures in Motion (a tool not entirely suited to the job) perhaps it would be best to first consider the most complicated structure you are likely to have to build before committing yourself to the idea. Lesson learnt.

Thoughts about games: easy is fun?

So far, my blogging has been solely about my work as a filmmaker for the Wellcome Trust. However, I have another aspect to my role there, as a sort of web producer, which lately has been focussed on creating games. Lots more on that to come later. Particularly as I gather my thoughts following our successful launch of High Tea, a game with broadly educational aims which puts the gamer in the position of an 19th century opium smuggler in the Pearl Delta.

One aspect of the experience has really got me thinking over the last week or so and I’d love to hear what other people think about. Though it varied between sites, such negative comments as there were about High Tea largely revolved around the difficulty level, especially on Armor Games. Many gamers appreciated that it was hard to beat, and this may have added to the addictive quality and replay value. However, others wanted us to change some of the functionality in a way that would have made it incredibly easy. It seemed that a simple clickable walkthrough was genuinely what some players wanted, though of course it’s impossible to know whether they’d really have enjoyed it if that was what we’d given them.

Sushi Cat 2
The charmingly stupid Sushi Cat 2

In the same week, two other huge games were launched to huge ratings approval: Icy Gifts and Sushi Cat 2. Both are cute, and Sushi Cat in particular has really charming graphics and a neat, if very simple, little narrative. But both rely on game mechanics that require almost no skill whatsoever and are pretty hard to lose. The difficulty, if any, is about factors that are beyond the player’s control, so beating it requires merely a bit of luck. I must admit, I played through both. Icy Gifts has an achievements system that lead to me going back and playing through all the levels again until I’d racked up all possible achievements. But I’m not sure I even enjoyed it, I was just a rat pushing an especially pretty little lever for my reward.

Why do people (including me) play these games? Is it the window dressing of graphics and SFX that makes the difference? Is it the illusion of skill? I’m sure others must have already done some thinking around this, so would love to hear if there has been any research/conclusions in this area.

Finding the limits of FCP: the High Society trailer


This was not one of the smartest things I have attempted to do in Final Cut. The correct tool was probably Motion, but I’m not that familiar with it beyond using a few behaviours on text and so on, and wouldn’t know where to start with a bigger project like this. I didn’t have that long to do this, so even though I knew that Final Cut isn’t the best for dealing with stills, nested sequences and so on, I went for the devil I knew.

We wanted some sort of trailer for our High Society exhibition which explores “mind altering drugs in history and culture”. It’s useful to have this resource to give visitors to our website a sense of what the exhibition will be like, market via YouTube and also apparently increase the likelihood of the exhibition being mentioned on blogs, since there is additional content for the blogs to tart the post up with.

The challenge we have is that before the exhibition there are no available shots of the exhibition itself because it isn’t installed yet. Usually, all we have are stills of the objects and imagery and occasionally some video.  The first hurdle is therefore trying to think of something interesting to do with the stills. Classic rostrum moves (zooms and moves across the picture) just felt too dull for this subject, which seemed to be crying out for a more psychedlic treatment. I decided to take the images and cut out figures (e.g. mushrooms, people) from within them using Photoshop (thankyou hacky magic lasso tool) and then expand or move them around against the background, and generally mess with them in way that I hoped would look really trippy.

This process was a bit fiddlier than I’d hoped, but that wasn’t the main problem. What nearly killed this project was the sheer weight of it: the render time. Pulling in photoshop files with all their layers creates a sequence. Putting this into another sequence creates nested sequences which Final Cut doesn’t appear to be friendly about. The files themselves are pretty heavy, and would require a bit of rendering even before I start moving everything about within them. I was also rotating or zooming on separate image files as backgrounds, using luma keys, dissolves between multiple layers and, to cap it all off, motion templates with behaviours for the text over the top. Crunch.

This meant that I couldn’t see a change I’d made in the sequence without rendering it, which was a very slow trial and error method. Also, the rendering process started to throw up “out of memory” errors as my supposedly speedy mac stopped coping. When I came to render the final project, the only way I could complete it was by rendering just a few percent, stopping, saving, and then rendering just a few percent etc etc. It took AGES. I would dearly love to hear from anyone who knows what, if anything, I could have done to make this less painful!

Well, I got there in the end and the trailer has indeed proved very useful, racking up thousands of hits on YouTube after being embedded on various blogs across the world, even reaching the Huffington Post (if wrongly credited).

The music was from the usual place. We abandoned an original idea to also have a voice reading the dedication from Mordecai Cooke’s “The seven sisters of sleep”, since it conflicted unhappily with the music.

So, given the problems with my approach, despite a successful result, what to do next time? I’m thinking maybe something a little more lateral, taking to the streets with a relevant question and gathering interesting vox pops, maybe? Using interviews with curators/artist? Focussing on one artwork or object and using animation to do something interesting with it? We’ll see. Work on the next one begins in just a couple of months…

Filming words – the Wellcome Trust Book Prize


The Wellcome Trust has an annual book prize, which means an annual challenge of how to present the shortlisted books in an engaging way both online and at various related events. A video might seem like an obvious thing to do, but it does run the risk of just being a lot of talking heads going on about books, with not much else to look at. I tried to get around this by making the books themselves the stars, using the Sony EX1’s fairly decent macro capabilities to get really close-up shots of them.

I tried out all kinds of pans, tilts and moves on the books, handheld and not, but found that focus pulls on the tripod or with the camera rested on the books worked the best, drawing the eye along the words. Other moves tended to show a bit of judder, especially with all those lines.

The shots were all slightly wobbly, especially where I was just leaning the camera on the book to keep it steady, but Final Cut’s smoothcam feature worked very well here to sort this out. It doesn’t always work, but in this case it came through. I then used the “light rays” filter, on the lowest settings, to deliberately blow out the whites a bit. I use this effect quite a lot when I want to give something a slightly dreamy/glossy look. I should probably get Magic Bullet though, right?

The film got a lot of positive feedback, so I’m very pleased with how it came out in the end. The music is from Audio Network, as usual.



A little film I put together to give people a flavour of the latest exhibition at Wellcome Collection – Skin. I’ve decided that even though a video like this is primarily about marketing something, and doesn’t have a story or any real substance, it’s still a good thing for me to be doing on occasion. Because it’s relatively straightforward just filming objects and then cutting images to music, it gives me a chance to try out new things in Final Cut that I wouldn’t ordinarily have the time or inclination to play with, in this case ramped speed effects. These I have just (pretty crudely) keyframed in in the Viewer. Hadn’t really tried this before, and it works alright, I think.

Strangely, one of the things I am most pleased about this with is actually totally invisible. I found the music on Audio Network and it’s a remix of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the Nutcracker suite. I managed to loop it just before it gets recognisable and therefore a bit distracting, in a way which (hopefully) nobody will ever notice. In fact, thinking about it, generally when people don’t notice an edit, that’s when you know it was successful. Or is that just the self-justification of the uninspiring editor? Hmmm…

Exchanges at the Frontier: “Krauss is king”


I was fortunate enough to interview some of the people working in the most exciting areas of science last year as part of Wellcome Collection’s Exchanges at the Frontier series. The video above features Professor Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist, perhaps best known for his “Physics of Star Trek” book and work on the origins of the universe. It’s been the most popular video so far, with some unusually nice comments from YouTubers (including “Krauss is king”, from a fan). You can also see interviews with neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland, Tejinder Virdee of CERN and Seth Shostak of SETI on the website or YouTube channel.

I only got about 10 minutes with each of these people, but they were all such pros that’s all I needed to get these little clips. The BBC broadcast the events themselves as radio shows as well though, for a bit more insight and detail into their work.