Principles of digital economy?

A picture of Lev Manovich, which isn’t here at all but rather sitting on a UCLA server. Isn’t modularity wonderful?


I’m enjoying Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media. I wrote about this before, describing his unconventional prologue which hooked me into buying the book in the first place.

Right now, though I think it’s worth exploring his answer to that most fundamental question: what is “new media”? As he says “the popular understanding of new media identifies it with the use of a computer for distribution and exhibition.” Such an understanding, he argues, leads to the somewhat absurd situation where a text or photograph is old media when printed in a book, exactly the same text or image is somehow transformed into “new media” if distributed via web or e-book or stored on CD -ROM.

Such a definition is too limiting, he argues. To understand new media as a mode of distribution makes it “only” as revolutionary as the printing press. To think of it as a mode of storage renders new media as incapable of transforming culture as the transition from shellac records to vinyl.

The introduction of the printing press affected only one stage of cultural communication – the distribution of media. Similarly, the introduction of photography affected only one type of communication – still images. In contrast, the computer media revolution affects all stages of communication, including acquisition, manipulation, storage, and distribution; it also affects all types of media – texts, still images, moving images, sound, and spatial constructions.

So, instead he sets out five “principles” by which we may know and understand new media. And I think they may have a broader application, to the the digital economy as a whole. That said, Manovich is reluctant to use the word digital in this thesis “because this idea acts as an umbrella for three unrelated concepts – analog-to-digital conversion, a common representational code, and numerical representation.” I am, however, not so fussy. Besides, the word new stands for many more unrelated concepts, doesn’t it?

Anyhow, back to his principles. They are (in a carefully composed order because after the first, each is a consequence of it’s predecessors):

  1. Numerical representation – We’re talking digital media here, and the clue is in the name (whatever Manovich may think). Whether created on a computer, or scanned or ripped from an analogue source, a new media object is a function of numbers. Which means that it can be decribed formally, and can be manipulated algorithmically.
  2. Modularity – As every digital object is a number (or series of numbers, or algorithm) elements of every type (sounds pictures text etc etc can be assembled into other objects. The most obvious example that Manovich uses is web page like ths one, which is only presented as a single object by our browsers, but is in fact made up from a piece of text I’ve written, pictures I saw on anther site (and which is still stored on that site’s server, all I’ve done is point your browser at it) and other features created (for all I know, I didn’t put them there) by the WordPress software.
  3. Automation – As Manovich says “The numerical coding of media (principle 1) and the modular structure of media object (principle 2) allow for the automation of many operations involved in media creation, manipulation and access. Thus human intentionality can be removed from the creative process, at least in part.
  4. Variability – This is particularly interesting (not just because I’m interested in adaptive narrative). Manovich correlates industrial and now digital media with the ideologies of the industrial and digital age: “In industrial mass society everyone was supposed to enjoy the same goods – and to share the same beliefs. This was also the logic of media technology. A media object was assembled in a media factory (such as a Hollywood studio). Millions of identical copies were produced from a master and distributed to all the citizens. Broadcasting, cinema and print media all followed this logic. In a postindustrial society, every citizen can construct his or her own custom lifestyle and and “select” her ideology from a large (but not infinite) number of choices. Rather than pushing the same objects/information to a mass audience, marketing now tries to target each individual separately. The logic of new media reflects this new social logic.” So, if you are ready this page on your mobile browser, it will look different to the same page on a desktop, unless of course, you choose to return the desktop version. And of course this variability is a function of the automation in principle 3, I haven’t created the mobile version, its done automatically.
  5. Transcoding – Everything that happens to a cultural object  in the principles above created a new type of object that exists in two “layers.” In one, cultural, layer it is the old media object we all recognise, the photograph, the song, the story, and in the second “computer layer” is is a file in a database.

As Manovich says “New media may look like media, but this is only the surface.” Is this true of the digital economy as well?

My first abstract

I’m excited because my first conference paper proposal has been accepted, and it gets financial support to help me go deliver it. So in September I’m off to the University of Rochester, NY for their Decoding the Digital conference. I thought I’d share the abstract here. Now, of course, I have to write the paper.


The creators of digital narratives, in the form of computer games, are experimenting with form as they explore story telling in virtual spaces. Different approaches to so-called “open world” games all succeed in creating emotionally engaging diageses, three-dimensional virtual story spaces around which the player can wander with apparent freedom.

Cultural heritage institutions, including museums, built heritage, historic and ancient sites and heritage landscapes, have long been telling stories in three dimensions. Where it’s done well, visitors to those sites can immerse themselves in stories that they co-author as they make choices  about what to look at first and subsequently and how deeply they want to explore individual points of interest.

Digital content creators have long had the opportunity to learn from heritage interpretation (Carliner 2001, Sylvester 2013), but what can cultural heritage institutions learn from computer games?

This presentation reports on early research comparing narrative approaches in digital games and cultural heritage institutions. Using case studies of open world games such as Red Dead Redemption, Dear Esther, and Skyrim, the presentation identifies different narrative techniques, structures and emotional triggers and seeks comparators in a number of UK cultural heritage sites. Highlighting the relative strengths of the digital and real-world media, the presentation discusses how cultural heritage sites might adapt some of the techniques of game narrative, including structure and music, to interpretive use. The results of an evaluation of a digital ludic interpretation case study, Ghosts in the Garden, at the Holburne Museum, Bath, illustrate the discussion.

The presentation concludes by setting out the plan for further research, including an exploration of adaptive narrative and the narrative braid (Hargood et al, 2012), and experiments with more considered use of music to trigger emotional responses at heritage sites.

The V&A’s games residency

I’m adding a link to the blogroll which come October, I’ll be following with interest. Sophia George is a young game designer who is about to take up a residency at the venerable museum. On the V&A website she says:

I will use the history of British design shown in the Britain 1500-1900 galleries as the starting point for my research. One third of the residency time will be dedicated to public engagement, inviting a variety of audiences to experience and participate in the creative process of game design though an innovative programme of events and activities at the V&A.

And in her own blog she expands. Not only is she excited by the collection at the V&A, she also excited that through the residency she will contribute to the “are games art?” debate as well as the discussion about the preservation of games. She’s also looking  forward to the opportunities for public engagement.

Her website also includes some papers from her student days including this one which includes some useful references about emotional stimuli in games.

Mary Rose


I took a trip with work colleagues yesterday to check out the new Mary Rose museum. For those international readers who may be unfamiliar with “Britain’s Pompeii” Mary Rose is a Tudor warship that sank in Portsmouth Harbour during a battle with the French. Half the hull, and an amazing number of objects were preserved in the silt, and the site has been a marine archaeological “dig” for decades.

A lovely new home for the Mary Rose
A lovely new home for the Mary Rose

The new museum was built around the hulk of the vessel, which has been in-situ in a Portsmouth dry-dock since it was raised back when I was a kid.

In black wood, the building’s ark-like shape echoes the ship it contains. Inside, there are galleries that run along the length of the Mary Rose, displaying some of the objects in the mirror image of the position that they were  found in the wreck . For example, one of the things that most excited me was the brick-built cooking facility right down on the bottom deck of the ship. Between these galleries and the Mary Rose herself, there is currently a wall, with windows of varying shapes and sizes allowing you to peer through. The wooden structure is still being conserved. Having been chemically sprayed for 20 years or so, it’s now being air-dried, and in about five years the wall between the ship and its visitors will come down. When that happens (I hope and expect) visitors will be able to glance across from an interest object (like my kitchen) and recognise the place it occupied in the wreck. At the moment, its slightly frustrating because visitors can’t make that connection without having to shift position and peer from one of the windows.

One great aspect of these long galleries is that their floors are not level but curve just like the decks of the Tudor ship. With some of the displays encouraging visitors to step into spaces with limited headroom, the physicality of the space does a very good jobs of putting you “on board”, without compromising access.

At either end of the museum there are more conventional (level) interpretive galleries, thematically unpacking a wealth of the objects that were found onsite. Vitrines and interactive displays interpret life on board the Mary Rose as well as the archaeological methods used to reach a shared understanding of what life might have been like.

Reflecting on the experience as a whole, and considering it through the lens of where my studies have taken me so far, it’s pretty traditional museum experience, there’s an emotional peak at the beginning, as you walk into the first gallery past an evocative video that puts you among the sailors as the ship turns on its side and water floods in. Then there’s a context setting exhibition  which helps you start to define your route through the plethora of objects in vitrines that you are about to see. I felt no pressure to look in detail at every vitrine, though colleagues reported becoming quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of objects to look at. Certain objects caught my eye and excited me, but there wasn’t another “designed” emotional peak until the route required taking a lift between the lowest floor and the highest. as the lift began its ascent, the interior lights dimmed, and we were blessed with a view of the whole hulk of the ship through the glass side of the lift. No longer obcsured by wall and glimpsed through windows, the sight was magnificent.

But after the little epiphany I had in this post, I was looking for another emotional peak, or moment of insight at least, as I left the final gallery. I was disappointed. All I got was some underwhelming footage of the salvaged Mary Rose making her way towards the shore at Portsmouth. I tried to remember the excitement I felt watching it on TV in 1982, but failed to make my heart beat faster.

It reminded me of a conversation I recently had with my boss, about this very subject. She use to work for the visitor attractions company which runs SeaLife centres, Tussauds, etc and told me that there, no project got off the ground that didn’t have a final wow moment of some sort. So it isn’t rocket science, why do so many cultural heritage attractions end with such a damp squib before the gift shop?


The teamwork game
The teamwork game

There are a couple of simple games  included among the interactives. In one, visitors co-operate to become marine archaeologists. One player moves a diver equipped with an underwater “blower” around the seabed, looking for objects to uncover. As each object becomes visible the second player moves their diver to “record” the object. A successful recording rewards the players with a little bit of interpretive text, but the object of the game is see how many pieces you can uncover and record before the divers’ air tuns out.

The cannon game
The cannon game

I had to force myself to stop playing the other game though, which was simple but addictive. Equipped with four ship’s cannon, of various sizes, the object of the game was to disable but not sink as many French ships as you can within the time limit. The enemy vessels cross the screen at various ranges. Use too weak a gun, and your shot will fall short, but too powerful a weapon will sink the ship and you lose your booty. I managed eleven ships with my second go.

One of the other interactives felt strangely dated. An early exhibit displays the Cowdray Engraving, a depiction of the battle showing just the tips of the Mary Rose’s masts as she sinks beneath the waves. Touch sensitive screens allow visitors to explore the map in  detail and various points of interest are interpreted with pop-up windows. But I found myself trying to use multi-touch gestures to navigate, and got quite frustrated with the displays.

The other interactives took the role of text panels  when “asleep,” with a few lines of text on a topic, but touch one of the object icons, or question buttons, on the panel and a video would appear. With some objects, for example, a pocket sundial, the video would show a recreation of the object in use. In other videos would feature experts talking about the object, or concept.

A short aside on the video reconstructions. Many of the sailors are portrayed wearing just a shirt and hose, with no other layers. The shirts were also surprisingly short. Given the detail of many other aspects of the reconstruction, and some of the amazing scraps of fabrics (including a check shirt, velvent and woollen cloth) that have been preserved by the silt, I wanted to know whether this was a considered, informed choice, or just cheap costuming. I didn’t find a conclusive answer.

Overall though, the museum is a moving and captivating experience. I know a little about Tudor life, but I learned so much from these objects, mundane, useful objects and felt a real connection with the men who lost their lives when Mary Rose sank. The museum considers itself a memorial to those sailors, and it’s a sensitive and well-deserved epithet.

A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer


There are a lot of things in Neal Stephenson‘s The Diamond Age which I love. If I’m honest with myself I hope to see mediatronic paper and animated digital chops, for example,  become real in my lifetime. There are other aspect of the world created in that novel, for example massive inequality in a post-scarcity society, which I hope we won’t see, but I fear we are already walking down the path towards. At the core of the book though is one idea that some of my recent reading has prompted me to think about again.

The 2009 paper, Serious Games in Cultural Heritage, by Anderson et al., is a fun read, reporting on the state of the art at the time. There are some lovely lines which I’d like to take issue with. The authors, for example, hint at an opinion that a serious game doesn’t need to be fun. To which my reply that if its not fun, then its all “serious” and not a “game,” even if it does make use of gaming technology. The authors cite two examples of virtual reconstructions of Roman life, Rome Reborn and Ancient Pompeii, which use gaming technology as a research tool: “[Rome Reborn] aims to develop a researchers’ toolkit for allowing archeologists to test past a current hypotheses surrounding architecture, crowd behavior, social interactions, topography, and urban planning and development.”  More fun comes from the Virtual Egyptian Temple, and The Ancient Olympic Games examples which have playful or ludic elements in them, even its its only piecing pots back together or successfully answering quizzes set by what the paper calls a “pedagogical agent.” (Crikey! I’m returning to the Ludology vs Narratology debate again – on the side of the Ludologists!)

The paper also discusses the pedalogical value of some commercial games, which Burton calls “documentary games.” The most recent example of this genre brought to my attention is Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (with thanks to Chad at westernreboot). Of course another feature of many modern commercial games that the paper highlights is the bundled content creation tools that allow you to create your own cultural heritage environment, and indeed the Virtual Egyptian Temple mentioned above was built with the Unreal Engine toolset.

There’s also a section on all the various “realities” that gaming technology has to offer, which I’ll return to when I finally get round to writing up Pine and Korn’s Infinite Possibilities. and a section on the various gaming technologies (rendering effects and artificial intelligence) and the like, which a cultural heritage modeler can use, which makes the paper a very good primer on the subject (and one I wish I’d found earlier).

What led me to that paper was looking deeper at one of the poster presentations I saw last week. I didn’t get a chance to talk to (I guess) Joao Neto who was deep in a conversation I didn’t want to interrupt, so I did some Googling. Part of a team working to interpret Monserrate Palace in Sintra, Portugal, Joao and Maria Neto did some of the usual stuff: creating a 3D model from architectural drawings and laser scanning to show how the palace developed over time; an interactive application called The Lords of Monserrate, exploring the lives of the different owners of the palace over the centuries; and The Restoration, which appears to be a mobile app which recognizes the distinctive plasterwork in each room and interprets the restoration process in that room. But they also experimented with what they called Embodied Conversational Agents.

These are virtual historical characters, “equipped with the complete vital informational [sic] of a heritage site.” The idea was that the virtual character would capture the visitor’s interest with a non-interactive animated opening scene, in the manner of a cut-scene on a video game, but then would open up a real time conversation that would immerse the visitor with realistic “face movements, full-body animations and complex human emotions.”  The conversation would be more sophisticated than a simple question and answer system, by being “context aware,” breaking up the knowledge base into modules, to make interactive responses more possible.

In order to achieve this ambition, we developed an Embodied Conversational Agent Framework – ECA Framework. This framework allows the creation, configuration and usage of virtual agents throughout various kinds of multimedia applications. Based on a spoken dialogue system, an Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR), Text-to-Speech (TTS) engines, a Language Interpretation, VHML Processing, Question & Answer and Behavior modules are used. These essential features have very different roles in the global virtual agent framework procedure, but they all work together to accomplish realistic facial and body animations, as well as complex behavior and disposition.

Which all sounds like an amazing feat,even if the end result is (and I’m sure it must be) a little bit clunky. I’d love to see it in action. But what does this have to do with Neal Stephenson and The Diamond Age? Well, the subtitle of that book and the McGuffin (though plot wise, it’s much more than a McGuffin)  is A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. In the story,  A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is an interactive book, a pedagogic tool commissioned by a very wealthy nobleman to ensure that his daughter’s educational development is superior to her peers. Many of the characters that the reader meets in the Primer are sophisticated virtual agents like those described by Neto and Neto. But some are voiced by a “ractor,” an interactive actor whose voice, expressions and movements are transmitted live to become the voice, expressions and movements of the character in the Primer. One of the characters in Stephenson’s novel make her living as a ractor, playing characters like Kate “in the ractive version of Taming of the Shrew (which was a a butcherous kludge, but popular with a certain sort of male user),” and to “fill in the blanks when things got slow, she also had standing bids, under another name, for easier work: mostly narration jobs, plus anything having to do with children’s media.”

I used to be a “ractor” of sorts, as a costumed interpreter in all sorts of historic sites. I’m proud that my colleagues and I became one of the most interactive and immersive of all the interpretation media available. But having professional people on site is expensive, and not all volunteers have the skills, confidence or desire to take on historical roles. So I’m wondering if another approach to Neto and Neto’s Embedded Conversational Agents is now, technically a possibility.

Could a virtual character be distantly controlled in real time by a human “ractor”? And could that ractor fill their working day becoming different characters (and even at different cultural heritage sites) as and when required? The relatively small audience for cultural heritage after all makes a live ractor experiment a more realistic possibility than it would be for a popular commercial video game.

I REALLY want to try this out. Who wants to help me?

Centre for Digital Heritage #CDH2013

Last Saturday I went to the inaugural conference of the Centre for Digital Heritage at the University of York. The first speaker was Professor Andrew Prescott, who gave us a salutatory reminder that the so-called Industrial Revolution wasn’t quite as revolutionary to those living through it, and that some of what we now realize were world changing developments, were not seen as such at the time. Whether we’ll recognize what is/was important enough about the current so-called Digital Revolution remains to be seen. But don’t let me speak for him, if you like, through the power of digital, you can see his slideshow here:

It was a mature and sobering start to the conference, but also inspirational. Towards the end he mentioned conductive ink that was safe to touch (or to paint on your skin if you want a working circuit-board tattoo) and pointed us towards the work of Eduado Kak as an example of how the digital and real worlds might collide in new ways:

I was particularly interested in the presentation from Louise Sorenson about a project to capture stories from families that emigrated from Norway to the US. The idea was to build a Second Life style recreation of the journey many such emigrants took (from Noway to Hull first of all, the overland to Liverpool to catch the boat to America). This would work as an inter-generational learning tool, letting people explore their forefather’s journeys, and to add to the world from their own family tales and photos or objects that might have been passed down the family from the original travelers. This experiment turned out to be one of those “a negative result is not a failure” types. They didn’t manage to capture much new data (though they did get some, shared on this blog), but learned a lot about why they didn’t, which Louise shared with us. For a start – Second Life? Remember when that was the “next big thing”? Early adopters got very excited and talked about it as though we’d all use it it, like Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse. But us “norms”, if we logged on at all, realised pretty quickly that it was hard work modelling your world, the pioneers were profiteering, selling us land and other stuff that existed only as one and noughts, and most tragically, everywhere you looked there were avatars having kinky sex.

In fact Ola Nordmann Goes West, as Sorenson’s project was called, rejected Second Life as a platform for at least two of those reasons. Instead the team opted for an open source alternative OpenSim. This allowed them to avoid the virtual property speculators and kinky sex, but didn’t solve the hard work problem. The challenge of: downloading the client; installing the client; setting up the client (with IP address, rather than an easy to remember/type URL); and, then signing up was an off-putting barrier to an audience used to just clicking on the next hypertext link. And this is competing for on-line time with more established social networks like Facebook and Flickr. Either of which might have more natural appeal to emigrant families, because they both are natural tools for keeping in touch with distant relations. Then, there’s the numbers problem.

The Ola project tells me around a million Norwegians emigrated to the US between 1825 and 1925, and that about four and half million Americans are descended from those families. Which feels like a large number. But when you slice it up to count the number of people that discover the project, the proportion of those who are interested by it, the number who get past the client barriers, and then the fraction who feel they have something to add to the story, you are going to end up with very few people.

I’ve spent a few paragraphs on this presentation because its particularly relevant to my original proposal, wherein I asked “What can real-world cultural heritage sites learn from the video games industry about presenting a coherent story while giving visitors freedom to explore and allowing them to become participants in the story making?” The Ola project is all about giving people freedom to explore and become participants in the story making, and so its a very useful example of what some of the traps I might have fallen into. Given that the sites I work with have an annual visitorship numbering in the tens of (if they are lucky, hundreds) of thousands, they’re chances of attracting even the tiny number of active community participants are even more limited than Ola Nordmann’s.

An alternative approach to public participation was shown by John Coburn. Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums put their collection on line as many institutions have done, but online collections remain connoisseurs resource: as Coburn said, “its only engaging if you know what you are looking for.” With the Half Memory project, the museums service handed their on-line collection over to creative people of all sorts to create compelling digital experiences. “Designing digital heritage experiences to inspire curiosity and wonder is more important than facilitating learning” Coburn insists.

PhoneBooth, from the LSE library

Ed Fay’s project, PhoneBooth, for the LSE Library, had an even smaller intended audience, students sent our by their geography lecturers from the LSE, to explore the London described by Charles Booth’s survey of 1898-9. He colour-coded every street according to the evidence he witnessed and recorded on the streets, classifying them with one of seven colours raging from Black (Vicious, semi-criminal) to Yellow (Upper-Middle and Upper Class). It reminded me as he spoke of the MOSAIC classification from Experian that the National Trust uses. The library digitized both his published results and all his notes years ago, but the PhoneBooth is an app that lets you take that data with you, and walk the streets just as Booth did. It even lets you overlay the data with the modern equivalent – no, not MOSAIC, but the Multiple Deprivation Index.

Ceri Higgins shared her experiences working with the BBC and other academics to create a documentary about Montezuma. As the programme was being put together, she grew more and more excited. This was a film that was going beyond the old tropes of gold, sacrifice, and invasion by the Spanish to reveal a broader representation of Aztec society. However, by the time it came out of the editing suite, it had become, in her opinion at least, all about the old tropes of gold, sacrifice, and invasion by the Spanish. The bad guys here were the narrativists who, using tried an tested Aristotelian principles of drama, needed a protagonist, an antagonist and plenty of conflict to sell the programme. They didn’t think the more nuanced interpretation that Higgins had hoped for (and I understand, which was filmed) would connect emotionally with the audience. Hmmmm.

Pause for a moment of self reflection.

I wish I’d managed to chat with Ceri during one of the breaks. It strikes me, given all the footage which told different, more nuanced stories, that this is a case for The Narrative Braid!

Another presentation that grabbed me was from a team led by Helen Petrie, presenting their efforts to interpret (and then evaluate the interpretation of) “Shakespeare’s church” Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon. The interpretation, a smartphone app, was nothing special, using techniques that a myriad of other developers are also trying to push on cultural heritage institutions. But the evaluation was something new. According to Petrie “surprisingly little empirical research is available on the effects of using [smartphone app] guides on the visitor experience.” It’s not so surprising actually, considering how dificult it is to record emotionsal responses without participants intellectualising them. Anyway, they started from a clean slate, creating a psychometric toolset that includes the Museum Experience Scale (and of course the Church Experience Scale). The presentation of a top-line summary of course, but I’m keen to read more about it, as I’m pretty sure I saw at least one bar-chart with an “emotional engagement” label.

Another sort of guide, and one long imagined, was described by Adrian Clark. Ten years ago he started working on a 3D augmented reality model of parts of Roman Colchester, but the technology required at the time was on the limits of what was weaarble, and by no means cheap. Now that the Raspberry Pi is on the scene, he has started work again, and hopes soon to have a viable commercial model.

We also saw a presentation from Arno Knobbe, who showed us ChartEx, a piece of software that can mine Medieval texts (in this case, property charters) and pull out names and places and titles. Then the program will also algorithmically suggest relationships between the people and places mentioned in the charters and thus suggest where the same John Goldsmith (for example) appears in more than one charter. Jenna Ng analysed the use of modern Son et Lumiere shows in historic spaces. Valerie Johnson and David Thomas explained how the National Archives are gearing up for collecting the digital records that will soon be flooding in as the “30 year rule” becomes the “20 year rule.” My supervisor, Graeme Earl introduced a section on the history of Multi-Light imaging, in honor of English Heritage’s guide on the subject. The subsequent papers covered RTI, as well as combining free range photography with laser scanning to create accurate texture maps, and very readable 3D models. One fascinating aside (for me) was that the inventor of the original technique, Tom Malzbender, originally thought it’s main use would in creating more realistic textures for computer games. We also looked at: the digitisation of human skeleton remains (makes putting them together a lot easier apparently); the 3D modelling of the hidden city walls of Durham (though personally I’m more excited by the Durham Cathedral Lego Build which started today, first brick laid by Jonathan Foyle); and the digital recording, and multiple reconstructions, of mediaval wall paintings.

There were poster presentations too. Two that leaped out for me were Katrina Foxton’s exploration of “organic engagement” with cultural heritage on the internet, and Joao and Maria Neto’s experiments with virtual agents as historic characters.

Is the narrative in the game, or in the head?

In his post, The Simulation Dream (which I’ll forever thank Twitter for pointing me to), Tynan Sylvester sets out the Player Model Principle, which is “The whole value of a game is in the mental model of itself it projects into the player’s mind.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week, wrestling with the sometimes incredibly didactic way in which cultural heritage organisations can tell their stories. Occasionally we lay the story on thick, especially when we resort to a chronology  of a place: “Humans first settled here in … there’s evidence of a pre-roman village … the Roman villa was destroyed … Medieval settlement … Sir Suchansuch was gifted the land in … changed hands during the civil war … current Lord Soandsew inherited when … and all of them thought it was a lovely place to live.” Ugh! Yawnsville! Why oh why do we do that?

(I always shy away from chronologies in my work, but I bet if I examined my previous projects closely, I could pull out an example of where I’ve accidentally included one.)

Where it’s especially apparent is in poorly designed guided tours. Bad tour guides will often start off their tours with a chronology (or, even worse – a family tree), in a misguided attempt to put the rest of their tour in context.

(Damn, that didn’t take long – here’s a chronology/family tree from an introductory video at Knole that I commissioned a few years back:

Knole – Five Centuries of Showing Off from National Trust Knole on Vimeo.

In my defense, it’s quite funny, and hosted by the lovely Jonathan Foyle. For the prosecution, it’s way too long at almost 15 minutes.)

Why do we (us heritage types) insist on telling you everything at the beginning of your visit? Well, I guess it’s because that’s the one time we know we’re going to reach everybody who comes in, before they’ve wondered off to look at what ever they are particularly interested in, or to the cafe, the toilet, or whatever. But why do we have to tell the story so literally?

Museums used to be accused of not telling the story at all, of being elitist organisations which could only be understood by the cognoscenti, where the objects could speak for themselves, the juxtaposition of their arrangement adding to your insight, but only if you knew enough about them already. Augustus Pitt-Rivers is credited with suggesting, in 1891, the philosophy that museums should be readable by the masses, or as he put it “I hold that the great desideratum of our day is an educational museum, in which the visitors may instruct themselves.”

Sixty or so years later the US Park Ranger Freeman Tilden gave us our common understanding of “heritage interpretation” in Interpreting Our Heritage. In that slim book he said, though we often seem to forget, that interpretation isn’t about transmitting a fact to the public as though they are empty vessels, but rather creating a “revelation”  that “relate[s] what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor.” But still we tend towards spoon-feeding our visitors with facts.

Instead, cultural heritage institutions should think of their interpretation in the same way that games programmers think of their computer code. As Sylvester says:

Designers create the Game Model out of computer code, while the player creates their own Player Model by observing, experimenting, and inferring during the play. In play, the Game Model is irrelevant. Players can’t perceive it directly. They can only perceive the Player Model in their minds. That’s where the stories are told. That’s where dilemmas are resolved. So the Game Model we create is just a pathway through which we create the Player Model in the player’s mind.

So museums and interpretive sites shouldn’t be just telling  the story, rather they should use interpretation as a pathway though which the story is created in the visitor’s mind.

Pinchbeck et al illustrate this with a small experiment they conducted looking at narrative in games. Eight participants (three novices and five more experienced gamers were invited to play a section of the game Half Life 2. This game, and the particular sections of the game involved, were chosen because of a high degree of embedded narrative content:

The architecture positions the overall game world in time and space; the trees suggest a season; the huge alien citadel in the background sets up both a long term narrative intrigue and sows the seeds of a long term goal.

The public broadcast screen in the mid-ground is a good example of an active narrative device. Narrative information id actively supplied by this device; the player can, by listening to the broadcast, gain additional understanding of the situation. Whilst the device does not contribute anything to immediate goals, or short term narrative, it actively establishes the game world further.

In the foreground a humanoid agent will dynamically respond to the player, usually aggressively. Whilst contributing towards long term narrative as a collective, or type, the individual agent’s role in FPS games is ordinarily short term and micro-goal orientated, such as forfilling a combat function. Friendly Non-Player characters such as Half Life 2’s Alyx operate dynamically and actively contribute to long and short term narrative.

The players were observed and their eye movements tracked and recorded to see where their attention was while playing. There’s a lot of interesting observations, but the key conclusion that leaps out as relevant to what I’m thinking about now is this:

The lack of awareness of passive narrative objects was striking; especially in a game that is generally acknowledged to contain a strong narrative. Rather than steering play, the results may indicate that narrative has little to do with it, and is imposed post experience. In other words, when we speak of narrative influencing play, it essentially translates to the narrative being used to position action in context for memory, but not actually being part of the play experience…

… the strong narrative could make it easier to recall specific moments with in play by acting as a more robust framework for retrieval, thus yielding more specific and potentially more vivid recollections of the experience…

…strong game narratives may assist the structuring and management of memories of play experience, by supporting actions with a robust, temporal and contextual framework.

It’s not too far a leap from this to summarize that the narrative, though embedded within the game, only becomes apparent to the player afterwords, having projected itself into the player’s mind.

So, do we (in cultural heritage) do too much telling, without giving the visitor space to work things out?

Unravelling The Vyne

Another short note, this time on a contemporary art exhibition at one of the National Trust place I work with.

I’ve mentioned the Vyne before (in one of my most popular posts). This time, the focus isn’t on Roman rings or Tolkien, but other aspects of the place’s history. Ten artist-makers working in a variety of media have interpreted parts of the Vyne story in especially created works, which are currently on display around the mansion and in its lovely Summer House.

My favorite is this work by Maria Rivens. In the library she has created a piece and literally pulls all sorts of stories out of books similar to the ones in the Vyne’s collection:

Short Cuts and Pop-Ups, by Maria Rivens
Short Cuts and Pop-Ups, by Maria Rivens

A very effective piece is Two Dancers by Charlie Whinney: steam-bent wood (Ash for the male, and Oak for the female) twist and sweep around each other in the Large Drawing room.


The enigmatic “Mrs Smith”‘s Party Birds doesn’t quite do it for me, though I like it’s anarchic intent. Most of the party birds are raving it up in the Summer House, but some have sneaked into the Saloon with an old wind-up phonograph, which visitors are invited to play heavy shellac records on. The selection is all bird-themed and I chose to play A Nightingale Sang in Barclay Square. I left that record on the turntable, and later when I was elsewhere, I heard it being played again. The sound of it drifting through the open doorways, was somehow more effective than when I was standing by the machine itself. There’s something there I don’t quite understand about music intentionally played and listened to, and that which (as the movies have it) is incidental. I need to ponder on that.

One last lovely piece really needs unpacking. If you go and see the show, do make sure you are there when one of volunteers is demonstrating it. Its a tiny automaton created by John Grayson, which draws an analogy between an incident at the Vyne and last year’s “Plebgate” hoo-har.

Gate Gate by John Grayson, a tiny automaton
Gate Gate by John Grayson, a tiny automaton

I recommend a visit to this show, which is included in the normal price of admission (free to National Trust members). Here’s a link to a video which explains a little more.