Attingham 2016 Conference

I’m speaking at the Attingham 2016 Conference, organised by the University of Nottingham. It clashes with the recently announced referendum, so its a postal ballot for me!

Anyway, I thought I might share my abstract:

Is there a place in heritage spaces for the gamification of adult learning?


Today’s fifty year olds were at school in 1980’s, when the ZX80, then the ZX81, the Spectrum, the BBC micro, and host of other cheap and accessible computing devices popularised digital gaming. How do the expectations of this first “Gamer Generation” differ from the adult learners that cultural heritage sites have welcomed in the past?

Gamification (Hamari et al., 2014, Kapp, 2012, Marczewski), the application of game mechanics in non-game contexts, has been a feature of learning since before the word was coined in 2002. Non-digital games have been used in the classroom and in less formal environments, for many years, to encourage people to learn about their world. Generally though, such games have been aimed at non-adult audiences. The term gamification has come to prominence in recent years mostly in reference to digital games, and an adult audience.

Heritage organisations have been using digital game technology to interpret cultural heritage since at least 1996, but it’s only since the creation of mobile digital devices that museums and other heritage sites have tried to harness game technology on-site to help interpret their stories (Fosh et al., 2015, Ioannidis et al., 2014, Roussou et al., 2013, Salomonsson, 2015, Treharne et al., 2013).

Digital games, especially immersive story-games, and cultural heritage sites share a multimodality (Champion, 2015, Roppola, 2013) that suggests games may work very well for adult learning in heritage spaces. However, heritage sites that have invested in projects involving gamification have often been disappointed in the numbers of visitors participating in such efforts.

This paper will chart the brief history of digital games in heritage learning, and share research into gamers’ attitudes to play in cultural heritage spaces. Exploring the opportunities and challenges that game mechanics offer heritage spaces, I will argue that some elements could be used to make cultural heritage sites more responsive environments, without turning adult learning into a game.


So, that’s the abstract, I better get on with the paper. I might need to find some more up-to-date texts as well, as some of these come from when I first started my studies. If anybody has published anything recently that touches on the above, give me a shout.


Hmm, given I’ve left citations in the text above I better do the decent thing and include the references:

CHAMPION, E. 2015. Critical Gaming: Interactive History and Virtual Heritage, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

FOSH, L., LORENZ, K., BENFORD, S. & KOLEVA, B. 2015. Personal and social? Designing personalised experiences for groups in museums. 19th Annual Museums and the Web Conference (MW2015). Chicago, IL.

HAMARI, J., KOIVISTO, J. & SARSA, H. Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification.  System Sciences (HICSS), 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on, 6-9 Jan. 2014 2014. 3025-3034.

IOANNIDIS, Y., BALET, O. & PANDERMALIS, D. 2014. Tell me a story: augmented reality technology in museums. The Guardian, April 4.

KAPP, K. M. 2012. The gamification of learning and instruction: game-based methods and strategies for training and education, John Wiley & Sons.

MARCZEWSKI, A. Gamification: A Simple Introduction and a Bit More, (self-published on Amazon Digital Services, 2013). Kindle edition, Loc, 1405.

ROPPOLA, T. 2013. Designing for the museum visitor experience, Routledge.

ROUSSOU, M., VAUANOU, M., KATIFORI, A., RENNICK-EGGLESTONE, S. & PUJOL, L. 2013. A Life of Their Own: Museum Visitor Personas Penetrating the Design Lifecycle of a Mobile Experience. CHI 2013 Extended Abstracts. Paris: ACM.

SALOMONSSON, L. 2015. Leveling-Up With Cultural Heritage: Aspects from Gamification and Alternate Reality Games.

TREHARNE, H. E., TROMANS, N., SCARLES, C., SCOTT, M., CASEY, M. C. & CULNANE, C. 2013. Transforming the Visitor Experience with Augmented Reality.



Today, I’ve been thinking about a story-telling tool to help me “break” the stories of a site for the experiment I’ve been rethinking. I think I’m looking for something that meets the following criteria:

  • Collaborative – more than one author
  • Handles all sorts of media types
  • Includes tags
  • Allows the author(s) to see and manipulate the links between “Natoms” in networks
  • Ability to turn some tags into narrative order (to create my “kernels”)
  • Works with ontologies (eg OWL)
  • Complies with data standards (eg RDF)

(There may be more criteria – can anyone suggest any?).

So, first of all, I thought Twine, which can do the Network thing, and the Kernel order thing, and I’ve even “broken” a story with it. But its not collaborative (well, it may be in version two) and doesn’t handle different media easily – I did get it to handle music (just about), but its not easy.

So then I got into the sort of software academics use to build their data networks. But the learning curve on most of them looks pretty steep. Then I remembered hearing about Scalar. Scalar looks quite interesting. It’s built to make interactive e-book multimedia dissertations really, but it might do the job I need. It works with OWL and RDF, uses, tags, makes narrative paths and does some very pretty network visualisations. Its definitely collaborative and handles lots of media types.

What I haven’t worked out is whether I can make the paths conditional (which I think I need) and wehther it can publish to a stand alone file, or whether it requires a web-connection. If it does require a web connection, then I can’t use it during the experiment, because I’m not likely to have we access anywhere where the experiment takes place.

Anyway its worth a deeper look, and maybe a play-around with.

What PhD supervisors are for

I had a great chat with my supervisor on Thursday, after helping out with a Masters seminar. As regular readers may have worked out, I’ve been having a great deal of trouble trying to get a coherent testable design to test out of my half-formed ideas and lofty ideals.

The problem was trying to think of a cheap way to test some of the theory I’ve come up with. I’d got hung up on trying to think of a way to track visitors round a site and test their reactions to that. Until I solved that I was handwaving the issues of breaking the story into natoms, and balancing the conflicting needs of multiple visits in the same space. Those two problems both felt more within my comfort zone. The problem is that I’m not a technologist, that bit is so far out of my comfort zone that I’d need to enlist (or pay for) one. On top of that, the tech itself isn’t that cheap – getting a wifi network into some of the heritage places I know, with their thick stone walls and sheer scale, isn’t about buying just one wifi router.

I’d mentioned the other problems (particularly in the one of negotiating conflicting needs) in the seminar. (The students had been reading about a variety of museum interpretation experiments for their “homework” and we discussed the common issue that many of the experiments focussed on the issue of a visitor in isolation, and hadn’t thought enough about multiple users in the same space). Afterwards I spent twenty minutes with Graeme, my supervisor, in his office. I felt he’d finally got what I’d been trying to say about a “responsive” environment, and his interest was particularly focused on the two issues I’d handwaved. We talked about low-tech ways or exploring both of those, and of course THAT’S what I should be doing, not worrying about the tech. These are both things I can do (I think!) rather than something I can’t .

So by the end of our chat, when Graeme had to return to his students we’d worked out the rudiments of a simple experiment.

  • What I need is a relatively small heritage site, but the possibility of lots of choices about routes, lots of intersections between spaces. What Hiller calls a low depth configuration (that last link is to a fancy new on-line edition of the book, by the way. It’s worth a read).
  • I need to work with the experts/curators of that site to “break” the stories. Break is a script-writing term, but it feels particularly appropriate when thinking about cutting the stories up into the smallest possible narrative atoms. (Although maybe “natomise” is better!)
  • Then I need to set up the site to simulate some of responsiveness that a more complex system might offer. Concealed Bluetooth speakers for example, or  switches like these that can be controlled by Bluetooth.
  • Finally, rather than try and create the digital system that tracks visitors and serves them ephemeral natoms, I can do a limited experiment with two or more humans following visitors around and remotely throwing the switches that might light particular areas of the room, play sounds or what ever other interventions we can come up with. The humans take the place of the server, and when they come together, negotiate which of their visitors gets the priority. Graeme suggested a system of tokens that the human followers could show each other – but the beauty of this concept is that the methods of negotiating could become part of the results of the experiment! The key thing is to explain to the participants that the person following them around isn’t giving them a guided tour, they can ask questions of him/her, but s/he isn’t going to lead their experience.

So, now I have a a thing that it is possible to do, with minimal help and with a minimal budget. And its a thing that I can clearly see has aims that come of the research I’ve done, and results that inform platonic ideal responsive environment I have in my head. If it works, it will hopefully inspire someone else to think about automating it.

That’s what supervisors are for!


Heritage: The Terror Management Industry?

Shiva as Nataraja – image from the Glasgow Life website, click to visit the page of St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art

A couple of weeks ago, Mark O’Neill, late of Glasgow Museums (and now of Glasgow Life, the charity which runs the city’s cultural and sporting facilities) can to give a keynote speech to me, and a few hundred other National Trust colleagues. He made a throw-away joke about the heritage sector being “in the Terror Management industry.” How we laughed. But it wasn’t quite as throwaway as we had thought. The idea lingered with me, and so this week I’ve been googling Mark’s name and those words. I discovered this very thought-provoking paper.

It turns out Terror Management Theory is an actual thing. According to Mark’s paper, the theory developed from the ideas of US anthropologist Ernst Becker, and according to Becker’s work, Terror Management (though he didn’t call it that) is responsible the the development of culture: “Becker defines culture as ‘humanly constructed beliefs about the nature of reality that are shared by people in groups in order to minimize the anxiety engendered by the uniquely human awareness of death.’ For Becker, culture reduces anxiety with respect to death in two ways, which he refers to as ‘lending meaning’ and ‘conferring significance.'”

Which is cool. I can go to my job refreshed, knowing that the work I do is the only thing keeping society from breaking down in abject fear of mortality. Its handy too, because today I also read this blog post, from Sarah May’s entertainingly written and challenging blog, Heritage for Transformation, which calls what I do for a living (and by association at least, the charity I work for) into question, because of what we are preserving: “For me, these buildings are dark heritage […] where we keep them we should use them to expose and explore the power that they represent.”

However, I must admit there is a darker side, even if Becker’s ideas about all of culture being our tiny anguished cry into eternity are true. As the Terror Management Theory developed and was tested, both with new experiments, and with re-readings of old research, it became apparent that the corollary of seeking comfort in one’s own culture is prejudice and hostility towards the cultures of others. In one experiment that O’Neill describes as an example “They found robust evidence for the existence of an unconscious influence of mortality awareness on attitudes to divergent worldviews, including increased stereotyping and hostility.”

As O’Neill says “Whether expressing civic pride, or national or imperial identities, museums [and yes, in deference to May, let me also include country houses] usually presented a clear and often explicit hierarchy of cultures, races, and genders, and a narrative of progress, with white British and northern European males at the top. […] These views are no longer socially or intellectually acceptable in a public institution so that museums have changed their story. Showing objects from worldwide cultures is now said to promote mutual understanding, respect, and tolerance.” But does it? O’Neill argues “If museums, at some level, are about mortality and trigger ‘death awareness,’ the [Terror Management] theory would suggest that because they present representations of other worldviews, they are more likely to foster intolerance than tolerance.”

He does offer hope though. Experiments have apparently shown a difference between awareness of death (or “mortality salience”) and “death reflection” (considering how you might die).  Subjects made merely aware of their own mortality show signs of increased selfishness and greed, but those reflecting upon their inevitable demise showed benevolent, generous behaviors. Just as many who have had a near death experience often reject worldly possessions as empty and meaningless. So, he argues, museums can promote mutual understanding, respect, and tolerance, but only if they help visitors reflect upon death rather than simply make people aware of their own mortality.

Museums can only be effective ideological agents if they do the primary cultural work of creating meaning in the face of human mortality.

He concludes “Perhaps most importantly the lessons of TMT are that these issues do not have to be the debated in the abstract based on guesswork, speculation, and opinion, but can be subject to empirical experiment.”

So, my fellow heritage professionals and academics, get out there and start experimenting!

The problems with game-based history

I’m still enjoying Eric Champion’s Critical Gaming: Interactive history and virtual heritage. I wanted to write today about his chapter four, which lots at the problems of learning history through games. There’s all sorts of things I like in here, and only one thing I take a different view on.

The first thing I like is that he quotes this blog, from Thomas Grip. Especially this line:

It is very common that you change a story like this depending on your audience. If the people listening do not seem impressed by the hero’s strength, you add more details, more events, descriptions and dialog. Your goal when telling the story is not be give an exact replication of how the story was told to you. What you are trying to do is to copy the impact the story had on you and any change you can do in order to accomplish this is a valid one.

Stories, Champion agrees “work independently” of facts. But that’s a challenge for games:

If you wish the audience to see a deeper truth beyond the words (of, say, a historical text), what are you aiming for and how do you know whether the audience has understood the meaning the the designer has attempted to convey?

A very good warning. He also quotes Tynan Sylvester, about how the story is actually always in the player’s head, whatever cues the game designer might create. Having set out these and other problems with games as pedagogy, he of course suggests ways in which game mechanics might be helpful in learning:

  • Using games discursively, a group can play a game and then discuss it afterwards
  • Student’s can emulate the performative aspect of games, roleplaying game characters
  • He discusses thesis-based kikset visualisation machines, simulations of cities or empires with students can mod to see the impact of decisions on the virtual “history”. (Champion mentions that Historian Neil Ferguson doesn’t think much of the likes of Civilisation, but does endorse the Making History series.
  • Games can be designed to use real or interpreted media – I’m think here of the Versailles 1685 art references. Champion conflates this with game mechanics used in VR in actual places, and mentions the work of CHESS.
  • Champion also gove numerous examples of building computer game mechanics into the physical word, objects in a real sand-pit with RFID tags that can like on virtual media, for example. Or moving tokens about an a phyiscal table that allows access to Point of View cameras on  actor’s (or in the example he gives, reindeer’s) heads.

There’s only one point I take issue with. Drawing from this blog, he says:

Playing in a digitally simulated world can leave the feeling that the virtual world’s entire causal mechanics rotate around the player

…as thought that’s a Bad Thing. Which I guess it might be if you are primarily seeking immersion or presence, as the VR guys call it. But in fact I’m coming to the conclusion that that feeling (which I’ve dubbed in a couple of presentations “the Apotheosis Moment”) is something special about games, which in a way, I’m trying to recreate in physical cultural heritage environments.

Champion returns to the idea later in the chapter challenging readers with the question “how can a god or a character with extraordinary powers communicate and interact meaningfully with NPCs?” He goes on to answer his own question with ten suggestions:

  • Ritual “we could allow actors a myriad of actions, as long as their behaviour and actions acheived the right results, or their decisions were made at the right time or place”;
  • Memetic Cause and Effect: Guns, Germs and Steel – Champion cites Dawkin’s meme model of cultural transmission (which earns him a million points from me) here;
  • Counterfactual Histories “while fascinating from the ‘what if’ scenario point of view, it is not likely to be a worthwhile avenue for virtual heritage environments as players would concentrate on creating imaginative fictions rather than uncovering historical knowledge or different cultural perspectives”;
  • Progress Through Truth-finding – like many adventure games (and the movie Groundhog Day), keep being forced to replay the scene until you do the right thing to move on;
  • Reversed Time Travel – Champions argues that most games’ chronological narratives move forwards in time, but archaeologists uncovering of the past is about thinking backwards in time. Some games, like Her Story and Gone Home use that technique;
  • Virtual Words Augmented with Historical or Current Media – again , like Versailles 1685;
  • Role-playing without Affecting History  – take on the roles of ancillary characters, to witness the historical figure take action;
  • Observe the Character Development of NPCs – similar to above but not playing a role in the scene, rather “becoming the self-appointed scribes of history”;
  • Extrapolate Clues from NPC Dialogue; and,
  • Mimic NPCs – Champion’s “Reverse Cultural Turing Test” as mentioned in a previous post.

Fundamentally the biggest problem of recreating the past through game design is that we weren’t there. “…we may be to gain a good idea of explorers from their diaries and records of their encounters either by the records of the explorers themselves or by the documentation of their associates. However, diaries, records, tax statements, paintings, photographs, and artefacts will not give us a complete picture of how people actually behaved, and the full range of conscious and subconscious motives and desires.”

Despite all these problems, Champion doesn’t believe we should stop trying to explore history though games. Indeed he argues that some of the limitations that games might have, working with them allows us to experiment with history in ways we might not have considered, and maybe, just maybe gain insights that we might have missed. Which is just as well, as he has written a whole book on the subject.

A final thought I’m having as I re-read this post. Champion’s  book is about creating virtual environments, but there’s some interesting philosophy here that historical re-enactors and costumed interpreters might also benefit from.

There’s a History Mystery in Norwich

Image from click the image to visit the site

I had a great chat earlier today with old colleague and friend Richard, part of Corvidae, who is also involved in a new venture in Norwich. History Mystery is a real-life room escape game, in which between two and six players have just an hour to explore the room, discover clues, solve puzzles and find the solution to escape. (Don’t worry, they do get let out if they can’t escape within the hour – after all another party will be waiting their turn.)

“Escape the room” games are a sub-genre of computer adventure games. Very often the first challenge in the old text based adventure games was to get out of the room where the adventure starts. With the development of point-and click graphic adventures (like my old favourite, the Monkey Island series) and especially the creation of what we now call Adobe Flash, the idea of making a mini-adventure that was ALL about getting out of a richly detailed room, took flight.

It didn’t take long for people to cotton on the the idea that while the fantastic, huge, worlds of most adventure games couldn’t be re-created in real life, re-creating a single room was a possibility, and could even make a pretty good business case.

So in the last few years, a nascent Escape Room industry has grown rapidly, from Japan initially, to locations all over the world. You can escape from Magic Shows, Baseball Parks, Time Travel labs, Bank Heists, Prohibition speakeasies, and even, in London, “Lady Chastity’s Reserve” (didn’t ask, didn’t look).

But all these a made-up stories about imaginary places. I’m sure the set design looks lovely, but players might as well be playing in an industrial estate.

What History Mystery brings to the table, are real, exciting places, with the patina of real history*, and stories researched from and interpreting the history of that place. The first game on offer involves rescuing a Norwich archivist, trapped his own vault. History Mystery launched at the end of January in Norwich, and the company hopes to expand across the country, as they strike deals with suitable historic locations. I haven’t had a chance to play in a game yet, but it looks fantastic I hope to take a trip up there as soon as I can. Have any of my East Anglian chums heard about it, or given it a go?

I wish these guys every success – I’d love to see real history turned into adventure games all over the country.

*The blurb for a forthcoming game warns: “This game takes place in real gaol cells that held real prisoners who left behind graffiti using explicit and violent language that is not for the easily offended.”


Having come across the word Multimodality in Eric Champion’s book, I am now distracted from that work, while I follow this particular White Rabbit through the galleries of Museum Studies. Right now, I am reading Tiina Roppola’s book, Designing for the Museum Experience, which seems to be the most worked through discussion of multimodality in museums and cultural heritage sites.

But first, let us enquire at the nexus of all knowledge. Wikipedia (today at least) describes multimodality thus:

In its most basic sense, multimodality is a theory of communication and social semiotics.

However, this page also says “This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. This article needs attention from an expert in Media. The specific problem is: lead difficult to read for those not already familiar with the subject.” So… lets try and pull together something more understandable here.

Semiotics is something we can all get our heads around (I hope?) being the study of how we use signs (like words) to stand for things (like objects or ideas). So for example, the word “banana” can stand for the curved yellow/green object that we can find in the fruit bowl. But, the object itself, the banana, can also be a sign for the Caribbean islands, or tropical climates, or multinational food conglomerates.

Now, to quote Roppola (page 51): “Rather than a traditional Western view privileging language, a multimodal lens equally values the written and spoken word, still and moving images, sound and music, spatial and architectural arrangements, gesture and and gaze, and any other culturally-patterned ‘modes’ of expression. Modes are considered semiotic when used by given communities ‘with discernable regularity, consistency and shared assumptions about their meaning potentials.'” (Here, she is quoting Gunther Kress “What is Mode” in The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis (2009).)  That said, even language itself is multimodal, consider the same word spoken with different tones of voice, for example. And tone isn’t the only thing that changes the meaning of a word in conversation, consider the impact of gesture, gaze, spacial relations and even costume.

Roppola observes that museum interpretation is thus multimodal, with the visitor’s gaze switching back and forth between object and label, drawing meaning from juxtaposition of objects, and how they are arranged in space, as well as sound effects and audiovisual. But this begs a couple of significant questions:

Isn’t this just “multimedia semiotics”? What’s the difference between multimedia and multimodality?

Here, Roppola is on shakier ground. Though she makes the point that multimedia is often understood only as computer based multimedia, and that “a book is a medium as much as a computer screen” this doesn’t seem a strong enough distinction to justify using a statement such as “a museum exhibition is a multimodal experience” in preference to “a museum exhibition is a multimedia experience.” Especially as Champion claims that computer based games are (or can be) multimodal.

According to this article by Iedema, one thing that differentiates multimodality from mere multimedia is “first, the de-centring of language as favoured meaning making; and second, the re-visiting and blurring of the traditional boundaries between and roles allocated to language, image, page layout, document design, and so on.” Iedema argues that a multimodal approach to the study of discourse is essential, whatever the medium of communication, unless the design choices are so limited (by for example, publication in an academic journal) that only the discourse is distinctive.

So it seems that museums are not uniquely multimodal, compared to any other discourse, but they may be more multimodal than some, because of all the design choices, made around constructing the discourse. And of course we should be clear that, really the multimodality is inherent in the analysis of the museum, not in its nature.

However, Iedema specifically addresses museums displays “as semiotic constructs through the deliberations of writers, filmmakers, planners and builders. It is this kind of perspective which is important for revealing, describing and understanding representation as a truly multimodal construct, embodying not merely the sounds and images which we see, but also all the semiotics, the coincidences and the compromises which played a role in its inception.” He calls this a process of “resemiotisation.”

Iedema is the sort of writer that eschews common words, when one of his own creation might be used instead – ‘supra-logogenetic’ anyone? – but I think I understand where he is coming from…

Back to Tiina Roppola, who argues that although researchers have applied multimodal analysis to museums, “most of this work omits the the study of those who are ultimately making meaning: museum visitors.”