On gamification

The Walk, which uses game mechanics such as the acquisition of badges and and interactive story, in a (failed) attempt to get me to take more walking exercise.

It’s about time I addressed the issue of Gamification. It’s a word that gets bandied about a great deal, and one which has inspiring proponents like Jane McGonigal. But what does it actually mean?

Nick Pelling lays claim (in this 2011 blog post) to coining the word in 2002 when he “began to wonder whether the kind of games user-interface I had been developing for so long could be used to turbo-charge all manner of transactions and activities on commercial electronic devices [his emphasis]– in-flight video, ATM machines, vending machines, mobile phones, etc.  Unsurprisingly, this was the point when I coined the deliberately ugly word “gamification“, by which I meant applying game-like accelerated user interface design to make electronic transactions both enjoyable and fast.” (I’m glad he calls it “deliberately ugly” – I was ready to rant on about it being a linguistically unnecessary Americanism when I first heard it. I’m over that now). Of passing interest is his 2003 consultancy web page (looking VERY Web 1.0) which announces gamification to the world. That consultancy shut up shop three years later because, broadly, no-one was interested.

Its interesting to note that what he was interested in doing was bringing game-like interfaces to electronic devices. Which, though I’m not sure he would agree, is not what gamification has come to mean. Towards the end of his post, he insists that “the underlying idea of gamification [is] making hard things easy, expressive, near-effortless to use.” Games (and computer games in particular, since this is what Pelling is talking about) may offer interfaces that are apparently easy to pick up and start playing, but they are (mostly) designed to get more difficult, that is part of the challenge of games, the challenge that contributes to (successful) games becoming intrinsically motivating.

And its motivation that is at the centre of the current use of the word. In their 2014 literature review Hamari, Koivisto and Sarsa say “gamification can be seen to have three main parts: 1) the implemented motivational affordances, 2) the resulting psychological outcomes, and 3) the further behavioral outcomes.” Their review covers 24 studies of gamification, and categorizes all the “motivational affordances” mentioned in those studies: Points; Leaderboards; Achievements/Badges; Levels; Story/Theme; Clear goals; Feedback; Rewards; Progress; and, Challenge.

These resonate with (but do not match) some of the emotional models I’ve been reading about elsewhere. Of course Points, Leaderboards, Achievements/Badges, Levels and Rewards can all be summed up with the Acquisition trigger that Sylvester mentions. Challenge exists in both models. Story and Progress fit with Sylvester’s character arc, and Theme (arguably) with his environment trigger. I’m a bit curious about “Feedback”, because, surely everything a system does in response to the user is “feedback” isn’t it?

Anyway, the Hamari et al’s thesis is that badges, a story etc (motivational affordances), should have psychological outcomes (engagement, enjoyment and yup, yer actual motivation) that change the user’s behavior, encouraging them to, for example, take more walking exercise (behavioral outcomes). Their meta-analysis of these 24 studies indicates that “gamification does produce positive effects and benefits.” But “some studies showed that the results of gamification may not be long-term, but instead could be caused due to a novelty effect.” The authors also point out that “As previous works on player motivations suggest, people in fact interact with game-like systems in different manners, and for different reasons. Thus, the experiences created by the gamifying motivational affordances are also likely to vary.”

My personal experience supports all these conclusions. Three years or so back, I took delivery of a new company car, that after a few hundred miles rewarded me with a “cup” to celebrate my fuel-efficient driving. I endeavored there-after not to lose any of the graphic flower petals each indicated things like keeping to legal speeds, not braking heavily etc which had contributed to my cup. You can chalk that up as a “positive benefit”. Other attempts have not been so successful – the insurance company Aviva have recently started to use gamification to sell and reduce the costs of car insurance. I downloaded the app out of curiosity and for the purposes of this study. It was infuriating, and lasted only a week on my phone. The novelty had obviously worn off. And about a year ago I downloaded another app, The Walk (illustrated above), I responded badly to its needless badges and dull story. I used it less and less and eventually deleted it from my phone. It was a recent bout of very high blood pressure and a stern warning from my doctor that worked better to motivate me towards a healthier lifestyle.


Yesterday I attended the kick-off briefing/networking meeting for the University’s Opposites Attract Collaboration Challenge. It is an effort by the university to encourage broader cross-disciplinary collaboration, modeled on something that Bristol University have done. The challenge itself is a bit of an experiment, and we’re all feel our way a little bit.

Initially I sat at a table with Daniel and Adam. Adam is an archaeologist, so we didn’t stay together long at the table, as they wanted to mix people from different departments up. But before we join other groups, we worked on Elevator Pitches for our own research, I was very impressed by Adam’s – “Changing Rooms” for Roman Villas he said, with the practiced air of somebody who’d been touting his work around all the museums of the South West (which he had). Daniel was working on European politics, which is a hot topic might now.

Having given each other some feedback on our elevator pitches, and taken away bullet points that each of our listeners had heard us say, we moved to different tables for another challenge. Now I was sat with Anthony, a theoretical physicist, Hang, from the Business School, and Xiaotong from the school of education. First we had to distill the six bullet points that our previous audience had thought our research was about to just two. Then we had work together to propose a collaboration project that address at least one is not both of everyone’s bullet points. Not only that we had to imagine what the output might be: a game; a blog; a poster; a film or podcast; a hands-on display or installation; a live performance; or, an app (or I guess, something else entirely – hovering trampoline shoes was the example they gave from this video).

At first the task seemed impossible. Hang’s interests were about career management and the impact of the choices we make during our working lives. Anthony was working at the most mathematical end of theoretical physics, exploring better mathematical methods to interpret the problem of scale. I’d brought two very simplistic points from my research to the table: digital good and screens bad. Xiaotong was working on a gap analysis of Chinese students expectations of, and the reality of, UK higher education.

But then we had the idea of helping Xiaotong collect data for her project. We talked about the career-planning impacts that might motivate Chinese students to seek UK HE. Just for the purposes of the twenty minutes he had to discuss it, we came up with four examples – Reputation and prestige, experiencing Culture, Global Employability and Money. Then we talked about creating a mini exhibition on careers that had those four motives built into the space in four distinct locations. Rather than (or maybe actually as well as) asking students about their motivations, the exhibition would track their movement around the space, using Anthony’s machine learning algorithms to see which of the four motives they were most interested in, based upon the time they spend lingering in that area of the exhibition.

Admittedly, I feel Anthony was hard-done-by in this proposal. There wasn’t much actual cosmic physics here – he’d sacrificed his research aims, in order to contribute his mathematical expertise. And lets face it the maths wouldn’t even be very hard, not as challenging and exciting as the maths problems he’s already working on. So I think with more time we might have found something for satisfying for him, but the other three of us were pretty pleased that with just twenty minutes discussion, we’d come up with something that might contribute to our own research in different ways.

The intention wasn’t it bring this particular brainstorm to life, just to get us all thinking collaboratively. Though afterwards, Xiaotong indicated she might like to explore it further. So, I wonder if any of these ten reasons to the collaborate that the organisers cribbed from The Collaborative Researcher resource developed by Vitae would be enough to persuade Anthony to join us?


  1. It’s fun! Collaboration gives you opportunities to work with interesting people, on research that delivers a clear benefit, on topic that really engage your enthusiasm and interest.
  2. 2. Funding Most major funding providers are keen to promote collaborative research as a means to answer bigger questions. The skills and knowledge you gain will strengthen your position to apply for future funding.
  3. Improve your research vision Developing close ties with other researchers also gives you a community with whom to discuss you current and future plans. Their feedback and suggestions will help you to enhance or redefine your vision
  4. Boost your CV A group of researchers should produce more results than an individual! With a team of people writing on various aspects on interconnected work, there is a greater chance of adding to your publication list.
  5. Connect with many people Collaborations are a good way to work with many people at once – in a few years you could work with more researchers than you would during an entire career pursuing solo projects.
  6. 6. Improve your judgment Working with new people can be risky, so you’ll need to develop your own strategies for being sure you can trust your co-workers. Once you learn how to spot evidence of integrity and trustworthiness, you’ll be well positioned to find future partners.
  7. Publish more widely Each researcher in a collaboration will want to reach their own audiences, broadening your reach if you are publishing with them. Multi-disciplinary projects are also more likely to publish in high-impact, wide readership journals.
  8. 8. Improve communication and project management skills If you are involved in helping to write a project plan and communication strategy to manage the different partners, you’ll have marketable skills for the future.
  9. 9. Learn to manage and minimise risk By having a Plan B ready and a process for monitoring progress, you are increasing the likelihood of a successful project and will learn how to establish future research in the most effective way.
  10. Develop a niche As a specialist on a project you have a chance to showcase your expertise and develop your reputation in a particular field.

The Boleyns and the Bechdel Test

A great piece about how live interpretation can get under the skin of history. It maybe shows how much as changed since twenty years ago when, working for the same company, I was asked by a client to provide”more buxom” female interpreters in “less authentic, shapeless” medieval gowns. I refused, we lost the contract, and (I’m pleased to report) that client later went bust.

history riot


Lucy Charles and Rosanna Heverin, costumed heritage interpreters, Tudor historians and women’s history advocates, discuss the day their interpretation of the Boleyn women passed the Bechdel Test at Hampton Court Palace, and argue for the inclusion of intelligent females in heritage interpretation every day, not just International Women’s Day.

For nearly 500 years, Anne Boleyn has been interpreted by popes, princes, ambassadors, historians, actors, writers and, for the last 20 odd years, historical interpreters. She has been the revered mother of the English Reformation, a romantic heroine, a naïve tragic victim of Henry VIII’s tyranny, and an ambitious ‘heretic.’ Anne has appeared as a named character in 41 television and film productions; her portrayal unique to her socio-political environment. Intertwined with interpretations of Anne are varied interpretations of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford – Anne’s sister-in-law. A darling of Henry VIII’s court before Anne came into the King’s view, Lady Rochford has been…

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Sound Heritage at Chawton House Library

Today, I’m at the second of the University or Southampton and University of York’s Sound Heritage study days. We’re only halfway through the day, but I had to take myself away to write up the story that Dr Matthew Stephens, of Sydney Living Museums, told us this morning.

He told us about one object, the Dowling Songbook, which is the earliest book of music that he knows of that was bound in Australia, rather than imported already bound from Europe. He explained a little of the story that they uncovered while researching its provenance.

It starts with Lilias Dickson, the daughter of the man who brough the first steam engine to Australia. As a teenager she was apparently kidnapped by (or maybe absconded with) a conman by the name of John Dow. Rescued a short time later, she was back with her father when his own financial behaviour was questioned, and he had the urgent suddenly need to make his way North of the equator. He left his native born children in good standing though, and Lilias Dickson stood to inherit a comfortable living.

At which point, John Dow reappeared to claim that he had in fact, married they young girl, and that marriage having been consummated, he was her husband and thus had claim upon her inheritance. The case went to court, and was heard by Judge James Dowling. He found in favour of Lilias, but tough her fortune was saved, her reputation was not. The judge himself thought her of very low virtue.

Imagine his discomfort then, when, three months later, the Judge’s own nephew declared his intention to marry the sixteen year old. The young couple seemed to have a happy marriage however, and among their acquisitions was this songbook.

I loved this story and found myself thinking about how it might work in a responsive environment, with music form the songbook matched to the ups and downs of the story around a historic environment.

Which isn’t to say the other speaker this morning wasn’t just as fascinating. Ben Marks, Keeper of the Benton Fletcher collection of keyboard instruments at the National Trust’s own Fenton House. Gave a very entertaining exploration of the conflicts comprises involved in both conserving and playing historic instruments. His overriding message was that if an instrument is restored to be played, it should be played, and more importantly, maintained, in a playable condition. He gave us an insight into the sort of conservation and monitoring regime involved in looking after such instruments, and those which might be too fragile to be played.

I write this while the others visit the nearby Jane Austin Museum. This afternoon, the work starts. (And later a performance, of course.)

The Big Why #IdeatoAudience

Yesterday, I went to Digital: From Idea to Audience, a small conference (more of a large workshop actually) put together by Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, with funding from Arts Council England. I might have enjoyed a trip to Brighton, but this actually took place in central London, just across the road from the BBC.

The programme was put together by Kevin (not that Kevin) Bacon, Brighton’s Digital Development head honcho. (By the way – I’m going to quote from this post in my forthcoming presentation at Attingham.) Kevin stated at the outset that the day didn’t have a theme as such, but rather a “Nuts and Bolts” conference, a response to many of the questions he had been asked after making presentations elsewhere. He hadn’t briefed the speakers, only chosen them because he had felt they might have experiences and learning of use to people working on digital projects.

But if a united theme came out of the day, then it was Keep Asking Why?

Kevin kicked off the day talking about his work at Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, a number of sites across the city (including Pavilion istelf, Preston Manor, the Booth museum and both Brighton and Hove museums) that attract around 400,000 visitors a year. They hold three Designated collections (of national importance). He wanted to talk about two digital projects one of which was (broadly) unsuccessful, and the other (broadly) successful.

The first was Story Drop, a smartphone app that took stories from the collection out into the wider city. GPS enabled, it allowed people to take a tour around the city based on an object from the collection. Get to a location and it tells you more about it, and unlocks another object. As an R&D project, it worked. Piloting it, they had very favourable responses. So they decided to go for a public launch in January of 2014. The idea being that lots of local people would have got a new phone for Christmas, and be keen to try out a new app.

The launch turned out to be a damp squid. The weather was partly to blame, January 2014 was one of the wettest on record. But even when the streets dried out, take-up was not massive. Kevin said to me during the break, that maybe only hundreds of people have downloaded the app to date, two years later. He showed a slide detailing some of the reasons why people weren’t using it.


These reasons chimed with my own research. It wasn’t an unmitigated failure, people do love it – but only for a very small number of people. So he said, think about why people will use your digital project.

Which is the approach he took for the redevelopment of the Museum’s website, shifting from designing for demographics to designing for behaviours (motivations, needs, audiences). And that was far more successful : 23% increase in page views and 230% increase in social shares.

Then, Gavin Mallory from CogApps took the floor to talk about briefs. He has already put his presentation on Slideshare.  As experienced providers to the cultural heritage industry, they’ve seen a lot of briefs. Some good, some wooly, or overly flowery, too loose, too tight, too re-cycled, or as Giles Andreae would have it “no [briefs] at all!” I must admit, I’ve been guilty of a few of those.

After lunch Graham Davies, Digital Programmes Manager, National Museum of Wales and asked (emphatically) Why? Or rather, why digital? I think the titale of his session should have been “From Digital Beaver, to Digital Diva”, which its something he said, but he didn’t call it that, but it was a really useful set of challenges to make when somebody says “we need an app” or “an iPad to do this.”


I’m running out of time so I’ll finish with just one quote from the final speaker. Tijana Tasich, who has worked at Tate and is currently consulting to the South Bank Centre. Talking about usability testing, she said “we used to test just screens and devices, but with iBeacons etc. we are increasingly testing spaces.”

Social, Intellectual, Emotional, Spiritual

I took a group of visitor experience managers from the South East’s larger National Trust places to visit the Tower of London yesterday. We had a great discussion with Sally Dixon-Smith and Polly Richards about their year long project to create a core story framework for the Tower which, in the end, has pretty much delivered a twenty year plan for the improvement of the visitor experience there.

One name that popped up again and again, especially when talking about audience research was Morris Hargreaves MacIntyre, the consultancy that created the National Trust’s audience segmentation years ago, and which (it seems) every museum and heritage attraction is using right now to better understand their visitors motivations and experiences.

I was interested to hear the same things coming from the Tower people that we’ve been talking about in the National Trust, so I thought it might be worth sharing, with broad brushstrokes MHM’s thinking, without (I hope) revealing any commercially sensitive information. MHM so share a lot of their philosophy on their own website, so do explore their if you are interested.

Recently, MHM have done a lot of work on people’s motivations for visiting museums and cultural heritage. And they’ve divided all those motivations into four broad groups. They are:

  • SOCIAL motivations, for example “to spend time with friends and family”;
  • INTELLECTUAL motivations like “to discover or explore nature or wildlife”;
  • EMOTIONAL motivations – “to see fascinating or awe inspiring things”; and,
  • SPIRITUAL motivations,  such as “to escape and recharge my batteries”.

What lots of places are asking MHM to do is help them ask visitors what their motivations were, before the visit, and then what they actually experienced during the visit. Then they can analyse how well the places are giving people what they want, or even exceeding peoples expectations and giving them something more than they came for.

All of which I’ve become quite familiar with, because this is something the National Trust and MHM have been discussing  for some time. But yesterday I also heard at the Tower a language that I have coincidentally only just heard being discussed within the National Trust. And that is MHM’s classification of “how we provide visitors with the opportunity to construct their own meaning from a visit”. They talk of four (again – they must like fours) categories of “construct devices”:

  • EXPLICIT – More traditional forms of interpretation such as introduction/text panels, object labels, introductory videos, room/gallery  sheets and visitor guides.
  • EMBEDDED – Interpretation which is explicit, but in a format which is in keeping with the room. For example, period designed newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, letters and newsreels.
  • HIDDEN – Interpretation requires discovery. It is hidden inside furniture and within drawers, underneath objects, using directional audio.
  • HUMAN – Guided tours,workshops, living history and costumed interpreters.

The conversation at the Tower was revolving around the HUMAN “devices” – I’d arranged the visit through my old friend Chris Gidlow, head of live interpretation. But what particularly grabs my interest for my own research is the idea of HIDDEN interpretation. In a way, my Responsive Environment ideas are all about places revealing hidden interpretation.