Walking around looking at stuff

Image from Aalto University, Media Lab Helsinki

A few weeks ago, I was presenting my work to a group of my supervisor’s Masters students. I joined in on the preceding seminar session, during which they talked about a number of experiments in digital interpretation in museums.

One thing that struck me about many of the experiments was that they each required the museum visitor to use a new interface. Some were simpler interfaces that others. One involved shining a torch, another was planned to involve gestures to navigate a reconstruction of a sunken ship. This second interface, a Vrouw Maria exhibit at a Finnish maritime museum, challenged users who “would not understand what they were expected to do or, when they could start the navigation, problems that were accentuated by the tracking system, which was not completely reliable at that point. […] The navigation itself was not error free either: people had difficulty stopping the motion and steering up or down. In addition, it was hard to hit the info spots without running past or through them. Again, tweaking the parameters of the gestural interface was needed. Pointing around for 10 minutes or more with the arm extended started to get tiring—something that cannot be completely solved if the input is so heavily based on pointing.” (REUNANEN et al, 2015). The discussion made me think about, not just these experimental interfaces, but pretty much every museum interactive kiosk or app created since digital technology arrived on the scene.

To a lesser or greater extent all these technologies involve museum visitors having to learn a new interface to access data. Some may prove easier than others to learn, but all of them are different, all of them need to be learned. Which makes accessing the data just one step more difficult. On the other hand there is a generic interface which museum, gallery and heritage site visitors learn (it seems, for most individual) in early childhood. The default museum interface is:

Walking around and looking at stuff

… as I said to a colleague yesterday. (Well actually I said “walking around and looking at shit,” but I meant shit in the most inoffensive way. And though I’d dearly have loved to headline a blog post with this more colloquial version, I’m mindful of my curatorial  and conservation colleagues, and I don’t want them to feel I’m demeaning our collections.)

What prompted me to write about it today was the news yesterday that Dear Esther is to be re-released for  the Playstation 4 and X-Box One. Dear Esther is “credited” with kicking off a genre of games known as “walking simulators” or “first person strollers”, and criticised by many gamers as not being a game because (among other things) there is no challenge (unless you count interpreting the enigmatic story that your simulated walk reveals).

I’m reminded of Gallagher’s (2012) observation (in the brilliantly titled No Sex Please, We Are Finite State Machines) that “Video games are unique in the field of consumer software in that they intentionally resist their users, establishing barriers between the operator and their goal.” This contrasts somewhat with what Nick Pelling (who coined the term Gamification as I discussed last week) said about game interfaces “making hard things easy, expressive, near-effortless to use.” So which is it? Are game interfaces easy or difficult? Juul and Norton give a pretty conclusive answer: its both.

“Games differ from productivity software in that games are free to make easy or difficult the different elements of a game. While much may be learned from usability methods about the design of game interfaces, and while many video games certainly have badly-designed interfaces, it is crucial to remember that games are both efficient and inefficient, both easy and difficult, and that the easiest interface is not necessarily the most entertaining.”

The team behind that Vrouw Maria experiment had considered making users mime swimming for the gestural interface, but they rules it out because it was “engaging but at the same time socially awkward in front of an audience.” What they ended up with was an interface that was neither efficient, nor entertaining. While it may indeed have been socially awkward for many, the swimming gesture control would have been very entertaining. Their final decision indicates that they considered the transmission of data the more important purpose of the exhibit.

Last week I discussed how gamification is most often used as a way of motivating behaviour: drive more efficiently, take more exercise. “Explore more” is something many museums and heritage sites wish for their visitors. An interface that is challenging but entertaining may well motivate more exploration. But there is an alternative.

Dear Esther is arguably not a game, because its interface (basically Walking Around Looking a Shit Stuff) is too easy. Yet it’s designers would argue that it is a game, just that uses story as a motivator rather than challenge. For museums and heritage sites, where Walking Around Looking at Stuff has long been the default interface Dear Esther might offer a model for digital storytelling that motivates more exploration.

This is what I’m trying to achieve with my responsive environment: Digital content., compelling stories, that are accessed by Walking Around and Looking at Stuff.

4 thoughts on “Walking around looking at stuff

  1. In 2016, it’s nice (though arguably somewhat decadent) that we have cutting edge digital installations that like to pose the question of whether or not a gestural swimming interface would be cool.

    But back in 2003, as I recall, we were still in the user interface equivalent of the Dark Ages. That is, the kind of immersive, tactile, direct and (dare I say it) near-intuitive user interfaces to which “we” now aspire were things that only a small handful of video games exhibited. And it was in my attempts to describe that wash of ideas – and indeed of digital content publishing models – out from games to the rest of the world that I coined the term “gamification”.

    Just so you know. 😉

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