The Sun Stands Still

Just a little plug for The Sun Stands Still, a very short Unity based point and click adventure. Naomi Alderman, the author behind it, had a little bit to say about emotions and narrative on the BBC World Service’s Click programme:

Games have access to emotions of agency which you can’t necessarily get when you are an audience-member or a reader. A novel or a film can cake you feel frightened, or anxious for the characters, but it can’t make you feel guilty or hopeful about your own life. Once you’re interacting with it, then you can feel that hope, I hope!

There’s more on the podcast version:

The world of computers is existentialist because nothing exists except through the will of the players who create themselves – within the games, they exist solely through what they do. Any meaning is created by the players themselves.

Kernels and Satellites

Last week I reminded myself that I hadn’t sought out Cohen and Shires’ Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction, which had been referenced in an article on game narrative. It was low down my list of priorities, mainly because it was written in 1988 – which feels like ancient history in citation terms. That shows in chapter one, where defining “narrative” as recounting “a story, a series of events in a temporal sequence,” the authors explain that:

our culture depends upon numerous types of narrative: novels, short stories, films, television shows myths, anecdotes, songs, music videos, comics, paintings, advertisements, essays, biographies, and news accounts.

Games aren’t mentioned, and I guess that’s no surprise, given that in 1988 computer games were still a relatively youthful medium, and the audience for games were relatively youthful too. The investment of Hollywood amounts of money in game narratives was still a twinkle in programmers eyes. If they looked at games at all back then, the authors might well have consciously excluded them from their analysis, because, the central premise of their book is “the events making up a story are only available to us through telling”, which might (arguably) exclude the procedurally generated narratives that most games provide.

But one of their ideas does have some relevance to game narratives. The article I looked at last week made reference to this passage (page 54):

From the vantage point of a completed sequence, events function either as kernels or as satellites. Kernel events raise possibilities of succeeding or alternative events – what we can call, taking the term rather literally, “eventuality.” They initiate, increase, or conclude an uncertainty, so they advance or outline a sequence of transformations. Satellite events, on the other hand, amplify or fill in the outline of a sequence by maintaining, retarding, or prolonging the kernel events they accompany or surround.

In game narrative terms this is a neat summary of how games work as a storytelling medium. In more scripted games such as Red Dead Redemption, the sequence of Kernals is quite rigid, and the satellites are optional or even (in the case of games like Skyrim) procedurally generated. I remember nearing the end of RDR: I’d helped John Marston, the character the game had been following, to track down and (mostly) kill his old buddies from the gang he had run with, and confront his old boss, who throw himself off a mountain. Marston had been given back his farm, and wife and child, and the game challenges had become less about death and destruction, and more about production and family life – rounding up cattle and and the like. Then a blicking icon had appeared on the game map, telling me that I was ready to play the nest kernel event.

I didn’t want to, I knew the game was nearing the end, and having discovered Marston’s life story, I knew it wouldn’t end well. I wanted to prolong the rural idyll of farming, hearth and home. So I found satellite quests to prolong the current kernel. I became obsessed with beaver hunting, promising myself I wouldn’t play on to the next kernal event until I’d found the five beaverskins a crazy glider pilot Marston had met in Mexico needed for his glue. I spent days and days hunting beaver. It became a running joke with my wife.

But after shooting the first two, it seemed the beavers had gone into hiding. There was beaver drought, it seemed, by every river in the gameworld – and yes I did try every one. So with a heavy heart, I turned John Marston back towards his fate. Damn, was I emotionally engaged.

But even in purely procedural games, the idea of kernels and satellites works. As Tynan Sylvester points out, in a game like The Sims, the narrative is reliant on the interpretation of the player:

This story was co-authored between the player and the game. The game simulated some simple event (attraction between redhead and roommate), and the player ascribed meaning to it (jealousy and frustration) the same way he might have for the Michotte balls, even though that emotion was not actually in the simulation. The next part of the story was cued by him when he orchestrated the murder. The game simulated the logistics of firey deaths, but the sense of sorrow and revenge was, again, ascribed completely by the player. Most of this story is apophenia – present of the Player Model, absent from the Game Model.

While not talking about games, Cohen and Shires manage to predict how the random calculations of a procedural game can become an emotionally engaging story:

While kernels may appear to function as primary events and satellites as secondary ones, satellites are as important as kernels to a story sequence. Furthermore, an event’s status as a kernel or satellite depends entirely upon a particular sequence and not on the event itself, which does not possess the ability to advance or amplify a transformation on its own. An event acquires its kernel or satellite function for a given sequence through its placement in the sequence, because the sequence is what sets the events in relation to each other.

I like to play Civilization, which is an example of unscripted, procedural game. Some games are more satisfying than others, when the random generation of events becomes, in my mind, the thrilling story a plucky little nation that could. Sometimes, despite my best efforts to manage my nascent state “events, dear boy, events” conspire to make the game boring – but the advantage of procedural games is that if its boring, you can start again. Well designed procedural games are the ones that keep you restarting because of the all the great narratives you’ve discovered on previous plays. Ones that are consistently boring don’t get restarted, they get turned off.

The challenge for cultural heritage sites is that they can’t be restarted, so a purely procedural approach of interactive narrative would not be constructive. Some degree of scripting – the selection and ordering of narrative kernals is required.

Engines of Emotion

This is the text of my short presentation today:

This is my first presentation to this forum, so by way of introduction, let me explain that I’m interested in the power that video (or computer) games have, to tell stories in virtual (though ever more realistic) spaces. I want to explore what we can learn from games, as interpreters and storytellers of cultural heritage about telling emotionally engaging stories in the spaces that we look after.

First, I looked at the game mechanics that appear to drive emotional engagement with video games, and I was able to find a good deal of agreement in the literature, and at the same time group them into eight categories. Some of which – spectacle, learning, society and presence for example – cultural heritage sites can easily claim to share. Others, like acquisition, challenge, music and character aren’t things that cultural heritage does particularly well.

But the most obvious similarity between cultural heritage sites and a great many of the most acclaimed computer games is the way that both gamers and visitors explore a narrative by moving through space.
So recently I’ve been looking at cultural heritage interpretation projects that don’t just borrow ideas from game mechanics, but actually put a game on site that requires visitors move from space to space to play it and uncover the story.

One of the Holburne Museum's recently discovered Listening Devices
One of the Holburne Museum’s recently discovered Listening Devices

For example, this is Ghosts in the Garden, designed by a company called Splash and Ripple for the Holburne Museum, Bath. It’s a sort of aural choose-your own-adventure game which encourages visitors to explore the early 19th century pleasure gardens around the museum.
And on a larger scale, this is Magic in Modern London, designed by Amblr for the Welcome Trust. It’s a sort of scavenger hunt. The user visits locations to collect virtual amulets and so uncovers the story of Edwardian folkloreist Edward Lovett. Southampton University, working with external partners, recently sought funding to build a similar location based game, exploring the events of the Southampton plot. We wanted to build an open source, non-proprietary framework, not just for this game, but to enable other cultural institutions to create their own games at minimal cost. This specific bit of research, sought to discover what game mechanics might best encourage gamers onto the street of Southampton, what social networks might best be leveraged, and also could we challenge gamers with something more sophisticated than a scavenger hunt.
Let me make clear early on, our funding bid was not successful.
I composed an on-line survey, which we distributed via the partners’ social networks, on-line gaming forums, Eatleigh’s youth network, local schools and Winchester School of art. 226 people responded, though 33 didn’t answer all the questions.

Our primary challenge became apparent with the very first question block. We asked about the respondents’ knowledge of a variety of games, on fixed devices (consoles and computers) as well mobile devices. Mobile games have an awareness issue. Eleven people had never heard of Minecraft. 178 people haven’t heard of Ingress, a location based game that according to some sites, including Android Headlines on 4th December 2012, is “taking the world by storm.” Just 32 people said they’ve played a game that uses their device’s location.
So, we asked them what game they enjoyed most recently:

FavGame

With its open world, layers of (made up) history, and research quests, Skyrim is close to many an archaeologist’s heart, and proved popular with our correspondents. But of course different people like different things, and so I wanted to see if they was a particular “type” of gamer who might be more attracted than others to the open and real world, location based game that we were proposing. The most famous classification of gamer motivations is Richard Bartle’s 1996 paper. However that is actually based on players of just one genre of on-line gaming, and has limited application beyond that.
So the taxonomy I settled on for this research was that of Nicole Lazarro. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Paul Ekman, Lazzarro and her team recorded the facial expressions of volunteers playing different types of games. The conclusion of their study was a classification of four type of fun:
Hard Fun – The emotion that the team observed here was fiero, an italian word borrowed by Eckman because decribes the personal feeling of triumph over adversity, an emotion for which there is no word in English. And the game mechanics that unlock that emotion (and possibly on the way, the emotions of frustration and boredom too) are: goals; challenge; obstacles; strategy; power ups; puzzles; score and points; bonuses; levels; and, monsters.
Easy Fun – Curiosity is the main emotion evident in the Easy Fun style of play, though surprise, wonder and awe were observed too. The game mechanics that define this style of play are: roleplay; exploration; experimentation; fooling around; having fun with the controls; iconic situations; ambiguity; detail; fantasy; uniqueness; “Easter Eggs”; tricks; story; and, novelty.
Serious Fun – What is the most common emotion observed with Serious Fun mechanics? Relaxation! The game mechanics that take players to that state are: rhythm; repetition; collection; completion; matching; stimulation; bright visuals; music; learning; simulation; working out; study; and real-world value. It’s this last mechanic that explains why its called “serious” fun. People playing in this mode also seem more ready to attach a value to their participation in the game outside the game itself – brain-training, physical exercise, developing skills or even a conscious effort to kill time (think of those people playing Candy Crush on the train)
People Fun – Happiness comes with People Fun, Lazzaro’s team observed “amusement, schadenfreude (pleasure in other people’s misfortune) and naches (pleasure in the achievements of someone you have helped)” among players in this mode. Among the he long list of game mechanics that get people there are: cooperation; competition; communication; mentoring; leading; performing; characters; personalisation; open expression; jokes; secret meanings; nurturing; endorsements; chat; and gifting.
I used some of the evidence Lazarro had gathered to create a number of Likert agreement scale questions, which might, in combination, indicate respondents’ preferences for the four different types of fun.

Histx4SeriousFunIndicators

This example shows how people responded to the questions about what Lazarro called Serious Fun.

plotx4FunProfiles
And this slide shows how the combined responses to the questions indicate the cohorts’ preferences for the four types of fun. You will note that Easy Fun, which includes a preference for narrative or story based games, is the highest scoring in this sample. I was very encouraged by this. I was hoping that I’d see s correlation between a preference for Easy Fun and another Likert question we asked about interest in a locatative game.

scatterplotLocatativeFun
However this correlation matrix shows no relationship between respndents’ preference for Easy Fun and their expressed interest in locatative games. There is, however, a possible relationship between gamers’ preference for Hard Fun.

plotHardLocatativeInterest
However, on closer inspection of that relationship, the confidence intervals shown in this scattergram, show me I can’t disprove the null hypothesis. Now I should state that the number of respondents who answered all the questions required for this analysis was less that half the total number of completed surveys, just 94. So it may be that a larger sample size would better enable me to prove or disprove the null hypothesis. But the more worrying observation is this one – a large proportion of this sample expressed zero interest in games involving the player’s location. Which resonates with the earlier observation that there was very little recognition or awareness of of such games. So it may be that most people don’t want to play games that use their real world position, or that idea is yet to have it’s moment.
Either way it strikes me I’d be better off investigating how some of games’ engagement drivers could improve cultural heritage interpretation, rather than rushing to import locatative games wholesale into the cultural heritage space.

A literary view of gaming

What I should be doing today is creating the structured interview questions for my research on Cultural Institutions and Tech SMEs. But I’m distracted by this series of articles on gaming from playwright Lucy Prebble. Lucy is most famous for her play ENRON about the stocks and shares scandal surrounding the eponymous US energy company. More recently, her The Effect has had positive reviews. But she is also a gamer, and writes  a monthly column on games for the Observer.

Her column tends towards narratively driven “authored”  games, such as Gone Home, which as she is a professional narrativist shouldn’t be surprising, though she also discusses and appreciates more procedural games like The Sims and Farming Simulator. In her conversation with Bioshock’s Ken Levine, they discuss a possible future project which he is considering, which has all the procedural narrative of games like the Sims or Rimworld, but “this would still be authored, it would still tell a story. It would end. And actually, that makes it more true to life, not less.” which reminds me how powerful “the end” is to to storytelling, and why Red Dead Redemption is more emotionally involving for me than unending Skyrim.

Her most recent article praises Device 6 (enough to make me download it after considering it for months) and the Novelist among others, while making the claim that charity shops are starting to turn away books, unable to sell them because “Everyone has Kindles”. I’m not convinced that she, or rather the charity shop workers she spoke to are correct to prophesise the death of the book yet – the second-hand bookshops at National Trust places seem to be thriving and turning over stock at a reasonable pace. But she does make the point that adventurous writers are looking to games as a when to tell stories differently. And the truly adventurous are playing with the conventions of what a game is too:

Depression Quest is a simple interactive fiction game that guides you through the experience of someone with depression. Its creator, Zoe Quinn, reveals a powerful understanding of how to affect through gameplay. Some options are visible, eg “Open up a little, hoping she’ll understand” but you are unable to select them. This basic but intelligent design expresses so much about a mental reality where the sufferer knows what they “should” do but is literally unable to. Your own frustration with the choice is mirrored by the protagonist’s and eventually a peek into self-loathing and stagnation is achieved, as well as a glimpse into how to move forward.

A game she has persuaded me to buy and try is Gone Home, which describes as though it is a near-perfect cultural heritage interpretation experience.

You piece together a sense of who everyone is and what happened through seemingly disconnected items and evidence hidden around the house. And those connections are intentionally weak. It allows the plot and conclusions to take place in the mind of the player and not in the action of the game… By withholding its story so fully and wisely, Gone Home insists we join the dots ourselves. It takes the gaming element away from the screen, and into your head.

Prebble is very interested in games and emotion, and makes and important point about how words alone fail can fail to trigger an emotional response:

As a playwright, I have long been disappointed by the weakness of words. An audience is rarely moved by words themselves, but by the gaps between words. In theatre sometimes we reference irritation with actors who act “off the line”, meaning they put in breaths and little sounds around what’s written, slowing pace and drawing attention. But that’s because they know the writing is just a scaffold… I think games have an unrealised potential to be even more emotionally involving than other forms, because they can make room for the player/audience directly. And because they are alive to flexibility of choice and narrative. I believe the more you nail down a plot point or a line, the more it dies. When you catch words like butterflies and pin them behind glass, it feels like an achievement, but something seals as you press down the pane. And so, now more than ever, we need games like Gone Home that withhold and reinvent and leave space for thought and feeling.

Of course this can be incendiary stuff, for gamers and non-gamers alike. Ludologiest would argue (as one commenter did) “The problem with Gone Home is that people refer to it as a game, which ultimately it isn’t. Any piece of entertainment software that focuses solely on story is by definition not a game,” while traditionalists will say that a game narrative can not possibly be compared with the emotional resonance of a half-decent novel. But Prebble isn’t looked only at what either games or storytelling are, but what they might be…

I’ll finish this piece with a quote within a quote from Prebble’s most recent article, which illustrates the reactionary fears expressed when new technology encroaches on something we love:

Maybe it’s best to close with this warning from an 1815 publication bemoaning the demise of the chalkboard in schools: “Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?” (fromRethinking Education in the Age of Technology by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson)

I suppose we’re finding out.

Bodiam data again

Yesterday, I said that I expected to see a strong negative correlation between “I didn’t learn very much new today” and “I learned about what Bodiam Castle was like in the past.” In fact, when I ran the correlation function in R, it came out at a rather miserly 0.33, much lower than I expected. So I asked R to draw me a scatterplot:

ScatterRegression(ghb$Didn.t.learn, ghb$Learned)

And there it is, some correlation, but not as much as I was expecting. (I added text labels to each datapoint, with row numbers on, as a quick and dirty way to see roughly where a single point represents more than one respondent.) I think this demonstrates two things. The first is that Likert scales can look awfully “categorical” when compared with true continuous numerical values. And the second is that I need a larger sample (if only to lessen the influence of outliers such as row 1, up the in the top right hand corner, which I fear maybe my own inputting error on the the first interview).

So rather than faff around with individual pairings, I created a correlation matrix of all the seven point Likert scale questions. Other than the learning questions I mentioned in my last post, I used the Likert agreement scale  for the following statements:

  • My sense of being in Bodiam Castle was stronger than my sense of being in the rest of the world
  • Bodiam Castle is an impressive sight
  • I was overwhelmed with the aesthetic/beauty aspect of Bodiam Castle
  • The visit had a real emotional impact on me
  • It was a great story
  • During my visit I remained aware of tasks and chores I have back at home/work
  • I enjoyed talking about Bodiam Castle with the others in my group
  • Bodiam Castle is beautiful
  • I wish I lived here when Bodiam Castle was at its prime, and
  • I enjoyed chatting with the staff and volunteers here

Looking through the results matrix, the strongest correlation that stands out (at 0.65) is between “It was a great story” and  “I learned about what Bodiam Castle was like in the past.” Which is nice. But remember, correlation ≠causation. Here, I wouldn’t even know where to start, did they admit to learning because the story was great? Or was the story great because they learned about it? And of course neither distribution can be called “normal.” The “correlation” is helped by the skew in both distributions of course.

Hist(ghb$learned$story1x2)ScatterRegression(ghb$Great.story, ghb$Learned)

There’s also an interesting strong correlation(0.57)  between “I enjoyed talking about Bodiam Castle with the others in my group” and “I learned about what Bodiam Castle was like in the past.” Though I’m not suggesting cause and effect here, I’d like to follow up on this.

Histx2+Scatter(ghb$Talking.group$Learning)

Similarly, there are correlations between the responses which agreed that Bodiam had a great story, and those who enjoyed chatting within their group as well as with staff.

What about the lowest in the matrix? Rather scarily, there seems to be zero correlation between the “Didn’t learn anything new” statement and emotional impact. I’ve already told you about my caveats over emotional impact as something you can measure this way anyway, but zero correlation (when rounded to two decimal places)  sets alarm bells ringing about one of these arrays.

Histx2+Scatter(ghb$Did.nt.learn$Impact)

Anther correlation from the matrix is between “My sense of being in Bodiam Castle was stronger than my sense of being in the rest of the world” and “During my visit I remained aware of tasks and chores I have back at home/work”, which I guess could/should be expected. It does raise an interest question for the future though. If I had to chose just one of these statements to include in a future survey, which would it be? Based on these Histograms, I might chose the former, if only because it looks more “normal”:

Histx2(ghb$sense$home.work)

Its also interesting that, “Bodiam Castle is an impressive sight” correlates strongly with “Bodiam Castle is beautiful”(0.54) but less strongly with “I was overwhelmed with the aesthetic/beauty aspect of Bodiam Castle” (only 0.37). Those last two correlate strongly (0.55) with each other,  of course.

Histx3+Scatterx3(ghb$aesthetics)

The “I wish I lived here when Bodiam Castle was at its prime” and “What I learned on the visit challenged what I thought I knew about medieval life,” statements didn’t yield anything particularly interesting. I might drop them from the next survey. But what troubles me most, in an existential way, is the correlation between “I was overwhelmed with the aesthetic/beauty aspect of Bodiam Castle” and “The visit had a real emotional impact on me”.

ScatterRegression(ghb$aesthetic.beauty ~ ghb$Emotional.impact)

My whole career has been build around the idea that people want to know stuff, to learn things about places of significance. While its nice that aesthetics and emotions are closely bound, is there any space for the work I do?

A first look at my Bodiam data

Last week, I had a look at the developing script for the new Bodiam Castle interpretive experience (for want of a better word). It’s all looking very exciting. But what I should have been doing is what I’m doing now, running the responses from the on-site survey I did last year through R, to see what it tells me about the experience with out the new … thing, but also what it tells me about the questions I’m trying out.

A bit of a recap first. One thing we’ve learned from the regular visitor survey the the National Trust runs at most of its sites,  is that there is a correlation between “emotional impact” and now much visitors enjoy their visit. But what is emotional impact? And what drives it? In the Trust, we can see that some places consistently have more emotional impact than others. But those places that do well are so very different from each other, that its very hard to learn anything about emotional impact that is useful to those who score less well.

I was recently involved in a discussion with colleagues about whether we should even keep the emotional impact question in the survey, as I (and some others) think that now we know there’s a correlation, there doesn’t seem to be anything more we can learn by continuing to ask the question. Other disagree, saying the question’s presence in the survey reminds properties to think about how to increase their “emotional impact.”

So my little survey at Bodiam also includes the question, but I’m asking some other questions too to see if they might be more useful in measuring and helping us understand what drives the emotional impact.

First of all though, I as R to describe the data. I got 33 responses, though its appears that one or two people didn’t answer some of the questions. There are two questions that appear on the National Trust survey. The first (“Overall, how enjoyable was your visit to Bodiam Castle today?”)  gives categorical responses and according to R only three categories were ever selected. Checking out the data, I can see that the three responses selected are mostly “very enjoyable” with a  very few “enjoyable” and a couple “acceptable.” Which is nice for Bodiam, because nobody selected “disappointing” or “not enjoyable”, even though the second day was cold and rainy (there’s very little protection from the weather at Bodiam).

The second National Trust question was the one we were beating last week: “The visit had a real emotional impact on me.” Visitors are asked to indicate the strength of their agreement (or of course, disagreement) with the statement on a seven point Likert scale. Checking out the data in R, I can see everybody responded to this question, and the range of responses goes all the way from zero to six, with a median of 3 and mean of 3.33. There’s a relatively small negative skew to responses (-0.11), and kurtosis (peakyness) is -0.41. All of which suggests a seductively “normal” curve. Lets look at a histogram:

Hist(ghb$emotion)

Looks familiar huh? I won’t correlate emotional impact with the “Enjoyable” question, you’ll have to take my word for it. Instead I’m keen to see what the answers to some of my other questions look like. I asked a few questions about learning, all different ways of asking the the same thing, to see how visitors’ responses compare (I’ll be looking for some strong correlation between these):

  • I didn’t learn very much new today
  • I learned about what Bodiam Castle was like in the past
  • What I learned on the visit challenged what I thought I knew about medieval life, and
  • If this were a test on the history of Bodiam, what do you think you you might score, out of 100?

The first three use the same 7 point Likert scale, and the last is a variable from 1 to 100. Lets go straight to some histograms:

Hist(ghb$learning2x2)

What do these tell us? Well, first of all a perfect demonstration of how Likert scale questions tend to “clumpiness” at one end or the other. The only vaguely “normal” one is the hypothetical test scores. The Didn’t Learn data looks opposite the Learned data, which given these questions are asking the opposite things, is what I expected. I’m sure I’ll see a strong negative correlation. What is more surprising is that so many people disagreed that they’d learned anything that challenged what they thought they knew about medieval life.

An educational psychologist might suggest that this shows that few few people had in fact, learned anything new. Or it might mean that I asked a badly worded question.

I wonder which?

We’ll have fun fun fun … (fun)

So, what I should be doing is analyzing the data I collected at Bodiam last year, but what I am actually doing is reading the some of the book that yesterdays’ discussion of the Bartle Test led me to. In particular I’ve been reading Nicole Lazzaro’s contribution to Beyond Game Design: Nine Steps Towards Creating Better Videogames, Understanding Emotions.

It got me on the first page, with a quote from the designer of some of my favourite games, Sid Meier: “Games are a series of interesting choices.” But Lazzaro expands on that truism and a way that I really like:

Games create engagement by how they shape attention and motivate action. To focus player attention, games simplify the world, enhance feedback, and suspend negative consequences – this maximises the effect of emotions coming from player choices. In the simplest terms, game mechanics engage the player by offering choices and providing feedback.

She goes on to separate User Experience (understanding how to play the game, manipulate thee controls etc) from Player Experience (having fun). Obviously the two go hand in hand, you can’t have fun if it isn’t easy to understand the controls, but by conflating the two designers might concentrate more on the “how to play” side and not enough on the emotional engagement. Emotions, she says, facilitate the player’s enjoyment; focus; decision-making; performance; and, learning. I wish I could think of a way to separate out visitor experience into two terms because I fear that cultural heritage interpretation can sometime focus on the the “how to visit” side (orientation, context setting etc) at the cost of making the visit emotionally engaging.

Then she discusses the challenge of measuring emotions, and draws on the work of Paul Ekman. She explains how his research identified just six emotions, which appear to have universal facial expressions (the expression of all the other emotions being culturally, and thus to a degree geographically specific): Anger; Fear; Surprise; Sadness; Happiness; and, Disgust. Handily, she says, these six emotions can frequently be recorded when watching players of video games. To those six, she adds another, which isn’t universal, but is relatively easily recognized, and again, very frequently seen on the faces of gamers: curiousity. I wonder how often, and in what circumstances, heritage sites provoke those seven emotions? Curiousity, I hope, is a given, but Anger? Fear? Disgust? (and I don’t just mean when faced with car parking or admission charges).

Of course she also mentions flow pointing out it is more of a state of being than an emotion. What’s really interesting though is that she observed “several aspects of player behaviour not predicted by Csikszentmihalyi’s model for flow.”

Truly absorbing gameplay requires more than a balance of difficulty and skill. Players leave games for other reasons than over-exertion or lack of challenge. In players’ favorite games. The degree of difficulty rises and falls, power-ups and bonuses make challenges more interesting, and the opportunity for strategy increases engagement. The progression of challenges to beat a boss monster and the drop of challenge at the start of the next level help keep players engaged.

Of course, one might argue that she’s taking Csikszentmihalyi balence of skill and difficulty too literally here. That anyone reading Csikszentmihalyi’s account of a rock-climber in flow, for example, will see similar fluctuations of challenge in the real world. But she does on:

Intense gameplay may produce frustration when the level of challenge is too high, but it can also produce different kids of emotions, such as curiosity or wonder. Futhermore, play can also emerge from decisions wholly unrelated to the game goal.

Additionally players spend a lot of time engaged in other activities, such as waving a Wiimote, wiggle their character or create a silly avatar, that require no difficulty to complete. Players respond to various things that characterize great gameplay for them, such as reward cycles, the feeling of winning, pacing, emotions from competition and cooperation.

She and her team at XEODesign researched the moments that players most enjoyed, and recorded the emotions that were expressed, and thus identified four distinct ways that people appear to play games, each of which was associated with a different set of emotions. This doesn’t mean there were four types of players, rather that people “seemed to rotate between three or four different types of choices in the games they enjoyed, and the best selling games tended to support at least three out of these four play styles… Likewise, blockbuster games containing the four play styles outsold competing similar titles that imitated only one kind of fun.”

What players liked the most about videogames can be summarized as follows:

  • The opportunity for challenge and mastery
  • The inspiration of imagination and fooling around
  • A ticket to relaxation and getting smarter (the means to change oneself)
  • An excuse to hang out with friends

Now surely cultural heritage sites offer at least three of those four?

Lazarro argues that “each play style is a collection of mechanics that unlocks a different set of player emotions.” And lists them thus:

Hard Fun

The emotion that the team observed here was fiero, an italian word borrowed by Eckman because decribes the personal feeling of triumph over adversity, an emotion for which there is no word in English. And the game mechanics that unlock that emotion (and possibly on the way, the emotions of frustration and boredom too) are: goals; challenge; obstacles; strategy; power ups; puzzles; score and points; bonuses; levels; and, monsters.

Easy Fun

Curiosity is the main emotion evident in the Easy Fun style of play, though surprise, wonder and awe were observed too. The game mechanics that define this style of play are: roleplay; exploration; experimentation; fooling around; having fun with the controls; iconic situations; ambiguity; detail; fantasy; uniqueness; “Easter Eggs”; tricks; story; and, novelty.

Serious Fun

What is the most common emotion observed with Serious Fun mechanics? Relaxation! The game mechanics that take players to that state are: rhythm; repetition; collection; completion; matching; stimulation; bright visuals; music; learning; simulation; working out; study; and real-world value. It’s this last mechanic that explains why its called “serious” fun. People playing in this mode also seem more ready to attach a value to their participation in the game outside the game itself – brain-training, physical exercise, developing skills or even a conscious effort to kill time (think of those people playing Candy Crush on the train).

People Fun

Happiness comes with People Fun, Lazzaro’s team observed “amusement, schadenfreude (pleasure in other people’s  misfortune) and naches (pleasure in the achievements of someone you have helped)” among players in this mode. Among the he long list of game mechanics that get people there are: cooperation; competition; communication; mentoring; leading; performing; characters; personalisation; open expression; jokes; secret meanings; nurturing; endorsements; chat; and gifting.

 

There’s a lot to think about here, but I’m excited by the possibilities. Here’s a challenge for cultural heritage interpretation. How many of these game mechanics are there already equivalents of in the visitor experience at heritage sites. And can we see value in creating equivalents for the mechanics that are missing?

Motivation segmentation and a mobile app at Kew

This statistics course, data collection and other stuff has taken up so much time that I feel I’m a bit behind on actual reading. Today is the first day I’ve been able to get into a back-log of things I thought might be interesting. And one thing that was near to the top of the list has proven to be a fascinating read, that’s worth sharing.

Ages ago, Kew Gardens announced a new app to help visitors find their way around and find out more about the gardens. I have a soft spot for Kew, having worked at the Palace, back in the stone-age, before its restoration. So I eagerly downloaded it and had a play. Of course I wasn’t at Kew, and so the GPS functionality was somewhat limited. I closed the app, and resolved to make a visit.

I never did.

So when I saw Delightfully Lost: A New Kind of Wayfinding at Kew, by Natasha Waterson and Mike Saunders, I was intrigued, and now I’ve actually read it, my curiosity has been rewarded. It starts off with a summary of previous digital projects and then the visitor segmentation work they commissioned from Morris Hargreaves MacIntyre. MHM originally did this sort of work for the National Trust, about seven years ago or so, and since then they’ve been touting the same sort of segmentation round other cultural institutions. Its a good model, segmenting visitors not by residence, income, lifestyle etc, but instead according to their motivations for visiting. So for example, were I to visit Kew with my kids, I’d be wanting different things than if I were planning a rendezvous with an old work colleague. Its a marketing tool really, but I think its focus on psychometrics, and classification of motivations (of course MHM do slightly different classifications for each of their clients !), make a useful shortcut to keep in mind when thinking about emotional engagement.

What came across at Kew was that many visitors to the gardens didn’t plan their walk in advance, and two of the most successful aspects of the app were the functions that encouraged serendipitous exploration. One pointed out which plants were looking especially good on the day of the visit, and another sent the user “off the beaten track” to discover a place they hadn’t visited before (or at least,  for some time).

The evaluation also discovered some technical difficulties which impacted negatively on the user experience. The Augmented Reality wasn’t accurate enough, and there was a signal black spot which given the app required on-the fly updating, caused some frustration.

Overall, “delightfully lost” proved to be “a successful design principle for Kew” and I can see it (or rather something like it, I wouldn’t want to nick Kew’s theme) being a useful concept for many National Trust places. I’d really like to look at some of the numbers behind this research though – the paper focuses on the qualitative rather than the quantitative. I’d be interested to see an analysis for the download/usage numbers, and more about the 1500 visitor tracking observations they mention.

There is one line which especially resonates with the phase of research I’m just starting now though, looking at the commercial creative relationship between suppliers and clients.

“Our original vision was hampered by difficulties in procurement—in our experience, the UK government’s e-tendering portal actively discourages digital agencies from tendering for work.”

I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed elsewhere, and not just in relation to government agencies, so I’ll be trying to get to the story behind this quote.

Evaluating emotional triggers

The organisation I work for asks a question of it’s visitors, along the lines of “how strongly do you agree or disagree with the statement ‘this place had a real emotional impact on me’?” We can see that the more people agree with that statement (even if only the minority strongly agree), the more likely people are to have a very enjoyable day, and recommend a visit to friends and relations. But we don’t really measure what drives that emotional response.

I asked a similar question when evaluating Ghosts in the Garden, and I experienced a familiar sense of frustration about how little insight it allowed me. So I plan to work out a set of questions that might be more informative about what drives an emotional connection with a place.

I’m going to start by looking in more detail at this thesis by Mohd Kamal Othman, which I first heard about at the CDH conference in July. Othman was evaluating mobile experiences, and in doing so created a Museum Experience Scale and an Church Experience Scale (one of the projects he was evaluating was a mobile guide for Churches).

I’m particularly interested in the questions the evaluation asked to measure what he termed “emotional connection”:

  • The exhibition enabled me to reminisce about my past
  • My sense of being in the exhibition was stronger than my sense of being in the real world
  • I was overwhelmed with the aesthetic/beauty aspect of the exhibits
  • I wanted to own exhibits like those that I saw in the exhibition
  • I felt connected with the exhibits
  • I like text-based information as supporting material at museum exhibitions
  • I felt spiritually involved with the church and its features
  • I felt connected with the church and its features
  • I felt emotionally involved with the church and its features
  • I felt moved in the church
  • The church had a spiritual atmosphere
  • My sense of being in the church was stronger than my sense of being in the rest of the world

Now it strikes me that the church specific questions are a little less specific than the ones created for exhibitions, but I’ve not yet read about the reasoning behind them. Some of the questions though (touching on presence, spectacle and acquisition, for example) resonate with what I’ve been discovering about emotional triggers in games. I feel there’s something here to build on.

(Now, I better get back to writing that presentation for Decoding the Digital)