Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics

There you are sitting down to go back and review a piece of work you completed over a year ago – your literature review. You’ve had notes from your supervisor, some of which you addressed at the time, but others required a little more reading,  which you did, or some deeper thinking about, which you are still doing really (does that ever end?). But over all you are ready to take those forty thousand words apart and rearrange them a bit into three chapters instead of one.

You’ve also got a bit of actual diagram design work, which you also did, and re-did, and tweaked a little, and tweaked a lot, and you are still not yet entirely happy with, but its so almost there that you think you think you can at least put it in and see what people think of it. This picture should be worth at least a thousand words that currently read like a long list.

After the intensely practical work of the previous week, you are ready, eager indeed to get back to the desk and stuck into some long form writing.

And… and someone casually waves a paper under your nose that you’ve not seen before. And you read it and think “how did I miss this?” And look at it and think “I wonder if I should change my diagram?” And then you frown and think “no, seriously, how did I miss this?” And you begin to wonder what else you missed – but that way madness lies.

The paper in question is from 2004. It’s called MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek. A paper written as a result of a series of games design workshops at an annual AI conference, I might be forgiven for missing it on the first pass, but the concepts it offers seem so fundamental I feel I must include it as I edit those forty thousand words. For example take this quote, from page two

The MDA framework formalizes the consumption of games by breaking them into their distinct components:


…and establishing their design counterparts:


Their argument is that the game is a designed artifact, and the content of the game is its behaviour, “not the media that streams out of it towards the player” and they go on to say that each component can be thought of as a “lens” through which to examine the game design. Importantly, they point out that designers and players will use these lenses in opposite directions:

From the designer’s perspective, the mechanics give rise to dynamic system behavior, which in turn leads to particular aesthetic experiences. From the player’s perspective, aesthetics set the tone, which is born out in observable dynamics and eventually, operable mechanics.

It’s their discussion of aesthetics which I think is the first thing I need to add into my thesis. It needs to go in somewhere around Nicole Lazarro and Tynan Sylvester. Like Lazarro, they try and create a taxonomy of fun:

  1. Sensation
    Game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy
    Game as make-believe
  3. Narrative
    Game as drama
  4. Challenge
    Game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship
    Game as social framework
  6. Discovery
    Game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression
    Game as self-discovery
  8. Submission
    Game as pastime

They go on to describe how dynamics can be created to support or even generate the aesthetics, much in the same way that Sylvester does. (Along the way they suggest ways to “fix” Monopoly, but here they make the newbie error of thinking Monopoly is meant to be “fun”.) And then how the mechanics might enable the dynamics. This being an AI conference, they summarize the approach by showing how an AI prototyped with a simple “peek-aboo” game for toddlers, can be run through the MDA lenses again and again, creating a Rugrats game for older children or even a shooter for teens, all with the same same core mechanic, but different dynamics and aesthetics. All of that is les relevant to my thesis, but I’m going to have to build the fundamentals of MDA in.

Now Play This

Last week, I went to Somerset House for Now Play This, a three day event of experimental games. The Guardian beat me to a write up (curse you, full time journalists!) so read that, and think of this short post as an addendum.

I took my boy (aged 12) with me and our favourite game is also the top of the Guardian’s list. Dead Pixel (above) is a simple, snake-like arcade game with up to nine players, co-operating in teams of three. Its easy to pick up, and you quickly find yourself allying with a rooting for people you  never previously met and will likely not see again. By the late afternoon of the first day though, the joysticks were showing signs of wear, I wondered how many would be working at all by Sunday. Its perfectly playable with just two, unlike the platformer pictured below, the name of which I can’t recall, which relies on loads of players co-operating to get through each level. And each level is an almost entirely different game, so it takes a lot of practice, and didn’t satisfy me in the shared environment, where you want to make sure everyone gets a turn.

In contrast, Telephone, was simple joy that took less than 10 seconds to play, and you could come back to it again and again. You can try the link in the picture, but surprisingly few players actually say anything its seems…

The ten second games room was a lot of fun, especially the Brexit version of Operation

We were disappointed that the “post-apocalyptic crazy golf” outside wasn’t running on the Friday. But apart from these and the other games written about in the Guardian article, there was a whole room dedicated to one big wordsearch, a “third person stroller” wherein you control a naked man walking around on (and in!) the gigantic body of a naked man, and a case full of computer games that didn’t exist.


Tom and I also enjoyed a less frenetic room, that included quieter, slower games, simple mazes and one interesting plinth with letters cut into the top, that had mirror writing on one side. That side faced a mirror, but you needed to be lower than I could get to read it, so I send the boy onto his hands and knees. The rules were thus (paraphrased) “stand together looking at and admiring the plinth, talk about it sotto voce, laughing occasionally. Then leave it and see if anyone else in the room comes to see what you were talking about. If they do, you’ve won.”

We won.


Trapped in the bunker

The debrief session after the experience. Photo taken by Adam.

Last weekend at Geek 2017, I played Sarcophagus, a Nordic LARP (Live Action Roleplay). LARP, as we know it today, grew out of the international popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games. It didn’t take long, in the late seventies and early eighties, for people to start making costumes out of blankets and swords out of camping mats and gaffer tape, to take the game away from the table and into the real world. Indeed, I played in one of the first commercial LARPs, Treasure Trap at Peckforton Castle.

People still do that of course, and the weapons have become better made, safer and more “realistic” in their design (with in the spiky aesthetic of fantasy illustration). LARP is not limited to high fantasy genres either. In the nineties there was an explosion of gothic LARP in the US, with people playing communities of Vampires. Any world can be recreated in LARP form, even the real one.

The popularity of LARPing in Scandinavia, led to style/variant with its own name, Nordic Larp (note, in this form, Larp has become a word in its own right, no longer an acronym). This style has gained an international reputation for attempting something more than recreating fantasy adventures, exploring its possibilities as an art form in its own right. Similarly, the form often eschews external, procedural adventures in favour of exploring internal, emotional struggles.

Thus it was that I, and a dozen or so other players (though we’ll return to the ideas of games and players shortly), signed up to a five hour experience that would involve us being locked up in a nuclear bunker with no hope of escape. The players ranged from Larp virgins to experienced Larpers from Belarus, a Canadian musician, lecturers and students. (Three of us are doing PhDs.) We weren’t in that bunker the whole five hours though, and given that I’m writing this, you’ll understand we were let out. But this isn’t like an Escape room game, where we have limited time to solve the puzzles and find a way out, neither is any of us expected to win by becoming the king of a post-apocalyptic society. (Though, as we’ll see, my character might have thought so.) In fact its arguably not a game at all. Our facilitator, artist Adam James, kept correcting himself when he used the word game, explaining that his Larping mentor disapproved of it. So we are not players in a game, but rather players in an improvised drama, and not just the players but the audience as well. Indeed, Adam defined larp as an artform where the participants and the audience are one and the same. (Which is something Robin Laws used to say about tabletop roleplaying games, though he’s had to drop that definition as the streaming of such games on Twitch and YouTube has become more and more popular.)

The object of Sarcophagus is not to escape or win, but to explore the five stages of grief, as modeled by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. First all though we had to work out who we were.

The preparation took a couple of hours in itself, with Adam explaining Larp, running us through some improvisation exercises and helping us create a character for ourselves. To begin with, he littered the briefing room with pictures, some large (A3) some small. Some abstract, some figurative, some photographs, some drawings. Adam encouraged us to walk among them, pick them up, and see if any of them inspired thoughts about who we might be.

I latched upon a couple, a medieval drawing of a ploughman and a dead bird which may have been trussed into some sort of totem, and imagined the pastural post-apocalyptic fantasies of my youth, things like John Christopher’s Tripods and Sword of the Spirits trilogies, the seventies BBC series Survivors, and Riddley Walker (which is set very close to where we were playing). What about a character who’d actually looked forward to the end of the world, I thought, a character who’d foolishly imagined a clearing away of everything what was wrong with the world, and a return to simpler, purer times. Of course he would be disappointed, Adam had made it clear that we’d know we wouldn’t even survive long enough to see the nuclear winter, let alone a new Garden of Eden.

Talking about it with other players, I imagined that my character might be rather reactionary, not necessarily well liked. Then Adam passed around a “hat” with little slips of paper listing the jobs we might have had before we found ourselves in the bunker. We found out we were hairdressers, waiters, sailors, stockbrokers and gym teachers. I pulled out “politician” and everything fell into place. I didn’t once mention the word UKIP once, indeed I painted myself as someone who, like Churchill, had moved between parties, but everyone knew exactly what sort of politician I had been. We also got to pick a flaw out of the hat. I ended up an alcoholic, though frankly I felt politician was enough of a flaw.

Then we split into two groups. One of people that wanted close connections with other player’s characters (for example, sisters), and a slightly smaller group who preferred thinner, looser connections. I went with the second, thinking many will have seen my politician on television, but few would know me well. We workshopped our connections, the gym teacher had taught my children, the security guard was someone I ignored on the way into the gated community to lived in, neighbour to the stockbroker, and the waiter was the rebellious son of wealthy donors to my political campaign.

Some more improvisation followed, this time walking as our characters, in different situations. Then after a break, and some meditation on what the world would be like if we died today, we met up outside the Bunker for one last improvisation workshop before going into (in this case) as reconstruction of a WWII Anderson shelter. Adam asked us to find a position to start then read out a short introduction:

11:27—Radio and TV broadcasts are interrupted by breaking news. Brussels and Copenhagen have been hit by large explosions.

11:31—Unconfirmed sources report that the blasts may be nuclear explosions.

11:33—Similar explosions are reported in Paris, Stockholm and Dublin.

11:37—A black helicopter lands on the roof of the prime minister’s office in Oslo London.

11:38—Associated Press confirms that Copenhagen has been hit by a nuclear explosion.

11:40—The air alarm goes off in London. Most people haven’t heard the news and just think it is an exercise. A few run to the shelters.

11:41—TV and radio transmissions are jammed.

And we begin. I won’t go too much into what happened, every version is different. Suffice to say, my politician tried to build a power-base in within the group, before properly realising the hopelessness of the situation, and even then trying to get people to like him – I’d managed to keep my bottle of booze (creme soda) secret until, hopeless, I shared what was left to curry favour. The only scripted moments were that introduction above, the lights going out in three phases before ending in darkness, and one event that one of the players is previously given guidance on timing. Note the importance even in this mostly improvised story, of having kernels – events that happen in order, even if its only the lights failing and the (spoilers!) event.

Afterwards there was a (vital) debrief session, almost a decompression chamber. We had time to get happy again, and use to the light of day and discussed how our story developed. Adam observed that we hadn’t quite entered the depression stage when he had to bring it to its conclusion, and I thought we hadn’t quite had time. I felt my character had been bargaining to the last, and was teetering on the brink of depression when Adam came through with the torch and rounded us up. I was about to say something to that effect when Adam let slip that we were meant to spend four hours, not two in the bunker.

Due to constraints of the day, we always knew we were only going to have two hours, but I would have liked to have played the longer stint if it were possible. And of course it is! If I get to play again, it will be a totally different experience. I won’t be a politician again, maybe I’ll be a historian, or hairdresser, and the stor(ies) will be, even if the lights still go out and “the event” happens as before.

I even thought about playing it in the bunker that the National Trust owns, on Orford Ness. Now, that would be cool.

Resonance: Sound, music and emotion in historic house interpretation

Just drafted an abstract for my Sound Heritage presentation:

This presentation explores what computer games can teach us about emotional engagement in cultural heritage interpretation. Beginning with a model of emotional affect drawn from the work of Panksepp and Biven (Panksepp, 2012), Lazarro (Lazarro, 2009), Sylvester (Sylvester, 2013)and Hamari et al (Hamari et al., 2014), it reveals how music especially has become a versatile emotional trigger in game design.

Drawing on the work of Cohen (Cohen, 1998)and Collins (Collins, 2008)eight functions that music has in games:

Masking – Just as music was played in the first movie theaters, partly to mask the sound of the projector, so music in new media can be used to mask the whir of the console’s or PC’s fan.

Provision of continuity – A break in the music can signal a change in the narrative, or continuous music signals the continuation of the current theme.”

Direction of attention – patterns in the music can correlate to patterns in the visuals, directing the attention of the user.

Mood induction; and,
Communication of Meaning- the nice distinction here is between music that makes the user sad, and music that tells the user “this is a sad event” without necessarily changing the user’s mood.

A cue for memory – The power of the music to invoke memories or prepare the mind for a type of cognitive activity is well recognized in advertising and sonic brands such as those created for Intel and Nokia.

Arousal and focal attention – With the user’s brain stimulated by music s/he is more able to concentrate on the diagesis of the presentation.

Aesthetics – The presentation argues that all too often music is used for aesthetic value only in museums and heritage sites, even if the pieces of music used are connected historically with the site or collection.

As an example, the presentation describes a project to improve the way music is used in the chapel at the Vyne, near Basingstoke. Currently, a portable CD player is used to fill the silence with a recording of a cathedral choir, pretty, but inappropriate for the space and for it’s story. A new recording is being made to recreate about half an hour of a pre-reformation Lady Mass, with choisters, organ and officers of the church, to be delivered via multiple speakers, which will be even more pretty but also a better tool for telling the place’s story.

With a proposed experiment at Chawton House as an example, we briefly explore narrative structure, extending the concept of story  Kernels and Satellites described by Shires and Cohan (Shires and Cohan, 1988)to imagine the cultural heritage site as a collection of narrative atoms, or Natoms (Hargood, 2012), both physical (spaces, collection) and ephemeral (text, video, music etc.). Music, the presentation concludes is often considered as a “mere” satellite, but with thought and careful design there is no reason why music can not also become the narrative kernals of interpretation.


COHEN, A. J. 1998. The Functions of Music in Multimedia: A Cognitive Approach. Fifth International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition. Seoul, Korea: Western Music Research Institute, Seoul National University.

COLLINS, K. 2008. An Introduction to the Participatory and Non-Linear Aspects of Video Games Audio. In: RICHARDSON, J. A. H., S. (ed.) Essays on Sound and Vision. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.

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.

HARGOOD, C., JEWELL, M.O. AND MILLARD, D.E. 2012. The Narrative Braid: A Model for Tackling The Narrative Paradox in Adaptive Documentaries. NHT12@HT12. Milwaukee.

LAZARRO, N. 2009. Understand Emotions. In: BATEMAN, C. (ed.) Beyond Game Design: Nine Steps Towards Creating Better Videogames. Boston MA: Course Technology / Cangage Learning.

PANKSEPP, J. A. B., L. 2012. The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions, New York, W. W. Norton & Company.

SHIRES, L. M. & COHAN, S. 1988. Telling Stories : A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction, Florence, KY, USA, Routledge.

SYLVESTER, T. 2013. Designing Games – A Guide to Engineering Experiences, Sebastolpol, CA, O’Reilly Media.

Pokemon Go: Why is it such an extraordinary success?

A Ratatta in a glass, Jerry mouse he ain’t. Photo: Tom Tyler-Jones

I was talking with my son about Pokemon Go today, and I thought it might be useful to run the game though my model of affect and affordances. Would it reveal why this game is so spectacularly popular, given the barriers to engagement that locatative games have had in the past?

My son pointed out that one thing the game has, especially over its Niantic stablemate, Ingress, is the Pokemon brand, which two or three generations have grown up with since the mid-nineties. Speaking as someone who didn’t grow up with Pokemon however I could not believe this was the only reason for its success.

A huge difference from Ingress is ease of entry. As my survey a couple of years ago may have indicated (though I could not disprove the null hypothesis) here-to-fore locatative games have only held any interest for Hard Fun (otherwise Hardcore) gamers. Pokemon seems to be the first truly casual locatative game (though some might give that honour to Foursquare, I don’t think it was much of a game).

So lets run it though the model:

Game Affects stripped

Leaderboards – Although Pokemon Go doesn’t have a leaderboard as such, it does have Gyms. Just today with my 11 year old son’s advice I managed to (very temporarily) take over a local gym from some quite high powered Pokemon of an opposing team.  So a few minutes after that, I was indeed at the top of a very local leaderboard.

Badges – There are a huge variety of medals you can win for achievements like, for example, collecting ten Pokemon of a particular type.

Rewards – Pokemon Go has LOADS of rewards. For a start, visit a Pokestop, and spin the dial and you will acquire a randomly generated reward of Pokeballs, Eggs, and Potions etc, all of which will be useful in the game. Take over a Gym (as I did this afternoon) and you can claim a reward of 10 Pokecoins every day that you keep the Gym under your control.  Capture a Pokemon, and not only can you add it to your collection, but you are also rewarded with Stardust and Evolution Candy. Every time you go up a level you also earn rewards such as new equipment.

Points and Levels – To level up, you need to earn experience points, which you get for pretty much everything you do, collecting Pokemon, especially new types, spinning Pokestops, hatching eggs, earning badges, evolving Pokemon, battling in gyms, etc.

Story/theme – There isn’t much of a story inherent within the Pokemon Go game, but players who have been brought up on the other computer games and TV series, will know of quite a complex backstory. However, not knowing this story does not seem to be a disadvantage to players. Story knowledge isn’t essential to play, and the lack of story within the game seems to attract (or at least not be a barrier to) players of all generations, many too old to have been captured by the original Pokemon game. My son also points out that as you play you do procedurally generate a story of your own trainer avatar, even if that is only in your head, as Sylvester describes.

Progress – As you go up in level, you do get better equipment, and are more like to catch Pokemon with higher combat power, and you are more likely to encounter rarer Pokemon.

Feedback – The game is casual enough that you don’t need to be looking at the screen all the time, but because the game does not allow you to put your device into sleep mode, you end up holding it, waiting for the tell-tale buzz of nearby Pokemon.

Spectacle and Environment – The graphics and Augmented reality are not very sophisticated, but they are fun. Two things make it so. One is that creatures that only exist in fiction now appear in our real life world. The other is that they can (with some luck and an little movement of the screen) appear in amusing places (on your knee, in your dinner or drink, on your friend’s head), and if they do, you can take and keep a photo.

Challenge – There isn’t much skill based challenge in the gameplay. Capturing rare Pokemon, is more of a feat of luck than skill. There is a real-world challenge of sorts though, and that is to walk around, which is the only way to hatch eggs. Some eggs only require two kilometer walks, but other more rewarding eggs require ten kilometres.

The game lacks (or doesn’t make the most of) a number of emotional triggers:

Music – My son likes the music, but I turned it off early in my play. The music isn’t a very sophisticated feedback generator. One track plays pretty much continuously, and the only changes are for evolution cut-scenes (my boy likes this track best) and Pokemon encounters.

Insight – There  is very little learning through play. My son teaches me most of what I need to learn, and he has leaned most of that through YouTube.

There is no Threat or Sex (even when you capture Male and Female Nidoran), and no real character arc.

So, given the affordancies listed above, we can predict which emotions players will be feeling: playful Amusement (from humorously placed AR Pokemon); the social emotions Fiero and Naches (because though the gameplay isn’t inherently social there are enough players currently on the streets for conversation; advice and insight; and even a degree of cooperation; to take place); the seeking emotions, Excitement and Curiosity (especially when find new types of Pokemon); Frustration, a rage affect (when Pokemon randomly break out of your Pokemon); and some degree of Care (from nicknaming, nuturing and powering up your stable of Pokemon).

And let us not forget the Panic/grief, when nothing makes your phone buzz -you are out of mobile reception or have a weak signal, and especially when your phone battery is running low!

Heritage managers, you need to be thinking about Pokemon Go

I don’t normally post on Wednesdays, but I am driven to write tonight, because something is happening that seems to be an actual phenomenon. Pokemon Go, the locatative game from Niantic, using IP from Nintendo keeps breaking records. It is apparently already the biggest mobile game ever in the US. Not just the biggest locatative game, this game is bigger than Candy Crush.

Long-time readers may remember the post I wrote introducing some research into attitudes to locatative gaming. I’d run an internet survey pushed towards gamers from all around the world. At the time, the biggest locatative game around was Niantic’s Ingress. I’d asked everyone what they knew of a list of different digital games. I’d got about 220 responses. 178 respondents had never even heard of Ingress, which was at the time “taking the world by storm”. A site called Android Headlines said that. Let me tell you AH (I can call you AH can I?), you don’t know storms.

Another post on that same survey concluded “I can’t yet claim from this research, that the world is ready and waiting for locatative games.”

Well maybe it is now.

What does that mean for heritage sites? Well, I don’t think it means heritage organisations should rush out their own AR scavenger hunts. But it does mean that people are already using your sites to play games. A few weeks ago, a team member from one of the places I’m currently spending time at for work told me about a security alert. In the middle of the night they went to investigate and found three people who had broken into the gardens. The people explained that they were there to take control of an Ingress portal.

Heritage locations are already, without their knowledge, Ingress portals. They are very likely already “Pokestops” too. This may be a problem for some sites’ spirit of place. Its already being seen as an opportunity. [EDIT: This article on what you can do if you find that your place is a Pokestop is also interesting.] I bet there already many more Pokemon Go players in the UK than there are players of Ingress, and it hasn’t even been released in this country yet.

Its happening. Its big, very big. Heritage Managers, you need to be thinking about this.

Time Explorers

Time Explorers Pastport, can you decrypt the puzzle?
Time Explorers Pastport, can you decrypt the puzzle?

To Hampton Court, to meet with Beatrice and Katherine, colleagues from Chartwell, my Marketing colleague Philippa and, from Historic Royal Palaces, Jane and Fenella. We looked in on some atmospheric live interpretation (this time not by Past Pleasures but a company of actors recruited for a more dramatic presentation of the Tudor apartments over the summer) but the main business of the day was to talk with them about their Time Explorers digital missions app, which I’d first encountered on a recent visit to the Tower of London.

I’d blagged my way on to the visit, which Beatrice had organised, because I wanted to hear first hand the thinking behind the app. At a very basic level, its a children’s trail. Aimed at groups with children aged seven to eleven, it can be downloaded, prior to visiting on on the Palace’s free wifi (iOS only, at the time of writing), or picked up on up to 50 pre-loaded iPads, that the palace offers for free to visiting families, or at a reasonable charge to school groups.

The same app offers three digital missions at Hampton Court, and another two at the Tower of London. There are plans to offer more content at both places, and eventually at the other Historic Royal Palaces. The app framework cost HRP around £200k to commission (from GR/DD), and each new mission will cost something like £10k-£15k to produce. This investment isn’t just in the app, but in the Time Explorers brand, which will widen to include other digital (on-line) content, printed trails and other activities on-site, and possibly even retail products.

We each took a pad and split up to make sure we could cover all the missions. I took the architecture trail, and was charged by Vanbrough to help him assess the Tudor palace for renovation. As anyone who has ever done a paper children’s trail will agree, most are simply spotters’ lists – “can you see the (x – either historic feature/detail or partially hidden soft toy or similar anachronistic item)” – and within these digital missions there were indeed a few activities that followed along similar lines. I had to identify some of the creatures carved on top of the great hall for example. Using my favorite list of ludic motivation triggers, this is the basic acquisition trigger.

There was an added twist in that if I claimed to see a creature that wasn’t actually there, I’d lose a “time gem”. I had five such activities to work through, and any wrong answers would cost a time gem. If I didn’t get any wrong then each activity would earn me five gems. This loss of time gems is what I’d describe as a challenge trigger. One of my colleagues valiantly got all her answers wrong to see if it was possible to lose all her gems, and it is, but game takes pity on you and returns one gem to avoid saddling parents with distraught (if unobservant) children. Not all the activities involved observation skills, some asked participants to speculate on behaviours, or the order of importance of things. And these arguably did little aid the stated aim of lifting children’s heads from the screen to look around them. But as they construct meaning in this way, then the learning trigger definitely kicks in. When they do look up, the environment offers them presence triggers, spectacle and sensation.

What the game does not have, ludicly, is a social trigger, Fenella explained that the game is mean to be played with groups sharing one machine, but there is little in the game play to encourage social interaction (though I’ve just remembered a feature wherein you can take a photo of a friend and dress him – but make sure its a He, choose a female friend and you’ll lose time gems). The designers eschewed music too, and speech, so as not to disturb other visitors – which may have been a wise decision. There is much story in each challenge either, which is rather a waste of the patrons (like my Vanbrough), my collegues commented that after the Venician spymaster had given the players their objective in another mission, there was no story that made them “feel like a spy.”

Challenge returns at the end of the mission when the time gems you have retained define the number of seconds you have to get as many questions as you can right in a quiz, testing what you’ve learned so far. Here I found a bug. My architecture mission crashed when I tried to take the quiz. The application recovered very well and I hadn’t lost my progress in the mission, but every time I tried to take the quiz, it would crash and recover again. In the end I took another mission, and completed that quiz. The number of correct answers to got are added to the number of gems to retained to give every player grade from bronze to gold.  A nice acquisition trigger, and then you can claim your Pastport and badge (again, acquisition) as pictured above. It a nicely considered decision, if you complete more missions, at any palace, you can collect the relevant badges to add to your pastport.

I did try that architecture quiz again, and having completed the second mission and quiz, it didn’t crash, but repeated the second mission’s quiz!

The badges have given me plenty to think about for my Opposites Attract challenge, which I’ll consider over the weekend.

Another day, another Escape Room

Hot on the heels of my first Escape Room experience, I joined the leadership team from Polesden Lacey on Wednesday, for an intensive day of learning from London heritage and tourist attractions. The day involved the recently refurbished Museum of Childhood, theatre in museums at the V&A in South Kensington, and a pop-up catering experience, but the most relevent element to the subject of this blog was Time Run, a very different escape room to History Mystery.

Built into a very unprepossessing industrial space near London Fields, Time Run did not connect with the place in the way that History Mystery did. The mystery was entirely made up, based on the myth/legend of the Spear of Destiny, or Holy Lance, which (according to the Gospel of St. John) a roman soldier (named as Longinus, but not in the bible) used to stab the crucified Jesus to make sure he was dead. According to some conspiracy theorists, the whole second world war was started by Hitler in order to obtain the magical power of the relic.

Which of course makes a great premise for a game which took us players to a future Space Station, orbiting the earth, had us raiding an ancient temple, and finalling sneaking into the office of fascist architect Albert Speer. (aha I just realised Speer – Spear! I must be slow on the uptake).

Our property team was divided into four competing teams, with two starting at the same time, and the next two starting 45 minutes later. So the space duplicates the rooms and puzzles and obviously expects each team to take about 20 minutes in each room, and then the operators to take about 20 minutes putting the room back together for the following group. This set up seems a lot more time efficient and sustainable than History Mystery, but does rely on being able to replicate sets within a “white space”. Trying such dual operation in an historic space would be more difficult. Having the teams progress through three rooms though, would mean a higher turn-over of customers and thus be more sustainable, as the tidy up team doesn’t have to wait for the whole experience to be over before getting to work. After the experience (my team were the only one of four to complete the puzzles, by the way, but even we went three minutes over time) we asked what sort of staff they had to operate the venue, and they said there were eight people.

The sets and puzzles, unrestrained from conservation concerns or fact, where rich and more detailed than those of History Mystery. The temple for example had “stone” pillars that could be swiveled, wall panels that slid away and statues that could be moved about (the house conservation team joked about having to put on cotton gloves before daring to touch the them).

All in all it had more of the feel of the 80’s channel four show The Crystal Maze (which has now become an escape room experience of its own).

Now I have to dash, I’m joining other team who are visiting Hampton Court Palace today.

Opposites Attract

Today I met with Nashwa Ismail, my collaborator for the next six weeks on the Opposites Attract challenge, which I first wrote about a couple of weeks back. We had some say in our collaboration partners, but the final decision was made by the organisers, which I’m thankful for because everyone I’d met at the earlier session was so good it would have been very hard for me to choose.

We talked a little bit about each others studies. Nashwa shared with me her “game metaphore” for building interactive communities of practice among students using on-line collaboration tools (such as wikis). As I read, way back in August 2014, students get more out of online discussions, the more they put in. So Nashwa’s efforts are about enabling course leaders to better encourage that on-line interaction among their students. *edit* I forgot to mention we also discussed the debate around learning styles, which I prefer to think of as preferences, and Nashwa shared another free on-line test, the VARK questionnaire, which I hadn’t seen before. I’m pleased to see that, although headlined “learning styles”, it tells me I have a “learning preference.” I had a go this morning, and I’ve posted my results above.

The game that she is using as a metaphor for the process is a board-game a bit like snakes and ladders. We talked about the different motivational mechanics that games use, and soon we were talking about gamification. In the end we had the beginnings of an idea about creating a motivational app for course leaders.

More anon.



I had my first Escape Room experience last weekend. You may recall my post about History Mystery a while back. Well, the stars aligned in a way that saw me taking my son, a friend’s boy and an old schoolmate of mine to Norwich for the last day of the Norwich Game Festival, and a visit to the Guildhall for an hour trapped in an an Escape Room.

Though, it wasn’t us that was trapped, it was city’s absent-minded historian who had managed to get himself locked in his own Archive. The override code would only work for one hour every day, and luckily for him, we had arrived in his office just moments before that hour started. But he could not remember what the code should be, he had made all sorts of cryptic notes to himself all over his office to help him remember, and it was our job to decrypt them find the override key-pad and enter the code. If we didn’t get him out this time, after three days trapped in the archive, there was every chance he wouldn’t survive until tomorrow!

This premise slightly jarred with us having only just met the same Historian, otherwise known as Richard Crowest of Corvidae, out in the Norwich Games Festival marquee, promoting History Mystery. But never mind, we were all willing to suspend disbelief. And in fact the sense of urgency was reinforced, not by Richard’s imagined peril, but by the understanding that we were competing against everyone who had already played the game or would in future. Our time would be recorded and compared with previous players. One team had managed the complete all the puzzles and free the historian with sixteen minutes still on the clock. Could we do better?

Obviously, I can’t reveal the secrets that we found inside the room. That would give teams following us an unfair advantage, but what impressed me was the wide variety of puzzles which meant that everyone from my 11 year old son to my 90, sorry 49 (almost 50) year old school-mate contributed usefully to the problem solving, without anyone feeling patronised by a “children’s” clue or anything like that. We worked together yet separately,  shouting codes and discoveries across the room and trying combinations in every one of numerous padlocks (the historian was a very data-security conscious fellow). One clue especially required two of  us to work together at different ends of a piece of complex plumbing.

There was one moment which both delighted and dismayed me. I can’t of course tell you want it was, but I think I can get away with saying that it involved a clue in the C.S. Lewis book, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. We had great fun and the hour passed incredibly quickly. Almost too quickly…

But only almost. We released the historian with over five minutes to spare. Not a record breaking time, but given that many parties don’t quite manage to complete the puzzles at all, we didn’t do too badly. It helps that the organisers keep an eye on progress and speak to you on a walki-talky, if you don’t tug hard enough at a padlock for which you’ve actually got the right combination.

We were rewarded with History Mystery badges (most escape rooms don’t give prizes, so this was a pleasant surprise) and a personal, live thank you from the Historian himself, who had come up from the Game Festival marquee the archive. This live appearance was an honour we shared only with the very first party to try the experience. In fact we did better than them because he took us to a pub and got the first round in!

When we’d first entered, I was disappointed by the tidiness of the office. I’d imagined a cluttered and object rich environment full of antique furniture when I booked the session, and was surprised to find that our historian had a desk not unlike that of a local council official. (Which of course he was.) I should have been thankful for the tidy desk though, because my the time we’d finished turning things over, pulling stuff off shelves and emptying lock-boxes, we’d made an almighty mess. We left all that behind us when we went to pub, and the History Mystery crew had the unenviable task of putting it all back together for the next session. Given that we’d scattered padlocks willy-nilly about the room, moved items, stacked boxes (or left them scattered over the floor) I wonder how long it takes to reset the puzzle.

I’m sure the crew are well practiced, but I’m intrigued about the operation. It costs each player something over £15 pounds to join in (its more as the group gets smaller), and I am curious about break-even and profit – how quickly can the room be reset, how many sessions can be booked in a day, and how many of those sessions need to be booked for the hardworking crew to get paid and the company to be sustainable?

Still, as I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, the Escape Room phenomenon seems to be every growing right now. There’s already a second company operating in Norwich, my boy pointed out that last year’s Van Dyke Vanishments was a sort of escape room, and in way, so was Against Captain’s Orders, the recent Punch Drunk production at the National Maritime Museum. I’ve heard that despite Arts Council funding and a reasonably high ticket price, that venture lost money, but I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of escape rooms in museums and heritage sites.

Whether its a way of learning about the past, I’m less certain. History Mystery’s USP is that all the puzzles are based on real historical facts. But given the constraints on time, the players skim over the facts looking for clues. And so all I can confidently recall is that once in the middle ages, the whole city of Norwich was ex-communicated by the Pope. I think it was something to do with Monks getting into fights with townsfolk, but honestly I can’t recall the context, though of course I’m now inspired to look it up.

Outside the Guildhall we had a look around the rest of the games festival. Meeting among the crowds, the developers of the current iOS timewaster of choice Super Arc Light which was fun but has nothing to do with cultural heritage. (Though, touching upon the yesterday’s post, this has a game with the simplest of interfaces  – “touch the screen, anywhere” and yet is fiendishly difficult.) Slightly more historical (but only slightly) was Ironheads. We managed to grab the last two fights of the day, one for the boys, and one for me and my old school-friend. It’s good to know I still have it where it counts (he said smugly).