From Roman Portus to Medieval Bodiam – virtually

Today I had a meeting with brothers Joe and Ken Rigby. We met in a faux-medieval world, of the sort familiar to players of Skyrim, World of Warcraft and many (many) others. I’d arrived as a woman, so Joe helped me find a more masculine avatar, then a quick tutorial in walking, running, flying with a rocket-pack, and we were off exploring.

Joe is convinced there’s a market in building historic environments in the Unreal engine, and he and Ken have built a few proof-of-concept environments, including (and of particular interest to me) building five at Portus, and Bodiam Castle.

Once I was comfortable manipulating my avatar, Ken replaced the game-world we were in, and loaded Portus on the server. Joe and Ken got a model of building five from my colleagues at Southampton, and put it on a model of the Trajanic basin. Walking through it (or rather directing my avatar while we talked) I was immediately impressed by the sense of scale, if not by the somewhat oppressive sky texture they chose.  We talked about how, with enough server space, you could invite a lecture group to the model, and talk about the research and interpretation behind it while leading a group of avatars around it.

Here’s a video walkthrough Joe made previously:

Of course I was thinking about the Portus MOOC – but immediately I could think of challenges. For a start the environment sits on a sort of commercial virtual world server run by US telecoms company Avaya.  Joe explained they had a very reasonable price-plan, for smaller meetings. But even though in theory 2000 people could visit at once, Joe said the server fees would be prohibitively expensive. On top of that of course, MOOCs are inherently asynchronous, so without huge amounts of planning, many people would miss out, and possibly feel deprived. But regardless I asked whether the lecturer could change the appearance of the models as s/he  discussed the various theories behind them. After a bit of thought Joe said, although the models themselves couldn’t change on the fly, they could build a sort of “TARDIS” (yay, Doctor Who back tomorrow) that could transport the group between a number of models, or (obviously) through time to show different stages of Portus’ development.

Then we went to Bodiam, and arrived in the courtyard of a Bodiam Castle far less ruined than the one I know. Joe explained that they had a model of the Great (dining) Hall, created by a PhD student, and were thinking about how to build a simple model of the Castle around it, when the found exactly the model they were looking for on-line, available for £50. So that’s what we explored, but the only detailed interior was the Great Hall.

I must admit, though the smoothness of the experience was a lot more accessible than, say, Second Life (though maybe that’s because of the speed of my Broadband) I can’t think of a sustainable business model for environments like this. Build it and (maybe) they will come, but beyond these experiments, where is the reward for building it? Will visitors pay to visit a virtual Bodiam, or would they prefer to go to the real thing? Would my organisation (the National Trust) pay to have a virtual Bodiam accurately modelled? Who for?

Millions  of people (probably) have paid to tour a virtual medieval Florence in Assassins’ Creed, but they came mostly for the killing and the treasure – Florence itself was a pleasant extra.

I DO think virtual environments like this could benefit things like the Portus MOOC, but MOOCs ain’t cash cows… and Second Life lies in (relative) ruins, as do many other Virtual world platforms.

This one is free to visit though, and Ken and Joe have agreed to leave Portus on it for a while. Make sure Flash is up to date and click on this link to visit. You’ll need to download an Avaya extension, but its a painless process. If you see anyone there, wave by pressing the 1 key on your keyboard, and if you have a microphone attached, talk to them.



My Gimbal beacons arrived yesterday. These are three tiny Bluetooth LE devices, not much bigger than the watch battery that powers them. They do very little more than send out a little radio signal that says “I’m me!” twice a second.

There are three very different ways of using them that I can immediately think of:

I’ve just tried leaving one in in each of three different rooms, then walking around the house with the the simple Gimbal manager app on my iPhone. It seems their range is about three meters, and the walls of my house cause some obstruction So with careful placing, they could tell my phone very simply which room it is in. And it could then serve me media like a simple audio tour.

Alternatively, as they are designed like key-fobs, they could be carried around by the user, and interpretive devices in a heritage space could identify that each user as they approach, and serve tailor media to that user. Straight away I’m thinking that a user might for example be assigned a character visiting, say, a house party at Polesden Lacey, the the house could react to the user as though they were they character. Or perhaps the user could identify their particular interests when they start their visit. If they said for example, “I’m particularly interested in art” then they could walk around their a house like Polesden Lacey, and when they pick up a tablet kiosk in one of the rooms, it would serve them details of the art first. Such an application wouldn’t hide the non-art content of course, it would just make it a lower priority so that the art appears at the top of the page. Or more cleverly, the devices around the space could communicate with each other, sharing details of the user’s movements and adapting their offer according to presumed interest. So for example, device a might send a signal saying “User 1x413d just spent a long time standing close to me, so we might presume they are interested in my Chinese porcelain.” Device b might then think to itself (forgive my anthropomorphism) “I shall make the story of the owner’s travels to China the headline of what I serve User 1x413d.”

But the third option and the one I want to experiment with, is this. I distributed my three Gimbals around the perimeter of a single room. Then when I stood by different objects of interest in my room, read of the signal strength I was getting from each beacon. It looks like I should be able to triangulate the signal strengths to map the location of my device within the room to within about a metre, which I think is good enough to identify which object of interest I’m looking at.

What I want to do is create a “simple” proof of concept program that uses the proximity of the three beacons to serve me two narratives, one about the objects I might be looking at, and a second more linear narrative which manages to adapt to the objects I’m by, and which I’ve seen.

I’ve got the tech, now “all” I need to do is learn to code!

Unless anybody wants to help me…?

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.

Questions, questions

My head is full of questions today. On the one hand, I need to get some front end evaluation data on young people and mobile gaming together, in just a month, so I’m composing an online survey about that.

On the other hand it is the deadline for Bodiam Castle to submit bespoke questions for the National Trust’s visitor survey, so I need to get my head around what questions to try and persuade them to add. It can’t be everything that I’ll eventually ask on site, because the National Trust visitor survey is already pretty long. The most obvious one is did the visitor actually do (what I’m currently calling) “the thing” (because I don’t yet know what they’ve decided to call it)?

With my third hand (if only) I need to crack on the with composing the interview questions for my planned research into the relationships between tech companies and heritage organisations…

But I’m going to leave that and  Bodiam to one side for a moment and concentrate on the other survey. I need to ask about the target audience’s social media use, but before I do that, I ought to review what we already know. And I know very little. I hear from the papers that Facebook use is on the decline among young people because all us oldies are spoiling their fun. To which I want to say “It was always meant to be for us oldies anyhow, to keep in touch with our University friends as we got older and drifted apart. Your place, my young chums, was meant to be MySpace, but like a teenager’s bedroom you let it get messier and messier before you moved out.”

But actually my 12 year old is counting down the days to her birthday when she’ll be able to comply with Facebook’s terms and conditions and open an account (which all her friends with more relaxed parents have apparently already done). So it seems there’s life in the old network yet. My first point of call of course was to ask her what “the young people” were using nowadays, but she didn’t say anything that was new to me. And actually she’s a bit younger than my target market, so I had better turn to some published data.

The Pew Research Center tells me that 90% of all internet users aged 18-29 (which is pretty close to my target market) in the US (which is not) use Social Media. They also report proportions of the the 18-29 age band using particular social platforms. In 2013 they asked 267 internet users in that age band about what they used:

84% used Facebook

31% used Twitter

37% Instagram

27% Pintrest, and

15% LinkedIn.

I think its interesting that there’s such a steep difference between Facebook and the also-rans. The curve leaves very little room for other networks like Foursquare.

Meanwhile the Oxford Internet Surveys show us that use of social media is begging to plataux at around 61 % of internet users generally. They also show us that Social Network use gets less the older the respondent is, with 94% of 14-17 year olds using networks,  dropping t0 the mid-80% (the graph isn’t that clear) for 18-24 year olds.

The full report of their 2013 survey concentrate on defining five internet “cultures” among users.

Although they overlap in some respects these cultures define distinctive patterns. While these cultural patterns are not a simple surrogate for the demographic and social characteristics of individuals, they are socially distributed in ways that are far from random. Younger people and students are more likely to be e-mersives, but unlike the digital native thesis, for example, we find most young students falling into other cultural categories.

The group of young people that I’m interested in here falls especially into two of those cultures: The e-mersive and the cyber-savvy. Both of which might be worth looking at in more detail later. What I can see now, though, is that these two groups are the most likely to post original creative work on-line (rather than simply re-post what others have created. Interestingly, between the 2011 and 2013 surveys, the proportion of users putting creative stuff online has dipped a little, except for photographs. I guess that may be the Instagram effect. In fact the top five Social Network activities recorded in the survey are updating status; posting pictures; checking/changing privacy settings; clicking though to other websites; and leaving comments on someone else’s content.

Its an interesting report, but nothing novel comes out of it about young people’s use of the social networks. That should be reassuring I suppose, but it doesn’t particularly inform our front-end evaluation for a mobile game based around the Southampton Plot. So we’re going to have to ask young people themselves.

How to we ask, first of all, what sort of games they are playing? There are too many to list, so I’m toying with a “dummy” question that simplying gets respondents into the mood, by asking about a relatively random selection of games, but trying to include sandbox games like Minecraft, story games like Skyrim, MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, social games like Just Dance, etc. (And throwing in I Love Bees, as a wild card just to see if anybody bites at the Augmented reality game that seems to be closes to our very loose vision for the Southampton Plot. But the real meat is a free-text question that simply asks what is their favourite game that they’ve been playing recently.

My next thought has a bit more “science” behind it. Inspired by the simple typology put together by Nicole Lazzaro, I’ve taken seventeen statements her researched players used to illustrate the four types of fun she describes, and asked respondents to indicate how much they agree with them. My plan is to use some clever maths to identify what sort of mix of fun our potential gamers might enjoy.

Then I plan to ask them about the social networks they use, including the top three from the OIS data (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) but also throwing Pintrest (which the US data also highlighted) and Foursquare (which I wanted to include because it is inherently locatative (though Facebook and Instagram are too, slightly more subtly). We’ll see how much our sample matches the published data in terms of users. I’ve also asked them to name another network if they are using that and its not one of my listed ones. Just in case MySpace is making its comeback at last 🙂 or G+ is finally getting traction.

Then I’ve suggested a similar question about messaging networks, like What’sApp and Snapchat.

I have also included a question about smartphones, whether they have one, one sort (iOS, Android etc) it is. And I’ve tried to create a question about how much of their social networking is mobile vs desk (or laptop) based, but it’s the one I’m least happy about.

Finally, as we’re trying to use this game to get people to places, I’ve asked about transport: walking; cycling; public transport; catching lifts; and being about to drive themselves. We’ll see how mobile they turn out to be.


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.


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.


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”:


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.


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$ ~ 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:


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:


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?

Collecting experiential data

Last week I spent a little while at Bodiam Castle, collecting some pre-pilot base-line data on the experience there. This is a continuation of the Ghosts in the Garden research, testing some alternative questions and a different approach. At the Holborne Museum, I used paper surveys. This time, I tried a face-to-face approach. I had been planning on doing it all on paper, but as the date approached, and the weather looked wet, I decided to try a more technological approach. Some online research led me to QuickTap Survey. This is an on-line service that makes it easy to create a survey on their website, then download it to a mobile device (I used my first generation iPad), when it appears almost as a “kiosk”, with a screen for each question and very easy to use touch controls or on-screen keypads for responses. There is also an option to put the questions on one page, like a paper survey, but I didn’t try that out.

It turned out to be a great tool in the field, really responsive and quick to use. Each sample took less than two minutes to interview (I asked twenty questions). There was a slider for the Likert scale questions, that some (most) visitors were comfortable using themselves. This has great potential, because it allowed continuous responses. I used seven categories (0-6), but people were chosing to push it right to the top end of six, or “only just” into the six region. Given that the slider stays the same length no matter how many categories you use, you could easily create a Likert scale with 100 responses, to get something that feels like, and may actually be, a statistically continuous integer scale.

There are some working traps to be aware of: I created a question requiring a yes/no answer, but the only options for answers were true/false. But it allowed me to create multiple choice questions with either “select one only” or “select all that apply” and along with the Likert scales and a couple of numeric questions, I was good to go. I was at Bodiam for two or three hours on a damp day when it wasn’t too busy and I managed to ask almost everybody leaving the Castle to participate. None refused, so I only missed the occasional group who left while I was already engaged with a visitor.

The app saves all the responses on the device (which is good because there is no mobile signal at Bodiam) and you can upload them when connected to wifi. I did have a problem here at first, because it turns out there’s a (known) bug which means you have to tell the device that it lives in Canada before the upload works. It was frustrating at first, but the help team responded quickly to my email with a fix (change the iPad’s region settings for the upload).

You can only view that data once you’ve uploaded it. But once its there, you can see it on-line, look at some pretty but not wildly useful histograms and pie charts and, crucially, download the data to your number-crunching computer. The download options are excel or CSV. It looks like the most useful one if you are going to do any real work with the data is “raw CSV” which is mostly numerical. The others all include the actual category words “disappointing, very enjoyable” in the data, which isn’t going to be useful in R. The raw CSV file isn’t perfect though. The True/false data comes as 1 or 2 rather than the 0 or 1 which you might expect (though having typed that, I recall there may be a good statistical reason for that which may have been mentioned in my Coursera course). And he “all that apply” multichoice data comes as a single field with comma separated numbers relating to the order of the categories. An “enhanced CSV” file splits out those categories into separate columns but, frustratingly, doesn’t populate those columns with numeric values but instead repeats the category name. So it seems I’ll have to do a bit of fiddling before I can load the data into R and have a play with my newly acquired statistics skills.

All in all though QuickTap Survey seems a useful bundle of service and App. Its pretty expensive though. I used a Free level, which allows me just one survey with a maximum of 50 questions and 50 respondents. The next level up (which allows for up to ten surveys, 100 questions per survey and 1500 reponses per survey) costs $19 (CAD) per month, and additional devices (if you want more people collecting data) cost at least $9CAD per month each.

It may be that when I need to break the 50 response barrier, I can organise my work to get it all done in just one month, and there’s a free trial of any of the paid levels of service too, but I which there was an academic level for us poor students, like the one Prezi offers.

Now about those “newly acquired statistics skills”. I’ve got a mid-term exam due tomorrow, and this week’s coursework needs to be done by Sunday, So I”d better sign off.

Sitting in Southampton, imagining Ightham Mote (and Petworth)

I spent an interesting half-hour yesterday, listening to somebody repeatedly telling me that we were in the Great Hall at Ightham Mote. But we were not. I was in a sound engineering lab in Southampton, and “she” was a recording, or rather one of thirty recordings. There was also a slightly more random gentleman, repeatedly excited about how so many words could be made out of such a small alphabet.  I put the headphones on, listened and answered questions. Where was the sound coming from? Was it more or less resonant that the previous one, was the one or timbre different or the same? In which were the words easier to make out? And repeat.

Its all part of an experiment by Catriona Cooper, who has, with university colleagues, spent some time mapping the acoustics of the Great Hall at Igtham Mote. The experiment I was involved in is part of her work to simulate the feeling of being in the all aurally, just as 3d computer graphics might attempt to do it visually.  As I sat there wondering why, when I wear headphones, the sound always seems to be coming from behind me, I could immediately think of an application for such a simultation.

The day before I’d met with NT archaeologist Tom Dommett, who among other things has a three year project on at Petworth. He took me out to where the stables used to be, pointing out the shallow dips in the ground where walls once stood. We talked excitedly about how a mobile device might interpret the story. WE was all for a 3D modelled VR, but I impressed upon him how good it was just to listen to him explain it. And while I sat listening in Catriona’s experiment, I thought “wouldn’t it be great if I was listening to Tom on a mobile device, and as I stepped over the ditch into the the “interior” of the long-gone building, the tone and resonance of his voice changed to help me imagine the space that once would have surrounded us.

Is this an insight on the Narrative Paradox?

I’ve been analysing the data collected for my evaluation of Ghosts in the Garden. Yesterday I sent my preliminary observations to the guys who created it, and by the end of today I hope to have completed the first draft of my full report. If everyone approves I’ll share it all here in future.

But I did want to share, and possibly sense-check, my key bit of insight. We asked participants to rate how strongly they agreed with a number of statements about the experience, using a seven point Likert scale. So here’s a sample of the sort of response we got to a simple statement, “The Ghosts in the Garden experience added to my enjoyment of the visit today”:

A simple bar chart, showing that most visitors strongly agreed that the Ghosts in the Garden experience added to the enjoyment of their visit
A simple bar chart, showing that most visitors strongly agreed that the Ghosts in the Garden experience added to the enjoyment of their visit

Which is very nice and positive. But I’m looking for emotional engagement, and the responses to the statement “The story I heard had a real emotional impact on me” were less positive:

Most users were non-committal about emotional engagement, and some did not agree that the story had any emotional impact.
Most users were non-committal about emotional engagement, and some did not agree that the story had any emotional impact.

Now, to be honest I’m not sure I’m asking the right question here. I used this wording only because we ask the question in a similar way at the National Trust where I work, and this being my first bit of research I wanted something that I could easily compare these data with. (For comparison, some of the National Trust’s most emotionally engaging places get something over 20% of visitors ticking to top (number seven) box, in this sample, only about 8% did.)

Asking people to rate their emotional response is according to many, a futile task, and there are likely better ways to measure it, but allow me to indulge myself for a moment. If I can assume that the story was indeed not as emotionally engaging as it might be, I might ask myself “why not”?

Remember, Ghosts is the Garden has been described by its creators as a “choose-your-own-adventure style story.” When you pick up the “listening device” your make your first choice – balloons or fireworks – and then, at every point you are offered a choice of two locations to explore, and the narration explains that the choices you make will affect the outcome of the story. And yet when we asked users whether they agreed that the choices they made changed the story, quite a bit of skepticism was evident:

A  number of people agreed that they choices they made changed the story, but more were a lot less sure.
A number of people agreed that the choices they made changed the story, but more were less convinced.

So my next overriding question is, did confidence that they were changing the story affect users’ emotional engagement? I think I can do a cut of the data to find that out, but the sample size is too small to be really confident in what it might show. Given what I’ve been uncovering about the story structures of the video games I’ve played though, I beginning to wonder if there’s any value to this sort of interactivity. For me, Skyrim, with its wider story structure has been a lot less emotionally involving then either Red Dead Redemption or Dear Esther, both of which take the player towards one single, inevitable, ending. And then there’s the Narrative Paradox.

I wonder whether, rather than trying to construct a number of possible endings, Splash and Ripple (the creators of Ghosts in the Garden) might have better used their time, and the interactive nature of the device, to offer visitors a choice of points-of-view on one single story. And if they had done so, would that have made the narrative stronger, and more emotionally compelling?