The Invisible Hand – part 2

I promised more on the Blast Theory workshop I attended a couple of weeks back, and here it is. The two days were kicked off by Matt Adams of Blast Theory explaining why they’d titled the event with a term the Adam Smith had coined a couple of hundred years ago. Smith of course wrote about the Invisible Hand as a good thing, turning selfish acts into selfless ones:

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations Book IV, chapter II, paragraph IX

However the Invisible Hand that we examined during the workshop had the power to be good, a more sinister. We were looking an profiling and personalisation. Matt started with off with an example of profiling. Mosaic is Experian’s database of UK households and organisations use to identify markets. My own day-job at the National Trust uses Mosaic, but you don’t have to be an organisation to access at least some of the data, their ForSite app is available for free  for your iOS or Android device. At the National Trust, we know that a number of the sixty segments into which Mosaic divides the population are more likely to become members than others, so certain postcodes might, for example, respond more positively to a fundraising appeal. Of course its a pretty broad brush, and describes a population by the people they live among, not as individuals. Its all about inference, not fact.

But technology enables organisations with the inclination to collect more and more data on individuals, not just addresses, and modern manufacturing processes allows a degree of mass-customization that moves the world of profiling into one of personalization. Matt spoke of the chain Zara, the high street face of Spanish company Inditex where staff collect feedback every day from customers, and send it to HQ, where designers collate and respond to what customers are looking for within weeks. Apparently only 3 or 4 units of each design are shipped to branches, and using the daily feedback from stores and a  2-3 week production process, the entire stock of a shop will change every 11 days.

Matt’s question to us all was, what does this mean for the arts?

Of course personalized art has been around for decades. Matt cited  Allan Kaprow’s 1959 work, 18 happenings in 6 parts; the neo-futurists’ ongoing Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (which is not just personalized but also randomized – a roll of a dice defines your ticket price); and Lev Manovitch’s Soft Cinema as examples.

Blast Theory themselves are not alone in the contemporary application of technology to create art: Invisible FlockNon Zero OneConey; and Urban Angel all create worlds that are part theatre, part game experiences that create unique experiences for each audience member. Many of these experiences collect data on their participants, is this a good thing or an abuse of privilege?

In the discussion, concern was expressed about the power of profiling and personalization. I found myself playing devils advocate. Yes, profiling is a blunt tool, and can be used to exercise power unfairly upon minorities, but personalization, if its done right, is a dialogue. Some years ago, when I was a young man, I liked Levi’s 620 jeans. Then, with some retro rock and roll, Levis introduced 501s and 620s disappeared from the shops. I was gutted, I’m not a handsome man, but I’ve got a pretty fine set of pins, which 620s showed off at their best (or did at least, when I was slimmer), tight in all the right places (around the calf I meant!!). 501s were baggy, which might have been fashionable, but what I would have given for the manufacturing process that dangles now so temptingly in front of us now, where those few of us that were not persuaded to convert to 501s might still buy 620s, even better than they were before because they’re made to measure.

Of course the debate turned to privacy, such a vital topic in these post-Snowden times, but even here, despite my abhorrence of the state spying on its democratic masters, I found myself an apologist for Big Brother. Is “Privacy” actually an aberration, a blip in the long history of society, brought about only a few generations ago by scraping together enough coin to live in the luxury of separate bedrooms? For most of human history we’ve lived with a different concept of privacy, where communities knew pretty much everything that when on, and privilege bought some people only a reduced number of people to share the toilet with.

I think we concluded that the debate was less about privacy than power. We discussed the politics of knowledge, touching upon Marilyn Strathern’s simple hierarchy of data, information and knowledge. Data being the unprocessed stuff that we see (or sense by any other means); information being that data organised in some way so we can begin to see some sense in it; and, knowledge is information that has an effect, that makes us change our behaviors in some way. The fear is that data is being harvested  by large, wealthy organisations, in such huge quantities and the “common man” or woman can not make sense of it. So we let these organisations organize it into information, and offer us knowledge that manipulates our behaviours to the organisations’ benefit. A new Invisible Hand that isn’t working for the benefit of society as a whole.

Kelly Page offered us examples. Doubleclick was a company that monitored websurfing, following clickthroughs on banner ads especially, a form of anonymous behavioural profiling. They acquired an off-line catalogue company called Abacus with the intention of merging their anonymous data with the  personal information within Abacus’ database. (though after Microsoft called foul, they were prevented from doing so by the US FTC. Later they (and their data) were acquired by Google. Page worked for a time at DunnHumby, who run Tesco’s Clubcard, and surprised us with the revelation that Inland revenue use club card data to validate your tax return.

But why should big and sometimes anonymous corporations be the arbiters of data, information and knowledge? We explored ways in which artists might take the mechanics of big data and transform it into different, playful information and knowledge. Blast Theory shared projects that tried to do just that from early experiments with Prof Tanda’s Guess-A-Where to a more recent and on-going collaboration with National Theatre Wales. Then John McGrath and Katherine Jewkes both from National Theatre Wales came on to talk about being an organisation that started out as an on-line community, and how even they struggle to cope with the “small data” that their participants have shared.  But they also gave us a taste of a lovely game/perfomance that imagines having to smuggle yourself of the border of a newly independent Wales. Part of that game involves creating a fake passport for yourself, and they were surprised by participants willingness to give their real names and data rather than making stuff up.

Giles Lane of Proboscis told us about a fascinating co-creation with Anglia Ruskin University and the R&D section of Phillips who have a interest in telehealth. Their idea which echoed our earlier discussion around the politics of knowledge, was to take an individual’s medical data and turn it into a 3D printed model, a talisman, a lucky pebble, which they carry with them. A beautiful object used as a tangible locus of meaning, mindfulness, rather than the dull data which means not enough to change behavior.

So can art use big data/infomation/knowledge to benefit society? And what are the ethics of doing so? That was the meat of our discussion, and Blast Theory, having collected our thoughts (data), are organizing them (infomation) and will shortly share them in some useful format (knowledge).

When they do, I’ll share a link here.

The Invisible Hand – Blast Theory

I’ve had a great first day attending The Invisible Hand a two day workshop hosted by Blast Theory, the Brighton based art collective. I met all sorts of interesting people, and I’ll write in more detail about it later.

But right now I want to process my excitement about a short presentation from Lesley Fosh. A PhD student at Nottingham University, Lesley shared an experiment wherein she worked with eight pairs of visitors to a local art gallery. She enabled one half of each couple to “gift” a personalised tour to their friend/partner. The giver chose five items, and for each chose a piece of music, a vocal instruction to do something, and a personal message, which were combined into a personal “app” that the other then used to explore the museum. Though this was an experiment intentionally limited in scope (the tours were only to be shared with the other half of the pair) a number of us were excited by the potential. For me it’s a great way of confounding the Narrative Paradox. Each was a piece of interpretation, that because I was created for a known individual seemed magically imbued with an emotional quality that turned something quite prosaic into poetry.

I was immediately imagining tagging each segment in some way, and storing it in a database that could then serve up segments in combinations that the original authors never intended. The choice of five segments that the author originally put together would be unique to that gift, and never shared in its entirety with another visitor, but segments from a number of givers could be combined in ways that might give other visitors unique, procedurally personalised, interpretations of a museum gallery.

It’s late, and I’m ready for bed, so I probably am not making as much sense as I feel. But I’m very glad I went, and I’m looking forward to day two tomorrow.

Story, Time and Place

This is the Prezi and below are my notes in preparation for a short presentation I gave to a Digital Humanities seminar group at University today. Hosted WordPress still can’t deal with embedded Prezi’s yet so click the link at the start to see the slides. And my notes below are just notes, so you’ll have to imagine me riffing off them to make an entertaining, compelling and coherent (I hope!)  presentation.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated manuscript gospel book produced around the year 700 in a monastery off the coast of Northumberland at Lindisfarne and which is now on display in the British Library in London.


Very little structure to the text, no paragraphs etc

In the 10th century an Old English translation of the Gospels was made: a word-for-word gloss inserted between the lines of the Latin text by Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street.

This is the oldest extant translation of the Gospels into the English language, and a great example of a reader interacting with the text.

Laurence Stern created one of the first texts to be interacted with. Tristram shandy is epistolary novel, but it’s more than that, sampling other works of literature to bring new meanings.

He chose the format, paper, type and layout of the novel. It’s a book to be played with.

Last year’s Building Stories. Like Tristram Shandy, a story to be played with. Dan Clowes (author) suggest leave bits of it around your own building to chance upon.

Gorge Méliès, regarded as the first person to recognize the potential of narrative film. Goes beyond sequential time/movement and to imaginary places.

Voyage Dans La Lune , special effects, Jump cuts, locations etc started a century of narrative experimentation.

For example music

diegetic music (where musicians are playing in the story, or charcters are listening to the radio for example),
nondiegetic music (where as she says “an orchestra plays as coyboys chase indians upon the desert”) and
metadiegegtic music (where we hear a character “remember” a bit of music).
She also talk about themes, and what Wagner called “motifs or reminisence.”

But despite all this innovation, don’t you find some films “Same-y”?

Not every film has been a success of course. After some test screenings Walt Disney called in “script doctors” to fix The Lion King

Christopher Vogler – Joseph Cambell, Hero’s journey applied to Lion King, then book The Writer’s Journey.

Save the Cat! Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet – Almost an algorithm for scripting film. 110 pages

Opening Image – page 1 A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. Set-up – ten pages Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the normal world. Including: Theme Stated page 5 – say it “with great power comes great responsibility. Catalyst page 12 – the world turns upside down. Emotional shock. Debate for thirteen pages – Dare our heroes actually explore the new world? Break Into Act Two page 25– The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. B Story begins on page 30— This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – Timon and Pumba in the Lion King. Fun and games twenty five pages— the action, the roller coaster ride the caper. Midpoint p55 — Success!’ But Bad Guys Close In for twenty pages.bAll is Lost page75 – The opposite of Success. And emotional Nadir.
Dark Night of the Soul for ten pages – woe is me. Hit rock bottom. Break Into Three (page 85) – the B story provides the solution to the A-story. Finale twentyfive pages – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis! Final Image page 110 – ride into the sunset, a changed character.

Of course the audience have to see each frame of the film in the order in which it is presented. Only the director gets to play with chronology.

Games give back the power to explore the narrative

Procedural narratives versus authored narratives.

Describe RDR, starts off interactive, but delivers fewer and fewer choices towards an inevitable end. Authored, nor procedural. Are procedural stories only in need to great endings?

Pervasive AR

Last week I visited Dapdune Wharf, the Guildford  nerve-centre of the River Wey Navigations, to meet with my NT colleague Sarah, Dr Caroline Scarles of Surrey University and  Dr Matthew Casey of Pervasive Intelligence. Matthew is the brains behind a prototype Augmented Reality (AR) application for cultural heritage:

What’s particularly interesting about this work isn’t the image recognition (though that appears to be pretty robust), or even the wi-fi localisation (the technology underlying Apple’s iBeacon is available on most major brands and platforms and is likely to be cheaper for cultural heritage to implement than wifi) but the potential business model. Matthew explained that the App itself would be holder for downloadable content packs created by cultural institutions. Sarah tells me that after the prototype phase, Matthew’s plan is to offer the technology for free to cultural heritage, which means that they can offer the content for free to their users. The value is in the tracking data that the app will collect as its users explore the museum. And its this that will make the technology financially sustainable.

Given the number of companies competing for contracts with cultural heritage, and space on users’ devices, this is the first business model that I think might possibly survive the inevitable rationalisation of this nascent industry.

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.

Location gaming

We had a great meeting yesterday for our funding application, though everyone has so many great ideas that the biggest challenge is going to be scoping those ideas into something achievable. Barring a couple of extra questions, everybody seems reasonably happy with the survey I drafted, so all we’re waiting for now is the green light from ERGO, the university’s ethics monitoring system.

My team mate Mark showed me a game I hadn’t seen before, Ingress, from Google and currently only available on Android phones. At it’s heart is a reasonably simple geocaching mechanic based on public artworks, but around that is a territory capture mechanic that smacks of Feng Shui RPG and the Invisibles and on top of it all, what appears to be a captivating story line. On top of that players are playing the game in a way that I don’t think was intentional, using the mechanics to create virtual two-colour artworks across the maps. All in all it’s something I want to play, but I only have an iOS phone 😦

Other location based games came up in the conversation around the survey too. SCVNGER is a very commercial game, looking to more obviously monetise Foursquare’s behaviors. Chromarama looks more fun, like Ingress, a game of territory capture, and it looks a lot of fun for Londoners or commuters with a bit of time on their hands.

Another game for Londoners is Magic in Modern London, an iPhone app produced by our old friends at the Wellcome Trust (an institution which also gave us High Tea). This is a scavenger hunt of a different sort, based upon an exhibition put on at the Welcome Collection back in 2011. This isn’t something that came up in yesterday’s conversation, but instead brought to my attention by an article in today’s Guardian. Which also tells us that its not just Londoners getting all the fun. One of the brains behind that game is currently working on one for Oxford museums, called Box of Delights. I’m looking forward to giving it a try.

These are the challenges. And looking at them it feel quite daunting. Can our project manage to produce a similar (or dare I say it, an even better) experience using only extant platforms?

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?

The Bartle Test

I’ve been reading about the Bartle Test. It came up in conversation when somebody asked about player motivations. Turns out people have been asking similar questions for years, and after much discussion on the bulletin board of a UK “Multi-User Dungeon” Richard Bartle came up with a 1996 paper, outlining four gamer types.

A few years later, Erwin Andreasen and Brandon Downey came up with a web based test which players could take. So I took it.

Its a slow website, I gave up once, half way through, but eventually, discovered that I’m 93% Explorer, 73% Socialiser, 40% Acheiver, and 20% Killer.

I’m not at all convinced by the validity of the test. It’s a sort of disguised paired comparisons test, but unlike many I’ve taken, there were plenty of questions to which I wanted to reply “neither”. Also, in its current iteration least, the website comments with attempted humour as the participant selects their answer. I’d fear that this might influence some participants to change their answer before submitting their reply. But I can’t deny that I’m most like the “Explorer”.

Of course I don’t actually play MUDs (or the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, with MUDs have evolved into) as I’m more of a table-top gamer. (I was going to say “old-school” but actually table top RPGs preceded MUDs but only a couple of years). So maybe it’s not surprising that I didn’t feel I could genuinely express a preference for either of the choices in some of the pairs. Maybe, as a player I don’t “suit” MUDs, as Bartle’s punning title to his paper implies. And the fact that I don’t play maybe the reason why I’m not entirely convinced by the four types Bartle suggested in the first place. Bartle pretty much invented MUDs after all, so I’ll bow to his experience.

(An aside: Dave Rickey’s discussion of game designers subverts Bartle’s model to give us “types” that I do recognise.)

In fact Bartle himself re-configured his four type taxonomy to one which featured eight types: Friend; Griefer; Hacker; Networker; Opportunist; Planner; Politician, and Scientist in his book Designing Virtual Worlds. By it’s the four-type taxonomy which seems to have stuck. I don’t know why the eight-type has less traction, perhaps it’s because, as Bartle himself apparently said, the four type model is easier to draw. I’m also surprised no-one has attempted to create a Bartle test for this new taxonomy, or indeed to challenge the model itself. The only couple I have found are this one from Jon Radoff, looking specifically at player motivations but for more games  than just MUDs, and this one from Nick Yee (his Daedalus Project does look like an interesting read).

Perhaps there are other models but, given the multimillion (billion?) dollar industry that computer based gaming has become, perhaps the developers prefer to keep their player motivation models to themselves.

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.

Steamships, vampires, pirates, space colonists and emergent narrative

This is a bit of a portmanteau post. Which I guess is what one gets when one’s mind has been concentrating on the mid-term exam for a Coursera statistics course. In the end I got 84%. I might have worked harder (you are allowed pretty much as many retakes as you want) to get a perfect 100, but, you know, life’s too short. And all the time I was discovering things I wanted to share and play with.

First of all, the Full Steam Ahead game from SS Great Britain in Bristol. Created by Aardman for the historic ship, this is a deceptively simple game that explains the principles of Naval Architecture, setting ship design challenges fro the player, and equipping them with the skills and expertise to build a ship of their own for the free-play challenges. I’ve not had much time to explore it, but its looks like its could absorb many pleasant hours as you refine and test your designs.

Next up, Bram Stoker’s Vampires, a game designed for Dublin’s Science Gallery by Haunted Planet. Designed to be played in the vicinity of Trinity College, Dublin (where Bram Stoker, among many famous writers etc., studied), it can in fact be played anywhere else too. It’s a dedicated app for Android, and downloadable content of the Haunted Planet app on iOS. I haven’t actually played this all yet, but it has won awards.

What I have been playing is my 14th Anniversary present from my wife: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag. I love pirates, me. Not the actual ones you understand, but the romantic ideal of the pirate, and this iteration of Assassin’s Creed, has sea battles, quests to collect sea shanties for your crew to sing, and Caribbean weather to boot! The game starts well, with your avatar taking the wheel of a ship in the midst of a battle. Inevitably, you find yourself shipwrecked on an island, with an “assassin” of the order that gives its name to the franchise. Best him in combat, steal his clothes and get rescued, and you are on your way to a life of piracy.

But not directly. After this first scene you awake in a first-person modern day setting, and it turns our you are researching history for a video game company. Its a pretty clever company apparently, that has the technology for you to conduct your research by “synchronizing” with the life of an actual seventeenth century ancestor (or something like that, I’ve only just started playing).

To be honest, these cinematic cut-scenes are quite intrusive to someone like me that seeks only a ship “and a star to sail her by.” There were no cut-scenes as such in Skyrim, and I think it was better for it, even if the conversations your character had were thus stilted and repetitive. The cut scenes in Red Dead Redemption were somehow more in-keeping that the ones I’ve encounter this far in Black Flag, less offensively jarring. I came across an interesting article about game narrative, that could be seen simply as a diatribe against cut-scenes, but make some very valid points about emergent narrative, citing Dwarf Fortress as an example. The same game was mentioned frequently in Tynan Sylvester’s book.Talking of whom, I notice a spike in visits directed to this blog from Tynan Sylvester’s site last month. That site, it seemed, was getting a lot of hits, interest generated by his Kickstarter for Rimworld. I enjoyed his book so much felt compelled to pledge a contribution myself, and so I’ve had the opportunity to play an alpha release of that game.

Rimworld is aiming for exactly the sort of emergent narrative described in Terence Lee’s article. Of particular interest is that Sylvester is experimenting with different automatic narrators which will become (I hope) a more nuanced version of difficulty level for the game.

Of course its a challenge to think of emergent narrative in a heritage interpretation context, though an experimental archaeology sim would be an obvious place to start.