Game on

Mia Ridge, 18.06.2013
Engaging visitors through play
Earlier this month I was in Belfast for the Museum Computer Group's spring event, Engaging Visitors Through Play.

It was an opportunity to bring museum staff and researchers together with game and interaction designers, and the regional showcase of talks about projects from local practitioners further helped introduce people to the great work already going on in Northern Ireland and hopefully to start some local collaborations.

As co-organiser Alan Hook pointed out in his introduction, it was also a chance to think about the impact of research and start conversations between museums and academia.

My talk, Digital challenges, digital opportunities, was followed by Lyndsey Jackson of Kabosh talking about immersive theatre and digital experience and their site-specific theatre company.

Their material is the buildings, people and stories of Northern Ireland and they work with unusual spaces - anywhere but a theatre.

They're dealing with two interesting constraints – the stories of buildings might be complicated, contested or difficult, and while they want to give audiences the chance to navigate an experience for themselves, they're aware that “theatre is a game - it has rules, boundaries, you can bend them but it confuses people when you break them”.

In a lovely departure from some museum experiences, they don't try to give their audiences all the answers - sometimes they want to give people some information in a way that starts them asking questions so they have to look things up themselves if they want to know more. I wish I'd had longer in Belfast to see one of their shows or try Belfast Bred.

Alan Hook's fellow co-organiser Oonagh Murphy presented some results from her audit of the online presences of museums in Northern Ireland and the question she set out to test: that professional development hack days can help the sector.

These issues are discussed in more depth in her MW2013 paper This is Our Playground, but one fascinating insight from her talk was that museum studies students are quite conservative, “museums have rules for a reason”, and take a while to warm to the concept of prototyping.

Alan then talked about the MyNI photo competition and games that work with “civic pride”, the realities of designing mobile experiences around 3G coverage and expensive data plans, and shared some reflections on the MyNI process, including his questions about the ethics of crowdsourcing images and the differences between academic and industry timelines.

The next session saw Sharna Jackson, czar of Tate Kids, presenting on the past, present and future of play at Tate. She pointed out that games can bring in hard-to-reach audiences, can be a gateway to engagement with deeper content, and can be a work of art in themselves.

I loved her stance on web vs device-specific mobile applications – while tablets are increasingly popular, their aim is to reach wide audiences, so jumping into apps might not be right choice for limited budgets.

Her lessons included: know your audience and what they expect; play games so you get what's great about games; your mission, content and goals all influence what kinds of games it makes sense for you to make; if planning to let users generate content, you need a strategy to manage it. Be clear about what games are and respect the medium.

Danny Birchall of the Wellcome Collection talked about museums and public engagement, including findings from an evaluation of the game High Tea that “piracy is the most effective form of distribution”, so designing games to be ripped or seeded on portals can help achieve wider goals.

The regional showcase covered a range of interesting projects from local organisations, in part with the idea of helping start local conversations.

Some of the projects we heard about from @takebackbelfast, @stephentshaw, @designzoo and @Lancorz were really inspiring and just plain cool. It was also refreshing to hear outsider's perspectives on what museums do. One guy said: “People bring their own knowledge, experiences and devices to museums - why do you need big interactive installations?”

The day finished with a twenty minute play test of Alex Moseley's Curate-a-fact game then we headed off to the pub for some well-deserved #drinkingaboutmuseums.

Mia Ridge is the chair of the Museums Computer Group. Read her blog at