Thursday 21 June 2012

In conversation with... Danny Birchall and Martha Henson

Museums, collections and research institutes are well aware of marketing's campaign-driven structure: they hold exhibitions and events related to building awareness, advocacy and knowledge around a core topic.

Martha Henson, Danny Birchall

So, it should come as no surprise to understand that such organisations are getting into games as a way to deepen audience engagement. The Wellcome Collection in London has been highly successful at this practice. We chatted with Danny Birchall and Martha Henson of the Wellcome Collection about games, audiences, and how to enrich ongoing exhibition and engagement activity.

How did your work in gaming come about?

DB: About two-and-a-half years ago, we began thinking about making games for the audience of our cultural heritage organisation, the Wellcome Collection, as a way of experiencing cultural heritage objects. We thought that games could be a way of people more effectively approaching our subjects.


MH: We had some vague ideas about what we might want to do and we were really quite open. We went through a process of talking to a number of agencies, which is where we first met Preloaded and Smile Your Eyes Off. We did something initially very small with them - nothing too ambitious, just testing the waters. It was a card-swapping game with 1100 images from our collection. There were all kinds of images in there; the twist was that you start with clearly-differentiated images, but by the end of it, you're trying to differentiate between 20 different types of forceps. It's very representative of the image collection that we have: items that Henry Wellcome collected. We wanted to reflect that. Later, we produced a multimedia quiz engine, so we could quickly build quizzes that could go on any site. And then it was High Tea... where everything changed.


DB: High Tea was a breakout success in terms of what we were doing. We had an exhibition called High Society, which was a material and cultural history of recreational drug use through the ages. Clearly, we were not going to explicitly reference drug use in a game, but there might be something in the Opium trade. We met with the exhibition's curators and Preloaded, and aimed to come up with a concept.


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MH: You play a British trader - a role which was really a smuggler, trading against the wishes of the Chinese authorities; you're trying to get enough money to buy tea, which is in huge demand across the British Empire. When the Chinese cracked down on this, it led to the Opium wars and the eventual annexation of Hong Kong. We thought that a game could be produced in a way that was not overly moral, and wasn't obviously saying "this is bad". You are in the role of the trader, selling as much Opium as possible to get tea, but you're having a think along the way about the whole situation. The game itself is very simple; you're buying and selling at the best price, but it turned out to be quite addictive.

Preloaded's distribution strategy was very smart. They built it as a self-contained file, then seeded it to the major portals like Kongregate and NewGrounds, and from where other sites could just take the game and publish it themselves. In the end, over 50% of plays were on sites that we had never heard of before.


DB: It's a piracy-priming strategy. We knew that we would not attract a huge audience if we put it on our site and asked people to come to our game. That would just be about us marketing it.

It's a different context.

DB: Yes. If you want people to play a game, you put it where people play them, rather than where people might find the content interesting. We make games for gameplayers, because we want them to become engaged with what we do. In order to do that, you have to make a game portable. At the same time, the game was full of analytics, so it wasn't about casting the game out into the wild; we could see everywhere that it had been played. The other part of this project was to evaluate the game quite heavily, and to see what people thought of it.


MH: I don't think that we were expecting the scale of it all. It was seeded on Thursday, then you have a period where you wait to see if it gets properly picked up and featured and people start to rate it. I looked on Saturday morning, and it had passed 100,000 plays.


DB: Casual games have a definite lifecycle; there's a opening weekend.


MH: There was another request to carry it from a massive games portal. On one day, we had over 200,000 plays. It was amazing. The numbers were incredible, and on Kongregate and NewGrounds, there were hundreds of people talking about it.


DB: One of the really gratifying things about the comments were that as well as "How to master the game", "How to get the most wins", there started to be comments about the subject matter. Some people took us to task; a very small number said that it was tasteless. We wondered how we should respond, and in the meantime another dozen people pointed out the reasons why you might want to play a game like this. They were having a conversation as much about the subject matter and the history as much as the game.


Which is what you wanted.

MH: Absolutely. We had an overall dwell-time of around 14 minutes, which suggested that there was a good amount of engagement going on. To see the debate going on around it.. .something had gotten across in terms of the subject matter.

We also put a survey in the game, asking people what they thought about it. There were some very interesting responses regarding what people thought about the British Empire. We followed this up with telephone interviews; some respondents considered that before the game they thought that the subject matter was fundamentally evil, but in fact it was just about making money. They weren't necessarily thinking through the ethical implications of it, which was very interesting.


DB: Others thought through the economic lessons of it. A couple of blogs used the game as an illustration of how markets don't think. You can be strategic in the game, but you're only really responding to fluctuations in the market price of tea and Opium to make your fortune, which in themselves affect the market price. People extrapolated from this, that trading shows you how markets are poor at planning for the future: fast-twitch, reflex economics. People were beginning to use the game to think about things that we had not put in there.


Did it become a virtuous circle in terms of planning for the future?

MH: It was a validation of what we were doing. With High Tea, we have had over 3 million plays now. Through the survey, we could also show that people got something out of it: over 50% were motivated to find out more, which was really nice. We had not turned people into experts through the game, but we wanted to get them thinking, and for us to get new work off the ground in the future. The distribution strategy had worked, and the collaborative way of developing the project with our curator had also worked.

It's a controversial subject; if we got aspects of the history wrong, or names wrong, then it would have been mortifying and probably would have created a backlash against the game. So, it was critical that we worked with curators in the development of the game. It was also important to get their ideas and input, which was also the process for Axon.


How deep was curatorial involvement, and did your success build a greater understanding with curators as to the value of games?

DB: Yes to both. Mike Jay, the co-curator of High Society, offered to give Preloaded the complete historical tables of Opium prices for the decade overt which the game takes place. Mike understands games and understands the logic. We could not have worked without that level of curatorial involvement.


MH: We have certainly found a lot of goodwill in the curatorial teams towards what we're doing. For Axon, we knew that Brains was coming up, so we had a curator, a neuroscientist, and Richard Wingate, whose specialty is the development of neuroscience. We put them in a room with Preloaded for a day and had a crash course in neuroscience. We watched a video on fetal neuron growth, which became one of the inspirations for Axon. What we were all looking for was something in place that 'sounded a bit gamey'. In this case, biological rules became game rules.


So you have to develop 'gaming antennae'.

DB: There was also a genuine case of learning from each other. We learned a lot about neuron anatomy and about game mechanics: score, jeopardy, achievements, and so on. Out of that, we thought about how they could match, which turned into a competition based on biological rules and it 'bubbled to the surface'. Rather than seeing what fits, a more intimate process of collaboration occurs.

As well as rules, there were the settings, and we were interested in how brains were represented. There are lots of different ways in which the brain is now seen, and we were interested in how the brain might be seen in terms of individual neurons and what the aesthetic might be. Preloaded came up with something quite space-like but also quite biological.

In terms of the survey for this game, we asked players as to whether playing this game changed their view of how the brain looks. More than half said 'no', which was unexpected. We were expecting views of it as being 'fleshy', which is the aesthetic of the show, rather than a network. Before the game launched across the networks, there was a audience of neuroscientists playing it; it grew quite quickly among that community.


MH: With this work, what we based the game on was a very simple, light-touch set of principles. Neurons head toward protein targets, and there are rival neurons. That was enough to build a game. At the end, Richard had an idea of the score being based on different types of neuron, which in turn clicks through to each Wikipedia page. It's had over 4 million plays now; it has not created debate in the same way, but we are really pleased with it. Richard wanted to show the journey - which areas of the brain you had gone through. It's something that he said that medical students struggle with, as 3D scans used are rather abstract. So, Richard is now directly working with Preloaded to turn this idea into a teaching tool.


DB: It's a research project to see how the game could become a teaching tool, as well as one for broad engagement. A researcher working with Preloaded also used some of the game analytics to undertake research on how people get better at games. There are two curves: people who are good at games, who continually improve at playing them, and the rest of us [!]. The game is not only the output of scientific research and knowledge, but also the locus itself.


A lot opens out from the germ of the idea.

MH: Before Wellcome, I worked on interactive gaming project elsewhere, and was really struck by the emotional power of gaming. That's really powerful... if what you're doing has purpose, and an educational aspect. As it's embedded, as with the case with Axon, you have to learn something in order to progress through the game, so there's a real-world relevance. People like Jane McGonigal, who do things with a real-world impact through game mechanics, help everyone to be convinced as to how even the most casual games can have an effect.

It's something that the Trust is really interested in. We have a Broadcast & Gaming Strategy, which relates to funding activities for games. We work with that team in sharing knowledge, and they're running a workshop at Develop which will put scientists with games developers to come up with new ideas. They're keen to work with people on ideas as to how biomedical science can be applied to games.


There's still so much more potential.

MH: I recently heard a talk by Jane, where she said that games were undergoing a sort of Cambrian Explosion. There's so much untapped potential out there.


Do you now see yourselves as game publishers?

DB: Game commissioners, maybe, although it's Wellcome that publishes the game. Definitely. The reach and demonstrable engagement is hard to argue with...


MH: ... and value-for-money.


Would you consider Transmedia projects?

MH: Possibly, but they are so much more difficult to pull off. With alternate-reality games, the audiences - particularly those that want to follow the whole thing through - tend to be quite small. The traditional model of it doesn't really work. There's a discussion going on at the moment as to whether games are the ideal way of delivering a narrative, and when you look at something like Heavy Rain which is really an interactive narrative... it doesn't have the agency. It doesn't have that feeling of achieving something.


DB: There was an exhibition, earlier in the year, Miracles and Charms. One half was Chance, arranged by the artist Felicity Powell, of amulets collected by an 19th century folklorist, Edward Lovett. He wrote Magic in Modern London in the 1920s; a time when most folklorists were looking out into the English countryside for the remnants of folk traditions. Lovett was in London swapping stories and charms, which themselves had their origins in the country. The stories in the book are attached to particular objects.


MH: Picking up on the book being set in London... it just seemed obvious that a location-based project would be worth doing. It's a treasure hunt for the amulets around London, but is also an audiovisual experience, designed to be experienced with headphones and with historical archive imagery. You are told little stories at each point, and they become a reward for getting to each point. It uses a 1908 map overlaid on contemporary London.


DB: It's a playful environment game. You can't collect the amulet unless you're in the place where the amulet can be collected. The app has a "chest" by which all of the amulets can be collected, and the story unfolds. It's done with Ambler, who produced Hackney Hear. The game isn't strictly point-based; it's a media-based approach, so you can wander around and be alerted to the presence of hidden amulets.


MH: It's an experiment for us too; the Wellcome Collection's first foray into creating an app. We shall be evaluating its use again, and we'll be keen to find out what people make of it. It's a long project that is based in the real world, so I guess that we are doing Transmedia stuff [!] ... but it didn't start from that point.


DB: Again, it comes from finding the game element. There isn't a system by which you can reliably extract that. It's about finding the relationships between interesting cultural and scientific things, and ways of playing.


Has this work changed your day-to-day roles?

DB: My 'day job' is to manage the Wellcome Collection website, so this has not only changed the commitment in terms of how games can reach people, but also thinking about other playful experiences. Institutions have been wrapped up in their own websites for a long time, wanting to have that authoritative voice. What do you do with your collections if no-one comes? Can you put games out there and still evaluate how people can use them? Are there other things that you could do with games? With the memory game, the fact that that much content went into it made the game what it was.


MH: I have always been an evangelist for games and serious games, but for me, what has been interesting in these projects has been the evaluation work. You see educational insight into games without evaluation occur quite a lot. What is the long-term impact? That has been the most interesting for us. What is the impact on players spending lots of time thinking about these topics? Evaluation is so valuable.

However, what we do is not the only way of doing things. Launchball was only ever on the Science Museum's own site and was hugely successful, and then it became a mobile app. An increasing number of plays and visits are on mobile. We're thinking about moving to Unity in the future, because content can then be distributed across a wider number of platforms.


DB: It's a process of research as much as it is a process of production. There is no instant recipe for success, but that's what keeps it interesting and vital, and alive. We're learning new things every time.


Danny and Martha


Danny Birchall is Editor and Martha Henson Multimedia Editor at the Wellcome Trust. A new mobile app from the Wellcome Trust is coming soon to the Apple App Store.

Danny and Martha will be speaking on "The brain as game" at EVA London, 10/07/12 – 12/07/12. For further information and to book, visit the EVA London website.

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