Tag Archives: games

Gaming the suffragettes

12 Aug
Pank-a-Squith board game. Courtesy Museum of Australian Democracy

Pank-a-Squith board game. Courtesy Museum of Australian Democracy

In a provocative post about museum games, Kevin Bacon asks the $64k question about applying game mechanics to historical subjects. He observes that military and economic history may be amenable to the same kind of rule-based play that made Launchball such an incredible physics-learning game, but that social history is much harder. In short: “how do you tell the history of the suffragette movement through a video game, without becoming crass?”

It’s a very good question, and the women’s suffrage movement is a particularly good example. A contentious cause whose supporters used bombs, arson and violence to achieve their ends, the achievement of which is now regarded as part of our national narrative of progress (in which we acknowledge the role of those militants, a far cry from the way in which the struggle against the slave trade was presented at the bicentenary of its abolition).

So what kind of games can you make from the struggle for votes for women? The National Archives have a game about the suffragettes as part of their online ‘citizenship’ exhibition. A policeman on a bike waggles his truncheon rather nastily and chases a cyclist with a ‘votes for women’ banner across the screen. The player must answer at speed trivia questions about the battle for suffrage and related human rights advances. Answer enough correctly and the suffragette will escape. Too many wrong answers and the policeman catches her, bicycles colliding in an ugly heap. Crass? Perhaps (it’s certainly dull) but I think I learned something about the role of police violence (as ever) in opposing progressive political movements.

That’s about all I can find online. But it turns out that games about the suffragettes are not as popular now as they were then, if we can stretch the definition of ‘video games’ back to include games-as-popular-culture in the form of Edwardian board and card games. ‘Suffragettes In and Out of Prison‘ is a ‘game and puzzle’ produced in 1908. The player must escape Holloway Gaol through a maze, landing on open doors and escaping both policemen and wardresses who will hinder her bid for freedom. It’s simple, cheap, has basic production values and is highly topical. Perhaps ‘newsgames‘ aren’t such a new idea after all?

It wasn’t only professional games-makers who sought to make a game of the battle for women’s votes. In 1907, the Kensington branch of the WSPU (the official suffragette movement) produced a card game called ‘the Game of Suffragette‘ with 54 cards in sets featuring both heroes and opponents of the women’s suffrage movement. The ‘Pank-a-Squith‘ board game, produced by the WSPU in 1909, pitted Emmeline Pankhurst against Herbert Asquith, again on a spiral board. This time, progress was made from the outside (‘home’) to the central goal of the House of Parliament, avoiding Holloway along the way.

Many more games and toys were produced by the suffragettes themselves, for propaganda purposes as much as fundraising, and as Kenneth Florey points out, toughthe ostensible justification for their production was to introduce children to the aims of the movement, many of these toys and games actually were aimed at adults” (ain’t it always the way?). So here might also be some of the modern ancestors of our contemporary Games for Change and Persuasive Games.

But merely pointing out that suffragism entered into popular culture, of which games were a part, at the beginning of the twentieth century isn’t to answer Kevin’s key question, which is how engaging with the idea of the suffragettes and their movement might fit into the ‘pleasing feedback loops’ of actual gameplay without appearing to be a crass bolt-on to a generic game. As Martha Henson and I have spent a lot of time saying, making successful engagement games relies on finding a sympathetic entanglement between how the game is played and what it’s trying to get across.

Cataloguing some of the games and toys of the suffrage movement, Elizabeth Crawford talks about “the translation of the mechanics of the women’s suffrage campaign into board and card games”. But what mechanics? The Game of Suffragette could be played in sides. Collected cards equalled points in the form of votes with which a suffrage bill could be passed: politics played as a balance of forces. One could playfully take a political position not necessarily one’s own in the safety of one’s own home.

The key mechanic of the board games seems to be progress. Whether escaping from jail or making your  way from the ‘home square’ to the House of Commons, the aim is to propel the suffragette forward to achieve her aim. ‘Progress’ towards democratic equality for women forms part of the narrative of both the WSPU and our own historical understanding of the suffragette movement. The satisfaction of a narrative completed and a goal achieved, is embedded in the game board and rules.

Kevin’s right that it’s hard to make all this work in contemporary video games, which are complex to create and to costly to make, and that ‘smaller, more casual games will struggle’ in games’ overcrowded attention economy. Modern technology might well better be employed in making facsimiles of these Edwardian games via colour reproduction and 3D-printed game pieces than in trying to create new video games about the suffragettes. But I think that finding such a cornucopia of historical gaming culture attached to the suffragette movement, and the creation of both persuasive and commercial games in suffragism’s own moment, suggests that the social history might not be such an outlier when it comes to making games.

Seven takeaways from Museums and the Web 2013

23 Apr
Digital curating panel, illustration by Paige Dansinger

Digital curating panel, illustration by Paige Dansinger

I didn’t have any takeaways in Portland; one night I didn’t even eat dinner, and I didn’t get any Voodoo Donuts either. But I did go to some great sessions, meet some great people, and learn some interesting stuff. What follows is personal reflection as much as dissemination; there’s stuff to return to here.

The instrumentality of strategy. I’m writing a digital strategy at the moment. It’s not the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve heard a lot of people in other organisations say that you don’t need a digital strategy: you need an engagement strategy, a communications strategy, or just an institutional  strategy. But one of the themes that emerged during the session on strategy was the use of digital strategies within institutions as a means of acquiring resources, attention, or recognition. It might seem arse-about-face, but the commonality of the experience (and I can feel the truth of it in my own situation) suggests that it’s not necessarily perverse, perhaps just part of the growing pains of digital departments. Sarah Hromack‘s excellent Institutional Strategy Digest zine launched at the session added a much-needed dose of humour to a topic that’s highly susceptible to pomposity.

Gamification fireworks. In a session variously titled ‘Let the Games Begin‘ or ‘Put a badge on it’, the debate kicked off as soon as the panellists started speaking. Bruce Wyman put the case for a behavioural economics of museums based not on the bottom line of cheap entry and bargains but on meaningful long-term relationships with museums. Sharna Jackson retorted that whatever the merits of the approach, it had nothing to do with games, and that badge systems often lead to karma-whoring behaviour that has serious consequences in situations like the Boston bombings. Kate Haley Goldman (who knows her games) valiantly tried to steer a middle course, but the debate was already spilling out onto the floor and into the backchannel. It was agreed at least that we may be approaching ‘peak badges’. It’s reassuring to see the critical spirit alive and kicking at Museums and the Web, not merely accepting every new innovation that the Masters of the Valley hand down.

Collaboration rules. Both the workshop I ran and the paper I presented were collaborations with people from othe institutions; the workshop with Sharna Jackson, the paper with the redoubtable Suse Cairns. Both were facilitated by the standard suite of cloud-based collaboration tools that we take for granted: gdocs, skype, dropbox. More importantly, collaboration was essential to the development of ideas. When you’re working with someone towards a definition of a shared project, there are many modes in which you can operate. Sometimes you try to write down what you think they’re already thinking (and sometimes fail); sometimes you get to try your ideas out before they’re fully formed; you can take it in turns to lead the process. Most importantly, your paper or presentation goes beyond just trying to fill your audience’s cup with the knowledge you have, and moves towards making and thinking new things.

I curate, you’re irate, we debate. The presentation Suse and I made of our paper on curation was a show of two halves. I tried to outline some art and museum-based models of curation, from Harald Szeemann to Iris Barry, that should inform what people do when they seek to ‘curate’ the plenipotent digital world; Suse offered a set of models from that very world that we might better take cognisance of within museums. It was gratifying that the ideas had some traction – Koven proposed a salon session immediately following, to carry on the discussion. Some of the debate felt stuck at the level of defining expertise; Seb Chan perhaps struck a nail on the head when he said that the difference between inside and outside museums was an question of the scale of the material. The best moments for me were when professional curators from outside the web/tech milieu made interventions stressing the importance of understanding curation historically rather than as a static practice. There’s an itch there that needs to be scratched some more.

Conversation as inspiration. Jennifer Trant always used to say that if you have the option of going to a session or having a conversation with a fellow delegate, have the conversation. I’m not scoffing at that after I randomly fell into a mind-blowing 90-minute conversation with Aaron Cope on Saturday lunchtime that began with Roombas then took in curation, artisanal integers, design chairs, savage modernism, raging at the sky, International Art English, rogue routers and the nature of collections data. Other excellent conversations were had with Annie Conway, Doug Mcfarlane, Ian Edelman, Ryan Donohue, Alan Hook, Oonagh Murphy, Seb Chan, Tim Lee, Paul Rowe, and Dave Patten.

All the world’s a stage. Larry Friedlander’s opening keynote proposed immersion as the keystone of on-site digital experiences. If some of his AR examples were unconvincing, the logic of the argument that in a world swimming in images we need to see anew through strength of experience was watertight. The closing plenary brought Punchdrunk producer Diane Borger to the ballroom via Facetime to discuss the success of Sleep No More as an immersive experience. Though the idea of bringing theatre to museums is undeniably thought-provoking, the MW audience was perhaps conditioned to see theatrical productions in terms of sets: the object as prop. I wonder whether there might be other kinds of less glamourously fictive theatre that we can also learn from, such as the verbatim theatre work of Jonathan Holmes, that begins with some of the same concerns as museums (history, evidence, people) to deliver theatrical experiences.

An arcade epiphany I’ve been producing & commissioning games for Wellcome Collection for 3 years now, but I’ve always had a touch of imposter syndrome about not being a real ‘gamer’, just someone who ‘gets it’. On Saturday night in Portland’s Ground Kontrol (in the company of genuinely awesome games people Sharna and Erica), a retro arcade bar stacked with classic pintables and original video game cabinets, as I aced the first light bike level on the original Tron game, I realised that video games really are and have been my thing. My own embodied understanding of ‘low latency’ is the fire button on Galaga, hammered with a flat hand. Arcade classics like this are islands in my childhood, in the brutalist concrete shopping mall I grew up near, in the strange hotels we stayed at on school trips. But I’m still shit at Donkey Kong.

Games kit

13 Apr
Game type cards from the workshop

Game type cards from the workshop

My colleague Martha Henson and I ran a mini-workshop at this year’s Museums and the Web conference in Philadelphia. The workshop consisted partly of a summary presentation of some of our experimentation and evaluation with games at Wellcome Collection, but mostly of a workshop in which we asked people to brainstorm ideas for new museum games.

The aim was to share ideas, experience and knowledge with the (very knowledgeable and experienced) people in the room, and also to validate one of the principles on which we’ve been working: that bringing a museum theme directly together with an established method of gameplay, rather than working backwards from educational or narrative objectives, generates good ideas for engaging games.

The workshop seemed to be a success to us: A room of 60-70 people spent an hour taking and thinking, and came up with some great ideas for games. So we thought it might be worth publishing the format and materials, in case anyone else finds them useful.

The format of the brainstorming session was this:

  • We asked people to cluster into groups of three to six (smaller is generally better; there were a lot of people in the room)
  • We assigned them two or three ‘game type’ cards, with the name and image of a type of game (First Person Shooter, Beat ’em up, etc) one side and a brief Wikipedia definition of the game on the other.
  • We asked each group to think of a collection, aspect of mission of their cultural heritage institution, and then to bring that together as the basis for a game, then to spend 15 minutes brainstorming and fleshing out that game.
  • Each group then briefly presented that idea, and the rest of the workshop joined in with questions on their idea (we particularly wanted to hear from anyone who had built a game something like this themselves)

The cards we used can be downloaded here as a PDF. They’re A6, printed on A4, so each sheet contains four cards and need to be chopped. They’re two-sided, so if you print the PDF back-to-back, the image and description will come out on opposite sides of the same card.

We’d be very interested in feedback if anyone uses them for a similar exercise.

(You might also find this useful: Lift your (museum) game, a museum games wiki set up as a result of another games session at the Museums and the web conference)

Making the case for museum games

23 Mar
High Tea, from Welcome Collection

High Tea, from Welcome Collection

This is an opinion piece co-written by me and Martha Henson published today in Wellcome News (a publication whose audience is based in scientific research rather than museums). It’s a little bit provocative….

Opinion: “Museums need more compelling games”

Martha Henson and Danny Birchall

Do you play games? We might dismiss them as childish, but in his 1938 work Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga argued that play is an essential component of all human culture. The chances are that you enjoy playing something – whether it’s Angry Birds or a round of charades at Christmas.

Globally, gaming is big business, with a market worth an estimated $50 billion (£30bn) in 2011 and a demographically diverse audience with an even gender split. But it’s not just about numbers: the dedication of gamers to the pleasure of play means time spent at the console can exceed that spent with a feature film or novel.

The educational potential seems obvious. So why have museums and educationalists, with all the information and resources at their disposal, failed to make more than a handful of really compelling educational games? The work of game designers and researchers such as Jane McGonigal (author of Reality is Broken) and Channel 4 Education (including the Wellcome Trust-funded Routes) has amply demonstrated the power of games to bring both children and adults cultural and scientific ideas in new forms.

But many have assumed that any game-like feature is enough to engage people, and tacking minimal interactivity onto a barely disguised didactic lesson plan has unfortunately been the dismal standard in this field. However, others, such as the Science Museum, have begun to harness the potential of games for learning. The physics-based Launchball game was hugely popular and they have just released Rizk (about climate change).

We’ve had our own success recently with High Tea, a strategy game centred on the dubious actions of the British Empire in the run-up to the Opium Wars of 1839. From over 1.5m plays in its first fortnight after release, plus comments, reviews and survey responses, we can see that we have achieved both a wide reach and our educational aims.

Why are these particular games successful? Because they put gameplay at the centre of the experience and use experienced digital agencies to deliver this. These examples are a great start, but surely more could be done in this area.

Games might seem a trivial way of approaching the public with new ideas, but the playful and exploratory impulses that draw gamers to great games are still largely untapped as a means of engagement. By pushing boundaries ourselves, we hope to show others what can be achieved.