Monthly Archives: July 2011

Co-production, co-creation, co-curation

We’re about to embark on the initial planning for a major new exhibition on technology and I’m wrestling with the promise and peril of institutional co-creation.

Doing it with visitors

Takiung the plunge by Flickr user Lingamish

Participatory design is one of those of movements, like universal design, that is gathering more and more steam, and with good cause. Encouraging museum visitors to become active, engaged participants in our educational programs is a way to insure museums’ relevance in the current century, and invigorate our practice. It’s also hard work and forces us as practitioners to be more open and attentive to others. It’s an exciting time to be working in this field. Read Nina Simon’s book, or visit her blog if you need convincing.

One thing seems clear from my own experiences and those of other colleagues; when the museum doesn’t (or can’t or won’t) develop a structure for the collaboration, a way for visitors to meaningfully participate, then you run the risk of creating a mess. For me, the cases that I’ve seen where it’s gone most wrong have been those where a museum abrogated their responsibility to show participants how museum exhibitions get done, and just asked them “What do you want to do?” and left them to it.

The speed trap by Flickr user - POD -

There’s an example in The Collaborative State: How working together can transform public services, edited by Simon Parker and Niamh Gallagher that captures the pitfall of asking questions and not doing your due diligence when it comes to questioning the answers. The book focuses on UK government, but the issues are fairly universal. Sophia Parker starts her chapter on the paradox of co-production with a story,

“A village policeman decided that he wanted to find out more about the concerns of local residents, in order to understand how he could be most helpful. Through a series of conversations he discovered that their biggest worry, by some distance, was speeding in the village. He agreed that he would set himself up in a siding with a speed gun and catch the offending motorists, in a quest to reduce the problem. However, after a week of doing this, it emerged that in fact most of the people he had booked were themselves residents of the village.”

The institution (in this case, the policeman who represents the State) motivated by a sincere desire to serve the needs of the community, does the logical thing and asks the community. They respond with what they honestly perceive to be the most important need they have, and the officer goes off to serve the greater good and runs head-on into one of the most common paradoxes of human society; what we say and what we do are often not the same, and we don’t even recognize it when we do it. When it comes to collaboration or co-creation in museums, this is a huge issue that deserves to be taken very seriously, very early in the development process, before anybody in the museum talks to anybody outside the museum. The story of the policeman is the equivalent of going off and building what your partner says they want and when you present it to them, they react with horror because they didn’t want that, they expected something different. Dean Kamen once described an engineer’s job to me as not giving the client what they want, but listening carefully and then giving them what they need, based on your expertise, experience, and observation. If the village policeman had spent a day watching who was speeding before he started handing out tickets, he might’ve saved himself a lot of heartache.

So there’s a potential downside. Jim Richardson of Sumo and MuseumNext, gives a great overview of the promise of co-creation. His example of CCCB’s Brangulí exhibition in Barcelona hits all the major features of a modern co-creation model of exhibition development. He doesn’t really speak to the implications of the model, which is a problem in my opinion, because the high-flown rhetoric of turning audiences into participants, can often run head-on into the realities of making exhibitions.

The Branguli exhibition, by Flickr user inocuo

In the Barcelona example, the museum mounted an exhibition of photographs by a noted Spanish photographer. They sent out a call to contemporary photographers to respond to the artist’s works and submit photos. One photo reflecting each theme of the exhibition was chosen and mounted alongside the artist’s work, and all the other 2,000 photos were displayed on a projection in the museum. In terms of the museum’s staff workload, to make this work they had to:

  • do *all* the work typically associated with developing an exhibition, and
  • manage a photography contest, judge winners, and integrate the winners and develop a way to display all the submissions.

In essence, to make their one co-created exhibition, they did about two projects worth of work, each important and necessary to make what sounds like it was a great final product. And the museum took a lead role in shaping the process of collaboration. The expectations on both partners were clear, and that made the work of the museum clear. Adding a participatory dimension to the project didn’t make it any faster, any cheaper, or any less work for the museum. In fact, I’d bet it made it take longer, cost more, and use up more staff time than a traditional exhibition might.

So, why do it? Because, it made the exhibition better. And isn’t quality what we strive for? The reason to do it (when it seems appropriate, which is something only you can judge) is to make your product better. By opening up the development process, RIchardson points out, the museum made “an exhibition better through public participation, and in doing so, CCCB are also making the individuals who are taking the time to get involved think deeper about the themes of the exhibition and the changing world captured in both the Brangulí and the contemporary images.”

Richardson says, “It is perhaps naïve to think that the best expertise always exists within a museum.” It is also perhaps naïve to think that anybody has the expertise necessary to make good museum exhibitions. The key word in Richardson’s statement, to me, is “always”. There will be times when co-creation makes sense, and there will be times when it won’t. Only you will know which one is right, and you’ll only know if you have a clear idea of what you want to do and why.

Now you’ll probably note that the examples I’ve used all feature an institution and a diverse bunch of individuals who are invited to participate in something that used to be considered the purview of the institution. What does it look like when the model involves two institutions, both with missions, money, staff and stuff, that one wants to use for public education? Well, it depends on the partners and the partnership. My experiences with institutional co-creation, especially with corporate entities has been decidedly mixed, with some great experiences and some I’d rather forget. When I look at the ones that didn’t work well, two things that they all share is that there was some kind of disconnect between the expectations of both parties, and/or a lack of clear communication about roles and responsibilities. And I’m not sure how best to plan for them or minimize their impact.

Partnership agreement, by Flickr user o5com

Doing it with corporations

There is nothing more professionally disheartening than when two (or more) groups of well-meaning professionals try to make something and disappoint each other. As Parker says, “At a point where the public policy world is at risk of treating collaboration between state and citizens as a panacea, the complexity of who we are and what we think must not be forgotten… Indeed it demands new skills for the state and citizens alike, and the ability to recognise and value new forms of evidence and insight at a much earlier stage in the processes of decision-making and policy development… collaboration between the state and citizens is not easy. Working together takes time, effort and know-how — qualities that most of us feel we have in short supply.”

I sat down with several colleagues today who’ve all worked on partnerships and we listed a dozen projects the Museum had undertaken over the past five years. We listed the pros of cons of each project and tried to see what general principles arose from the data. The following list was the result. I hope it’s useful to you.

Qualities of successful museum/institution partnerships

  • clear communication from the outset
  • clear roles and responsibilities for partners and mutual respect for what each partner contributes
  • clear project scope and timeline
  • shared expectations of what success looks like
  • clear budgetary understanding (x dollars = y amount of museum product)
  • trust
  • commitment to schedules
  • partner contributes more than just their stuff. Staff time, assets, and expertise are often the biggest gift they can give
  • Mutual commitment to education. It’s not about their product, even if it’s about their product.
  • partner enthusiasm to educate
  • interest in learning museum processes

and the killer…

  • the final product is better than what the museum could do alone for the same money and time.

When should we have the next Boston Museum Tech Meetup?

Cocktails by Flickr user Southern Foodways Alliance

Boston-area folks,

I had such a good time last month at the Field that I totally forgot to poll the hive mind for dates for our next meetup. Doh!  July is fast slipping away, so whaddaya think? Should we try to get together? and if so, when?

If you voted “Yes” please suggest times and places in the comments.


A little something for the weekend, courtesy of one of my favorite thinkers. “Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, … Continue reading

Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part four of four!

In the first part of this post, I alleged that I’d be examining gamification (ack), and trying to sort out some substance from the hype surrounding it. Instead, I went on about the history of interactive exhibits and their raisons d’etre. In the second part of this post, I posited some qualities that good interactive exhibits possess. It was by no means a comprehensive list, but more of a stake in the ground. In the third post, I talked a little about defining what “game” means, explored some their characteristics, and how they might or might not work in a museum context.

So, now we finally get to gamification (ack) and how it relates to games and museums. And being the kinda guy I am, I’ll start with defining terms.

Dictionary by Flickr user greeblie

What is gamification? (ack)
The classic definition of gamification (ack) comes from a company called Bunchball, who may have coined the term, too.

Gamification is “integrating game dynamics into your site, service, community, content or campaign, in order to drive participation.”

In it’s most common form, gamification proponents offer up the popularity of games like FarmVille and World of Warcraft with their audiences of tens of millions of users and say, “You can use some of the things these guys have learned and apply them to anything, and it’ll be better!” Especially in the digital space, gamification has populated the whole ecosystem. Yelp gives you badges when you check in at a business. Trip Advisor tells you which of your friends you’re “beating” in terms of number of miles or kilometers travelled. Foursquare “awards” you points when you check in, based on rules like “checking in at new places gives you more points” and lets you see how your friends are doing and whether you’re “winning.” Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR says “with 7 game dynamics, you can get anyone to do anything”, and gives every employee a deck of them.

And these techniques work. Kyle Findlay and Kirsty Alberts have a Slideshare deck that details their experiments with gamifying tasks and how it leads to deeper engagement when done well. (The paper it’s culled from is even better.) They sure work on me! When I finally got my LinkedIn profile progress bar up to 100%, I felt like I’d accomplished something. The Foursquare badge thing kept me checking in for months… until I stopped. Because it didn’t add up to anything really. The game mechanics worked on me completely. But the mechanics without the context of the game to give them substance left me feeling a bit like a chump. “That’s it? I just keep getting more badges and points and mayorships? What’s it add up to?”

I’ll confess that writing these posts has been hard because I’ve been a little afraid of finding out something about myself that I didn’t want to know. I’m a gamer. I love games. I think games are a rich medium that museums could and should explore more. But when people mention gamification in meetings, I want to run. “Why the distaste for gamification?” you might ask. Good question, and I finally have an answer.

Gamification is a bait-and-switch

At it’s most fundamental, gamification is not about making games; it’s about taking the dynamics and player motivations inherent in game playing and using them to make something that isn’t a game seem like one. Will Wright said at GDC 2010 that he’d been approached any number of times by companies seeking to make things that weren’t games more “game-like”, as if gamification was a form of MSG that could be added to anything to make it more palatable, only in this case MSG stands for “Make it Seem Game-like.” And note he doesn’t say, “Make it a Game”, but rather “make it Seem Game-like.”

Game designer Danny Day gets at this distinction pretty clearly. “[There is a] fundamental difference in focus between producing a game for individual players and trying to turn an existing process into a game in order to bring more people to it. Gamification… doesn’t leave much room for player agency because that’s not the main focus of the designer’s effort. A player can always STOP playing a game, which is exactly what gamification is supposed to prevent… After all, we can’t “filmify” normal activities by adding a credit reel at the end of walking the dog or taking out the trash, why should adding points and badges devoid of the greater context of play suddenly create “games”?”

It’s a new eruption of the old complaint that museums aren’t fun enough and if we just _____, they’ll be fun, and people will keep coming. But, as Sebastian Deterding points out in Pawned, “Games are not fun because they‘re games, but when they are well-designed.” Margaret Robertson gets at the heart of this in her great little essay, Can’t Play, Won’t Play. It’s a gem; short, meaty and articulate.

“Gamification is an inadvertent con. It tricks people into believing that there’s a simple way to imbue their thing (bank, gym, job, government, genital health outreach program, etc) with the psychological, emotional and social power of a great game… Any game designer looking at their gamified thing would say, ‘Of course it didn’t do what those things did! Those things are all games and your thing isn’t!’”

Why are so many well-menaing people interested in gamification? To answer this question, you have to get behind the words being used. Why make something seem like a game in the first place? Well, it has to do with play. Game playing is fun. The mental equation seems to go something like this:

Games = fun
My thing < fun enough
My thing + “gamification” = more funner

But where does the fun in games come from? Raph Koster says in A Theory of Fun for Game Design, “Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. With games, learning is the drug.” So, in other words, what makes good games fun is the learning that you do as you play the game. At the heart of every good game is the dynamic we’re already looking for in museum exhibits; people interacting with a situation and learning how to master it, because that learning is fun and intrinsically motivating to humans. Good games are Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow experiences,” and Papert’s “hard fun.” And badges and points and contrived dynamics won’t get you there.

So, there. That’s why I don’t like gamification. It represents everything that’s superficial to the teaching power of games. We shouldn’t try to gamify the museum experience, we should, to quote Deterding again, try towards more gameful and playful design in the products we make.

I could go on and on, but instead, I’ll just give you a bunch of links to more in-depth stuff that really spoke to me as I was grappling with this. Hopefully, they’ll help you, too.

Games and Gamification links

Alexander, Leigh. 2011. Gamers And The Glitches That Get To Them. The Creators Project.

Deterding, Sebastian. 2010. Pawned. Gamification and its Discontents. In Playful 2010.

—. 2011a. Meaningful Play. Getting “Gamification” Right. In Google Tech Talk, January 24, 2011.

—. 2011b. Don’t Play Games With Me! Promises and Pitfalls of Gameful Design. In webdirections @media, London, May 27, 2011.

Findlay, Kyle, and Kirsty Alberts. 2011. Gamification: Future or Fail?

Harper, Richard, Tom Rodden, Yvonne Rogers, and Abigail Sellen. 2008. Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction in the year 2020. Human-Computer Interaction. Microsoft Research Ltd.

Johnson, L., R. Smith, H. Willis, A. Levine, and K. Haywood. 2011. The 2011 Horizon Report. Austin, Texas

Johnson, L., H. Witchey, R. Smith, A. Levine, and K. Haywood. 2010. The 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition. Austin, Texas.

Juul, Jesper. 2003. The Game, the Player, the World. In Level Up. Utrecht.

KnowlegdeWorks Foundation. 2008. 2020 Forecast : Creating the Future of Learning.

Mechner, Jordan. 2010. Less Talk, More Rock.

Method: 4 Things Video Games Teach Us About Motivating People.

Robertson, Margaret. 2010. Can’t play, won’t play.

Rockwell, Geoffrey M, and Kevin Kee. 2009. Game Studies. Immersive Worlds Conference.


by Flcikr user Jennie Faber


It seems to be something a theme with this blog that  the one piece of a blog post that winds up having the most audience interest is a throwaway line. In Part Two, I made a passing reference to a rapping refrigerator in a discussion of superfluous interactions. I had actually written more about it and then deleted it all upon re-reading, something we could all do more of.  The Web is already full to overflowing with snark, and I battle against it all the time.

But @sebchan and @5easypieces had a merry little interchange riffing on rapping fridges:

Which led Koven to ask this question:

As a potential answer to this question, and a beautiful reflection on the hollowness of gamification, I give you Jakob Skjerning‘s Progress Wars. Try it out and see how long you can last!

Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part three of ?

In the second part of this post, I posited some qualities that good interactive exhibits possess. It was by no means a comprehensive list, but more of a stake in the ground. To look at how museum exhibits might be gamified (guh), let’s look at games and define some their characteristics and how they might or might not work in a museum context.

Not surprisingly, there are as many definitions of “game” as there are game theorists out there. I like Jesper Juul’s work. He is a foundational thinker in game theory, and books like Half-Real and A Casual Revolution, are pretty influential texts. In The Game, the Player, the World, he collects a number of definitions of games and proposes his own synthetic definition that has six features:

  1. Rules: Games are rule-based.
  2. Variable, quantifiable outcome: Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes.
  3. Value assigned to possible outcomes: That the different potential outcomes of the game are assigned different values, some being positive, some being negative.
  4. Player effort: That the player invests effort in order to influence the outcome. (I.e. games are challenging.)
  5. Player attached to outcome: That the players are attached to the outcomes of the game in the sense that a player will be the winner and “happy” if a positive outcome happens, and loser and “unhappy” if a negative outcome happens.
  6. Negotiable consequences: The same game [set of rules] can be played with or without real-life consequences.

or, to put it in a more narrative form,

“A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.”

So what do these qualities relate to museum exhibits?
Rules: Games are rule-based, play is not. This is a big deal, and one that deserves more attention than it seems to get at the moment. For a game to be a good game, it has to have rules the players submit to following. If you go the wrong way on a Monopoly board, you’re going to piss off the other players, unless you *all* decide to change that rule. If you build a tower out of a pile of LEGOs and your friend decides to pretend that each block is a tiny animal, neither of you is “doing it wrong.” I think museums do a pretty good job of giving visitors chances to play, but game based learning is a very different beast and experience we have doesn’t help all that much.

In order for a game to be a game, you have to be able to win and know you’ve won. And therefore you have to be able to lose and know you’ve lost. This requires some serious rethinking of what a museum experience is. For most of my career, Frank Oppenheimer’s mantra “No one ever failed a museum” has been a touchstone for everything we do. It’s central to informal science education. Museums aren’t schools, you don’t get a grade at the end of your visit, and I think we’d all agree that this is a good thing.

So one big challenge is how to change from making experiences that try get everyone to succeed to making experiences where that are winners and losers, and where the losers don’t just give up, which is usually what I do with games that don’t hold my attention. In talks I’ve had with game developers, this culture difference sometimes feels like a gulf we shout across at each other.

Rule-based systems do have tremendous power to teach, though. The Universe is a rule-based place, human society is rule based. Working with sets of rules and exploring situations within a rule set can be great fun and informative. People are using computer games like Civilization III to teach Canadian history, and any American of a certain age will probably have a deep appreciation of dying of cholera from playing Oregon Trail. When I think back on my own gaming experiences with both of these products, I’m struck by the fact that with each other them I played the game, but then made my own rules; can I survive with only X oxen, what if I put all my effort into technologies, not armies, etc… In essence, I wound up using the games not as games but as toys, which is how Will Wright — the designer of SimCity, The Sims, Spore, and others — describes his products. They’re not games, but rather toys.

So, I ask you. Should we making exhibits more like games or more like toys? Or am I indulging in a classic Western binary opposition (it’s this or that) when the answer could be “Why not use them all when appropriate?”

Variable, quantifiable outcome: A good game has more than one outcome. If it always turns out the same way it’s not fun. This I think is the reason I hate so many “educational games”, they forget this fundamental in the name of making sure “the education” happens. Good games and good interactive exhibits share this quality. If there’s only one way to use it, it’ll only get used once by a visitor, and that’s a shame. Loads of “gamified” (guh) experiences fall into this trap, leading Sebastian Deterding to call them “exhaustibles”, their limited set of possibilities is quickly exhausted and then they get thrown out or deleted. Foursquare was like that for me. I said, “Now what?” and found there was nothing else.

Value assigned to possible outcomes
I think xkcd says it all.

One thing that Juul doesn’t address is the role of creating narratives in his game definition. For “educational” games, the meaning making that has to happen for learning to occur is crucial, otherwise it’s like the pinball game I mentioned earlier; the gaming element (pinball) doesn’t support the narrative (how the human immune system functions) and the preferred outcome (wnning the pinball game) doesn’t lead to any increased knowledge.

Player effort: Good games are challenging. Good exhibits are challenging. Papert’s notion of “hard fun” is at play in both endeavors.

“[E]veryone likes hard challenging things to do. But they have to be the right things matched to the individual and to the culture of the times. These rapidly changing times challenge educators to find areas of work that are hard in the right way: they must connect with the kids and also with the areas of knowledge, skills and (don’t let us forget) ethic adults will need for the future world.”

Finding “the right things” for the visitor is the challenge. This is one way that games and exhibits can be very different. We are very comfortable as a society with games being age-specific. I don’t think our museum-going audience is as comfortable with that notion. Our threshold is lower and our ceiling higher than most game developers, and especially educational game developers, who tend to be very closely aligned with formal education and target their work at very narrow age ranges.

I also feel that developing experiences that require significant visitor investment of time and effort had better be as bulletproof as possible, because the potential for frustration grows in direct proportion to the amount of effort expended. If you’re going to make visitors expend effort (learn the rules of your game, play it from beginning to end, play it again if they don’t succeed) you’d better not disappoint them.

Player attached to outcome: This is a tremendous opportunity for those of us interested in educating. Obviously we want visitors to be attached to the outcome of their experience at the museum and to feel happy when a positive outcome occurs.

Capitalizing on players’ desire to win can be a great tool for exhibit developers. Educational research has highlighted the importance of tapping into visitors’ prior interests as a key to learning. Researchers have found that prior interest is one of only a few significant variables affecting success in learning among visitors with low prior knowledge of a subject. To achieve success in learning about something relatively unfamiliar to visitors, it is an important educational strategy to find areas of prior interest. They serve as entry points for visitors into an experience of educational engagement. And the audience is interested in games and gaming. So taking advantage of that interest

Negotiable consequences: If you don’t get the answers right on a chemistry quiz, the consequences are obvious, and non-negotiable. You fail. If your character in World of Warcraft dies, you don’t die, though you may feel genuinely upset. Games are fun because they are safe, in the same way that museums should be fun because they’re a safe place to play.

So, now we’ve got a framework for understanding games and how they do and don’t relate to museum exhibits. The last post in this series will highlight what people mean when they talk about “gamification” (ack) and where it might and might not be useful in making museum exhibits. It seems like one more post should wrap this all up. Thanks for reading along this far!

Now, I’m off for the long weekend to celebrate Independence Day and work on my attention-starved MA thesis (on pirates, no less! Arrh!). Have a joyous weekend!