Playing with the Past, Part One: How Play Relates to Cultural Heritage

So, in trying to peel the onion of gamification, I’ve rattled on at great length about research on gamesgamification, games, play, and fun. But how is this applicable to the work of cultural heritage interpretation?  Firstly, I’d say that, if nothing else, laying to rest the idea that gamification is, in and of itself, worthwhile strategy is doing us all a favor. Gameful design, game theory, and game development processes? All worthwhile to explore and learn from. And, I think, an as-yet-untapped avenue for really fruitful collaboration. But in order to be fruitful, it has to start for an acknowledgement and honoring of the intrinsic motivation that visitors and players share. As Edward Deci wrote in “Why We Do What We Do”, “Self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change.” Intrinsic motivation drives the vast majority of our visitors, not external rewards. There’s a reason it’s called “free choice” learning. This point is lost on many in the field who seem determined to turn a visit into a competition, a frequent flyer program, or FarmVille.

Before we go further into what those avenues of collaboration might look like, I want to spend a little time looking at some of the qualities of heritage experiences that I have experienced to be particularly germane to this discussion.

A good cultural heritage experience is rooted in its physicality

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The Roman fort at Vindolanda by Flickr user Edmund Gall. CC BY-SA 2.0

I’m going to go out on a limb and state that the vast majority of cultural heritage sites are physical spaces in a built environment. Everything we do, even digital projects around heritage, are rooted in that physicality, whether we acknowledge it or not.  As I’ve said before, our physical spaces themselves are powerful affective tools.  Just the fact that there is a huge building dedicated to (art, history, science and technology, etc…) makes a powerful statement. And for heritage sites, that specific connection between past and present; “Something happened HERE” is paramount. Even the absence of something is a presence in heritage sites “Once, this empty field was a Roman fortress!”

A good cultural heritage experience is rooted in its physicality (but not entirely contained within it)

Often, this physicality can be overplayed to the point that the objects become the focus, and not how they can be tools for people to better themselves.

Let’s play another game.

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Priceless historic artifact! by Flickr user Vincenzo De Geronimo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let’s pretend this unmarked, Viking sword is the prize object of an Icelandic museum because it is the sword that Erik the Red used to kill Thorgest’s sons, setting into motion the train of events that led to his banishment from Iceland and the discovery of Greenland. Having been passed down through generations and centuries, it is a concrete link to the sagas, to the story of both Iceland and Greenland and so much more. What kind of experiences could you design to “bring the object to life”?

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Just another object. by Flickr user Vincenzo De Geronimo. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Now let’s imagine I’m a comic book super villain (Mwahahaha!) of the Lex Luthor type, prone to incredibly devious and over-the-top plots. I take it into my head to rob this object of it’s value for reasons known only to me. In great secrecy, I destroy every record of this sword and its story. I kill every person who knew the story of the sword until it is completely robbed of it’s metadata/provenance/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. It is still the exact same sword. Without ever touching it, or even seeing it, I can transform it from a powerful, meaning-laden object, to a thing. Granted, it is a thing that would be amenable to physical study. It could be dated both stylistically and absolutely, it’s composition could provide hints as to where it was forged. The fact that it is in Iceland could also hint at its history. But it’s power to be a focus for storytelling and emotion would largely be gone. Because the narrative and all the facts and associations around the object, do not in fact have any physical connection to the object. They exist in another dimension, and focusing too much on the object can make it hard to see them.

A good cultural heritage experience is visitor-focused

Hopefully this isn’t news to anybody. The museum field certainly still has a long way to go to live up to this statement, but I think we at least all give the idea name service at the very least. My all time favorite story of the power of this involved a trip long ago to Plimoth Plantation with a group of Soviet rocket scientists. Trying to explain the whole concept of first person historical interpretation was an uphill battle, but we gamely trudged around the village, talking to the English settlers through their interpreter. The whole idea that the interpreters were living in 1627 and wouldn’t break character was completely foreign to our guests, and the field trip was starting to feel like a forced march, until we ran into one of the more educated colonists. When he asked where the Soviets came from (after failing to comprehend what they meant when they said they were from the Soviet Union) someone said they were from Moscow. “Ah, Muscovy! You are far from home!” he exclaimed, and then proceeded to grill them on the political situation in early-seventeenth century Russia, whether the False Demetrius was still tsar (he wasn’t), and how the war against the Poles was going. Watching a bunch of college-educated Soviet scientists and engineers trying to dredge up their Russian history from grade school was a sight. But once they connected the dots and jointly remembered who False Dmitry was, their interest level went way up. This interpreter had managed to engage the seemingly unengagable and transformed their visit into something they could relate to. It’s what cultural heritage professionals do all the time.

More recently, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has ditched their audioguides in favor of highly-trained human facilitators armed with iPads. Their Art Team aims to deepen visitors’ interaction with the art. Human guides, who can read body language and tone, atre much better at tailoring their interpretation to their audience than any device. Says, Shelley Bernstein, the Barnes’ CXO,

“You begin with the most meaningful thing first,” Bernstein said, alluding to engagement efforts. “So this is what we call the human-interaction layer. It’s not about technology. It’s not about providing people with a thing or device. It’s thinking about what human interaction should be in the galleries and what we want that to be and trying to get that right before layering in other things.”

A good cultural heritage experience is emotional

I am a great fan of the word “visitor”, because it acknowledges that people who come to heritage sites are on a journey and they will enter our sphere of influence and leave it again. Since beginning this exploration of games and play and heritage, I’ve come to recognize how analogous the heritage visit is the idea of entering the magic circle of a game. People come, and they take on a new role; they become “visitors” (or whatever you call them) while they are there, and they leave, hopefully changed by the experience. My experience is that the role of “visitor” often entails an increased openness to emotion. Visitors might not know what they’re going to feel during their visit, but the hope that they’ll feel something is there in the background. Awe, wonder, delight, surprise, sorrow, pride are potential outcomes of a successful heritage that are no less valuable than increased knowledge.

When I think back on museum experiences that have really stayed with me, their common thread was emotion; they made me feel something I didn’t feel when I entered. Informal education is a great forum for affective learning; formal education can do a much better job at cognitive learning. If you want “just the facts”, then go to Wikipedia, or a textbook. Nobody ever got a degree from going to a museum or cultural heritage site, nor should they.  A visit to a heritage site will never cover as much history as even an intro history textbook, but that book will never provide a visceral, affective experience with the past to a broad audience.

A good cultural heritage experience is scaffolded

I’ve previously mentioned the Tenement Museum’s “How to visit the Museum” guide. The fact that they are only open for tours, and not the kind of drop visiting that the name “museum” implies, makes them a good example of how to address head on a common headache for visitors; namely how to make use of the site in an appropriate manner, and know they’re doing it. For most museums and sites, this begins and ends with a map that will describe spaces in some level of detail. The good people at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Have been wrestling with orientation and accessibility issues and blogging about their investigations in a particularly fearless way that I hope others will adopt. I would also add the Cooper Hewitt’s primer on how to parse a tombstone label.

Since coming to work in an art museum, I have been struck with how passionate people can be about how to do it “correctly.” I’ve written about my own evolution as a viewer of art objects, and it’s been transformative to learn that “visiting” is a skill that can be exercised and improved. Providing that same kind of scaffold for visitors who haven’t had twenty-plus years of museum work to help them is something I long to explore more. I have dreamed of making an orientation space that would explicitly instruct visitors how to approach works of art, what is encouraged and what isn’t, and what the staff do when they interact with the stuff they steward.

A good cultural heritage experience is playful

The other answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this post “How is this applicable to the work of cultural heritage interpretation?” is that I believe our efforts are best focused on be better better at letting visitors play with our creations. Games get a lot of attention in the media, and have become a gigantic industry, but the part of “game playing” that is most relevant to us is the “playing” not the “game”. Play is an important entry point for folks of all ages into any subject matter. It is a crucial element to engage the interest of the non-specialist public in heritage (and most other subjects).  While we may know this intellectually, it’s still hard to get past the received understanding that play is non-productive and unserious. But we are getting there, and pursuing that further will be really interesting work!

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