Playing with the Past, Part Three: The Challenges of Working Across Industries

Oil and Water Do Not Mix by Flickr user kris krüg. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When we started this series of posts, the goal seemed clear; talk about how gamification and cultural heritage can work together. I had to complicate that by explaining why I thought focusing on gamification missed the important point that the game mechanics were not the part of games that made them worthy of emulating. I wandered from there into talking about games, play, fun, learning, and then how these might relate to cultural heritage, and two particular concepts that I find to be valuable tools; the magic circle and the interaction alibi.

As a writer, I am prone to “bury my lede” as they say I the newspaper business. I thought now would be a good time to make an unambiguous statement about game designers and cultural heritage professionals working together. Though I am not a fan of the idea of gamification, that does not mean I think game design has nothing to teach those of us working in the cultural heritage sector. In fact, like Ms Bennet, “My feelings are quite the opposite.”

Collaborations between gaming and cultural heritage professionals have tremendous potential to generate new and valuable kinds of experiences.

The exciting thing I see in gatherings like the CINE seminar in Reykjavik is their potential to create a community of interest around the topic of games and heritage. The domain expertise of the people in the room is so varied that it provides a great example of what the cognitive scientist Gerhard Fischer calls “symmetry of ignorance”. Unlike communities of practice, where all the stakeholders come from roughly the same field, communities of interest bring together stakeholders with different practices. The act of creating a shared understanding of a complex problem–like creating engaging heritage experiences–among all stakeholders can lead to  new insights and the kinds of experiences that would be hard to envision in a community of practice.

So, before we talk about how we might work together, let’s look at some of the challenges I’ve encountered in the past.

The Challenges of Working Across Industries

Differing perceptions of time

Cultural heritage professionals tend to have a very long view of things. It comes with the territory when you deal with the past, and preservation stretching out into the foreseeable future. Projects germinate for a long time, take a long time to fundraise for, and sometimes years to realize. This can lead to feeling a bit like one of Tolkien’s Ents when dealing with people who make software for a living, like computer game designers. The software industry moves at a pace that is completely alien to most of my colleagues’ experience. Instead of years, software people are focusing on design sprints, where two weeks out is a normal horizon. Products are conceived, built, tested, launched, and revised in a matter of months, or the amount of time it might take to make one major decision on a large exhibition project. And this anti-pattern is a tough one to overcome.  Everything about modern software development in the Agile/Lean era is organized around privileging the production of code, making product, and fixing it after if needed. Though agile methodologies are starting to creep into museums, the norm is still a much more risk-averse, serial production methodology that emphasizes quality, “getting it right”, over all else.  Minimum Viable Products can be a hard sell. Don’t underestimate the culture shock collaboration will create for both partners.

One tactic I have used successfully in the past with potential suitors has been to sit them down privately early on and lay out how the different perceptions of time are a real issue, like this:

“The museum I work at dates its founding to 1799. Your company is how old?”

[Insert number less than ten.]

“Right. And do you think your company will still be around in three years? How about five years? How about twenty years? Because we’ll still be here.”

[Uncomfortable silence]

I’ve had versions of that conversation multiple times, and nobody has ever given a definite answer for the twenty year horizon. The best I’ve heard was someone who confident his company would be bought by Google or Apple within the next five years.

Transmediality of the cultural heritage experiences

Dan Spock, now at the Levine Museum of the New South, has aptly noted that “the museum exhibition is “the medium of media”—it utilizes the written word, sound, image, moving image, performance, installation, and most recently digital electronics.” It is a deeply transmedial experience, and cultural heritage professionals by and large work pretty effortlessly in and among those media. “This works for a label, that should be tactile, this other thing is best delivered via audio.”  Most game designers tend to specialize in a particular medium. Board game designers make board games, computer game designers work in computer code. The difficultly of matching up broad but shallow expertise and narrow but deep expertise can be significant. To the specialists, the transmedialists can look like well-meaning dilettantes, and to the transmedialists, the specialists look like embodiments of Maslow’s Hammer, for whom “if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Just because you’re a great AR firm, it doesn’t mean that AR is the answer to any problem a museum or heritage site might have.

Weakness of objective

One of the things that makes games so appealing to cultural heritage types that of all the types of play we looked at, games provide the kind of clear objectives and understanding of what it means to meet those objectives that cultural visits rarely provide. You know when you’ve captured the king in chess that you’ve won, or that whoever first gets the predetermined amount of points in Settlers of Catan wins. The objective of a visit to a heritage site isn’t so tightly focused.  It’s the paradox of free-choice learning environments. To be all things (or many things) to a diverse audience, we all-too-often wind up being not too much of anything. That weakness of objective means that there’s no way to plan the arc of your visit, or know what progress you’ve made toward a completion goal. Visitors go until they feel tired, and then they leave.

Note that none of these challenges are insurmountable, they’re just challenges. They can be mitigated, and even overcome. Next, onto the good stuff, opportunities!

One comment

  1. This is great Ed. Scaffolding is very important for games – both emotional and intellectual. Dave Schaller and I talked about this in several of our conference presentations about games. Check out my SlideShare and Dave’s presentations and papers on


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