Tag Archives: agile

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!

The power of attention

Frites, mayo & beer. It's that good!

Frites, mayo & beer. It’s that good!

I’ve recently returned from a week in the Netherlands, filming for Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen. We (the curator, our manager of AV production, and me) went over with a long list of video footage we needed to capture, and capture it we did. It was amazing. Interviewing Theo and shadowing him around was a real thrill. Holland in the Spring? ‘nuf said. Subsisting largely on cheese, butter, and beer and frites for a week? Yum… But what is rising up in me as one of the real benefits of travelling thousands of miles was the freedom it gave me to focus on one thing, to pay deep attention.

With layovers and hanging around in airport times, I had almost half a work week to do with as I pleased. Certainly some of that time was spent logisitically, worrying about schedules, playing around with interview questions, weighing options in case Plan A didn’t pan out. But that still left hours and hours to just think about the project, and doodle, storyboard, and imagine in a way that I often find it hard to do at work. And with the time difference, real-time communication with home wasn’t really practical. I had the gift of being undistracted by all the other priorities that fill workdays.

It was also a great bonding experience for those of us on the trip because we got to spend all day, every day, talking about the project, and riffing off each other’s ideas and observations. And the filming we did gave us hours and hours of time with the artist, listening to him describe his process, point of view, and outlook on life. By the end, we’d had hours of conversation about the pieces we’d come to shoot video for, and about the exhibition. I can see it now, in much more detail than I could before. I’ve written before about the way one refines one’s mental picture of a project as it progresses, and this trip was very crystallizing. And ultimately useful to the whole project team. We have both broadened and deepened our shared vision of what the show can be. And that took time.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Were we agile?

When something goes really well, I’m always interested in trying to analyze it and find things I can apply more broadly. I’ve also been reading about Agile software development, and I started to see commonalities between what worked in the Netherlands and Agile methods. I’ve long stood on the sidelines about translating methodoliges designed for software development and transplanting them in different arenas. The Agile methodology is the posterchild for this. I imagine you’ll hear it many time on the museum tech conference circuit if you haven’t already. I’m a hype skeptic, and I’m OK with that. Ask me about gamiification (ack!) if you need an example. But behind hype there is usually a kernel of truth, and Agile’s kernel (I think) is that it makes you devote attention to one task. If you’re a complete Agile newbie, go check out the Wikipedia entry for a good intro. In a nutshell, Agile is supposed to privilege:

  • Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
  • Working software over Comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over Following a plan

In looking back over the week, I am starting to see how Agile methodologies could be applied to non-software development projects. Our morning breakfasts were essentially daily stand-up meetings where we discussed yesterday, laid out today, and looked forward to tomorrow as best as we could see. We shot whatever we thought we might need or want, even if it wasn’t on our list of things we needed. Our written descriptions for what we were doing and why did not preclude us from altering course during a shoot when new ideas presented themselves, and the videos will be better for it. As opportunities arose, we took them. Our customer was an active participant throughout the process, as was the artist, and their contributions and continuous feedback were crucial. It all sounds kinda Agile… Go figure.

Looking back, I can see that my approach to product development has always been more adaptive than predictive. So maybe it’s time to really dig in a bit more and see what esle Agile holds that might be useful.

Anybody else out there using any Agile methodolgies in museum work, especially outside of software development?