Tag Archives: games

Useful Dialectics, Part Two – Design vs. Tradition

“The opposite of design is tradition.”

– Johanna Koljonen

Jean Le Tavernier, "Portrait of Jean Miélot." Public domain image from Wikimedia user Leinad-Z~commonswiki

Doing it the old fashioned way.

In the last post, I talked about the distinction between change and transformation, and how the former feels more finite and time-bound while the latter is bigger in scope and more ongoing. In this post, I want to explore and refine the dialectical relationship between design and tradition. What I mean by that is that design and tradition can be seen as the distinctions between reflective and non-reflective practice, as Donald Schön and his ilk would say.


I would argue that one of the greatest challenges of working in an institution of any longevity is the burden of tradition, the things we do because “That’s how we do things here.” These usually unspoken ways of doing work get transmitted via a kind of social osmosis, and often at an an almost unconscious level. If you’ve ever started a job, you know what I’m talking about; those things you “just kinda pick up” as you go about learning the job. They make implementing real transformation a daunting task. The unwritten and the informal are hard to overcome precisely because of their lack of specificity and mutability.

Tradition is not exclusively the realm of the informal. Plenty of processes and workflows outlive the situations they were designed for. And even moreso than the informal, these can become pernicious because they have the weight of the institution explicitly behind them. “Our process was developed over a long period of time and has been used here for ____ years.” “We’ve used this process to develop big projects.” The difference between reflective and non-reflective practice, I think, is that the burden of designing your processes should be a never-ending one. Just because somebody else designed a process once, that doesn’t make it right for the current situation. If the only tools in the box are hammers, even though they might be high-quality, expensive ones, the temptation will be to treat every challenge like a nail.


I took the quote at the top from a talk be the experience designer Johanna Koljonen. It was only one of many truth bombs she dropped that day, and in this context (reflective vs non-reflective practice) it really gets right to the heart of so much that is frustrating and broken about museum work processes. They often don’t respond to the current players and challenge. They were a response to a previous challenge that has been passed on and replicated. Obviously, not every process can be redesigned every time, but the amount of tradition we tolerate is impressive. Resisting this tendency motivates a slew of methodologies that aim to help us work smarter. That is the whole motivation behind Lean approaches; looking for places in processes where there are inefficiencies and removing or reworking them. It’s really a very formalized way of trying to encourage reflective practice.

For Johanna, challenging elements of traditions to solve a problem is a crucial part of thinking like an experience designer, which was an identity I never assumed until then. Innovation happens through making active choices, from looking at a situation and asking “What are the designable surfaces here?” and recognizing that answer is EVERYTHING. For me, this resonates strongly with Schön’s idea of reflection as knowing-in-action. 

The Magic Circle

The other part of her presentation that made a strong impact on me was her assertion that “the magic circle” idea that I previously thought of as something exclusive to game design, was in fact a broadly applicable tool to think about any kind of experience design.

magic circle

The magic circle of experience design. Do your meetings look like this?

For the deep divers, the term “magic circle” first appears in Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture”. It’s current vogue though, is due to Katie Salen’s and Eric Zimmerman’s influential 2003 book “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals”. For them “the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.”

The idea of the magic circle is straightforward enough. When people enter into a game, they take on a distinct role, different from their default identity; they become players. And while they are playing, they accept new rules and way of interacting with the other players and the game. In good games, that’s where the fun happens; the learning and mastery of rules, the meaningful wearing of the persona of “player”, and maybe even winning. That’s what happens inside the “magic circle” of a game. Once the game is over, the players cease being players and resume their old roles and life goes on.

Project teams and meetings can be magic circles, if you approach them as opportunities to design. Everyone comes to the table with all their expectations in tow. In the team, or meeting, they take on a role (like “You’re here because of your expertise in x, y, or z.”) and can (and should) be empowered to temporarily try on new roles and reflect in action.

“The opposite of design is tradition.” I think there’s great truth in that. For our needs, though, I’d turn it around and say, “The opposite of tradition is design” because design is the tool that is going to allow us to replace traditions with processes that serve the needs of the time.

Next up: Network vs. Hierarchy


Travels in November


Contrails. CC BY-SA 3.0 image by Wikimedia Commons user Cp9asngf

November is going to be action packed! I’m not really ready for it, but c’est la vie. I’ll be doing a whirlwind tour of North America and Europe, going to three different conferences, and finally, finally, finally going to see the Louisiana Museum and learning more about how the amazing Louisiana Channel runs.

Oct 31-Nov 4,New Orleans
Museum Computer Network Conference 2016

This year, Bruce Wyman, Kate Haley Goldman, and I are repeating our “Experiencing the Visitor Experience” workshop on the 1st.  The inimitable Suse Cairns and I are also hosting an informal book club to discuss “Post-Critical Museology”. Time and place TBD, so check Twitter for updates. Other than that, I’m free as a bird and looking forward to attending sessions!

Nov 10, Copenhagen
Louisiana Museum

I’m visiting the Louisiana Museum and talk to the folks at the Louisiana Channel before heading across the bridge to Malmö attend Alibis for Interaction.

Nov 11, Malmö
Alibis for Interaction 2016

Nordic LARPing anyone? Alibis for Interaction is a one-day masterclass on the craft of designing human interaction, participation and narrative experiences. Because participation can be hard. Talking to strangers is hard. Receiving attention is hard. Doing new things is hard, Even when whatever you’re being invited to do looks fun or really important issue. I’ll be doing research for a potential exhibition on play and contemporary art, and shooting some run-n-gun interviews.

Nov 12-13
Up in the air. There’s tons to see in Copenhagen. Suggestions?

Nov 13-16, Köln
Clash of Realities 2016

At Clash of Realities, experts from the academy, science and research, economics, politics and the game industry will discuss pressing questions concerning the artistic design, technological development, and social perception of digital games, as well as the spreading of games literacy. I’ll be doing more research for a potential exhibition on play and contemporary art, and shooting more formal interviews with our intrepid videographer, Mr. Chip Van Dyke.

So if you’re in New Orleans, Copenhagen, Malmö, or Köln, hit me up and we’ll have coffee or a drink! DMing me on Twitter is probably the safest bet, email also works.

A quick question for you

Hot on the heels of our fascinating plenary at Museums and the Web about Sleep No More and immersive theatre and museums, I went to a very different kind of immersive experience – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – an immersive, puzzle-based, interactive experience developed by 5 Wits, who also did Operation Spy at the International Spy Museum. It’s sort of the polar opposite of SNM; family-friendly, group based, and very explicative. And it worked on a number of different levels than SNM. Particularly the game-based elements of it. So I’d like to conduct an experiment with your kind condescension.

Think about the experience of being in museums and why you like them.
Now think about games you love. Board games, videogames, whatever…
Holding both those in mind, can you put them together and tell me what you see?
Which games sprang to mind? Why?

Reviews: museum game apps

I got a lovely email last week from the people working with the Tate to announce their newest game app, “Race Against Time.” As I was downloading it, I remembered that Dave Schaller had sent me a link to Eduweb’s latest game app “Moon Walking”. Must be time to tackle games again.

This past Summer I wrote a series of four posts on gaming and museums.  It covered interactivity, the qualities of good interactives, games and play, and finally “gamification” the process of applying game principles to non-game activities.  Now, there’s a growing crop of museum games you can try out to see what’s possible.

Apps as ways to fill interstitial time
Somebody wise said the killer apps for mobiles is that they are a way to kill time while waiting for the bus – those down times that occur while we’re between places, or waiting for something to happen are a great time to engage an audience. Three of these games fit that bill.

Race Against Time

Tate’s latest game, possesses the same irreverent spirit that animates Tate Trumps, their first game.  In it, you play the part of a color-collecting chameleon, out to save the world from having all its colors sucked up by Dr. Greyscale.  Along the way, you traverse 12 decades of modern art in the background.

Race Against Time is a classic sidescroller (think “Mario Brothers”) where you gobble up color while avoiding perils and enemies. The concept is pretty simple “Don’t get killed.” I will confess I’ve been unable to get past the Fauvists before getting killed.  You can play the game anywhere, and there’s no benefit I can see to playing it in the Tate.


Meanderthal is one of Smithsonian’s most appealing apps in my opinion.  It’s another dead easy app in terms of functionality; you take your picture using the phone’s camera, choose a human ancestor and presto, the images are combined to make you appear Neanderthal. You can also learn about the three early human species presented in the app, but clearly the thrill lies in having your picture morphed.

What I like about Meanderthal is that it is a great snack. It does one thing and does it very well. And you actually learn some paleontology along the way. It’s got rudimentary social features like email and Facebook sharing, and it actually uses a built-in feature of a mobile – the camera – which is still surprisingly rare in museum apps.


An app that goes a bit further in using the mobile platform’s advantages seems to be Eduweb’s augmented reality (AR) app MoonWalking. This app lets you overlay scenes from the first Moon landing over wherever you happen to be at the time. Thanks to GPS positioning, you can walk around Tranquility Base and use your mobile as a window into real-time recreations of highlights of the mission.

What I like about the concept behind this app is the potential it has for heritage sites, or anywhere out in the world where you might want to overlay digital content on what you’re looking at. A ruined castle could be restored, an archaeological site become a living settlement. And it is best done with a mobile device. How well MoonWalking works in the wild I can’t say. My iPhone is too old and my iPad doesn’t have 3G so I can’t get the app to work.

LaunchballI think Launchball actually predates mobile apps. This simple physics simulator-meets construction set game was launched as a website (how old school is that?) back in 2007 to much acclaim. It won awards at Museums and the Web and some other conference called SXSW, where it picked up Best Game and Best of Show awards. In 2009, it was released for iOS and is available for iPhone.

UPDATE: Mia Ridge clarified the development history for me. Thanks, Mia!

NOTE: Apparently, Science Museum and the game’s developer are renegotiating contracts, so the game has been taken down from the App Store temporarily.  Try the original Flash version to get a sense of it’s addictive gameplay.

What I like about Launchball is the extent to which it works as a great game, and as a museum game.  It lets you play loads of levels, but it also lets you build your own, and share your creations with the Launchball community. First and foremost, it’s a good game. Second, it does a great job of getting you to experiment and engage in the “I wonder what would happen if…” thinking that’s an essential prerequisite to learning how scientists and engineers think.

Apps as ways to encourage visitors to pay attention in the museum

All the games I’ve mentioned thus far could be done anywhere. Nothing about them requires a museum visit, though you probably would never find them unless you were at that museum and saw a sign directing you to download the app.

Tate Trumps

Tate’s most well-known app, Tate Trumps, behaves differently than the apps above. It was originally designed to work in the Gallery, and has been updated to work anywhere. Like the title says, it’s a way to play a simple version of the card game trumps, only the cards are various artworks at the Tate.

In each of the three different games that make up Tate Trumps, you pick a hand of cards that are Tate artworks, that have attributes, some mundane like “size”, and others wildly subjective like “strength”.  When you assemble a hand, the game picks a suit, and the players try to put out their highest card with that attribute. Winner gets points, player with most points at the end of seven hands wins.

Tate Trumps is a brilliant piece of work in my opinion. It has multiple modes of gameplay. You can play it alone, or with your friends. The attributes are strange enough that they got me to look at the artworks differently than I would’ve on a more typical visit. In Collector mode, you add artworks by going around the gallery, typing in ID numbers off the object labels, “collecting” the pieces you want before your opponents can get them. And it’s connection to the Tate is crystal clear. It’s a game that only Tate would’ve made.

So what can these games teach us?

As I said in my previous app review, trying to synthesize learning from such disparate experiences is a challenge, but there are some things that rise up when I look at these games.

Good games are fun.
Seems like a no-brainer, but as you know, so many “educational” games are educational first and games second (if at all). They’re really gamified (ack) interactives, and they usually suck. If it’s going to be a game, it has to be a game first.

Be in for the long haul
Tate Trumps is on version 5, and has not only fixed bugs, but added major new functionalities as time has gone on. That means the business model has to be a software development model with new version releases and point releases, not a museum exhibition, “Build it and it’s done” model.

Success has costs
I doubt anyone at Science Museum could’ve predicted that Launchball would have such a long life, and morph from being a website to being a mobile app. And whatever agreement they originally had with the developers, I bet it didn’t include this contingency.

Things you can only do with a phone make more appealing apps
Almost all of these apps use the mobile platform to do things you couldn’t do any other way. Using the camera, communication functions, GPS, etc… all make the experience more compelling because it’s obvious that you could only do this with a mobile.

What museum game apps have you played and enjoyed?