Brief thoughts on dystopia/utopia – interactive design fiction for museums?

First a couple of minor updates before the main course (which is full of long video links . . . ).

Aaron has written up the full length version of the talk in Adelaide for the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material National Conference last week. It covers a lot of the conceptual work around our acquisition of Planetary for the Cooper-Hewitt collection and “what it means to be a design museum” in the early 21st century. Its a good (long) read especially if you haven’t been subjected to one of Aaron’s or my recent public talks on this topic. Aaron and I will soon be in an episode of Museopunks about this too.

Anna Mikhaylova interviewed me at MuseumNext back in May for her Ideas4Museums: A Biography of Museum Computing project which speaks to technologists inside museums. She did a great job editing together something coherent from my caffeinated ramblings and it is now live. It might be of interest to those curious as to why I work with cultural heritage and it builds on a number of earlier interviews for Museum ID and Desktop Mag.

I spent an inordinate number of hours as a fifteen year old playing Wasteland on my Commodore 64 which I wrote about for The 80s Are Back exhibition when I was working at the Powerhouse Museum. And, in time for the long weekend it got a re-release as a bonus for Kickstarter backers of its long awaited sequel due in 2015. Wasteland looks nowadays like a clunky old-school role playing game and its treatment of a post-nuclear world deeply shaped by the 1980s. But the story and the way it unfolds over many many hours of grinding gameplay (I think I spent far too many hours stuck, low on ammunition and desperately outgunned in the Las Vegas sewers), still makes it one of the best computer game experiences all-round.

As games become more cinematic and cinema becomes more influenced by the structure and design of games, something strange is happening to the way we deal with our mass culture neuroses. Introducing playability into our neuroses allows them to be pushed and pulled at, alternative scenarios and endings explored, as the reader/viewer/player makes use of their (limited) agency. So reading around post-apocalytic narratives in film and gaming, I came across a recent post on the fabulous reborn Snarkmarket that sent me down a rabbithole around narrative design and interactive storytelling in the ambitious The Last of Us.

Ostensibly a triple-A high budget video game for adults, The Last of Us for the Playstation 3, is probably best described as a cinematic narrative (obviously with nods to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road etc) stitched together with first-person survival horror and puzzle game elements – the ‘stitching’ pointing to the challenge of reconciling real interactivity and strong narrative. (Watch a longplay video of it to get a sense of the game if you haven’t played it – be warned, its M17+ territory. Perhaps it is one game that works best as a ‘watching’ experience!).

James Howell’s multipart YouTube deconstruction of the internal systems and logic of the game is remarkable. The way in which Howell draws attention to the way in which the game system is an integral part of the narrative and the playability of these is critical to the player’s understanding and immersion in the narrative itself. The subtle, and not-to-subtle ways in which the game hints and nudges the player through the narrative using frequent learned prompts gives a rhythm and purpose beyond combat sequences. This is a departure from the strongly ‘challenge-oriented’ approach of games in the 80s and 90s where games only expected a very very few elite players to ‘complete’ them. Now, with narrative-based games, the very notion that average players couldn’t ‘complete’ them to the end – and get a satisfactory ending – in a reasonable (but not too short) amount of play time seems ridiculous in retrospect.

What might exhibition design learn from this sort of deeply structured interactive design?


And as far as dystopian/utopian futures of a less interactive sort goes, you can’t really go wrong with Adrian Hon’s History of the Future in 100 Objects. Initially a response to the British Museum and BBC’s History of the World, Adrian’s book is a lovely piece of near-future fiction written from the perspective of 2082 it covers the objects and services that changed the world between 2014 and 2079. In amongst the futuristic whimsy there are, as in all good science fiction, insights into the present across design, technology, sociology and politics – not to mention what it might mean for museum curators to present such a collected exhibition in 2082. The 100 short curatorial essays offer a dizzying vision of globalised future that is equally exciting and terrifying – just the way it should be. Along with many other nerds of my generation I grew up on Usborne’s 1979 World of the Future trilogy (compiled here) by Kenneth Gatland – and I’d love to see an illustrated version of Adrian’s book sometime in the future (hint hint!). I’m sometimes worried about the lack of similar titles for children these days – but that’s usually on my other irregular blog.

The print version launches in London this week for all those who don’t like longform reading on screens. Otherwise make sure you get yourself a electronic copy.


“Completion”, participation, and purpose

A couple of things circulating at the moment that perhaps interrelate.

Ed Rodley’s suggestion that art museums are paying the price of being the new “temples in our secular society” is certainly worth considering. The current wave of agitation against the notion of ‘participation’ might just be coincidence but it might also be a timely call for museums to better articulate who they really are for (or want to be for). Art museums seem to have a tougher time of this – especially with the rapidly changing demographics of the USA.

Designer Khoi Vinh makes a good critique of the latest piece of Snowfall-style rich multimedia journalism from The Guardian.

Also, there’s the fact that both “NSA Files Decoded” and “Snowfall” so clearly take the form of what I like to call “The Editor’s Prerogative.” What is The Editor’s Prerogative? It’s when you take a piece of journalism and make it huge in scale and elaborate in delivery so that it is more in line with how important an editor thinks the story is than how new audiences actually want to consume it.

And Newsbound’s Josh Kalven comments,

This gets at a question that’s rarely talked about in journalism circles: “Did people read it?” We often talk about how many people arrived on the page and how many people shared it. But the industry doesn’t seem to care about “completion” as a metric.

My former teammate Renae Mason (About NSW, The 80s Are Back etc) recently built one of these Snowfall-style projects for Penguin before she moved to Triple J. I’m know she has a lot to say about the real cost and effort that goes into making these pieces.

(Digital teams in museums are already being badgered about “when is my exhibition mirosite/catalogue” going to look like that online, so we better figure this out soon. There’s a growing Google Doc of all these sorts of multimedia pieces if you haven’t seen many of them)

I wonder how much museums – participatory or not – really care about ‘completion’ as a metric in their exhibitions, publications or digital projects? Audience tracking studies have, for years, shown that visitors rarely take the ‘right path’ through an exhibit even when one is clearly articulated.