Open Plaques resources are explicitly geared for re-use by others, taking on new forms beyond the main website in related apps and ebooks. This was taken a step further when our (current) list of 145 plaques in Manchester was brought to life and updated dynamically in the Histonauts2 event, part of a 10-day history festival in Manchester. I caught up with Histonauts co-ordinator and director of The Big Art People Jim Ralley to find out more…
But first, the inscription from one of the plaques they photographed and contributed, which seems apt in the circumstances:
“Robert Owen 1771 – 1858. Welsh entrepreneur and social reformer whose ideas formed the basis of the world-wide co-operative movement. Lived and worked in Manchester for 12 years working first in a business on this site. c.1786.” [See the plaque here]
Q: Histonauts2 was a 2-day urban quest that happened as part of the city-wide Manchester Histories Festival that ran from 24th February to 4th March 2012. How did you fit into the programme – was there a particular theme or ethos in the Festival that you synched with?
Histonauts2 was part of a wider CRESC-funded research project run by the Institute for Cultural Practices (ICP at the University of Manchester) called MMXII: Mapping Manchester. As well as designing and running the game, the ICP also mapped the Manchester Histories Festival programme, and held a summit that brought together groups and organisations from the North West that were doing work with mapping or interested in mapping.
The game complemented the ethos of the MHF. It’s about getting people actively engaged in history, encouraging them to walk around the city and notice things that they might normally ignore. We pitched the idea to Claire Turner the Festival Director and she was really excited about it. In fact we ended up borrowing a phrase from their About Us page: “revealing the hidden histories from across Greater Manchester.”
Q: I’ve seen Histonauts described as ‘urban archeology’, and also as a digital treasure hunt. Are these fair descriptions and how would you pitch it to a newcomer?
I think they are fair descriptions. The archaeology metaphor translates really neatly across from physical to digital. Archaeologists dig down through the strata of the Earth to reveal the layers of time, whilst our players were digitally adding layers of meaning to buildings, locations, and objects in the physical world.
We love the idea that you could take an object in a museum or archive and digitally replace it in the location it was originally discovered. In a way it’s like reverse archaeology!
Q: The inclusion of Open Plaques data in the quest came together at the last minute – two days before the event – through a brief exchange on Twitter. Can you recap what data of ours you referred to and how you included it in the game?
I saw Frankie Roberto of Open Plaques talk at Culture Hack North in Leeds, and when one of our players took a photo of a blue plaque I was suddenly reminded of Open Plaques. The potential for collaboration was obvious. We focused on the plaques in Manchester that hadn’t yet been photographed, aiming to document as many of them as possible in a day. Getting photographs was included as a Daily Mission, which proved to be a really effective way of keeping players engaged and interested in the game.
Q: Did our ‘open data‘ policy function as an enabler to speeding up decision-making following your initial thought that Open Plaques resources could be used, or didn’t that come into it?
It definitely influenced our decision to partner with Open Plaques. We’d had minor issues before with players trying to link to non-Creative Commons images on Flickr, et cetera, so we were keen to work with open images / data as much as possible.
Of course we’re also committed to keeping all of our data open. Once we’ve had the chance to clean up everything we’ll share the GoogleDocs and Fusion Tables for everyone to play with.
The Daily Missions were flexible, and often changed in direct response to the kinds of things that the players had been uncovering. The plaques were perfect objects for engagement. They are the kind of thing that people walk past every day without noticing but that are really rich in content and historical significance.
Having them already mapped also added a slightly different element to the game. Previous missions specified themes but not locations, and had players finding whatever they could on their walks around the city. This was far more of a targeted hunt.
Q: What other data or objects did you use as ‘treasure’ and how were they incorporated?
*checks the hashtag archive* We asked players to find road names with historical significance, seek out the birth dates of buildings, take up-to-date versions of photos from Manchester Archives Plus, find places related to Manchester’s rich musical heritage, find other players (identified by their badges), and to document MHF events.
Q: What were the mechanics, rules and objectives of the game?
The timescale and resources were such that we had to design a game that didn’t require much maintenance. We wanted players to have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for continuing the game, so there were points given for each secret history ‘uncovered’, with the promise of a prize at the end.
To shape the intrinsic reward mechanism I used the nef 5 Ways to Wellbeing
model, ensuring that over the 10 days the players were encouraged to Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, and Give. [The rules and intsructions are here].
Q: What tools did you use to communicate with the participants, and to co-ordinate the content gathered in the digital treasure hunt. Was there any cost to these? What web services and devices did the players need to have?
We had to use web tools that were freely available to all, and that people were familiar with. Google Docs were useful for player signup, and I used a Google Site to collate all of the information, which was stored on Google Spreadsheets and Fusion Tables. Daily Missions and nightly rankings were sent out via email and Twitter, and the combination of photos and geo-location meant that Twitter (for easy web and mobile access) was really the easiest and most familiar way for players to get content to us.
Q: How many people took part and who were they? Did everyone have the same level of involvement or was there scope for varying degrees of commitment? How was success judged?
We had 39 players sign up, and 17 actually contribute secret histories via Twitter. We’re planning to send a survey round to all of the participants very soon, to get an idea of the kind of people who played. But anecdotally we know that there was a fairly wide range, from history PhD students to chartered accountants.
In terms of commitment, the top 3 players contributed the vast majority of secret histories, almost twice as many as the other 14 active players combined.
— UniverCityCulture (@UniCityCulture) February 27, 2012
Q: How did it all pan out and what feedback did you get from the players at the time and afterwards?
It went amazingly well. Far better than we could have anticipated, and with very little publicity or lead-in time. Again, we haven’t had time to properly collate the email and Twitter feedback yet, but it was all really positive with people saying that they’d learned loads and had fun doing it.
Q: Histonauts has happened once before. When and where was that? Was the format the same or have you evolved it much?
Histonauts2 is actually the 3rd game that we’ve run as part of the UniverCityCulture pilot research project. The previous two were more traditional hunts/challenges using QR codes placed at historically interesting locations around the University of Manchester campus. This time wanted to evolve the game to be a little looser, not always restricting players to a predefined set of locations.
The games have all been really successful, and we’re keen to evolve the concept further and have been in talks with the MHF about designing a massive ARG (alternate reality game) for the 2014 festival. We’re secretly incredibly excited about the prospect of a longer R&D period, larger resources, more partner organisations, and hundreds or thousands of participants!
— Open Plaques (@openplaques) February 27, 2012
Q: Where did you first get the idea from, any particular inspirations? Does it continue in the lineage of any other ‘pervasive games’, and how does it depart from or build upon them?
I’ve wanted to try my hand at game design ever since I heard about Jane McGonigal’s World Without Oil back in 2007. The opportunity came with the first phase of this research project, and since then the idea has grown and evolved and been influenced by countless other projects.
The UniverCityCulture project started after seeing this Mashable article on Harvard’s collaboration with Foursquare, and drew inspiration from Historypin, scvngr, the Google Maps Mania blog, Larkin’ About, Decoding Art, and many more projects that we’ve found or been sent via Twitter. The whole process has been iterative and always responsive to changing demands and technologies. We already have a Histonauts3 tentatively planned for Freshers’ Week in September this year.
Q: Returning to the whole public-cum-digital archaeology concept, do you think the hidden or at least unmapped raw materials of the city’s past hold out a lot of untapped promise for further ventures?
I think Histonauts2 specifically and Manchester Histories Festival in general has shown that there’s a huge appetite for history and heritage in Manchester, and that people want to play an active part in documenting, uncovering, and creating that history.
Great crowdsourced projects like Open Plaques and Wikipedia work because they bring people together doing hard, meaningful work, and making a genuine contribution to the body of knowledge around a particular subject through co-creation.
Jane McGonigal talks about an ‘epic meaning’ behind any game that drives engagement and participation. Perhaps the aim for the next couple of games will be this more ‘serious play’. Play with purpose.
Q: With the material world as your primary focus here – as opposed to relying on augmented reality for primary stimulus and counterposing physical / virtual layers – do you see digital technologies and media primarily as aids to discovery and documenting of public space, or more than that, have the two worlds actually merged?
I think we’re quite happy to accept the idea of things (locations, groups, businesses, movements) existing both physically and digitally and those two areas not necessarily being temporally or spatially defined or aligned. Good and useful digital technologies just allow us to do the same things we ever did faster, better, and with more people. It’s my hope that the more mobile they become, the more they will provide a route to actual human interaction. Now that we’re not chained to desktops any more we should be able to meet and talk and do things together, either facilitated by digital tech or not.
Q: What are the main creative and cultural opportunities that you see now and on the horizon for digitally enhanced collaborative history, mapping, annotation, and the like? Is the public’s role and the way things can be done in this space noticeably shifting?
Obviously the widespread adoption of smartphones makes this kind of work far easier. I really like the Historypin app and the way you can blend old photos with what you see through your phone’s camera. I love the NWFA Time Machine app too, it makes really simple and clever use of archive footage with geolocation.
Q: There’s a broader academic and research backdrop to this, with a number of organisations and partners in the mix. Could you clarify and briefly outline how this jigsaw puzzle fits together?
It’s wonderfully confusing. The Institute for Cultural Practices (ICP) is part of the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures (SAHC) at the University of Manchester.
I recently graduated from the ICP MA programme in Arts Management. But my real job is as Director of The Big Art People (tBAP), an arts organisation that works with academic, arts, heritage, corporate, and community partners. We’ve worked with the ICP on a number of projects, and as an official University supplier we provide research assistance and project management services.
So the first QR hunt game, Campus Obscura, was funded from the SAHC retention fund, aiming to engage students with the history of the campus. The second QR hunt game, Histonauts, was with Larkin’ About and Contact Theatre, and was really just a bit of fun and a chance to test some new game mechanics.
The third game, Histonauts2 was part of the MMXII: Mapping Manchester project that I mentioned at the start. We’ve also got a couple more games on the way that we’ll hopefully be announcing soon!
Thanks to Jim Ralley and all the histonauts2 organisers and participants for contributing to Open Plaques whilst exploring their city’s past. See all the plaques they added plus other photos from the Festival in this Flickr set.
[IMAGE CREDITS: The plaque photographs above were contributed to Open Plaques by Histonauts2 players thanks to Creative Commons licensing and Flickr machinetags. The mascot is courtesy of Histonauts / The Big Art People]