Digital R&D in the Arts Scotland - Case Study 3 - Dundee Contemporary Arts
Each day in the run up to Nesta Scotland’s Spotlight on Digital R&D in the Arts event we are going to share a case study showcasing what the ten projects from both calls of the fund have achieved.
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Everyone knows that games are fun. But how can an organisation use the principles of game design to engage more with people using their services and facilities?
Through workshops with staff, prototyping ideas and working with technology partners, DCA have two projects currently under test - enhancing their loyalty card scheme and adding interactivity to their donations box – which are introducing an element of play for customers.
Process was vitally important in this deliberately open and exploratory project supported by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts in Scotland.
Dundee Contemporary Arts R&D Workshops /Prototypes
Case Study by Rhona Taylor
“The workshops — which we were expecting to be a stepping stone towards making an end product — ended up being a really amazing outcome”
Yann Seznec, Lucky Frame
Dundee Contemporary Arts held a series of workshops with their two technology partners, Denki and Lucky Frame, to explore how the principles of game design, and creative ways of working, could inform DCA as an organisation. The three partners also went on to develop two prototype, interactive objects as a result of the workshops: a donations box and a loyalty card scanning system.
Clive Gillman, director of DCA, uses a quote by Ted Nelson, the technology pioneer, to explain the thinking behind the project. “Nelson asked why games are often so much better designed than office software, the reason being that people who design office software look forward to doing something else at the weekend, whereas people who design games love playing games. That was our starting point for the project.”
Gillman and his team wanted to look at some of the working issues DCA faced, such as how to better engage its audience, while keeping the Nelson quote, and the concepts behind successful games design, in mind. “We were aiming to demonstrate that a different kind of thinking could help us to deal with some of the problems or challenges we might have as an organisation.”
DCA looked to Denki and Lucky Frame, two games design companies with which they already had a working relationship, to set up a series of workshops involving staff from all three organisations. “I wanted to engage the games design companies more deeply with us as an organisation – to explore how their thinking and approach might influence some of the things we were doing,” Gillman says. “The idea was to look at the ways in which those companies work – how they design games and what the principles are that determine their success – and then to look at how that could work within DCA.”
DCA aimed to involve as many members of its staff as possible in the workshops to engage with the project and to ensure that the R&D process reflected all aspects of its business, and all of its people. “One of the key things we had to do was get our staff to think about how games actually work,” Gillman says. “Like what do you get from playing a game? What’s the process of engagement, and what’s interesting and exciting about that?”
One of the primary aims of the workshops was to generate ideas through the process of teaching the DCA staff how to play a wide variety of games, which had been selected by the technology partners as the most effective tools for the R&D process. “They weren’t necessarily off-the-shelf shoot em ups or anything like that — they were games that challenged people’s understanding of what a computer game might be,” Gillman says. They included multi-player games, encouraging teamwork, and one in which the winner was the player who came second in a race, making the players think differently about successful outcomes. “We also did some stuff around Angry Birds, which has a really simple interface but is something that can be quite addictive, and we were looking at how you can play with that.”
As a result of the workshops, the partners identified key areas of DCA’s business that could benefit from further development, and which could be used to create more concrete outcomes to the project. Two main ideas emerged, both of which focused on the transactions that take place within DCA. The first focused on improving its donations box to make it more interactive, involving visitors as soon as they walked through the door. “We were focusing on transactions as being key — playing a game is a very specific transaction,” says Gillman. “We wanted to explore how we could make the process of engagement with the donations box more interesting, and that was a very natural opportunity for some of those games design principles.”
DCA’s technology partner Denki then worked with staff to look at what might work. “Denki wanted to explore with them things such as how people see it, how they perceive it, who puts money in, what sense of engagement do people have when they're putting money in. Is it a passing gesture or a very deliberate act? There were lots of conversations that went on to refine the project.”
Colin Anderson, of Denki, came up with the term ArtCade as a working title for what they were hoping to achieve, capturing the idea of combining art and entertainment. “Colin’s concept was that to make a donations box that really functioned effectively as a game it needs to have a certain set of criteria. They were defined as things like – it had to have a coin slot that triggered something that you could take away from it, and there needed to be constant variation.”
They came up with the idea of a set of four coloured, interactive boxes. The box, installed at the main entrance to DCA, also contains a hidden game. “We didn’t want to tell anybody how it worked. It had to be self-evident – that’s a really strong principle in games design. There’s that principle that if you can’t work out how it works within two clicks, then you're not going to connect with it.”
The second prototype involved developing DCA’s loyalty card scheme. DCA wanted to expand the existing scheme to capture visitor data about the free parts of the building, such as exhibition spaces. Through workshops with Lucky Frame, a small digital company with three members of staff who design and make interactive work, DCA developed the idea of a scanning machine with a touch-screen interface that aped aspects of games design.
They are currently using a machine lent by NCR to test the process. “The technology has a particular architecture and functionality, so we're having to work to make that operate within the building. Some of that may not be as intuitive as we might want, but it’s allowing us to test out the device in a way that's fairly robust.”
The two prototypes were unexpected, tangible outcomes of what was conceived as a deliberately open and exploratory R&D project. “What we now have as a challenge is how we sustain and monitor that, report on it and use it to influence our future behaviour. The prototypes have given us something much more concrete that we can now look at into the future as to how we can learn from those as working objects in the building.”
Staff reacted positively to taking part in the workshops, and have been involved with a continuing consultation process since then. The development also presented several challenges, the biggest of which was completing the project within the timescale. Focusing on the R&D workshops rather than creating an end product meant that the project was sometimes put aside by all three partners. “Most of the time you’re just working on the next project. The two games design companies were very committed to the project, got a lot out of it and enjoyed it. But the problem is that they have to get the next game out and might suddenly get a commission to do something, and those things had to take precedence.”
This meant that the initial timeframe was unrealistic, and the project overran. “If we’d really looked at that at the beginning, it would've been apparent that we would never have made the initial timeframe, and in the end we ran over massively. But that allowed us to generate what I think are pretty good outcomes – and Nesta have been really good at recognising that and working with us on that. They’ve been positive, supportive and interested but not particularly directive. They ‘got’ the project and enabled us to keep working on it to produce good outcomes.”
Focusing on the workshops as an R&D tool and keeping an open mind about any outcome was key to the project’s success, and it is something DCA would encourage other organisations to do. “As an organisation that is interested in digital R&D, I’m less interested in seeing how other people have developed apps than actually thinking about how someone has really explored a technological possibility that I can learn from, and may not have thought about as being possible.
“Looking to use the technological expertise that exists out there to inform how cultural organisations function struck me as a really positive thing to do. So rather than an organisation saying, ‘We know who we are, we know what we’re doing, we just want a technologist to produce this solution for us,’ there’s a lot more to be gained by inviting those people into the mix a little bit and having a much more extensive conversation about the possibilities.”
Overall, the project has been a positive experience for DCA, Gillman says. “I found it a really rewarding project — I really liked the conversations that we’ve had with the partners. Having the opportunity to sit back and work with some interesting minds to think about the possibilities and the opportunities for these kind of developments in a building like this has been really useful and beneficial.
“I'd like to do one of these every year! That would be perfect – bring in a new set of partners, explore some ideas, and then start to work towards some prototypes and keep building on that. That would be fantastic.”
Director, Lucky Frame
“At Lucky Frame, R&D is something that we don’t think of as being separate. In some ways, everything we do is R&D — it’s part of our creative process.
“The workshops with DCA were amazing. We hadn’t done many before, and we weren’t sure how they’d work out, but they worked out super well. It was great to work with people and show them how a creative process can be a really rewarding experience. It worked well for DCA and for us too — the reactions we got were surprising, created a really great atmosphere and helped to develop understanding.
“It was especially good to work with self-proclaimed sceptics and win them over. For us it was good to step out of the world we’re used to and the kind of audience we’re used to addressing, and work with people who say at the outset that they don’t know why they’re there.
“The focus on the R&D process in the DCA project is what attracted me to it — I think it’s the only way to do it. When an organisation identifies a solution, often what they’re actually doing is identifying a need or a problem, and then the solution isn’t necessarily the right one for any number of reasons.
“For us the end product was important, but what was surprising was learning that the workshops were actually such a great end product as well. We expected the workshops to lead to an important end product, whereas the end product actually ended up being hampered by technical limitations.
“But the workshops — which we were expecting to be a stepping stone towards making this end product — ended up being a really amazing outcome. And what was interesting was that that was a real surprise to us.”
DCA reception and box office staff
“I went to two of the workshops, and they were both useful and informative. We were asked for feedback on what happens and how we could get people more interested in these things, and we went through different team skills and communication.
“The donations box is good because when people come in they see it straight away and look at it. About half the people who come through the door notice it and come over and look at it before putting money in.
“The loyalty card prototype is a good thing for DCA and if it was even more interactive perhaps it would get even more people interested in it – if it was more game-like. It is quite a simple thing, but then sometimes simple is beautiful.”