Interview: National Trust user experience expert Matthew Tyler-Jones
Matthew Tyler-Jones is a National Trust consultant, specialising in visitor experiences. He’s also a PhD researcher at Southampton University, working with digital augmentations to visitor experiences and specialising in narrative techniques drawn from computer gaming. He blogs, at Meme Technology, and he’ll be speaking at the Academy of Marketing’s E-marketing SIG Symposium later in May.
We talked with Matthew about his ideas for digital storytelling at heritage sites, and the need to break apart the usual way of doing things – territory we helped HRP explore with The Lost Palace app.
Calvium: Your bio talks a lot about computer games, while mentioning Storify and other user-generated narratives as not being quite what you’re looking for – how come?
Matthew Tyler-Jones: There are, broadly, two types of computer game narrative. In Red Dead Redemption or The Last of Us, for example, you play through a story that has been authored, but in more procedural games, from Pong onwards, the narrative is created in the players’ heads – the nail-biting victory point scored on your very last life, for example.
Neither narrative is a “better” type than the other, but the fundamental difference between the two is that if the player isn’t engaged by a procedural narrative (if they lost too many lives in the early stages or something), they can simply restart the game.
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I’m interested in what we can learn from computer games to enhance “meatspace” visits to heritage sites. A physical visitor cannot restart their visit as easily as they might restart a procedural game narrative, so I tend towards exploring how authored games can inform storytelling in historic spaces. Vox populi narratives definitely also have a role in unpacking the stories of our places, but I suspect that form of co-curation will most likely be online.
Calvium: Your work with computer games has led towards a classic ‘problem’ in game development – the need to tell a story in the game without overly restricting player agency. If you put those two ideas on a spectrum, whereabouts does your work fall?
MT-J: Yup, that’s what it’s all about! I’m going to be brutally honest here: since learning, aged 10 on my Atari 2600, that I lacked the necessary hand/eye coordination to create engaging stories procedurally, I’ve always been a fan of games with authored stories. These used to be mostly “on rails”, very restrictive.
It’s only in recent years that so-called open-world games, like the Grand Theft Auto series, or more recently, the Witcher games, have opened my eyes to the possibility that the open worlds of heritage sites might learn something from how they tell stories. But even these games restrict access to parts of the map until the story is ready. That’s not an option for heritage sites – something we’ll have to work around.
Calvium: Your MA work was concerned with “the increasing futility of cultural heritage sites trying to tell doggedly linear stories in three-dimensional spaces”. Could you expand on that? Why is it getting harder to tell the standard narrative of a heritage space?
MT-J: Well first of all, let me take issue with the idea of “the standard narrative” of a cultural heritage site. I’d like to think that modern curators are more open to telling all sorts of stories about the places they look after. But let us concede that, having researched and learned a lot about the place or the collection, people naturally want to tell stories about them. Those stories are more emotionally and intellectually engaging if the events of the story are told in a particular order. The murderer is not revealed until the end of a whodunit, for example, while in other detective stories, the perpetrator is known, but the events lead to a revelation of the motive.
Museums didn’t start out telling linear stories. With a small, informed, elite audience, the first curators were content to let their visitors draw their own inferences and connexions, in the archaic sense and spelling of the word, from the curator’s arrangement of objects. That changed in the last years of the nineteenth century, with the likes of Pitt-Rivers, and his “Great Desideratum … an educational museum, in which the visitors may instruct themselves.” He arranged his museum specifically to impress upon the working class (in his words “those who run”) a narrative of evolutionary – not revolutionary – development.
With half my life, I work for the National Trust. That organisation, only a couple of decades ago, expected their visitors to buy a “book of the house”, and to walk a prescribed route around the building, reading a chapter in each room. Recently, visitors were given more freedom to choose their own routes around a place, be it a National Trust house or museum gallery. They are not expected to read every panel in order, or to listen to the entirety of a taped audio guide. The sites have become, in short, more interactive. But increased interactivity comes with a “narrative paradox” – the more choices a visitor has, the less engaging the narrative becomes.
Calvium: Is there a point where the authenticity of a site is compromised by the amount of anachronistic technology you’re introducing, or the amount of storytelling you’re doing?
MT-J: With technology, yes, and I think we’ve reached it already. People come to a place to be in the place. They don’t want to look at their surroundings or the collection through a five-inch rectangle of glass (unless they are taking a picture, of course). But the exciting thing is that we’re on the cusp of the technology becoming invisible, allowing the place itself to respond to the visitors’ needs without them having to pull out a phone.
As to your second point – story is ephemeral. People can take it or leave it. Lots of people, most visitors, already ignore the apps that cultural heritage sites have spent tens of thousands of pounds on. Some people like to read the panels and leaflets, others choose not to. Some people go on a guided tour, others wander contentedly by themselves. Our task is to have the story waiting for those that want a story.
Calvium: You’re presenting at the Academy of Marketing E-Marketing SIG Symposium later in May, talking about barriers to the use of mobile technology on site (as opposed to bringing people to the site, and curating their own narratives once they’ve left). What kind of barriers are you finding?
MT-J: Where do I start? Too many proprietary app formats; which leads to us asking our visitors to download too many “one use” apps; which, frankly, they are not inclined to do.
People don’t think to download apps before they set out – and why should they?. If they become aware of the app when on site, they’re worried about using up their mobile data allowance. If free public WiFi is offered, it’s often too complicated to sign up for – you feel like you are agreeing to sign away the soul of your first-born (which some people have actually done), and even if you don’t it takes too bloody long! WiFi is often flaky – it’s only in a café, or doesn’t penetrate thick historic walls, or can’t cope with too many people at the same time.
Then, you realise the app is full of audio content and you didn’t bring your headphones. And, as I said earlier, you soon realise you are looking at stuff on your tiny screen, which you might have done at home, on your comfy sofa. You came all this way to look at real things in special spaces.
Calvium: What do you think digital narrative media have to do in order to overcome those barriers?
MT-J: Well, one place that’s done a pretty good job is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The app and content aren’t bad, but what sets it apart is infrastructure. Really good fast, free, pervasive WiFi that’s easy to sign up for, and free headphones for you to keep.
MOMA: Matthew praises San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art for its infrastructure
In the longer term though, the technology has to fade into the background. Open world story games are all about “presence”, making the player feel they are actually watching the sun rise over Hannigan’s Stead – a location in Red Dead Redemption. Using your phone, or any device, as an interface interferes with your presence in the place. We already have an age-old museum interface we’re all familiar with and everyone prefers – it’s called “walking about, looking at stuff.”
Calvium: And finally… is there anything you think we should be keeping an eye on as a potential breakout in the field?
MT-J: If our interface is “walking about”, then the potential break-out technology is MLA – Mobile Location Analytics. Everyone who carries a modern smartphone is sending out a signal saying “here I am.” If we can (ethically and simply) get them to sign up and let the heritage site follow them, we can analyse what makes them pause.
Then we can invisibly enable the site itself to become more responsive to their needs, delivering story elements (a phrase I like is “narrative atoms” or “natoms”) that are appropriate for the space they are in, or the object they are looking at – and, importantly, in an order that engages the emotions and the intellect.
That’s what Matthew’s work on games and gameplay – and his upcoming appearance at the SIG Symposium – is all about. These “narrative atoms” are intrinsic to the site. The placemaking work we do identifies them and brings them forward, highlights them for visitor attention, and contextualises them with layers of meaning through augmented reality. Matthew’s principles – reliable infrastructure, ease of use, and the crucial point of visitor buy-in – are important to everyone working with digital placemaking – even if the experience we’re building isn’t necessarily a story game.
All our thanks to Matthew for sharing his insights with us – and if you’re interested in the National Trust’s approach, check out our interview with their creative director, Ivo Dawnay.
MOMA image credit:
Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons