Yesterday I had a conversation with Tara Copplestone (@gamingarchaeo) about #hexpetise in video-games. We ended up discussing what the role of the professional researcher is when all information is available – through a digital game-log, for example. Online games can track everything that happens in their game-world – if you have a game-log with all this information, what is the role of the researcher? We agreed that even with a game-log that records everything that happens, there is still much the game-log doesn’t tell you – like the experiences and perceptions of those who play or the reasons why players made certain decisions. But even if we look past this, the fact that all the “data” is accessible doesn’t mean there is no role for the professional researcher. For example, the fact that archives exist doesn’t mean there is no need for historians. Accessing, interpreting, synthesising, creating and communicating meaning from those archives is what historians are trained to do. This doesn’t mean that everyone can’t do archival research, but there definitely are some things historians could do that I can’t – this is also true of researchers who are trained to work with other kinds of data sets. So in a digital world where every action is recorded there still could be a role for a professional researcher, but that role might be more like a historian or desk-based archaeologist – or it might be more like an oral historian, cultural anthropologist, community psychologist or human geographer – than say, an archaeologist excavating a prehistoric site.
On Monday, I wrote that “maybe the key to #hexpertise is for professionals to care less about the task and more about the people they work with” and that maybe there was a value in “letting go” a little. But what happens if the people I’m co-designing with want to design something quite different from what I want? This makes me ask myself – why am I co-designing in the first place? If the value is in the process and if it is about realising my partners’ goals, then the question of their and my conflicting wishes become less important. But if the value lies in the product or if I have more complex goals than simply to help someone make something, then this becomes more complicated. Throughout this co-design process, I have been negotiating the tension between sharing power over the co-design process and realising my vision for change in the heritage sector.
I want both change and consensus.
I like radical ideas, but I want to do what everyone else wants.
I want to drive change, but I want to restrict my power and agency in the change process by sharing power with others who may or may not share my vision for change.
I wonder whether this is common for projects that set out to be “community-led”, “co-designed” or “co-created”. We set out to share authority over the process without being clear enough with our partners, or ourselves, what our underlying agenda is, within which we are prepared to be flexible and “share” authority. I don’t necessarily think it is wrong to have an underlying agenda – maybe it’s our responsibility to have one. But I do think it is wrong to have an underlying agenda that you and your partners are unaware of – it sets you up for problems down the road and may place you in danger of doing more harm than good.
What does this have to do with #hexpertise in video-games? I set out to ask heritage groups around the country about the support they needed to become more sustainable. Doing this proved difficult in practice, so I ended up just talking to a few groups – and in detail with the ones I partnered up with. I wonder whether my approach ended up being a bit like if a researcher of a game world, who has access to the game-log, identifies some issues based on their understanding of the game-world as a whole, but recognises that this perspective only offers a partial picture of the truth. They set out to survey players to ask about the issues they have with the game – with the goal of grouping players according to commonly identified issues and asking them to partner up in developing solutions to these issues together. In the end, the researcher only gets in touch with a few players and suggest they work together to solve an issue the researcher identified from studying the game-logs. You can perhaps already see where things are going wrong for this hypothetical video-game researcher – if not, maybe I’m just not very good with analogies!
My point here is expertise matters and the expertise required depends on the task at hand. Working together can be really valuable, but working together productively requires matching up the right team with the right task – and being clear about exactly what it is you’re trying to achieve. There are also many different ways of working together. Previously (here and here), I’ve touched on how user-centred design differs from co-design – one isn’t necessarily better than the other. How we work together and who we work together with are questions of #hexpertise and these questions must be approached differently for each project. I really like the three groups I’ve partnered up with this past year – I feel really lucky to have been able to learn from them and through working together, but I think I have sometimes asked or expected things of them that I shouldn’t have. I definitely think I haven’t been clear enough about what I actually am trying to achieve, but in my defence, my own understanding of this has also changed throughout the process. For all the benefits of collaborating, in its various forms, let’s not forget that there is also value in working independently. There is even a time and a place for top-down approaches! Sometimes positive change comes about through working against popular consensus – take the bag-charge for example.
Where does this all leave me. Well, with a lot of conflicting thoughts and ideas. Can’t you tell?