#hexpertise in game-worlds and getting my story straight

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?


finding the co in co-design

The last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how to proceed with the co-design project I started with my community partners over a year ago. I have been concerned that according to my timeline, I should be wrapping up this part of my PhD, but that we set out to make something together and that we still haven’t accomplished that. Recently, I was reminded of existing projects like Know Your Placembira and Historypin that are attempting to provide platforms for people to provide information about the places that matter to them. These projects are far further along than we are, and already have established teams with digital skills and resources – and in terms of accessing funding, we would be treading some common ground. Having spent some more time with these platforms, I went over the requirements my partners and I had identified at the very beginning and I still wasn’t satisfied these other platforms offer what we were looking for.

From the beginning, I have been picturing short snippets of information, uploaded by users, that can be intuitively navigated, organised and combined to create personal representations of shared heritage places. We had discussed the possibility of contributing content through existing social media platforms and Twitter had always been my dominant mental image for this. During a conversation a couple of weeks ago, I realised maybe Instagram was a better fit. The conversation was about how Instagram feels so much happier than Twitter. It made me think – why? And it made me wonder whether I should be thinking about using Instagram more for research.

Taking a step back, and considering the functionality of Twitter and Instagram, it struck me that Instagram more naturally lends itself to what we are looking for. It is visually appealing, there is no limit to the length of captions or the number of hashtags, it accepts various forms of media and it attracts younger users – to mention just a few factors. By using Instagram in combination with Storify, users could contribute content, navigate it through hashtags and combine it into stories on Storify. I don’t think this provides us with everything we were looking for, but I think the functionality of Instagram and Storify, used in combination, offers elements of what we want – and uploading sample content to these platforms and playing around with it might make it clearer to us what we would like to do with it that these platforms don’t provide. This then, would help us define our design concept.

I tried to communicate this idea with my partners by email and suggested we meet up. But over the next few days, I became increasingly uncomfortable with this development. It felt like once again, I was coming up with ideas and trying to convince others that they were worthwhile. I was brought to co-design through an experience of being involved in designing a product that nobody wanted to use. Co-design was supposed to save me from experiencing that again, but in order to breathe life back into my co-design project I was heading back down that route – of coming up with an idea and trying to convince others its what they want. It struck me, that we have perhaps fallen into this trap together, as a group. My partners seem to often be thinking about how they want other people to use what we are designing, but the whole point of co-design is to invite potential users to design a solution that meets their own needs – if I’m designing for others and my partners are designing for others, then we are simply designing for someone else, together.

I got an email back from one of my partners saying my Instagram-Storify solution is not what they wanted. It made me feel anxious, but it also made me happy. I think my idea was misunderstood (I don’t think I communicated it well in my initial email), but what was significant to me was the sense that my partners knew what they didn’t want and that this was helping a clearer picture of what they do want instead.

On Saturday I met up with another of my partner groups at one of their events. It was great to catch up. They don’t really know what they want in terms of a digital platform, but they got something else out of working with me. I’ve decided I’ll consider this a win. Over the last few days I’ve realised I need to let go a little. Yes, I’d love to see people upload content about their heritage to Instagram and string it together on Storify – and I’d love to build a platform that sits between the two that becomes wildly popular and helps make heritage an everyday concern for everyone. But I don’t need that to happen – certainly not for my PhD. And I definitely don’t need to spend energy trying to force that if nobody is interested. We heritage professionals love to think that everyone has opinions about heritage and are dying to share them – but maybe they’re not. Maybe they just want to enjoy it and not have to deal with it’s management. For me, “letting go a little” doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the co-design project anymore, but that I don’t need a successful product for me. If my partners need a solution, I’ll do my best to help create that together – and if they don’t, that’s fine too. Maybe letting go will help me truly find the “co” in co-design. It’s not about me using my partners to turn my vision into one that everyone wants, but for us together to create something that meets my partners’ needs.

Maybe the key to #hexpertise is for professionals to care less about the task and more about the people they work with.

Co-design vs co-design and the dimensions of #hexpertise

In my last post I said I would write more about connecting reflections on my research and teaching. This is something I have thought quite a lot about this spring and summer.

In April, I was asked to teach on the Heritage Practice field school again. Last year, Meghan Dennis (@gingerygamer & @archaeoethics) and I worked with Sara Perry (@ArchaeologistSP) and a group of 1st year undergraduates to create an audio guide and paper-leaflet for Breary Banks in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The students’ work is still available on the project blog – it’s definitely worth a look. This year, Meghan and I were asked to take on more responsibility for the field school; the compromise was that we would be allowed to shape the work with this year’s project partner – Malton Museum – according to our own research interests. The museum had already expressed an interest in a digital game and given Meghan’s research into video games and ethics it was a perfect fit. With regard to my own research, the connection was that the museum is run by volunteers and that making a game would provide an opportunity to explore co-design from another angle.

Leading up to the course, I was wrestling with how we could use co-design in the field school. In the end I settled for teaching user-centred design instead, as we would only be spending a few hours with the museum volunteers – it wouldn’t really be possible to design together. Meghan suggested that maybe it still was co-design, but that the students were our co-designers instead of the volunteers at the museum. At the time, I wasn’t quite satisfied with this perspective, but she was right, of course, and I want to share some reflections around this experience here.

The design and production process can absolutely be understood as co-design in that while we wanted the students to make the decisions and do the work. That said, we were working with students who had *no* experience with game design and limited digital skills. The students were responsible for planning and executing the design and production process, but we had to make that possible – facilitating this in practice was a classic case of negotiating #hexpertise. As instructors, we had to determine what we should do for the students and what we should make them do themselves, both in order to maximise learning and to produce a product we were satisfied with. I think it’s fair to say it was a great learning experience for everyone involved. You can read the students’ reflections on the process, as well as their final report on their project blog. The game is available there too – how long would you survive in Roman Malton?

An image of the opening page of our game showing the entrance to a Roman fort with the text "How long would you survive in Roman Malton".

In terms of comparing the processes of co-designing for my research and co-designing as part of my teaching, the most obvious difference is how much time we spent together. While we only had two full weeks to design and produce the game, we spent 24 hours together each of those weeks. That is a lot of intense contact time. There are obviously a host of other differences between working with students and working with community partners, but the difference in contact time matters. How can you truly design together without enough time. Taking this idea further, the students spent all that time with us because it’s their job to. They are full-time students – my community partners are not. Their commitment to their local heritage is voluntary and their work with me is just one small part of that. One of the many issues wrapped up in #hexpertise is that of having someone paid to work full-time collaborating with someone who is participating on a voluntary basis alongside their other commitments. As a result, expertise is just one dimension of #hexpertise. This doesn’t mean that my work with my community partners isn’t co-design – it just highlights that all co-design projects are different and that questions of #hexpertise must be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. There may be common underlying principles – these are what I’m trying to get at in my research – but the way those principles are enacted in practice has to vary.

To design and produce the game, I introduced the students to user-centred design by sharing an experience from my MSc degree that I sometimes describe as producing a solution that nobody wanted. The first principle of user-centred design is to create something that your user wants. The person you are designing for should want to use what you have created – you’re facing an uphill battle if you create something that you then have to convince people they should want to use. I performed a mock design exercise with them to help them plan exercises they could use with the museum volunteers, and I was there while they were planning, offering advice and being available as a resource for them to use. Later, when it came to actually producing the game, Tara Copplestone (@Gamingarchaeo), our resident game-design genius and Twine extraordinaire, provided the necessary frameworks for our students to be able to produce their game. The students would not have been able to create everything from scratch in the time available, so Tara provided what was necessary and was on hand to help. The students designed and made their game, but without the support available, that would not have been possible. These decisions about the support to provide and how to provide it are complex decisions – and it’s not just a question of providing or holding back in order to create the perfect challenge. That certainly is not how I work with my community partners. They are questions of agency and ownership and they are questions of expertise.

The kind of collaborative work I love is when people with different sets of expertise work together to create something that none of the individuals could have created on their own. I really don’t like the model of “experts” and “non-experts” working together, where “experts” are worried “non-experts” aren’t doing it right and “non-experts” get to be involved by necessity or as an act of charity. In a university setting with students and instructors, my ideal model for collaboration is warped slightly, but I firmly believe that we could not have created the game we made without the students.

In terms of my work with my community partners, I absolutely see it as individuals with different sets of expertise working together. But we’re still identifying our own expertise and figuring out how to best work together for everyone’s benefit. The experience of working with my students has changed my perspective and my expectations of working with my community partners. As I keep co-designing, I keep learning – hopefully for the benefit of everyone I work with!

Supporting agency – not too much, not too little

Last December, I met with a couple of the groups I have been partnering with to plan how we could create sets of sample content for our platform and do some more user research. I wrote a post about this meeting months ago, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it, partly because the experience resonated with some of the reflections on my teaching practice I had to write up and submit for the York Learning and Teaching Award (YLTA). One of the reasons I signed up for the YLTA was that I thought it would force me to look into pedagogic theory, which I thought I should be doing anyway for my own research. This has actually worked our pretty well – the YLTA has taken up a lot of my time, but it absolutely has been helpful to my thinking about action research, co-design and that ever-present #hexpertise. I touched on this overlap before and I’ll be talking about it more in my next few posts.

I have been trying to align my teaching practice with critical pedagogy and learner-centred teaching – in a nutshell, this means that instead attempting to deposit information from my brain into my students’, I try to help students become active agents in generating and internalise knowledge for themselves. This approach also underpins the collaborative elements of my research, where instead of more traditional approaches to “capacity building” that try to transform those who I think need more “capacity”, I want to support the groups I work with to help resolve their own needs – rather than the needs I think they have. It’s fair to say I’m not convinced I’ve executed this successfully – part of the point of these blog posts is to self-assess and these reflections will feed directly into one of the chapters of my PhD.

One of the realisations I’ve had about my approach to teaching, is that it naturally works better with postgraduates. They already have highly developed knowledge- and skill-sets, so it can be an effective teaching strategy to provide resources and support and then let students get on with things. With my undergraduate students, this was more difficult. There were times when I would come to class with activities prepared and realise half-way through that they simply didn’t have the pre-existing knowledge to learn effectively through those activities. For all my talk of students being active agents in their own learning, under the current circumstances I’d created, they weren’t able to achieve much learning. In pedagogical terms, you might call this a lack of “scaffolding” – as a facilitator of learning, I hadn’t provided the support necessary for my students to learn effectively.

In Bridlington in December, I was asking my partners to plan a research strategy with me. I wanted us to do it together and to not come in with too many fixed ideas. I thought we all agreed we needed to do the research in question and that we would just work out the practical details. Crucially, I didn’t have a plan to share in case my partners didn’t have clear ideas. I also didn’t have a strong case for why the research was necessary in the first place. In effect, my commitment to facilitating “agency” led me to plan and prepare less. Like the lesson I had prepared for my students, I was relying on them to contribute the content and I didn’t have a contingency plan prepared in case they didn’t have content to contribute. Through both my teaching and my research, I have learned that critical pedagogy, learner-centred teaching, action research and co-design all require more planning, not less, to ensure that activities are productive – because those activities are likely to be unpredictable due to relying on participant contributions.

These reflections also speak directly to questions of #hexpertise. Critical pedagogy, user-centred learning, action research, co-design – they all challenge traditional roles and responsibilities of “experts” and “participants”, whether teachers/lecturers, researchers, students or community partners. If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I think this renegotiation of roles and responsibilities is healthy and necessary, but that doesn’t make it easy. I still believe both my students and my community partners should have agency in what we do together. I still think we should work together, but issues of #hexpertise are all about how best to work together. I should have been better prepared in December. I should have drawn on my expertise as a trained researcher to have clear thoughts on what we were doing, why we were doing it and how we could go about doing it in practice. Coming to the meeting with ideas needn’t have kept us from developing ideas together as long as I wasn’t too attached to the ideas I came to the meeting with. Arguably, If I’d had clearer ideas, myself, I could have helped my partners develop their own more effectively. Taking another step back, I should also have made sure we were all on the same page, before the meeting. The need for sample content and more user research was raised by Jo and accepted by myself. I should have recognised that the fact that nobody argued against this at our previous meeting needn’t mean everyone agreed this was important and understood why.

In my teaching and in the collaborative aspects of my research, the #hexpertise challenge is to determine how to best use the skills, knowledge and resources of everyone involved – myself included – for the task and purpose at hand. In my previous post linking research and teaching, I highlighted how I do my students a disservice when I provide answers instead of helping them develop their own. My point here is that not providing enough support is equally unhelpful. #Hexpertise is also not all about rational calculations – it’s relational and will always require empathy and communication. I’ll be writing more about all this in my next few posts – soon.