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Creating the best festival ever: Gaming, systems and decision making

f.taylor29 June 2020

 

This month we have been exploring the theme of Games & Play at UCL Culture, from solving the mystery of the ancient Egyptian game of Senet to exploring why we laugh through neuroscience.

As part of this, we spoke with David Finnigan. He is a playright, game designer and member of science-art ensemble Boho and UK interactive theatre makers Coney. For the last decade and a half, they’ve worked with government, business and research institutions to model complex systems and future scenarios.

From 2011-12, Boho were in residence at UCL to develop a new game exploring complex systems.

This is his story about the importance of games and play as a means to introduce people to new concepts, systems and ideas.

Best festival event

What is a system?

A system is made up of many simple parts that are connected – ants in an anthill, neurons in a brain, people in a crowd. Systems are made up of smaller sub-systems, like a muscle cell nested within a heart, and a heart within a circulatory system – and they are all interconnected and linked.

A lot of science tries to understand the world by breaking it down into small parts and looking at those parts in detail. But in the real world, everything is connected. Systems science attempts to understand the parts in relation to the whole.

We are all embedded in systems – like climate systems, social systems and political system. We need to better understand these systems in order to manage them and change them.

The way that Boho looks at systems is to break them down and turn them into games.

Games are systems

A game is a kind of system. Like any system, a game is made of simple parts that are connected – and it’s how they’re connected that is important.

Pull a lever over here and see the consequences over there. Place a token here and see the other players’ responses.

Playing a game can be a useful way to get to grips with a system, to start thinking about it works.

So we set out to create a game that would model a complex system, to give people a sense of how systems behave. We wanted to illustrate some of the interesting dynamics that pop up in complex systems, and ask, ‘how can we better manage them?’

We needed an example of a system, and the example we chose was a music festival.

Music festivals are systems

A music festival is a complex system. It is made up of smaller subsystems, such as:

• Ecological sub-systems (the land the festival takes place on, the flora and fauna, the weather and climate)
• Transport and energy sub-systems (a festival is like a temporary city, complete with all the infrastructure you find in a regular city)
• Economic sub-systems (there are formal and informal trading networks)
• Social systems (the interactions of tens of thousands of staff, artists and festival-goers).

And like many of the systems we are a part of it, festivals are prone to disasters.

So looking at a music festival is a good way to help us think through the challenges facing us in other complex systems.

Best Festival Ever game

The game itself

In Best Festival Ever: How To Manage A Disaster, players take on the role of festival organisers. They plan the festival from start to finish, programming the bands, building the festival site, and then dealing with the increasingly high-stakes crises that threaten to overwhelm it.

Each phase of the game looks at a separate sub-system within the festival and illustrates a different aspect of complex systems science: feedback loops, trade-offs, common pool resource challenges, tipping points, phase transitions and resilience.

Best Festival Ever started life for a season at the London Science Museum. It’s since been presented in theatres, festivals, conferences and boardrooms in cities including Singapore, Shanghai, Stockholm, Sydney and Melbourne. We present the game for general public groups, but also for schools, research institutions, businesses and government departments grappling with complex challenges.

Debrief

Playing the game is only the first step. We find that the real insights come in the debriefs and discussions that follow. That reflective space is where people make connections, draw comparisons, and start to feed the experience of the game back into their own practice.

For that reason, we often present Best Festival Ever with a scientist who works with complex systems. We play the game, and then follow it with a Q&A with the scientist where they unpack and discuss some of the concepts within the experience.

These conversations highlight the fact that everyone understands systems. We all get how feedback loops or tipping points operate – it’s familiar to us from our everyday lives. What we do in Best Festival Ever is not to teach people things they didn’t know, but to give them a shared language for things they already understand. That shared language is one of the biggest gifts that systems science has to offer.

Tactility

One crucial feature of the game is that it is entirely lo-fi, or even no-fi. There is no digital technology involved. The game illustrates complex systems dynamics using tactile objects such as wooden blocks, table tennis balls and toy trucks, designed by Gary Campbell.

During the development of Best Festival Ever, we were presenting a test show with a guest audience, reading the script off our Kindles and iPads. We realised the audience were paying great attention to the tablets in our hands, and that they assumed that all the systems in the show were being calculated in these machines. They therefore assumed that the science in the show was too complex for them to understand – that things like feedback loops were the province of computer technology.

When we got rid of the tablets and presented the show using paper and clipboards, the experience was very different. Suddenly people could see that feedback loops and tipping points can emerge from simple agents interacting through simple rules. Lo-fi – or in this case, no-fi – completely changed how people engaged with the work.

With that in mind, I’ve been drawn to representing complex systems through tactile objects wherever possible. Representing a system through a hands-on game is a powerful way to connect with people.

Make Games

If games are systems, then one of the most effective ways to learn about systems is to learn how to make games.

“If you want to learn about systems, don’t play games – make games.”
– Paolo Pedercini

To make a game based on a system, you need to map that system. You need to create a systems model which captures connections and dynamics. How are the different parts of the system connected? What is the shape of their relationship?

You need to consider the system from the perspective of various stakeholders – what do different groups need from the system, and how do they go about getting it? Then and only then can you build a working game.

One of the most satisfying parts of my job is to run game design workshops to introduce people to this practice. We start with some of the core principles of game design, and some simple exercises, then gradually work towards helping them make a quick and dirty prototype of a game based on their own system – whether a business, a community or an ecology.

Reimagining your system as a game can be a circuit-breaker to help you reflect on how it functions. It’s a useful way to thinking through where change might be needed, and what interventions are possible.

It’s also a fundamentally playful way to engage with our cultures, environments and institutions. That mindset of play and experimentation is a profoundly useful tool for us in reimagining our world for drastically changing times.

Best festival ever game

Real world play

So for people grappling with the challenge of managing complexity and engaging with systems (which is probably most of us), games such as Best Festival Ever can be a useful training device. Games can act as a kind of flight simulator for decision-making – letting us try (and fail) without consequences, before we have to make high-stakes choices in the real world.

The fictional music festival of Best Festival Ever is a place to try ideas, to debate and test strategies, to learn to work with colleagues or strangers, and to get to grips with the science of complexity. And also, if possible, to keep Chris Martin from Coldplay from getting crushed in a moshpit riot.

William Hogarth and the Idle Prentice at Play

f.taylor19 June 2020

This post was written by Lisa Bull, MA Museum Studies, Institute of Archaeology.

William Hogarth, The Idle 'Prentice at Play in the Church Yard

Image: William Hogarth,The Idle ‘Prentice at Play in the Church Yard, during Divine Service, plate three from the series Industry and Idleness (1747)

Industry and Idlenessis one of a group of series defined as Hogarth’s “modern moral series”, for which he is arguably most famous.

The series includes A Rake’s Progress (1735), Marriage A-la Mode (1745) and The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751). He produced these works to show how depictions of modern urban life could unfold like a theatrical narrative.

This series was not commissioned; it was created by Hogarth to highlight the moral issues of society at that time that he felt were prevalent and needed attention. These prints were mass-produced due to advancing printmaking technology. Hogarth kept his designs relatively simple with the main message that weak morals led to a life of vice, crime and perhaps death.

Industry and Idlenessfollows the careers of two apprentices: Francis Goodchild, the ‘good’ apprentice and Tom Idle, the ‘bad’ apprentice. The series is 12 plates in total and it compares Idle and Goodchild in terms of their career and character development, but also their physical attributes as well.

What is Hogarth trying to say?

In Plate 3, titled The Idle ‘Prentice at Play in the Church Yard, during Divine Service,Hogarth is highlighting the issue of gambling. Tom Idle is playing hustle-cap in the street, outside a church while others are going inside for the service. He is playing with a group of questionable characters who look dishevelled and unruly. They are using a coffin as a playing table and are surrounded by gravestones and bones. They seem unaware of their surroundings, completely engaged in the game which likely involves money.

Hogarth wanted to highlight to working children the possible rewards of hard work and the risk of disaster if they did not apply themselves. He purposely kept the designs relatively simple to ensure not much explanation was needed, as his key audience was young people.

 

What is hustle-cap?

Hustle-cap is an old English game usually played in the streets, where coins are ‘hustled’ or shaken together in a cap before being tossed. It has been compared to the game of pitch-and-toss which is a general term that refers to games that involve chance, where bets are made in relation to the way in which coins fall (heads or tails) after being thrown.

The game involves guessing how coins (usually halfpence) will land after being thrown in a cap. The person who guesses correctly wins the money. In ‘The Idle ‘Prentice’, Tom Idle is attempting to cheat by hiding some of the half-pennies under the brim of his hat. Two of the characters on the right have seen this. It is suggested that there is betting involved as they are unaware of their surroundings and it looks tense with the expressions and stances of the characters. Additionally, there is a “beadle” (a church official) behind Idle who looks ready to strike him on the back with his cane as punishment for gambling.

 

How to play
The game needs two players or two teams, some coins and a cap.

  • Decide the amount to include in the bet
  • Players decide which side they think most of the coins will face when thrown (up or down)
  • Place the coins inside a cap
  • Shake the cap
  • Turn the cap up onto a table
  • Count the number of halfpence facing-up and down
  • The player who guessed correctly wins all the coins

There may also be a version where players guess how many coins there will be e.g. facing-up and the person who guesses correctly wins the contents of the cap. This would allow more than two people to play.

 

 

Object of the Week 364: Cast of rickets

Nina Pearlman25 October 2018

Dr Nina Pearlman is Head of UCL Art Collections and curator of  Disrupters and Innovators: Journeys in gender equality at UCL (UCL Octagon Gallery till February 2019)

My object of the week is a plaster cast of a child’s leg deformed by the disease rickets (UCL Pathology Collection P59b), included in the Disrupters and Innovators exhibition in the display case that features UCL women scientists. Amongst these scientists is Dame Harriette Chick (1875-1977) who is credited with finding the cause and cure for rickets. Her many contributions to preventative medicine were recognised with both a CBE and a DBE.

This object gives me pause to ask, how were women scientists perceived in the early twentieth century? What anti-feminist sentiments did they have to contend with and how did they go on to make groundbreaking and lasting discoveries despite the persistence of the anti-feminist agenda, at the time labelled anti-suffragist?

(more…)

Getting the ‘Researcher Experience’ at the Petrie Museum

Anna E Garnett21 May 2018

Over the last six months, the Petrie Museum has hosted Amanda Ford Spora, an MA Student in Egyptian Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, who has been using the collection for her Masters’ research. In this guest blog, Amanda discusses her project and some of the outcomes so far.

Archaeologists and museum professionals develop a depth of experience working with objects, right from the trowel edge to the handling desk. It is this experience that is being explored with visitors at the Petrie Museum. One Saturday and two Wednesdays a month, visitors including: families (7 years+), tourists, undergraduate students, ancient Egyptian enthusiasts and the odd archaeologist and professor or two, have the chance to experience a fifteen minute ‘object-based, research-style’ visit at the museum, complete with all the ‘trimmings’, such as gloves, lamp-light, trays, padding and object-supports, in a cordoned-off section of the pottery gallery. (more…)

Magic Lantern Slides and Historypin

Nick J Booth12 July 2016

This is a guest post by Bethany Gugliemino, a Museum Studies MA Student carrying out her placement with the UCL Teaching and Research Collections.

Hello! In my last post, I told you a bit about my work with UCL’s magic lantern slide collection and shared some of my favourite slides. Today, I want to show you where you can see more of this collection and even help us identify some of the more mysterious content.

As I’ve been cataloguing the slide collection over the last few months, I’ve created a separate list of slides that show an identifiable (or potentially identifiable) location somewhere on earth. This is a shorter list than you might think, since so many of the slides are lecture notes, graphs, and diagrams of scientific equipment. Working with this list, I’ve begun uploading images of these slides to the website Historypin. This site allows users to upload historic images and pin them to a specific location and to create collections and tours of different subjects.

You can see UCL’s collection of images on Historypin here. Zoom in or out on the map on the left and adjust the date range to filter the slides that appear in the gallery on the right.

UCL’s slide collection on Historypin

UCL’s slide collection on Historypin

So far, there are images ranging from Alexander Graham Bell’s family home in Canada to officers inspecting a wireless radio installation in St. Petersburg. (more…)

The Slade Rock Room Takeover – ‘Poison’

Nick J Booth5 May 2016

For the past three years MA sculpture students from the Slade School of Fine Art have been involved in an experiment creating work influenced by the Rock Room, the Geology Collections and the Earth Science Department here at UCL. Every year the resultant one day pop-up event has been totally different from the last, you can read about previous events here and here. This year marks the fourth instalment of the project, and the last in the Rock Room’s current home.

The Rock Room Slade Takeover will be open to the public between 12.30 – 4pm on Friday 13th May, while special selection of museum objects and books from UCL Special Collections will be on display between 1 – 2 on Wednesday 11th.

Slade - art works in the mineral display.

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This year’s theme is ‘poison’, which came about as a result of a separate student led pop-up earlier in the year. For the first time this year’s take over will be preceded by a workshop in the Rock Room on the Wednesday before, with the aim of  bringing together researchers, staff and students around the ‘poison’ theme.

Slade - art work in the Rock Room.

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(more…)

The Rock Room is Getting a New Home

Nick J Booth7 April 2016

The Rock Room.

The Rock Room.

A Geology Museum has existed at UCL since 1855 (UCL was founded in 1826), 14 years after  the first professor of Geology, Thomas Webster, started at UCL. However geology has been collected for longer – the first recorded donation of geology specimens to UCL came in 1828 from a Mr. Davies Gilbert. Today the collection consists of over 100,000 specimens, from microfossils to large trace fossils, and ranging in age from c4.5 billion year old meteorites to relatively recent fossils (including my favourite fossil crab).

The Rock Room has been in its present location since 1908, (more…)

A Honey Pot for Springtime!

Susi Pancaldo31 March 2016

As a Conservator, I often think of how privileged I am to be able to handle and examine museum objects, up close and personal. Not all objects move me, but at the moment I am very pleased to be working on this one:

UC65361, Ceramic bowl from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. Height 7cm, diameter 10.5cm.

UC65361, Ceramic bowl from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. Height 7cm, diameter 10.5cm.

(more…)

Conserving a thermopile in UCL Science and Engineering Collections

Emilia L Kingham24 March 2016

Thermopile, Physio-062

Thermopile, Physio-062

My name is Dae Young Yoo and I am the MSc. Conservation student placement with UCL Museums and Collections.  One of my objects that I have been assigned to research and conserve is a thermopile from the Physiology Department.

(more…)

Some favourite magic lantern slides

Nick J Booth14 March 2016

This is a guest blog written by Bethany Gugliemino, a Museum Studies MA Student on a work placement with the UCL Teaching and Research Collections. 

Hello! My name is Bethany and I’m a museum studies student here at UCL. I’m currently completing my work placement with the UCL Science and Engineering Collections, specifically working on the collection of magic lantern slides held in the Electrical Engineering collection. You may remember reading about these slides before on the blog when a previous intern began cataloguing the collection. Since those posts covered what lantern slides are and how they’re made and an overview of the main contents of the collection, I thought I would give you some examples of my favourite slides I’ve found so far.

Slide EE1497, Electric Light on Thames Embankment

Slide EE1497, Electric Light on Thames Embankment

This slide shows an illustration of spectators marvelling at the installation of electric lighting on Victoria Embankment. (more…)