By Ayse Gursoy on July 19, 2012
I sat in on several sessions today, the first day of conferences. In the morning I checked out the short paper session, and later I went to two long paper sessions. All of the talks were interesting, quick paced (only ten minutes each for the short paper sessions, something to watch out for tomorrow!), and made me think of digital humanities in, if not a new, a richer light. The twitter stream (hashtag #dh2012) was lively throughout the day and offered many a chance to respond to the talks (only a few minutes for questions, unfortunately—though questions were many). Some of the key issues according to the twitter stream: the constant issue of digitized versus born-digital projects, the openness of data and access, and the insufferable hardness of the chairs in the lecture halls (no, really).
There were a few talks that resonated with my background and interests, and I’ll probably get to each of them in some way. But I’d like to focus one one of the long papers, and the questions of design, purpose, and audience that it made clear. The talk in question is Claire Ross, presenting “Engaging the Museum Space: Mobilising Visitor Engagement with Digital Content Creation”. While at first glance this might seem like an interesting topic that isn’t directly related to academic research in Digital Humanities, the central question was actually an extremely important one for any DH researcher: how do you get audiences engaged with digital content? Ross’s case study, the use of QRator at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, offered one approach to this question. If you have a discussion forum tied to the object on display, accessible with a smartphone or tablet, then give your visitors a tablet and let them talk! We could go on for days about the actual mechanics of this approach or the validity of competing approaches such as short URLs and established social media sites. What I’d like to suggest, however, is that Ross’ talk asks us to reframe the question.
It isn’t about engaging with digital content.
It’s about engaging through digital content.
We need to design systems that unobtrusively let people do what they are already good at doing, that step back and make conversations happen. I know this is hard. I know it might mean changing the definition of “conversation”, or expanding it a teensy bit. But I do believe this will impact digital engagement in a positive way.
I’d like to offer the example of the games Demon’s Souls (From Software, 2009) and Dark Souls (2011). These games feature a unique and much-discussed multiplayer engagement in an essentially single-player game: the two games are always-online (unusual for a single-player game), allowing other players to intrude upon your game. The game has been written about in many places and in better ways than I could right now. But there is one particular engagement that I think is highly relevant here: players can leave messages tied to in-game locations, that appear to any player who accesses that location. Yes, it takes an active will to leave a message, but once that message is placed, any player, not just a player with the equivalent of a smartphone, can read it. The systems that we design for digital engagement with physical spaces need to, dare I say it, intrude upon the corporeal experience of the visitor. And doing this is hard. I don’t pretend to have a solution, but it’s something that’s been on my mind.