Animating history: thoughts on creating digital games as a cultural organisation

The story of our experience of developing digital games – and making them accessible for all audiences.

Digital game still, some trees and snow on the way to park gates

We decided to create four digital games. Why would we want to do this? What did we hope to achieve?

Like any cultural organisation we are driven by two complementary facets – telling stories and reaching audiences. Computer games are a fantastic medium to do both of these. They are a great way to tell stories and they enable us to reach people that may not engage with us through other media. Games allow audiences to explore a topic in a new way and it keeps access to materials and their stories fresh.

One of the questions we asked ourselves in this element of the project was just because are making a game, will that game engage gamers with us? It’s hard to know this for sure, yes we have some data from our users, but for a number of reasons it’s not that valid. However, we certainly wouldn’t engage with them if we didn’t build the game. It’s known that gamers represent a wide section of society, wider than most other medium. So, it’s a great way to reach a wide range of people. Even if the game doesn’t reach new audiences, it’s still an opportunity to tell stories in a new way.

It’s known that gamers represent a wide section of society, wider than most other medium.

As was said at the ‘This is Our Playground’, Museums and the Web conference 2013
“art can be intimidating for some visitors and that ice-breaking activities could encourage a more relaxed engagement with art “

Games allow us to do just this.

Cultural organisations need games to be rooted in research and facts. For cultural organisations games are not the purpose, rather they are a tool to tell a story related to the organisation’s remit. Games are a window onto another world.

Image of a room with a straw bed on the floor in 1236, as digital recreation. Caption says hint click glowing objects to proceed

Click objects to move through the story of Helen, set in 1236

For History of Place, we want to tell the stories of disabled people through history. These are forgotten stories, rich stories, fascinating stories. We want to share them with as many people as possible, so a computer game is an ideal medium to do that. Our first game which you can play here takes people back to a medieval monastery in 1236, to a story which draws on the life experience of a real person whose details we found in the archives.

Having a good story to tell

We were fortunate to have some great stories to tell – Edward Rushton & the Liverpool Blind School, Helen, a medieval sister at Maison Dieu, G B Bartlett, a patient at Chiswick House asylum and Ada Vachell, the Founder of the Bristol Guild of Poor Brave Things.

However, as a disabled cultural organisation our games had to not just tell our stories but had to do so in a way that is fully accessible. This is essential to who we are. We would push this further though and ask other cultural organisations, and indeed are game designers and commissioners ‘Are your games accessible?’ and if not, ‘Why not?’.

‘Are your games accessible?’ and if not, ‘Why not?’.

Just as in real life disabled people should be treated equally, so too in the virtual world. Disabled people have the right to experience any game that is produced. Legally there is a requirement for access to be considered and reasonable steps made to make any experience, including I would argue games, accessible. And finally, for clear commercial reasons, why would someone choose to not have their game accessible to as wide a market as possible.

Practical issues in making an accessible game

In terms of how games are made accessible, there’s three main interventions that can be made.
1. Audio description
2. Closed caption subtitling
3. Sign language

It’s worth noting that each subsequent one is harder to achieve than the previous one. But all are worth doing. We had to be aware of these challenges and integrate them into the game designer’s brief from the start.

One thing we knew we didn’t want to use was a screen reader within the game. Screen readers are not acceptable as games can be much more complicated than websites, and screen readers break up the flow of the game. It’s much better to use audio description for any element that need to be read.

In order to do this we had to find a great developer with these attributes:
– Had made fully functioning complex computer games
– Had an understanding of disability arts
– Was open to ideas
– Would meet with, and listen to our consultees

Getting the right consultees for a project like this is essential. We wanted to draw people with a wide range of impairments to get their perspective on the games. We also needed people who played and understood computer games. This absolutely relates to who the game is for and so is essential for its success.

Image shows animation of long walkway surrounded by trees, with a greenhouse at the end.

A scene from our game set in an early 20th century asylum, in now-demolished parts of Chiswick House, London.

Also, consultation can be dead easy, it’s not necessarily something to be scared of; get half a dozen people in a room to discuss the ideas so far, then listen to that feedback and do something about it. Consultees have knowledge that neither client or developer have so it’s important to listen to them.

There’s four key stages in developing an accessible game:
– Proof of concept
– Narrative test
– First build / run-through test
– Final test – bugs / crashes

It’s important to give each stage time, and to treat the process with respect. For us, we had to know the game would work for people with a wide range of disabilities.

Ultimately we’re really proud of the games we have made, they tell interesting stories, in fun and accessible ways. I hope you enjoy playing them.

Enter the 13th century: play The Story of Helen.

(Our three other games will be online shortly – sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page to get a heads up as they become available).


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