Playful Apps

By Jane Burton

There are hundreds of thousands of apps for smartphone consumers to choose from, and most of them are games. Games make up 70 to 80 percent of all apps downloaded. The latest reports say that 26 million people spend at least 25 minutes every day playing games on their phones [Flurry Analytics, Feb 2011]. The incredible amount of innovation in smartphone mobile gaming is showing us how to create content that people really want to spend time with. The question museums and galleries need to answer is whether there is room in this marketplace for “serious games,” games that offer more than just pure entertainment.

The potential to bring significant ideas to life within the framework of game-play is something that has been brilliantly expressed in the work of Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken, and by UK television’s Channel 4 Education team, who have put gaming at the heart of their content offering to young audiences. But little of the research and innovation around “serious games” has focused on the rapidly growing area of apps.

One of the most successful games produced by a museum is Launchball, from The Science Museum, London, which was first developed in 2007 to be played on kiosks in gallery and online. Designed for children ages of 8 to 14, the game requires you to guide a ball through a series of fiendish challenges, using fans, magnets and Tesla Coils to help you as you learn basic scientific principles along the way. The online version proved so popular, gaining 5.3 million players, that in 2009 the Science Museum re-launched it as a paid-for app. So far the app has been downloaded 7,842 times, enough to pay for its development and return a modest profit, says the museum. This is an achievement, given that the same game can still be played for free online. Nonetheless, the disparity in the figures is a striking reminder of the reach of the web compared to any given app store, and of the power of free content.

Another great “playful” offering, though not strictly a game, is the MEanderthal app from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which transforms your photo into the face of an early human. You upload a photo of your face, then choose which human species you’d like to become as you morph back in time. There is a serious point behind the fun: “We think it’s really important for people to make emotional connections to our ancestors,” commented Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian. “It’s an important way to break down that barrier between things we think are so different or so ‘other.'”

At Tate, we’re interested in finding out if app gaming mechanisms can be applied to an art context. We have produced one game so far, and have two more in development. Launched in 2010, Tate Trumps is a digital card game you play with the art on display at Tate Modern. Visitors can download the game for free to an iPod Touch or iPhone, roam the galleries, choose seven high-scoring artworks, and then play a fast-paced and strategic game of Trumps. There are three different modes (Battle, Mood, or Collector) and you can play on your own or with your friends or family. In Battle mode, you need to ask yourself the question, “If this artwork came to life, how good would it be in a fight?” In Mood mode, you’re looking for artworks you think are menacing, exhilarating or absurd. Or, if you wish you had a gallery of your own, try Collector mode, and find pictures that are famous, recently produced or practical to house.

Tate Trumps is unashamedly light-hearted, but at its core promotes the acts of discovery and looking — key to any art experience — whilst encouraging people to form their own opinions. Being a multi-player game, it also acknowledges the fact that gallery-going, for many, is a social activity, shared amongst friends.
Tate Trumps was deliberately designed to be played only at Tate Modern in order to encourage a direct encounter with artworks. But of course app stores are global marketplaces, and we hadn’t reckoned on the frustration that not being able to play would engender in the majority of people who wouldn’t be coming to the gallery in the near future.

For our next game, currently in development, the brief was to come up with something that could be played anywhere, without visiting the museum, but with bonus content for those who can make it to Tate Modern. Shake your phone and the “Magic Tate Ball” will curate a piece of artwork that relates specifically to that unique moment in time. Pass it round the pub or check it on the train to find out which artworks fit the DNA of your daily life. In auto-mode, the application will use the iPhone’s sensors (microphone and GPS), along with other feeds like weather and time, to deduce the most appropriate artwork for the given criteria. In manual mode, the user can ask the Magic Tate Ball to generate ideas on themes: Inspire me; Shock me; Give me a Talking Point.

The third game we are developing pushes further into pure gaming territory. The challenge we’ve set ourselves is to take a simple, addictive form of gameplay along the lines of Doodle Jump and bring art into the mix, imparting meaningful information without getting in the way of the action.

The jury is still out on how successful games like these will be in terms of introducing new audiences to Tate’s Collection, and we will be evaluating them later this year. But in the meantime, here are a few things we’ve learnt along the way:

Know Your Audience.
It’s easy to assume that mobile gamers are teenage kids. Wrong. Forget the acne generation, unless you’re talking about console platforms like Xbox or the PS3. The typical gamer downloading games through app stores (and really, we’re still talking about iTunes, though Android is beginning to build a market share) is female, between 18 and 49, and well educated. A recent report published by Flurry, a San Francisco-based smartphone analytics firm, said: “Studying the U.S. mobile social gamer, we note that she earns over 50 percent more than the average American, is more than twice as likely to have earned a college bachelor’s degree, and is more likely to be white or Asian.” The number of men playing isn’t far behind, though: 47 percent of app-based gamers are male, compared to 53 percent female. In fact, the profile for these gamers is strikingly similar to the profile of many museum visitors, which suggests that app gamers may very well be open to cultural content delivered in this form.

However, this demographic will widen as Smartphones become more affordable and therefore more common over the next two years. If you want to use mobile games to reach a teen audience, start planning, but maybe not developing just yet, and look beyond the iPhone platform.

Make it Free.
With hundreds of thousands of apps available for mobile consumers to choose from, it’s a tough market, and most publishers are moving towards free apps. Some are supported by sponsorship, or possibly, if you’ve got a really hot property, by “freemium,” whereby you get the basic app free, but people pay for the fancier version. Anyone who has played “Angry Birds” will recognize this model. But only the most optimistic developer from the cultural sector would imagine they are going to make much money from a game.

Think about Discoverability.
Submitting your game into an app store is a bit like dropping thousands of dollars down a well. There’s an initial splash, which dwindles to a ripple, then silence. The iTunes app store is a busy place, and it’s hard to get noticed amongst the crowd. Getting noticed is known in the digital world as “discovery,” and there are myriad social networks and recommendation sites springing up that aim to make app discovery easier for consumers. Some of the sites are listed here. But the sands are ever shifting, and there are no sure-fire solutions. Being early to market in one of the less crowded app stores looking to rival iTunes is beginning to look like a smart move.

Jane Burton, head of content and creative director, Tate, London.


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