Playing games in the digital library

3 July 2015

This Friday’s

Should you play games in a library? Playwright Joe Orton once went to jail for his humorous redecoration of Islington library book covers, and even if the cliché of the shush-faced librarian behind a big desk no longer holds sway in most libraries, a quiet game of chess might normally be the best that you could hope for.

At Wellcome Collection, by contrast, this Friday’s Late Spectacular: Play will not only offer you a chance to create game poems in our new Reading Room, but also to play games made from and inspired by Wellcome Library’s digitised collections.

The collections already contain some pretty playful material, from ‘The Game of Heaven and Hell’ (an 18th century Indian version of Snakes and Ladders) through to a 1980s World Health Organisation poster using a board games as a metaphor for AIDS awareness. But we also wanted to see what our digitised collections would look like if they were used to make games. As the collections grow and find new homes in places like Wikimedia Commons, we’re keen to explore new ways of creating engaging experiences with them.

So we asked three games designers to approach our collections using Twine, a popular tool for games and interactive fiction. Twine offers an experience like a story where you get to make decisions: click on the highlighted text to move through. Sometimes there are many choices, sometimes just one; each choice will take you somewhere new on the journey towards the game’s end.

Feminine Aspect, by Alice Maz

Feminine Aspect, by Alice Maz

Alice Maz’s Feminine Aspect uses images from a 1930s German book, Die Erotik in der Photographie, to ask the player questions about how we look at photographs, and the judgements we make about the people in them. It’s also a deeply personal work that tells its story through and around these images from another place and time.

Nina Freeman’s Table Talk dives headlong into a single painting by Frederick Cayley Robinson from his Acts of Mercy series, using it as a jumping-off point for a story about female friendship and puberty. As the story unfolds, the painting remains in the background, its static figures participants in a conversation that might seem anachronistic but contains the kind of truths that you never read in art history.

Table Talk, by Nina Freeman

Table Talk, by Nina Freeman

Prolix by pyun-pyun tells a curious story about psychology and mind control. Images from the Library collections are used as artefacts within the game world, shown and discussed by the protagonists. The story may seem fantastic, but the evidence is there. The sources are real: they’re from the library.

The books and images that the artists have used are a tiny fraction of a huge resource of digital images that are freely available online to download, play with and use to create new work. From a game designer’s perspective, some of the images are astonishing. Look at this collection of illustrations from the nineteenth century, showing household objects turning into people to make fun of the idea of evolution. Surely someone should make a game out of that!

Prolix, by pyun-pyun

Prolix, by pyun-pyun

Wellcome Library’s collection has already appeared in games like Sembl by Catherine Styles, which uses digitised images from museum collections across the world. Here, the gameplay happens in the relationship between images – what connects them? What similarities do they have, in their appearance or history or subject matter? The images become something to draw links out of, finding funny or strange or illuminating connections between them. We’ll be showing Sembl alongside the new Twine commissions on the night.

The Spectacular will also see the first ever run of George Buckenham’s Shadow Photocopier, a game of shadow puppets that uses the Wellcome Library’s images in yet another way – as a prompt to physical play, challenging participants to recreate the images in shadow-puppet form well enough for their teammates to recognise.

We hope you enjoy playing these games. We’ve found it really exciting seeing our designers get to grips with new kinds of material and play with it. And if you’re an aspiring game designer, why not grab a copy of Twine (it’s free, it’s easy to use), or another tool, dive into our digital collections, and see what you can make!

Holly is Director of Games at Matheson Marcault, and curator of the Friday Late Spectacular: Play. Danny is Digital Manager for Wellcome Collection.