Strawberry Thief: Game Design and the Museum

On Friday I went to hear game designer Sophia George speak at the Apple store about a new game she designed for the iPad: Strawberry Thief. It is based on the famous pattern of the same name by the nineteenth-century textile designer and poet, William Morris. In Strawberry Thief the game, the player is free to guide a small bird icon across the screen with their finger, gobbling strawberries along the way. As they draw in this manner, the background (which starts off blank) begins to fill-in with pattern. There are three ‘levels’ to uncover – first, a simple pencil sketch; second, a basic coloured version; and third, a richly coloured and highly detailed design.

Sophia, who graduated from the game-design MA at Abertay University in Dundee, designed Strawberry Thief as part of her tenure as the V&A’s first ‘game designer in residence’. There she was tasked with the daunting challenge of creating a game inspired by the museum’s British galleries 1500-1900 – a brief so open she spent six months researching the collection before settling on the William Morris pattern. On Friday she spoke a little about the reason behind her choice – noting that it was an object in which she was able to immediately identify some ‘gamey elements’ (the character of the bird, its pursuit of strawberries and the possibility of incorporating some insect ‘enemies’). I find this viewpoint an illuminating example of just how much the knowledge one brings to an object can determine what is found there. However, the final game dispenses with much of this traditional ‘gamey’ material – yes, the bird gobble strawberries along its journey, but collecting as many as possible is not the point of the game. There is, in fact, no discernible way of winning and there are certainly no enemies that threaten to derail play.

According to Sophia, the more she thought about the potential role of the game with regards to the museum, the less these traditional elements made sense. She also wanted to use the freedom of the museum’s brief to ‘play’ with the limits of what a game could be. Her main priority, as she saw it, ‘should be showing [the museum object] in the best way possible’. What this meant in practice was using the game, in the hands of the players, as a new lens for looking at the design. The perspective of the game is deliberately zoomed into the pattern, which is also revealed to the player a little at a time. According to Sophia, this was meant to counteract the tendency (particularly when looking at repetitive patterns in the flesh) for the eye just to take in the work as a whole. The game encourages the viewer to ‘experience the detail’ of the design.

The three levels of the game were also a manner of echoing the process by which Morris patterns were made. As well as preliminary sketches, some examples of his printed patterns involved up to 30 coloured layers applied one at a time. Sophia was inspired to mimic this  in the game by the display in the British Galleries, where examples of Morris patterns at the different stages of the creative process are exhibited side by side. Only three layers are used in the game for obvious reasons, Sophia did not want to be accused of putting her players to work!

I was particularly intrigued by Sophia’s decision to leave all of this creative context out of the game play itself. Nowhere in the game can one find out about the process of making Morris designs, his biography as a designer, or the Strawberry Thief pattern. When questioned about this, Sophia responded that it was a choice she was very conscious of: she ‘did not want [the game] to be too educational, to have too much text, or to mimic the interactive stations that already feature inside so many galleries’. Instead, she saw the game format – free from all of these didactic elements – as something that might ‘spark curiousity’ and provide a new path to the museum object for wider audiences. She was also very hopeful that the game might inspire existing museum visitors to experiment with new digital experiences – commenting that her proudest moment so far was receiving a tweet that someone’s 80 year old mother had really enjoyed Strawberry Thief (it was the first time that she had ever played a computer game).

Personally, I also enjoyed playing Strawberry Thief immensely. The impressively detailed graphics work well together with the soaring classical soundtrack (provided by a friend at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) and they really help to create the sensation that you are bringing the Morris design to life. Sophia’s insistence that she wanted her game to be something independent to the labels and interactive stations that already exist in so many galleries is to her credit, and she is successful in creating a completely new platform for interaction between museum object and visitor/player. However, the exact role of games like this one with regards to the museum, and their simultaneous position as a new kind of in[ter]vention between objects and visitors will need more thought as the practice is developed.

For more on Sophia’s role as game designer in residence at the V&A, see her project blog. The Strawberry Thief game for iPad can be downloaded for free from the app store.

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