Kings Square Recovered: public history & play-testing in Gloucester (Part 2)

Part II / Recovering Kings Square through play

It’s one thing to build a mass of information about something, but another thing to share that with others in a way that is meaningful for them. The square’s history and its previous architectural design fascinated me and the team, but would others be interested?
There were two distinct phases to this project: a research phase followed by a game-making/testing phase.

The research phase primarily involved archival research at Gloucestershire Heritage Hub, which is home to the county’s vast archive of historic materials, all of which is available to be accessed.

The team at the Heritage Hub were very helpful in helping to source folders that may contain useful information about the development of the square, but as an archival research will know, it is only when you open the folder that you know what’s inside. As expected, some folders were richer the others. In particular, we were keen to source any surviving architectural plans or supporting documentation that might reveal more about the architect’s vision for the square.

Through the process of archival research a range of historical materials related to the recent history of Kings Square were uncovered. These materials were shared online via a dedicated Instagram page (fig. 1, you can also view the account here) and relevant Facebook groups that focused on Gloucester’s history. Sharing the materials in this way not only meant that awareness of the project could be build, it meant that people could start to engage with the materials and to add their own reflections to the process. It also enable the team to see what materials people were most responsive to and what avenues we might want to go down when it came to making the game.

Figure 1. Screenshot of the project’s Instagram account and an example of a post that highlighted archival materials.

By the end of the research phase we had a vast amount of information about the square. How to use this in a game? We knew it would be impossible to try and include all of that information. And the idea of making a game was not just about sharing information, it was about engaging people and excavating new detail about the square. So a rather ‘light-touch’ approach was taken, whereby specific materials were highlighted as a mean to engage players.

The collaboration with Tassos Stevens at Coney was crucial to developing the game. Coney is an acclaimed arts and social change charity that brings together artists, thinkers and makers to spark change through the power of play. There experience includes working with partners and local communities to co-create interactive experiences to bring archives, museums and complex histories to life through play. Not only were Coney experts in the field of engaging people through play, they had recently been working with residents in Gloucester to host We The People of Matswood City Community Quiz, which was a community “pub quiz” all about Matswood City (Matson, Robinswood and White City).

Working with Tassos, alongside Maddi Staples and Dion Kitson, we started to explore what materials might be ‘playable’ in some way.Whilst the research phase took many months, the game was made in just a few days and was launched on a blistering hot Saturday in September. Some people booked in advance, but the majority turned up on the day or found themselves drawn to the game as a result of seeing other people play it in the square. Some people played the game in teams, others by themselves. What follows is a brief description of how the game was played. (Spoiler alert: the game is still available to play, with fold-out maps available to collect from the Heritage Hub, so DON’T READ THE NEXT FEW PARAGRAPHS if you intend to play it).

Players gathered at a ‘landing zone’ at the edge of the square (fig. 2). Here they met a member of the team and were given a fold-out map (fig. 3). On front side was a copy of the 1969 architectural plan of Kings Square and on the reverse was an introduction of to the history of the square (for those who wanted to read it, doing so was not required to play the game). At this stage, players were given only basic instruction as the game effectively ‘played itself’ once they got going, and didn’t want to bore players by expecting them o listen to lots of information. The only instruction was to scan the QR code in the corner of the map, which took players to the landing page of the game (fig. 10).

Figure 2. Landing zone on the Square. 

Figure 3. Fold-out map given to players.  

Figure 4. The landing page of the online platform.

By hitting ‘play’ on the landing page, the game began, a voice inviting them to “journey in space and time” through Kings Square. From this point on, players were in control of the journey through a sequence of screens on their phone, pushing ‘next’ whenever they were ready to move on. In the opening ‘chapter’ of the game, players were invited to take their time in walking around the square and taking in everything around them. As they walked through the square, they were asked questions to help get them thinking about its history and design.

What then followed a brief audio history of the square, from its creation in 1927 through its grant opening in 1972 and into its ‘afterlife’. At this point, players were ‘sent a postcard’. To see their postcard, they were asked to find the spot in the square that matched the image on their screen. Once in that spot they were invited to press screen and thereby reveal the postcard beneath, thereby showing what the view would have looked like from this very spot in 1972 (fig. 5).

Figure 5. Postcards. Players find a particular spot in the square and then press the screen to reveal a postcard beneath that shows the same view in 1972.

Having learnt a bit about the square history and viewed visual material that demonstrated how the square had change, players were then invited to take a seat somewhere in the square and to spend some time looking at the map. As they looked at the map, they were prompted by a few questions: What might the numbers on the map represent? What do the different colours represent? Some of the features of map were then explained, for those who might be less familiar with architectural plans and who may need some help in ‘reading’ it. 

Having spent some time getting to know the map and working out how it related to where they found themselves today, players were then shown a series of images and were asked if they could locate the building location in the square, using the map as tool (fig. 6).

Figure 6. Interacting with archival material by tasking people with finding spaces in old photographs.

The journey so far took most people around 20 minutes to do, but for those who were up for it there was a another challenge called “X Marks the Spot”. Players were instructed to return to the ‘landing zone’ and to study four archival image of the square. Cross-referencing these historical images of the square with the map, and based on what they had learnt about the square, they were challenged to locate the exact position where the photo was taken in the square and to mark this on the map (fig. 7).

Figure 7. People cross-referencing four views of the square with the map in an attempt to solve ‘X Marks The Spot’.

Once all four locations had been located and marked on their map, they were asked to make an ‘X’ on the map by connecting the four locations with two lines. Following this, they had to go the location at the centre of the X and have their photo in that exact space, forming the letter X with the body! Photo evidence was then emailed, with the winner to be announced at the end of the day (fig. 8).

Figure 8. The winning player marks the spot (The player happens to be my mum, but I promise I didn’t give her any extra clues!)

A final stage of the game involved inviting players to share their memories of the square and their experience of game by recording short audio notes via the online platform (fig. 9). Using audio notes (which were then accessible to the team as audio-files) enabled us to collect information from players without having to go down the route of giving them a paper feedback form. It also meant that we could build feedback into the mechanics of the game, rather than it feels like an add-in or a chore for the player.

Figure 9. Feedback via voice note (to avoid the dreaded paper feedback form!)

Did the game work? Mostly. We had a few small tech issues at the start of the day, but these were quickly solved, and all the feedback we received was very positive. Generally, what we most heard was that people enjoyed the opportunity of taking part in something that was interactive (and free) in the city. Many people remarked how the game encouraged them to chat with people in the square about its history. One resident Connagh, said, “I loved taking part in the game. It was great to chat with other residents about the square and to talk about memories at the pop-up installation.” Another resident, who took part with her family, said, “The interactive game was a great way to get different age groups involved. I grew up in Gloucester, so it was fun to look at a reminder of the fountains and to share this history with my children.” In addition to the audio notes, we also received positive feedback via Insta stories, which had the added benefit of showing the project to more people (fig. 10).

SOON TO BE ADDED Figure. 10. Feedback via Instagram from one of the players.

Gloucester is a city rich in history, and residents are rightly proud of that history, but rarely does the city’s modern history get a look in. We also know, from chatting with residents who took part in the game, that whist the city is lucky to have events like Gloucester History Festival, which see some of Britain’s top historians, broadcasters, politicians and thinkers give talks in the city, many people don’t comfortable at such events, which can feel intimidating. 

In making this game, we wanted to test resident’s appetite for exploring history in a playful and interactive way. Encouragingly, one player told us: “We need more stuff like this that helps residents to engage with history. There are plenty of stuffy talks and history walks, but the younger generation want something more, and this game showed just what is possible and how fascinating our city’s modern history is!”

Thank you to all the organisations and people who supported the Kings Square Recovered project possible. Particular thanks to Jacqui Grange, Tiah Clarke and Kay Colquhoun at Voices Gloucester; Heather Forbes, Andrew Parry and Karen Davidson at Gloucester’s Heritage Hub; Phil Norris at Gloucestershire Live; Philip Walker at Gloucester City Council; William James at Eastgate Shopping Centre; James Garrod and the team at Jolt; Maddie Simpson at BBC Radio Gloucestershire; and everyone at Gloucester Civic Trust and The Folk of Gloucester.

Adam is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick, where his research explores the expansion of towns and cities in postwar Britain. Alongside this, he works for Arts Council England, developing research and policy that supports the creative lives of children and young people

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