Building and Sharing Digital Worlds

Creating interactive experiences

Two organisations based in Birmingham: CIVIC SQUARE and Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT) were recently supported by The Space to create interactive experiences as part of their ongoing work to connect with their wider communities. Both organisations were able to recreate real world settings – familiar to their target audiences – by making use of readily available technology. The results enabled them to open conversations and build connections in innovative ways.

Using digital tools to share ideas

Rooted in Ladywood, Birmingham, CIVIC SQUARE are visioning and investing in social and civic infrastructure for the future of our neighbourhoods. They are exploring what it means to downscale the ideas of Doughnut Economics, theorised by Kate Raworth, to co-create a Neighbourhood Doughnut, a compass and emergent set of metrics for safe and just neighbourhood transitions into the 21st century. Neighbourhood Doughnut Storyteller, Zoya Ahmed, had been inspired by the creative potential of worldbuilding through virtual game environments after seeing local digital artist Demarae’s work at Punch Records’ Gallery 37. ‘Our work at CIVIC SQUARE is about imagining alternative futures. I thought this could be an incredible tool to visualise and share ideas of regeneration that you can interact with and walk around.’

Using a Playstation game creation platform called Dreams, Demarae was able to build virtual models of ‘Streets In Transition’. The Playstation platform Dreams allows people to design and open source assets to use across their world-building, allowing exploration of games other people have designed: ‘It’s cool in a connective way. It encourages people to be creative and not just consumers of games but to be designers of those worlds too.’ Alongside the visual design, the game has been soundtracked by local musicians Chandra Walker, Singamajig, Bokiba and AFFIEJAM with their interpretations of what the futures we’re dreaming of might sound like. 

Animated image of dwellings on a street. Flowers and shrubs are in the foreground. Two people chat underneath trees and another person scrolls through their mobile phone.
Streets in Transition, Civic Square

Curating virtual exhibitions

Meanwhile Linda Spurdle, Head of Digital at Birmingham Museums, had previously worked with Occupy White Walls (OWW), a huge multiplayer online platform, to create a virtual Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery during the pandemic lockdown. Using their innovative AI – Daisy – users were able to curate their own virtual exhibitions within the ‘artiverse’ using Birmingham’s art collections.

For their latest collaboration, she once again partnered with OWW for the KULTURA Sessions: BRUM – a festival showcasing Birmingham artists and performers in a virtual Digbeth-inspired cityscape which players all over the world can visit.

Creating a richer sensory experience

Rosa Francesca was Creative Producer on the project and explained that ‘Since OWW introduced SoundCloud integration which allows players to stream music in their galleries, I had been interested in creating some kind of music event. We were hoping to inspire conversation about how visual art and music can create a richer sensory experience.’

Platforming local artists and performers was important to Rosa, who this time selected some of those she considered to be ‘An important part of Birmingham’s culture; doing innovative progressive things in the arts and music scene.’ Musician Ace Ambrose, moving image artist De’Anne Crooks, musician Dorcha, poet Jasmine Gardosi, new media artist Antonio Roberts and mixed-media poet Samiir Saunders all participated.

The experience premiered on streaming site Twitch in an event hosted by influencers Queenie and Blue, and featured a reimagined Digbeth with a cyber Gibb St and Custard Factory location showcasing art installations and original music and poetry. Linda explains how the launch event worked: ‘People could move around freely and talk to each other. It was quite lively, people were dancing.’ Gamers and YouTube users can still visit the site and walk into six different rooms to experience the exhibition online.

Linda: ‘People say “Why is a museum doing this” but we have events in our spaces that have nothing to do with museums all the time. And with BMAG closed, it would have been amazing to do more of this. Even without the building being closed, it’s a valid thing that museums can do in these spaces.’

Animated image of a dark room with an illuminated colourful checkerboard floor. Illuminated pictures feature on each side of the room and 'Jasmine Gardosi' is written in neon lights on the wall facing us.
Kultura Sessions, Birmingham Museums Trust

Importance of interaction

At the in-person launch of the world’s first Neighbourhood Doughnut Portrait, the experimental video game prototype was shared with neighbours and visitors from near and far. Zoya explains, ‘Our work is rooted in the neighbourhood and we want the game to be experienced in a neighbourhood context, as well as further afield and online. It’s an exciting medium, sparking possibility for people and interaction. It is useful for sharing ideas as well as being a cool experience.’

Both projects created virtual worlds set in the streets and venues of Birmingham. Zoya appreciates the positive impact this had on the game players: ‘It was cool for kids to be on the Playstation and to get to see their street and ideas in the game.’ Demarae is a local artist interested in game design in UK settings who is working on a wider Birmingham map.

Linda too was aware of the positive impact the virtual map had on players who discovered their project: ‘It had a very Birmingham focus. A lot of people were very impressed with the local architecture and hadn’t seen it before. So we brought Birmingham to the world!’

What about the tech?

In terms of the tech required to create the virtual worlds, both projects were able to utilise readily available platforms: Birmingham Museums Trust  through OWW and Steam; CIVIC SQUARE using Dreams via Playstation. This developing level of accessibility means that other projects can consider using virtual spaces for their exhibitions, festivals and community meet-ups without incurring huge costs or needing to be highly tech-savvy.  

The tech is always evolving and improving; for example, on the OWW site, galleries and artists are sharing their collections, enabling more users to engage with art in a new and immersive way. Linda wants to encourage others to create and to utilise these online spaces:

‘I know that at the moment they don’t generate money and can be seen as “nice to do” but I think that it’s important that cultural organisations and artists become a central part of what the metaverse is, it needs us.’ 

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