March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Questacon-CSI: A Four Player On-line Homicide Investigation Game in a Museum Context

Geoff Crane, Questacon, Australia

Questacon-CSI is a four-player on-line homicide investigation. Using Flash Communication Server MX technology users become part of the crack team that solves the mystery after a body is found at Questacon. As part of the forensics team they have access to the latest crime solving techniques, have to share their new knowledge with their teammates, and listen to what they have to say in order to determine the time of death, sequence of events and motive.

Keywords: Questacon, CSI, forensics, Flash Communication Server, game


Questacon-CSI is an on-line multi-player role playing homicide investigation. QCSI is also a forensics science museum exhibit, highlighting some of the latest in forensics techniques and busting several TV inspired criminal investigation myths.

QCSI is played by two, three or four people. Each player is assigned a character (eg detective, criminal psychologist or lab tech), and they are able to communicate via a chat window on the side of the exhibit. Players also vote to make decisions and share information gathered at the scene by their character. They also bring their character's specialist knowledge to bear on their decisions and ultimately decide as a group what they think actually happened.

Players are given access to forensic analysis, videos of police interviews of the suspects, and Questacon security camera tapes. As a team they can decide what to do, see and hear next in the investigation.

And yes, in the end, we reveal what really happened!

Fig 1: The Questacon-CSI introduction screen

Fig 1: The Questacon-CSI introduction screen

The exhibit also provides links to tertiary forensics courses in Australia and to other forensics resources. At the time of writing (late January 2005), more than 9300 QCSI sessions had taken place.

This paper will examine the conception and development of QCSI, a project that started out mainly as an idea to experiment with Flash Communication Server MX.

Solitary Surfing

While school children may be asked to look at and use Web sites while working in pairs or small groups, for most people a visit to a museum Web site is a solitary experience. This is in contrast to physically visiting a museum, where even a visitor who arrives alone has to share the galleries, exhibits and amenities with many other people. Opportunities to co-operate while using exhibits, discuss their meaning, and draw conclusions all provide a rich social texture to museum visits.

Of course a museum may have a large virtual audience all sharing the server's resources, but users are largely unaware of each other's presence. When Macromedia released Flash Communication Server MX, we saw an opportunity to introduce genuine visitor-visitor interaction via an on-line museum exhibit.

Even at this early stage the decision was made to make sure the exhibit didn't work for visitors using the exhibit on their own. They would have to either arrange to go on-line with people they knew, or meet people they didn't know at the signing in stage of the exhibit. This seems to have worked well, with most people doing the exhibit with family or friends.

Project Conception

In the first instance, $20 000 (all figures in Australian dollars) was set aside for an experimental Flash Communication Server MX project. With design and programming to come out of this, the scope of the project was quite small. We decided to make a series of logic puzzles for primary school students. The players would move through a series of 'rooms' as they progressively solved the puzzles, which would be a mixture of riddles, quizzes and perhaps the manipulation of (virtual) objects.

This collaborative puzzling concept progressed no further, as before any detailed work had been done, the Questacon Smart Moves program offered to contribute extra funding in return for changing the intended audience to high school students.

Questacon Smart Moves is a multi-million dollar national outreach program that has a group of eight science communicators traveling in pairs to visit high schools, making presentations about science careers, entrepreneurship and innovation. Questacon Smart Moves also has a dedicated Web site ( and it is this that the program wanted to add the new Flash Communication Server MX game to. The extra funding brought the project up to about A$50 000, not including the cost of in-house staff time. We have since estimated the value of the staff time used in the project to be of the order of another A$50 000.

With this extra funding the scope of the project increased greatly, both in terms of the amount of graphic design and media it could contain and of the programming complexity of the game.

Initially the game concept for the expanded exhibit was to have been a 'nano-factory' of sorts, where teams of players had to build nanotechnology machines from a bin of 'parts'. Co-operation would have been called for by giving each participant a partial set of the final requirements of the end product, so that they would have to share what they knew with their teammates. The possibility of 3-D manipulation of the nano-machine components was exciting, but would have soon consumed even the expanded budget. This project is still a possibility for a future collaborative on-line exhibit, but will require substantial external funding for realisation.

The QCSI concept was adopted as a response to the interest in forensic science shown by students who saw live presentations by the Questacon Smart Moves team in schools across the country. The idea quickly evolved into the basic form that the final exhibit displays, with a forensic team made up of different specialists analysing various clues to solve a crime.

We believe this popularity of forensics among high school students is at least in part due to the litany of investigative TV shows like NCIS, the various flavours of CSI and Law & Order and similar Australian drama, like Stingers and Halifax FP. QCSI was written and produced to provide a more realistic (than TV) glimpse of the teamwork and technical realities of forensic science.

In the first instance the crime in QCSI was a robbery and homicide set in a home. This story was later changed to be a death at Questacon. This allowed for a more interesting corporate conspiracy theory for the crime and an array of security camera footage to be added to the evidence for the team to examine.

Storyline and Gameplay

Before starting the game, players are presented with introductory information about the scenario and told that they have to form up as a CSI team and make a report to the Coroner about the time of death, cause of death, motive and sequence of events.

Players are then asked to sign into the game (preferably using a handle and not their real names) and then each choose a character. They can be a Detective, Lab Technician, Forensic Pathologist or Criminal Psychologist. They then join a game session. Sessions cannot be saved and usernames are not retained after a session ends.

ig 2: The QCSI login screen

Fig 2: The QCSI login screen

Sessions can run with two, three or four players. If there are less than four players, then the additional characters are allocated to one or two of the players so that all of the required information is provided to the team. The server can run more than 15 simultaneous sessions, each with four players.

The team members are confronted with a dead body on the museum floor at Questacon, and they have to explore the scene to learn what they can about what happened. Rollover pop-ups draw players' attention to clues. Each player is given a virtual PDA, and when a clue is clicked, each player is presented with slightly different information via the PDA. After some discussion, the team players have to decide on a scientific test or course of action to take for each clue. If they pick the wrong test, then they might destroy the evidence or receive no useful information.

Fig 3: The crime scene and the detective’s PDA

Fig 3: The crime scene and the detective’s PDA

The PDA keeps track of the actions taken and the results returned. The PDA also provides general help about the game. When all eight clues have been examined, the game moves on to scene two, the police interviews. As in real life, once the team members proceed in the game to the police interviews, they can't go back to further examine the crime scene.

The suspect interviews are presented as videos, and each person comes across as somewhat suspicious! Transcripts are also provided. It is at this point that the investigation team starts to become aware of some personal conflicts that may have led to the death.

Fig 4: Scene Two: suspect interviews - note chat window to the left

Fig 4: Scene Two: suspect interviews - note chat window to the left

Scene three allows the team to corroborate the stories heard in the interviews. Footage from several security cameras throughout Questacon provides time-stamped evidence of who was where and who each might have been with. An important part of the team's job is to establish the sequence of events, so this evidence is vital. Unfortunately there is no security camera footage of the actual crime, but we do see the main suspects nearby immediately before and after the death.

The team is now presented with six choices for each of the time of death, sequence of events and motive. As a group, members have to decide what they believe happened. They have access to all of the information they have collected up until this point, but cannot go back to find out anything else. Finally, each team member has to click to agree with the final choices that are made. At this point the participants are told (and shown on video) what really happened - hopefully they got it right!

Fig 5: QCSI what really happened video

Fig 5: QCSI what really happened video


Each player in QCSI has access to some specialist information, but that alone isn't sufficient to solve the crime in the game. The players therefore have to share the information they have on each of the clues and weigh what they know against what their colleagues know (or don't know!). For each of the clues, at least one player will bring the correct information, while others may be guessing, as it is about something outside their specialist field.

The players can share this information in an on-screen chat window, and all of the players see the same 'conversation' on their screens.

When any player votes on a clue, Flash Communication Server MX updates all the other players' PDAs immediately. Voting decisions should be agreed one beforehand so in a sense this is a player interaction.

Flash Communication Server MX forces all players to move from one scene to the next together, but within each scene the players can look at different clues at the same time. However it is easier to play if the players agree via the chat window so that they move as a group from one clue to the next. Additionally, players have independent access to help and summary information.

In developing the game we considered using the multi-media capabilities of Flash Communication Server MX to allow players to interact via video and audio as well as text chat. There were several reasons for deciding not to implement this. First, we were concerned about the additional bandwidth required by both our users and our server. While not ideal, it is possible to play QCSI on a 56k modem connection. Audio and/or video being shared between players would make this impossible. Secondly, not all of our users, especially students using school computers, would have access to microphones, let alone Web cams. Thirdly, even if the preceeding two concerns could be allayed, we decided that we didn't want to offer a free Web cam service where inappropriate use could not be monitored. The text chat within individual games cannot be monitored either, so in fact inappropriate content could still be shared, but we are more comfortable with the possibility of that with text alone than with what could be transmitted with video.

Programming and Media Production

The media for the project was largely produced in-house. All of the actors that appear in the videos are Questacon staff members, and all but one are Questacon Smart Moves presenters who spend most of their time traveling to visit high school students all over Australia. The video content was recorded in 16:9 on a broadcast PAL BetacamSP camera, and transferred to DVCAM for in-house editing in Final Cut Pro. All of the various videos are presented as Flash files within the same game browser window.

Fig 6: Video production using Final Cut Pro

Fig 6: Video production using Final Cut Pro

The game was conceived and written by Questacon and was then designed and project managed by MA@D Communication, a local company in Canberra. The Flash and Flash Communication Server MX programming was sub-contracted to TribalDDB in Melbourne. Testing was a joint effort, with staff from Questacon and MA@D playing several full games, a process that took over an hour each time it was done.

In addition to checking that all of the required content had been put into the game, we also made sure that the story actually made sense, and that users could reasonably work out the correct solution. This was surprisingly hard to do, as we already knew the correct answer!

All of the content, including video, resides on Questacon's server. The game is controlled by Flash Communication Server MX at Austiger under a commercial hosting agreement. This server co-ordinates the players in each game, displaying the same chat dialogue and clue choices to each, and making sure that they all move together from one scene to the next.


Questacon-CSI has been recognised as a useful resource by both the education and forensic science communities, as well as by the general media. Education Network Australia, or EdNA ( categorised the exhibit as a 'working scientifically' resource for students. As a result of the EdNA listing, many schools and public libraries around the world linked to the exhibit from their Web sites.

USA Today (2004) listed QCSI as a 'Hot site' with the following review:

Thinking you’ll swear off the MMORPGs next year, but still love the social aspects of gaming with others online? Check out this great multiplayer “investigation” from our friends at Australia’s Questacon. You gather a group of 2-4 players; they’ll give you clues, data, forensic analysis, police-interview footage and surveillance video sufficient for a group of smart folk to deduce how that body came to be on the premises at Questacon. Absorbing CSI-type stuff.


Flash Communication Server MX

The most common problem that we have been made aware of by our audience is not a lack of the Flash player plugin, but rather an inability to login to the game. This has been caused by some corporate (and school) firewalls not allowing Flash Communication Server MX to use the RTMP port 1935. We haven't found a workaround for this, and users who have contacted us with this problem have said they will just play from home, as they have no control over the firewall settings in their work or school environments.

The exhibit has been promoted as a broadband experience, and visitors can expect to download up to 10 MB over the course of playing the game if they select the 'fast connection' option for the video content. There are also videos suitable for modem use, but the picture quality of these is poor by comparison. Transcripts of the police interview videos are also provided. Unfortunately, users cannot download the game to use locally or have it supplied on CD-ROM as it has to be played live, while connected to Flash Communication Server MX.


QCSI could not be considered accessible. It was developed as a Flash exhibit only, with no equivalent HTML interactive experience. There is, however, a large amount of information about forensic science in the main Questacon Smart Moves Web site. Web pages like the exhibit’s legal statements and external links are accessible, as they are not presented in Flash.

Accessibility and the Web is an ongoing and complex issue for Questacon. Questacon's mandate is to produce engaging interactive science exhibits for use in the museum, in touring outreach programs, and on-line. However, as a part of the Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training we are required to comply with a range of government Web site standards (AGIMO, 2003) including the accessibility requirements of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC, 2005). These in turn are based on the W3C accessibility guidelines. With no way of making an experience like QCSI accessible, we have (obviously) decided to proceed against the guidelines in order to provide the richest possible on-line experience to the majority of our audience.


QCSI doesn't have any backdoors to allow for testing and development, so, for example, to check for spelling mistakes in the final screens we had to play our way through the whole exhibit. Even with selecting answer '1' for all of the clues, this became somewhat annoying! Thankfully we didn't need to have two people log in to do this, as a single computer can have two active QCSI browser windows which behave the same way as two separate players.

Assistant Professor Paul Marty of Florida State University graciously provided suggestions to improve the usability of the exhibit’s start-up screen before the exhibit was released to the public. Thank you Paul!

The Future

QCSI has been a successful venture for Questacon Smart Moves and in the spirit of television's Law and Order and the various CSIs, it could well gain a spin-off or sequel!

As mentioned previously, the nanobot project is still a possible future project, as is the original idea for a collection of collaboratively solved puzzles and riddles for younger children.

Additionally, another application that Flash Communication Server MX may be able to provide us with is a video and audio based professional development environment for teachers and/or the science museum community in Australia. This would probably not present the same inappropriate usage concerns that QCSI raised.


AGIMO, Australian Government Information Management Office (2003). Guide to Minimum Website Standards. Last updated April-03. consulted January 27, 2006.

EdNA Education Network Australia (2005). Working scientifically. [on-line educational resources].,380,resources,schscience,workscient?start=101&count=10 consulted January 27, 2006.

HREOC, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (2005). Disability Rights World Wide Web accessibility. Last updated 12-Aug-05. consulted January 27, 2006.

USA Today (2004). Web Guide Hot Sites 30 December, 2004. Last updated 10.33am 30-Dec-06. consulted January 27, 2006.

Cite as:

Crane G., Questacon-CSI: A Four Player On-line Homicide Investigation Game in a Museum Context, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at