Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part two of ?

In the first part of this post, I alleged that I’d be examining gamification (ack), and trying to sort out some substance from the hype surrounding it.  And I will, really!  To give it some museum context, I ‘d first like to posit a number of qualities that good interactive exhibits possess and then review what the game theorist/ludologist/game designer/user experience types say about gamification (ack) and see what areas of synergy exist. So, stick with me for maybe two more posts after this one and hopefully the trip will have been worth it.  As an added incentive, there’ll be lots of links to research and juicy reading in the last couple posts.

What are the qualities of a good interactive exhibit?

A good exhibit has a point

Pinball Wizard by Flickr user Jared Kelly

Luckily, I don’t have any photographs, but I’ve used some really awful interactive exhibits. One example that sticks in my mind was a pinball game, dressed with science content, where you “attacked” diseases with white blood cells that were pinballs.  Amassing a high score involved being good at pinball; hit the targets with the ball using the flippers, and since the targets were labeled as “diseases”, you learned that white blood cells destroy diseases and that‘s a good thing, right? Right…?

Yeah, not so much. I’m sure most people who used that exhibit learned more about pinball than they did about medicine. The content of that exhibit could’ve been a single label or an annotated graphic.  The interaction had nothing to do with the content and, in fact, completely overwhelmed it. I will spare you the story of the time I saw the ‘Rapping Refrigerator”. You’re welcome.

A good exhibit is rooted in its physicality

The Field Museum by Flickr user T a k

A museum is a physical space, a built environment. Everything we do in the building is rooted in that physicality, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Our physical spaces themselves are affective teaching tools.  Just the fact that there is a huge building dedicated to (art, history, science and technology, etc…) makes a powerful affective statement.

In the interactive exhibit world, it’s easy and rewarding to test components and make them better, polish their content and design until they’re good enough, and completely ignore the context they will placed in once they’re built.  I know nobody has the money to prototype entire exhibitions, but it behooves us to pay more attention to the experience of being in space full of exhibits, and not just make sure all the bits work.  I’ve seen the difference it makes in prototyping multiple exhibits at the same time. Even something as simple as the way an exhibit is oriented in relation its neighbors can have measurable impacts on visitor use.

A good exhibit provokes emotional responses

Marina Abramovic exhibition by Flickr user La Citta Vita

This may get me in trouble, but when I think back on museum experiences that have stuck with me, I find that they all shared one thing in common – they made me feel something. Informal education is a great forum for affective learning; formal education can do a much better job at cognitive learning.  Nobody ever got a degree from going to a museum, and I don’t want them to.  That said, we should have both affective and cognitive learning going on here, but our emphasis and pride should be on our affective learning programs.  We will never explore as much physics as even an intro physics textbook, but that book will never provide an affective experience with physics to a broad audience.  A successful museum visit is one that has an emotional outcome.

A good exhibit encourages play

by Flickr user hoyasmeg

Play is an important entry point for folks of all ages into any subject matter. For us, play is a crucial element to engage the interest of the non-literate public in the sciences.  We all know this intellectually for children, and yet we look down our noses at those parts of our offerings called “entertainment.”  Entertainment is merely an adult word for play, and entertainment can be a device to get adults involved with any topic. I consciously use “play” instead of “playing games” in this sense because of the open-ended nature of play.  This will be important later.  Games are a form of play, but play is much bigger than games.

Sometimes, casual observers of the enthusiasm and energy evidenced by children in the science museum environment conclude that this behavior is so different from what occurs in school, it must be entertainment and not education.  The same high levels of energy and enthusiasm can be found in video arcades and amusement parks.  However, nothing about entertainment excludes it from being educational.  Museums are amusement parks for the mind.  Our activities are not designed simply to engage motor skills and reduce reaction time, or to provide visitors with whole-body disorientation, but to provide the sensory/motor experiences and concrete knowledge that are necessary for understanding.  Entertainment value in museum exhibits and programs is not a distraction but a key to any museum’s educational success.

Entertainment need not be dumb

Entertainment versus Education is straw dog.  Too often, the idea of entertainment gets conflated with the idea of “dumbing down” content that is too hard for visitors to comprehend.  They are, however, separate issues.  Done properly, entertainments can be powerful affective teachers, and an integral part of them, what Csikszentmihályi calls “flow experiences” only happen when they are challenging enough, a common mistake that Mitch Resnick from MIT points out.

“…Too often, designers and educators try to make things “easy” for learners, thinking that people are attracted to things that are easy to do. But that is not the case. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi has found that people become most deeply engaged in activities that are challenging, but not overwhelming.  Similarly, Seymour Papert has found that learners become deeply engaged by “hard fun”—in other words, learners don’t mind activities that are hard as long as the activities connect deeply with their interests and passions.”

A good exhibit rewards visitors

Academy Awards by Flickr user cliff1066™

Visitors choose to come to museums. As Edward Deci wrote in Why We Do What We Do: “Self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change.” This intrinsic motivation drives the vast majority of our visitors, not external rewards. This point is lost on many in the field who seem determined to turn a visit to a museum into a test, or a frequent flyer program.

When developing an interactive exhibit, what visitors are doing while they interact, is as important as the content.  It is not enough that they seem to have fun doing it, but the fun should come as a result of their finding something out.  Some kind of thinking ought to be involved. The prize in a good exhibit should be a new understanding, a new skill, a new way of seeing something, a surprising result or a confirmation of what you always knew, the satisfaction of knowing or of figuring out.  Visitors may not come knowing what they expect to learn, but they hope they will learn something, and they know when they haven’t.

Here are some more qualities I didn’t get round to explaining. I could go on… and probably will some other day:

A good exhibit responds to visitor actions

A good exhibit is visitor-focused

A good exhibit makes obvious how to use it correctly

If you’ve got any others to add to the list, send ‘em to me!

So now, you’ve got any idea of where I’m coming from when I speak of museum exhibits.
Next up: Part Three – Games and Gaming come to the Museum


  1. Hi, Ed, I am enjoying your posts on this topic. Just wanted to mention that the website of the exhibition “Invention at Play” has lots of resources on the value of play, its importance to human development, and its connection to human creativity and inventiveness. Also the case study of the exhibition on includes evanluation results that support your ideas on prototyping for visitor engagement and understanding.


    1. Thanks, Gretchen! Adventure at Play is a great exhibition and a good example of the difference between playing and gaming, or unstructured vs structured play. Stay tuned for more.


  2. thanks for sharing your thoughts, you make good points here. Too often of late the exhibits seem to be competing with video game designers for attention span and they are bound to lose in that competition – instead museums should differentiate themselves by providing *deep* content dives that play to the strengths of their collections. The Field Museum’s “Underground” exhibit is an example – lots of engagement and no pinball-esque exhibits.


    1. Thanks, Eva. Actually, though, one of the things I think good game designers do really well that we could learn from is creating experiences that are deep and immersive. A lot of interactive exhibitry is still stuck in the 2 minute engagement model, and that’s not a lot of time to go deep into anything.


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