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

In the second part of this post, I posited some qualities that good interactive exhibits possess. It was by no means a comprehensive list, but more of a stake in the ground. To look at how museum exhibits might be gamified (guh), let’s look at games and define some their characteristics and how they might or might not work in a museum context.

Not surprisingly, there are as many definitions of “game” as there are game theorists out there. I like Jesper Juul’s work. He is a foundational thinker in game theory, and books like Half-Real and A Casual Revolution, are pretty influential texts. In The Game, the Player, the World, he collects a number of definitions of games and proposes his own synthetic definition that has six features:

  1. Rules: Games are rule-based.
  2. Variable, quantifiable outcome: Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes.
  3. Value assigned to possible outcomes: That the different potential outcomes of the game are assigned different values, some being positive, some being negative.
  4. Player effort: That the player invests effort in order to influence the outcome. (I.e. games are challenging.)
  5. Player attached to outcome: That the players are attached to the outcomes of the game in the sense that a player will be the winner and “happy” if a positive outcome happens, and loser and “unhappy” if a negative outcome happens.
  6. Negotiable consequences: The same game [set of rules] can be played with or without real-life consequences.

or, to put it in a more narrative form,

“A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.”

So what do these qualities relate to museum exhibits?
Rules: Games are rule-based, play is not. This is a big deal, and one that deserves more attention than it seems to get at the moment. For a game to be a good game, it has to have rules the players submit to following. If you go the wrong way on a Monopoly board, you’re going to piss off the other players, unless you *all* decide to change that rule. If you build a tower out of a pile of LEGOs and your friend decides to pretend that each block is a tiny animal, neither of you is “doing it wrong.” I think museums do a pretty good job of giving visitors chances to play, but game based learning is a very different beast and experience we have doesn’t help all that much.

In order for a game to be a game, you have to be able to win and know you’ve won. And therefore you have to be able to lose and know you’ve lost. This requires some serious rethinking of what a museum experience is. For most of my career, Frank Oppenheimer’s mantra “No one ever failed a museum” has been a touchstone for everything we do. It’s central to informal science education. Museums aren’t schools, you don’t get a grade at the end of your visit, and I think we’d all agree that this is a good thing.

So one big challenge is how to change from making experiences that try get everyone to succeed to making experiences where that are winners and losers, and where the losers don’t just give up, which is usually what I do with games that don’t hold my attention. In talks I’ve had with game developers, this culture difference sometimes feels like a gulf we shout across at each other.

Rule-based systems do have tremendous power to teach, though. The Universe is a rule-based place, human society is rule based. Working with sets of rules and exploring situations within a rule set can be great fun and informative. People are using computer games like Civilization III to teach Canadian history, and any American of a certain age will probably have a deep appreciation of dying of cholera from playing Oregon Trail. When I think back on my own gaming experiences with both of these products, I’m struck by the fact that with each other them I played the game, but then made my own rules; can I survive with only X oxen, what if I put all my effort into technologies, not armies, etc… In essence, I wound up using the games not as games but as toys, which is how Will Wright — the designer of SimCity, The Sims, Spore, and others — describes his products. They’re not games, but rather toys.

So, I ask you. Should we making exhibits more like games or more like toys? Or am I indulging in a classic Western binary opposition (it’s this or that) when the answer could be “Why not use them all when appropriate?”

Variable, quantifiable outcome: A good game has more than one outcome. If it always turns out the same way it’s not fun. This I think is the reason I hate so many “educational games”, they forget this fundamental in the name of making sure “the education” happens. Good games and good interactive exhibits share this quality. If there’s only one way to use it, it’ll only get used once by a visitor, and that’s a shame. Loads of “gamified” (guh) experiences fall into this trap, leading Sebastian Deterding to call them “exhaustibles”, their limited set of possibilities is quickly exhausted and then they get thrown out or deleted. Foursquare was like that for me. I said, “Now what?” and found there was nothing else.

Value assigned to possible outcomes
I think xkcd says it all.

One thing that Juul doesn’t address is the role of creating narratives in his game definition. For “educational” games, the meaning making that has to happen for learning to occur is crucial, otherwise it’s like the pinball game I mentioned earlier; the gaming element (pinball) doesn’t support the narrative (how the human immune system functions) and the preferred outcome (wnning the pinball game) doesn’t lead to any increased knowledge.

Player effort: Good games are challenging. Good exhibits are challenging. Papert’s notion of “hard fun” is at play in both endeavors.

“[E]veryone likes hard challenging things to do. But they have to be the right things matched to the individual and to the culture of the times. These rapidly changing times challenge educators to find areas of work that are hard in the right way: they must connect with the kids and also with the areas of knowledge, skills and (don’t let us forget) ethic adults will need for the future world.”

Finding “the right things” for the visitor is the challenge. This is one way that games and exhibits can be very different. We are very comfortable as a society with games being age-specific. I don’t think our museum-going audience is as comfortable with that notion. Our threshold is lower and our ceiling higher than most game developers, and especially educational game developers, who tend to be very closely aligned with formal education and target their work at very narrow age ranges.

I also feel that developing experiences that require significant visitor investment of time and effort had better be as bulletproof as possible, because the potential for frustration grows in direct proportion to the amount of effort expended. If you’re going to make visitors expend effort (learn the rules of your game, play it from beginning to end, play it again if they don’t succeed) you’d better not disappoint them.

Player attached to outcome: This is a tremendous opportunity for those of us interested in educating. Obviously we want visitors to be attached to the outcome of their experience at the museum and to feel happy when a positive outcome occurs.

Capitalizing on players’ desire to win can be a great tool for exhibit developers. Educational research has highlighted the importance of tapping into visitors’ prior interests as a key to learning. Researchers have found that prior interest is one of only a few significant variables affecting success in learning among visitors with low prior knowledge of a subject. To achieve success in learning about something relatively unfamiliar to visitors, it is an important educational strategy to find areas of prior interest. They serve as entry points for visitors into an experience of educational engagement. And the audience is interested in games and gaming. So taking advantage of that interest

Negotiable consequences: If you don’t get the answers right on a chemistry quiz, the consequences are obvious, and non-negotiable. You fail. If your character in World of Warcraft dies, you don’t die, though you may feel genuinely upset. Games are fun because they are safe, in the same way that museums should be fun because they’re a safe place to play.

So, now we’ve got a framework for understanding games and how they do and don’t relate to museum exhibits. The last post in this series will highlight what people mean when they talk about “gamification” (ack) and where it might and might not be useful in making museum exhibits. It seems like one more post should wrap this all up. Thanks for reading along this far!

Now, I’m off for the long weekend to celebrate Independence Day and work on my attention-starved MA thesis (on pirates, no less! Arrh!). Have a joyous weekend!


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