Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part four of four!

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. Instead, I went on about the history of interactive exhibits and their raisons d’etre. 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. In the third post, I talked a little about defining what “game” means, explored some their characteristics, and how they might or might not work in a museum context.

So, now we finally get to gamification (ack) and how it relates to games and museums. And being the kinda guy I am, I’ll start with defining terms.

Dictionary by Flickr user greeblie

What is gamification? (ack)
The classic definition of gamification (ack) comes from a company called Bunchball, who may have coined the term, too.

Gamification is “integrating game dynamics into your site, service, community, content or campaign, in order to drive participation.”

In it’s most common form, gamification proponents offer up the popularity of games like FarmVille and World of Warcraft with their audiences of tens of millions of users and say, “You can use some of the things these guys have learned and apply them to anything, and it’ll be better!” Especially in the digital space, gamification has populated the whole ecosystem. Yelp gives you badges when you check in at a business. Trip Advisor tells you which of your friends you’re “beating” in terms of number of miles or kilometers travelled. Foursquare “awards” you points when you check in, based on rules like “checking in at new places gives you more points” and lets you see how your friends are doing and whether you’re “winning.” Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR says “with 7 game dynamics, you can get anyone to do anything”, and gives every employee a deck of them.

And these techniques work. Kyle Findlay and Kirsty Alberts have a Slideshare deck that details their experiments with gamifying tasks and how it leads to deeper engagement when done well. (The paper it’s culled from is even better.) They sure work on me! When I finally got my LinkedIn profile progress bar up to 100%, I felt like I’d accomplished something. The Foursquare badge thing kept me checking in for months… until I stopped. Because it didn’t add up to anything really. The game mechanics worked on me completely. But the mechanics without the context of the game to give them substance left me feeling a bit like a chump. “That’s it? I just keep getting more badges and points and mayorships? What’s it add up to?”

I’ll confess that writing these posts has been hard because I’ve been a little afraid of finding out something about myself that I didn’t want to know. I’m a gamer. I love games. I think games are a rich medium that museums could and should explore more. But when people mention gamification in meetings, I want to run. “Why the distaste for gamification?” you might ask. Good question, and I finally have an answer.

Gamification is a bait-and-switch

At it’s most fundamental, gamification is not about making games; it’s about taking the dynamics and player motivations inherent in game playing and using them to make something that isn’t a game seem like one. Will Wright said at GDC 2010 that he’d been approached any number of times by companies seeking to make things that weren’t games more “game-like”, as if gamification was a form of MSG that could be added to anything to make it more palatable, only in this case MSG stands for “Make it Seem Game-like.” And note he doesn’t say, “Make it a Game”, but rather “make it Seem Game-like.”

Game designer Danny Day gets at this distinction pretty clearly. “[There is a] fundamental difference in focus between producing a game for individual players and trying to turn an existing process into a game in order to bring more people to it. Gamification… doesn’t leave much room for player agency because that’s not the main focus of the designer’s effort. A player can always STOP playing a game, which is exactly what gamification is supposed to prevent… After all, we can’t “filmify” normal activities by adding a credit reel at the end of walking the dog or taking out the trash, why should adding points and badges devoid of the greater context of play suddenly create “games”?”

It’s a new eruption of the old complaint that museums aren’t fun enough and if we just _____, they’ll be fun, and people will keep coming. But, as Sebastian Deterding points out in Pawned, “Games are not fun because they‘re games, but when they are well-designed.” Margaret Robertson gets at the heart of this in her great little essay, Can’t Play, Won’t Play. It’s a gem; short, meaty and articulate.

“Gamification is an inadvertent con. It tricks people into believing that there’s a simple way to imbue their thing (bank, gym, job, government, genital health outreach program, etc) with the psychological, emotional and social power of a great game… Any game designer looking at their gamified thing would say, ‘Of course it didn’t do what those things did! Those things are all games and your thing isn’t!’”

Why are so many well-menaing people interested in gamification? To answer this question, you have to get behind the words being used. Why make something seem like a game in the first place? Well, it has to do with play. Game playing is fun. The mental equation seems to go something like this:

Games = fun
My thing < fun enough
My thing + “gamification” = more funner

But where does the fun in games come from? Raph Koster says in A Theory of Fun for Game Design, “Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. With games, learning is the drug.” So, in other words, what makes good games fun is the learning that you do as you play the game. At the heart of every good game is the dynamic we’re already looking for in museum exhibits; people interacting with a situation and learning how to master it, because that learning is fun and intrinsically motivating to humans. Good games are Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow experiences,” and Papert’s “hard fun.” And badges and points and contrived dynamics won’t get you there.

So, there. That’s why I don’t like gamification. It represents everything that’s superficial to the teaching power of games. We shouldn’t try to gamify the museum experience, we should, to quote Deterding again, try towards more gameful and playful design in the products we make.

I could go on and on, but instead, I’ll just give you a bunch of links to more in-depth stuff that really spoke to me as I was grappling with this. Hopefully, they’ll help you, too.

Games and Gamification links

Alexander, Leigh. 2011. Gamers And The Glitches That Get To Them. The Creators Project.

Deterding, Sebastian. 2010. Pawned. Gamification and its Discontents. In Playful 2010.

—. 2011a. Meaningful Play. Getting “Gamification” Right. In Google Tech Talk, January 24, 2011.

—. 2011b. Don’t Play Games With Me! Promises and Pitfalls of Gameful Design. In webdirections @media, London, May 27, 2011.

Findlay, Kyle, and Kirsty Alberts. 2011. Gamification: Future or Fail?

Harper, Richard, Tom Rodden, Yvonne Rogers, and Abigail Sellen. 2008. Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction in the year 2020. Human-Computer Interaction. Microsoft Research Ltd.

Johnson, L., R. Smith, H. Willis, A. Levine, and K. Haywood. 2011. The 2011 Horizon Report. Austin, Texas

Johnson, L., H. Witchey, R. Smith, A. Levine, and K. Haywood. 2010. The 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition. Austin, Texas.

Juul, Jesper. 2003. The Game, the Player, the World. In Level Up. Utrecht.

KnowlegdeWorks Foundation. 2008. 2020 Forecast : Creating the Future of Learning.

Mechner, Jordan. 2010. Less Talk, More Rock.

Method: 4 Things Video Games Teach Us About Motivating People.

Robertson, Margaret. 2010. Can’t play, won’t play.

Rockwell, Geoffrey M, and Kevin Kee. 2009. Game Studies. Immersive Worlds Conference.


by Flcikr user Jennie Faber


It seems to be something a theme with this blog that  the one piece of a blog post that winds up having the most audience interest is a throwaway line. In Part Two, I made a passing reference to a rapping refrigerator in a discussion of superfluous interactions. I had actually written more about it and then deleted it all upon re-reading, something we could all do more of.  The Web is already full to overflowing with snark, and I battle against it all the time.

But @sebchan and @5easypieces had a merry little interchange riffing on rapping fridges:

Which led Koven to ask this question:

As a potential answer to this question, and a beautiful reflection on the hollowness of gamification, I give you Jakob Skjerning‘s Progress Wars. Try it out and see how long you can last!


  1. Thank you for this long and interesting post.
    I have learned a lot on games, gamification and, by the way museums!
    And I’m now a RSS follower of his blog.
    Thanks, again.


    1. Thanks, Pedro. I apologize again for the length. It was really helpful, though, to have the space and time to tease out each strand of the exhibits/games/gamification knot I’d been wrestling with. Future posts will be models of brevity.


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