A quick question for you

Hot on the heels of our fascinating plenary at Museums and the Web about Sleep No More and immersive theatre and museums, I went to a very different kind of immersive experience – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – an immersive, puzzle-based, interactive experience developed by 5 Wits, who also did Operation Spy at the International Spy Museum. It’s sort of the polar opposite of SNM; family-friendly, group based, and very explicative. And it worked on a number of different levels than SNM. Particularly the game-based elements of it. So I’d like to conduct an experiment with your kind condescension.

Think about the experience of being in museums and why you like them.
Now think about games you love. Board games, videogames, whatever…
Holding both those in mind, can you put them together and tell me what you see?
Which games sprang to mind? Why?


  1. So I was thinking that we’ve had Star Wars exhibitions, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and even a Game of Thrones exhibition. Add to that the Titanic which may as well have been about the film . . .

    Then you’ve had Pompeii for which Melbourne Museum did a fantastic 3D game-like rendering of the final 24 hours of Pompeii . . . and whole exhibitions about video games themselves (Barbican’s long running Game On, ACMI’s Game Masters, and to a far lesser extent Smithsonian’s Art of Video Games)

    Who’s going to get the jump on the rest of us and do a proper immersive Grand Theft Auto exhibition? Or a Bioshock exhibition? Or a Portal/Half Life/Valve exhibition? One which used the same model as the movie franchise exhibits and recreates the game world . . . . and in so doing transforms the game word from existing on a screen to one that exists in meatspace . . .

    Your time starts now.


  2. Brilliant question – and timely for us. We are in the midst of developing an exhibition based upon Squatter – the iconic Austraian boardgame about sheep stations (kind of a no-brainer as we are the National Wool Museum). We are looking to fully immerse participants in a giant 3-D boardgame almost as if each participant is a ‘piece’ moving through the game which will also include history/heritage/personal stories integrated along the way and some 21st century technology will hopefully round it out. Personally I think it is a ‘reason we like musuems’ in a nut-shell – the shared experience. Much the same way live theatre is still vibrant in the digital age: the communal shared experience. It is as much about being ‘part of it’ and experienceing other peoples reactions as it is about anything else. Being part of the adventure (playing the game) with other visitors and a little fun filled storytelling / history sharing doesnt hurt either.

    The game-based museum adventure vision in my head? Something more akin to LEGO Green City Challange or Box World (The Worlds Amazing Recycled City!) A building game – where visitors come together to create something – not just a giant immersive video game.


    1. Fascinating. So you’re you’re looking to create the museum version of a board game?! You’ll have to send details as the development proceeds. The social, face-to-face interactions are a core element of a museum visit for me too.

      It’s interesting that both your example are building games, or, dare I say, “making” activities.


      1. I will certainly keep you (interested members of the museum world) updated about the exhibition game progress.

        Yes, the examples I pointed-out are building games (you’re forgiven for that ‘making activities’ digression). And that is very deliberate. Not being one to come up with what I think is a good idea and force it upon our visitors I actually took the time to stop and ask (mostly) youth (8-18) what they want to see at the museum. Not so much a surprise almost all of them said no computer games – nothing digital interactive. The preponderance of comments: “if I want to play a comupter game, I can do that at home.” “I dont need/want digital interactive at a museum – I can do that anywhere.” Interesting responses, yes? SO what did they want? Interactive games and activities where they can build something together or add to something being built – a way to make things and contribute to a collective creative effort. I reiterate what I said before: it is all about the social face-to-face interactions and being a place to come together to create, share and (hopefully) learn.


  3. I immediately thought of Clue, which my family spent a lot of hours over when I was growing up. My father’s command of logic puzzles meant that he almost always one, but we all enjoyed this game – the atmosphere it evoked of a luxurious but sinister mansion (based on just the simple box cover and oblique gameboard images!), the slightly dark (but not too dark) thematics, the witty allusions to the literary mystery genre in the characters and weapons, the roles the players take on as they seek to conceal and sometimes mislead others, and the possibility that anyone could solve the mystery.

    When I relate this to museums, one of the first things I notice is the general absence of a concrete objective on the order of “find the murderer” or “capture the battleship” or “take the King.” The objective of a museum visit isn’t always so tightly focused, and even when it is, it can be quite individual. That weakness of objective means that there’s no way to map the arc of a visit, no way to know when one is making progress, or is actually done, or hasn’t gotten anywhere yet. We go until we feel tired. And because there isn’t an objective, it can be hard to tell whether we achieved anything. Sometimes we get what we know wanted (to see Nighthawks, or to take a certain tour), and in that case I suppose we “win” the museum; but for those visits where a single clear objective is absent, we miss out on the meaning we make from working toward something and the sense of satisfaction we get from achieving it. What ways might there be to create a sense of objective for the casual, unfocused museum visit, and to bring that sense of quest, action, and eventual achievement to it?


    1. I love the phrase “weakness of objective” and intend to steal it for future use. It’s the paradox of free-choice learning environments isn’t it? To be all things (or many things) to a diverse audience, we all-too-often wind up being not too much of anything.

      One thing you and Padraic both hinted at was role-playing. Whether “you are the piece” or you’re acting like a character from a mystery novel, there’s something there about trying on a persona that had merit. Given the success of WoW and the other MMORPGs, or even immersive video games like Skyrim or GTA (thanks for that one, Seb, you punk!) it seems like an area ripe for more exploration.


  4. What springs to my mind, is board games. Key here is social activity. I never liked bingo but recently discovered a Bingo app that requires being part of a team of 4 players – it offers the chance to ‘talk’ to other online players (team talk or global talk), build a group of friends and say hello to people you have played with before. What I regret in museums, including science museums, is that many activities are solo activities – I would welcome the chance for more social interaction and to feel more involved. Guess that this does not really answer your question.


    1. No, I think it’s totally germane to the discussion, Elsa. The social dimension is an essential feature of the museum visit. Trying to reconcile that with the traditional mental model of the lone art museum visitor quietly contemplating the single artwork on a blank wall is a challenge in which I’m currently very interested. Thanks for the example!


  5. Monopoly, where people play against each other to collect and own all of something, railroads, Boardwalk hotels…why not art, or fossils? Clue, where people posit different murder scenarios to guess the correct one. Send people out into the museum to find works that tell certain stories….


    1. Mm, giving people a reason to explore he whole of a museum and not just one dedicated space is very appealling to me. Very ARG too, like PHEON or Ghosts of a Chance. And there’s enough narrative underpinning that its not a scavenger hunt.


  6. Ed, have you read much about the concept of pervasive games? I love this because it builds on all the game theory and design that was developed before the advent of the text adventure, online gaming, and video/graphical gaming. It focuses on real-world interactions and overlays the game onto reality. In my past life as a field educator I ran a lot of IRL simulation games with learning outcomes, many of them involving roleplaying, quests, or limited parameters, and found them extremely compelling experiences that I’m surprised are not better known and have not made much of a transition to online/mobile platforms. In some ways, they don’t need it, but I think they are getting lost in the leap toward gadget-based game solutions. I’ve been trying for some time to find an opportunity to build and/or experiment with a pervasive game in the museum. Ludocity is a forum and exchange for hundreds of pervasive game models, and I’ll add one more link too.




  7. This is a great way to frame the question, Ed. Your post makes me think about the difference between so-called “American style” (board) games and “European style” (predominantly German) games. I feel like museum-based gaming experiences tend to follow (in spirit, if not always in form) the American model, in which there’s typically a single objective that is largely unchanged throughout the course of play, whereas the European games I tend to like the most (Cataan, Carcassonne, etc.) often keep the atomic elements of the game in play throughout. Obviously, I have a preference for the latter.

    Just discovered this great post at Games & Prejudice about this difference, and there’s a discussion there about feedback mechanisms in games in general. The money quote is “A feedback system is any system that can influence itself.” When I think about games I’ve seen/played in museums, this is a big thing that we’re missing. I always feel that little about the game play itself fundamentally alters the environment (inclusive of the social environment and/or the physical environment) in which the game is being played. Which makes the experience often feel tacked-on to me, no matter how interesting the game itself might be.


    1. Thanks for the insights, Koven. Spot on, too, methinks! I’m a huge fan of Catan precisely because of the way it combines a really limited universe of pieces in a way that make the game unique every time you play it. That difference between having no ability alter the landscape and being more atomic, is a useful one to bear in mind. It conjures for me a connection between the making urges, too. That ability to feel that you’ve made something that matters is common to both the German-style games and maker activities.


  8. I play a lot of sudoku and scrabble. One is a game of logic and deductive reasoning, often played alone; the other, a game of strategy (don’t let anyone fool you into thinking scrabble is about words). Both are ultimately about problem solving. Common to each is that I get better with practice, but the challenge remains high. As time and effort towards mastery goes up, so does the ability to play the game and the sophistication with which it can be tackled. The ability to improve and to have the game itself improve alongside is important, and builds on Koven’s point that a feedback system is important and maybe not just in the gaming environment, but also for the player him or herself.


  9. I learned a long time ago that Scrabble is a blood sport played with a dictionary. 😉 I think your point about feedback is an aspect that both SNM and 20,000 Leagues did well, either with actors who are reading the room and deciding who to interact with, or with show controllers that alter the pacing of the experience and feed you more clues if you’re taking a long time to get through a challenge. Keeping the fun hard enough to engage people *and* raising the bar as players improve is a huge challenge.


  10. Interesting, Scrabble rules in our house were edited to be more collaborative and make the best words possible even if it didn’t help the score. We play so that you can put one letter outside the traditional board grid and not get the points for it, if the word is good. We also created a paper “wall” to be used once per game, where you have a great word but there is one place it touches something else and doesn’t work. You just pop your wall into place and carry on. Then again we also created a 6 sided parcheesi board so more people can play. It takes *forever* but with beverages and cousins, the fun was in being together. Not related to Museums, but both social and collaborative in their own way.


    1. Ha Jenn. With one of my friends, Scrabble was changed to become more competitive, rather than collaborative. We’ve adopted some of the sensibility of Balderdash, so that in addition to gambling on whether a word is real or not, people also have to be able to give the definition of that word. If either the word is not real OR the definition is innaccurate, then the person loses their turn. But the cost of a failed challenge is also a lost turn, so it is as much about being convincing in your plays (and the explanations of them) as the plays themselves.
      We call it Scrabblerdash. (It could have also been named Balderdabble, but the winner of the inaurgural game got to choose, and I picked Scrabblerdash.)


  11. hmm. this is tricky. the first thing that came to mind was that I don’t want to play games as part of a museum experience, which is not meant to be negative, but games don’t really do it for me. Interested to ponder how far people want games in all experiences. but to answer the question…

    racking brains made me ponder two modes – alone and with people.
    1. Alone – I am not interested in games at all. I am OK with completely non-prescriptive environment. No goal, no predetermined or suggested end-result, just explore and find what ever I happen to find. This can be physcally or digitally, Most games seem very goal-orientated to me, which is fine, but the goal is always someone elses and therefore not really of any interest!
    2. With people – making stuff is good, but that isn’t really a game is it? The only computer game I play without duress is Wii Mario/Mario cart with the kids. that’s OK, but if the’re not there, I never play. Did used to play quite a lot of scrabble when a student, but it was always collaborative rules. The goal was to collectively create the highest score and the most awesome words. Dictionaries open, no rubbish offloads of 2-3 bad letters blocking the board.

    not sure any of this helps at al!!!


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